Issue 11-40 October 5, 2017

Cover photo © 2017 Rick Lewis

 In This Issue 

Mark Thompson has our feature interview with Lauren Mitchell. We have 8 Blues reviews for you this week including new music from Rick Estrin & The Nightcats, Travis “Moonchild” Haddix, Chris Cain, Little Willie Farmer, Theo and the Boogie Sinners, Big Joe Shelton & The Black Prairie Blues Ambassadors, Webster Avenue and Ilana Katz Katz.

Our video of the week is Wee Willie Walker.

We have the latest in Blues society news. All this and MORE! SCROLL DOWN!!!

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 Featured Blues Review – 1 of 8 

rick estrin cd imageRick Estrin & The Nightcats – Groovin’ In Greaseland

Alligator Records

13 songs – 55 minutes

The release of a new album by Rick Estrin & The Nightcats is always cause for celebration. What is there to say about this group of rapscallians that hasn’t already been said? One of the most widely-respected blues bands in the world, with A-list musicians, whip-smart songs and a live show that is as entertaining as it is technically impressive. Over its eight-year lifespan, the band has built on the more than solid foundations laid by Little Charlie when he led The Nightcats, releasing three essential albums (all on Alligator Records) and firmly embedding itself in the premier division of blues bands.

And the good news is that they have a new studio album out, Groovin’ In Greaseland. Even better news is that it maintains the gold standard of previous releases, with 13 songs (10 from the pen of Estrin, one co-written by Estrin with guitarist Kid Andersen, one from Andersen himself and one from keyboardist Lorenzo Farrell) packed into just under an hour of serious fun.

The sound of the band has evolved from its earlier incarnations, with less West Coast swing and more Chicago grit and funk to the fore. The album contains a choice variety of blues grooves, however, from the aching minor key ballad of “Tender Hearted” (with a beautiful solo from Andersen) and the upbeat early rock’n’roll of “Dissed Again”, to the funky blues of “Big Money” and the high-heeled bounce of “Hand Of Time.” Estrin continues to write sharp, intelligent lyrics that alternate between the off-the-wall humour of “I Ain’t All That” or “Dissed Again” (“I drive across the country in a beat-up [dodgy] van, tryin’ to make a living, got to pay the band. Get back just in time to hear the boss man say, you got to open for a 10 year old, sounds just like Stevie Ray”) and the hard-hitting social commentary of “Living Hand To Mouth”. On “Big Money”, he actually combines the two.

What separates Estrin’s songs from those of many other writers is the precision of language combined with his natural story-telling ability. Each character in an Estrin song inhabits its own carefully constructed world, and the Nightcats feed into that world. So, the protagonist of “Looking For A Woman” may have just been dumped by his love, but he knows “I’ll be back in circulation just as soon as you’re gone.” His delirious optimism is perfectly reflected in Andersen’s joyous guitar solo.

The solos are shared pretty evenly across the album between Estrin’s harp, Andersen’s guitar and Farrell’s keys with all three players often taking a solo in the same song. There are three instrumentals, however, each of which allows each player room to stretch out a little. “Cool Slaw” is a 60s-style toe-tapper that showcases Farrell’s glorious organ playing. The dreamy, closing harmonica workout of “So Long (for Jay P.)” ably demonstrates Estrin’s harp prowess. And the madcap Lonnie Mack tribute of “MWAH!” lets Andersen throw in nods to a number of Mack classics (including “Wham!”, “The Bounce” and “Chicken Pickin’”), all while capturing Lonnie’s signature Flying V-plus-tremolo-bar sound to a tee.

The core band comprises long-standing members Estrin on vocals and harp, Andersen on guitars and Farrell on organ, piano and Wurlitzer, together with new (since 2016) boy Alex Pattersen on drums. Additional musicians include Jerry Jermot, Joe Kyle Jr and Robby Yamilov on bass, Nancy Wright, Terry Hanck and John Halbeib on horns, Martin Windstad on percussion; and Jim Pugh on electric piano.

With sparkling production by Estrin and Andersen (the album was recorded at Andersen’s infamous Greaseland studio), Groovin’ In Greaseland is smart and self-assured without ever being arrogant or cocksure.

If you’re already a fan of Rick Estrin & The Nightcats, Groovin’ In Greaseland is an essential purchase. If you’re not yet a fan, you really should be, and this album is a fine place to start.

Reviewer Rhys Williams lives in Cambridge, England, where he plays blues guitar when not holding down a day job as a technology lawyer or running around after his children. He is married to an American, and speaks the language fluently, if with an accent.

