Cover photo © 2020 Bob Kieser
In This Issue
Mark Thompson has our feature interview with Blues rocker Kenny Wayne Shepherd. We have 10 Blues reviews for you this week including a new book by Diane Williams on the Life And Legacy Of B.B. King plus new music from Luther Badman Keith, Thorbjorn Risager & The Black Tornado, The Lewis Hamilton Band, Richard Ray Farrell, Tawl Paul, John Lee Hooker Jr., Lisa Mills, Reverend Freakchild and Sugar Blue.
Contemporary Blues Album
Traditional Blues Album
Soul Blues Album
Rock Blues Album
Acoustic Blues Album
Live Blues Recording
Historical or Vintage Recording
New Artist Debut
Male Blues Artist
Female Blues Artist
Blues Band of the Year
Sean Costello Rising Star Award
Recordings released from May 1, 2019 to May 31st, 2020 are eligible.
Complete information along with submission forms are on available our website at:
Submissions accepted until May 15th, 2020.
Featured Interview – Kenny Wayne Shepherd
It has been eight and a half years since Chris Arnold interviewed guitarist Kenny Wayne Shepherd for Blues Blast Magazine. Over that time, Shepherd’s profile has continued climbing with frequent touring dates at theaters and blues festivals around the world. He has released three studio recordings to great acclaim, including The Traveler, released last year. He also did a limited edition live recording, A Little Something From The Road Vol. 1, in 2015 as part of the Record Store Day event. Three of his albums have achieved platinum sales levels.
Shepherd has been nominated for six Blues Music Awards, receiving the 2011 Rock Blues Album Of The Year for his Live in Chicago project, featuring blues legends like Hubert Sumlin, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, and Bryan Lee, who gave the thirteen year old Shepherd his first opportunity to play live on stage. That album was also nominated for a Grammy Award, one of five nominations the guitarist has received. His other Blues Music Award was for DVD Of the Year for 10 Days Out: Blues From The Backroads, a project that had Shepherd playing with a variety of blues artists across the country. In 2013, he joined with Stephen Stills and Barry Goldberg to form The Rides, touring several times and releasing two albums.
These days Shepherd is at home enjoying time with his family while waiting for the world to regain some semblance of normalcy. Getting asked if his six children were tired of having him home got a quick chuckle from him.
”I don’t think so. I guess I could go do a group poll and report back! It seems ok so far. My kids are used to me being gone, coming and going. I do try to plan our touring schedule so that when I am home, it is a significant break so that I can spend time with them. I am fully immersed in what they are doing. At home I focus on them, not anything else. We take our winter breaks starting around Thanksgiving each year, and I am home for several months before heading back out on the road. So they are used to having me around for extended periods of time. The only difference is that I am not usually home at this time of the year”.
Shepherd and his band were featured on the January sailing of the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise, playing several well received, high energy sets during the week, Following that, they took off for a special event.
“We flew over to do a festival in India, the Mahindra Blues fest in Mumbai. It is a two day festival and they were celebrating their tenth anniversary. It was very cool. It was my first time in India, so I was very excited about going. That was right as we first started getting some awareness of the virus issue. The festival was a sold-out event for both days, held in a large venue for multi-thousands of people. They had Buddy Guy, Keb’ Mo’, us, and Larkin Poe, plus several Indian blues bands. It is encouraging to see blues music touch people all over the world, even in some places where you wouldn’t even realize that there was an audience for the music”.
Always willing to experiment with his sound, the guitarist added two horn players to the mix, giving the band an even more powerful sound.
“Any time you add a new instrument into the band, it changes the dynamics. And it should, in theory, change a little bit of what each of us is playing. You have to accommodate that instrument, so you have to leave room for them. Over the years, I have gone back and forth on having a keyboard player, or not having a keyboard player in the band. I have done the power trio with just rhythm section with a lead vocalist. When there is no keyboard player there, I have to adapt my playing to fill more space. I have more responsibility and ground to cover sonically”.
“When we bring the keyboard player back into the equation, it changes my role again. If I would continue to play the way I was without keyboards, I would be playing all over the top of him, and things would inevitably start clashing. As it turns out, the parts that I normally play on guitar are actually very well suited for horn parts. If I have to change what I am used to playing, that is cool because it keeps everybody on their toes. It makes the band more aware of what’s going on with the music. The horns have been a great addition. If you have been playing things a certain way for awhile, and then you introduce a new element, it makes it all new again. It also allows us to cover more material. If we wanted to cover some blues song that is really heavy with horn sections, we wouldn’t have been able to do it accurately before. But now we can!”
“There is a fine line between filling the space and overplaying. It is a real art. If you listen to groups like the Muddy Waters Band, especially on the Hard Again album, which is my favorite blues record, you hear that. You have guys like Pinetop Perkins on piano, James Cotton on harp, Johnny Winter and Bob Margolin on guitar, all these guys are going for it at the same time. But they are also staying out of the way, weaving in and out of each other. That level of playing is a real art form. If you think it is simple, then show me that you can do it and the conversation can rest right there”.
Shepherd is proud of his last release, The Traveler.
“For me, that record has a nice broad range. It has the blues based rock that I love to do. Then there are what I call contemporary blues sounding songs. The song “I Want You” would be my definition of what contemporary blues is these days. I have always been a sucker for a good ballad, or doing something different, like in a 6/8 time which is different for us. “Better With Time” is a song with an R&B vibe to it. I tried to have a broad palette with a lot of different sounds. The goal is to create new music, not just regurgitate all of the things we have done before. You want people to hear the record and not think that they have heard it all before this new came out. As a writer, performer, and a producer, that is what you need to keep things interesting”.
