Issue 14-32 August 6, 2020

Cover photo © 2020 Joseph A. Rosen


 In This Issue 

Marty Gunther has our feature interview with legendary guitarist and singer Elvin Bishop. We have 7 Blues reviews for you this week including new music from Too Slim And The Taildraggers, The Lucky Losers, Gina Sicilia, Gerald McClendon, Al Basile, Anthony Geraci and Crawlback Featuring Johnny Bird.


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 Featured Interview – Elvin Bishop 

imageNever judge a book by its cover. That’s what your mama said! It’s true of a lot of things in life, and people, too – no more so than Elvin Bishop.

An ageless wonder who’s most comfortable wearing bib overalls, Elvin’s a master entertainer who puts audiences instantaneously at ease with his folksy manner and homespun drawl. “I used to be the youngest guy on the set,” the 77-year-old told Blues Blast in a recent interview. “Now, I’m the oldest one.”

To the casual observer, he appears to be nothing more than a simple man who possesses the gift for gab and the ability to spin songs full of humor and uncanny observations. But looks are deceiving.

A laid-back, jocular man, from first sight, it’s hard to believe that his music pedigree is one of the most amazing of anyone who’s ever picked up an instrument. But it’s true.

As a member of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band in the ‘60s, he and his bandmates shattered the racial barrier separating blacks and whites on the stage and recording studio. A fully integrated unit that featured Howlin’ Wolf’s former rhythm section, they won over audiences in Chicago and then the world, sharing the spotlight with Wolf, Muddy Waters, Little Walter and others, forever changing the landscape of the blues world.

Trading licks on guitar with the legendary Michael Bloomfield on the band’s first two LPs, Elvin helped lay the foundation for Southern rock, playing double leads that emulated the sound of horns – a sound that became the backbone of the recordings of the Allman Brothers and a host of others across the rock spectrum.

And in the mid-‘70s, he revolutionized mainstream FM radio, too, after he and vocalist Mickey Thomas hit the jackpot with the LP, Struttin’ My Stuff, which was anchored by the monster hit, “Fooled Around and Fell in Love.” They filled huge auditoriums thanks the success of that entire Capricorn release, inadvertently giving birth to what was commonly known as AOR, the album-oriented format that dominated the airwaves for a decade.

On the whole, those accomplishments are pretty amazing on their own, but even more so when you consider that Bishop – who was born Oct. 21, 1942 in Glendale, Calif. – was raised in a home with no electricity or running water on a farm on the outskirts of Elliott, Iowa. Born into a long line of farmers, none of whom had ever exhibited any musical talent, Elvin didn’t experience indoor plumbing or see TV for the first time until age 11, when the family moved to more hospitable accommodations in Tulsa, Okla.

Don’t be fooled, though. Despite those humble beginnings and the manner in which he still comports himself today, he possesses the brain of a deep thinker and heart of a lion when it comes to expressing himself about societal matters – sharing the social graces and wisdom of two other Oklahoma-born legends: tunesmith Woody Guthrie and actor, vaudevillian and humorist Will Rogers.

Growing up in the Jim Crow era almost walking distance from the area known as Black Wall Street, which has been in the news so much lately, Elvin grew up in a city that was deeply divided racially and possessed deep, horrifying secrets, hiding the memory of the worst race riot in American history – a two-day incident in 1921 that destroyed 35 square blocks of one of the richest, most successful black communities in the nation, taking the lives of as many as 250 people and permanently displacing thousands more.

“It was pretty rough,” Elvin says today. “Tulsa’s a bad town as far as the race relations go. I knew about Black Wall Street, but they never said nothin’ about it in school.”

Like many of his peers, Bishop grew up listening to country music on radio. Jazz appealed to him somewhat, but says his mind didn’t work fast enough to understand it. What really caught his ear, however, was the black gospel, R&B and blues broadcast on the smaller stations that targeted the African-American audience white racists hadn’t managed to wipe or drive out. There was something about those sounds that struck him to the core.

After discovering at school dances how much girls loved singers and guitar players, he says, he went to a pawn shop and bought the cheapest instrument he could find – a Kay or Harmony “with strings two inches from the fretboard.”

His early heroes included Muddy, Wolf, Otis Rush, Magic Sam, Albert Collins, Earl Hooker and Little Walter as well as Jerry Lee Lewis and Ray Charles, too. And he started sneaking out his bedroom window at night in an attempt to hear the music he loved at its source – the racially segregated clubs that were thrived in the worst parts of town.

It was a bold move. But sometimes – just sometimes – they’d let him in.

imageAn excellent student, Elvin graduated from Will Rogers High School as a National Merit Scholar, earning a full scholarship to the University of Chicago in the process, enrolling in 1960. The first person in his family to attend college, he planned to pursue a major in physics, taking classes taught by some of the same folks who’d assisted Edward Teller and Enrico Fermi in the bowels of the school’s football stadium as they perfected the design of the H-bomb two decades before.

“I went to the University of Chicago, and my folks were from the Depression,” he remembers. “Education was a big thing to them, you know. And I had a scholarship. Otherwise, I couldn’t have gone because they didn’t have any money.

“For me, though, it was my cover story for my gettin’ to where the blues was.”

In that era, professors weren’t strict about keeping attendance in classes. In fact, it wasn’t really necessary. All you had to do was show up for the tests and pass them – which served Elvin well. He spend most of his time in his room, practicing guitar around the clock and cramming for the tests when he had to. He finally dropped out after proving to his parents that he could support himself by playing music instead.

