Cover photo © 2020 Joseph A Rosen
In This Issue
Bucky O’Hare has our feature interview with Mitch Woods. We have 6 Blues reviews for you this week including new music from Walter Trout, Super Chikan & Terry Harmonica Bean, Janky, Downchild Blues Band, Kirsten Thien and Grayson Capps.
Featured Interview – Mitch Woods
Mitch Woods is the gardener of the traffic island in the crossroads intersection of Boogie Woogie piano, Jump Blues, old school Rock n’ Roll and New Orleans’ funky stride. Mitch has a classic, almost mythical, first contact origin story:
“I grew up in Brooklyn, born in ‘51 – 1951. We lived in, I wouldn’t call it a tenement, (haha) but you know it was apartment houses in Brooklyn. But, it was a great place to grow up, I mean Brooklyn, everybody played on the streets. We played hockey, stick ball, ringolevio, all those games out in the street and everything like that. So it was a good time to grow up in New York, in Brooklyn at that time. My mom was a single mom, my Dad had left when I was about 6 years old. So she was bringing up two boys, my brother and I, a little older brother. She used to hire the superintendent of the building, who was an African American man, to take me to, I think it was, Kindergarten and first and second grade, to take me to school, he would drive me to school. So one day we stopped off at maybe his cousin’s house or something. And there was somebody playing Boogie Woogie piano in there, I heard this piano. What a great amazing thing, you know. Good cornbread cooking or whatever was goin’ on in there and this guy is playin’ that. So that really inspired me, when I got home I said boy I’d like to play the piano.”
Mitch Woods is an incomparable entertainer in the old school model. Breaking through to the Blues mainstream during the 1980’s surge, Mitch and his raucous crew called “The Rocket 88’s” were time travelers visiting from a bygone era of greased back hair, stomping shuffles and incendiary piano playing. Based in the San Francisco Bay area for most of his adult life, Woods parlayed his old school love of early Rock n’ Roll, Boogie Woogie and Jump Blues into a passion for the cultural melting pot that is New Orleans and specifically into the endlessly funky R&B of Professor Longhair and Fats Domino (2 sides of the same coin). A natural born entertainer, Mitch is bombastic, gregarious and ready to laugh. Speaking from his home in the Bay area after his daily bike ride, Mitch got his memory flowing and recounted, through much laughter, his legendary life in music.
Mitch’s mom and step dad, Abe Rich, were important caregivers and supporters of their son’s talent. Deciding early on not to change his name to the sing song-y “Mitch Rich,” Mitch calls his music publishing “Mitch Rich Music” in honor of his stepdad. After Mitch was enthralled by what can be assumed to be a first interaction with African American music at his superintendent’s cousin’s house, Abe went out and bought the family a piano.
“I started out playing Classical, they got me Classical lessons for about three years. Which was, you know, important because I learned all the basics, I learned how to read music, not that I do it so well anymore (laughs). After about three year of that I was starting to get bored with it but then my Dad said ‘well we’ve got the piano you’re gonna play it now.’ I said ‘lets make a deal. I’ll get a teacher who can teach me popular music and jazz and blues.’ I found somebody who was kind of a bebop piano player and it was great because he taught me how to improvise, he taught me chords and scales and all that. And that really got me goin’ once I got into all of that, it kept me wanting to play. He even got me a gig, probably my first gig, definitely my first gig, at a piano store on Flatbush Avenue (chuckles). Not that I could play very well but I could sit in the window and make believe I was playing, you know. Girls would come by, I remember that, first groupies (laughs). I knew there was something good there.”
Like any child of the 50’s and 60’s Rock and Roll and the British Invasion was highly influential on Mitch.
“Later on when I was 13, actually I saved up my bar mitzvah money to buy my first organ. You know Farfisa was big in those days, but I couldn’t afford a Farfisa, so I remember my mom taking me up to this guy in Manhattan, up some freight elevator, and he had these brand new organs in the box, came right from Italy. I couldn’t even, it was called Doric or something, some kind of cheap brand you know. But I got my very first one. At that time we were starting to form little bands in Brooklyn. We’d play, I remember, in the basement of the drummer’s candy store, his father had a candy store. I’m given’ you a lot of colorful stuff I’m just starting to remember (haha). And we’d play in the basement of the candy store. And he didn’t even have drum stands, he would ratchet them onto soda boxes, soda crates and stuff (chuckles), I thought that was the coolest thing. So you know we started forming little band there. And the Beatles came in and the Stones, Dave Clark 5 and all that stuff, we started doing that. Eventually we got a guitarist who was into Blues, I remember that, and he started turning us on to Albert King and B.B. We started playing some of that.”
New York City in the 60’s was such a dynamic place with art and music exploding and cross pollinating all over the place. As Mitch began to develop his ear for the Blues he got to experiment in public in some classic New York situations.
“Some of my first gigs we had this band called the Sound Factory, this is another funny story. The guitarist’s father had a meat truck, he had a meat butcher company or something. So he used to pack us all in the back of this refrigerated truck and take us to the gigs, you know whatever gigs we could scare up. I remember playing in the Village, it was called Café Bizarre, we used to play there a lot. It was decorated like an old spook house with all kinds of spooky stuff in there. I think we would make $25 for the band for the whole night and all the salami sandwiches we could eat (chuckles). But the funniest thing about it was they didn’t have a dancing license, you needed a dance permit or something in New York. So every once in a while we’d be playing, all of a sudden the electricity would go off and everything would stop. It was basically cause the cops would come in to check on everything and shut it down. Then when they left, they’d turn the electric on and we’d play again.”
