Cover photo © 2021 Taki “Tiki” Nishino
In This Issue
Mark Thompson has our feature interview with Crystal Thomas. We have six blues reviews for you this week including new music from Chick Willis, Paul Boddy & The SlideWinder Blues Band, Harvey Brindell, JD3 & The Jondo Trio, Bob Angell and Ally Venable.
Featured Interview – Crystal Thomas
While she may have been flying under the radar for many in the blues community, Crystal Thomas is working hard to get the attention of listeners around the world. She will tell you that music has always been a part of her life, a fact made clear as her story unfolds. Her talents have been featured on two CD releases, but her latest project really showcases her striking vocal skills.
Thomas, born in a Shreveport, LA hospital, grew up in Mansfield, a small town south of Shreveport. She would go back and forth between her parents and grandparents, staying at home during the week to go to school, then going out to her grandparents farm on weekends. She had three brothers and two sisters to keep her company.
“It was country – but it was awesome! I was able to get in-tune with myself, growing up humble. I was grateful for what we had, although there weren’t a lot of local attractions. Most of the time growing up we had to be creative.
“I started singing when I was two years old, so I got into it pretty early. My Dad played guitar and my Mom was always singing. She was my biggest influence. Music had a dominant presence in our home. And my grandparents had all kinds of 8-track tapes, so they always played music. My mother had a room filled with LPs and 45 rpm records.
“The first song I ever sang was the Dukes of Hazard theme song! That was one of the only things that was on television at that time. It was a great song. And that speaks to the power of music, that even at that young age, it was awesome enough that I was able to catch on and build something from that song. I think that it what music is supposed to do.”
Her grandparents had a little battery powered portable jukebox. Every weekend she would ride around with them listening to Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Jimmy Reed. Spending time on the farm taught Thomas plenty of lessons about life, even some that snuck up on her, knocking her out of her comfort zone.
“Growing up, the hog was one of the most exotic animals my grandparents had. I would always feed it when I was there. One weekend, my Paw Paw and I went to the barn to feed the animals, and I quickly noticed, there was no hog. I don’t think they wanted to tell me that the hog had gone to the processing plant. But I saw all of this stuff wrapped in white freezer paper filling their freezer – big, fresh pork chops and bacon. I said no way am I eating any of that! I was in elementary school when that happened.”
“It wasn’t to the point where I thought of it as my pet pig. That was one of my chores that I became accustomed to, and I was intrigued by the hog. I had never seen a pig before. That was when I began learning about where our food we are eating actually comes from.”
Thomas also did plenty of singing in church in her younger years.
“Church was really the only thing we had to do. Especially in the country, it was the one constant. We were always in church, and that is where I learned to sing. I also learned about singing with conviction in church. These days, when I meet other aspiring artists, I try to work with their mindset. I have been trained to be disciplined. A lot of artists today haven’t had to pay those kinds of dues. I remind them that they can be the best vocalist in the world, not still not make a connection with anyone. When you can sing from the soul, that’s when you are doing your job.
“I came up in a true Baptist church. There was no dancing and they didn’t even want a drum set in church. Then I left for college, and when I can home, they had tambourines and praise bands! I was like, wow, I leave and now y’all get creative. But I struggled for a long time with the singing the gospel and then being a blues singer. But my pastor supports me. He told me one day he was going to come out and surprise me at a show. His thing is God gave me a gift to bless others. When I write, even if it is secular music, I still have a responsibility to heal. The fact that the pastor said he is coming to see someday, I feel like I have the green light!”
In addition to singing, Thomas also started learning to play an instrument as a youngster, although it was not her first choice, falling victim to the ever-present policy that often rules over family decisions in these types of matters.
“My one brother and I are five years apart. When he was old enough to take band in school, my Mom invested all of this money to purchase him an instrument. It was a trombone. He played it for about a week. When I got in fifth grade, the band instructor brought out all of these cool instruments, and gave us envelopes to take home to our parents. When my Mom saw the letter, it was nope, no way. If you want to be in the band, you can get your brother’s trombone out of the closet. I told her I didn’t want to play the trombone. But I ended up playing the hand-me-down.”
Starting in 5th grade, the aspiring trombonist began to study music. She participated in general band in elementary school, learning to read music. In junior high, she graduated to jazz and concert bands. Once she moved on to high school, Thomas was involved in the marching band as well as the symphonic band and orchestra. Music kept her busy throughout the school year.
