Issue 14-37 September 10, 2020

Cover photo © 2020 Bob Kieser


 In This Issue 

Marty Gunther has our feature interview with first call band leader and renowned Chicago Bluesman Rico McFarland. We have 4 Blues reviews for you this week including new music from Jimmie Vaughan, Woody Mac, Cliff Stevens and Billy Branch & The Sons Of Blues.


 From The Editor’s Desk 

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Hey Blues Fans,

10,000 Blues Blast Magazine readers voted this year’s Blues Blast Music Awards, the highest number since 2015!

Thanks to everyone who voted for their favorite artists and music.

We are busy tabulating the results and will announce the winners in the next week or so.

Wishing you health, happiness and lots of Blues music!

Bob Kieser


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 Featured Interview – Rico McFarland 

imageThe blues world is chockfull of artists beloved by their peers, but who fly under the radar of fans because they perform yeoman duties on stage while their band leader receives all the credit. There’s one man, however much he remains hidden, still stands out from the rest, an unheralded superstar himself despite working in the shadows for others for better than 40 years.

Guitarist Rico McFarland has a résumé that reads like the roster of the Blues Hall of Fame, having spent decades alongside Albert King, Lucky Peterson, Tyrone Davis, Otis Clay, Little Milton, Jimmy Johnson and Sugar Blue, none of whom ever hesitated to sing his acclaim. A sweet, soft-spoken bear of man, he takes other musicians to school every night, delivering some of the tastiest tones and perfectly modulated licks in the business – chops that have been featured on dozens of instantly recognizable hits.

Despite receiving international recognition in the early 2000s, when Rico was a finalist for new artist of the year honors at the W.C. Handy Awards, the precursor to the Blues Music Awards, he’s elected to remain a sideman. Even though he was swamped with offers to tour in the months that followed, he quickly realized he’d be better off abandoning his own career as a leader and concentrating on helping others instead.

A first-call guitarist in the studio as well as an arranger and musical director, McFarland’s never wanted for work since making that life decision. But except for his peers and admirers, he’s remained pretty much invisible to the outside world – so much so, in fact, that the interview that follows is the first one he’s given since his early acclaim.

A key component of Sugar Blue’s band, Rico re-formed his own group a couple of years ago when the harmonica genius decided to relocate abroad, dividing his time between Italy and China. Although the pair still team up today whenever possible, McFarland’s band was working regularly at the top clubs in greater Chicagoland until the COVID-19 shutdown.

Like everyone else in the business right now, he’s chomping at the bit to get back out there. In the meantime, he passing time by writing new material for what portends to be his first album in 19 years and working on rehabbing his childhood home on the West Side of the Windy City.

McFarland’s a bluesman from birth despite also making a name for himself in the funk and soul worlds, too. A child prodigy who started out life as a drummer, he’s the son of James McFarland, a guitarist in his own right, whose band included six-time BMA bass player of the year Willie Kent, then a rising talent, as well as recording artist Willie Hudson, whose work got new life recently when two of his songs were included as part of Cadillac Baby’s Bea & Baby Records: The Definitive Collection, a compilation that’s a finalist in this year’s Blues Blast Music Awards.

He grew up across the street from Lil’ Ed Williams in a hard-scrabble neighborhood that teemed with talent and was still home to dozens of neighborhood taverns that featured some of the best downhome music in the city.

“I grew up at Homan and Monroe,” Rico says. “Muddy Waters and Eddie Shaw, Hubert Sumlin, and Howlin’ Wolf…everybody was over there in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

“I started playin’ at the age of five, knockin’ my dad’s guitars over (chuckles). He said: ‘Well, I guess you’re gonna have to (learn how to play and) pay for this one!’

image“Every time I go over to that old house, I gotta go into the backyard because I have so many good memories. We always used to have blues parties. Everybody’d be showin’ up, man…Hubert, Otis Rush, Willie Kent, Willie Hudson, a couple of times Freddie King, (drummer) Kansas City Red…just everybody!”

>The McFarland home was one of the go-to places for West Side bluesmen to hang out. Even before young Rico knew what was going on, he was already being indoctrinated with deep lessons about the music that’s impossible to pick up by listening to a record, reading a book or watching a video like you can today.

“We had a bar in the basement,” he says, “and there’d be parties there all night – until six in the morning. I got the blues from him and my uncle Marvin. Everybody’d come over and jam, and I grew up playin’ Howlin’ Wolf and Jimmy Rogers style low-down, dirty blues.”

Now accomplished on guitar, bass and keys, his chances to sit in came when some of his friends…shall we say…had too much of a good time. “It was like…somebody’d get drunk and somebody’d have to take their place,” he says. “That was how I got to learn so many instruments.”