After a brief college stint in New York City, Mitch left the City for upstate:
“I transferred up to UB, University of Buffalo, and ah basically that was my hippie days. We had a farm, an old farm, outside of Buffalo it was called The Farm. It was like a commune, it was great. (laughs) I’m common’ up with these stories man, I don’t know. We had a pick up truck, so our gig, we had an ad in the paper “will haul anything, anywhere, anytime.” I got more pianos that way. People wanted to get rid of these big old upright pianos, and they would just say take it away, it’s your’s. So I must have had 3, or 4, or 5 of them out in the barn in a farm. I started playin’ out there, but, really what started to happen at that time, I started to jam. There was a little club circuit in Buffalo. There’s some great musicians who come out of Buffalo.”
“So it was a great spot. I started, they would have these open mics or whatever, sit in with different bands. So I was just starting to get around a little bit at that time. I remember musicians saying ‘wow you sound like the old boogie woogie guys.’ I was like ‘well who’s that, who are they?’ And I’d hear names like Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson, Champion Jack Dupree. So I went out and I bought all the records I could find. I just keep getting those records and learning, playing along with them as much as I could and learning those licks. It was just a natural thing I had for that music and so it led me there.”
Upstate New York, especially at that time, was a hotbed of music and culture. The Band and Dylan at Big Pink, Woodstock, Lou Reed went to Syracuse University. Buffalo was the city in upstate and drew incredible musicians and artists seeking a simpler life then the Big City offered. One such urban expatriate was the great Archie Shepp who taught at UB and left a mark on young Mitch.
“I was going to University of Buffalo and they had a class in African American music and I was like okay that sounds good to me. It was one of those big lecture rooms and the instructor, the professor, was Archie Shepp, the Jazz saxophone player. I was particularly interested in that, I wanted to hear what he had to say. He kept saying whites can’t play the Blues. And it really started to bug me. I don’t know what got into me but I raised my hand and said you know I don’t agree with that. He goes ‘okay name me one white guy who can play the Blues’ or something, I said Eric Clapton or Mike Bloomfield. He goes ‘ah they can’t play, come on name me somebody.’ And this was before I was really playing in public, I don’t know what’d gotten into me, and I said ‘well I can play.’ And of course everybody in the class was laughing at me, He goes ‘oh yeah you can play, well come down on Saturday we have a jam session in the student union and we will see what you can do.’ I went home with my tail between my legs, oh God what did I do now. But came Saturday I got my nerve up and I went down there. The great thing for me was there was no piano there (laughs). You know what happened though, Archie at that point he respected me to have the nerve to come down and do that. He started to turn me on to who to listen to, course he was more a Jazz guy, but he would say to listen to Thelonious Monk, Oscar Peterson, Erroll Garner all these incredible piano players.”
Like so many hippies around the country the siren song of the West Coast’s progressive lifestyle and established music scene called to Mitch.
“My girlfriend and I decided we were going to California. My brother was working for Bill Graham, the concert promoter at the Fillmore West. He said ‘oh you gotta come down to San Francisco, the music is happening.’ This was after the Summer of Love, so it was about ‘69, just after that, ‘69-’70. So we drove our van across Canada actually to get there. And at that point we’d go to these coffee houses and I’d play piano and my girlfriend, Gracie, she started singing and playing the washboard, and the harmonica. And that eventually became Mitch Woods and His Red Hot Mama (laughs) and that was my first band with my name on it. Eventually moved to San Francisco and we started playing around here at all the clubs as Mitch Woods and His Red Hot Mama. I was doing a lot of Fats Waller and she was singing more Bessie Sm and Billie Holiday stuff, yeah, it was fun, it was a great act. And we worked with some of the best musicians here in San Francisco.”
While researching the roots of Rock n’ Roll in Boogie Woogie, Mitch was also hipped to one of the most important inspirations on his music:
“When I was with the red hot mama we opened for Charlie Musselwhite and his guitarist Hi Tide Harris, was his name, he said ‘man, you remind me of Louis Jordan.’ And I didn’t know who Louis Jordan was yet at that time, same thing I went out got all the Louis Jordan records I could find and fell in love with him. To this day he’s one of my big big inspirations”
Louis Jordan was the cornerstone of the 40’s and 50’s music known as Jump Blues. Always the archeologist, after the initial spark of love that Jordan inspired, Mitch delved deeply into the style.
“The Jump Blues thing had just taken me over. On the West Coast there’s what they called ‘Jump Blues.’ It was a big thing back in the 50’s, 40’s-50’s. That’s the era of music that I really love, the late 40’s, early 50’s. When a lot of the big bands were dismantling into smaller units, like 5, 6, or 7 piece bands with 1 horn or 2 horns. A lot of it developed on the West Coast, which was basically a lot of the African American population was coming out from Texas and Louisiana to work at the shipyards here in the Bay area and defense plants on the West Coast. A lot of music came out here and really developed some great bands: Roy Milton and the Solid Senders, Joe and Jimmy Liggins, Roy Brown.”
After 4 or 5 years in San Francisco wood shedding and developing his style with his “red hot mama,” a 2 week trip to Hawaii turned into a 3 year sojourn.