When it comes to songwriting, Shepherd has a number of people that he has collaborated with over the years. The process can be a team effort at times, or mainly the work of one writer with a great idea.
“It usually starts with the music, a certain groove or guitar lick that I came up with. I’ll take it into the room and we start hammering out some lyrics and the vocal melody. I participate in all areas. The process for writing each song is different. That is why I like co-writing. On one song, you bring something in, and one of the guys just runs with the idea, taking it one direction, steered by him. The next time it could be someone else, or it could be me, or could be equal input from all of us”.
“I started focusing on singing lead vocals myself back in 2004. It is still not something I do all of the time. When it comes to writing songs, I was never much of one to have a list of vocal melodies that I can draw from, so that is one area I lean on the other writers for, as I feel they are much better in that department than I am right now. And lyrically, I am not an endless well. I am not Bob Dylan, I can tell you that! I like to write lyrics but it is nice when you collaborate because it relieves some of the pressure of doing it on your own. And, inevitably, they will have an idea that you would never have had otherwise. You may not use the idea on that particular song, but it might be the spark for a different idea from someone that does get used in a song. You just never know”.
“It is the same as playing with the band. I would much rather be on stage with the guys, sharing in the experience, than be up there playing with myself, by myself all the time. When I was young, I would write entire songs. But when I was real young, I was so shy and almost embarrassed to throw one of my songs out there, because it is so personal. So just out of my own insecurities, I would bring someone else in as a co-writer just to add something to the song. But that was also how I learned how much I love creating music with other people, not just doing it all myself”.
“Over the early years of my career, I would release a new record every two, two and a half years. Now, with the Internet, as things have progressed, so many artists and bands have websites and everyone is jockeying to get people’s attention. I think the model has moved to putting out more music more frequently to keep your engagement with your fan base. You have to do that because there are a billion other companies and bands trying to get their attention at the same time. When I formed The Rides and started doing records with them, I was on a schedule where I put out out a record, then we did the first Rides album, then the following year I did my release, and then came back to The Rides again the next year. Every year I had a new album out, and I have kind of stuck with that schedule since then.
Our audience still likes to buy complete albums for the most part. But the younger audience is consuming music differently. They don’t buy whole albums. In fact they don’t really buy anything, they just stream it. We are examining what is the appropriate model for putting out music these days. Some people feel that it is going towards putting out singles instead of albums. Who knows?”
On the last two projects, Marshal Altman has shared the producing credit with Shepherd. The guitarist certainly appreciates Altman’s contributions.
“He has a lot of great ideas. He gets out there in the studio in the middle of the room with the band. He is especially strong at working on the vocals and the arrangements. I appreciate his approach to making music. His strengths and my strengths really come together, and I think it it is a winning combination”.
Shepherd considers his band to be family and an organization, so he is doing whatever he can for the members to make sure that they are taken care of.
“We are rescheduling all of the dates that have been canceled, well, actually more like postponed. It is a matter of trying to figure out what the politicians and the government will allow people to do, and when we can go back to work. Everybody wants to go back to work. The reality is that a lot of people who work nine to five, or musicians, if we aren’t working, we don’t get paid. The majority of the country can’t sustain this type of stuff for the rest of the year or something like that. Besides trying to make a living at music, this is what we live to do, beyond making money to do it. It is a bummer to not be out there doing what you feel you were meant to do”.
When his last keyboard player decided that he did not want to tour any more, Shepherd toured for a year and half as a trio with a vocalist before circumstances dictated another change.
“We were putting out a new record, and decided that if we were going to recreate that album appropriately live, we needed to add keyboards back into the show. My dad actually discovered our current keyboardist, Joe Krown, through some mutual friends. He is from New Orleans, so there is that Louisiana connection, which I thought was cool. Joe is a great guy, and has been a good addition to the band”. Krown has been a fixture on the New Orleans music scene, and also did a lengthy stint as a member of Clarence ‘Gatemouth” Brown’s band.
Asked about how he goes about selecting band members, Shepherd had a ready answer.
“There are a lot of criteria to consider for a band member. Obviously talent is paramount, then intuition and the ability to listen to hear what other players are playing, and be able to compliment that. Also, personality is huge given how much we work and how much traveling we do. Personality and attitude can sometimes be as important, or even more important, than musical ability. You can have a really talented guy out there, but if he is making everyone miserable being around him, that doesn’t serve the greater good.”
Shepherd has been playing his own special model of the Fender Stratocaster guitar since 2008, a model that is part of the Fender consumer line designed to his specifications. But that is about to change.
“We have a new version that is coming out in July. It is a completely redesigned guitar. All of the specs on the new one are unique compared to the earlier version. I can’t go into the details about it until Fender issues a press release. The previous model was spec’d out by me, with a very specific shape and size for the neck. The radius was twelve inches, so it was flatter which in theory makes it play a little faster. I also like very large frets because I play heavier strings, so that makes it easier to bend. We worked on the sound of the pick-ups for well over a year to get them to sound a particular way. The original had three different paint treatments available so that you could choose three different finishes. It also had Graph Tech saddles on the bridge that helped eliminate string breakage. So there were a lot of things about it that were unique. The new one that is coming out is going to be even more unique, and be noticeably different from the first KWS Signature guitar”.