“I was still singing every day, but I didn’t get into the school choir until my junior year of high school. And I was writing songs, too. I wrote the first one while in the 5th grade. It wasn’t until I left college in 1996 that I sang with a band outside of the school environment. That was the first time I got into the whole idea of singing being the thing that I wanted to do.”
The trombonist attended Jackson State University in Jackson, Mississippi for several years, majoring in music while being a part of the college’s famed Sonic Boom of the South marching band.
“Once I was in the college band, I appreciated the fundamentals that I had learned in high school band. Mr. Appleton was band instructor from when I started through high school graduation. That relationship made things fun and easy. Once I was at Jackson State, it was a totally different arena. We danced, we did high stepping, not heel to toe marching. The training was different, and the music was awesome!
“One key lesson I learned is that listening is everything. You can never play with anyone if you can’t hear each other. Music is like cooking, it’s a blend. You have to learn to play together. We were taught one band, one sound. If one person is off, everyone is off. That has prepared me for working in the music industry. Musicians have different motivations, and they don’t always have the same passion that I have. That is the biggest thing I run into out on the circuit now. There is no structure. The discipline that I learned in school doesn’t seem to exist any more in music today. That is frustrating.”
When her grandfather needed help caring for her grandmother while he worked, Thomas left college early to help out back home. She looks back on that as one of the disadvantages of the “small town curse.
“Even today, before I go out to do a show, I either take my grandfather with me, or I make arrangements for someone to watch him while I am gone. There are things that I have not been able to do because I refuse to leave him alone with no one to check on him. That’s why I left school.”
Settled in at home, Thomas worked a number of odd jobs, but music was still the only thing she wanted to do. She would produce her own music on a small Yamaha Casio keyboard. At one point, she went to a record store in Shreveport to meet several guys to go to a recording studio.
“I got there to find that they had no idea of what I was talking about. It was a really weird situation. I was so disappointed as I had made the trip up there, but I did get a chance to sing. One of the gentlemen was impressed, so he started putting me in rap and R&B shows. One day I was in the studio recording with a local rapper. One of the saxophone players on the session heard me. He had a band that was getting ready to do a show with Bobby Rush. He invited me to come sing with the band.
“I always love to sing, so of course I said yes to his offer. That was the first show I did, opening for Bobby Rush in 1999. It was on from there! After that show, I joined the band and we played every club, restaurant, anywhere they had live music from Shreveport through Louisiana into Texas, every weekend. We opened for the Temptations, we opened for Parliament, we played casinos.
“In 2002, the trumpet player for Mr. Johnnie Taylor’s band invited me to reach out Mr. Taylor, who was looking for a new trombone player. I didn’t believe he knew Johnny Taylor. But I walked over to pay phone, called, and Mr. Taylor answered. He told me that they were already on their way out of town. He wanted to come the next week on Wednesday for rehearsal, which meant going to Dallas. I rehearsed with them on Wednesday and Thursday, and Friday we left for Houston for my first show, and then we played New Orleans on Saturday night.”
Having grown up listening to Taylor, as her entire family loved his singing, being a part of his band was a mind-blowing experience.
“I was so nervous before that first show that I left my shoes on the bus. And I had never played with a podium in front of me. I can read sheet music, but the podium was so far from the microphone, and I had never played into a microphone! In the school bands we would always project through our instruments, so that was something I had to get used to.
“The only thing that saved me was that I was already familiar with his music. I got caught up in watching him. We had two trumpets, me on trombone, and two saxophone players, an alto and baritone sax.
One benefit of being in Taylor’s band was the education Thomas received on handling the business end of a career in music, that there is more to it than just getting up on stage and playing.
“One difference was that I had never been involved with a professional soundcheck before that. Playing locally, everything was through the clubs and we set up on our own. Now it was a big company, there was an itinerary, and a lot more structure. I appreciated seeing how things operate on a different scale. Being a part of the Taylor Made Orchestra made me realize I was ready to be out here by myself.
“When I went back to the bus to get my shoes that first night, I was crying. I was excited to be on a big stage, and I was thinking God, give it to me. I knew being with him that that was definitely where I wanted to be.”
She worked with Taylor for a few months before the singer passed away after a heart attack.