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 Featured Blues Review – 2 of 8 

travis haddix cd imageTravis “Moonchild” Haddix – See What I Want to See


CD: 10 Songs, 43:16 Minutes

Styles: Jazz and Soul-Influenced Blues, All Original Songs, Ensemble Blues

Even though Mississippi’s Travis “Moonchild” Haddix earned his nickname “from his beaming presence on stage…his always-broad smile and energetic, sexy performances”, that descriptor has a dark, fascinating history perfect for the upcoming Halloween. According to occultists, a “moonchild” is a perfect soul, a homunculus, housed within a human body. Sorcerer Aleister Crowley had infamously tried to capture/create one of his own, with no success. Haddix may not be the flawless find Crowley had sought, but he’s nearly perfect at evoking a bygone era with his soul-influenced blues. On the mic, he speaks volumes with his understated crooning. Some may find it too dry, too conversational, but others like their soul vocals that way. Besides, if he belted out the words, who would pay attention to the wit hidden within them? Perhaps Travis’ greatest talent is his songwriting. It’s no wonder that in 2007, Travis’ single, “Dick for Dinner” from Mean Ole Yesterday was nominated Best Blues Song by the Blues Critic Awards 2007 Readers Poll – Contemporary Blues. Those who love laughs in their blues have come to the right place. On ten all-original numbers, he demonstrates why he’s still a master after more than thirty years.

According to his fact-filled corner of the Internet, “Travis Haddix began playing the piano at the age of seven in his home town of Walnut, Mississippi, located thirty miles south of Memphis, Tennessee. The turning point in his musical learning experience came when he was eight, when the legendary B.B. King came to Memphis and began playing daily at the studios of WDIA. Travis was awed by King’s guitar virtuosity and he hung around the radio station every day to learn all he could. Soon, Travis’ piano playing fell by the wayside and was replaced by the guitar, which he plays on stage and in the studio.” He’s received rave reviews from several print magazines and has toured Europe since 1982.

Along with Haddix on lead vocals and guitar are Ray DeForest and Ed Lemmers on bass guitar; Brian Hager on rhythm guitar, bass and one solo; Gilbert Zachary on keyboard; Don Williams on organ; Jeremy Sullivan on drums; and Bob Frank and Mike Calhoun on rhythm guitar.

The following song, the album’s opener, is notable for its honesty as well as its good humor.

Track 01: “Ugliness” – If there’s one thing yours truly is sick of hearing in blues songs, it’s about how beautiful everyone’s girlfriend/wife/paramour is. Not this lady, who’s far from lovely, but guess who doesn’t care? Not our narrator, and certainly not I. “She’s not a good homemaker. She can’t even cook. The way that woman make love to me, I don’t care how she look!” Finally, a song for the rest of us, the perpetual friends, the bridesmaids who are never brides – by chance. Every instrument is at its keenest here, from Haddix’s caressing guitar notes to Don Williams’ cascading organ chords. It should be on B.B. King’s Bluesville, for sure, but also the U.S. charts.

When it comes to the blues, some readers might think I only See What I Want to See. However, what I see in Haddix’s work is a man who has written the blues and soul upon his heart like Scripture. The more you listen to this album, the deeper it’ll sink into your spirit.

Reviewer Rainey Wetnight is a 38 year old female Blues fan. She brings the perspective of a younger blues fan to reviews. A child of 1980s music, she was strongly influenced by her father’s blues music collection.

 Featured Blues Review – 3 of 8 

chris cain cd imageChris Cain – Self Titled

Featuring Larry Taylor/Tony Braunagel/Jim Pugh/Nancy Wright

Little Village Foundation

10 songs time-39:36

One of the great mysteries of the blues world is why Chris Cain’s profile isn’t higher. He is an above average guitar slinger and has a great weathered voice that harkens back to the legendary blues crooners of the past, plus he’s no slouch on piano and saxophone. Writes great songs too. He’s been doing his blues thing for quite a while. Maybe his concentrating mainly on performing in California, the west coast and overseas has detracted from his recognition on the east coast and the mid west. If you need evidence to back up my claims of his blues acumen check out this CD and some smokin’ videos on You Tube. The guy is a natural bluesman. On this effort he has very able backing in Larry Taylor(Canned Heat, John Mayall) on bass, Tony Braunagel(Taj Mahal) on drums, Jim Pugh(Robert Cray) on keyboards and Nancy Wright on sax, among others. He has written or co-written eight of the tracks here along with two well conceived cover songs.

Much of what is included here is his energetic take on Chicago blues featuring his energetic and inventive guitar prowess in songs like “Meanest Woman In Down”, “Tired Of The Way You Do” and the slow late night blues of “Sitting Here Wondering”, all penned by Cain. He plays very well done piano along with guitar on the latter. His take on Albert King’s “You’re Gonna Need Me” is very much in Albert’s shadow with it’s hard guitar attack bolstered by a powerful horn section.

Chris plays elegantly jazz-tinged guitar on the slow and moody “Tell Tale Signs”. The positive “Back On Top” is gospel-fired blues with B.B. King style guitar, churchy organ and female backing vocals. Another change of pace is his version of Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson’s signature song “Kidney Stew”, where his vocal owes a bit to Big Joe Turner. Chris handles all sax parts along with guitar chores on this one over Larry Taylor’s “walking” bass line.

