Cover photo © 2021 Steve Jones
In This Issue
Mark Thompson has our feature interview with harmonica wiz Joe Filisko. We have six blues reviews for you including new music from The WildRoots, Craig Brenner, Kevin Burt, Tim Woods, Phil Manca and Andrew Riverstone.
Featured Interview – Joe Filisko
Born in Germany, where he lived briefly, Joe Filisko’s family settled in Joliet, Illinois, about 45 miles southwest of Chicago. While his parents weren’t particularly musical, he still got some encouragement from one of them.
“My mother has always had a deep fondness for the harmonica. That meant that there were always harmonicas around me when I was growing up. Once in awhile I would pick one up and try to play it for a few days. It wasn’t until the late 1980s, when I was in my early twenties, that I developed my strong interest in blues music, and started to take the harmonica seriously as an instrument. That’s when I understood that to play blues on the harp, there is a handful of do’s and don’t’s that you need to be familiar with to make it work.
“I was very excited about the expressiveness that was possible to get with it. So I started to investigate, looking for information on how the harmonica functions, and how to play it better. I was amazed at what I thought was an extreme deficit of good information that was out there. Of course, this was pre-Internet days. I hate to be cruel, but most of the people who had written books at that point on how to play blues harmonica were not very accomplished players. They were enthusiasts.
“All of the guys that really knew how to play were way too busy trying to keep their careers going to bother with writing a book or instruction method. That had me more intrigued, wondering how is it that an instrument that is still popular in America, and such a really big part of the blues sound, could be so poorly documented. Wanting to know how to operate the machine really fueled my curiosity.”
Filisko has been mostly self-employed since his college days, earning an Associate degree in Machine Tool Technology, a fancy way of saying “machinist”. He found work doing guitar repairs, setting up the bridge or straightening the neck, and miscellaneous metal work that has always been a part of who he is.
“My interest in working on harmonicas spun right out of that. It was a way to satisfy my curiosity on how to play it better, how it functioned, and to make a little bit of money. In 1990, I put together my first brochure, a pamphlet on how to do harmonica repairs. I happened to be at the right time and place because a few years later, the bottom fell out. The companies that produced harmonicas at that point were turning out a really, really lousy product.
“There were many professional players were coming to me, asking if there was anything I could do to make their harmonicas play better. That put my career as a guy who works on and upgrades harmonicas in the fast lane. I was as busy as you could possibly imagine doing that work until about five years ago, when things started slowing down a little bit.”
The average blues fan may wonder what you can do to upgrade a diatonic harmonica, given that it seems like a simple instrument with no visible moving parts. Listen to Filisko describe some of the magic that he works and you will quickly be thinking about buying one of his customized harps for yourself.
“The heart and soul of the harmonica are the reeds, with 20 reeds in every ten hole diatonic harp. The biggest ones are the size of a paper match from a book of matches. When you inhale or exhale through the harmonica, it causes the reeds to vibrate, creating sound. Being able to adjust the way the reeds are sitting inside the harmonica can make a big difference in the amount of air it takes to get the reeds to vibrate, or not. That has become my specialty, knowing how to adjust the reeds so that you get the maximum amount of sound with a minimal amount of wind.
“I think I have also dialed in the ideal way to tune the harmonica so that you have the ideal balance between the tuning for clean single notes, and the tuning of the chords. In traditional blues, the chords are extremely important, needing to sound smooth and in tune. I use the reeds that come factory-installed. That is necessary to keep the price down and make my work affordable for the real musicians that are out there playing and touring.”
Many of the world’s finest harmonica players have taken advantage of Filisko’s talents for fine-tuning the instrument. Master players from Kim Wilson of the Fabulous Thunderbirds, to Mickey Raphael (Willie Nelson), and Howard Levy, a master who plays music in multiple styles and genres from around the globe, are just a few of his notable clients.
“Someone like Howard, with his jazz and world music approach to playing, will need the harmonica to be responsive as well as high performance on all ten holes as much as possible. When you consider Kim Wilson, the blues style he plays demands maximum performance out of holes 2,3, and 4, then moderate performance out of holes 1,5 and 6, with minimum performance out of the 7, 8, 9, and 10 holes. Setting it up that way makes the harmonica affordable because I am not putting time into something that is not used or needed.
“Because I have studied so many historical styles, I generally understand what the player needs much better than they do. It is easy for me at this point to figure out what a player needs, what I can do to make them happy, and give them the performance that they want.”