“We had done a show in Birmingham, Alabama. The trumpet player lived in Shreveport, so every week we would catch a Greyhound out to Dallas for rehearsal, then the whole band would leave from there to go out to the shows. On the way back from Birmingham, the radio station was playing Taylor’s song, “Stop Doggin’ Me Around,” as we were pulling into the Trailways stop in Shreveport. I said, Mr. Taylor, can you tell me who is singing this song? I love this song, it is so beautiful. He put his arm around me and said, I don’t know who that is, then the whole bus fell out. He told us to have a safe week, to stay in touch, and we would have a rehearsal before the next show.”
The following Wednesday Thomas was surprised as her phone blew up and stations were playing his music, doing tributes. The singer called her mom to check to see if she had heard anything. It took a few days before someone reached out to inform her that Taylor had passed.
“He was definitely a treat for the music world. So many don’t realize that he came from a gospel background. He was with the Highway QC’s out of Chicago before filling in after Sam Cooke left the Soul Stirrers. He had the gift, that natural talent. That was a very sad moment.
“After that, Big Jack Williams, who had been in Taylor band longer than anyone, took me under his wing. He would book me on gigs as a trombone player after Mr. Taylor’s death, plus even to this day, he continues to encourage and support me. It is a very special relationship as he is like another Dad to me.”
Eventually she formed the GCR band with her good friend, keyboardist Gary Smith, and trumpeter Don Crenshaw, the man who made the initial contact about Thomas joining Johnnie Taylor’s band
Through it all, the singer continued to work on creating her music in a variety of styles from rap to blues, country, even writing special wedding songs honoring the happy couple. But she found herself running into the issues that bands always seem to have at some point in their existence.
“There could be jealousy, band members that don’t want to rehearse any more. So I started leaning on my own original music. For my CD, I reached out to some of the church musicians that I knew, got them to back me, put together my original tunes, and I dropped the disc, Lyrical Gumbo: The Essence Of Blues.”
“At that time, social media was getting stronger, For an artist, social media is a dream, particularly compared to what artists could do 30 years ago. It is a big advantage. I was doing live blues shows. But media gave me an opening to be creative about promotion using live shows, video, social media promotion, digital, dropping songs. I went old-school by beating the pavement and grinding away.”
Around the time of her second release, Drank Of My Love, Thomas received a phone call out-of-the-blue that changed the trajectory of her career.
“The gentleman introduced himself as Eddie Stout, and told me that some people from Japan had reached out to him about me. I’m sitting there thinking, who is this weird guy on my phone? Nobody knows me, so is this some kind of game? I wasn’t thinking about the power of social media. Eddie invited me to go down to Austin to sit in with him and his band. When the time came, my Mom and I drove there to meet the Eastside Kings for the first time. They became my second musical family.”
The singer also recorded two songs for a release that came out at the end of 2018, Texas Queens 5 on the VizzTone label, featuring five female vocalists backed by the Japanese band Bloodest Saxophone, complete with a three piece horn section. Thomas covered “Losing Battle,” the Johnny Adams classic, and one written by Roscoe Robinson.
“I met all of them in the studio. One secret I will tell you is that I had no idea who Johnny Adams was until I was in the studio for the recording session. Johnny was a phenomenal singer. I was familiar with “Losing Battle” from a version that Lynn White recorded. But when I heard Johnny’s voice, I felt horrible. How could I have not known about him?”
Her current project, Now Dig This, has been released on Stout’s Dialtone Records label in the LP format. It was originally released in Japan as Don’t Worry About The Blues. Stout, along with Japan’s blues ambassadors Yasfumi Higurashi and Akira Kochi, selected the songs and put together the band. And what a band it is with Texas guitar ace Johnny Moeller, brother Jason on drums, legendary bass player Chuck Rainey, and the late Lucky Peterson on keyboards.
“Lucky Peterson was another musician I met for the first time in the studio. The only one of them that I had played with prior to that was Jason. The song “The Blues Ain’t Nothin’ But Some Pain” is my favorite. I was in awe of Mr. Peterson. He was coming from Africa, so he was dealing with major jet lag. I was so grateful that he would take time to come work with little old me. Once he heard me sing, I think he was excited to be there.
