Issue 15-17 April 29, 2021

Cover photo © 2021 Marilyn Stringer

 In This Issue 

Marty Gunther has our feature interview with Aki Kumar. We have four blues reviews for you this week including a coffee table photo book by noted Blues photographer Marilyn Stringer plus new music from Pat O’Bryan and Friends, Kai Strauss and Elizabeth King.

 From The Editor’s Desk 


Hey Blues Fans,

The 2021 Blues Blast Music Awards submissions are open until May 31st, 2021.

Submission fee is $50 until midnight on April 30. Fee increases to $75 on May 1 and increases to $100 on May 16. PLEASE get album submission in as soon as possible. Hurry to avoid the price increase. It makes the nominators job much easier.

For 2021, all submissions must be digital. Eligible recordings for the 14th Annual Blues Blast Awards are albums released from June 1, 2020 to May 31, 2021.

To submit your album for consideration to the Blues Blast Music Awards visit

Wishing you health, happiness and lots of Blues music!

Bob Kieser

 Featured Interview – Aki Kumar 

imageThe sound of blues takes many forms, and when someone takes it in a new direction, it’s a real attention-grabber. And there’s no bigger head-turner in the blues world today than Bay Area harp player Aki Kumar, who’s forged a new brand of the music that’s definitely all his own.

Based in San Jose, Calif., where he’s proven himself as a standard bearer for traditional Chicago stylings and more, he’s a native of Mumbai, India, who discovered by accident one day that the flatted thirds and seventh of American blues meld perfectly with the microtones of South Asia and spread around the planet through the musical scores of Bollywood movies produced in his hometown.

Aki lovingly terms the hybrid as “Bollywood blues,” and he’s released three albums of the revolutionary new product – two in the U.S. and one abroad – since coming up with the idea six or seven years ago. And his latest effort, Diruba – issued in partnership with Sony, has compiled more than a million downloads in India, planting powerful new seeds in one of the most diverse musical markets in the world.

While it’s true that Mumbai has been hosting the annual Mahindra Blues Festival for the past decade – the largest event of its kind in all of Asia, it’s still an amazing accomplishment because the music has barely made a foothold in a nation with the second largest population in the world.

“Before anything else, I’m a traditional blues man,” Kumar told Blues Blast in a recent interview, noting that he formerly downplayed his nationality while spending a couple of decades assimilating into American culture. That said, however, he now wants to play the blues in a manner that’s both familiar to listeners, but also in a form in which “nobody will ever wonder where I came from.”

It’s been a long, strange trip for Akarsha Kumar, a dashing man in his early 40s who’s an electrifying showman with both a rapier wit and deep social conscience.

“My parents are very big music lovers,” he says, noting that his father – who’s retired from a mid-level management position in the government bank – spoke Kannada, commonly used in southwestern India, while his mother spoke Telugu, the official language of the southeastern states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.

“Whatever my dad saved from his job, he bought records. My mom was never a musician by any means, but she liked to sing. If karaoke culture had been big at the time, I’d bet my money that she’d have been a karaoke person (laughs). Their love for music subconsciously became part of my personality.”

Their record collection was small by Western terms, but a major possession for the family, Aki notes, and it covered a lot of ground. Growing up in a country where literally hundreds of different dialects are spoken among 1.4 billion residents, the homegrown music of India is so rich and diverse that “I could have gotten lost in it by itself for ten lifetimes with no reason to venture outside the borders,” he says.

“But when Western classical, rock-‘n’-roll, R&B, pop and Afro-Caribbean were added to the mix through the LPs, “…stuff that just jumped out of nowhere, and I didn’t know what to make of it.”

imageKumar took piano lessons as a child and fooled around with the tabla, the bowl-shaped drums used in Hindustani music, too. “I like to say I ‘dabbled’ at tabla because it was nothing more than a couple of months’ of an adventure,” he insists. “I got to go to a friend’s house when I was about nine or ten, where I got to play it once a week for two months. In other interviews, it’s sounded like I’m somebody who’s steeped in traditional music and that I’m a proficient tabla player. But, no! I just learned some basic rhythm patterns.”