Chris and friends pretty much have it all covered on this CD. They keep one foot in the past blues tradition while creating something fresh and current. Chris is well versed in many guitar styles and his vocals are wise beyond his years. He should be much more well known. It’s just one of those go figure things. His hand picked group of seasoned musicians prop up his music. It doesn’t get any better than this.

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

 Featured Blues Video Of The Week – Wee Willie Walker 

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Our featured video is Wee Willie Walker performing “Read Between The Lines” at The 2015 Porretta Soul Festival. (Click image to watch!)

Wee Willie Walker will be performing at the Logan Center Bluesfest on Friday, October 13th, 2017.

For info and tickets to all the great performances at the the Logan Center Bluesfest October 13th – 15th visit or click on their ad in this issue!

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 Featured Blues Review – 4 of 8 

little willei farmer cd imageLittle Willie Farmer – I’m Coming Back Home

Wolf Records

CD: 14 Songs, 51:54 Minutes

Styles: Blues Covers, Country Blues, Debut Album, Solo Album

Milled corn, sugar, malt flavor, and salt. These are the ingredients of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, “The Original and Best.” A single preservative notwithstanding, this simple recipe has nourished generations who need to get “crowin’ in the mornin’,” like the old commercial said. I’m Coming Back Home, the debut album from Mississippi’s Little Willie Farmer, also has four ingredients: dry singing, sweet acoustic guitar, run-of-the-mill blues covers, and just a sprinkling of original songs for freshness. Why have cereal lovers consumed Corn Flakes for decades, while faddish offerings like Star Wars Cereal (yes, it exists) come and go? The basics are the best, the most satisfying, that keep people coming back for more. That’s the good news, both in terms of the Kellogg’s product and Farmer’s CD. The bad news is that while the fourteen songs here have a classic taste, even the new ones, they’re not very filling. What’s missing? Feelings. True blues comes from the heart, not just the mouth and the shredder strings. Besides, if we’re to sink our teeth into “Little School Girl” and “Rock Me Baby”, they’d better have a little more powerhouse protein and less flat-vocal fiber to feed our souls.

When it comes to a quintessential blues artist, the type most people think of right away, the image is one of an African-American from one of the Southern states – most notably Mississippi. That’s where Farmer hails from, specifically Duck Hill. He was born in 1956 and learned the blues from his Uncle Waldo, according to his brief promo info blurb. Waldo also influenced Leo “Bud” Welch, whose album Live at the Iridium won rave reviews from yours truly. As for Little Willie, he first played church songs, and then performed blues with artists such as Johnnie Billington, Bobby Rush, and Lynn White. A booklet that comes along with the CD reveals, “Little Willie has also used his talent to help others in the community learn how to play guitar, including a local neighbor who is seeing-impaired. He would like to see his music grow by teaching others how to play and preserving his cultural heritage.”

Since this is a solo album, Farmer naturally takes center stage on this original ditty:

Track 14: “Obama – The President Song” – Okay, this comes a year too late, but I’m going to review it anyway. Even though Obama may no longer be President, the sentiments in number fourteen were shared by a lot of Americans. “He trying to make a change, but he need help, like we all do. He ain’t trying to misuse nobody, but you know, some people don’t care. They just want all they can get and more. They got no heart for the poor people.” I like the echo effect on Farmer’s guitar, but other than that, this (polemic? Speech? Ballad?) is like the weird-looking marshmallow in a box of cereal. Even though it tastes good, you can’t really tell what it is.

I’m Coming Back Home needs a little more feeling, and less filler, to be a truly hearty CD.

Reviewer Rainey Wetnight is a 38 year old female Blues fan. She brings the perspective of a younger blues fan to reviews. A child of 1980s music, she was strongly influenced by her father’s blues music collection.

 Featured Blues Review – 5 of 8 

theo and the boogie sinners cd imageTheo and the Boogie Sinners – Made with Greece


CD: 11 Songs, 64:00 Minutes

Styles: Contemporary Electric Blues Rock, All Original Songs

My family and I recently had a discussion about suffering and greatness. Our general consensus was that no artist can truly become great unless s/he has endured great losses and ordeals, thus inspiring his or her art. No other genre proves this more than the blues does. Combined with a debt-ravaged homeland, Olympian heights are within reach of those who choose to climb them. Or is it a compulsion, this drive to turn the trash of one’s life into treasure? You might ask Theo and the Boogie Sinners, who’ve served up their second CD. In the financial hurricane of 2008, few countries got pummeled as hard as the home of Zeus and Socrates. It’s still recovering, which means Theo Alexiou and his band have a lot to sing about. With hard-driving energy propelled by titan electric guitar, Made with Greece is made to sizzle in listeners’ ears. As an added bonus, all the songs are original, with many composed by guitarist Tommy McCoy. Some of them run a little too long, sounding more like jam sessions than studio takes. However, that’s a minor flaw on this blistering blues-rocker of an album, destined for the summit of blues charts.