“Once again, that was the first I had heard of him as well. To hear him on that Hammond B-3 organ, oh my! We even did a little of “Got My Mojo Workin’ “ with him on guitar and me singing. He really enjoyed that moment. We had a lot of fun doing a duet on “Let’s Go Get Stoned”. That was beautiful. You aren’t going to find many people out there like him. Most of the recording was done in two days in April, 2019, a month after my Mother passed away. To be able to produce that quality of work under those conditions, I was definitely pleased.”
“I really and truly want to make an impact in the blues world, to reciprocate the feelings that I received growing up listening to those greats. I want to pick up that torch to represent that good down-home music. There is not a lot of that out there right now.
“You don’t have to know anything about music to be #1. You don’t have to sing in key any more, don’t need to know flats and sharps. You can just have a nice gimmick song and , hey, you’re a star now.
“I’ve worked too hard to settle for that. I want to do as much music as I can while I can to touch as many souls as I can. My goal is to be the next blues queen. It is more than a privilege to be out here creating good songs that blues listeners can enjoy.”
Blues Blast Magazine Senior writer Mark Thompson lives in Florida, where he is enjoying the sun and retirement. He is the past President of the Board of Directors for the Suncoast Blues Society and a former member of the Board of Directors for the Blues Foundation. Music has been a huge part of his life for the past fifty years – just ask his wife!
Featured Blues Review – 1 of 6
Chick Willis – Things I Used To Do
Big Bear Records – 2020
13 tracks; 65 min 17 sec
This Chick Willis live set was recorded on two hot and sweaty days back in August 1997. The thirteen songs were released on Big Bear Records by Jim “Big Bear” Simpson, renowned promoter and artist manager. The band is Chick Willis on guitar and vocal, Tony Ashton on piano and Hammond organ, Roger Inniss on bass, and Sticky Wicket on drums. Willis had been touring colleges and clubs for years, and entertaining blues fans since the 50s. He passed back in 2013, so it’s nice to have this driving presentation of the “Stoop Down Man” at his best, backed by celebrated British jazz/blues musicians. The band is tight, as they had been on the road for a while.
Things I Used To Do starts with a rollicking shuffle in “Lou’s Place.” Willis’ vocal is tough and confident, and his lead guitar work is prominent throughout. Ashton’s piano jaunts nicely alongside the amazing rhythm section and fills in all the spaces. Next is “Please Don’t Go,” a slow blues about lost love. The album contains five slow blues tracks, all possessing individuality and essence of their own. ”Tin Pan Alley” and “Four Wives Blues” are the final two. The instrumentation of Willis and Ashton are beautifully in sync throughout, and the bass and drums are as tight as it gets.
A few enthusiastic shuffles and funky blues numbers break up the slow ones nicely. The Willis staple “Big Fat Woman” shuffles along vigorously, as he playfully sings, “I want a big fat woman, because a big fat woman tastes as good as a T-bone steak.” Lavelle White’s “Voodoo Woman” and Ed Jones’ “The Things I Used To Do” are covered flawlessly. “Doin’ the Yang Thang” closes this fine blues album in perfect style, showcasing the band individually.
Willis’ playing is reminiscent of Otis Rush and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown at times, and his dynamic string pluck is like Albert Collins and Robert Cray. There’s a ton of emotion and excitement in his performances, throughout Things I Used To Do as well. The album is exemplary electric blues. That’s what it’s all about.
Reviewer Brian D Holland is a music journalist, author, and former musician. He has written for many present and former music magazines, both online and in print. Brian and his wife Nancy live in Massachusetts, close to both Boston and Providence. They have two grown children and one grandson.
Featured Blues Review – 2 of 6
Paul Boddy & The SlideWinder Blues Band – Friends of Tuesday
Paul Boddy and the SlideWinder Blues Band hail from the Philly burb of Doylestown, PA and the boys have decades of musical experience mixing the sounds of the Texas and Chicago into their brand of blues rock. The SlideWinder Band is a five plus year effort of these seasoned musicians and this is the debut recording effort for them. Pennsylvania Blues Hall of Famers, Boddy and the band are a tight and fun band to listen to. All original music is offered up here.
“Over the Hump” is the big single from Boddy and company and starts the album with some fun and with a nice funky groove. ( CLICK HERE for video.)
The guitar (Paul Boddy) and organ (Glen Hale) lay it out and the humorous lyrics sell this one as Boddy bemoans being old and broken and not being able to do what today’s young folks can do. Relationships gone awry is the topic for “Love Me Darlin,” a blues rocker with lots of guitar and organ as Boddy and backing vocalist Lori Gaston sing about a failed love life.