Life continues to be an adventure for a guitarist who has been playing live for three decades. And Shepherd is looking forward to what lies ahead.
“I don’t have any regrets. I got a very early start, and most people don’t have this opportunity to begin with, especially at such a young age. I don’t feel like this is where I ended up. We are still growing our audience, still exploring new things musically, so we are still making progress on a daily basis. I won’t know where I end up until it is all said and done. But if it all ended today, I would be very proud of what I have accomplished. I am also very grateful for all of our fans, who have allowed us the ability to do what we love to do for so long”.
(Readers can view Chris Arnold’s 2011 interview with Kenny Wayne Shepherd here: http://www.bluesblastmagazine.com/featured-interview-kenny-wayne-shepherd/
Interviewer Mark Thompson lives in Florida, where he is enjoying the sun and retirement. He is the past President of the Board of Directors for the Suncoast Blues Society and a former member of the Board of Directors for the Blues Foundation. Music has been a huge part of his life for the past fifty years – just ask his wife!
Featured Blues Review – 1 of 10
Luther Badman Keith – Working Bluesman
14 songs – 63 minutes
Working Bluesman is the fifth CD from Detroit bluesman, Luther Badman Keith, and is a fine, fun-filled collection of funky blues and soul. Featuring 14 tracks written by Keith and producer Josh Ford, the album is an unbeat slab of modern urban blues which is not afraid to pose some interesting questions in Keith’s lyrics.
Keith sings lead vocals and plays lead and rhythm guitar. Ford contributes percussion, rhythm and slide guitar (his slide playing on “Blues Caravan” is particularly noteworthy), electric bass, congas and tambourines. They are ably assisted by Ben Luttermoser on acoustic bass; Alex Lyon on electric bass; Todd Glass on drums, Jim David and Evan Mercer on keyboards, Billy Furman on saxophone and harmonica; and Mark Croft on trumpet. In addition, backing vocals are added by J’Renee Stevenson, Raye Williams, Erin Accomando and Jen Read. Many of these musicians also backed Keith on his last release, Bluesmen Are Kings (warmly reviewed in Blues Blast Magazine in March 2016), and the years spent together are reflected in the top class musical performances throughout the album.
Keith sings in a light tenor that works especially well on tracks like “My Treasure” and plays a welcomingly traditional, muscular guitar. He pays tribute to one of his musical heroes, Luther Allison, on “When Luther Came To Town” and one can hear that influence in Keith’s playing across the album as well as in the incorporation of soul, funk and rock influences into his music. There are also hints of the likes of Son Seals and Magic Slim in the ferocity of his guitar playing, although the presence of horns (and keys on tracks like “One Of Those Things”) provide a smoother sound than Seals or Slim, whilst still being straight-ahead blues.
In addition to his lyrical nod to Allison, Keith’s lyrics address topics such as mass shootings (in “Blame Game”), the joys of his home town (“Rocking N The D”), bizarre declarations of love (“Put Me In The Coffin” sounds like The Stranglers playing blues), and the world’s obsession with Facebook (“Too Much Information”). The playing is uniformly excellent, and Ford has captured a warm, live sound.
Working Bluesman closes with the beautiful instrumental, “Damon’s Justice”, which contains perhaps Keith’s most heartfelt and emotional guitar playing on the album, as well as some stellar piano from Jim David. The track is named after Keith’s uncle (and indeed the entire album is dedicated to him). The Hon. Judge Damon J. Keith was a Circuit Judge of the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, a leading civil rights activist and also the judge in United States v. Sinclair (1971), in which he ruled that President Nixon’s Attorney General, John Mitchell, had to disclose the transcripts of illegal wiretaps that Mitchell had authorized without first obtaining a search warrant. The case was appealed all the way up to the Supreme Court, who held unanimously in favour of Keith’s judgment, thus establishing the precedent that a warrant needed to be obtained before beginning electronic surveillance even if domestic security issues were involved. Judge Keith died in 2019, but Working Bluesman is a heart-warming tribute to a genuinely great man.
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.
Featured Blues Review – 2 of 10
Thorbjorn Risager & The Black Tornado – Come On In
10 songs time – 42:07
An exotic vocal delivery, European vibes, acoustic and electric guitars, unusual horn arrangements, funkiness, a touch of blues and who knows what else from this fascinating ensemble from Denmark. Thorbjorn Risager & The Black Tornado are destined to be household names if you can pronounce it. Thorbjorn provides lead vocals, guitar, wrote or co-wrote the songs and had a hand in production. The Black Tornado ably handles everything else. With more than one thousand concerts in twenty-one different countries this band has surely paid their dues with interest.
With a bit of an accent, a touch of haunting echo and tone Thorbjorn’s vocal on “Come On In” achieves an otherworldly quality that set on a persistent bed of percussion is simply mesmerizing. The horns deliver a laid back sound. “Last Train” is enveloped by electric slide guitar intermingled with acoustic guitar delivering some hoodoo blues. The children that perished in the Mediterranean are addressed in “Nobody But The Moon” in poignant fashion. They attain an European vibe abetted by a vibrant horn section.
Spooky electric slide guitar contributes to the atmospherics of “Two Lovers”. A commanding acoustic guitar riff combined with ever present percussion and slinky slide breath life into “Never Givin’ In” along with subtle horns. “Sin City” is a low down modern gritty slice of blues, one of the most soul felt vocals on the album, with mournful horns closing it out. This bunch can handle it all, “Over The Hill” is a tough horn and guitar driven jump blues number.