Bishop still attacks the guitar in the same way he did back then. After experimenting doubling on six-string and harp, he copped his style from Hooker by wearing out the grooves on the slide master’s records before finally getting to see him in person. He’d originally played in conventional tuning, which proved a chore because he’d frequently have to re-tune when changing keys for the next song.

Switching to open tuning and using a slide eliminated the problem, something made even easier by picking up Earl’s technique: playing with a light slide on his pinky rather than the heavier one most artists use on their middle digit.

“Most guys use a heavy slide and use a different finger to support it,” he says. “They just swack…like choppin’ wood. But Hooker, he took time to figure out exact melodies, not relyin’ on how the guitar was laid out. And with the slide on your little finger, you’ve got all the others to do your playin’, which still gives you more than Django Reinhardt (who lost the use of two fingers and a leg in a fire) ever had!”

Elvin had barely unpacked when he dove head-first into the blues community that surrounded him.

“The first thing I did was to make friends with a black guy who worked at the cafeteria,” he recalls. “Within a week, he and I were out in the ghetto, going to the best blues clubs in the world.”

Then, as today, the university was located in Hyde Park on the city’s South Side, an island unto itself surrounded on one side by Lake Michigan and the three others by some of the most dangerous black neighborhoods that had developed in the city during the great migration from the South that followed World War I.

A mile to the north along 43rd Street, Mississippi-style juke joints flourished alongside others that appealed to a more cultured clientele. Dozens more rocked the night away a half mile to the west just beyond Washington Park, a lush, green buffer zone that separated it from clubs that thrived along 51st Street, Michigan and Wabash Avenues and State Street.

The first Chicago band Elvin ever saw was Muddy Waters’ at Pepper’s Lounge, a nightclub owned and operated by Johnny Pepper, who hired the best bands in the city for decades at three different locations in what was known as Bronzeville. It was the same core unit that had dazzled the audience at the Newport Jazz Festival a few months earlier: James Cotton – a rising superstar himself at age 25, Pat Hare or Willie Johnson on second guitar and Francis Clay on drums – a roster and sound that will live on forever thanks to the Chess LP that was recorded that summer afternoon.

The music was everywhere, Bishop says, so much so, in fact, that even though he and Charlie Musselwhite were both working, playing and barhopping in the city for most of the ‘60s, they rarely, if ever crossed paths.

“At the time that I was first there, blues was in its heyday,” Elvin remembers. “It was like hip-hop is today: the live music of choice of the black people. And I’m not exaggerating when I say there were hundreds of blues clubs in Chicago…even more than there were later on.

“Back then, you got in with a certain bunch of fellas that you’d go to the clubs with, and you’d have your own circuit…seven or eight clubs at most that you really felt comfortable and welcome in, ya know, and you had friends there. So you went to those same clubs all the time. And it’s very possible for another guy – Charlie, for instance – to have another totally different circle of clubs.

“I was hanging out at Pepper’s, the Blue Flame, Theresa’s (all close to campus) and…every once in a while if there was somebody I really wanted to see…Magic Sam or Otis Rush or somebody on the West Side…I’d go there, too.

“I managed to see almost all of the hard-hitters in their prime…Little Walter and the others. But I never saw Sonny Boy Williamson, and I never saw Jimmy Reed because they were just in different circuits. And at that time, there were still opportunities to see some of the old, old guys.

“Sleepy John Estes was some kind of relation to Hound Dog Taylor…I played with Hound Dog some on the West Side…and he’d come and visit him now and then. And I was pretty good friends with Big Joe Williams. I used to hang out with him a lot. We used to go to parties together in Hyde Park. He’d get us in trouble — and we had to run!

image“Big Joe was totally fearless about hittin’ on chicks – right in front of their old man. He didn’t give a fuck. Sometimes, they’d get mad and we’d have to flee. You couldn’t believe that a man that old and that fat could get over a fence so quick, man!”

Always careful of his surroundings – the South Side was bad, but the West Side was worse, Bishop usually traveled in the company of black friends.

His first paying gigs came backing sax player J.T. Brown, a Mississippi-born tenor sax player who’d worked minstrel shows and recorded on the Bluebird label before relocating to the Windy City in 1950, where his honking horn stylings received worldwide attention through his frequent recordings with Elmore James, others with Wolf and still more with Fleetwood Mac shortly before his passing in 1969.

Bishop remembers making $10 a night, frequently setting up in the back of the clubs because they didn’t have a stage. “You’re right there with the people right in front of you, dancin’ and everything,” he says. “It was a low-level gig, but it was the real deal – and a whole lot of fun.”

Playing with Taylor was an equally interesting experience.

“We played some lowdown places,” Elvin insists. “I remember Hound Dog sittin’ in a chair, his knees stickin’ wa-a-y up in the air – he had these long legs – and playin’ ‘Meet Me in the Bottom’ and all that. It was pretty much a blur to me. I did the best I could, but I was…at the time…like they say…square as a pool table and twice as green.

“There wasn’t anybody in the place that didn’t have a knife scar on their face. You’d go in the bathroom on the breaks to take a pee and one guy’d have a bottle of wine, one guy’d have a bottle of gin, and one guy’d have a bottle of whiskey – and they’d all want you to take a drink.

“I was scared to turn anybody down. By the time I came outta there for the next show, I had a pretty good buzz on.”