Aki’s unsure about when he picked up the harmonica for the first time, but it was probably in infancy because his father owned one. “He’d pull it out once every few months and play it, and I’d be like: ‘Oh, that’s what a harmonica sounds like,’” he recalls.

“Then, in my teens, I started dabbling and could play a couple of old Bollywood songs. But the harp didn’t have all the notes, so I thought it wasn’t a complete instrument, so I put it down.”

In truth, however, it was a tremolo harp. Built with two parallel rows of reeds that are tuned in parallel, too — one set sharp and the other flat, tremolos appear frequently in the scores of Bollywood movies and are also well-suited for playing waltzes and Gypsy songs, but virtually useless to most other Western music – especially blues.

“Now, I know that it has a specific purpose,” Kumar says. “But back then, if that’s the only thing you have and you’re trying to fit the world of music into it, it feels very uncomfortable. As a musician, I knew that there were certain notes that I couldn’t produce. Back then, I thought that, to play the blues, there was a special harmonica that you needed to use, that it was very expensive and, for me, very unattainable. I know now that I was wrong (chuckles).”

Aki came to the U.S. just prior to his 18th birthday, initially settling in Oklahoma City to pursue a career in computer science. “I tried applying to every single school I could, and almost bankrupted my dad just through the admissions process,” he admits. It cost $25 to $50, each time Kumar submitted an application – a huge amount to an Indian household, where it was the equivalent of $500 in local currency.

While the Oklahoma school provided the least expensive route for Kumar to pursue his dream, he quickly transferred to San Jose State University in Silicon Valley south of San Francisco, where he knew he’d receive the best education possible.

“It really set me on a great path,” Kumar says, “because it allowed me to do an internship with Adobe while I was a student and get my grades up well enough that they immediately hired me out of college.”

He started out as a quality tester for Adobe’s PDF programs before becoming a programmer for Flash, Photoshop and other applications. But music became an overwhelming, all-consuming pursuit. He’d discovered oldies radio stations after listening to KOMA-FM in Oklahoma City and had fallen in love with doo-wop before moving on to classic rock, the Beatles and early rock-‘n’-roll in the Bay Area.

“I didn’t know what it was other than rock,” he admits. “I didn’t know any of the blues inspiration and influence behind it – something that – in my 20s – I started to figure out thanks to folks who were 25 or 30 years older than me at work and from the blues and blues-rock generation. They kinda knew that I was musically inclined.

“There was a small, informal band that met every six months and tried to play cover songs. I jumped in a couple of times and tried to play the Beatles’ ‘Love Me Do’ on harp. And they hipped me to where the Brit rock guys were influenced…why the Rolling Stones had the name Rolling Stones.

“So I started to delve into blues, too. When I found people like Muddy Waters, it was devastating…wow!…where has this been my whole life!”

Aki expanding his education by spending nights on very active local blues scene, and decided to get serious about the harmonica by seeking out David Barrett for lessons. One of the most important instructors in the world and the author of several instructional books, Barrett operates the School of the Blues in San Jose as well as internationally acclaimed Harmonica Masterclass Workshops and a go-to website.

“David kinda narrowed my focus,” Kumar says. “’If this is what you want to play,’ he said, ‘start listening to this (turning him on to music in the process).’ He changed my life for better or worse (laughs). He changed in a big way the notion that, for me, all I could do was software engineering.”

imageOn some levels, it was a concept that – as a stranger in a strange land – is often difficult to understand. It’s something that every world traveler has to come to terms with from time to time because of unspoken cultural differences between your new home and your homeland. For Aki, it meant wrapping his mind about changing professions.

“I come from a culture that’s often not relatable to standard American culture,” he notes. “A lot of my peers in the U.S. had both early encouragement and access to music-making. Not only did they have the license to make the music, they believed they could. Being a musician was a thing.

“In India, it was pretty ingrained in my head that either you come from a privileged family where you can afford to be an artist and spend a lifetime pursuing it – elite society stuff – or you end up doing the struggling artist thing in a very brutal, severe way, trying to be a rags-to-riches story.

“That was not made an option to me (at home). For me, it was ‘get your act straight, and get outta here. Lay down a solid foundation for your life, and think of everything else as frivolous pursuits.”