A fabulous “clicky” guitar riff over tender Wurlitzer piano support the way soulful vocal on “On And On”. Rapid fire lyrics are spewed out in the break neck of “Love So Fine”. The horn section, guitars, piano and the vocal are full blast ahead. Acoustic guitar and acoustic and electric slide vie for attention on the down home styled blues “I’ll Be Gone”. An appropriate sentiment to rap things up.
This is the kind of music that makes this reviewing gig more than worthwhile. Honestly strong soulful vocals set to well conceived music. Lyrics, delivery, production is all here in top notch form. Roots, blues, funk, soul all merge to create a unique take by using various elements to reveal something wonderful that just had to exist. If you like music that is real, I won’t say you need to scoop this one up. You must pick it up.
Reviewer Greg “Bluesdog” Szalony hails from the New Jersey Delta.
Featured Blues Review – 3 of 10
Diane Williams – The Life And Legacy Of B.B. King: A Mississippi Blues Icon
Released last year, this short work makes an attempt to tell the story of a legendary blues artist’s life, in addition to enlightening readers to the extent that his artistry inspired others through the recollections of family members and a number of Mississippi-based musicians. The author, Diane Williams, is an acclaimed storyteller, author, and the retired director of grants for the Mississippi Arts Council. As she explains in the Introduction section, she first saw B.B. King live in 2001, getting two opportunities to see the aging bluesman that year. A third encounter came in 2014, at the Warfield Theater in San Francisco. Her narrative contrasts the squalor from the homeless people living near the theater with the palpable excitement of fans lined up for one last look at the legend, who was a shadow of his former self and only months away from his final moments.
The first few chapters give a brief overview of King’s life, starting with his early years with his sharecropper parents. His parents split, freeing him from a seemingly uncaring father, but he lost his mother at the age of nine. He got his first guitar at the age of twelve, thanks to an advance from the plantation owner where he worked in the cotton fields. Growing up in the church, King learned to sing in the choir. Eventually he had to make the choice between singing God’s praises, or getting tips from people when he sang and played guitar on local street corners.
From there, Williams touches on some of the many high points from King’s career, from his time on Beale Street in Memphis, his spot on the WDIA radio station that spread his name & music across the South, making his mark with the hit ‘The Thrill Is Gone,” and spreading his fame even farther with a successful collaboration with U2, one of the top rock bands in the world. The author mixes in comments on topics like racism, the Chitlin’ Circuit, and the effects of non-stop touring on King’s life. In all, his life story is summarized in slightly more than forty pages, including more than twenty black and white photos.
The next section starts with a chapter on Shirley King, his daughter, and a blues singer herself. Williams explains that B.B. King had a roving eye, fathering fifteen children. Shirley was the third oldest living child at the time of publication. The singer relates some of the lessons her father imparted, and her pride at having such a famous parent. Mary Alice Smith’s mother was married to King at a young age. She recollects her impressions of him from times he visited her mother. The last brief chapter looks at Marvin Gardner, who claims his mother told him on her deathbed that King was his father. Gardner sings and plays guitar, billing himself as “Little B.B. King,” although no testing has been done to attempt to verify his claim.
The remaining twelve chapters feature various musicians waxing eloquent on King’s inspiration. Bobby Rush, a contemporary of King’s, bemoans the fact that black listeners were there to support King early in his career, but seemed to abandon him the later years. That is one of several insights in a chapter that focuses most of its attention on Rush. The chapter on Billy Branch is less than two pages, focusing on his Blues in the Schools program conducted at the opening of the B.B. King Museum in Indianola, MS.
Singer and guitarist Dexter Allen offers a more contemporary view of King’s legacy, stating the three key elements of a successful blues song are story, emotion, and delivery. Singer Jawonn Smith has made some noise in the Southern Soul marketplace. In his mind, B.B. King will always be the at the top of the blues world.
The final pages include a thank-you to King from Dr. C. Sade Turnipseed, several pages of photos from his funeral service, and information on his museum, in addition to the Mississippi Blues Trail. The author also included a discography with albums and a separate list of singles by year of release. Another section highlights his many awards, including multiple Grammy awards, and citations of distinction.
It is apparent that the author has a real affection for King. She utilizes her storytelling skills to weave a narrative that traces King’s life through historical facts and personal reminisces. Fans who are interested in a deep dive into B.B. King’s story will need to search elsewhere. Readers who relish a satisfying overview will be happy with Williams’ offering.
Reviewer Mark Thompson lives in Florida, where he is enjoying the sun and retirement. He is the past President of the Board of Directors for the Suncoast Blues Society and a former member of the Board of Directors for the Blues Foundation. Music has been a huge part of his life for the past fifty years – just ask his wife!
Featured Blues Review – 4 of 10
The Lewis Hamilton Band – On the Radio
CD: 9 Songs, 39 Minutes
Styles: Contemporary Electric Blues Rock, Americana, All Original Songs
Before listening to a blues album, here’s a pivotal question to ask: “Is it driven by vocals or instrumentation?” Not everyone can be a Sean Costello or Ben Levin. By the same token, not all artists can be Duane Allman or Muddy Waters. Even rarer are those genre masters who strike a perfect balance between the two: Stevie Ray Vaughan, Gregg Allman, Eric Clapton. Scotland’s Lewis Hamilton Band puts almost all its eggs in the instrumentation basket, particularly on guitar. Hamilton infuses each tune on his new album On the Radio with ten thousand volts of vigor, whether electric, acoustic, or a combination of both. “All I want to do is play,” he sings during “Lazy,” the penultimate song. “I know I do nothing, nothing at all, but at least I do lazy my way.” Funny: that’s not how he sounds on the rest of the CD. From blues rockers that lean to the far side of rock, such as the title track, to moody instrumentals such as “Dusk,” Lewis and his talented trio go all out. His vocals may be Chardonnay-dry and aloof, but the rest of him is all in.