“In the mid to late 70’s I went over to Maui, to Hawaii, and was just gonna be there for about 2 weeks. You know I fell in love with it when I got there, I said wow coming from Brooklyn to a place like Hawaii. I didn’t think there was a place like this in the universe, you know it was like holy cow I don’t want to leave. I stayed 3 years there, I never came back. The red hot mama came back. I had an offer to play a gig in Kauai and they could only afford one of us, so that was the end of that, she went back. So that’s when I had to start singing, it was a piano gig sort of a piano bar I guess and I had to start singing.”
Sun soaked and blissed out by the Islands, Mitch found his way back to the Bay area. Hitting the ground running, Mitch started doing sessions with amongst others Elvin Bishop and Luther Tucker. At this point Mitch launched the trajectory from which the rest of his career would be born out of.
“So when I got back I eventually started forming the Rocket 88’s. I ran into John Firmin who is the sax player with David Bromberg Band. So John, we hit it off really well, he’s an incredible sax player. What happened then, Bromberg decided to retire, so the band was available and John basically brought them in with me. And so I kind of inherited the David Bromberg Band which was great. That became my first version of Mitch Woods and Rocket 88 and we took off from there. Started playing all the clubs in San Francisco and the Bay area.”
Mitch Woods and His Rocket 88’s were the go to Blues band in the Bay area specifically with a national and international reach.
“We opened for Stevie Ray Vaughn 3 times, first time Keystone Berkley it was about 600 people, next time Santa Cruz Civic was about 2,000 and the last time before he died was Concord Pavilion for about 8,000 people. So that was a real treat.”
In the late 90’s Mitch began to produce albums simply under his own name and, at least on record, began to expand his pallet, he had a wide palette to begin with live. New Orleans was and is at the epicenter of Mitch’s music and life:
“Another big part of history is my time in New Orleans. New Orleans has probably been the biggest inspiration to my career, the music of New Orleans for like the last 30 years or so. I started going to Jazz Fest in ‘81 and that’s when I really, I said ‘wow this town is really, it’s a piano town,’ in New Orleans they really respect piano players. As you know the great tradition: Professor Longhair, it goes on and on, Allan Toussaint, Dr. John, Fats Domino.”
As he did when he moved to Buffalo for school, San Francisco to purse his hippie dreams and Maui when he was bewitched by sand and beaches, when Mitch Woods landed in New Orleans he immediately began to play and make musical friends.
“So I had the Jump Blues, and then New Orleans has this great gumbo of great music and it really inspired me. I started to listen to Professor Longhair quite a bit, I didn’t get to see him unfortunately. I think it was my very first trip to New Orleans I sat in at the Maple Leaf Bar, which is a great bar. The club owner said why don’t you come back on Monday and you can open for Booker, James Booker. I didn’t even know who he was at that point. I came back and played my solo piano and it went over great. And then he came on, James Booker, and it was like ‘holy cow.’ He was a genius madman and just unbelievable. So I got to hear him a bunch, quite a bit.”
Mitch befriended some of the old guard, the New Orleans hit maker royalty. Inspired by the pioneer Fats Domino, Mitch developed and recorded his 2006 classic Big Easy Boogie.
“Anyways I kept getting drawn to New Orleans. Over the years I’ve lived there over periods of time, I’ve had 3 different girlfriends there so that kept me coming and going. While I was there, you know I play all the clubs and got to know and play with all the musicians, and I still do to this day. A lot of the musicians were sidemen for Fats Domino because you know when Fats is not working these guys got to work. I started playing with his bass player Ervin Charles and Reggie Houston on sax, and eventually I got to meet Herb Hardesty, who was Fats Domino’s sax player from the beginning, it was Herb and Lee Allen. I started writing songs in the old Fats style and you know I had this thing I said ‘well who would be the best band to record this with, well Fats Domino band (chuckles) it would be the kicker right.’ So as I got friendly with Herb he started introducing me to some of the other guys and I eventually I got to know Earl Palmer on drums, who was Fats original drummer, Little Richard’s original drummer and then moved out to LA to become the most recorded drummer in America, in the world really. Was able to gather all these guys together for a recording project called Big Easy Boogie. It was amazing, I knew it was going to be historic once it started to happen so I hired a videographer.”
“It was my tunes in the old Fats style. Herb and Earl kept saying ‘you know you got to bring in Dave Bartholomew,’ who was Fats’ original producer and co-writer of all those big kits. At first Dave was kind of reluctant but finally they kept talking to him and he came down, came down to the session. At first he was kind of standing in the back, but before you knew it he was in the middle of the session directing. They call him ‘the chief’ and now I know why, cause he was the chief and I was glad that happened, that was good by me.”
Mitch is fun loving and a tireless entertainer. His shows are parties full of stories, laughs and friendship. A natural fit was the Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruise.
