Cover photo © 2021 Marilyn Stringer
In This Issue
Steven Ovadia has our feature interview with Ana Popovic. We have six blues reviews for you this week including new music from Chris Cain, Crystal Thomas, Caroline Dahl, Dr. Bekken Trio, Cathy Grier and the Troublemakers and Randy McAllister and the Scrappiest Band in the Motherland.
Featured Interview – Ana Popovic
Blues singer/guitarist Ana Popovic used to say that the beauty of being a musician was that it was surprisingly stable work. After all, there were always concerts.
And then Covid-19 came along.
“I think I said it too loud,” she says, reflecting upon the past year. “I never had a different job. I never solicited for any other job. This is the only thing I’ve ever done. And successfully, because we’ve never had a slow year, in 20 years. If we lose an agent, or if something happens, that we stopped playing, for example, France for a few years, or Italy, some other countries [would] kind of start working more for us. So we would always end up having 130 shows a year, no matter what. We worked on it hard to spread my name in different territory. So you would always have exciting new territories to play, and always come back to the old ones. Right? Except this time.”
This time there was no other region to tour to find concerts. The whole world shut down. And while there’s never a convenient time for a major part of your livelihood to completely dry up, this timing had a small silver lining. On the one hand, it coincided with Popovic celebrating her 20th anniversary as a musician, which wasn’t great. However, she had recorded a live album and DVD, Live for Live, in December 2019 that was released in March 2020, as the pandemic was hitting critical mass. “In times where there [were] no concerts, I think our DVD was a great thing to receive at home, [watching] a concert when you couldn’t go out,” she says. “So I think that was good timing for that for us.”
Popovic started scoping out opportunities for her band during the pandemic. “We did a lot of recordings, we did a lot of demos, we worked on a lot of songs and that really kept us going basically: music,” she says. She takes her responsibility leading a band seriously. “Because if you’re a bandleader, you kind of feel responsible for the band members as well, not just you. Obviously, I have a family to worry about, but also for the band, all these musicians keep on turning to different side jobs and trying to get whatever they can, and of course, not related to music at all. And that’s a shame to see that happen. So I was trying to always keep [the band] busy.” As part of that plan, Popovic also started doing small, private shows.
“There are some fans that really want to get a small amount of people in the backyard,” she explains. “Some of them have great music rooms, some of them have wonderful backyards, looking over a lake or something. And then with social distance, we basically play for our audience again, which is great.” These small shows allow fans from nearby areas to converge and safely hear live music.
Popovic says she’s grateful for the opportunity to connect with fans, not just because she’s missed them, but also because playing these small, informal venues let her rethink her stage show. “It’s not a concert anymore,” she ways of these smaller shows. “The song or the order of the songs and stuff is not exactly the same as when you’re on a big stage. And [when] you play for a festival crowd or whatever, I totally approach it different. Actually, I take songs I haven’t played before, I do some acoustic. I engage the band a lot more. Because this is really what everybody wants. It’s a healing process, right? Everybody’s in the same situation, no matter what kind of a job you have, everybody’s waiting for this thing to be over so they can get back to their normal lives, which is seeing people, meeting people talking, socializing.”
There’s also a closeness to these smaller concerts. “There is something very, very relaxed about those kind of shows, where you can really be kind of intimate with the crowd in a new way,” she says. “Like, you can tell stories. They’re right there with you in the room, and it just becomes a very relaxed and nice moment, a very intimate setting. In a lot of ways, much better than when you’re so far from the crowd on a giant stage.”
Popovic grew up in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, now known as Serbia. The daughter of a blues-loving graphic artist, she was accepted into a Dutch art school, where she could have followed in her father’s vocational footsteps. Instead, she decided to attend a jazz conservatory, also forming a band. After a year, the band was popular enough that Popovic left school, eventually recording her solo debut, Hush! in Memphis in 2000. Popovic has consistently released music since then, with just four years her longest stretch between albums. Her funk-influenced blues rock is reminiscent of Jimi Hendrix, but with her own distinctive musical voice that’s evolved over 20 years.