His current list of clients provides the craftsman with more than enough work. It is a benefit that he has come to appreciate in recent years.
“I am very pleased with the level of customizing I am doing now. This is the first time in my life where I don’t have constant anxiety, always feeling like I need to get up & run somewhere, do something. I am enjoying the hell out of it. For those interested, Hohner Harmonica Company has a program of affiliated customizers that I have given the thumbs up and approved their work. Anyone who is interested in having one of the best playing harmonicas in the world, I encourage them to check out the customizers on the Hohner website. There are three or four people working on this continent.”
Another aspect of Filisko’s career is his role as a teacher and instructor of playing blues harmonica. His website has plenty of tips, downloads, study songs, and other valuable information, some of which is free. His material reflects the decades of dedicated research that he has conducted, filtered through 27 years as a teacher at a famous school in Chicago.
“I have been in the Joliet area since 1970. The proximity to Chicago has made it a perfect hub for me, being a musician and doing the things I have done in partnership with Eric Noden. It also allowed me to connect with the Old Town School of Folk Music. That has enabled me to develop my craft as a teacher, and as a blues harmonica historian, to as high a level as I want.
“I was trying to get some students, so one day I decided to go to the school, running on pure ambition. I asked them to hire me because I wanted to teach, and this school is the best place for me to do that in the whole Chicagoland area. And they hired me! I was doing individual instruction as well as group classes. Since the Covid lock-down hit, I have only been teaching group classes.
“I had always sworn that I would never teach on-line. I had no interested in doing it. After the school was shut down, a week went by where nothing was going on. Then my boss contacted me with the news that the school needed to go on-line, and gave me the options. I did not like that plan at all!”
For the first couple of weeks, Filisko admits that he had a pretty bad attitude. But it didn’t take long for him to discover that all was not as he envisioned it.
“After just a couple of weeks, I realized that there are some fabulous benefits to teaching exclusively on-line. It some ways it has made me a better teacher. It has allowed me to hold my students more accountable. While I have grown to like it, some days I am sitting in front the computer for ten hours doing Old Town School stuff. So I am really whipped at the end of those days. But it is a very rewarding experience.
“From my perspective, it is a situation where I can do my thing while the Old Town staff handles the business end of things. I am able to put 100% of energy into being the best teacher I can possibly be without being distracted by scheduling lessons, handling paperwork, or collecting payments. That kind of environment really allows me to excel without the politics and other nonsense. It has been an indescribable blessing for me.”
Asked about the basic philosophy of his teaching methods, Filisko makes it clear that his focus is laser-sharp on one goal.
“My goal as a teacher has not been to teach people to play like me. The focus is on teaching people and help them understand what made the masters as great as they were. I find that type of attitude is rare, especially with the harmonica. On guitar or piano, you can sit in front of the student and they can see what your hands are doing. They get a much better idea of how to operate the instrument.
“That type of learning is not possible with the harmonica, because you totally lack that visual component, making it much more challenging to teach. When I started at Old Town, I put together a course description entitled “How to use Tongue-blocking when playing Blues. No one had ever explained the ins and outs of that technique to me, so I had to develop the discipline to sit down and transcribe those great recordings that everyone regards as bible of great blues harmonica playing. The discipline of transcribing allowed me to hone my ear to a razor sharp edge when listening.”
Tongue-blocking is one method of playing the harmonica. The other is often referred to as lip-pursing. There is no doubt as to what Filisko’s preference has been.
“The clearest visualization that I have been able to come up with is that tongue-blocking allows you the quickest access to playing chords, to playing octave intervals, to playing clean single notes, and giving you the percussive, vamping, slapping technique.
“If your default as a harmonica player is scrunching up and puckering your lips, it is similar to a piano player sitting down, making a fist with one hand, sticking out one finger, and playing the piano with one finger while the rest are clenched in a fist. When you play with the tongue-blocking style, it is like opening up all of your fingers, keeping them above the piano keys, and dropping the finger you need.
“You can drop three fingers for a chord. You drop two out-stretched fingers to play an octave or an interval, or you can play clean single notes. Tongue-blocking gives you the quickest access to all of the sounds the harmonica can make. The puckering technique kind of paints you into a corner. Chicago blues is much, much more than playing single notes. A good definition is that it is the blues style that tastefully, and musically, uses the maximum amount of chords. It is much easier to just lift the tongue to form a chord than it is to open and close your mouth while playing.”