Lewis’ debut album Gambling Machine was released when he was only seventeen years old, winning the Scottish New Music Award for Scottish Jazz/Blues Album of the Year for 2012. The song “Candlelight & Sympathy,” from his second album Empty Roads, is featured on the soundtrack of the feature film Scar Tissue, and the title track used by the BBC as theme music for the TV series The Mart. His third album, Ghost Train, has had airplay and a special mention from “Whispering” Bob Harris on BBC R2. His fourth studio album, Shipwrecked, was chosen as an Album of the Month by the Independent Blues Broadcasters Association (IBBA).
Alongside Hamilton (guitars and vocals) are Nick Hamilton on bass and Ian Beestin on drums.
Other pluses of On the Radio include the earworm “Luck Could Strike Twice,” the atmospheric “When the River Dries” – a ballad about a farmer whose livelihood is on its last legs – and the bouncy blues shuffle “Over My Head.” Some may think Hamilton borrows too many pages from Stevie Ray’s playbook when it comes to his guitar riffs, but no matter. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, after all. As for standouts, wait for “Dusk” to arrive. It’s a beauty.
The Lewis Hamilton Band has made headway and will surely gain airplay with their latest CD!
Reviewer Rainey Wetnight is a 40 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 10
Richard Ray Farrell – Three Pints of Gin
CD: 16 Songs, 55 Minutes
Styles: Acoustic Blues, Harmonica Blues, Solo Album
Going solo is sometimes a risky endeavor in the blues. When crowds want a band, they want a band, with more than one rip-roaring shredder. New York’s Richard Ray Farrell, an acoustic guitar and harmonica specialist, has always had the courage to go it alone. His new CD, Three Pints of Gin, is a comfort-food smorgasbord of sixteen songs, including covers such as Lonnie Johnson’s “Lazy Woman Blues” and “In the Jailhouse Now.” He shines on his original material, in terms of both instrumentation and songwriting. His patter vocals could use some melodic oomph, but for the most part, Farrell’s laid-back style will please even the purest purists. For nearly an hour, Richard Ray entertains us with blues the way it used to be.
In terms of one’s life work, there are jobs, there are careers, and then there are callings. Born in Niagara Falls, New York in 1956, Richard Ray Farrell left his hometown only two weeks after graduating from high school and backpacked his way through Europe, not knowing at the time that music would be his destiny. Since the ‘90s, he’s released several self-produced acoustic blues albums including Cataract Jump (1996), Black Limousine (1999), and Stuck on the Blues (2007). Good luck finding those three, however, because according to Farrell’s website, they’re sold out. That’s how much his talent has influenced his fans in the U.S. and around the world.
“Juke Joint Swing,” the opening track, puts this older Millennial in mind of “Church of the Poison Mind” by Culture Club – and that’s a great thing. This song is super-catchy, perfect for playing air guitar and air harp. The solo in the middle might burn your fingers, though. “Triflin’ Preacher Blues,” number four, is absolutely hilarious: “A preacher moved in to the neighborhood. I knew right away that chump wasn’t no good, ‘cause he’s a real double dealer, watermelon stealer, a dirty plum plucker, a shady peanut shucker with a big old greasy head. I wish to hell that sucker’d fall down dead.” Not a very Christian sentiment, eh? Later on comes “Ice Man,” a terrific harmonica showcase with a bouncy beat despite its morbid subject: “What you gonna say when they come to haul your mama away?” “Funny Feeling Blues” exemplifies the genre’s pre-war sound, and “Dope Shootin’ Woman” combines two sucker-punches in one – the loss of a romantic partner and the horrors of drug addiction. Last but not least comes “I’ll Be Comin’ Home,” a soothing return after Richard Ray’s musical ramble.
Love acoustic blues combined with unfettered harmonica? Three Pints of Gin for you!
Reviewer Rainey Wetnight is a 40 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 – 6 of 10
Tawl Paul – That’s Just How I Am
CD: 12 Songs, 42 Minutes
Styles: Blues Covers, Traditional Electric and Acoustic Blues
Perhaps no other musical genre is more intertwined with longevity than the blues. Rock has long verged from the path Elvis Presley and the Beatles trod. Country sounds less and less like Jimmie Rodgers and more and more like Luke Bryan. Move over, Madonna: Billie Eilish is fast becoming the Queen of Pop. In the blues world, however, the Waters are still Muddy and BB still reigns as King. Masters and originators are venerated, emulated, and invoked at every turn. Even Chicagoland’s Tawl Paul, on his latest CD, tips his hat to such greats as Bobby Charles (“Walking to New Orleans”), Hambone Willie Newborn (“Rollin’ and Tumblin’”), Richard M. Jones (“Trouble in Mind”), and John Prine (“Hello in There). The vast majority of these covers work – six in total – but some, such as “Autumn Leaves,” are a tad chaotic. The ensemble of artists is top-notch, and even though Paul’s vocals show his age, he remains a contender. His original work, such as “Baldheaded Blues” and the title track, are remarkably catchy.