“The Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruise I’ve been playing since, it’s been 18 years. What happened was a friend of mine said man ‘you should check out this Legendary Blues Cruise, looks like it’s right up your alley.’ So I contacted Roger Nabor, I used to play the Grand Emporium in Kansas City, he was the owner of that. He said ‘yeah why don’t you come on board as a special guest and do whatever you want to do, you know.’ I said ‘okay sounds good to me.’ So I came on board and I noticed there was a piano bar and there’s nobody in there, so I just started playing. Pretty soon a crowd gathered and these people started comin’ in and other musicians started comin’ in to jam, you know it was happening. And it would go late, it would go late into the night, about 4 in the morning, I’m kind of known for that now, the late late late show. So about 4 in the morning I had it, I said ‘listen I’m going to bed you guys have fun.’ I get to bed, I get a phone call ‘Mitch get your ass down here we have a full house.’ So I come down in my pajamas, somebody pasted a little handwritten sign on the door said Mitch Woods’ Club 88 and that was really the beginning of it, so I kept playing til dawn. So I really founded the piano bar on the Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruise.”
Mitch’s piano bar has developed over the years as a main interactive attraction for cruisers. Welcoming both professional friends and civilian amateurs alike, Mitch presides over an alcohol fueled late night banquet of fun and frivolity.
“It used to be just me for many years. We’d go all night, a lot of times I didn’t start until 1 in the morning really. I’ve had everybody from James Cotten to Tab Benoit sit in. They didn’t even have drums there, he (Tab) would play on those bus trays and stuff (laughs) spoons and bus trays. A guy came in once with a Swiss Alp Horn one night, how he got it in, it’s 10 feet long, I don’t know how, but I got a video of that it was hysterical. And of course every harmonica player in the world, whether they could play or not, would come in there. I have any open door policy, it could go from the sublime to the ridiculous really. You know it was a party, of course it’s late at night, they’d been drinking for 24 hours, people were in whacked condition, some really really great moments.”
“One night we were playing in there, I’m pretty sure I had Taj Mahal with me sitting in as well. It was pretty much dawn so we closed the curtains to make it dark, you know, keep it dark. About 8 in the morning the doors open and this straight laced crowd starts walking in. Their looking at us and we’re looking at them, what the fuck? It was the AA meeting that had been scheduled for 8am in the piano bar (laughs). They looked at us and ‘well now we know why we don’t drink anymore.’ I hope we can do it again one day, because it’s probably one of my best gigs in the world.”
Mitch is preparing a reissue of his 2017 duet and trio record Friends Along the Way. A unique album for Mitch, this is a companion piece to 1996’s Keeper of the Flame.
“I had done a previous CD called Keeper of the Flame way back in the 90’s where I was able to put together all the great Blues masters who I was lucky enough to know and be friends with. It was duets with John Lee Hooker, James Cotton, Johnny Johnson, Earl King and Lee Allen. And I thought well I’d like to try and do that again now that I’m older with my contemporaries, you know, my friends along the way. And each artist on there I can say is a friend. It’s basically duets and trios, there’s no band on there. Over a period of really just about a year I was able to get everybody in different studios around the country and do duets with Van Morrison, Taj Mahal, Elvin Bishop, Ruthie Foster, Charlie Musslewhite, Marcia Ball, John Hammond, Joe Louis Walker, Maria Muldaur, Kenny Neal and Cyril Neville.”
“You know Van, Van Morrison we’ve been friends for like 40 years. He used to live here in Marin County and we just met at a party one day and became friends. He would come to my shows and I would go to his shows. I saw that he was coming to play New Orleans Jazz Fest the year I was recording and I was living in New Orleans at that time. I just asked him I said ‘would you be interested in playing a duet with me’ and he said yes. Which floored me, and then I was like ‘oh, another thing, what did I get myself into now?’ (laughs) Cause we’ve been friends but we’ve never recorded together or really played together. So that was pretty amazing. At the same time Taj was coming in to play the next day to play the Jazz Fest, and Taj and I have been friends from the Blues Cruise for many years. So I said ‘how about if I get Taj in’ and of course they were all like ‘yeah let’s do it.’ We were gonna do just one cut in New Orleans at this incredible studio, it was an old church. But everybody got inspired, Van got really inspired and started singing and I said well we’ve got the tape rolling. One of the cuts they hadn’t pressed record, ‘can we do it again?’ They said yes, oh thank you God.”
Like almost every artist during the COVID crisis, Mitch is dealing with the loss of live performance, the loss of regular income and the tremendous pain that is thick in the air for everyone.
“It was pretty difficult and a lot of people are going through the same thing. For the first couple of months for musicians it was like our careers just ended, and it was so sudden. So many of us have spent our lives building a career and a lifestyle that we love and enjoying sharing that with everybody and all of a sudden in 2 days it stops. So to wrap your head around that is not an easy process. I feel like I’m at a better spot now but I know a lot of people are out there are going through the same thing, I hope you find things that you can do that will get you through this period.”
“During this COVID shit, whatever you want to call it, of course I’ve been doing my virtual Club 88 from my living room, everything I do on the cruise I’m doing from my living room, bringing it to your living room. That’s been fun, the nice thing is people can text me so I feel like I have an audience even though I can’t see them so it’s been satisfying on that level.”
A lifetime of travel and an interest in videography are coming together for Mitch as he tried to find new ways to be creative.
“The Boogie Woogie traveler: what I realized is now that I’ve got all this time, I have 30 years worth of videos that I’ve been taking of my travels around the world playing. So I’m starting to learn how to edit them, it’s creative, so it kind of works with my creativity process. I really got to play Blues clubs at the far corners of the world. I’ve always taken these videos and just put them in a box now I’m gonna get them out so people can see.”