A child protégé, McFarland was a member of a couple of soul bands in his youth, most notably Cook County Express and The Natural Explosions. His playing skills on the six-string in that medium were aided by lessons from funk guitarist/producer Johnny McGhee, who’s best known for his work with the band L.T.D. (Love, Togetherness and Devotion). Originally from Greensboro, N.C., the group was fronted by future Grammy nominee Jeffery Osborne and hit the top of the chart-toppers in 1977 with the song “(Every Time I Turn Around) Back in Love Again.”

“He was really one of my favorites for chording and grooving,” Rico notes. “And, of course, Walter…Walter Scott was a big help, too.”

Known as Sir Walter, Scott led several different configurations of family bands with his nine brothers, playing both soul and blues. His guitar provided the backbone of hits by the Chi-Lites and other Windy City soul greats. “I got a lot of pick lines from him,” McFarland says. “He knew how to play inside the groove.”

The lessons came in handy because Rico’s own bands were providing backing for stars, too, including working with playing behind Ruby Andrews, whose biggest hit, “Casanova (Your Playing Days Are Over,” reached the No. 9 spot in soul charts in 1967 and “You Made a Believer (Out of Me)” came close to duplicating it two years later.

Still too young to drive, Rico also spent four years as a member of Kansas City Red’s band. Born Arthur Stephenson, he was one of the biggest characters on the Chicago blues scene in that era, a diminutive, wise-cracking man who’d previously served as drummer for Robert Nighthawk, Earl Hooker and for Sonny Boy Williamson’s King Biscuit Time radio show band on KFFA in Helena, Ark. He was fronting his own group as a singer when he brought Rico on board.

“I was playin’ drums at the time, and I was gettin’ tired of ‘em,” McFarland remembers. “Then switchin’ up on the bass, too, before movin’ to the guitar.”

He was still just 15 when he and his brother made their way a few miles east to the 1815 Club — the Roosevelt Road a bar owned by Wolf’s sax player and band leader, Eddie Shaw – to catch Otis Rush in action. “My brother bet me I couldn’t get Otis to let me sit in,” he remembers. “But I won the bet – and got a standing ovation, too!”

McFarland’s indoctrination to the subtly different South Side blues came when he started working with Buddy Scott — Sir Walter’s brother—who fronted his own band, The Rib Tips, as well as Artie “Blues Boy” White. A man whose life was cut tragically short because of complications from diabetes, Buddy recorded one stellar album in his career, Bad Avenue, on the Verve label.

imageA rich-voiced singer, meanwhile, White was a key figure in the city’s music landscape, a contemporary artist whose bridged post-War blues and what’s known now as Southern soul or soul blues. He owned his own club, Bootsie’s Show Lounge, recorded for both Ichiban and the Malaco subsidiary Waldoxy — two of the top soul-blues labels of the era, and is best known for the hits as “I’m Gonna Marry My Mother-in-Law” and “Your Man Is Home Tonight.”

“Buddy really gave me my start,” Rico says, “puttin’ my name out there and stuff. He got me on the Big Bill Hill Show at a club called Texas Lady.”

A deejay on WOPA, Hill had the ear of Chicago blues lovers for decades, both as a radio personality and a promoter. He also owned the Copa Cabana Club and, in 1965, hosted the teenage dance show Red Hot and Blues, a precursor to rival WVON deejay Don Cornelius’ Soul Train, which debuted two years later on same station, WCIU-TV.

“And Artie was like my godfather,” McFarland remembers fondly. “I played a lot over there with him.”

Another great blues influence, he says, his biggest influence was Willie James Lyons. Another often overlooked guitarist, his career in Chicago began in the ‘50s and ended with his death at age 42 in 1980. He started out as a member of native of the house band led by Willie Kent at Ma Bea’s Lounge on Madison Street then became a fixture with Luther Allison, Jimmy Dawkins and Bobby Rush. He only two albums as a band leader — Ghetto on Storyville, sharing billing with Kent, and Ghetto Woman on Isabel – were released solely in Europe

“Them were the guys,” Rico says. “I used to sit in the front of the stage, try to sit in, and they’d be like: ‘Okay, young man, you ain’t got it yet (laughs).

“We didn’t have DVDs or VCRs back then. You had to sit there (and watch). I knew I got it, but they say I don’t. I’d come back the next week and try it again. Aww, you’re almost there. I learned (the hard way) through the years — that’s what they’re talkin’ about…okay… They give ya hell, man, but you appreciate it when you finally do get it.