Clean and sober for decades, Bishop says that Taylor’s practice habits were pretty problematic, too. “We’d go over to his place to rehearse,” he says, “…he called it ‘rehearsin’’…and he’d send me to the liquor store with $2 for a $3 bottle of whiskey. I’d bring that back, and we’d go over some damned tunes, go to the gig — and just wouldn’t play none of ‘em. But he was cool, man (laughs).”

The person who really took Elvin under his wing back then guitarist Abraham “Little Smokey” Smothers. He was a founding member of the Butterfield band in 1963, and Elvin took his place when Smokey left the group, but their friendship endured for decades. The younger brother of another Windy City mainstay, the under-recorded Otis “Big Smokey” Smothers, Little Smokey worked with Magic Sam, Rush and Lazy Bill Lucas in the ‘50s, retired for a while after Butterfield to work a day job, but subsequently recorded two well-received CDs with Elvin and was also featured in Martin Scorsese’s 2003 TV series, The Blues.

“I remember some interview we did at the Chicago Blues Fest,” Bishop remembers fondly. “We did a gig together, and they asked him: ‘Well, was Elvin hard to teach? Was he a hardheaded student?’ He said: ‘Well, the first thing I had to do was get him off of Johnny Cash!’

“When I came to Chicago, the only blues song I really knew how to play good was ‘Folsom Prison Blues,’” he says. “I’d listened to a lot of the hard-core blues records and stuff, but I didn’t really have a clue how to play it. I had to wait.

“For me, the big eye-opener was seein’ the lifestyle, the words they were singin’. I went: ‘Oh-h-h shit! Now I get it!’ And it wasn’t (in) the clubs. It was goin’ into peoples’ houses and seein’ the life they were livin’…on down to the smell of black cosmetics…like that. It was cool.

“Somehow, I made friends with Little Smokey, and I’d walk over to his apartment…he lived at 42nd and Berkeley (a few blocks from Muddy)…with my guitar on my back. Fortunately, it wasn’t as rough then as the neighborhood got later. And (soul-blues singer) Lee ‘Shot’ Williams lived right downstairs from him.

“When I first got to Chicago, the South Side was more like a big Southern town. It didn’t get that hard edge, the drugs and the desperation until a little bit later. It was real nice until they started tearin’ all the shit down. Smokey and I would sit up there and practice. He’d teach me the rhythm part. And when we finally got it good enough, he’d be callin’ the neighbors to listen to it. That’s the way to learn shit, you know!

“He never got a decent break with his recordings, but he was pretty much universally liked and loved by all the blues musicians in Chicago. We’d walk around the corner to Big Smokey’s. He lived in the basement. He had about eight kids – all of ‘em taller than me. Big Smokey used to ride his bicycle around the neighborhood. He was another one-of-a-kind character. Little Smokey used to love that tune that he did…’I Ain’t Gonna Be Your Monkey Man No More.’”

In the ‘20s and ‘30s, the area he lived in was one of the wealthiest parts of the city, home to wealthy whites and the streets were lined with huge mansions. As the whites fled to the suburbs, the majestic homes they left behind were basically abandoned to the wrecking ball. Only a small cluster of them remain to tell the tale today.

“In the ‘60s, they called it ‘urban renewal,’ and chased all the black folks out of the neighborhood,” Elvin remembers. “But they left some of the electricity on in them old mansions.

image“I stayed in a bunch of those old houses, livin’ rent-free and buyin’ that 10-cents-a-can Bonnie Hubbard Pork and Beans, pork chops for 20 cents a pound and Richards Wild Irish Rose – I don’t know how many pints of that shit I drank! I didn’t like Thunderbird, but I did like Richards. Thunderbird tasted like some kinda petroleum product.

“That’s how I got out of the Army, though,” he says with a chuckle. With the Vietnam War raging, he was a prime target even though, at the time, he was touring relentlessly with Butterfield.

“They asked me if I had any mental problems,” he says, “and I put ‘yes’ (on the form). I was tryin’ like hell to get out of goin’. I changed my residence from Oklahoma to Chicago then to New York and back to Chicago. It took ‘em a couple of years to catch up with me.

“They finally nailed me in Chicago. I was gettin’ ready to go the next morning to some camp in Kentucky or Tennessee, and the last thing they did was put ya in with a psychiatrist, ya know. He said: ‘Tell me about your mental problems.’

“I said: ‘Well…I live in a house with six black people, and I have to have a pint of Richards Wild Irish Rose next to my bed to wake up on in the morning (laughs).’

“He just slammed his stamp down (REJECTED!) real hard, and I got out of it like that!”

The first time Bishop recorded a record, he says, he had no clue he was doing so, adding: “It was with Cotton. I didn’t know it at the time – and neither did he. It was in ’62 or so. It was me, Cotton, Butterfield and Billy Boy (Arnold). We did six or eight tunes, and it was just done on a Wollensek (reel-to-reel) recorder by this guy in a building of the University of Chicago that was closed at night. He said: ‘You guys wanna see what you sound like on tape?’

“Years later, it came out on a record…Rare Gems Vol. 1. It still sounds surprisingly good!”

Released as a gatefold, two-LP set on the Roots imprint in 1977, it’s a 22-cut collection that also includes entries from Little Brother Montgomery, Otis Spann, Big Joe, pianist Johnnie Jones, country blues guitarist-turned-minister Reverend Robert Wilkins, Robert Pete Williams, Robert Nighthawk, J.B. Lenoir and Maxwell Street Jimmy Davis.