In fact, it’s easy to get caught-up in Popovic’s incendiary guitar playing and skip over her bluesy vocals.” I just think people want to talk about what is first, I guess in your face, which is guitar and which is the fact that I’m a woman,” she says. “There [weren’t] a whole lot of women when I started and even now we can use more. So I guess that’s something they want to talk about. But I do get compliments for my singing. I never learned singing. So I never study singing much. I just sing. I don’t think about what I do. I just kind of sing and I try to fit those to the lyrics that I’m singing and to the message that I’m singing and I try to sound different, and I think I do. And then have the guitar, [to] support that.”
Popovic continues to focus on her voice, not as a standalone skill but rather as her process for constantly refining her craft: “You have to keep improving everything,” she says. “You have to keep improving vocals, guitar playing, solos, stage presence, band, you have to make your band sound tight, so it’s just one of the things you need to keep working on.”
Popovic is also an underrated slide guitarist. She’s been playing since she was a teen, though, never quite transitioning to open tunings. “I started, probably, when I was 13 [or] 14 with Elmore James, Roy Rogers, [and] Duane Allman,” she says. “I just started playing slide alongside these incredible artists, but then I play regular tuning. So I was always kind of postponing that moment where I’m going to start going into the open tunings, and then I never did, because I just realized I’m kind of creating my own style and that is very important to me. So I always insist on whatever I play that I kind of bring Ana Popovic style into it. That was my excuse to keep working on a regular tuning and just play me. Play whatever I feel.”
Many artists find it challenging to remain prolific over the course of a long career, but Popovic finds inspiration everywhere, from music to new studios.
“Just a week ago, I came across this small studio in Los Angeles, which is only like [a] 15-minute drive from my home,” she says. “It was kind of raggedy, because the big studio didn’t have time for us; that particular day was booked. So they said, ‘these guys next to us, they can accommodate you for that one.’
The smaller studio wasn’t the type of space where Popovic usually records, but she was laying down a track for someone else’s record. “I decided to go and [it was] just the best,” Popovic says. “You need to have a right energy in the room and right people and the engineers [were] just wonderful. And just really supportive and loved what they were hearing, so it just turned into a wonderful session.”
New cities can also be inspirational. “My band is in Dallas, and Dallas [has] got an incredible music scene,” Popovic says. “Austin of course, is a huge music Mecca. But don’t underestimate Dallas. It’s got an incredible music scene.” Popovic learned Houston is also known for its cover bands, which translates into tight performances. “Those musicians, they played everything and they’re so rich in ideas just because they’re used to having those songs in their hands, and they play drums on all these tracks, they play bass every night on all these tracks. They’re just full of music. I went to Dallas multiple times during the lockdown and went into some sort of a studio, or we would just rent a rehearsal place, basically, and have an engineer come in and record us while we were messing with some songs. And usually, [the] people had many ideas, just a different type of sound than what I already [did] in Memphis and New Orleans and Los Angeles.”
And, of course, Popovic continues to draw inspiration from Hendrix, still diving into his work via the now-paused Experience Hendrix tour, a live tribute to the beloved guitarist featuring a revolving cast of musicians, including guitarists Eric Johnson and Joe Satriani. “We all would travel together, listen to, watch some Hendrix videos and get into it again,” she says of the tour. “All of us watched Hendrix videos when we were teenagers, but now you’re busy with your own band, and everybody has their own agendas and their own music, they are pursuing their own careers. So there is not a whole lot of time when you can actually sit down and analyze Jimi Hendrix again.”
Hendrix continues to impress Popovic, all of those years later. “[Hendrix] wrote those songs in a trio,” Popovic says. “And even so you can hear different styles of music in [his songs]. One is more on the rock side, one is done blues, one is done funk. You can just take out many different styles out of those songs.”
Popovic also appreciates the time away from her own music, having the chance to study Hendrix, almost like a graduate student. “You have to leave aside some time, aside from your own gigs, or your own careers and kind go and explore [the] music of such a genius as Hendrix was.”
Like Hendrix, Popovic is also aware of the importance of visuals in performing. For her, that means appearing on stage in imposing-looking heels. “I’ve always played in heels, so I wouldn’t know any difference,” she says. “That’s how I started. That’s how I learned it. I stepped on my wah-wah pedal a long time ago and it was in a high heel. So I never changed. Ever.”
The nature of the blues is that if you stray too far from its history and traditions, you’ve created something that’s no longer the blues. To maintain that perspective, having a bluesy sound that’s also unique, requires a serious, deliberate approach. Popovic’s playing sounds care-free but she thinks about every aspect of music, including the nationality of the fans.