His familiarity with guitar also comes in handy while he is teaching his students.
“My specialty, as a guitar player who has never taken a solo, is that I can lay down pretty darn solid rhythmic groove. That makes me valuable as an instructor, because I can accompany my students as we work on things. They could play by themselves, but then they often don’t pay attention to any kind of rhythm. When I am teaching internationally, I request that they have an acoustic guitar available. Eric and I have talked about doing a song where I play guitar and he plays harp, but we have never gotten around to it.”
(For lessons, learning guides, tablature, and a tongue block trainer, go to: www.filiskostore.com)
In the early years of his deep dive into all things harmonica-related, Filisko became aware of an organization that once existed called the Windy City Harmonica Club, which met weekly for years in Elmhurst, Illinois. It was a group of predominantly retired gentlemen who grew up loving the instrument.
“They would play harmonica band arrangements of songs, particularly stuff from their heroes, the Harmonicats, a trio that made “Peg O’ My Heart” famous in the 1947. So I went to a meeting to find that I was very charmed by these gentlemen that were my grandfather’s age. Later on I heard them talking about a upcoming SPAH event. That stands for The Society for the Preservation and Advancement of the Harmonica.
“At that time, SPAH was held annually in Detroit. I decided to check it out. So I went for one day 1n 1990 and was completely overwhelmed at the level of enthusiasm, as well as how much I learned in a short period of time. It was such an exciting experience for me that I vowed to attend every year. Now I volunteer to try to help keep the event fun, organize jam sessions so people are playing as much music as possible, and teaching workshops so that other educators know quite a bit about the harmonica.”
In 2001, Filisko was named “Harmonica Player of the Year” at the annual SPAH event, recognizing all of his efforts on behalf of the instrument and those who play it.
Another important facet of Filisko’s career for the last 18 years is the acoustic duo he formed with guitarist Eric Noden. Once again, the Old Town School played a key role.
“Eric & I met when he moved to Chicago to get a job at the Old Town School in 1994, moving from Ohio. But it wasn’t until 2003 that we realized that both of us were at a place in our lives where it made sense to put a project together. We have an identical interest in music that isn’t about trying to create our own sound as much as preserve and promote the styles of all of the players we learned from. We got inspiration from artists like Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, Mississippi Fred McDowell and Johnny Woods.
“We feel those artists were highly unique, so we try to keep their styles alive and floating in the air. Our partnership has continued to grow since 2003 into a bigger and better thing. We know how to communicate well with each other, and have a fantastic time when we are together. If there is one thing that I miss during the lock-down, it is not being able to be with Eric as much as usual.”
The two musicians have been offering frequent live streams on social media platforms. Most are the duo playing and singing for their fans, adding special guests to spice things up from time to time.
“We are very pleased with the shows, particularly since the technology is not totally associated with people from our generation. But we have adapted to it, and keep moving forward. I am very, very happy about that. It is an exciting thing, and these days, it is the only thing!”
The roots duo has recorded five albums together, including their 2018 release, Destination Unknown. Filisko also was featured on the Eric Noden Band project Solid Ground from 2015 that also had Kenny Smith on drums and E.G. McDaniel on bass guitar. “Destination Unknown is probably my favorite,” says Filisko. “I was very pleased with how that came out, considering that we recorded the entire record with one stereo microphone, done live with no overdubs.
(You can learn more about Filisko & Noden at:www.rootsduo.com )
In recent years, the harp master has also been flexing his vocal chords, giving the duo some additional firepower in addition to giving listeners some variety in vocal textures.
“It has always been obvious to me that the singer is really the focal point, the boss. In a band, the most important member is probably the singer. And the least important person is probably the harmonica player! So it seemed pretty damn wise to have some vocal abilities.
“When Eric and I first started working together, the one condition I had was that I would be singing. I also told Eric that if he didn’t like my singing, he could either help me to become a better vocalist, or he could bill us as Eric Noden, with special guest Joe Filisko. That way I would do whatever he wanted me to do. But if we are a duo, then I will sing.
Once the lock-down was enacted, the harp player once again saw opportunity knocking.
“Having more time on my hands, I decided to up my game and take my singing more seriously. That lead me to start weekly vocal lessons, and I have learned so much. I had no idea what you could do with a voice if you understand how to correctly make it resonate. It is in some ways similar to playing the harmonica. When you play the harp, the sound that comes out of it is never impressive. The key to playing it well is getting the sound out of the harmonica and into your mouth, head, and throat.