During that era, Elvin also spent a great deal of the time with guitar legend Sammy Lawhorn, practicing with him regularly and occasionally working with him, too. A former member of Waters’ band, Lawhorn hired Bishop away from J.T. Brown by offering him $12 a night to sit in with him at the Blue Flame, a club located in the Del Morocco Hotel at 39th and Drexel, the place Sammy called home. Brown was furious, but Elvin was ecstatic about his $2 raise.

They were rehearsing one day when Lawhorn told him he needed Bishop to fill in for him at his regular gig, backing Junior Wells at Theresa’s. “Apparently, he got an offer to go south with Muddy, and just told me to go be his replacement,” Elvin says. “He got me up there and rehearsed me on all of Junior’s tunes…where I halfway knew ‘em, ya know…and I went over to Theresa’s for the gig.

“Junior looked at me like…’who the fuck are you,’ ya know. I said: ‘I’m Bishop. Sammy sent me over here to take his place for the next couple of weeks. Junior says: ‘He did!?!’

“He didn’t know a thing about it, took me in the back and tried me on a couple of tunes, and said: ‘Okay.’ I figure that, at that point, he couldn’t do any better.

“Junior was a beautiful guy. But he was dangerous, too. You had to keep your eye on him. I was in Theresa’s one time with folks from the university. This girl had a car. I never had one, and was always lookin’ for a ride. We stopped and picked up Sammy and took him over to Theresa’s, and him and Junior got into an argument – in the phone booth (an old, wooden one with a folding door that stood opposite to the bar).

“They’re in the phone booth (a real squeeze in and of itself), and Junior pulls out his knife. All he could reach was Sammy’s ass because it was so tight. He cuts Sammy, and Sammy comes out of it and says: ‘C’mon! You gotta take me to my house and get my gun.’

“We took him and rode him around for a while, got him some whiskey and settled him down…’til he forgot about gettin’ his gun.”

imageNow a member of both the Blues and Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame and an Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Famer, too, Elvin’s been on his own since going solo in 1968, when he also uprooted himself for San Francisco to escape The Hawk – the vicious winter winds whipping off of Lake Michigan – and take advantage of the better paying gigs the Bay Area offered.

A five-time Grammy nominee with close to 20 Blues Music Award nominations and three trophies, he’s currently enjoying his second, lengthy stay at Alligator Records in a career that’s also included stops at Innerview, Line, King Biscuit Flower Hour, BMG, Silverline, Blind Pig, Disky, Delta Groove and Air Cuts along the way.

His most recent work with Big Fun Trio – a lineup that includes longtime partner Bob Welsh on keyboards and guitar and Willy Jordan on percussion and debuted with a self-titled release in 2017 – proves beyond a doubt that he’s still at the top of his game after nearly six full decades in the business.

In fact, Elvin’s songwriting is sharper than ever, mixing wry humor with deep observations about life that cut like a knife, but tempered with a down-home delivery that simultaneously enhances and softens the message. That comes through loud and clear in the title tune of the group’s 2018 CD, Something Smells Funky ‘Round Here, an unmistakable complaint about the goings on in Washington.

“My tunes tend to be on the truthful side,” he says wistfully.

Known for delivering what he terms “a damn good show,” Bishop’s cut his touring schedule dramatically in recent years, going from as many as 300 gigs a year to 50 to 75 before the coronavirus lockdown – primarily he no longer enjoys the rigors of the road and the constant travel.

“They have to get a big-ass crowbar to get me outta here,” he says, referring to the home in Marin County. “This is the first time in 50 years that I’ve been on a regular schedule. I’m gettin’ a lot of sleep and not havin’ to get up at 3 o’clock in the mornin’ to get a flight to the East Coast, and it’s kinda refreshing in a way.

“You miss playin’, the crowds and bein’ able to be around the people. But then again, it’ ain’t all bad. I get to spend a lot of time tendin’ to my garden, which I love. I raise all the usual vegetables and all the Japanese ones, too. I’m also into home canning – I have been for years. I can up three or 400 hundred jars a year. We won’t go hungry. All year round, we got shit to eat.”

Blues fans shouldn’t fret, though. He’s got a real treat in store. Along with Welsh, he and Musselwhite recorded a full CD together for the first time last winter, finishing it just prior to the shutdown. Entitled 100 Years of Blues, Alligator will be releasing it in late September. The title’s the same as a tune they worked up for the first Big Fun CD, on which Charlie made a guest appearance.

“Every few years, me and Charlie end up recordin’ somethin’ together…a tune here and there, and it’s always pretty good,” he says. “That’s what put us into the mind of makin’ an album.

“And, boy, it went easy! It was amazing. I picked out a few tunes I wanted to do, and he picked out a few of his – and we just sat down and knocked ‘em out – one or two takes…pretty much like how old blues records were made. He’s a helluva guy.

“That’s another reason why we decided to do it. Over the years, we hadn’t hung out much together, but we gradually found out that we had a whole lot in common. I was talkin’ to him the other day about how things used to be and I said: ‘Man, I still call it an ‘icebox’ instead of a refrigerator.’ And he said: ‘I do, too!’

“Then we started talkin’ about kerosene lamps, buyin’ 45s that had came off of the jukeboxes in the black part of town – and just all kinds of shit, ya know.”

Elvin promises that he and “Mussel” won’t be holding anything back on the new record. It’s no secret that neither he nor Charlie have any love for the current President, and promise that they’ll be delivering that message loud and clear in one of the new tunes.