“When I did get it, I started listenin’ to cats like Matt Murphy, Pat Hare and Luther Tucker and goin’ down to Theresa’s (Lounge)…the basement over there at 42nd and Indiana. Those are the good old days!”

McFarland’s first recordings came on 45s for Kansas City Red and Artie White before becoming a road dog for four years with Albert King — which was a lesson unto itself — and several more on the road with Little Milton. To say that Albert was a difficult task master would be an understatement.

“Woo, man! I love him, but love him from a distance,” Rico says. “He could be the nicest guy, but he could be the meanest, too.”

Back then, many of the guitarists tuned by ear and weren’t necessarily on pitch, something that made it a challenge for their accompanists, and King was one of them. His roster changed often because of his stern demeanor and – even back then – some former bandmates complained that he’d tune up before leaving on a tour and wouldn’t do it again until returning home. His playing style was distinctly different because he adjusted his strings to a lower register – something McFarland, himself, didn’t realize for years.

“I didn’t know he tuned down,” he says. “He sat in one time when I was playin’ at Artie’s club, Bootsie’s, much later. It was his birthday, and he said: ‘Gimme the guitar, young fella!’ So he went u-u-u-h-r-a-a, u-u-u-h-r-a-a, u-u-h-r-a-a (lowering the tension in the strings).

“That’s how he was able to bend like that, and that’s how I found his technique out! He was a mean one, but I miss him, man. I miss him.”

imageAgeless wonder Jimmy Johnson had already recorded two albums in Europe, but when he made his U.S. debut on Delmark Records with Johnson’s Whacks in 1979, Rico was in the studio with him, laying down the rhythm.

McFarland moved on to Little Milton’s band, but left in the early ‘80s not long before Lucky Peterson joined Milton as his keyboard player. Their relationship was short-lived, but the soul-blues legend spoke so lovingly of Rico in his absence that Lucky – then still a teenager himself — made a trip to Chicago to find him when starting his own band.

It was actually a reunion of sorts. The duo had crossed paths more than a decade earlier – a meeting that had taken place in the hallowed confines of Chess Studios, apparently when Willie Dixon had brought Lucky to the city to record what would become the LP Our Future: 5-Year-Old Lucky Peterson.

McKinley Mitchell – the soul, blues and gospel singer best known for the tune, “The Town I Live In,” a major hit in the early ‘60s – was a friend to both their parents, thought Dixon might be interested in adding Rico’s voice to the record. He told the youngster: “I want you to meet this little kid.”

McFarland was either eight or nine himself at the time, and says today: “I didn’t think nothin’ about it.” Peterson did catch his attention a few months later, though, making a huge impression.

Dad James was watching Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show one night when Lucky was making an appearance to promote his record and called for Rico to sit and watch him. “My father said: ‘You gotta be like this guy,’” Rico recalls. “‘Look at this little guy go!’”

Flash forward a dozen years or so before they crossed paths again.

“I was playin’ somewhere with Artie,” Rico recalls, “and he came in the door. He said: ‘Remember me?’ I said: ‘Uh-huh!’ He was all grown up…but he still was small. He said the first thing out of Little Milton’s mouth (when he announced he was leaving) was: ‘Go find Rico. He’s gonna be with Artie.’”

“I gotta meet Rico, I gotta meet Rico…,” Lucky told him. “That’s all Milton would talk about.”

They formed an instantaneous friendship and kept in touch regularly, but it took years before they finally hooked up, during which Peterson had become an international superstar and McFarland was rising in popularity, too, as James Cotton’s guitarist. They were both booked for the King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena Ark., one year when Lucky approached McFarland, this time insisting he switch allegiance and join his group instead.

“Lucky was like: ‘Man, I need you to come on the road,” he recalls. “‘I need somebody to handle my band. My record is hot overseas.’ I said: ‘All right. Let me know.’

“I didn’t hear from him. A year went past, and he called me again and said: ‘I really need you come out. I need somebody to keep my band tight. So I said: ‘Okay. I’m gonna try it.’

“Man, I get off the plane in Europe and he had two buses and two semis outside the airport. I said: ‘You got it like this for real? (laughs)’ I thought it was gonna be like a van tour, ya know.”

In fact, he notes, Peterson’s band was performing as part of a James Brown tour – and the Godfather of Soul had the same setup as Lucky waiting for him outside the gates that day, too.

“‘You got it like that!’ I told him.’ Lucky says: ‘Yeah. We’re rollin’, man!’

image“James Brown was the star, but Lucky was puttin’ too much heat on James ‘cause his record was so hot at the time. I stayed with him about ten years.”