“What I am now understanding about singing is that the key is to get the sound out of your throat, to get the sound to resonate in your head, inside your sinus cavities. I had no idea I would be so fascinated by it. As much as I love playing the harmonica, I always tell people that nothing is more important than the voice, singing, and having a good song.”
As to the styles of the first blues harmonica players, Filisko is considered to be perhaps the foremost authority on the subject. He has been gathering information in meticulous fashion almost from the start.
“One of the first records that I got was on the Yazoo label entitled Harmonica Blues: Great Performances of the 1920s and ’30s. It is definitely true that most of the time I am trying to teach students to play the Chicago style of Little Walter, Big Walter Horton, Junior Wells, both Sonny Boy Williamson’s, James Cotton, Jimmy Reed. For me, the playing of people like DeFord Bailey or Sonny Terry has always been deeply intriguing. When I am on my own, my interest has been on players from that era, primarily because their styles are so incredibly unique.
“Most likely they weren’t influenced by anybody they heard on record or on the radio. Many of them grew up before those existed. And that all fits nicely with what Eric and I do in the style of those early pre-war players. While I am into modern styles like Howard Levy, I am very uncomfortable in a world where he is ranked above a pioneer like Deford Bailey. People can not be dismissive of a player like Bailey.
“When the Ken Burns documentary series on Country music came out last year, I literally had tears in my eyes because of how well DeFord Bailey was featured on it. He wasn’t just given a two minute acknowledgment. He kept coming up in a number of episodes. I now refer to Mr. Bailey as the “Chet Atkins” of the diatonic harmonica. It was a real honor and thrill to play at his 2006 induction ceremony at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville. Vince Gill opened up for me! I don’t think I have ever been that nervous on stage.”
Blues Blast Magazine Senior writer Mark Thompson lives in Florida, where he is enjoying the sun and retirement. He is the past President of the Board of Directors for the Suncoast Blues Society and a former member of the Board of Directors for the Blues Foundation. Music has been a huge part of his life for the past fifty years – just ask his wife!
Featured Blues Review – 1 of 6
The WildRoots – The WildRoots Sessions Volume 1
WildRoots Records, LLC – 2021
16 Tracks; 64 minutes
This album requires a bit of historical background to fully understand. Victor Wainwright and Stephen Dees began their musical partnership back in 2005, when Dees co-wrote and produced Wainwright’s debut solo release Piana’ From Savannah. They then formed the WildRoots band, fronted by Wainwright. Next, they released several albums, including the 2015 release, Boom Town, which won Blues Blast Magazine’s award for Contemporary Blues Album of the Year, and led to Wainwright winning BB King Entertainer of the Year, and Wainwright & the WildRoots being named Band of the Year at the Blues Music Awards. Wainwright and Dees have since started their own record label, similarly named WildRoots Records.
You might think you know what to expect on this album because you’ve seen Victor Wainwright and the WildRoots perform in the past. But the first thing you will notice about this album is that there is quite a bit going on. In addition to Wainwright, Dees, and Patricia Ann Dees (considered the “core” members of the band), eight WildRoots alumni play on the album, eight additional lead vocalists are spotlighted, and seven guest musicians are also featured, including Pat Harrington (from Wainwright’s band, The Train), Lucky Peterson and Michael Shrieve. There is also a variety of song styles, including soul, blues, gospel, and roots Rock ‘n’ Roll. The second thing you will likely notice about this album is the excellent sound mix, with each song consistently sounding clear and crisp, even when played on low-budget laptop speakers.
The album begins with Wainwright and Patricia Ann Dees singing a duet version of the song that Eddie Floyd and Steve Cropper wrote for Wilson Pickett, “634-5789”. Even in this light and catchy cover song, the stunning tone and interesting character of Wainwright’s voice is evident. Aside from this and one other cover song, the remaining 14 tracks were written or co-written by Dees, who seems equally comfortable penning songs in any genre. Not surprisingly, the recent political climate appears to have inspired two powerfully written songs for this album. Guest singer Billy Livesay delivers Dees’ song “Something in the Water,” noting “A man’s going crazy up on the hill…tainted news, toxic lies. When right is wrong and wrong is right…must be something in the water.” Additionally, Dees and Wainwright collaborated to write “Where I am,” in which their plea for unity states, “I know what I believe and I’m here to say, hate and evil get out of my way…I’ll respect your views, you respect mine. Treat each other with kindness. Let everybody shine.” This latter message is delivered by the wonderfully gravelly voice of Anthony “Pakrat” Thompson.