Meanwhile, he’s enjoying himself, working in his garden. But he does have another treat that you can enjoy now. He and the Big Fun Trio hooked up with Kid Andersen and drummer Derrick “D’Mar” Martin and recorded a video entitled “Lockdown” that addresses their feelings in the midst of this epidemic. It’s a hoot! Check it out at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IRdxUZPZQUw

And be sure to check out Elvin’s music and where – hopefully – he’ll be playing next by visiting his website: www.elvinbishopmusic.com

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


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 Featured Blues Review – 1 of 7 

imageToo Slim And The Taildraggers – The Remedy

Vizztone/Underworld Records

www.tooslim.net

11 tracks

Tim “Too Slim” Langford is a no-holds-barred blues rocker who wields a big guitar and sings with gravelly authority. The album follows their BMA nominated High Desert Heat CD from 2019 and they’ve done another fine job with it.

The Taildraggers are (in addition to Langford) Jeff “Shakey” Fowlkes on drums, percussion and vocals and Zach Kasik on bass, banjo, guitar and vocals. Kasik and Langford share the songwriting duties on these cut and each gets to perform their stuff. There are also three guest harp players who do a super job on four cuts. Featuring ten originals and one cool cover, we get to see what Too Slim And The Taildraggers are all about!

“Last Last Chance” opens the album up and it’s a country blues rocker where Langford tells his women he’s done with her. The guitar rings brightly and the beat is rocking. Next is “She’s Got The Remedy,” a mid-tempo cut with a driving beat and gritty sound. Kasiki wrote and fronts the band hear with some vocal effects that add to the mix. This rocker gets your head banging and your toe tapping. “Devil’s Hostage” follows, is a song of desperation; a nice, slow blues rocker with Langford up front and offering up a big solo on guitar. Sheldon Ziro appears on harp in “Reckless” with Kasik fronting the band. They get a little Bo Diddley sort of beat going and lay out some nice licks on harp and even more on the guitar. Ziro also helps out on “Keep The Party Rolling.” The song gets a groove going tat reminds the listener or ZZ Top. Langford growls out the lead in this big rocker with lots more great guitar and harp. Elmore James’ “Sunnyland Train” follows and we get some big slide work and more cool grit and grime from Langford’s vocals. Well done!

“Sure Shot” once again features Kasik on vocals and tastefully adds banjo to Langford’s guitar here. A mournful and slow rocker, Kasik sings how the devil’s coming for him and plucks the banjo and Langford layers on some guitar for a dark feeling all around. Up next is “Platinum Junkie and here we get Jason Ricci as a guest harp player. He blazes away from the start with Langford on his ax and Kasik sings with passion and a slick, dark vibe; it’s a cool cut. “Snake Eyes” is next with more guitar and banjo interplayed and Kasik fronting the band. The guitar solo is big and the song builds up sweetly. “Think About That” features the third guest harp player; here Rosy Rosenblatt adds his Mississippi saxophone to the mix as Langford sings. It’s a nice cut with a good beat and another big guitar solo. The finale is “Half A Word Away,” a slow and somber ballad with Langford leading the charge. More tastefully done guitar with restraint offers a bit of variety and makes for a good conclusion to the album. The guitar takes us home as the CD concludes.

Well, if you like blues rock then look no further because that’s what these guys do. Recorded in Nashville at bassist Kasick’s studio and produced by Too Slim and the band, they write lots of great songs and give some equally well-done performances for a fun ride and good listen all around.

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


 Featured Blues Review – 2 of 7 

imageThe Lucky Losers – Godless Land

Vizztone Label Group

www.theluckylosers.com

12 tracks

Kathy Lemons and Phil Berkowitz are San Francisco’s dynamic duo The Lucky Losers. They and their band have released what I think is their best effort yet with Godless Land. Their third release Blind Spot was a good one, but to me this one takes the cake; their fourth effort mixes blues and funk and jazz and honky tonk and R&B for a fun ride through 12 original and very fine cuts. They wrote 9 of the tracks between them and 3 were written for their use here.

Lemons and Berkowitz share the vocals and Phil does the harp work. Ian Lamson is the fine guitar player, Chris Burns shines on all the keys, and the backline of endre Tarczy on bass and Derrick “D’Mar” Martin on drums are really good, too. The band is together and the performances are all balanced and in synch.

“Half Of Nothing” kicks off the album. The band gets a cool, funky groove going and Lemons sings with real emotion and Berkowicz adds some tasteful harp. Guitar and organ intertwine in a dervish of good music. It’s a vibrant and great opener, contrasting the down topic of the lyrics with the upbeat tempo and delivery – a sad song can sound happy if you play it that way! Second is “Godless Land,” is the title track and a piece about how we don’t care about each other makes us so much the worse off. Lemons again sings with feeling with Berkowitz again backing her. His harp solo is poignant and fits nicely into the mix. Almost 7 minutes in length, the band makes their point about our current moral compass. “Mad Love Is Good Enough” has Phil fronting the band and Kathy harmonizing in a slower tempoed cut that ambles along sweetly. Berkowitz offers another short and sweet harp solo. The song builds into a big finish, capping off another fine effort. “No Good Lover” is a vocal duet featuring a rockabilly style and rousing beat. The duo spar vocally and there is a pretty little guitar solo to enjoy, too. The barrelhouse piano in support also adds well to the mix. Up next is “Be You” where the pair offer up a nice bluesy ballad and we get another harp solo to appreciate. Things get greasier with “Catch Desire By The Tail,” a midtempo cut that flows well and features both artists vocally. The piano and organ are up front and the piano solo is good as is the later harp solo.