Every young, single guy can relate to “Money on Love,” a song about hanging out in bars trying to find the love of one’s life. Boddy slips and slides on the guitar as he sings about spending some money on love. “Knockin’ My Boots” is another tongue in cheek cut where Boddy says his date can knock his pants but apparently draws the line when his boots are being criticized. More cool slide, Hale switches to the piano and Tim Shay plays some nice sax here.
Double entendres abound in “Pretty Kitty” and Mikey Jr. adds his greased up harp to this one. The song drives along with a good beat and Boddy wails sweetly on guitar. The harp is excellent and the organ also shines. “Makin’ Me Cry” closes the set with more failed love life lyrics. A dark, soulful, slow blues, Boddy sings with emotion as Carol and Jeannie Brooks back him on vocals. We get our final dose of wicked slide and organ as the EP closes.
All in all, this is a cool effort. Boddy has a great tone and plays some excellent slide. Chuck Hearne and Jim Bowman are apt on the backline and support the music on all tracks with their bass and drum work as they have for decades for many a fine act. Hale handles the keys with aplomb and the guest and backing musicians add depth to the music. If you like some rocking blues with hardcore slide and talented musicality all around, then check out the SlideWinders!
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 – 3 of 6
Harvey Brindell – Pennies on the Dollar
Self-Release – 2020
10 tracks; 36:48
Harvey Brindell’s Pennies on the Dollar, his solo debut, is straight-forward blues that holds your attention in the same way you know a good band the second you walk into a club. Honest blues grabs you immediately, and Brindell’s crafted an album of sincere blues.
Brindell, based in Portland after some time in Nebraska, has recorded with the Honeyboy Turner Band, in addition to playing countless live shows. His voice has a bemused bluesy quality, a la Elvin Bishop, an interesting wrinkle given Brindell’s career as a mental health therapist. Songs often have the quality of someone not laughing at the human condition, but also unsurprised by it. Brindell also plays guitar, harmonica, and organ, on the album, along with plenty of guest stars.
The title track features Mitch Kashmar on harmonica, everyone playing over a groove reminiscent of Muddy Water’s “Mannish Boy,” but sped up. Kashmar is especially incendiary on the rideout, trading licks with himself, never concerned with the quantity of notes, but instead focused upon his rich tones and soulful licks. No one is pushing any boundaries, because that’s not the point. Everyone locks into each other, propelling the song and not trying to cut heads, unlocking an energy between manic and lazy. It’s talented musicians listening to and playing off of each other within the respectful confines of the song.
Brindell plays with different styles. “The Old Zoo Bar” has a 50s, Stray Cats kind of feel, with a gorgeously thick solo courtesy of Kashmar. “Blues for Omaha” is an immaculately clean guitar tone that sounds almost acoustic. It’s the album’s most laid-back track, a nice opportunity to reset just about halfway through the album. In a different time, it’s the song that would have led to flipping the album over to side two. Which brings us to “Mississippi Medicaid,” featuring the always amazing guitar work of Johnny Burgin, who uses some quick-picking to make his solos sounds like hummingbirds somehow plugged into guitar amps. And “That’s The Blues” has a high-energy Brindell vocal, where he even sounds hoarse from shouting. Guitar cuts through wave upon wave of organ (also provided by Brindell), the whole tune sounding like the very best of 1960s garage rock, making it one of the best tracks on a good album.
There are lots of great regional artists like Brindell who, even pre-pandemic, we don’t get to see for geographic reasons. Pennies on the Dollar is an introduction to a talented songwriter and performer. He’s learned a lot playing out, but he’s also no slouch when it’s time to lay things down on tape.
Reviewer Steven Ovadia writes about music and technology. You can see more of his music writing at https://steven.ovadia.org/music/.
Featured Blues Review – 4 of 6
JD3 & The Jondo Trio – Something Good
11 songs time – 44:41
This four piece outfit spearheaded by Nate Mosley on guitar and gritty vocals defies complete description. They go from heavy handed rock to more of a melodic tone and various applications back and forth. The powerful rhythm section of drummer Paul Osborn and bassist Stu Way is fleshed out by the keyboards and horns of Chris Dafforn. They execute the all original songs with professionalism.