Growing up on Chicago’s South Side, Paul Frederick got hard by the blues and soul, falling in love with them. He grew up to serve with the Army in Vietnam, then came to Carbondale in the early 1970s to attend college. Soon afterward, he joined a band and discovered two things: He was born to sing, and Carbondale was his home. For fifty years, he’s sung the blues, making himself into one of the local scene’s most revered performers. He’s enriched Carbondale so much that in 2013, Mayor Joel Fritzler declared June 23rd Tawl Paul Day. On top of that, local bar PK’s now holds an annual Tawl Paul Weekend every June in his honor, with local music greats coming out and alumni returning in droves to pay homage.
Along with Tawl Paul (vocals) are Kent McDaniel on guitars, bass and finger snaps; drummers Kegan Doty, Chris Butler, and Alpha Stewart; Mike Arthur and Mel Goot on keyboards; Dorothy McDaniel on flute and bass; Chris McKinley and Kathy Livingston on harmony vocals; Lew Hendrix on banjo, and John Temmermen on sax.
“Baldheaded Blues” comes first out of Paul’s original material, a spot-on Chicago-style shuffle. “I’ve got these lines in my face, but I sure ain’t over that hill,” he tells a prospective lover with cheeky charm. Mel Goot’s piano keyboards are a hoot, as is Kent McDaniel’s guitar. “Big Jim” is a lot grittier and a little bit wittier, a ballad about another denizen of Chi-town’s South Side. The title track has an earworm refrain: “Hello, sir or ma’am. That’s just how I am.” Do people change? Maybe so or maybe not, but in the end one’s true character shines through.
When local blues icons like Mr. Frederick continue to proclaim their love for the music and the fans who make it all possible, it often has more impact on a community than a CD by a household-name artist. Let’s hope Tawl Paul keeps it up for years to come!
Reviewer Rainey Wetnight is a 40 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 – 7 of 10
John Lee Hooker, Jr. – Testify
Steppin’ Stone Records
11 tracks/47:20 Running Time
The Reverend John Lee Hooker, Jr. has jumped off the proverbial Pop/Gospel fence into total advocacy for Jesus with a Blues, Rhythm, and Funk motif.
From the opening strains in the first track of Mr. Musselwhite’s Mississippi Hill Country sounding harp (even though Charlie is from central Mississippi), John Lee Hooker, Jr.’s latest CD grabs your toes and sets them to tapping.
Incongruous as it may seem to many people, the Blues and the Gospel are closely intertwined. If one chooses to cast out the Gospel lyric in favor of the secular or even, vice-versa, the culture of the spirit is denied. Hooker, Jr. himself proclaims in the liner notes, that the visitation of the Holy Ghost was a most certain boon in the production of this project.
That said, any preachers reading this review openly, or naysayers on the down-low, who choose to listen to this offering may find it as powerful as an evangelistic 3 point sermon. For us mere irregular souls, each track on the album is like a chronologically perfect, potent autobiographical chapter in Hooker, Jr.’s life. They are all worthy of our ears. I’m intentionally not singling out the good tracks. (Well, if you insist, track 9, Praying, is my fav.)They are all superior. I will say this. Hooker, Jr. is a masterful songwriter, stylist and storyteller. He phrases like the preacher he is, yet one can sense that he is still capable of dropping the mic like it’s hot.
At various times the listener will observe Hooker Jr.’s muse workin’, hear the man get his preach on and absorb his testimony of being delivered from alcohol, heroin, and cocaine. It is a thematic trip that emphasizes divorcing the devil and joining the army of the Lord. The Reverend even takes you on a post-revival limousine ride where the pervasive smell of alcohol inside precedes a harrowing police chase.
But wait! The music is also divine. First-class players are dotted throughout; producer Larry Batiste, whose chops are so great, he is the musical director of the Grammy Awards pre-telecast in Los Angeles. The afore-mentioned Charlie Musselwhite. Guitarists Alvon Johnson and Wilton Rabb picking the very heck out of their axes. The list is long. Santana alum Bill Ortiz is in the horn section along with sax man Doug Rowan and co-trumpeter Brad Catania. Ric “Mighty Bone” Feliciano is on trombone. The horns, of course, take the production to another level. Juan Escovedo from that famous family adds percussion. Michael Rogers, the longtime drummer for Reverend Hooker brought, in Hooker’s words, “a driving and profound feel to the groove.” The list of contributors, too long to list here, goes on and on.
Serious collectors should add this one to their library.
CyberSoulMan Tee Watts is the former music director at KPFZ 88.1 fm in Lakeport, California. He is currently co-writing the memoirs of Lester Chambers of the Chambers Brothers.
Featured Blues Review – 8 of 10
Lisa Mills – The Triangle
CD: 14 Songs, 50 Minutes
Styles: Blues Covers, Torch Singer Blues
Across the globe, many people believe in reincarnation. My question is: Can a soul reincarnate in more than one body at the same time? Witness Mississippi native Lisa Mills, a dead ringer for Etta James if there ever was one. Her fourth album, The Triangle, is a thrill-inducing tribute to the collective triangle of Memphis, Muscle Shoals and Jackson, MS. Indeed, she and her backing band recorded all fourteen tracks in these three cities: six in Memphis, four in Muscle Shoals, and four in Jackson. All of them add up to one heck of an album, both on instrumentation and on vocals. Even though there are several iconic covers present, such as “Tell Mama,” “Slip Away,” and “I’d Rather Go Blind,” Lisa sings with such passion, such all-encompassing vigor, that no one will mind a bit. Her voice is a maven’s voice, a sit-up-and-pay-attention-right-NOW voice. As for the instrumentation, its clarity, timbre and pitch are worthy of Madison Square Garden. This is an unmissable CD even if you’ve collected every album Etta ever did.