Acoustic and electric slide guitars are featured in “Leave You On The Side Of The Road.” Lemons sings emotively and Berkowitz blows some mean harp in this slick cut. “Can’t Keep Pretending” has a churchy feel with the organ intro and then moves into a funky groove with offering up some suave vocals and nice harp work. Next is “One Good Eye,” a cool and slow blues with darker overtones. The lyrics tells us of keeping watch through the keyhole to watch for when they come for you because when they come for you they are coming for us all. Dark, eerie and well done– this is an interesting song. The harp solos and instruments blend to help set the mood as Lemons wails. “What Makes You Act Like That” follows, a rollicking cut with some honky tonk piano and Berkowicz and Lemons sharing the vocals again. Acoustic guitar, harp and brushes make the sound interesting and fun; well done again! “The Good Fight” gets the horns and organ going for a soulful mood. Phil sings with a very soulful tone and the band supports him aptly. He testifies to his ex about how he’s made it without her– it’s another winner. Things finish up with “The Ragged Heart” which has a country/cowgirl feel to it. Lemons gives us another great performance as she laments about her torn up heart. The guitar and organ help set the tone, a cool conclusion to a really fine set of tunes.

Whether they are commenting on the tragedy of what we call today or the tragedy of a love lost, these two really deliver the goods. The songs are tight, the music and lyrics are great, the performances are crisp and they sing with great emotion. I’ve listened to all their recordings and this really tops all their prior stuff and they’ve done some really good stuff before this. I was very impressed and highly recommend this one!

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


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 Featured Blues Review – 3 of 7 

imageGina Sicilia – Love Me Madly

Blue Élan Records

www.ginasicilia.com

CD: 11 Songs, 34 Minutes

Styles: Folk, Mellow Blues, All Original Songs

Remember Melissa Etheridge and k.d. lang, 1990’s folk superstars? They were living proof that women don’t need to be sopranos to earn acclaim as vocalists. Gina Sicilia, a Pennsylvania native, has also garnered Billboard success although her range is limited to the lower register. Her music cannot be called pure blues in the sense that Etta James and Bessie Smith fans rave about. Rather, it lies in the Etheridge/lang vein. It’s not quite folk, not quite jazz, not quite rock, not quite blues. Being hard to classify is both a blessing and a curse in the digital age. On the one hand, having a unique style keeps one from being described as “derivative” or “cookie-cutter.” On the other hand, it’s more difficult to market to record producers and fans alike. Sicilia’s latest album, Love Me Madly, consists of eleven original songs that blues purists might scratch their heads at, but lovers of romance and relaxation will surely enjoy. Gina’s strengths are her stage presence and originality. It might get stronger if she commits herself to one genre in particular.

Songwriting and singing are second nature to Sicilia. She was singing and performing at local talent shows when she was six, and started writing songs when she was twelve. “I got into blues and soul when I was a young teenager,” she says, “and by the time I was eighteen or nineteen, I was singing in a blues band. In my early years in college, you could find me at the weekly blues jams at Warmdaddy’s in Philadelphia.”

Sicilia met a group of musicians at those jams who helped her record her first demo. “In 2007,” she says, “I recorded and released my first album, an EP titled Allow Me to Confess.” Those eight songs caught many people’s ears; she developed a following and was nominated for a Blues Music Award as Best New Artist in 2008. That same year, she released her second album, Hey Sugar, which shot to #10 on the Living Blues Radio chart. Sicilia was nominated for a Blues Blast Music Award for Best New Artist Debut Recording.

Accompanying Gina (vocals, backing vocals) are Marc Franklin on trumpet; Arthur Edmaiston on tenor saxophone; Kirk Smothers on baritone sax; Wen Yi Yu on violin; Jennifer Puckett on viola; Mark Wallace on cello; Jessie Munson on violin/fiddle; Sharisse Norman on backing vocals, and Rev Charles Hodges on organ.

The only two traditional-sounding tracks on this CD are the opener, “Like the World Has Never Seen,” and the ninth track, “How My Dreams They Go.” The first is a nearly a cappella song, featuring only a thumping percussive background as musical accompaniment. Like Tracy Chapman, Sicilia puts her soulful alto/contralto vox to best effect here: “Darling, we are ready. Yes, our day has come. We’re gonna build a kingdom, and the people, they will come.” In contrast, nifty number nine, featuring Luther Dickinson, is a peppy dance tune that might make the Billboard light up again. As I said, they’re not pure blues, but they sure are good.

Gina Sicilia is successfully making her way in the music business, no matter which categories her music may fall into. She has an oeuvre all her own and won’t be pigeonholed. For those of you who prefer classic blues sounds and rhythms, look elsewhere, but to all others, Sicilia boldly says, Love Me Madly!

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.


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 Featured Blues Review – 4 of 7 

imageGerald McClendon – Can’t Nobody Stop Me Now

Delta Roots Records

www.geraldmcclendon.com

CD: 12 Songs, 45 Minutes

Styles: R&B, Horn Blues, Soul-Influenced Blues, All Original Songs

The more I think about our cultural obsession with novelty, the more I realize it’s a paradox. We want what’s new, we crave what’s new, yet deep down we yearn for the customary and comforting. What’s always popular at the movies? Remakes and sequels. How many Kinsey Millhone novels has Sue Grafton written? Twenty-five, from A to Y (she passed away before she could write the final book). Remember this principle of the Newly Familiar as you consider Gerald McClendon’s new CD, Can’t Nobody Stop Me Now. It features a dozen original songs as tasty as your favorite donuts. On an R&B album, what do you need? An ardent vocalist (McClendon is known as “The Soulkeeper”), a smooth horn section, and lyrics about love, loss, and life itself. Those expecting more should rediscover that old themes made new equal comfort.