Nate’s gruff voice holds up well over the often heavy instrumental assault as first demonstrated on “Restless Soul”, a bit of a hard rock anthem, a commanding kick off to the CD. The attack doesn’t let up on “No Fools”. He unleashes a biting guitar solo before song’s end. Organ and horns adds to the funky groove of “Big Daddy”. It helps that Nate has a Big Daddy voice. “Tangientially” mellows and slows things down with a wistful groove abetted by melodic guitar shadings.
You want hard hitting grittiness? Try “Texas” on for size. As things progress I just can’t get enough of Nate’s warmly gruff vocalizations. “By And By” surely keeps the energy flowing. The funk returns on “Holding On Tight” with the horns beefing up the punchy vibe. The sh*t kickin’ resumes on the assertive “Have A Little Faith”.
“Try, Try, Try” is a plaintive slow burning flame of a song. Nate lets loose with a soulfully powerful guitar solo. The narrator’s frustration and desperation are vented on “Rocks At The Moon” after a thundering drum-guitar intro. The song maintains an almost tribal beat. The show closes out with power chords blazing in “Whatchucan” going out as things came in.
Well crafted rock with occasional roots, funk and country tinges. This is no jam band free-for-all, their assault is well orchestrated and delivers emotion. Not forgetting the wizened lyrical content. The heavy guitars combined with the complimentary backing band and the raw vocals makes for a match sent by the Rock Gods. Make no mistake this is prime stuff!
Reviewer Greg “Bluesdog” Szalony hails from the New Jersey Delta.
Featured Blues Review – 5 of 6
Bob Angell – Supernal Blues
15 songs, 45 minutes
“Supernal” is defined as relating to the sky or the heavens; celestial; of exceptional quality or extent. Veteran Rhode Island Bluesman Bob Angell’s new album Supernal Blues does not relate to the sky or heavens like a Brian Eno soundscape. Nor is it celestial in a David Bowie androgynous astro-traveling space junky sense. Traditional Blues enthusiasts won’t even say that Angell’s rough and tumble often skewed and decidedly non-traditional approach is of exceptional quality. However, for those of us who want our Blues to sound personal, surprising and unique Bob Angell and his magnificent Supernal Blues is a fresh oasis.
Supernal Blues’ 15 tracks, recorded mainly at Stable Sound Studio in Newport, RI and 3 cuts recorded at the mythic Sun Studios in Memphis, run a gambit from stripped down solo stomps to expansive multi-tracked deconstructions. There is whimsy and irreverence, heartfelt reflection and lamentation and even some master classes in Angell’s specific skewed traditional take on the Blues. Angell plays his acoustic and electric guitars throughout with fluidity and the sound of years of honing his chops. Angell is not an angelic singer. Delivering his songs with a talking Blues style Angell’s delivery is reminiscent of Lou Reed or Frank Zappa more than Blind Boy Fuller (who he name checks) or Muddy Waters. Supporting musicians come in for single tracks primarily. Duke Robillard duets with Angell on the instrumental opener “Immediate Blues.” Vinnie Earnshaw on bass and Jack Moore on drums fill out the swinging instrumental workout “Slo-Pokin’.” Kelly Knapp and Dylan Walker offer background vocals each on separate tracks and Harmonica Robert Marsella offers his namesake instrument on two songs.
Supernal Blues sounds like Angell opening up his diary to us and sharing both his deep meditations and humor. The mournful “If You’re Really Gonna Leave Me” features Marsella’s haunting harp work dancing between Angell’s overdubbed electric lead punctuating a lonely Skip James inspired acoustic/vocal performance. As song 3 on the record after the fun filled “Blue Memphis,” “Gonna Leave Me” revs up the emotional stakes. Drags through the depths are balanced by double entendre laced romps like “Eatin’ Ain’t Cheatin’.” Angell asks his lady friend to put on her party pants cause “we’re eatin’ out tonight.” Extolling her “don’t tell your husband, he won’t see it right, eatin’ ain’t cheatin’ and your love is tasting good tonight.” Adding to the diary effect are the solo electric guitar instrumentals “One Minute With The Blues” and “One More Minute With The Blues” each a minute and clearly outtakes from some in studio warming up included for fun.
