Cover photo © 2021 Marilyn Stringer
In This Issue
Steven Ovadia has our feature interview with slide guitar master, Roy Rogers. We have four Blues reviews for you this week including a relief album to benefit Joey Spampinato plus new music from King Bees, Lauren Anderson and Dylan James Shaw.
Featured Interview – Roy Rogers
Slide guitarist Roy Rogers is working on new music, but has questions about where to take it.
His questions aren’t about the music itself, although one would certainly understand Rogers pondering his musical direction, as he’s brought his blues-driven slide so many places, from Latin music, with his side project, StringShot, to rocker Sammy Hagar, to former Doors’ keyboardist Ray Manzarek, to his time working with the legendary John Lee Hooker.
No, instead Rogers is wondering about where and how he should release his music.
“People don’t buy CDs anymore, hardly,” Roger says. “That’s just the way it is. You can’t say, ‘Well, I don’t agree with this or I do agree with it’; it’s just the way it is. People can pay a monthly fee and get anything they want, so they don’t have to own it, like we did before, right? I’m debating about whether I want to record a “full CD,” or just do a couple of tracks.”
For Rogers, the decision is tough, because like so many of us of a certain age, he grew up with the idea that albums are the end-product of musical labor. But with the popularity of streaming services, many artists release a few tracks at a time, taking their songs out of context.
“I like a statement and when I look at my favorite records, you know, Kind of Blue, Miles Davis, now what two tracks are you going to pick out of that?” Rogers asks.
So as Rogers works on new songs, he’s potentially looking for two tracks, something up-tempo and something slower, to give listeners sonic variety.
“For me, it’s all about the groove,” Rogers says. “I’ve often been asked what comes first, the lyrics [or the music]. It depends on the idea, but the groove has to happen. And if it’s not grooving, then it’s not happening.”
Rogers says this as an musician, but also as a producer. He’s produced artists like Hooker, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, as well as his own music.
“The setup for production is you get to help people try to find their groove and capture it,” Rogers says. Rogers has a number of tools to help artists with this, such as playing with tunings, tempo, and instruments. “On the Hooker records, we tried a lot of things, and John was up for trying them,” he says. “It was great, just different instrumentation. Just ideas that could come into your head and see if somebody is comfortable with it.”
Hooker was more than just a production client, though. In addition to producing four of his 1980s albums, Rogers toured with him for four years, backing the blues legend but also serving as a featured part of Hooker’s set. Working together all of those years, the two grew close.
“John Lee was like a pop,” Rogers says. “I always felt extremely lucky to become close to John Lee Hooker.” Rogers says his time with Hooker wasn’t just about the blues. “I’ve said it before, and it may sound trite, but it’s true. People say, ‘Well, you must have learned a lot about music playing with John Lee Hooker.’ No, I learned a lot about life.”
Hooker was born toward the beginning of the 20th century and died at the start of the 21st century, with a long and influential career that impacted blues, but also rock and roll. One can imagine Hooker had lots of life lessons, but for Rogers, one of the most important was Hooker’s ability to anchor himself to the moment.
“That’s the great thing about those guys,” says of older blues artists. “They live in the present. They are in the here and now. And that’s hard to do, man. We worry about things and you have to be reminded of them. But [Hooker] was so present and on stage, boy, he was just so powerful. Not all the time, not every night, but when John Lee wanted to reach down, [there was] nothing more powerful on the planet than that. To be in the presence of someone that can move a crowd to like tears, to emotion. It was stunning and precious to be backing him up.”
Rogers also became close with collaborator Manzarek.
“I miss him,” Rogers says. “He was a very, very interesting guy. And, you know, for being the rock and roll legend that he was, and he was still working with [Doors guitarist] Robby Krieger—they were still doing duets—but Ray and I, we cut a record as a duet and then we cut a record called Translucent Blues. And it actually charted on the blues charts and we played all over, and even went to Poland. And then we recorded a record [2013’s Twisted Tales] and Ray got ill, he got seriously ill, unfortunately, and I released it posthumously, which he approved. And that’s just a very special record, to be released like that.”