His own parents came from very difficult backgrounds and worked diligently to elevate themselves to the middle-class lifestyle they sweated and strained to achieve. Fortunately, they were well-meaning, encouraging and only wanted the best for their sons.

“When I made the transition to music,” Aki says, “I had to overcome that first mental hurdle – some of it cultural, but mostly mental. Fortunately, I had an advantage: I was raised to learn in a methodical way and to submit myself to my teachers, which is the traditional way in Indian music.

“Given that the diatonic harmonica is a difficult instrument – it really is, and all of the dexterity that we admire in the blues masters doesn’t come to them for free — that takes a lot of diligent work. It was something that I was dedicated to putting in because I knew I had a good teacher who’d already figured all of this out.

“I would have had to have been a fool not to put in the time – and playing an instrument is a lifelong pursuit. That’s one of the things I’d tell anyone who wants to be a harmonica player: Commit to it because it’s something that’s not going to come easy unless you’re a genetic freak of nature where they can tongue block from day one – something it took me years to master.

“For me, bending reeds was incredibly hard. I still work on bending as a very simple exercise all the time without trying to do overblows or anything like that.”

Aki started sitting in at local jams about six years after his arrival. He admits that his limited skill set often resulted in him getting schooled pretty quickly in the process. But the older players were still welcoming, and the compliments he received – some justified, others not – made it all worthwhile.

As his skills progressed, he served short stints with a couple of local classic rock groups – learning quickly that his heart was elsewhere. “You’re not gonna fit Big Walter licks into a Led Zeppelin song,” he says, “not to disrespect Led Zeppelin. It’s just not a good match.

“But once in a while, I was able to sneak in a couple of songs to my liking – ‘Key to the Highway.’ Once a month for three years, we did an opening set at JJ’s Blues in San Jose. It gave me a way to practice for a month, go on stage…and mess it all up, then go home and say: ‘Okay, what did I screw up? Work on that.’

“I had a run early on where I could hide without being embarrassed – something that’s impossible to do now because everything you today do winds up on Tiktok or YouTube tomorrow.”

Kumar eventually established himself in the Bay Area blues scene as a member of Tip of the Top, which were regional favorites during his three-year run. The group was led by vocalist Little Jonny Lawton, a Bay Area veteran who’s enjoyed a long career as a front man and guitarist, along with bassist Frank DeRose, a journeyman who’s worked with Kenny “Blue” Ray and Jackie Payne.

imageDelivering West Coast and Chicago blues, they released a pair of well-received albums, most notably From Memphis to Greaseland, which was Aki’s first trip in the studio with award-winning producer, engineer and multi-instrumentalist Kid Andersen.

“Working with Tip of the Top really helped me step up my game,” Kumar says. “Working was a lot like Buddy Guy working with Junior Wells. I’d play lead and then slip into the background for a while, too.”

By the time the band disbanded, Aki was ready to launch a solo career and announce himself to the world as what he terms “a disciple of the blues.” His first album, Don’t Hold Back, appeared in 2014 on Andersen’s Greaseland Records imprint. It was a tour de force debut with an all-star roster that included Kid, Little Jonny, Rusty Zinn and Johnny “Cat” Soubrand (Terry Hanck Band) on guitars, Robert Welsh (Elvin Bishop) on keys as well as June Core and Vance Ehlers on drums.

It really was a tribute album to Jimmy Reed, Little Walter, Hank Ballard and others, he says, despite containing four originals. “I picked my favorite material, covered it and sent out a message that ‘look, I’m really a traditional blues guy, and I really want to do this!’”

The last track, however, debuted what Kumar now terms Bollywood blues. Entitled “Ajeeb Daastaan Hai Yeh (A Strange Story),” it was a traditional tune from the Hindi songbook that he’d been humming to himself at home one day when he dawned on the realization that it had similarities with something he’d heard from Jimmy Reed.

“I said: ‘I have 12 traditional blues songs that you’ll like, but here’s one that’s a curve ball,’” Aki remembers. He covered the tune with a New Orleans stroll feel and closed the disc by singing it in one of his native tongues.