“As far as the crowd, well, Europe just got into [the blues] really,” Popovic observes. “They got into it in the 70s and I think they never let go, really. When you have concerts [in Europe], you realize it’s a different crowd; there’s a small difference, but it’s absolutely there. They just have a huge respect for it. Where in America, people just want to have fun with it. And the nice thing is to have both. That why I really enjoyed playing both sides of the ocean, just because when I’m too long on one side, I miss the other. I kind of have to have a mix. In America, it’s more of organic thing. [The blues] comes from here, so it’s not fake or anything. The crowd on a good festival, outside, they want to enjoy it, they want to dance to it, they want to be relaxed and in Europe, it’s more like they have a huge respect for you.“
Popovic also enjoys bringing the blues to new places. “We always open new territories and it’s always incredible to see,” she says. “We went to Dubai, we went to Bahrain, Bali, Indonesia, India, and it’s just incredible to see that people also appreciate that music over there and they know your lyrics, they sing along. You go to Turkey, they sing with your songs. It’s incredible, really. But all of it is nice, if you mix it with the American audience. Then it makes sense because you want to make your name over here. You want to have your name, make your name and make your stamp in the States. If you want to play blues, that is.”
And while large, international tours are not an option at the moment, Popovic has a wish list of places she wants to eventually bring her music. “I’d love to play Australia,” she says. “I still haven’t. I never played in Africa. And I would love that, especially because I would like to mix the music with local musicians. I’ve been to Africa, but I haven’t done anything musically over there. So I would love to open that. Even just for the inspiration and even just to be able to operate with some local musicians.”
Popovic looks past the pandemic. She’s working, of course, on another album. She’s also working on a signature guitar, based upon her favorite Stratocasters, that she says should be ready soon. But even with all of this energy, and all of these projects, she says she’s not one to look too far ahead into the future. “I can just hope that inspiration doesn’t dry out,” she says. “That’s what you hope as a musician, so you’re not releasing same records and stuck in a place where you don’t know what kind of a message you want to bring further. You need to bring out new messages to the world, to your fans, to the new generations. And I still find inspiration around me, which is really a blessing because I would think that while [inspiration] is still going, you can definitely keep going. And unfortunately, there’s people in all kinds of art, not just music, where at some point, it just kind of dries out, right? And then they keep going. But really, you should be able to recognize that moment in your career. So I’m absolutely for playing music as long as I can, but if I can bring something new to the table. That’s absolutely necessary for me; I don’t want to recycle what I’ve already done.”
Interviewer Steven Ovadia writes about music and technology. You can see more of his music writing at https://steven.ovadia.org/music/.
Blues Blast Music Award Submissions
Now open until May 31st, 2021!
The Blues Blast Music Awards honor contemporary Blues artists and their recordings.
Artists with major labels and independent artists are eligible to be considered.
NEW FOR 2021 – All submissions are digital. No physical CDs needed.
For complete information, click HERE.
Featured Blues Review – 1 of 6
Chris Cain – Raisin’ Cain
Alligator Records ALCD 5003
12 songs – 44 minutes
One of the most talented multi-instrumentalists of his generation, Chris Cain has flirted with superstardom since the ‘80s, when his debut album, Late Night City Blues, garnered four W.C. Handy Award nominations, including guitarist and band of the year. But he should finally ascend to his rightful place in the blues heavens with this CD, his first release on his first major label since the ‘90s.
A native of San Jose, Calif., Cain literally grew up in the blues thanks to his father, who regaled him with stories about his youth on Beale Street in Memphis. He attended his first B.B. King concert at age three, saw Ray Charles frequently and taught himself how to play the six-string at age eight. His skills became so prodigious that, when asked, B.B. replied: “Chris Cain? Now that boy can play guitar!”
Chris started playing professionally in his teens, and studied music at San Jose City College, quickly becoming an instructor in jazz improvisation himself. As an adult he also became proficient on piano, tenor sax, clarinet and bass, too. But his jazz training and songwriting talent – which fuses emotional torment and wry observations about life in troubled times into a cohesive package – that makes him stand out from the crowd.
He initially made a name for himself as a member of the Ford Blues Band, where he traded licks with guitar god Robben. He signed to the Fords’ Blues Rock’It Records for his solo debut followed by three discs for Blind Pig and then four more for the family in the early ‘90s. In recent years, he’s received two Blues Music Association nominations as guitar player of the year, and he was a 2021 finalist for entertainer of the year.