Born and raised in Chicago, Gerald has loved music since the tender age of four and would sing along with the radio. His love for music embraces all genres, and he is prolific in many other forms such as rock, soul, blues and country as well as jazz standards. He has collaborated with numerous musical projects, such as the recording of the theme song for the theatrical play Ten Percent of Molly Snyder. He also sang “Pink” on Sweet Emotion: Songs of Aerosmith. He performed at a private end-of-season celebration for TV courtroom personality Judge Mathis, and in Las Vegas for Rock-and-Roll Fantasy Camp. He and his band have been a regular act at the club/restaurant Untitled in the Windy City.

Partnering with Gerald (vocals) are several thoroughly-talented musicians: Herb Walker, Joe Burba and Mark Wydra on guitars; Roosevelt Purifoy, Sumito “Aryio” Aryioshi and Brian James on keyboards; Skinny Williams on sax solos; John “Boom” Brumbach, an unknown trumpeter, and the Delta Roots Horns on horns; Twist Turner on strings and drums, and Art Love on bass.

The title track, jovial and pleasant, is a horn-infused pep talk for the worst workday mornings or weekend hangovers. However, it should have switched places with the dynamite second song. Talk about soul. Gerald shamelessly bares his: “Bags all around, suitcase by the door. She said she don’t want me around anymore. Where do we go from here? Wiping away the tears.” After being caught cheating, what other recourse is there but to accept the sad, sad consequences? Let Skinny William’s searing sax solo bear the brunt of the blow. “Groove On Tonight” features cheeky keyboards and a player’s party mood: “Gotta get my groove on tonight. I need somebody, somebody to love me right.” Speaking of consequences, though, don’t go “Running Wild.” Doing so might wreck the life and happy home you’ve tried so hard to build. “No more stormy weather,” McClendon insists, alluding to the fights he and his wayward partner have probably had. The real guilty pleasure number, however, is the penultimate one, “Cut You Once.” Ms. Wetnight does not advocate violence or revenge, but dang, is that chorus catchy!

When we buy shoes, we want our new pair to feel just like our old pair. That’s what Gerald McClendon’s latest offering does. It’s comfortable and classy as can be – newly familiar.

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.



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 Featured Blues Review – 5 of 7 

imageAl Basile – Last Hand

Sweetspot Records – 2020

12 tracks; 45 minutes

www.albasile.com

Al Basile is a poet, lyricist and cornet player who played with the early incarnation of Roomful Of Blues. He has been making records under his own name since the late 90’s but since retiring in 2005 from his day job as a High School teacher he has released a string of excellent albums, usually produced by long-time friend Duke Robillard. Back in 2018 he issued Me & The Originator which combined songs and spoken-word interludes and here he has gone a step further by writing and recording a suite of songs that describes a ‘May to December’ romance that ends tragically. It is Al’s intention to create an audio play based on the song cycle, tentatively entitled Last Hand: The Musical, so watch out for that in due course.

Given the subject matter here, Al decided to strip things back musically, to produce the album himself and work with a trio of Bruce Bears on piano and organ, Brad Hallen on bass and Mark Teixeira on drums, all members of Duke Robillard’s regular band. Al handles vocals and adds his cornet to just two tunes. The effect is to provide a jazz-inflected backdrop to Al’s lyrics which, as always, are superbly crafted. “It Ain’t Broke” finds the man content with his single status but ready to provide experienced male company when required: “Life can bring you down but have no fear, I can make your troubles all disappear.” However, Al is also aware that, at a certain age, women stop noticing you, you become an “Invisible Man” and you become sceptical, so that when he is approached by a younger woman he instinctively rebuffs her with the words “Don’t Toy With Me”. The trio is on top form through these first three tracks, the jazzy piano and bubbling bass lines fit the songs perfectly while Al’s world-weary vocals also suit the mood. Once he realises how he has hurt the girl he apologises and sets off on this new relationship, still surprised that she is interested in him – “What Would You Be Doing – with a beat-up man like me?”.

Becoming more comfortable with the new relationship, he decides “I Could Get Used To This” and realises that he is in love, the one word title “Don’t”showing that he doesn’t want it to end. Of course, in a relationship where there is a big age difference, one partner will live beyond the death of the other and Al reflects on that in “After I’m Gone”, encouraging her to continue to see her friends, yet then worrying that she may fall for someone of her own age in that circle, pondering “Has He Got A Name?”, before recognising that “The Problem Is Me”. After those doubts and suspicions the couple has a brief period of happiness (“Second Wind”) but tragedy looms as the girl falls seriously ill and the man is desperately concerned in “Closer To The Bone”. When she dies he knows that “Time Heals Nothing”, Al’s cornet adding further despair to the doom-laden piano chords as he reflects that it should have been him to go first: “This ain’t the way it’s supposed to be, time is playing some kind of evil trickery, the first one to go was supposed to be me”. A sombre end to the album.

Al’s vocal range is somewhat limited, less evident on his albums with a bigger band but more obvious here. Nevertheless, the songs are first class and the sparse backing with its jazz-blues mix works well, making Last Hand a worthy addition to Al’s discography.