Mitch Woods is a modern traditionalist. Culling America’s musical history, Mitch creates new art within specific forms that if not for him and his brethren would be lost. Mitch is an entertainer in every sense of the word, drawing audiences into his world, into his humor, into his heart. Mitch calls his music “rock-a-boogie
“All these influences kind of formed the music that I do. I like to go back to the roots, I like to look to the past to bring all the great stuff that maybe has been ignored but is the roots of all the great music that you hear. Eventually people say well what do you call you music? (snickering) I just came up with, well it’s a little Rock it’s a little Boogie, it’s Rock-a-Boogie. I actually had a business card for a while that said ‘Mitch Woods Inventor of Rock-a-Boogie.’”
Check out Mitch on his YouTube channel to see many videos of his music and his travels: https://www.youtube.com/user/roket8. Mitch is also very active on social media posting lots of content to Instagram and Facebook. And keep an eye on Mitch’s webpage for music to come once live in-person music returns: https://mitchwoods.com/
Interviewer Bucky O’Hare is a Bluesman based in Boston who spreads his brand of blues and funk all over New England. Bucky has dedicated himself to experiencing the Blues and learning its history. As a writer, Bucky has been influenced by music critics and social commentators such as Angela Davis, Peter Guralnick, Eric Nisenson, Francis Davis and Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Featured Blues Review – 1 of 6
Walter Trout – Ordinary Madness
11 songs time – 57:45
Guitar slinger Walter Trout has a prime resume’ that includes time spent as one of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, member of Canned Heat, work with John Lee Hooker as well as his long standing solo career. Given his reputation as one of the premier blues-rock guitarists of recent times, the song structures, lyrics and his vocal abilities are the first things that jumped out at me. Of course his searing guitar leads are still there and are one of the elements that make this an enjoyable listen. He is supported by a sturdy rhythm section and various keyboard players and background vocalists. All songs are written by Trout or with his wife Marie with an assist on one by blues singer Teeny Tucker.
Throughout the lyrics attain a depth and a heartfelt authenticity typically absent from music with a blues-rock bent. The words aren’t just a toss-away vehicle that leads to guitar mayhem, although there is no lack of guitar gymnastics.
I pick up a definite cinematic-film noir vibe from the title song “Ordinary Madness”. The song maintains a level of coolness. The intro FX are courtesy of one Space Fish. It’s sounds like a mixture of backwards tapes and electronic effects, but I digress. The lyrical content is way cool-“It’s under the counter, it’s under the rug”. Even his soloing has a cool restraint to it. Careful craftsmanship was truly at work here.
By the second song “Wanna Dance” it hits me that the guy has a smooth and emotional vocal delivery. The theme is about the eventuality of death, so the narrator just wants to dance with his loved one. “My Foolish Pride” is a heartfelt piano infused ballad. Skip Edwards does the gentle piano under Walter’s soaring guitar outro. Leaving home for potentially greener pastures is the gist of “Heartland”. The inclusion of accordion and acoustic guitar add quaintness juxtaposed to the ever present soaring electric guitar.
Teeny Tucker and Marie Trout assisted Walter on composing the slow intense blues of “All Out Of Tears”. The emotion is echoed in the notes of his guitar. He again touches on the theme of the eventual ending for us all in “Final Curtain Call”. “Someday I know I’m gonna hit the wall”. A great guitar riff and blazing harmonica by Walter seems to lessen the blow. The haunting and atmospheric riff amongst organ, Wurlitzer and guitar throughout “The Sun Is Going Down” is utterly mesmerizing.
The ringing guitars of “Up Above My Sky” achieve a hypnotic effect. He takes things out on a bombastic note with the charging noise of “Ok Boomer”.
Well folks it really doesn’t get any better than this, a fully realized and performed work with attention to every last detail and not a slick or stiff moment to be found. Blues-rock, blues and roots it’s all here in fine fashion. I really never realized this guy had the vocal chops to compliment his blazing guitar. Major stuff here!
Reviewer Greg “Bluesdog” Szalony hails from the New Jersey Delta.
Featured Blues Review – 2 of 6
Super Chikan & Terry Harmonica Bean – From Hill Country Blues to Mississippi Delta Blues
Wolf Records CD 120.040
15 songs – 63 minutes
Guitarist James “Super Chikan” Johnson and multi-instrumentalist Terry “Harmonica” Bean serve up a treat for anyone with a love for North Mississippi blues on this one, trading off on an hour-long set of solo cuts that put their talents on display.
Based out of Clarksdale in the Delta, Super Chikan is a former truck driver who turned to music after writing songs as he whiled away the hours behind the wheel. He’s been a recording artist since 1997, when he released Blues Come Home to Roost, an album produced by Big Jack Johnson and Jim O’Neal, the founder of both Living Blues magazine and the Rooster Blues label.
A humorous man who picked up his nickname as a child because of his fascination with the birds, Chik’s a slide guitarist of the first order who usually fronts an all-electric band, The Fighting Cocks – an anachronism because the all-female lineup. He’s also a talented luthier. Constructed out of whatever he has handy, they’re highly prized works of art, not the basic cigar-box constructions that flood the market today.
Bean, meanwhile, hails from the Hill Country town of Pontotoc about 100 miles to the east, where he split his time working in a furniture factory during the week and played harp and guitar in juke joints on the weekend before cutting his first disc, Here I Am Baby in 2001. The duo have independently released about a dozen albums in the past two decades, delivering music that crosses multiple aspects of the blues.