Guest artist, John Oates (formerly of Hall and Oates fame), has turned his focus lately to the blues, and his voice sounds better than ever on the slow blues song, “Our Last Goodbye”. This song also features one of the many perfectly placed saxophone solos on this album, performed by three different sax players, Ray Guiser, Charlie DeChant and Patricia Ann Dees.
With such a wide variety of collaborations among so many amazing musicians, it is difficult to focus on only a few tracks for the limited space of a record review, as that will ultimately lead to many notable performances appearing to have been overlooked. But, if I had to pick favorites from this outstanding collection, I would pick the stirring and beautiful gospel duet written by Dees and performed by Wainwright and Beth McKee, “Cradled in the Bosom of Jerusalem,” and the Dees/Wainwright song performed by Wainwright, “I’m Yours,” which ends the album. Ever since hearing Wainwright perform “Same Old Blues,” I have been hoping he would write an original song in a similar style which highlights the power, texture, and range of his voice. I believe “I’m Yours” is just such a song and will be the new song that fans will soon be requesting at his shows. With such an impressive collection of talent, it is not surprising that there are few, if any flaws to be detected.
In summary, this album celebrates a long history of collaborations among numerous remarkable musicians. With excellent songwriting, stellar performances, and wide-ranging styles, it is an album easily recommended for everyone. It is likely to leave us all eagerly anticipating the release of Volume Two.
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 – 2 of 6
Craig Brenner – Passages
Craig Brenner is a Bloomington, Indiana based piano player, teacher and musician. His website tells us: “Craig is a blues, boogie woogie, and jazz pianist, composer, teacher, and recipient of numerous arts grants. Craig leads Craig Brenner & The Crawdads, is a member of The Ragin’ Texans, and has produced seven CDs. He is the founder of Bloomington Boogies: The Bloomington Blues & Boogie Woogie Piano Festival.” He has appeared with Bo Didley and opened for the likes of B. B. King, C. J. Chenier, Queen Ida, Buckwheat Zydeco, Gary Burton, Richard Thompson, Wayne Toups, Honeyboy Edwards, Matt “Guitar” Murphy, the Radiators, Duke Robillard, Jimmy Rogers, and Terrance Simien, and many more. I had heard of him before but never have seen or heard him live or on a recording before. Fortunately, that is no longer the case.
Brenner handles piano here and adds a little organ and vocals. For most of the album Dan Hostetler is on drums, Ron Kadish is on double bass, Joe Donnelly is on baritone sax and Gordon Bonham is on electric guitar. Merill Garbus is the vocalist, Craig’s son Nate appears on electric bass for three cuts, and Dena El Saffar handles the strings on the next to last cut. The final cut’s players are included below as they are a mostly different group.
The album begins with a pretty jazz piece entitled “Life Is Precious.” Featuring Brenner on piano along with drums and double bass, the cut has a bit of a lilting feeling and expresses hope and feelings about what the title describes. Next is “Tut’s Boogie Woogie,” and here are added baritone sax and electric guitar. The piano is predominant, but sax and guitar get their time soloing and do an admirable job. A mid-tempo boogie woogie, the band is tight and offers a thoughtful cut for the listener to enjoy.
We’re back to the trio with added vocals by Merrill Garbus on “No One Should Die Alone.” Brenner’s son Nate handles the bass here and on the next cut. A somber song, with ethereal vocals and restrained but cool piano. The lyrics describe what no one should have to do, which is pass from this world by themselves. “Spring Is Near” adds trumpet to the last song’s protagonists. The cut opens with some pretty horn work and then Grabus returns with some passionate lyrical efforts about the burgeoning of Spring. Brenner then offers up some equally thoughtfully delivered piano and works into a bouncy and slightly rollicking groove to fit the mood. Quass takes over on his horn for a great solo and then he, Garbus, and Brenner take us home to complete a really nice jazz number.