Promoter Michael Limnios writes, “The Boogie Sinners rock the blues eight years now in Greece, with weekly gigs all over the country and with an extremely energetic performance on the stage, which turns each gig into a big rock-and-roll dancing party…The band also participated on Angela Brown’s Chicago label Earwig, in Tommy McCoy’s new release, 25 Years Retrospect, sharing the deal into this album with names like Lucky Peterson, Tommy Shannon, and Chris Layton (Double Trouble) and Levon Helm.” This CD, produced in the summer of 2015, also features the finest Greek-origin musicians from the U.S. and Australia.

Theo and the Boogie Sinners are Theo Alexiou on vocals and guitars; Kostas Tenezos on harmonica; Dimitris Georgopoulos on bass, and John Dimoulas on drums. Special guests include John Skyllas on piano and Hammond organ; Nick Kipridis on vocals and slide guitar; Gus Fafalios on guitar; Babis Tsilivigos on saxophones; Simos Kokavesis on slide and rhythm guitar, and the aforementioned Tommy McCoy on rhythm guitar.

The following three songs infuse a powerful dose of Greek zest into American blues.

Track 01: “Blues Party Boogie” – This low-down, throw-down opener will make anyone who listens ditch their chairs and dance like no one cares! Of course, the guitar’s the main attraction, but dig that magnificent harmonica by Kostas Tenezos. It whizzes up and down the musical scale as if its bars were roller coaster tracks. One great thing about this song is that it proves the Sinners are a balanced ensemble, even though there are several guitar heroes among them.

Track 04: “Gone to Marathon” – I picked this one not only for its sing-along title, but also for a snatch of blues lyrics you’ll likely never hear on any other CD: “The fleet of a Persian got a big diversion while we all had to send them away. We came down from the hill and we fought them until they turned and left the very, very next day.” Way to make history hip via a surf-style song. Babis Tsiviligos is sensational on sax.

Track 06: “The King is Gone” – Some fans may complain this song’s too derivative of one of B.B.’s greatest hits, but it sure is a fantastic tribute. Kick back and indulge in adult beverages – or other activities – during this rip-roaring traditional blues track.

Looking for explosive blues rock with a razor’s edge? Savor this entrée Made with Greece!

Reviewer Rainey Wetnight is a 37 year old female Blues fan. She brings the perspective of a younger blues fan to reviews. A child of 1980s music, she was strongly influenced by her father’s blues music collection.

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 Featured Blues Review – 6 of 8 

bib joe shelton cd imageBig Joe Shelton & The Black Prairie Blues Ambassadors – Ridin’ A Chicken

ALT 45 Records 1004

12 songs – 54 minutes

Based in northeast Mississippi in an area that produced Bukka White, Howlin’ Wolf and Big Joe Williams, Big Joe Shelton delivers a hard-hitting collection of sparkling originals on this self-produced album, a welcome follow-up to his well-received 2013 release, I’d Never Let Her Down.

Despite the racial divide that existed in the small Southern town where he grew up, Shelton was deeply influenced by Williams, who was a friend as well as an instructor, as well as the music emanating from musicians of color who played on the street, at picnics and tent minstrel shows.

A 2012 Blues Music Award nominee for song of the year and someone who’s been honored with inclusion on the Columbus/Catfish Alley marker on the Mississippi Blues Trail, Big Joe is a powerful vocalist and solid old-school harmonica player. A regular performer at festivals across the region, he’s a recipient of a fellowship from the Mississippi Arts Commission, spent time in his youth in Chicago and has taken his music to England, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Bulgaria.

He and his Black Prairie Blues Ambassadors — named for the fertile region from which they’re based — have been together for years. They’re led by Ben Farrell, a rock-solid guitarist who lays down driving, propulsive solos atop steady rhythm provided by bassist Ed Swan and percussionist Bob Damm. The quartet gets a helping hand here from Bobby Shannon on keys, Doug Thomas on sax and Susan Alcorn Lobato on pedal steel guitar, all of whom appeared on Big Joe’s most recent release.

All 12 tunes on this one are based on images of people, places and the culture that Shelton gathered from his travels across his beloved Mississippi and beyond. Farrell fires out of the gate with a repetitive, uptempo guitar hook to kick off the opener, “Put The Chairs In The Wagon,” delivered from the position of someone who’s spent too much time in Memphis and who needs to head back home down Highway 61.

The title tune, “Ridin’ A Chicken,” is up next. It’s a clever number with a Latin feel in which Big Joe describes seeing a woman whose legs are so skinny she appears be aboard a fowl. It evolves in praise for gals with more meat on their bones. Another fiery guitar line opens “Got So Hot,” a modern, stop-time number about sitting in the shade and chilling down at the swimming hole as the area bakes under the hot Southern summer sun.