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 – 6 of 7 

imageAnthony Geraci – Daydreams in Blue

Shining Stone Records

www.anthonygeraciblue.com

CD: 12 Songs, 48 Minutes

Styles: Piano Blues, Jazz-and-Soul-Influenced Blues

Within the blues, different primary instruments produce different moods and effects in listeners. Electric guitar blues jolts you, makes you want to get down or zone out during Hendrix-type solos. Horn blues? Jovial, but not in a barroom sense. More like a New-Orleans-block-party sense. Piano blues is crisp and cool, like autumn, unless a high-tempo, hundred-degree boogie heats things up. Anthony Geraci has been a master of this last type of blues for nearly forty years. Not only does he know his way around eighty-eight keys, but his neighborly stage presence makes everyone feel at home. On his new album Daydreams in Blue, he presents ten originals and two covers (“Dead Man’s Shoes” and “Jelly, Jelly”). It may not be the most groundbreaking or avant-garde piano blues CD you’ll ever hear, but that’s not Mr. Geraci’s forte. He knows that old-school is the best school.

Anthony Geraci was born in New Haven, Connecticut in 1954. His interest in playing piano began at age four when he told his parents “I want a piano!” Kind of an odd request when most kids want a new baseball glove or bicycle. His parents weren’t musical – not even a record player at their house – but they always supported their son’s undeniable passion for music. They soon bought a Kimball Grand Piano that his mother paid 4 dollars a week to own. Lessons at the Neighborhood School of Music, affiliated with Yale University, soon followed. Since then, Geraci has had a long and storied career, including playing piano with Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Otis Rush, Chuck Berry, Big Mama Thornton, Big Joe Turner, and Jimmy Rodgers.

Performing alongside Geraci (piano, vocals on track six) are Dennis Brennan on vocals and harmonica; Monster Mike Welch on guitar; Walter Trout on lead guitar for track three; Michael Mudcat Ward on acoustic bass; Troy Gonyea on guitar; Jeff Armstrong on drums; Peter Ward on rhythm guitar for track three; Scott Arruda on trumpet and principal arrangement, and Mark Early on tenor and baritone saxophone.

“Love Changes Everything” is a lighthearted ode to everyone’s favorite emotion, beginning the album with a jazzy feel-good atmosphere. “Tomorrow May Never Come” propels audiences back to the 1950’s, where this tune would have found its way to the jukebox had it been around. It has a slow-dance shuffle beat and a horn section that’ll knock your bobby socks off. Better put them back on for the next track, “No One Hears My Prayers,” featuring Walter Trout on outstandingly ominous guitar. “Sometimes I wonder what you’re looking for,” Geraci says to his errant inamorata. “I thought you loved me, but it seems you changed your mind.” Even the Almighty has fallen silent: “I don’t pray anymore. No one hears my prayers.” If yours truly were to pick a #1 song on the album, this is it. Further down the line come “Mister,” a callout to several sorts of strangers, a la “Dude, Where’s My Gal?” No piano blues album is complete without at least one boogie, and “Tutti Frutti Booty” amply fits the bill. Another super number is “Dead Man’s Shoes.” Although it’s a cover, it’s not universally known, though it asks a powerful question. “What kind of man would wear these shoes?”

Lose yourself in Daydreams in Blue if you love piano blues!

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.


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 Featured Blues Review – 7 of 7 

imageCrawlback Featuring Johnny Bird

Call My Job Records

www.Facebook.com/crawlbackblues

12 songs time – 51:20

Seems like Britain just keeps churning out authentic blues bands and Crawlback Featuring Johnny Bird is no exception. Whether it be their two original compositions or their eclectic choice of songs to cover everything is right on the mark. Johnny takes on lead vocals, harmonica and occasional guitar chores. His core band is Mark Phillips on guitar, Paul Hurley on bass and Colin Griffin in the drum seat. Various guests sit in on piano, horns and backing vocals. Crawlback carries on the tradition of British Blues stalwarts. Their blues doesn’t drift into rock territory. Rockabilly and R&B accents turn up from time to time.

Johnny’s assertive and pleasantly gritty vocals fit hand-in-glove with the songs within. All the supporting musicians are first rate. The guitarists get the occasional solo turn, but this is primarily a harmonica lovers album, not to overlook the well sung vocals and lyrics.

Right out of the box the band kicks in with a high octane harmonica fueled jump blues with “I Got No Reason” a cover of another harp ace Mitch Kashmar’s song. Their choice of covers is eclectic, varying from Jimmy Reed to an instrumental by Duke Ellington. They capture Reed’s easy rollin’ groove just right on the money with “Found Love”. “Tribute To Eddie Taylor jr.” is a Chicago Blues harmonica workout. Harmonica is again featured on a boisterous take on the tom-tom infused “Caravan”.

“Blues Stop Knockin'” finds them covering obscure rockabilly singer Al Ferrier’s tune. They are adept at any genre they tackle. Guitarist Mark Phillips is up to the task of anything they attempt with an occasional assist from Johnny on guitar. The rhythm section are hardly sloughs themselves. Composed by Mel London and most familiarly performed by Junior Wells and the early Rolling Stones, they do justice to “Little By Little”.

“Wild Man” is a slow blues from the hand of the late, great William Clarke. Female vocalist Bella Collins takes the lead on Etta James’ “Good Rockin’ Daddy”, “No More Lies” and a hidden track after “Wild Man” with her riveting voice.

A flawless gem of a record by these Brits with a true reverence for the music they are producing and the musical chops to pull it off in grand style. Johnny Bird leads the charge with commanding vocals and a harp attack that doesn’t let up. The band is with him all the way supporting this valiant effort of blues and roots music. This what we in da biz refer to as a keeper.

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


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