They join forces here thanks to Austrian entrepreneur and music lover Hannes Folterbauer, who’s released more than 400 Chicago and country blues albums on Wolf Records, the label he’s operated out of Vienna for the past 30 years. He captured the 15 cuts here during a trip to the U.S. in 2018.
Super Chikan kicks off the action with a trio of originals: “Tin Top Shak,” a pleasing recollection of living in the country in a tin-topped shack, “Down in the Mississippi Delta,” a tribute to both Muddy Waters and Elmore James, and “Wavy Thoughts,” a boogie that describes watching the mighty Mississippi flow. Terry takes over for double-shot of his own, trading licks on guitar and harp for the unhurried ballad “Leaving Blues” and the rapid-fire “Boogie with Me.”
Always respectful of his forebears, Chik offers up a spoken intro before paying “Tribute to Jimmy Reed,” borrowing the chord structure of “Baby What You Want Me to Do,” which flows into the finger-picked “Poor Broke Boy.” Bean returns for a tasty take on Muddy’s “Who Gonna Be Your Sweet Man When I’m Gone” and “Mississippi Walking Blues,” a reinvention of Robert Johnson’s “Walking Blues.”
Super Chikan delivers a tip of the fedora to Mississippi, Tennessee and Arkansas – he lives a short drive from the other states – in “Sippi Seekan Saw,” yields to Terry for a take on the traditional “Black Cat Bone” and returns for two more originals — “Fred’s Dollar Store” and the stylish, sweet “Hug Me, Don’t Bug Me (Drugs Is Already Bugging Me)” – before Bean closes the set with a cover of the Slim Harpo standard “I Got Love If You Want It” and his own “2018 — Doin’ My Own Thing.”
Both Johnson and Bean are masters of their craft. If you’re a fan of intimate, down home blues, this set’s definitely right for you. It’s available through most major retailers.
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.
Featured Blues Review – 3 of 6
Janky – Hill Country Foot Stomp
Reverb Unit Records
A student of the music of Junior Kimbrough and R. L. Burnside, Janky is an Austin, TX based musician who prefers up close and personal performances to the big concert hall. Mentored by Texas bluesman Reverend KM Williams and having produced and played with the two Kimbrough brothers (sons of Junior), Janky is well versed in both the blues and the throbbing and hypnotic sounds of the hill country. This is his third full-length CD and he plays all the instruments (except harp) on all but the final cut.
Janky gives us 8 originals and an interesting cover of the hymn “Amazing Grace” adapted as part of the final track “North Mississippi Amazing Grace.” He handles the lead vocals, guitars, bass and suitcase footdrum. Cody Cotton play harp and backs Janky on vocals. The guests on the last cut are Ilana Katz Katz on fiddle and Jesson and Nikki Marie on backing vocals. Janky and Cody give this album a huge and rich sound in true hill country style, yet there is newness and freshness in their music. I guess you could describe it as hill country meets rock 2020, but in a throwback sort of way.
The album begins with “Ain’t No Reason It’s Just Because” where the hill country is stomping good, the harp is dirty and blazing and the vocals are up front with them. It’s in your face and fun. The guitar slides along with the lead vocals and harp and it’s a raucous and rowdy good time. Following that is more modern take on hill country music with “On My Way Down,” featuring more great harp and guitar work that remains in your face with a driving beat and just a great sound. A throbbing and pulsating beat in “You Like Mississippi Kudzu” with the guitar and feedback overlaid nicely on the beat. “Three Ways From Sunday” is up next, a more rocking sort of cut built on a standard hill country tune. The guitar solo again sits on the hill country beat but here it offers a juxtaposition in styles as it rocks somewhat ethereally and very coolly. “Southern Vapors” is a blend of late 1960’s rock and a Junior Kimbrough or R.L. Burnside tune.
“Let’s Go” is next with the guitar sounding like Elmore James mixed with hill country in a Bluesbreakers song with Cotton’s harp blowing madly all over the place- just great stuff. The guitar punches and attacks with finger pick upon finger pick and the harp counters it with its own volley of blows. “Sho’Nuff Don’t Know” follows. The pace is far less frenetic in a psychedelic rock sort of approach as Janky moans and then the replies come. Lyrically the song describes a break-up but emotionally the song is a jam band cut that is cut short after building musical tension and emotion.
“Damned These Old Long Days” is like a hot and lazy summer day with the heat rising from the banks of a river as the groove flows slowly like a river. The liner notes liken it to Led Zeppelin which I’d agree with but the harp work is better. Janky growls and lays out Page like licks and Cotton blends in some slick harp; the tempo picks up mid song as the cut shifts gears into more of a traditional stomp. The guitar and fiddle open the final cut with the feel of Scottish bagpipes but instead of the Scottish Highlands we are in the Mississippi Hill Country with the stomp box, tambourine, fiddle, guitars and harmonious vocals. Janky takes a nasal but cool sort of approach with the lead as the female backing singers add a church-like element. The fiddle continues the vibe of the bagpipes as Janky breaks into a subdued guitar solo with all humming the vocal lines before he reprises the first verse to make you think he will close things out. An instrumental conclusion actually follows the first “ending” as if the angels flew down to hill country and put on their boots and overalls to conclude things for the band.