“I Done Got Tired,” which addresses the unnecessary need for fighting and hating, follows before the steady-tempo, medium-slow shuffle “Just Let Me Bleed” describes being harangued by someone who loves only herself and continues cutting deep when there’s no need. Shelton picks up the harp for the first time on the disc to open “Inhale Blessings,” which strongly suggests that folks change their bad attitudes and start treating neighbors like brothers.

Big Joe puts aside the serious subject matter on “No Man’s Land,” a horn-propelled jump about going shopping with his wife for new lingerie and finding himself at the receiving end of unwanted glances from blue-haired ladies in their 80s. “Pool Hall Red” is a tender country blues tribute to the first musician Shelton heard in his youth. It puts his harp skills on display after being absent for most of the CD, while “Lorraine” — set up with a gospel feel and handclap chorus — pays tribute to the singer’s mom.

Big Joe’s harp provides the underlying lead for “Too Wet To Plow,” an almost psychedelic rocker about the aftermath of a flood, before “Time To Go Home” restates the ideas expressed in the opener. The album concludes with “My Future Lies Behind Me Now,” an understated ballad about time slipping away as the singer approaches his end of days.

Available online through CDBaby or Amazon, Ridin’ A Chicken provides a rich tapestry of tunes for anyone with a taste for traditional blues, full of loving glimpses of the past as well as thoroughly modern, timeless themes.

Reviewer Marty Gunther has lived a blessed life. 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 – 7 of 8 

webster avenue cd imageWebster Avenue – Daylight


14 songs – 53 minutes

Daylight is the debut album from Webster Ave, a trio of industry veterans, all from the North East of the U.S.A. All three have long and impressive résumés, having played with the likes of Otis Rush, Otis Blackwell, Bob Dylan, Michael Monroe and Bette Midler. As a result, and as one might expect, a confident aura of quality and sophistication emanates from every track on the album.

The band comprises David Webster on guitars, banjo (on “Heaven Knows”) and lead vocals; Tony Mercadante on bass, piano, synth and backing vocals; and Andrew Caturano on drums, percussion and backing vocals. The core trio are supplemented on various tracks by Benny Harrison and Matt Detroy on keyboards; Joe Meo on saxophone and clarinet and Jamie Finigan on trumpet; and Lissie Newman on backing vocals.

The songs on Daylight primarily sit within the genres of rock and pop, with hints of soul, jazz, R&B, funk and even some reggae thrown in. The horns (arranged by Joe Meo) are used sparingly and to good effect, adding real depth to the funk-rock of “Ain’t That A Shame” and the acoustic jazz of “Whenever”, which has some lovely clarinet from Meo.

Webster sings in a light, clear tenor voice and is a fine guitar player, moving adroitly between acoustic finger-picking on ballads like “To Be A Child”, raucous electric slide guitar (on the opening rocker “This Angry World”) and standard electric guitar. He is also a smart song-writer (he wrote 13 of the tracks on Daylight himself, and co-wrote the reggae-pop of “Ronnie O”, with Mercadante), with clear influences taken from some of the great rock and pop writers of the 1970s. Mercadante and Caturano are an equally impressive rhythm section, equally at home on the pop-rock of “Bad Thing”, the Eagles-style ballad “Never Tender Your Goodbyes” (with some gorgeous echoing slide guitar from Webster) or the bluesy shuffle of the title track.

There is something that is reminiscent of Toto or the Alan Parsons Project in the way the musicians wear their technical virtuosity so lightly on well-written pop songs, but also in the maturity and calm of their playing. At times this can have the effect of mitigating the emotional impact of the song, so that there is no sense of danger in the ostensibly threatening lyrics of “Bad Thing” (although Webster does pull out a killer guitar solo), nor is there any sense of true heartbreak in the hard-luck love song of “My Poor Heart”. The title track comes closest to blues, but again the effect is diluted by (very impressive) vocal harmonies that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Steely Dan album.

Indeed, there is not a whole lot of blues on display on Daylight, but it is an enjoyable album of pop-rock songs, played with impressive technical prowess and expertly produced.

Reviewer Rhys Williams lives in Cambridge, England, where he plays blues guitar when not holding down a day job as a technology lawyer or running around after his children. He is married to an American, and speaks the language fluently, if with an accent.

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 Featured Blues Review – 8 of 8 

ilana katz katz cd imageIlana Katz Katz – Subway Stories

Vizztone Label Group – 2017

13 tracks; 47 minutes

Ilana Katz Katz started out playing on the Boston subway (hence the title of the album) before being spotted by Ronnie Earl who championed her playing. Of course if one goes back to the very earliest days of the blues violin was often used but it is fairly rare to hear it these days and Ilana plays well. Ilana wrote most of the material here with assistance from producer and guitarist Barry Levenson, Hank Van Sickle (bass) and Mike Sandberg (drums) making up the rhythm section.