This all-original album, his first for Alligator, is a long-awaited follow-up to his self-titled 2017 CD on the Little Village Foundation imprint. Like that one, this disc was produced by Kid Andersen at Greaseland Studio and features a coterie of world-class talent. Cain plays guitar and keys and delivers vocals in his distinctive, booming baritone throughout backed by Kid on six-strings and melodica.
The roster also includes Greg Rhan on keys, a horn section composed of Michael Peloquin (saxes and arrangements), Mike Rinta (trombone), Jeff Lewis (trumpet) and Doug Rowan (baritone sax) with Steve Evans on bass and Derreck “D-Mar” Martin and Sky Garcia on drums. Lisa Leuschner Andersen contributes backing vocals on one cut.
Chris is at the absolute top of his game from the opening bars of the toe-tapper “Hush Money,” which deals with the realization that a man’s got to had over a pile of cash to keep his lady happy and a roof over his head. His guitar stings and the horns propel the bottom as he drives the message home. Relationship issues continue in ”You Won’t Have a Problem When I’m Gone,” a driving shuffle that finds the singer fed up after a decade of being blamed for everything that’s gone wrong. Cain’s initial solo is brief, but bites deep in concert to his words and is quickly followed by a lengthier one to end.
The focus of “Too Many Problems” shifts somewhat with Chris wondering why he should carry on while losing all hope and facing too many bills to pay. No wonder he’s “Down on the Ground,” as he states in the ballad with a universal theme that follows, a complaint against folks who kick you and turn their backs on you when you really could use a helping hand.
“I Believe I Got Off Cheap” puts a different spin on a difficult love affair. In this one, Cain cooks on guitar and rejoices vocally after he releases how much better off he is to find his woman in the arms of another man. A quiet keyboard/six-string interlude opens “Can’t Find a Good Reason,” an unhurried shuffle in while Chris recognizes the end of a relationship, a theme that continues in “Found a Way to Make Me Say Goodbye.”
Cain describes his childhood in the autobiographical “Born to Play” before the jazzy, minor-key “I Don’t Know Exactly What’s Wrong with My Baby” and the introspective, apologetic “Out of My Head.” Two more pleasers – the relationship-based slow blues “As Long as You Get What You Want” and the jazzy instrumental “Space Force” – bring the action to a close.
Run, don’t walk, to buy this one. Contemporary blues at its absolute best, Raisin’ Cain is certain to receive major consideration the next time awards season rolls 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 – 2 of 6
Crystal Thomas – Now Dig This!
Side 1 – 5 Tracks 18 minutes
Side 2 – 5 Tracks 19 minutes
Following a couple of self-released recordings, singer Crystal Thomas was featured on several tracks on a recording by the Japanese band Bloodest Saxophone, entitled Texas Queens Five. And while Thomas is actually a native of the Shreveport, Louisiana area, she grew up listening to music that that originated in the Lone Star state, and for a brief period, was a member of the band backing the legendary Johnnie Taylor, based out of Dallas.
On her latest full-length album on Ediie Stout’s Dialtone Records, Thomas quickly makes it clear that she is no stranger to the blues traditions that run deep through the legacy of Texas music. Opening with a brisk shuffle on Toussaint McCall’s “I’m A Fool For You Baby,” her easy-going style marks her as a vocalist who understands that the singer’s job is to make the listener feel the heartbeat of each song, to stir the emotions with sensitive phrasing and a mastery of timing.
Thomas definitely needed to at her best, as the band backing her included the late Lucky Peterson on keyboards, Johnny Moeller from the Fabulous Thunderbirds on guitar, his brother Jason manning the drum kit, James Fenner on congas, and veteran Chuck Rainey on bass guitar. They create a percolating, funky groove for the singer’s brawny vocal on “I Don’t Worry Myself,” then slow the pace for “Take Yo’ Praise,” a love ballad with Thomas taking her time, keeping her emotions in check as she gives her good-loving man the props he deserves. Nick Connolly makes one of his appearances on the Fender Rhodes keyboard.
‘Ghost Of Myself” is another slow burner, but this time the singer gives voice to the heartache and despair of good love gone bad, pleading for relief as Moeller’s guitar answers every one of her stirring cries. Thomas played trombone in Taylor’s band, and her full, well-rounded tone on the instrument is highlighted on the “Blues Funk,” but not before Peterson goes for a wild ride on the organ, with a fleet-fingered response from Moeller on guitar.