Well, that was a wild ride. 1960’s rock, alternative rock, hill country music and then a little church music give us a satisfying and powerful album of music to enjoy. It’s nice to see a modern and updated take even using rock from the 1960s as a means to give it an update. Janky plays and sings with exuberance and Cotton blows some really mean harp in support.
I didn’t really know what to expect but I really enjoyed this one and fans of hill country blues and rock can find a middle ground to enjoy here. Highly recommended!
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 – 4 of 6
Downchild Blues Band – Live at the Toronto Jazz Festival
Diesel Management Productions
12 songs – 64 minutes
Delivering horn-drenched music like their American cousins, Roomful of Blues, since the late ‘60s, Downchild Blues Band returned to their hometown to celebrate their 50th anniversary with this pleasing, star-studded set, proving beyond a doubt that they’re just as vital now as the day they were formed.
Established in 1969 by guitarist/harp player/vocalist Donnie Walsh and his drummer brother Richard – a/k/a “Hock” – and making their debut at Grossman’s Tavern in Toronto, the group took their name and Donnie his nickname from the Sonny Boy Williamson tune, “Mr. Downchild.” They quickly became a hit on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border and served as countryman Dan Aykroyd for the Saturday Night Live skit that evolved into the Blues Brothers, who covered two of the band’s tunes on their multi-platinum Briefcase Full of Blues debut album.
With 18 albums to their credit, the group’s a multiple Juno Award winner – the Canadian equivalent of a Grammy. Fronted by Walsh, they’ve been performing with the same lineup for the past 25 years. Chuck Jackson handles lead vocals and harp with Pat Carey on tenor sax, Mike Fitzpatrick on drums, Gary Kendall on bass and Michael Fonfara (Rhinoceros and Lou Reed) on keys.
They’re augmented by frequent contributor Peter Jeffrey on trumpet with guest appearances from Aykroyd, former Late Night with David Letterman band leader Paul Shaffer, Canadian blues-rock guitarist David Wilcox, two former bandmates — Gulf Coast legend Kenny Neal and (ex-Fabulous Thunderbird) Gene Taylor – as well as Finnish slide guitar master Erja Lyytinen.
Captured outdoors in front of an enthusiastic crowd of 10,000 fans, Aykroyd handles introductions before the band powers out of the gate with “Can You Hear the Music.” Not to be confused with the Beatles’ song of the same title, it’s a swinging jump blues delivered by Jackson and aided by steady horn fills throughout. It bookends perfectly with the easy-greasy love song, “Understanding & Affection.”
Wilcox joins the action for the next two numbers. “It’s a Matter of Time” features dual vocal leads and tasty slide guitar runs, which fit perfectly with a fiery, uptown re-do of the Elmore James standard, “Madison Blues,” which is updated with full horn arrangements. Donnie’s original love ballad, “One in a Million,” follows before Taylor’s featured for a blazing take on Jimmy McCracklin’s 1955 jump-blues classic, “I’m Gonna Tell Your Mother.” A terrific mid-tune stop-time harp solo leads into Gene’s runs on keys.
Erja and Chuck share the spotlight for “Mississippi Woman, Mississauga Man,” a harp-driven duet that plays off Jackson’s hometown, a Toronto suburb, before Neal takes the stage on guitar for the slow-blues pleaser, “Shotgun Blues.” Aykroyd joins the action for the next three numbers, all of which have been featured prominently through the years in the set lists of both Downchild and the Blues Brothers. Sam & Dave’s familiar “Soul Man” kicks off the action aided by Erja and Kenny before Shaffer replaces Lyytinen for “I Got Everything I Need (Almost)” and the entire ensemble combine for a six-minute rendition of Big Joe Turner’s “Flip, Flop & Fly.” Another Big Joe tune, “TV Mama,” brings the action to a pleasant close.
Even after 50 years, there’s no slowing down Downchild. The music here can raise the dead and have them dancing in the aisles. Strongly recommended, and certain to be considered for live album of the year honors when next season’s awards come around.
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.
Featured Blues Review – 5 of 6
Kirsten Thien – Two Sides
Screen Door Records – 2020
8 tracks; 33 minutes
It is not every day that you encounter a graduate of Georgetown Business School who abandoned a career on Wall Street for a life in music. Playing solo or with a band, NYC-based Kirsten Thien has established a strong reputation across four previous albums, this new project inspired by the idea of the two sides of 45 rpm singles – ‘A’ and ‘B’ sides. Even though some of the songs here were written years ago they are intended to represent four single releases, with something of a theme across each pair of songs. Kirsten sings lead throughout and plays guitar on four tracks. The core band is Arthur Neilson on guitar, Tommy Mandel on keys, producer Erik Boyd on bass and Steve Holley on drums; Alex Alexander takes over the drum stool on two numbers, Raul Midón plays acoustic guitar on two and New Orleans vocalists Tarriona Tank Ball and Jelly Joseph (Tank and Jelly) appear on two tracks.
“Shoulda Been” is a strong opener, a rocker with electric slide set over an acoustic slide background, Kirsten demonstrating her independent attitude as she details all the expectations that people might have had for her but she remains resolutely herself. A lighter, almost country rock sound pervades “Sweet Lost And Found”, Tank and Jelly’s choral vocals adding a touch of gospel to the theme of positive thinking. Unusually both the opening tracks feature bass solos by producer Erik, slide bass on the first, 6-string bass on the second.