The album was recorded in L.A. though some additional harp and piano was added by Sugar Ray Norcia and Anthony Geraci (recorded at studios in New England). The track that is probably closest to Ilana’s busking roots is “John Brown’s Dream/Subway Light Of Mine” which combines a solo fiddle instrumental with an adaptation of “This Little Light Of Mine”.

A couple of Barry’s instrumental tunes, “The Excuse” and “Requiem” have a light, jazzy feel. Anthony’s piano adds considerably to the tracks on which he appears: “Road To Nowhere” swings terrifically, Barry’s “Like A Wino” is good fun with rock and roll influences and the cover of “Ice Cream Freezer Blues” retains Roosevelt Sykes’ ribald sense of humour in some suggestive lyrics.

Ilana’s vocal style is unusual and may not be to everyone’s taste. Her songs are definitely blues and “Subway Blues” recounts some of her experiences busking. The lyrics to “Tribute To Slim Harpo” give a good flavour of Slim’s work and the playing is excellent with Sugar Ray’s harp capturing his style well. Indeed, there is plenty of good playing, so anyone already comfortable with Ilana’s distinctive vocal style should enjoy this album.

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.

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 Featured Blues Interview – Lauren Mitchell 

lauren mitchel phot 1The title of her latest recording, Desire, simply hints at the passions that drive Lauren Mitchell, a commanding singer from Florida’s Gulf coast. Nominated for two Blues Blast Music Awards this year – Soul Blues Album and the Sean Costello Rising Star Award – Mitchell is proud of her work on a disc that finally captures the full extent of her talents. She explains, “You are asking me to talk about the curse of an artist, whether you are a writer, visual artist, or musician. Do I feel it is a wonderful album – do I feel that it is the best representation of me to date? Yes! I am very, very proud of it. But I still listen to it and think, man. I wish we could have done this better. Just being overly critical of myself as an artist, that curse, propels me to work harder to achieve my goal to grow and evolve. Looking back over the last six years, this record shows that I have evolved, so I am doing my job”.

Getting to this point has been proven to be a path with many twists and turns. Born In Columbus, Ohio, Mitchell was placed with adoptive parents when she was seven days old. It was fortunate that her parents had a love for music and the arts. Her maternal grandparents met when her grandmother auditioned as a singer for her grandfather’s country & western band. Both sang in the church choir, as did Mitchell’s adoptive mother and father, who also played some guitar. “I listened to a lot of great music while I was growing up. Dad had an impressive record collection, half of which is now in my possession. I got the sixties soul and cool rock & roll. My brother got the rest of it, the weird stuff like Frank Zappa”.

“There was always music in our home. I remember hearing Ray Charles and Sam Cooke, a lot of Motown. My Dad was really in to Motown, like the Four Tops and the Temptations, and especially Gladys Knight. He took me to my very first blues festival, the Tampa Bay Blues fest, when I was in high school. It was fortunate that I grew up in a school district that I lived in had a performing arts school that I auditioned for and was accepted into in fourth grade. It was part of the public school system, so there wasn’t any extra tuition”.

“I started professional voice lessons at age nine. Mom found me an incredible teacher in Canton, OH, Michael Canastraro, who I studied with through most of high school. He taught me pretty much everything I know about the voice and the mechanics of singing. He was very strict. I wasn’t allowed to sing in his studio in English until I mastered singing in Italian. We worked on a lot of opera and art songs. But I was still hearing soul music at home plus blues from Muddy Waters, Leadbelly and Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee. So I was doing Mozart, Puccini, and Verdi in Micheal’s studio, then going home to listen to gut-bucket blues”.

“The lessons taught me a good portion of singing is your breath, being able to use all of the available muscles to raise and expand the rib cage. The cage opens, giving the lungs more room to expand. Then you have to fully breath into the diaphragm, using the muscles in the lower abdomen to control the airflow that comes up through the esophagus to the vocal folds. They are very thin and extremely fragile, like tissue paper. That is why singers have problems from abusing their voice. Controlling the flow of air through the vocal folds is what creates vibration and sound. I also learned ways to shape the mouth, move the tongue, and adjust the soft palate to create different sounds.

“An important point to learn is that you can not sing a pitch on a consonant. You have to learn to form your vowels correctly. Your sinus cavities are like the bell of a horn. That is where the sound comes out, so if you can change the shape of the bell, then you can change the way a word sounds. I can do some things on stage that allow me to abuse my voice a bit because I have technique to back it up – and I have good vocal health habits that allow me to do that five nights in row without losing my voice.”

lauren mitchel photo 2 Mitchell continued to study and perform while in college, doing musical theater, sang in choirs, and did solo work singing arias and art songs. Another voice instructor, Steven Monroe, re-introduced her to some of the hip music she heard during her childhood, and had Mitchell listen to Nina Simone, Sarah Vaughan, and Ella Fitzgerald.