The second side of the album brings more of the same. Thomas delivers a standout rendition of Janis Joplin’s “One Good Man” that steers clear of overwrought vocalizing in favor of an approach fraught with searing emotional intensity. The band cranks up the energy level on “No Cure For The Blues,” and Thomas responds in kind, giving voice to a woman deep in the grip of the blues, passionately pleading for relief until Peterson finally jumps in to take listeners to church.
Johnny Moeller is featured on “Can’t You See What You Doing To Me,” laying down stellar fretwork on the Albert King tune. Peterson on organ perfectly echoes the vocal, adding greater depth to the proceedings. Another highlight occurs on “The Blues Ain’t Nothing But Some Pain”. Thomas makes you feel every note, every bit of anguish with a performance that leaves no doubt as to her vocal skills.
That fact is re-enforced on the closing number, a killer vocal duet with Peterson on “Let’s Go Get Stoned”. Thomas more than holds her own with her esteemed college, their soulful give-and-take a fitting conclusion for an outstanding release.
Some singers would be intimidated working with a band of this caliber. Crystal Thomas has been singing all of her life. She may not have the name recognition yet, but she understands how to sing, a point driven home time and again on each of these ten tracks. As good as the band is, your attention will naturally gravitate to Thomas whenever she takes over. Don’t miss this highly recommended recording!
(For more on Crystal Thomas, read her interview with Blues Blast here: https://www.bluesblastmagazine.com/featured-interview-crystal-thomas/ )
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 – 3 of 6
Caroline Dahl – A Boogie Woogie State Of Mind
Hexadact Records – 2020
12 tracks; 46.20 minutes
Pianist Caroline Dahl is a native of Kentucky but has made San Francisco her home for thirty years, playing both solo and in bands. On her latest disc she is joined by a slew of Bay Area stalwarts, including two rhythm sections: Steve Parks on electric bass (and vocals on three songs) plays with former Robert Cray drummer Kevin Hayes, Joe Kyle Jr’s acoustic bass is paired with Tommy Castro’s current drummer Bowen Bowen; Jeff Ervin plays saxes on all bar one cut. Caroline wrote six originals and arranged two medleys of standards and there are four diverse covers.
The originals include the solo piano pieces “Devil Digits Boogie Woogie” and “River City Boogie Woogie” and Caroline also adapts a theme from Czech composer Smetana and combines it with a Russian feel on “Die Moldau/Moscow Nights Boogie”, the latter part of the tune very much like Kenny Ball’s Trad Jazz success “Midnight In Moscow” from 1961. All four of these solo pieces give ample demonstration of Caroline’s prowess at the piano and there are further reminders of the style we are in with the appropriately entitled opener “Call To Boogie” and the excellent “Bellingham Boogie” which might just be the standout track with some exuberant sax playing. There was an era when blues and jazz were very much part of the same spectrum and the bright “King Cobra Club” reminds us of how close the two genres can be while “Payday” sounds as happy as people are when that particular time comes around!
The covers begin with a title that could well be applied to Caroline herself, Doc Pomus’ classic “Boogie Woogie Country Girl” and a stately run through Big Jay McNeeley’s “There Is Something On Your Mind” works well with Steve’s expressive vocal and Jeff’s sax work to the fore, Caroline adding some very bluesy piano frills. Charles Davenport’s “Cow Cow Blues” dates back to 1925 and also going back to between the wars is a fun medley of “When You’re Smiling/Sheik Of Araby” which features some excellent sax work from Jeff and short features for Joe’s acoustic bass and Bowen using brushes before Caroline returns to the blues with Muddy Waters’ “Red Beans” which readers may be familiar with from Marcia Ball’s version.
This was a very enjoyable disc to review, fine playing and quite exhausting if you allow your toes to tap throughout! One should also note that Caroline is multi-talented as she is also an award-winning fabric artist, one example of her work being the cover of this album which name-checks heroes of the piano such as Albert Ammons, Meade Lux-Lewis, Professor Longhair and Pinetop Perkins. Check out that aspect of her talents at www.carolinedahl.com.