Their bond remained strong until Peterson’s unexpected passing at age 55 earlier this year. Rico remained at his side even after the success of his own album, Tired of Being Alone, which was released not long after they’d first joined forces.

That recording came about as somewhat of a fluke, McFarland explains today. It began as an album for Chicago vocalist Zora Young, who was making waves after the release of her first Delmark CD, Learned My Lesson, a year before. But the project reached a standstill and was on the verge of death for reasons Rico can’t remember.

“I was producin’,” he says, “and they (Evidence Records) already had a due date to put it out. So they came back and asked me if I could finish it because they’d put so much money into it. I felt bad and told Zora. She said: ‘You oughta go on and do that record.’

“I had to come up with some songs I wanted to do at the last minute. But it paid off (laughs)!”

Released in 2001, it features helping hands from several heavyweights, including Otis Clay, Syl Johnson, Billy Branch, Blue, keyboard player Roosevelt Purifoy and guitarists Melvin Taylor and Carl Weathersby – “pretty much everybody I had played with,” Rico says. It features collection of standards, originals and covers, including a standout re-do of Prince’s version of the Joan Osborne hit, “What If God Was One of Us.” The title tune is an original, not the Al Green song of the same name.

Despite losing out to Otis Taylor in the W.C. Handy competition – a truly deserving winner, Rico insists, McFarland was soon deluged with offers to tour because of his newfound success. But he was conflicted.

“I was still out with Lucky, and Lucky was so-o-o hot, man,” he says. “He wanted me to leave, and – then again — he didn’t. And people – his promoters and stuff – wanted me to stay.

“Besides, the amount of money they were talkin’ about, man…I was makin’ more than that with Lucky. I was like: ‘I can’t go down the road with a good band and pay ‘em with this little money.’ I just couldn’t do it. And the guys wouldn’t want to go out with the little money I’d have to be payin’ ‘em.

“So me and Lucky came up with a plan: He sold my CDs and I sold his from the stage. So I was movin’ CDs that way. I just stayed out there with him, and he just promoted my name all over the place. He gave me a name overseas, and I’ll always be grateful. I miss him every day. We were like brothers! I said: ‘I’ll come back to it (fronting his own band) when I can. And I’m still waitin’ (laughs)!

“I just made up my mind two years ago to do it again. I’m just been doin’ it around town unless somebody makes it worth my while to go out. I’m just hopin’ there’s somewhere to go to because things were gettin’ messed up before the virus. A lot of clubs were already closed then.”

When not touring with Peterson, McFarland was still an extremely hot commodity. Not only was he still working with Cotton, he was busy in the studio with a host of others, including Weathersby, Syl, blues shouter Big Time Sarah, and Blue. And he was also a member of soul-funk band, Amuzement Park, too, a group that was started in New York, based out of Chicago, signed to Atlantic Records and enjoyed three hits – “Groove Your Blues Away,” “Do You Still Love Me” and “No” – between 1982 and ’84.

He and Blue have been working together steadily for the better part of two decades. Their relationship began one night in the early ‘80s when Rico was playing behind someone at B.L.U.E.S. on Halsted and Sugar was the headliner at the Kingston Mines, which had just moved across the street from its prior location on Lincoln Avenue.

imageAt the time, McFarland says, he had no clue as to Blue’s identity or his previous success, which included three albums with the Rolling Stones. “I said: ‘Sugar who?’” he recalls. “I’d never heard of him (laughs)!”

Then and now, it’s not uncommon for musicians to crisscross the street between the clubs and enjoy each other while working themselves, often sharing drinks late into the night at the Mines because of its later closing.

Dude, I went over there and he blew my mind,” Rico remembers. “I said: ‘Man, this boy is ba-a-ad!’ I’d never seen a harmonica played like that.”

On that particular evening, Blue’s own guitarist failed to show up, and — out of the blue — Sugar asked him if he’d be willing to fill in as time permitted and then join him for the late sets after his own gig ended. McFarland juggled the simultaneous jobs that night, and they’ve been playing together ever since.

Blue offers up only the highest praise for his partner and friend. “Rico McFarland is the ultimate blues guitarist playing today,” he told Blues Blast for this story. “Everyone else pales in comparison. The breadth of his musical knowledge and his abilities span time and genres.

“He’s the best! Forget the rest! All that and a magnificent voice, too! And he’s far more deserving of a wider recognition than many (of the folks) out there whose names don’t deserve to be on the same page as Rico.”

Their bond of brotherhood has grown stronger as they’ve circled the globe, producing several diverse, complex and well-received CDs in the process – most recently Voyage in 2016 and Colors last year. There’s no doubt that he’ll be involved in Sugar’s latest project, which will launch soon.

