Crystal Shawanda – Church House Blues | Album Review

Crystal Shawanda – Church House Blues

New Sun Records/True North/CANADA

CD: 10 Songs, 40 Minutes

Styles: Soul, R&B, Contemporary Electric Blues Rock

The church house: People flock to it for worship, and also fellowship, communion, absolution and forgiveness. Before God and their fellow congregants, they bare their souls, knowing they can’t hide anything from the Lord. Canada’s Crystal Shawanda stunningly captures such a spirit on her new CD, Church House Blues. Rarely does an album of any sort have all hits and no misses, but Shawanda’s latest pitches a perfect ten out of ten. Her melodic Joplin-style vocals soar above the inspiring instrumentation on four covers and six original tracks. Each one is as fresh as the breeze on a Sunday morning, alternately cool (“Evil Memory”), hot (“Blame It on the Sugar”), and warm as springtime (“Hey Love”). Perhaps the best thing about this release is its musical balance, best enjoyed through a stereo headset. No one instrument overpowers the others, and all of them complement Crystal’s voice instead of relegating it to the background.

Crystal Shawanda grew up on the Wikwemikong reserve on an island in Ontario, Canada, Her parents raised her on country music and taught her to sing and play guitar, but it was her oldest brother who introduced her to the blues. He would hang out in the basement cranking Muddy Waters, B.B. King and Etta James. Crystal would sit at the top of the stairs, straining to hear those soulful sounds. There was a part of her that often wandered if she would ever be able to sing like that. When no one was home, Crystal would practice singing the blues.

During a chance meeting with a well-respected music executive, Crystal was told, “I just don’t know if Native Americans make sense in country music. I don’t know if fans would be receptive,  and I wouldn’t even know how to market you.” Crystal tried to take the critique with composure, but would end up moving back home to her reserve and abandoning her dream. Shawanda set out on a dark, self-destructive path, but fortunately for the rest of us, she always found herself back in front of the mic. She has since released five previous albums, four on New Sun Records.

Performing alongside Shawanda are Louis Winfield and Darren James on drums; Dave Roe, Michael Dearing, Jonathan Nixon and Hinkie Hamilton on bass; Dewayne Strobel on guitars; Tommy Stillwell on additional guitars; Peter Keys and Jesse O’Brien on keyboards; Dana Robbins and Miqui Guitierez on saxophone; Stephen Hanner on harmonica, and Angela Hurt, Quisha Wint, KG Green, and the McCrary Sisters on background vocals.

The title track, by David Norris, possesses a melodic intro that would make SRV smile in heaven. “I went down to the church house to get my Sunday morning right,” Shawanda belts, but she hasn’t come to kneel and pray. “I caught them dancing in the aisles like that roadhouse we played last night.” “Evil Memory” comes next, a haunting ballad that burns slow, then scorches. It ought to be in a gritty drama about lost love, with a few ghosts (metaphorical and literal) haunting our narrator. “Move Me,” a groovy tune with gregarious guitar, will move people on to the dance floor, as will “Blame It on the Sugar,” an original number. Tracks eight and nine will please blues traditionalists, and the last one shall have everyone stomping and clapping along.

Church House Blues will make soul and blues fans shout “Hallelujah!”

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