Supernal Blues is a record full of solo finger picked Blues a la Blind Boy Fuller and Skip James, old school Rock n’ Roll teen bops and deep dark Blues, with a healthy dose of humor and sentiment infused. But, the 1-2 bizarro punches of the last two tracks on the record leave the already punch drunk listener TKO. “Lonely Here No More,” the penultimate tune, starts with a heavily fuzzed out, compressed to within an inch of its life, slide guitar riff. A second ragged slide comes in and the tempo undulates into a slowed down minor drag. Keeping the whole 5 minutes and 11 seconds just these two manic guitars and Angell’s affecting graveled holler, the song exudes loneliness and pain. The final song, and only cover, is a not so traditional arrangement of the hymn “Jesus Loves Me.” Cinematic in arrangement, “Jesus Loves Me” starts simply with a piano and chorus of sweet female voices. Giving way to rolling NOLA inspired piano and acoustic slide guitar almost working against each other before rolling back into a final pass at the lyrics, this performance sounds like it was what Willie Nelson and the Family messed around on between takes of the Red Headed Stranger in 1975.
Bob Angell is a founding father of North Eastern Blues. His band Blues Outlet in the late 60’s was one of the first electric Blues bands in Rhode Island. It was in the Ocean State that North Eastern Blues would be born and where it still is thriving. Supernal Blues is a modern testament to the unique nature of North Eastern Blues. Reverence balances with individuality while adding some North Eastern grit.
Reviewer 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 – 6 of 6
Ally Venable – Heart of Fire
Ruf Records – 2021
11 Tracks; 50 minutes
Although still only in her early twenties, Texas’ darling, Ally Venable, (who has won numerous awards in her home state, and has been nominated for Independent Blues Awards), has already completed her fifth release. One might imagine that it would be difficult to follow her last album, Texas Honey, (produced by Mike Zito), Billboard-charting at #2. However, Heart of Fire has certainly met, if not surpassed that high bar. The majority of songs are originals, demonstrating songwriting ability that seems far beyond her years.
And, while there are plenty of songs that clearly identify her blues-rock influence from Stevie Ray Vaughan, (including a beautiful instrumental tribute to Vaughan), some of the best tracks stray from that predictable path. For example, “Played the Game” sheds light on another aspect to her personality with its beautifully quiet guitar work. Additionally, her cover of “Hateful Blues” starts with a sample from Bessie Smith’s 1924 recording, and then cleverly merges into a unique, updated version of the song. The one other cover on this album, Bill Withers’ “Use Me,” strikes just the right balance between offering a new interpretation of this familiar song while not changing the much-loved melody so much that it becomes unrecognizable.
Venable’s vision for the album was to “create a tone of overcoming our struggles and persevering through them,” and she accomplishes that mission through her lyrics. In “Played the Game” she shares “I’ve been hanging on to what is gone—gotta let go, move on—it’s clear!” Later in the album she talks about “not going back to that sad situation.” This theme of triumphing over bad relationships can even be found in “Hateful Blues,” with the line, “My love has been abused…If he can stand to leave me, then I can stand to see him go!”
Venable has some heavy-hitting guest artists on this album too, with drums by Cody Dickinson (of North Mississippi Allstar fame), and with distinctive guitar solos by both Devon Allman and Kenny Wayne Shepherd. “Road to Nowhere,” featuring Allman, has a catchy hook and is likely to become a crowd favorite. And, Venable’s pairing with Shepherd brings a mesmerizing slow blues about a love that will carry a person through hard times. It challenges, “No matter what’s going on, my love won’t change— bring on the pain.”
There is very little to criticize about this album, although it is somewhat disappointing that Devon Allman’s voice is barely audible on “Road to Nowhere,” providing only a few background vocals on the chorus. A true duet between those two could have made for quite an exciting pairing. Additionally, while Venable’s vocals are on-pitch and generally quite strong, she does still have a very youthful sound to her voice, as if she is still searching for the timbre and rich tone that only more years on the planet will bring.
Overall, however, this is an excellent album, on which Venable is successful in more clearly defining her identity as both a musician and a songwriter. Heart of Fire is sure not to disappoint current Venable fans and likely to attract many more new ones. Like Mike Zito once said, Ally Venable appears to clearly be “the future of the blues.”
Reviewer Anita Schlank lives in Virginia, and is on the Board of Directors for the River City Blues Society. She has been a fan of the blues since the 1980s. She and Tab Benoit co-authored the book “Blues Therapy,” with all proceeds from sales going to the HART Fund.
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