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 – 4 of 6
Dr. Bekken Trio – In Fonk We Trust
Blue Mood Records – 2020
8 Tracks; 57 minutes
Tor E. “Dr” Bekken is considered one of Norway’s top representatives of traditional blues and jazz piano. Bekken is clearly inspired by Professor Longhair and Dr. John, but for Bekken the “Dr” is more than just a nickname. He actually holds the title of Assistant Professor of Music at Sør-Trøndelag University College, and completed his dissertation on Piano Tradition in New Orleans. (He also holds a Master’s degree in English Literature, with a specialization in African-American poetry.)
While other musicians have seemed less-than inspired during the pandemic, Bekken had three releases during 2020, including a five-song solo EP of all original music, and a three-track EP of Bekken playing guitar instead of piano, with all three instrumental tracks totally improvised. His latest release, In Fonk We Trust, was recorded live, in concert at Lillehammer Mikrobryggeri (a microbrewery). The recording appears to do a great job of capturing the experience of hearing a live performance by the Bekken Trio (with Mattis Kleppen on bass and Dag Kittilsen on drums), minus any problematic crowd noise. This trio has been together for several decades, and the tightness of the trio and their ability to predict each other’s next actions are evident.
The album begins with a rousing Boogie Woogie track entitled “St. Pete,” which makes listeners wish they were present in person at the microbrewery. That track is followed by a medley of “Big Chief/Hey Now Baby/Fire it Up,” which includes a nice bass solo by Kleppen. Bekken’s trio then does excellent renditions of the old familiar songs, “Cherry Red” and “You Can’t Lose What You Never Had.” Bekken’s phenomenal piano work is consistent throughout all the tracks, although there are some particularly outstanding piano solos featured on “Put on Train” and “Stoop Down.” The finale, “Pinetop” provides a rollicking, exciting finish, including another great bass solo by Kleppen.
The one slightly weak area on this album is the vocals, as Bekken has limited range and somewhat inconsistent tone. However, the superior musicianship of all three artists more than makes up for that. If you are a fan of New Orleans style piano playing, you will enjoy this, and I believe Professor Longhair and Dr. John would approve of this album if they were still alive today.
The album is available at selected retailers.
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.
Featured Blues Review – 5 of 6
Cathy Grier and the Troublemakers – I’m All Burn
CG Music Works/Singerfish Publishing
CD: 16 Songs, 70 Minutes
Styles: Ensemble Blues, Jazz-and-Soul-Influenced Blues
The Spanish verb esperar has three meanings: “to wait,” “to expect,” and “to hope.” It’s what we’ve been doing for the past year. Without the patience to hold out and hold the line, the expectation of better days ahead, and the hope of a more peaceful world, what makes life worth living? That’s the overall message of I’m All Burn, the fourteenth album from Wisconsin-based blueswoman Cathy Grier and her backup band, the Troublemakers. What it lacks in raw power, it makes up for in earnestness. On fifteen original songs and one cover (Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billy Joe”), Cathy and company remind us that “if you get down on yourself, you better search for that silver lining. ‘Cause the sun comes up somewhere in the world – reason enough to keep us all smiand that’s why I call this the ‘don’t get down on yourself, it’s Happiness Blues.’”
Is this enough to carry an entire blues album running for more than an hour? Mileage will vary according to three variables: 1) one’s schedule, 2) one’s current mood and 3) one’s love of low-key, high-optimism music. Looking for grit, angst and shred guitar? You won’t find any here. Thankfully, Cathy’s clear vocals and the Troublemakers’ instrumentation come together to provide a solid alternative. Coffee, perhaps a smooth mocha latte, is an appropriate beverage to sip while listening. Don’t go for beer or other intoxicants. This isn’t that kind of blues CD.
Says Cathy on her website, “I fell in love with the Sturgeon Bay scene so much that I moved to Wisconsin. Within three years of arriving, I won [the] Paramount Music Association Blues challenge in 2017 (Solo and People’s Choice), and went to International Blues Challenge in 2018. [I’ve] performed with my band Cathy Grier and The Troublemakers three years in a row at Summerfest (2017-18 US Cellular One, and 2019 BMO Harris Pavilion), headlined my own show at Door Community Auditorium in Fish Creek (Sept ’19), [and] performed solo and with a band throughout WI. Door County favorite live music clubs.” Other entries on Grier’s resume include the Paramount Music Festival (’17), Moose Fest (’18), Ellison Bay Blues On The Bay Fest (’18), Prairie Lakes Blues Fest (’17) , Von Stiehl Winery, Gibson’s Music Hall, and opening for Mark Hummel and Billy Flynn at New Shore Club Wisconsin, Elkhart Lake (’19).