As solid as that album was, Aki proved he truly belonged in the blues world later that year with another Greaseland release, It Takes Three, a partnership in which he traded licks throughout with Barrett and the masterful Gary Smith, the West Coast harmonica giant who’d taught David how to play.

“It was huge for me to do an album with them,” Kumar says. “I got to be in the room with two guys who are heavily influential, join them in music making – and also do a little ‘sword fighting,’ too, which is also fun. It was intimidating.

“In the moment, I realized that there I was and that both of them had been playing 40 years more than me. But when I listened to the end result, I realized: ‘Wow! My playing really holds up – and when you listen to it, you can’t tell who’s playing what!’

“No matter where I go worldwide today, if I talk to a blues harmonica person, they invariably have the album, and they love it!”

As Aki explained recently in an interview in Harmonica Happenings, the quarterly bible of the Society for the Preservation and Advancement of Harmonica, he developed Bollywood blues concept as a reaction to many peers being overwhelmingly consumed by in what they consider to be “blues authenticity” – playing authentic licks on authentic equipment and creating an aura of “black cred” while totally disregarding the fact that the music was created by African-Americans.

His furor for the idea increased as xenophobia and overt racism swept across the U.S. as the Trump administration came to power.

“I’d been in the U.S. about 18 years and had never seen that level of hostility toward immigrants,” Kumar says. “I’d always dealt with ‘go back home – you’re stealing our jobs’ knowing that I’d be a well-established, second-class citizen just because of the way things are.

“But I’d never imagined that the openness that the Trump campaign ran on that platform…how easily he was able to say those things.”

As a person of color himself – albeit not American born and bred, he wanted to use his voice to make a musical statement about his own ethnicity and heritage while also encompassing the blues.

imageIt was a path that took root thanks to the relationship Kumar built with Grammy-winning keyboard player Jim Pugh. A longtime member of the Robert Cray Band who also recorded and toured with Etta James, Pugh and Aki met while laying down tracks as sidemen in Andersen’s studio.

“Jim had just started Little Village Foundation as a musical non-profit/label,” he remembers. “He’d been seeking different kinds of talent in the Americana realm – folks who were exploring music in different directions. During one of our conversations, he asked me what I had going on. I told him I had this concept in my head to do a fusion album of sorts.

He jumped at the idea of doing that, and he was wa-a-ay more enthusiastic than I could ever have imagined. That made me go: ‘Okay! At least one other guy wants to put money behind this, so it might not be a bad idea! (laughs)’”

The end result was the 2016 Little Village release, Aki Goes to Bollywood. “To me, it became very important because we all know what was happening (politically) that year,” Kumar says.

“I had already proven my credentials in this blues scene by saying: ‘Hey, I’m a good student. I’ve done my part. I’ve learned all the vocabulary – and I’m going to keep doing it. But now you guys are going to have to understand who I am. I’m not just a guy who plays Little Walter licks. So here goes…”

As difficult as the concept might be for non-musicians to wrap their minds around, after trial and effort, it became a fairly simple transition because of the similarities between blues and the two traditional Indian styles of music, Hindustani in the north and Carnatic in the south, both of which, like blues create their distinctive sounds because of the use of microtones.

And the similarities run strong in other music, too, primarily from the Middle East and North Africa. Another Bay Area bluesman, chromatic master Big Harp George, dipped heavily into his ethnic background on his latest album, Living in the City.

“It was a natural fit,” Kumar says, “whether I thought about it consciously or not. It was actually a lot of experimentation on my part.”

The first disc was so well-received that Aki served up another platter of his hybrid with Hindi Man Blues in 2018, and now mixes in the music with his traditional blues at his performances, making sure to alternate English and Hindi lyrics so everyone in the audience can understand what he’s saying. He occasionally performs full sets of Bollywood blues accompanied by Andersen, Pugh and his regular playing partners – all of whom are dressed head-to-toe in Indian regalia for full effect.

“What I find very enriching is that I get up there and play a Jimmy Rogers song, then follow it with a Bollywood blues song, go back and do Jimmy Reed, an original song in Hindi and then an original blues in English,” he says. “The course of my show is unique.