‘When I was younger, I was singing in the lyric soprano range, way up in the rafters. That is not the case any more. The female voice does not typically mature and become what it is supposed to be until around the age of forty. So it is no shock that my voice now is in the basement. I sing lower than most women, and even a few men! Steven was into the fact that I had that lower register. He thought it was unique and encouraged me to develop it. I also identified a bit with Janis Joplin. I discovered that I had really big lungs and had lots of power behind my voice”. Out with some girlfriends one night for some under-age drinking, Mitchell was convinced to participate in a karaoke contest, singing one of the Joplin tunes she knew. The broke college student ended up winning the contest and the $100 prize.

“Up until then I had only been paid for a few theater gigs, as a chorus girl because I used to dance. I had never been paid for just singing. So I started singing with a couple bands around Columbus. Then in 2003, a really, really bad break-up made me decide to move to Florida. My parents had split up and my Dad had fulfilled his dream by moving to Florida. I had a girlfriend who was moving to Orlando, so we got a bigger truck. The night we moved, there was a foot & a half of snow. Moving a box of books, we both fell down in the snow. All we could do was laugh as we realized we would never have deal with that again”.

The singer worked as a bartender in a series of clubs, some of which featured live music. She began to meet local musicians and slowly put herself out there as a singer. But restaurant business was good money that paid the bills. In 2010, she was bar-tending at Tommy Bahama’s when she got an offer for a management position at a restaurant on Siesta Key. The singing and music had been there but it was a struggle to get a project of her own started. She decided to take the offer. After nine months, the owner of the company unexpectedly let her go.

“I didn’t realize at the time how miserable I was. It took getting out of that situation to make that clear. After nursing my bruised ego for a few days, I called my long-time friend, Michael “The Professor” Hensley, a great Hammond organ player. He encouraged me to take charge. We had enjoyed working together in several cover bands and had a mutual admiration for each others’ talent. We began rehearsing in April of 2011 – our first gig was in August of that year. It has been six years since I stepped out on the stage under my own name and I haven’t another job since then. Michael insisted that my name was out there, saying that I would be the reason people came to hear the band. I am very grateful to him for that encouragement”.

There is one singer that has always been a major influence on Mitchell’s singing. “At the top of the list is Etta James. She had that low register which I identify with. She had a way of presenting a song that really got down to business, digging in and touching the emotions and the meaning of the song. She was able to interpret brilliantly. On her Live From San Francisco album, she did a cover of the Eagles “Take It To The Limit” that gives that song a whole new meaning. That is the way the song is supposed to be sung, as far as I’m concerned. For Desire, a bunch of the guys I recorded with had worked with her. They told me some stories, how she didn’t take any prisoners. I don’t do that either. Other favorites are Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, and lately a newer artist doing modern neo-soul, Anthony Hamilton. He has a killer voice”.

Mitchell released her first album, Please Come Home, at the start of 2013, getting lots of praise from her growing fan base but many felt that the disc did not capture the energy of her live show. In May, 2014, she recorded a live show at the legendary Bradfordville Blues Club in Tallahassee, FL that documented the energy of her show to the delight of her fans.

Since then, life has been a series of ups and downs. Her partnership with Hensley came to an end, leading to a decision to change her approach to the band. “I had never been on stage over the years with out a keyboard. When you work as a classical soloist, the piano is always there to accompany you. That was a really scary thing. It changed to whole vibe of the band’s sound with guitar, bass, and drums. I was hearing things I had never heard musically before. It worked out but I really enjoy it when I can add a keyboard player. You miss having those big, fat chords from the Hammond organ. It was a scary leap. But I learned that maybe I was holding on to some things, that I am a lot stronger than I thought I was”.

lauren mitchel photo 3Fair or not, there are some who take Mitchell to task because the line-up of her band went through plenty of changes in the last few years. She readily admits that she can be a tough band leader. “Part of that is the nature of the business. Some musicians don’t want to dedicate themselves to a long-term situation. They are fine working with me on a Friday night, then they get a call for another gig for more money, so they bail. I am looking for the right people because I ask a lot of my band members. They need to be dedicated, show up on time, be sober for the gig, and have a good work ethic. Sometimes that gets in the way of the music”’

All of pieces came together for her latest album, recorded in Los Angeles with Tony Braunagal producing. She had been working on songs with Hensley while searching for a producer who could help her articulate her vision. Discussions with numerous people went nowhere due to various reasons, including scheduling. That all changed after a performance at the 2015 Suncoast Blues Festival in Sarasota.

“To stay relevant, I knew I needed to put out a new record, to give your fans something to listen to. Our set at the Suncoast fest featured a lot of my original material. My friend Jack Sullivan, the publisher of Blues Music Magazine, was there and told me that he was going to contact Tony about producing my new record. I thought, yeah, right, Tony doesn’t know who I am. Several months later I saw Jack again. He handed me Tony’s phone number and e-mail address, telling me to call him. It something like six months for me to get the nerve to do something. I finally decided to send Tony an e-mail because it was safe. I didn’t have to open up, be vulnerable. To my surprise, he answered me about thirty minutes later. I was so excited that someone of Tony’s stature was interested in working with me”.