Mills, a current Alabama resident, could be called a blues, gospel, torch or R&B singer, and each label would be accurate. In fact, as reviews of her 2014 album I’m Changing (a remastered and enhanced version of her 2005 debut) poured in, she was described in all of these terms. Some critics suggested they even heard the nascent stirrings of a jazz stylist in some of her more nuanced recordings.
Listeners responded to Lisa’s sophisticated, emotional performances by making her 2015 U.K. tour a rousing success, marked by sellout or near-packed venues and brisk post-concert CD sales. Along with this CD, she has released Mama’s Juke Book, a collection of songs that her mother, the late Juanita Powell, had painstakingly written down in a Dollar General Store notebook for posterity’s. Lisa discovered the notebook, along with an original composition called “A Song of Love,” and decided to record her findings. Rarely has a tribute album been more poignant.
Performing alongside Lisa on the Muscle Shoals tracks are keyboardist Clayton Ivey, bassist Bob Wray, lead electric guitarist John Willis, Fred Mollin on rhythm and acoustic guitars, and Justin Holder on drums and percussion. In Memphis, there are Lester Snell on keyboards, Leroy Hodges on bass, Michael Toles on lead electric guitar, Fred Mollin on rhythm electric guitar, Steve Potts on drums and percussion, and Reverend Charles Hodges on Hammond B3 organ. Featured musicians for the tracks recorded in Jackson are Sam Brady on keyboards, Mike Thorn on bass, Brennan White on lead electric guitar, Fred Mollin on rhythm electric guitar, and George Lawrence on drums and percussion. Mills herself plays guitar on the fourteenth song. Horns are arranged by saxophonist Jim Hoke. Steve Herman plays trumpet. Maureen Murphy and Kendra Chantelle provide background vocals.
Speaking of love, most of the songs on The Triangle concern it: “That’s What Love Will Make You Do,” “I’m In Love,” “I’ll Always Love You” and the gut-wrenching “Members Only.” How good is that lucky thirteenth offering? It’ll give you goosebumps inside a warm house.
Several blues women take a page (or more than a page) out of Etta James’ playbook, but Lisa is the only one that Ms. Wetnight highly praised when the CD was over. Reincarnation or pure inspiration? You decide. The Triangle will send tingles up and down your spine, guaranteed.
Featured Blues Review – 9 of 10
Reverend Freakchild – The Bodhisattva Blues
Treated And Released Records – 2020
12 tracks; 50 minutes
Reverend Freakchild is certainly prolific, this being his sixth album in recent years. His biography has been well covered in previous Blues Blast reviews but suffice to say that he really is an ordained minister, as well as a musician who has played in bands as well as solo. On this disc the Rev plays slide and rhythm guitar and handles the vocals, as well as playing harp on one cut. He performs in an electric band setting with a very long list of collaborators: Hugh Pool plays harp and also plays lap steel on two cuts, guitar is mainly handled by Mark Karan (Ratdog, Bob Weir, Live Dead) with ‘Alex The Dragon’ and AJ Fullerton playing on one track each. Keyboards are by Melvin Seals (Jerry Garcia Band) and Scott ‘Shack’ Hackle, drums are mainly by Chris Parker with Patrick Carmichael and ‘Gregor’ on a track each, bass is Robin Sylvester (Ratdog), Phil Marino, Jon ‘Bones Richie’ Robinson or Malcolm Oliver. Drew Glackin plays lap steel, Jason Hann (String Cheese Incident) percussion and Jay Collins Bansuri flute to one track. Backing vocalists Sean Condron, Mamie Mench and Paul Soderman contribute to two tracks. Recording seems to have been mainly in NYC and Boulder, Co (The Rev currently resides in Colorado) with overdub contributions coming in from San Francisco.
The album revisits some tried and tested blues standards and combines those with some songs associated with The Beatles and The Grateful Dead. Indeed, some of the musicians involved have history with the Dead and its offshoots and the Dead also played around with many of the blues tunes covered here. Whilst the title suggests an Indian influence there is only fleeting evidence of that here: a few seconds of the traditional Buddhist chant “Om Mani Padme Hum” (which translates as “Hail to the jewel in the lotus”) opens the album and then we go straight into three classic blues tunes. Muddy Waters’ “I Can’t Be Satisfied” is given a rough and tough makeover with the Rev’s gritty vocals and slide over a rocking rhythm track and the Rev adding some deep background references back to the opening chant. It works pretty well but the rather pedestrian version of Jimmy Reed’s “Big Boss Man” adds little to the many covers of this familiar tune. Willie Dixon’s “Little Red Rooster” opens with some more strange vocal noises but rapidly transforms into a slowed down take of the tune with some good piano work from Scott Hackler.
The musical style then shifts from slide-driven blues to the countrified sounds of lap steel on three Dead tunes. Interestingly The Rev’s vocals are far less gritty on these three tunes than on the blues tunes that preceded them. “Friend Of The Devil” is well done here in a straight cover of the original; the traditional “I Know You Rider” was a long-time staple of Dead shows and the Rev’s take on it is semi-acoustic; finally another Garcia/Hunter song “Black Peter” is given a leisurely treatment that runs to over six minutes, the Rev’s sleepy vocals sitting above slide and organ.