The pair were both in the lineup recently for Alex Dixon’s The Real McCoy, which was released to critical acclaim earlier this year, and Rico also appeared on Jimmy Johnson’s new, award-winning Delmark release, Every Day of Your Life — something that might not have happened if Rico hadn’t kept prodding him to do it.

“Yeah, we finally got him to go back into the studio,” McFarland says of the 91-year-old legend. “I’ve been beggin’ him for years. He said: ‘You gonna go with me if I do? I ain’t goin’ unless you’re there.’

“I said: ‘All right, Jimmy, I’ll be there.”

Since the early stages of the shutdown, he’s also been hard at work in his home studio alongside his brother-in-law and former Albert King bandmate, keyboard player Tony Llorens, writing new material for what will be the first Rico McFarland CD in 19 years. Meanwhile, he remains concerned about what will happen next for himself and his musical compatriots.

He remains eternally grateful for all the fans he’s made around the world and for all the love and support they’ve heaped on him no matter where he’s been or with whom he’s been playing. The experience, he says, has been humbling, adding: “Some of them have come up to me and thanked me for saving their lives.”

One woman, in particular, told him that she was on the verge of suicide and only came back from the edge after playing some of his music. “I just broke down and cried when she said that.”

It’s something that’s happened to him at least ten times on the road. He communicates regularly with a throng of friends and fans he’s made in his travels. “I just wanna thank them for bein’ there for me,” he insists. “And I want all the musicians out there to hang in there.

“If you need to talk, talk to each other, man, and keep each other’s head up. Things are rough. But we all have that special clique and have to hang in there until this is over!”

Rico doesn’t have a website, but you check out what he’s up to by visiting his Rico McFarland Band page on Facebook or by following him on Instagram at @ricomcfarland2002.

Blues Blast Magazine Senior writer Marty Gunther has lived a blessed life. Now based out of Charlotte, N.C., his first experience with live music came at the feet of the first generation of blues legends at the Newport Folk Festivals in the 1960s. A former member of the Chicago blues community, he’s a professional journalist and blues harmonica player who co-founded the Nucklebusters, one of the hardest working bands in South Florida.


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 Featured Blues Review – 1 of 4 

imageJimmie Vaughan – The Pleasure’s All Mine: The Complete Blues, Ballads And Favorites Sessions

The Last Music Co – 2020

CD1: 15 tracks; 51 minutes

CD2: 16 tracks; 54 minutes

www.jimmievaughan.com

After the success of last year’s Baby Please Come Home Jimmie’s new label decided to re-release two earlier albums in the same style. 2020 marks the tenth anniversary of Plays Blues, Ballads and Favorites (CD1), the sequel Plays More Blues, Ballads and Favorites (CD2) coming a year later, but both albums are out of print and difficult to find, so this double CD package is most welcome. The personnel across the two discs is fairly consistent: the rhythm section throughout is George Rains on drums and Ronnie James on bass, Billy Pitman adds rhythm guitar to several tracks; Greg Piccolo is on tenor sax throughout, supported by Kaz Kazanoff on baritone and Ephrahim Owens on trumpet on CD1, Doug James taking over on baritone on CD2. Long-time keyboard player Bill Willis passed away before the first album was released but is heard on B3 on a few tracks and handles vocals on one song; there are no keyboards at all on CD2. Jimmie is on lead guitar and vocals throughout, Lou Ann Barton adding vocals to six cuts on CD1 and four on CD2.

A founding member of The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Jimmie had recorded a few solo albums but none had the impact of Plays Blues, Ballads and Favorites which was nominated for a Grammy in the Traditional Blues category. As the original sleeve-notes make clear, Jimmie’s intention was to blend songs from country and blues, pointing out that country artists used to cover Jimmy Reed and that Ray Charles and others played country songs. So, across this collection we get songs from Jimmy, Ray, Roscoe Gordon and Amos Millburn sitting alongside Charlie Rich, Willie Nelson and Gene Autry, plus a smattering of Little Richard, Doug Sahm and Jimmy Liggins. Whatever the source, this is terrific music, played with a smile and impossible to stay still to! These songs have formed the basis of Jimmie’s set lists with his Tilt-A Whirl Band for many years.