“Blues lovers often find themselves in a position where they aren’t sure why they’re liking something that they’re listening to – but they’re liking it. And it makes me very happy that I’ve found a position that’s all my own.”

Both of the Bollywood albums did well, Kumar says, “and somehow – I don’t know how…possibly YouTube or Spotify – they caught the attention of an A&R person who worked for Sony Music in India.

“They reached out to me, said: ‘Hey, you’re doing interesting stuff. Do you want to work with us?’ I thought it was a scam at first until I talked to the guy on Skype.

image“I explained to him at the time that I was almost 40 and didn’t do anything pop or contemporary and that my music would be pretty much unrecognizable to any kids they might be selling Hindi hip-hop to. They said: ‘Let’s just try this. Just do your thing.’”

The resulting partnership produced the 2019 album Dilruba, on which Kumar delivered four originals and covered four others. It’s available as a digital download worldwide because the Indian market hasn’t produced physical copies of music for quite some time. And Aki filmed three hilarious, colorful videos to accompany the release.

He toured New Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore that December just prior to the coronavirus epidemic. It was his first-ever chance to entertain in his homeland, where his efforts are laying down the foundation of the blues for a new audience. While the sounds are still foreign, he points out, if the blues captures one-100th of one percent of the population, that’s a pretty sizable number in a country of 1.4 billion people. “If my album helps in any way,” he says, “yay!”

Despite the current shutdown, Aki’s remained busy with “another album swimming in my head, which promises to be a stripped-down, bare-bones work without any of the heavy production. “One benefit of coronavirus,” he says, “is that I’ve set up a studio in the garage and been experimenting with recordings, and I just might try to do everything myself.”

Earlier this year, he and Pugh teamed once again for the digital single “Zindagi,” which follows in the format, but is delivered atop an uplifting reggae beat. When he spoke to Blues Blast, he was looking forward with fingers crossed to May and a planned outdoor concert in Berkeley, his first show in a year.

Meanwhile, he’s been busy taking drum lessons from June Core. “I actually played a 90-minute set behind a friend the other day, and came away from it feeling like I wasn’t the worst musician in the world (laughs)!” he jokes. Among his other projects has been trying to figure out how to mic a kit in the studio and teaching himself how to use free Garageband software to record his own material.

“I’ve also learned how to use multiple very old phones to do multi-camera video,” he says. “And I’ve been livestreaming doing that. As a result, I’ve gotten into the habit of posting one self-produced song each week to my YouTube channel and Facebook.”

The world’s changing rapidly, Kumar insists. The one thing he’d recommend to his fan base is “to be open-minded in your consumption of music and the arts. There’s gonna be more people like me infusing new ideas to the music that you love.

“To be fair, I learned a dozen Little Walter songs note-for-note when I first started out. Unfortunately, too many people play his songs the same way. But that’s not how Little Walter approached his own music. He didn’t play his songs the same way twice. He would have scoffed at it. Why should I do it that way?

“We should really be building on top of it and adding our own identity. Being rigid in clinging to sounds of the past isn’t always helpful because we’re all moving forward.”

Check out Aki’s music and – hopefully – where he’ll be playing next by visiting his website: And be sure to pay a visit to his YouTube channel, too.

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.

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.

Submission Fees for 2021

$50 until April 30, 2021.
Fees Increase Soon!

$75 May 1, 2021 to May 15, 2021.

$100 May 16, 2021 to May 31, 2021

Please submit your music as soon as possible!

It makes the nominators job easier.

For complete information,
click HERE to visit our website.

 Featured Blues Review – 1 of 4 

imageMarilyn Stringer – Blues In The 21st Century Vol. 3 – The BMA Experience


Hardcover 366 pages

imageAs she describes in the introduction to her latest book, Marilyn Stringer has been taking photos of blues musicians and events for the past 15 years. Her photographs appear regularly in various blues publications. The first volume of her Blues In The 21st Century series focused on the musicians, with interviews punctuated with photos. The second volume was dedicated to a decade of the Waterfront Blues Festival, held annually in Portland, Oregon, switching to format that featured her pictures of over 300 performers who appeared at the festival over the ten year period.