Lots of musical artists tend to stay within their genre, afraid to push boundaries. Rogers remains true to his blues sound, but is constantly looking for different musical tableaus. One of those experiments was StringShot, which featured Badi Assad on guitar and vocal, and Carlos Reyes on violin and stringed harp. They released one album, StringShot: Blues & Latin in 2018 and were just starting to tour when Covid shut things down.
Rogers had featured Reyes as a special guest with his Delta Rhythm Kings many times over the years.
“I’m not a straight ahead blues guy, although it’s always based on the blues and always will be, but I’m not straight ahead about it,” Rogers says. “I like combining different things and playing with different people and and saying, ‘Hmmm. What can we do with this?’ Whether it’s more of a rocker or a straight ahead blues, I just like spreading it out, musically. And with that aesthetic, I’ve featured Carlos. To have a stringed harp with a blues group is kind of interesting. I said, ‘Wow. Let’s try that.’ And it worked fabulously. So I featured him in the band.”
Rogers’ son introduced him to Assad, a gifted vocalist and guitarist, and the sister of the acclaimed classical guitarists the Assad Brothers. Rogers and Assad wrote a lot of the album together, with Rogers funding the project and the band releasing it themselves. The three artists all have busy careers, so he’s not sure if they’ll ever be able to reunite.
StringShot and Rogers’ work with Manzarek featured vocals, but Rogers is also known for his instrumentals.
“[They’ve] always been a big part of [my] writing,” Rogers says. “I wrote some instrumentals when Ray Manzarek and I were together, but before that with [harmonica player Norton] Buffalo, I did a record called Slideways, which is no vocals at all. And the whole album was simply the slide guitar as the voice. So when you listen to that record, it takes you on a journey. That’s a slide guitar and all kinds of slide, from National Steel—you know, I’ve got a ’31 National Steel to die for—to the Martin, to a Les Paul Jr. crunch sound. I just wanted to explore all the different sounds and I’m really proud of that record.”
Slideways also featured Zigaboo Modeliste, of the Meters, on drums. While the Meters are famous for their New Orleans roots, Modeliste used to live in the Bay Area, Rogers’ part of the world. Hearing Rogers talk about much he liked Slideways, one has to wonder if it’s his favorite album. Rogers came back at the question—immediately—with a question of his own:
Rogers: Do you have a favorite child?
Blues Blast: I’ve only got one, so I do.
Rogers: Well see, that’s no fair!
The analogy makes sense because Rogers, who has two real-life children along with his double-digit recorded progeny, sees his albums as more than sounds captured on tape.
“[The albums are] all different, and we love them because they’re different,” Rogers says. “Some, probably recording-wise, when I look back I say, ‘Geez, I put a lot of reverb on that. Why the hell did I?’ You know, that kind of stuff. But they represent a certain time. It’s like any artists, ‘Wow, let’s see how old was I when I did that? I was 35 when I did that. Okay, now, so what was I feeling like when I wrote that?'”
Comparing albums to offspring also makes sense because of Rogers’ deep love for slide guitar, which began when he was a child.
“When I heard Muddy, and some Elmore James record, and then I got it,” he recalls. “I heard Robert Johnson and Tampa Red, all those classic guys [and] it just moved me. It’s a very moving, evocative, choose your adjectives. You can get all the in-between notes that you have to bend with frets, but you do it with a slide and it’s just so expressive. It’s a wonderful way to get the feeling out. It’s as simple as that. It’s a wonderfully expressive way and I’m very fortunate that I have that as a, shall we say, artistic expression [laughs].”
But the secret to his musical longevity is that Rogers, born in 1950, still feels passionately about slide guitar. “If that [feeling] ever goes away, I’ll probably give it up, man,” he says. “That stays with you for a lifetime, hopefully. No. I’ll still get excited. I’ll put on an old record of Muddy or someone I haven’t played in a long time, [and] I still get tingles like when I first heard it. Or Wolf, forget it. “How Many More Years”? Forget it. You’ve got to listen to that on a 78. It goes right through you. It’ll always be that way.”
Rogers considers himself based in Delta blues, building upon the work of seminal slide artists like Johnson, Son House, and Furry Lewis. He’s developed his own voice, but he’s always trying to move that sound in different directions, as shown by StringShot. However, when writing music, he doesn’t start out trying to think outside of the blues box.