CD1 opens with the song that gives the collection its title, Billy ‘The Kid’ Emerson’s “The Pleasure’s All Mine”, and it sets out the stall for what is to come with insistent rhythm and strong horn choruses behind Jimmie’s convincing vocals. “Come Love” finds Jimmie playing the high-pitched Jimmy Reed style harmonica as Lou Ann shares the vocals, staying on board for Don and Dewey’s “I’m Leaving It Up To You” before the sole original on the two discs, a fine instrumental whose title “Comin’ And Goin’” sums up what you hear; Roy Milton’s “RM Blues” is another excellent instrumental later in the set, Derek O’Brien sitting in on rhythm guitar. Lou Ann reprises LaVern Baker’s “Wheel Of Fortune” and demonstrates her versatility on Charlie Rich’s “Lonely Weekends”, Ted Taylor’s “I Miss You So” and Little Richard’s “Send Me Some Lovin’”. Jimmie is superb on a swinging horn arrangement of Johnny Ace’s “How Can You Be So Mean” and the fast-moving groove of “Roll, Roll, Roll” from Guitar Junior, aka Lonnie Brooks. Greg Piccolo gets several solo spots, none better than on the jagged rhythms of “Just A Little Bit” (Roscoe Gordon). Bill Willis’ deeper vocals are heard on Willie Nelson’s “Funny How Time Slips Away which closes the album.

CD2 follows a similar pattern though Billy Pitman plays rhythm guitar player on every track bar one, where Derek O’Brien plays. Jimmy Reed is again covered, a stripped-back version of “I’m A Love You” which the horns sit out, and “Greenbacks”, a 1955 Ray Charles tune, is the sole instrumental this time. Jimmie visits some catalogues twice: Huey P. Meaux (The Crazy Cajun) wrote the ballads “The Rains Came” and “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do”, another vehicle for Lou Ann’s vocals; Annie Laurie is the source for the strolling rhythm of “It’s Been A Long Time” and “I’m In The Mood For You”, also with Lou Ann on vocals; Bobby Charles wrote the bouncy “I Ain’t Gonna Do It No More” and “No Use Knocking”, on which Jimmie and Lou Ann share the vocals. Most of those songs come from the 1950’s but Jimmy goes back as far as 1941 for Gene Autry’s “I Hang My Head And Cry” and starts the album with “I Ain’t Never”, an obscure track by Mel Tillis & The Statesiders from as recently as 1972! There are also songs from Nappy Brown, Jimmy Liggins and Lloyd Price to enjoy before the album closes with a fine, relaxed version of “Shake A Hand” recorded live at The Grammy Museum in LA. Lou Ann Barton does a fine job on a song which many have sung since Faye Adams’ 1953 original, including LaVern Baker, Little Richard, Elvis Presley and Paul McCartney.

Throughout both these albums the standard of musicianship is stellar, Jimmie paying tribute to engineer Jared Tuten and the musicians involved for helping him to “develop that real jukebox sound”. It certainly works for this reviewer and, if you do not have the original releases, I cannot recommend this new package highly enough. One perhaps for the Historical Or Vintage Recording category in the 2021 Blues Blast Awards?

Reviewer John Mitchell is a blues enthusiast based in the UK who enjoys a wide variety of blues and roots music, especially anything in the ‘soul/blues’ category. Favorites include contemporary artists such as Curtis Salgado, Tad Robinson, Albert Castiglia and Doug Deming and classic artists including Bobby Bland, Howling Wolf and the three ‘Kings’. He gets over to the States as often as he can to see live blues.


 Featured Blues Review – 2 of 4 

imageWoody Mac – Dig It

www.woodymacblues.com

self release

9 songs time – 32:33

Michigander Woody Mac(Allen McMillan) evokes arena rock bands like Z.Z. Top and Bachman Turner Overdrive as he leads his power trio with his growling vocals and heavy-handed guitar onslaught. Close at his heels are the fleet fingered Jeff Dork on bass and rock steady drummer Timmy Sears. This is no run-of-the mill rhythm section. Jeff delivers inventive and upfront bass lines while Timmy has a deft touch on the skins. Neil Barbu provides keyboards on three tracks, but sadly passed away unexpectedly shortly after recording them.

Right out of the gate you are taken back to the early seventies via multi-tracked screaming blues rock guitars on “We All Have Hard Times”. Neil supplies organ on the funky “I’ve Drank Too Much”. The title song “Dig It” has either un credited or sampled horns and includes a nifty bass solo. The legacy of the great Robert Johnson is the subject of “Judgement Day”, a song that includes electric slide guitar and acoustic guitar as well as a few spooky guitar sounds near song’s end.

Funky bass under swirling dueling guitars fuel the heady blues rock of “Keep Playing The Blues”. A relentless walking bass line helps “Train” chug along(no pun intended). It also contains un credited harmonica blurts. The heavy “Fools Gold” has a brief jazzy guitar bit in its’ midst along with low in the mix keyboards. The CD goes out on a trippy note via the spacey “Vertigo” with its’ distorted vocal, at times melodic guitars, way cool bass playing and what appears to be synth strings.