She utilizes a similar format for her new book, offering a photographic montage covering ten years of the Blues Music Awards ceremony and related events held in Memphis, and the surrounding area. Sponsored by the Blues Foundation, the Blues Music Awards show is an annual event featuring many of the best blues artists in the world. While the Awards show is the highlight of the weekend, there are plenty of other sterling, unique musical events that take place over the four day weekend.

The first section of the book pays tribute to some of the blues artists as well as people listed as “Friends of the Blues” who left this planet during the span covered by the book, including Otis Clay, Eddie Shaw, Michael Ledbetter, and Little Charlie Baty.

Subsequent sections start with two pages that list each of the Blues Music Awards for that year, the nominees for each, and the recipient of the award listed first in highlight. Mixed in are small photos of some of the artists accepting their awards, as well as shots of a number of celebrity presenters. The following pages contain larger photos of the artists who performed at the awards show, always some of the best in the business.

Then Stringer adds more vivid photographs taken at various fund-raising events, jam sessions, and showcases throughout Memphis. Also included are photographs of some of the award show attendees and musicians displayed in page after page of colorful montages, with photos of varying sizes vying for your attention, as many as 20 photos to a page, so there is plenty to look at.

Part of the fun of slowly turning the pages is challenging yourself to see how many people you can identify on each page. There are plenty of pictures capturing special moments on the stage, as each musician strives to play their best in front of many of their peers. There is always plenty of music going on in Clarksdale, Mississippi, on the Saturday after the awards ceremony, and Stringer gives readers a taste of what you can expect from that experience, too.

imageimageWhile the book is a treasure trove of memories, it will undoubtedly tug at your heartstrings at some point. When you turn to page 186, you immediately see Little Charlie smiling at you. Then you notice that the photo to his left shows the legendary Otis Clay talking to Bob Sekinger, another noted photographer. And directly below Baty is a picture with another great, Eddie Shaw. All three are no longer with us. Seeing a multitude of photos from 2017-2018 featuring singer Michael Ledbetter sparks memories of a dynamic performer taken just as he was reaching for the stars. A historic photo from Eddie Shaw’s retirement party, held at the Blues Hall of Fame in 2018, has four Hall of Fame inductees with Shaw, Latimore, Eddy Clearwater, and Bobby Rush, along with then Chairman of the Blues Foundation Board of Directors, Paul Benjamin.

The 2020 Awards show was done virtually due to the pandemic restrictions, so that section is two pages of awards, nominees & winners, and photos of most of the recipients with their awards, including Christone “Kingfish” Ingram with his five awards. Following that is eight pages of color-coded spreadsheets that include many of the musicians appearing in the book in alphabetical order by first name, listing the years that they were part of the Awards show or various other key musical events. And as a final thoughtful touch, there are five pages at the end left blank so that book owners have room for autographs. The pages are bordered at the bottom with photos of Memphis highlights like the sign for Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken (yes, it is that good!) and one for the Sun Recording Studio.

Stringer is donating the bulk of the profit from sales of her book to the Blues Foundation’s Emergency Covid Relief Fund, which has already helped many artists deal with the monetary effects of the pandemic on their livelihood, in case you needed one more reason to help you decide to purchase a copy.

For those who regularly attended the BMA weekends during the covered period, this book will surely bring back a flood of memories as you check out each photo to see if you make an appearance. If you have yet to experience the Blues Music Awards, Stringer has now made it possible for you to live vicariously through her fine photographs, which will probably spark your desire to attend next year’s event, when it will hopefully be live and in-person once again.

And don’t forget, buying the book from Marilyn’s website helps make the world a better place for the musicians that speak to our souls. From the shot of Beale Street on the cover, to the photo of a bottle tree at the Hopson Plantation in Clarksdale on the back cover, the BMA experience takes flight through Marilyn Stringer’s loving work in a book that you will refer to time and again. Don’t miss it!

(Disclosure – The reviewer appears in a number of photographs in The BMA Experience.)