“I’m thinking about a specific project, and a sound,” he says. “I can only use the analogy, when you write a song, you write it from your standpoint. You don’t say, ‘Well, I’m gonna write this song and it’s going to reach everybody because it’s going to be an anthem.’ You don’t have that with a sound; you just play. So when I say, stretching it, I’m always trying to stretch what the slide guitar can do.”
While gear is only a small piece of the sound puzzle, and one not nearly as essential as guitar, amp, and pedal manufacturers might have you believe, it is an important ingredient for Rogers, who plays an amplified acoustic guitar, giving him the best of the acoustic and electric worlds. But he’s not a gear head, stopping once he found a guitar rig that worked for him. “I suppose if I had to just play one guitar, it would certainly be the Martin with a DeArmond pickup because that’s the sound that I’m most known for,” he says. “I’ve had more guitar players come up to me over the years—because I play a 0-16 New Yorker Martin, and I have for years, and it’s an old DeArmond pick-up, that’s a humbucking pickup—and say ‘You know that guitar can’t sound like that. How can that guitar sound like that’? I said, ‘I don’t want to know. I just want to play it.'”
Like just about everyone, Rogers is concerned about the future of live music, post-Covid. He’s starting to book outdoor dates but sees a long road back for venues. And if venues struggle, artists struggle, as their fates are intertwined. Between the challenges of pandemic recovery and the ever-changing music distribution models, it would be easy for Rogers to sound sad or angry. But instead he’s excited about the future of the blues.
“There’s so many great young blues players that have come up,” he says. “I’m happy to see these young guys doing it. They should interpret it and play it like they see it and hear it. And don’t worry about sounding like 1954. It’s 2021. Make use of that and use whatever you can.”
Rogers’ long, impressive career is due to his ability to evolve, musically, but also in terms of the music business. Even as he writes, he’s thinking of a streaming strategy that serves his music and his fans. He understands that artists need to grow.
“I love the old stuff as [much] as anybody, but there would have never been a progression of music without even the classics of the classic,” he says. “If Elmore James just wanted to play like Robert Johnson, he wouldn’t have become Elmore James, now would he?”
Reviewer Steven Ovadia interviews blues artists about their songwriting process for Working Mojo.
Featured Blues Review – 1 of 4
King Bees – Featuring the Greatest Blues Stars
11 songs, 54 minutes
The King Bees are Penny “Queen Bee” Zamagni and Rob “Hound Dog” Baskerville. In 1985 this North Carolina couple felt the draw that so many white novice Blues lovers have felt before them, to learn about the Blues direct from the source. Unlike the ethnomusicologist wanderings of the Lomaxes, the Bees wanted to play! King Bees Featuring the Greatest Blues Star is a document of their adventures, friendships and jamming. A compilation of live tracks from 1990 to 2010 the 11 cuts present most of the classic electric Blues styles with many of the lesser known masters.
Harp superstar Carey Bell and gravel voiced local legend Nappy Brown anchor the list of featured Blues greats. Harpists Jerry Mc Cain, Chicago Bob Nelson and Neal Pattman all lay it down while guitarists Chick Willis and Beverly “Guitar” Watkins offer clinics in emotive Blues string bending. Mostly in back up playing difference and occasionally stepping into the spotlight Queen Bee Zamagni on bass and vocals and Hound Dog Baskerville on guitar are stellar in keeping things swinging hard.
This record is traditional, 12- bar Blues forms played with conviction, zest and joy. Nappy Brown’s rendition of the Howlin’ Wolf classic “Natchez Burning” leaves it all on the floor and almost matches the Wolf’s manic power. Carey Bell is inventive and dynamic with his harp work especially on the Queen Bee penned and sung funk hop “Alcohol and Blues.” Jerry Mc Cain is also strong and tart on harp on Zamagni’s other self penned showcase “Run Your Reputation Down.” Zamagni sings with gusto in an old timey Sippie Wallace style.