Woody and his crew rock out in grand style with each member in control of their instrument that in turn delivers a heady brew. Aside from strong songwriting, guitar and vocals Woody’s production values bring it all together. Treat yourself to these unique sounds.

Reviewer Greg “Bluesdog” Szalony hails from the New Jersey Delta.


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 Featured Blues Review – 3 of 4 

imageCliff Stevens – Nobody But You

Self Released

www.cliffstevens.com

11 tracks

Cliff Stevens career as a musician has spanned over three and a half decades as a guitarist, singer, songwriter, and noted Eric Clapton impersonator. This Canadian musician fell in love with Cream at a concert on 1988 (and then Johnny Winter) and began on the road to covering their music. He’s done many Clapton tributes and uncannily looks and sounds like Clapton. He struggled with alcohol abuse and finally seems to have licked the demons that possessed him and has been alcohol free now for over 22 years, He dabbled in jazz and got a degree in music but blues rock seems to be both his passion and forte.

This is his fourth solo CD and it’s an interesting set of original music. Nobody But You features songs all written by Stevens. Joining him are Dominic Romanelli on bass (except for tracks 4 and 5 where Stevens plays bass), Eric Sauve on keys, Harrison on drums and Kim Feeney who joins Cliff on backing vocals on all but the first cut.

“How Long” opens the album, a jumping blues rocker with a driving beat. The piano support is really nice and the driving beat grabs the listener. Stevens guitar rings as he solidly strolls through the cut both vocally and on guitar. “Say What You Mean” follows featuring more slick guitar and some fine organ work. The guitar solo is solid, tasteful and not overdone. Next up is the title cut which takes the tempo down as Cliff sings with emotion about not being able to start a new relationship because, as the title says, there is “Nobody But You.” Another well done solo on guitar and more nice organ make this another solid cut. The tempo remains down as we move into “Little By Little” as Stevens sings about trying to hold on and retain something as he tries to carry on after a breakup. The organ sets a sad tone and Stevens sings with a dark cloud over him. Well done! “Morning Rain” features some acoustic and electric guitar and continues in the theme of downtempo somberness. There’s an ethereal feel to the music and the electric guitar solos adds to that a bit. The beat picks up on “Cry Baby” as Stevens funks things up a bit on this instrumental blues rocker with great organ and guitar work and a driving beat.

“World Of Worry” features mot acoustic and electric guitar; it;s a ballad of sorts built in perhaps a Blind Faith sort of feeling as if Clapton was singing instead of Winwood. It’s a cool cut with great guitar and more down trodden lyrics and vocals. The beat certainly gets amped up with “Come Back” as Stevens pleads for his baby to come back home. The guitar is forthright and he slides about nicely. “Bad Luck” follows as Stevens sings to us about his bad luck when it comes to life and bemoans bad luck following him around. Another slick guitar solo is offered up and more organ support make this another good number. “Keep My Love Alive” follows as Stevens gives us a ballad where he decries the state of the world’s affairs but he knows keeping his love alive will make things better for him. We go with a driving cut entitled “Truth Don’t Lie” with a bouncing beat and honky-tonk piano along with more solid lead guitar.

This is a well crafted album of original songs. Stevens shows us he can write really good songs and deliver them with passion. The CD contains more downtempo than uptempo stuff which is just the nature of what he’s feeling. The songs show his emotions and his ability to express them. The guitar sound and playing is outstanding and the keyboard and backing vocal support adds dimension to the songs. This one is well worth a listen.

Reviewer Steve Jones is president of the Crossroads Blues Society and is a long standing blues lover. He is a retired Navy commander who served his entire career in nuclear submarines. In addition to working in his civilian career since 1996, he writes for and publishes the bi-monthly newsletter for Crossroads, chairs their music festival and works with their Blues In The Schools program. He resides in Byron, IL.


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 Featured Blues Review – 4 of 4 

imageBilly Branch & The Sons Of Blues – Roots and Branches

Alligator Records

15 tracks

The Legacy of Chicago Blues is something that is unrivaled in the Blues as a genre or as an American phenomenon. Someone has to be the heir to the past, whether it be an heir to female or male vocals, Chicago blues guitar, or, in the case here, Chicago blues harmonica. Like our calendar, in Chicago with blues harp in my mind they (unofficially) have BLW (Before Little Walter, born Walter Jacobs), and ALW for After Little Walter. Little Walter created the amplified harmonica sound and style that is accepted today as what we expect in blues harp. Walter worked with the Chess Brothers and Muddy Waters as Chicago Blues was defined; he set the bar and he set it high. There was no one like him, before or after.