That began the process of selecting songs, setting up budgets, and getting finances to make the project possible. Once everything was set, Mitchell flew to Los Angeles for a week of recording in October last year, an emotionally taxing experience made easier by the by the consummate professional musicians she was working with, including numerous members of the Phantom Blues Band and Josh Sklair, guitarist and the leader of the Etta James band for twenty-five years. “Tony brought years & years of experience. The way he orchestrates things, and deals with people, is genuine. He is incredibly gifted, has a cohesive vision, and hears everything. He knew exactly which musicians to use. His best attribute is that he cares and understands you as an artist as well as a person”.

Learning about her heritage was another desire that finally generated some action. Last year Mitchell took a 23andMe DNA test. “When the results came back, I learned half of the story, because they don’t test all of your DNA. I am French, German , and Scandinavian, plus my genes are pretty healthy. But I recently found another section on my profile that lead me to a man’s name, stating that we shared about 14% of our DNA, and were likely first cousins. I reached out to him, told him my story, and we have had discussions regarding the possibility that one of his siblings may be my biological father. From what I have learned so far about the family, they are more into sports than the arts. If I had stayed with my biological family, who knows if I would have had the same chance to nurture my voice. Guess that it is all part of the plan…..”

Check out Lauren’s website at:

Interviewer Mark Thompson lives in Florida, where he is enjoying life without snow. He is the President of the Board of Directors for the Suncoast Blues Society and the past president of the Crossroads Blues Society of Northern Illinois. Music has been a huge part of his life for the past fifty years – just ask his wife!

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The Detroit Blues Society – Detroit, MI

The Detroit Blues Society will present “A Tribute to Howard Armstrong” featuring Ralphe Armstrong on Bass, Ray Kamalay on Guitar and John Reynolds on Violin. Saturday October 21, 2017 2:00PM at the Scarab Club 217 Farnsworth in Detroit’s Cultural Center. A $5.00 donation is requested.

Howard Armstrong was declared a “National Treasure” by the National Endowment for the Arts. A Multi-instrumentalist (Violin, Mandolin and Guitar) who began performing in the 1920’s Armstrong ,along with Ted Bogan and Carl Martin, appeared at the 1933 World Fair backing Blues musicians such as “Big Bill Broonzy and Memphis Minnie. His association with Ted Bogan and Carl Martin was renewed in 1971 when the three reunited and began performing once again. Martin, Bogan and Armstrong (as they were billed) were considered the last great African American String band.

For more information please call the Scarab Club (313-831-1250) or contact Ed Schenk at

Blues Society of Central Pennsylvania – Harrisburg, PA

Saturday, October 7th, the Blues Society of Central PA welcomes the Billy Price Band w/ special guests, Charlie Owen & Pocket Change to Champions Sports Bar 300 2nd St. Highspire, PA 17034.

Admission is $20, $15 for BSCP members. Doors open at 7PM, 8PM showtime. For more info visit

The Illinois Central Blues Club – Springfield, IL

The Illinois Central Blues Club has announced the line-up of talent for Blue Monday live performances held every Monday night at The Alamo, 115 North Fifth, Springfield, IL from 8:00pm to midnight. Additional information on any performer listed below is available upon request.

Blue Monday Schedule: Oct 9 – The Drifter Kings, Oct 16 – Levee Town, Oct 23 – Bex Marshall, Oct 30 – Lionel Young.

Additional ICBC partnered shows: Oct 5 – James Armstrong Presents ~ Kingdom Brothers @ 6:00 PM, Oct 19 – James Armstrong Presents ~ Soundfire @ 6:00 PM. For more information visit

Central Iowa Blues Society -Des Moines, IA

Central Iowa Blues Society 25th Anniversary Party is Sunday, October 22, 2017 from noon to 9:00 pm

Come celebrate 25 years of smokin’ blues at the Des Moines Social Club, 900 Mulberry Street. Free admission and open to the public! Featuring Malcom Wells & the Two Timers, Bob Pace Band, Soul Searchers JC Anderson Band Revisited, Bob Dorr, Dan “DJ” Johnson, Tom Giblin, Jeff Petersen, Del “Saxman” Jones, Sam Salamone and more. Keep an eye on the calendar at

Friends of the Blues – Kankakee, IL

Oct 3 – Annika Chambers with Igor Prado Band, Kankakee Valley Boat Club, Nov 14 – Jim Suhler & Monkey Beat, Manteno Sportsmen’s Club. More Info at:

BB logoP.O. Box 721 Pekin, Illinois 61555 © 2017 Blues Blast Magazine (309) 267-4425

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