Beverly “Guitar” Watkins is the revelation of this record. On her medium-slow tempo burner “Beverly’s Guitar Blues,” Watkins exhibits ferocious technique. Singing with a husky voice that feels like a cross between Koko Taylor and Big Mama Thornton, Watkins is an engaged entertainer scatting and admonishing the audience she draws them in and seamlessly entwines her guitar riffs with her singing a la Albert Collins.
The music of King Bees Featuring the Greatest Blues Stars is fun and consistently high quality. An important document of some inspired musicians and performances, this is a traditional romp through the foundations of electric Blues. We are lucky to have tour guides like the King Bees sharing their adventures and honoring these Blues Greats.
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 – 2 of 4
Lauren Anderson – Love on the Rocks
Self-Produced – 20210
9 Tracks; 30 minutes
After the first ten seconds of Lauren Anderson’s new album, Love on the Rocks, you’ll recognize the acoustical power that indicates the singer has operatic training. The acapella beginning to the first track makes it clear that Anderson could probably be heard in a large venue unamplified, and she has a beautiful tone and resonance to her voice.
Anderson, who also plays guitar, sounds very similar to Janis Joplin on the second track, “Love on the Rocks”. Her musicians include Matt Doctor on Drums, Hutch on Bass, Jimi Greene on Guitar, and Kiran Gupta on keys/organ. She then joins with award-winning blues-rocker Mike Zito for an energetic “Back to Chicago”.
This is the second album for Anderson, who earned a master’s degree in music therapy, and worked for seven years as a music therapist with at-risk youth before deciding she had to move to Nashville and devote herself full time to her music. The therapy background is evident in some of her lyrics. For example, “Holdin’ Me Down” discusses the self-defeating tendency most single people have, as far as returning frequently to the same person who somehow manages to hold them back. (A theme that is later repeated in “I’m Done”.) Somewhat unusual for blues-rock songs are the strings added to “Holdin’ Me Down” (played by Jon and Liz Estes). Yet, they seem perfectly placed.
Anderson slows it down at the end of the album for “Your Turn,” but the beauty and power of her vocals are consistent throughout every track. There is no real flaw on this album, but there is one purely rock song, with no obvious blues influence. The lyrics of that song are so meaningful to women, however, that even female blues purists will likely love it. It discusses the double standard applied to women suggesting they are only worthy when they are young: “Is my life over after 35? Should I quit now? …I see you trying to ignore me cause I’m no longer a nine, but I ain’t going nowhere I’m like a damn fine wine…should I dial it back some? That man looks uncomfortable.”
Overall, this excellent sophomore effort will make you want to run to hear Lauren Anderson play live, so you can say you “saw her when” (before she becomes a household name).
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 – 3 of 4
Dylan James Shaw – Boogie Boy
CD: 8 Songs, 23 Minutes
Styles: Piano Blues, Boogie, Instrumentals, Blues Prodigy, Debut Album
Here’s a riddle: No matter what we are now – doctor, lawyer, mailman, blues fan – what were we? The answer, of course, is “children.” Once upon a time, long ago and far away (or not), every one of us was a youngster. A lad or lass, a teen and tween. We had big ambitions back then, and we were all going to make it big. Paltry few of us, however, had their dreams come true at the tender young age of fourteen. Dylan James Shaw has, though. A blues prodigy with a silver voice, a heart of gold, and fingers that tickle the ivories like a well-seasoned pro, he’s already achieved what most blues artists would give their right eye and more for – a prestigious career. On his debut album, Shaw proves he’s already in the big leagues.
The best thing about this CD is that it’s full of unadulterated joy. The worst thing? It’s too short. Running twenty-three minutes, it’ll leave piano blues aficionados, especially the younger set, yearning for more. Still, it’s just enough to whet your appetite for his YouTube videos and other recorded footage. Featuring seven official songs (five originals and two instrumental covers), it also conceals a ghost track (reviewed below). Both Dylan’s piano and his vocals are clear and precise, though you oftentimes can’t hear the lyrics to his original tunes over 88 keys. That’s a mixing problem, not an innate flaw. Listen closely and hone your auditory skills.