The harp torch goes way back in Chicago. BLW, Sonny Boy Williamson I (John Lee Curtis Williamson) moved to Chicago and defined the harp as a solo instrument. Rice Miller, better known as Sonny Boy Williamson II, also moved to Chicago and advanced an already pretty lucrative career. Big Walter Horton also was an icon in early Chicago harmonica. It was Walter Jacobs who made the harp what it is in today’s blues music. After Little Walter, guys like Junior Wells, James Cotton and Carey Bell gained prominence and led the charge, especially since Little Walter passed away at a only 38. Caucasian harp players also flourished in Chicago in days past and even today. Charlie Musselwhite is perhaps the most famed and has had the longest career in blues harp, but there was also Jerry Portnoy from Muddy Waters band and Paul Butterfield who introduced the rock world to Chicago Blues Harp.

In 1969 a young man arrived in Chicago. played at the first blues festival and got noticed by Willie Dixon who produced the fest. Branch was born at the Great Lakes Naval Hospital and moved to LA with his family at age 5. Billy got his first harp at Woolworths at age 10 and never put it down. He came back to Chicago as a young man and then he went to college at U of I; he returned to Chicago and became part of Dixon’s Chicago Blues All Stars when Carey Bell left to form his own band. He later started his own band, The Sons of Blues with Lurrie Bell and Freddie Dixon and recorded with Alligator and other labels. His legacy as a great musician and harp player has gotten him dubbed as today’s top Chicago Blues Harp Player, the reigning king of The Mississippi Saxophone in the Windy City. He tours the globe regularly and appears at many major festivals each year and deserves every accolade he gets.

So here we have Branch doing what the kings of the harp in Chicago can do best, and that is pay homage to the man that invented the style of harp playing. Does the world “need” another record of songs Little Walter wrote or made famous? Well, “need” is perhaps the wrong word as nothing like that is needed. But perhaps the apt question might be is the music world better off having this album? I’d have to say yes. Here we have Branch at the top of his craft laying down classic tracks that Mssr. Jacobs made famous; he and the current Sons of Blues Band do a fine job in bringing them back for us to enjoy once again. The record has garnered international attention and has been noted as one of the top blues albums of 2019. In addition to Billy Branch on vocals and harp, the Sons Of Blues here are Sumito “Ariyo” Ariyose on piano, Giles Corey on guitar, Marvin Little on bass and Andrew “Blaze” Thomas on drums. Shoji Naito also appears on guitar on “One More Chance With You.”

From the opening notes of “Nobody But You” to the close of “Blues With a Feeling” we get solid and elegant dirty harp work that could make any blues lover stand up and take notice. Branch also sings with passion. The over blows and note bending are sublime. The piano and guitar also pay homage to the men who backed Jacobs as Ariyo and Giles lay out many a wickedly cool solo. The back line carries the tunes along almost effortlessly, but they are always there doing a fine job. The last track is Marion Diaz, Little Walter’s daughter, delivering a nice remembrance ,”Remembering Little Walter,” to close the album. She talks with love about her Dad and tells us he used to tell here there was “Nobody Like You.”

Most of my reviews go song by song; that’s just what I do in most cases. Here I don’t think I need to do that. Every song is handled with care and delivered with love and precision and passion. Classic after classic gets a new battery charge as Billy and the band play them with passion, reverence and intensity. I’d have a hard time saying one song out of the fourteen was my favorite. “My Babe” is Little Walter’s anthem and Branch gives it a fresh cover. “Mellow Down Easy” gives us a more subtle side and “Out Go The Lights” gives us Branch as blues shouter. These and all the cuts are just a lot of fun to hear done by the current master of Chicago blues harp and the fine musicians he staffs his band with. Kudos to Billy and Bruce Iglauer over at Alligator for delivering a fine tribute album. We would expect no less from Billy who learned directly from the masters of blues harp. Most musicians study recordings and try to learn and emulate the tricks and sounds they hear; Branch learned them directly from the royalty of Chicago Blues Harp. There is no better way to learn than that, and he was a great student!

Reviewer Steve Jones is president of the Crossroads Blues Society and is a long standing blues lover. He is a retired Navy commander who served his entire career in nuclear submarines. In addition to working in his civilian career since 1996, he writes for and publishes the bi-monthly newsletter for Crossroads, chairs their music festival and works with their Blues In The Schools program. He resides in Byron, IL.


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