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 – 2 of 4 

imagePat O’Bryan and Friends – Boomer’s Last Stand

self released

10 songs, 40 minutes

What does it mean to be a “success” in music? It is easy to see the range of popular musicians from superstars like Taylor Swift or Beyonce to more niche acts like Old Crow Medicine Show or Tedeschi Trucks Band as successes. In reality all of these popular musicians are in the 1%. There are millions of successful blue-collar/working-class musicians worldwide who make their living off of their art; grinding it out and shopping at big box retail stores like the rest of us. We Blues lovers know this. Our favorite musicians often have personal relationships with us because in some cases they are our neighbors.

Pat O’Bryan is a great example of one of these gifted musicians who has lived a life of art and creation with some international success, but, with minimal name recognition. A tried and true Texan, O’Bryan’s twisted musical journey has led him through early experiments in electronic music at UT (University of Texas, ya’ll), Country Western Swing bands, hard core touring barrelhouse Blues and the Austin Blues explosion of the 70’s and 80’s. Using the pandemic as an opportunity to slow down off the grid in East Texas, O’Bryan, a record producer of countless local projects, has released his mostly self recorded and all original pandemic record Boomer’s Last Stand.

Staying socially distant the few collaborations on this record were all done remotely. Austin Blues guitar royalty Carolyn Wonderland sent in a searing lead part for one track, the highly irreverent “She Looks Just Like You.” Italian drummer extraordinaire Beppe Facchetti sent his percussive music across the Atlantic adding funk and depth to all 10 tracks. Smoky singer Elizabeth Lee offers backgrounds on a couple tracks and solo lead on the epic “Satisfied” which also features lead guitar work from Lary Chaney. Chase Peeler sent saxophone down from Colorado and Allan McGinty recorded bass for one track in a different part of Texas.

Even though Boomer’s Last Stand is credited as “and Friends,” this last stand is the Pat O’Bryan show. Not a beautiful singer, O’Bryan growls out his lead vocals but doesn’t overreach, a mistake made too often by limited singers, ensuring his vocals are always engaging. O’Bryan’s real talent comes in his instrumental and production prowess. Layered sweeps of organ, piano, drum programming, guitars of all type and tone create a well realized vision of popular, slightly Blues colored, music. The dramatic ballad “Burn It Down” is a great example. A medium-slow classic soul ballad, O’Bryan rasps and pleads in perfect sync with his lush organ and piano counter point. A searing yet tasty lead guitar line slinks through the open spaces and creates a deeply satisfying performance.

Pat O’Bryan is clearly a Blues artist. He was a member of the Monday night house band at Antone’s, toured with W.C. Clark all through the West, opened for Johnny Winter and ZZ Top and worked with Albert Collins. But, O’Bryan was also bit early on by the innovations of electronic instruments and the composers who used them. O’Bryan indulges a wide pallet of styles from 80’s Hair Band Rock to faux-Reggae to gut bucket Blues to Roots Rock burners. These diverse interests come to bear in some of the more rock informed tracks. Album opener “Tell Me the Truth” is a hair metal workout. The hopped up zoom of “Nikki Put the Knife Down” is a cross of Morphine and the Stooges. These diverse turns make for an interesting ride that shows off what this multifaceted artist can do. Thank goodness Pat O’Bryan is a musical success.

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 – 3 of 4 

imageKai Strauss – In My Prime

Continental Blue Heaven

11 songs time – 54:38

German singer-guitarist Kai Strauss’s music shows the extent of the reach of American blues music across the globe. He absorbs the influences of the blues greats while putting his personal stamp on everything he touches. He puts his assertive voice to good use on all songs, be they self written or co-written songs. The specter of B.B. King’s and Albert King’s guitar styles is evident much of the time. His backing musicians include the usual suspects-drums, bass, keyboards, guitar, harmonica and a horn section led by Sax Gordon that was recorded in the USA.

In the midst of mainly relationship oriented material is “World Crisis Blues”, a dissertation on our current Covid-19 world situation. Harmonica player Thomas Feldman makes his first of two effective appearances here as well. Kai’s strong vocals along with his ever present guitar goodness enliven every selection on this effort. On “Guest In The House Of The Blues” he rattles off a litany of his favorite blues icons.