Even though he’s not even old enough to drive his “Bluesmobile,” Shaw is very well-known in the professional blues music community. Originally taught by his blues grandmother and professional vocalist mother, this Boogie Boy is lighting it up with his music, performance, personality and perfect pitch. His mentors include rock-and-roll royalty such as Chuck Leavell (Allman Brothers, Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton), Bruce Katz (Gregg Allman, Ronnie Earl), Bob Margolin (Muddy Waters) and more. His list of accolades is likely longer than his report card, boasting such honors as Allstate “Blues Kid Of The Year 2021” BluesKids.com Chicago, a University of Chicago Accredited Scholarship, a Pinetop Perkins Foundation scholarship awardee (2019 & 2020), a Blues Radio International broadcast (April 2020) and Woodsongs Old-Time Radio Hour broadcast (February 2020). He’s also been an International Blues Challenge performer (2019 & 2020), a guest on FOX, CBS, and WGN, and an interviewee in Blues Therapy by Tab Benoit and Dr. Anita Schlank (2020).
Performing with Dylan is Christine Windburn on backup and harmony vocals for track two.
Every song here is a highlight, but I want to mention the one that’s not listed: the ghost track, “Bluesmobile.” Everything is spot-on, including the harmonica and catchy refrain of “Wheels are spinning, we’re a-grinning, HOLD on tight!” Just the way he says “hold” will perk your ears up and make you grin so wide your cheeks will split. More-than-honorable mentions include the instrumental covers (“Sweet Home Chicago” and “Get Up and Go Blues”), and the perky original “Homework Blues.” It inspired me to write my own blues song about a kid who loves homework. That’s what art is supposed to do – urge you to create, and Shaw knows this well.
I want to hear more from this Boogie Boy. You will, too, because he’s a superstar in the making!
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 – 4 of 4
Various Artists – Party For Joey – A Sweet Relief Tribute To Joey Spampinato
14 songs time – 40:21
A diverse group of musician fans got together to salute bass player, singer-songwriter and occasional guitarist for the iconic and quirky NRBQ. Joey is currently recovering from cancer. Joey contributed the deeper tracks to the bands output.
Full disclosure-I’m only familiar with their better known songs such as “RC Cola And A Moon Pie”, “Captain Lou” and “Howard Johnson’s Got His Ho-Jo Workin'”, among others. Having said that everything here is full of fun and energy as I’m sure the original versions were. The cast is comprised of some “names” along with some lesser known players. The result is a feel good time.
Former NRBQ member Al Anderson handles vocals and guitar on the short but rockin’ “You Can’t Hide”. Los Lobos turns in a typical Los Lobos upbeat romp on “Every Boy Every Girl” that features David Hildago on vocal, guitar and accordion. No better description than bouncy for Deer Tick’s take on “That I Get Back Home”.
The marquee names of Ben Harper with Keith Richards, Charlie Musselwhite, Benmont Tench, Don Was and Don Heffington tackle “Like A Locomotive”, a tune that just chugs along(no pun intended). The riffing guitars are truly infectious. Strangely I’m hard pressed to hear Charlie Musselwhite’s harmonica after repeated listening’s, perhaps it’s blended in with the organ. Ben Harper delivers a strong vocal along with his nifty slide guitar work.
The Minus 5 includes Peter Buck and Mike Mills from REM and they along with vocalist Scott McCaughey knockout a joyfully noisy cover of “Don’t She Look Good”. Steve Forbert’s voice isn’t quite its’ usually quirky self on “Beverly”. Bonnie Raitt is backed by the current NRBQ line up of which Terry Adams is the only original member on “Green Light”. She presents her usual on point vocals and slide guitar.
Robbie Fulks shows up for a goofy and good timey “Chores”. Perennial favorites Penn And Teller also present goofiness on the spoken “Plenty Of Somethin'” where we get to hear the usually silent Teller’s voice. Joey and his wife Kami Lyle duet on the mellow “First Crush” to close out the proceedings. Kami’s hushed voice fits right in with the vibe of the song. She also supplies piano and trumpet.
Joey’s and NRBQ’s joyful quirkiness is well represented here by all involved. If this CD doesn’t tickle your musical funnybone, seek help.
Reviewer Greg “Bluesdog” Szalony hails from the New Jersey Delta.
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