It is not at all clear why we then get the two Beatles-related tunes. “Yer Blues” is a return to the torrid approach we heard on the Muddy Waters tune. With keening harp and tough lead guitar, the Rev returns to his gritty vocal style in a slightly distorted overall sound before moving into a spoken section as the rhythm section ups the pace towards the end of the song. The Rev has recorded John Lennon’s “Imagine” before and it is not clear whether this is a reprise of that recording or a new version; the fact that the players on this tune are all different to the rest of the album suggests the former. This sounds like a mash-up of Lou Reed’s “Walk On The Wild Side” and “Imagine”, certainly vocally the Rev sounds like a lot like Lou here.
The only original song on the album is “Sweet Sweet You” and, again, the musicians on this one are entirely different so it may be recycled from another recording. It’s a quiet country style tune with gentle lap steel, the song picking up on the style of the earlier Dead tunes while the lyrics reference a journey through the Delta with mention of Robert Johnson and other departed musicians such as Janis Joplin. The Rev continues the Dead feel by tackling the Rev Gary Davis’ “Death Don’t Have No Mercy”, another staple of the Dead’s live sets, this time in an acoustic version with Jay Collins’ eerie sounding flute, before closing the album with the Dead’s traditional set closer “And We Bid You Goodnight”, recorded live and acapella in Colorado.
Fans of the Reverend will no doubt want to add this to their collection of his work though whether it wins over new fans is more debatable.
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 – 10 of 10
Sugar Blue – Colors
Beeble Music BB805
11 songs – 42 minutes
Harmonica genius Sugar Blue has been spreading his genius internationally for decades, but never as completely as he does on this dazzling disc, which was recorded on four continents and features a roster chockful of world-renown talents.
The son of a dancer at the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem, he’s been constantly expanding his musical sensibilities since childhood, surrounded by Billie Holiday and dozens of other talents who crossed that stage and spent time in his home. A two-time Grammy winner, he was still a teenager when he recorded his first tracks for Victoria Spivey’s self-named label. And his early sessions work graced albums by Johnny Shines, Louisiana Red and Roosevelt Sykes.
Once the top street musician in New York, he recorded relocated to Paris at the suggestion of Memphis Slim, attained international prominence himself after recording “Miss You” and three albums with the Rolling Stones before migrating to the Windy City, where he established himself as a band leader and as a member of Willie Dixon’s Chicago Blues Allstars.
Never content to stay in one place for too long, Blue rotated between the U.S. and Italy for a while, but now makes his home in Shanghai, China, where this album – which fuses blues, jazz, funk and international overtones – was conceived. It was recorded at One Music Dream in Shanghai, Rax Trax in Chicago, Pop Life in Milan, Italy, and Howard Audio in Johannesburg, South Africa.
The core element of his band includes longtime bandmate Rico McFarland on drums and wife/arranger Ilaria Lantieri along with the legendary Johnny B. Gayden (Son Seals, Lou Rawls and Johnny Winter) and Joewaun Scott on bass with Brady Williams and Yan Bodhoo sharing time on drums. Damiano Della Torre, another longtime bandmate, handles keyboards.
Special guests include Afrika Riz — a choir arranged by Mpendulo Sipho Mhlanga, Chinese sheng master Ling Bo and guitarists Nick Tremulis and Rick Barnes, who appear on one cut each. And adding to the mix are guitarists Max DeBernardi, Sergio Montaleni, Marco Guarnerio and Moto Makino, Washboard Chaz and background vocalist Jennifer Hall.
A collection of 10 originals — primarily co-written with several bandmates — and one cover, the album opens with a hypnotic rapid-fire Bo Diddley beat for “And the Devil Too,” a pyrotechnic backhanded thank you to a former love with wayward ways who’s apparently parted company in the most unpleasant manner. Sugar bids her farewell with a customary whirlwind run on the reeds that made him instantaneously recognizable instrumentalists on the planet, and his vocals are stronger than ever.
The aural shift is dramatic for “Bass Reeves,” which opens with the sound of a steam locomotive before sweetly paying tribute to a real-life American hero, a former slave who became the first black deputy U.S. Marshal west of the Mississippi, spoke several Indian languages and brought peace while embracing the indigenous people as his own. The honeyed tones continue in the ballad “We’ll Be Allright,” featuring Afrika Riz, which encapsulates multiple analogies to the stoppage of time as it paints a brighter picture for the future.
Up next, Blue updates John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s “Day Tripper,” giving it a full Chicago blues/Junior Wells-style overhaul, before delivering the acoustic country blues, “Good Old Days,” which states that “they were good for you/But not me or mine.” The mood shifts dramatically again for “Man Like Me,” which boasts about the singer’s sexual prowess, carrying forward a traditional subject to a 21st Century audience atop a dark, funky beat.
The theme continues in the sugary ballad “Dirty Ole Man,” brightening the mood as Blue admits needing little blue pills, that he’s “no pup” and that, if goes down, he’ll need help getting up. “Shanghai Sunset” pays tribute to Sugar’s new home aided by Bo on sheng, a wind instrument composed of 17 bamboo pipes.
The funk returns for the cautionary “Downhill” before shifting gears for “Bonnie and Clyde,” an acoustic description of the legendary outlaws delivered with the distinct feel of the American West. The album closes with “Keep On,” another optimistic promise that, no matter our troubles, brighter days are on the horizon.
Sugar Blue is a world treasure, and Colors is a tour de force in a career that’s spanned five decades. Pick it up from most major retailers. Believe me, you won’t be disappointed!
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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