“After I Left Home” is inspired by Buddy Guy’s autobiography When I Left Home and follows some of Buddy’s story on a straight blues with Arthur playing an extended solo that could easily be Buddy himself. We then switch to a Bo Diddley-inspired beat on “Say It Out Loud”, Tank and Jelly again adding backing vocals to good effect as Kirsten sets out a very positive attitude to life: “We can live a dream and we can hide away, keep it to ourselves, be too afraid; or we can write it down to make it real. I know how you feel, I know how you feel, just say it out loud. Nobody but me can live my dream, no one can say it for me, I am the key. I am the key and my dreams are proud, I’m not afraid to say it out loud.” Raul supplies a beautifully light solo on acoustic guitar that complements the song well.
Kirsten turns to blues-rock on the chugging “I Gotta Man” as she and Arthur exchange pretty heavy solos before a real departure as Kirsten sings in Spanish on the latin-flavoured “Montañas”. Raul is credited as co-writer for the Spanish translation and the rhythm section of Erik and Alex is joined by the fleet-fingered, jazzy piano of Fabian Almazan and the South American guitars (cuatro and requinto) of John Benthal as Kirsten bemoans the fact that she felt she could move mountains but she could not change her man.
Multi-award winning acoustic bluesman Doug McLeod adds acoustic and resonator to Raul’s acoustic as Kirsten offers sage advice from her own experience that you need to do “Better Or You’re Gonna Get Burned”. The Delta feel from the slide is underlined by some Hill Country rhythms from guest drummer Wes Little. The album ends up in Texas with the sole cover, Leon Russell’s “I’d Rather Be Blind”, originally recorded by Freddie King in 1972 on Texas Cannonball. The core band is back for this one with Kirsten doing the rhythm work as Arthur plays some bright and tasty leads.
Across these eight varied songs Kirsten proves to be a good vocalist and plays her part on guitar too. The four pairs of songs do hang together reasonably well but it is a shame that the album is rather short by modern standards, making you regret that there was not another 45 or two to add in.
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 6
Grayson Capps – South Front Street
CD: 16 Songs, 65 Minutes
Styles: Mellow Blues, Contemporary Acoustic and Electric Blues, All Original Songs
Venture into any art museum. What do you see? Paintings, statues, sculptures, mobiles, all sorts of subjects depicted via all sorts of mediums. Some exhibits excite you. Others baffle you. Still others make you sit down on a bench and think. Taken separately, they’re self-contained entities unto themselves, but together they form a cohesive whole. This describes the retrospective album from Alabama singer-songwriter Grayson Capps, entitled South Front Street. Think of his style as Dave Matthews meets Neil Young meets a dash of Bruce Springsteen. Most of the sixteen original songs are meditative, bordering on melancholy (“New Again,” “Washboard Lisa,” “Daddy’s Eyes”). Still, a few will get your toes tapping and your hands clapping (“Train Song,” “Hold Me Darlin’,” “Psychic Channel Blues”). As a group, they present a timeline of Capps’ greatest work from 1997-2019. Is it blues? Yes, in the mellow acoustic/electric sense a la Neil Young and Eric Clapton. Fans will love it. Newcomers will gain lots of food for thought.
In the album’s liner notes, Grammy Award-winning producer and engineer Trina Shoemaker explains: “I began this as a personal compilation that I sequenced for myself. It is a collection of songs that paint a picture of our life together and reveals a world from the uniquely enchanted, poetic and tormented perspective of Grayson Capps.” She later continues: “These songs capture a life in motion, in pain and joy, in gain and loss, in humility and grace.” The title comes from the street where Capps lived, in a shotgun house along the Mississippi River in New Orleans, amid an assortment of outsiders and ne’er-do-wells that he credits as the inspiration for finding his voice as a songwriter. It follows Grayson and Trina’s life in NOLA, their relocation to Nashville after Hurricane Katrina, and a subsequent return to the Gulf Coast. One might recognize material from Capps’ critically-acclaimed band Stavin’ Chain and his role in the cult film A Love Song for Bobby Long, starring Scarlett Johansson and John Travolta.
For a detailed list of musicians on this CD, check the liner notes. Trina Shoemaker herself guest stars on harmony vocals for track thirteen, “Daddy’s Eyes,” first featured on Wail & Ride (2006).
“May We Love” is the album’s first standout track, full of gorgeous harmony, lilting collective instrumentation, and a plea for understanding. “Let go of your notions of simple space and time. Don’t get jailed by emotions. Empty out your mind. I know you’re worried about money, but it’s all gonna be okay. Just do what you love, and love every day. Hear my plea; hear my plea.” It’s a remix of the version on Love Songs, Mermaids and Grappa (2016). Next comes “Train Song” from Stavin’ Chain – Collected Songs (1997). It’s a growling rocker featuring some wicked dobro from John Lawrence and funky bassline by Anthony “AG” Hardesty. “Psychic Channel Blues” from Rott-N-Roll (2008) isn’t about a scam on TV, but the “psychic channel” in the brain of our narrator’s lover. “If I’m unfaithful,” he says, “you know that phone line’s gonna ring.”
The most remarkable thing about this CD is that Grayson Capps remixed and revisited his earlier songs instead of copy-pasting tracks from his older albums. He wanted a fresh take on his previous work and the results turned out to be stunning. Slow or fast, happy or sad, it’s all art!
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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