This particular album features such notable guests as Greg Koch, Billy Flynn, Jimmy Voegeli, Howard Levy, Matt Liban, Steve Cohen, Andrew Spadafora, Deirdre Fellner, and Liv Mueller. The Troublemakers consist of Tony Menzer on bass, Jamey Clark on drums, Larry Byrne on keys, Jim Ohlschmidt on guitar and Pauli Ryan on percussion.
A surefire highlight is “Key to My Survival,” with gorgeous guitar throughout and a peppy beat that’ll make one and all want to dance. Dig that rumbling bassline, those understated keys, and the warning to beware of people who make you dependent upon them, whether they do so knowingly or not: “I thought the key to my survival was you. You stepped right in, busted right through, kept me thinking that the key to my survival was you.” For another great song, the penultimate track, “Question of Desire,” will more than do. With funky keyboards and Bonnie Raitt vibes, it’s a natural song to put one in the mood.
I’m All Burn may be a warm ray of sunshine, but it needs more kindling to become an inferno!
Reviewer Rainey Wetnight is a 40 year old female Blues fan. She brings the perspective of a younger blues fan to reviews. A child of 1980s music, she was strongly influenced by her father’s blues music collection.
Featured Blues Review – 6 of 6
Randy McAllister and the Scrappiest Band in the Motherland – Paperbag Salvation
10 songs – 47 minutes
If there was any justice in this world, East Texas singer Randy McAllister would be a household name in the world of modern music. Sadly, of course, there isn’t and he isn’t. The good news however is that he continues to release records as good as Paperbag Salvation for us all to enjoy.
Paperbag Salvation features 10 tracks, all written by McAllister, who adds his potent harmonica to three of those tracks. He is also a fine drummer, although he only picks up the sticks on this album on “South North South”, laying down a gorgeous upbeat grinder groove. His band, however, are all top-drawer musicians themselves, with Brandon Hudspeth on guitars, Paul Greenlease on bass, Adam Hagerman on drums and Heather Newman on backing vocals. Named the Scrappiest Band in the Motherland, together they lay down a series of righteous rhythms and Hudspeth’s slide guitar playing in particular is incendiary, meshing perfectly with McAllister’s soul-filled roadhouse voice. Newman’s understated contributions also add significantly to overall enjoyment of the album – her screams on “Waiting Bones” are worth the price of admission by themselves.
The album is superbly recorded and mastered by Duane Trower at Weights and Measures Soundlab in Kansas City.
What sets Paperbag Salvation apart, however, is the quality of the songwriting. McAllister writes blues-infused songs that successfully tread the fine line between blues, soul and rock and he has a knack of coming up with clever and original phrases and perspectives in his lyrics. The opening song, “You’re Like Mashed Potatoes” taps into everyone’s inner child as McAllister exclaims to his love: “You’re like mashed potatoes, I just can’t get enough. No matter how hard I try, it’s never too much.” The toe-tapping “Personal Pinata” reminds the listener to keep a positive mental attitude when pursuing love, despite the inevitable setbacks – “Take a few whacks until I crack, spill my insides but I keep coming back.” And perspective is the essential message of the closing “Best Patch Of Grass” with its infuriatingly catchy chorus of “The greenest grass might be where you are right now. You might be the envy of every cow.”
“Most Irritating Person In The World” directly addresses the kind of individual that everyone recognizes, with simpatico guitar from Howard Mahan sounding as irritated as McAllister’s narrator. A series of key changes help to intensify the exasperation caused by the title character.
McAllister is a masterful singer, fully inhabiting each song, sounding convincingly and alternatively besotted, furious, vulnerable, confident, resigned, determined, wise and bemused.
These are beautifully written and played songs, recalling other modern masters like Rick Holmstrom and Eric Lindell in their spare instrumentation, smart lyrics, sophisticated structures and deeply emotional performances.
One of the most impressive albums of the year.
Reviewer Rhys Williams lives in Cambridge, England, where he plays blues guitar when not holding down a day job as a technology lawyer or running around after his children. He is married to an American, and speaks the language fluently, if with an accent.
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