On the slow “Keep Your Happy Home” he occasionally interjects a bit of jazzy guitar into his otherwise bluesy solos. “You’re Killing My Love” recalls the rhythm & blues accented styles of Bobby Blue Bland and B.B. King, a song bolstered by the horn section. He delivers a classic Otis Rush style “crying in my beer” blues on “Day Late And A Dollar Short”. His guitar supports the sentiment.

Harmonica returns on the closing tune “Wait A Minute Baby” along with organ, piano and Chicago style slide guitar. A fitting ending for this tribute to old school blues.

As long musicians of this quality keep fanning the blues flame, us blues lovers will be in great shape. Can’t wait for the next chapter from Kai and his companions. Stuff like this suits the Ol’ Bluesdog quite nicely!

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

 Featured Blues Review – 4 of 4 

imageElizabeth King – Living in the Last Days

Bible & Tire Recording Company BTRC011

11 songs – 34 minutes

The blues and gospel have walked hand-in-hand for more than 100 years – built on the same three chords and differing primarily in the subject matter of their lyrics. And this disc is old-school gospel at its best.

A rising star in the 1960s, Elizabeth King returns to the studio for the first time since 1973 after raising 15 children to put her powerful contralto voice on display for the first time since being a rarity in the gospel world when she fronted The Gospel Souls, an otherwise all-male group that charted a few singles on the Designer, D-Vine Spirituals and Messenger labels.

Now 77, King has been singing spirituals since childhood, when she credited the Lord for her miraculous recovery from a serious illness, a faith that only grew after she was T-boned in a car wreck and bounced back after doctors told her she’d never walk again. She “retired” from the stage in 1973 and raised 15 children, singing only in church and hosting a radio show for decades until the Rev. Juan D. Shipp, her former producer, reached out to her again.

Shipp had been in the control room when Elizabeth had recorded her final single, “I Heard the Voice,” which earned her the Gospel Gold Cup, an award presented annually by an association of deejays, and he’d recently started working with Bible & Tire Recording label boss Bruce Watson. The label was in the process of putting out Elizabeth King & the Gospel Truth’s album, The D-Vine Spiritual Recordings, a disc that had never been issued because of monetary reasons.

Within a week of contacting her, King was in the studio, laying down tracks for her first new record in 45 years, picking things up like she’d never left. She’s backed here by a who’s who of Memphis artists, including The Sacred Soul Sound Section — Will Sexton and Matt Ross-Spang on guitars, Mark Stuart on bass and George Sluppick on percussion.

Rounding out the lineup are Al Gamble, Rick Steff and William Graves on keys, Jim Spake and Art Edmaiston on horns and backing vocals from Chris Barnes, Courtney Barnes as well as The Vaughn Sisters – Pastor Carolyn Brown, Deborah Ballard and Rae Hicks – and The D-Vine Spiritualettes – Cora White, Audrey Fuller, Michelle Carter and Angela White – who deliver additional vocals.

A simple bass line introduces “No Ways Tired” and then accompanies King as she enters the action to assert that — despite her long, difficult journey — she’s just as vital as she’s always been. Things intensify a few measures in when the full orchestration kicks in. “He Touched Me” follows. It’s an unhurried update of a tune first recorded by the Shaw Singers in the late ‘60s and comes with a funky, interesting, unhurried shuffle beat.

Things heat up dramatically for the title tune, “Living in the Last Days,” which will have you dancing in the aisles thanks to tasty fretwork and call-and-response vocals. “Testify” – one of three reworked classics from the Gospel Souls era — serves up a little faith and gratitude to something akin to a rockabilly beat before “Mighty Good God” swings easily and steadily from the hip.

If you loved the Staple Singers, you’ll adore “A Long Journey,” which is steeped in sacred soul, before the fiery “Reach Out and Touch” continues the feel forward with a powerful R&B beat. “Walk with Me” – the second Gospel Souls cover – strolls confidently forward before “Call on Him” hints of Wilson Pickett and Solomon Burke’s “If You Need Me.” Two more pleasers – the acapella “Blessed Be the Name of the Lord” and a haunting reinterpretation of Mississippi Fred McDowell’s “You’ve Got to Move” – bring the album to a close.

Sing along, raise your voices and praise the Lord because Elizabeth King is back!

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

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