Brenner gets into some straight up blues with “Some Sexy Blues For Ya Right Here, Y’All.” The backline, he, double bass and baritone make up the players here. The cut begins with some slick piano work; the sax then gets it’s turn to solo and lays out some nice slow blues. The guitar then enters the mix and gives us it’s musical take on the piece. Brenner then takes over, jazzing up the slow blues a bit. The guitar returns for more thoughtful licks before Brenner completes the number for us. Sweetly done! It’s back to boogie time with “Paradiddle Boogie Woogie.” Merriam Webster defines paradiddle as, “a quick succession of drumbeats slower than a roll and alternating left- and right-hand strokes in a typical L-R-L-L, R-L-R-R pattern.” No bass here, but otherwise the lineup is the same as the last cut. Hostetler sets the pace throughout as piano, drums and baritone sax share fronting the group and playing together in this fast paced and fun boogie.
The next cut offers up a completely different approach, sound and style. It is a mix of viola and violin in a classical piece with a sacred feel to it and it is called “For My Brother.” The strings are beautifully played and overlayed with each other. This solemn cut is really well done and was all performed by Dena El Saffar. The album concludes with what I’d have to call techno reggae, entitled “Looking For A Job.” The song bemoans, “I send my resume here, I send my resume there,” with the frustration of looking for a job with a very unsuccessful feeling to the result. Here the ensemble varies from the rest of the album. Brenner and his wife Lori do the vocals, and he adds organ and piano here. Nate Brenner is on bass, synthesizer and other effects, Tim Brookshire is on drums, and Mike Baker is on guitar. Joe Donnelly adds his baritone sax again while Jake Beisar on alto sax and Dave Pavolka appears on trombone to round out the horn section. Synthesized reggae with an ultra-slow beat with layers of organ, horns, piano synth and sounds. It’s interesting and fun.
Brenner is a talented musician and songwriter. He composed and arranged all eight cuts in this CD which he calls a reflection of his past two years of life. Our world is small; it turns out Craig has often played at my wife’s nephew’s distillery in Bloomington and his step-daughter worked there. That’s far less than the proverbial six degrees of separation. I can’t wait to catch up with Craig and get to see and hear him play live. In the meantime, I can listen to his recordings. I’ll be stocking up on the other albums soon- this is really good stuff with an eclectic mix of styles and genres to enjoy. I highly recommend checking him out!
Reviewer Steve Jones is president of the Crossroads Blues Society and is a long standing blues lover. He is a retired Navy commander who served his entire career in nuclear submarines. In addition to working in his civilian career since 1996, he writes for and publishes the bi-monthly newsletter for Crossroads, chairs their music festival and works with their Blues In The Schools program. He resides in Byron, IL.
Featured Blues Review – 3 of 6
Kevin Burt – Stone Crazy
Gulf Coast Records – 2020
11 tracks; 47.43 minutes
Already a 25-year veteran of the Midwest scene, Iowa native Kevin Burt really cracked open the blues world in 2018 when he won three first place awards at the IBC’s: Solo/Duo performer, The Cigar Box Guitar Award as the best guitar player in that Solo/Duo category, plus the Lee Oskar Award for top harmonica player. Kevin has released previous albums, notably 2018’s Heartland & Soul on Little Village Foundation but this is his first for Gulf Coast Records. The album was recorded and produced by label co-owner Mike Zito in Texas, with Kevin on vocals, guitar and harp, supported by Mike on electric guitar and some Zito regular collaborators: Doug Byrkit on bass, Matthew Johnson on drums and Lewis Stephens on keys; Jimmy Carpenter adds sax to one cut. All the material is original except for one cover of a song by Bill Withers, an artist with whom Kevin is sometimes compared.
Kevin dedicates the album to his family and states that his wife Nicole is his muse and biggest influence and that comes across, particularly on the title track. Delicately played electric guitar and resonant bass are set against acoustic guitar on this lush, romantic song which emphasizes that Kevin has found his soul mate, he’s “Stone Crazy” for her love. Another gentler moment on the album celebrates that there is “Something Special About You”, the mood this time created by elegant electric guitar lines set over acoustic guitar and warm keyboards. The Bill Withers cover “Better Off Dead” also taps into a theme of keeping the important parts of your life safe; in the song the central character fails to reform from his drinking problem, loses his wife and spirals downwards.
The autobiographical song “You Get What You See” tells us that Kevin is “this way with everyone” and adds Jimmy Carpenter’s sax to duel with Kevin’s guitar as the rhythm bounds along. “Same Old Thing” has plenty of eloquent guitar and just a hint of the Willie Dixon tune of the same title as Kevin bemoans the fact that fate has already determined much of what is to happen and you just can’t avoid it. Kevin’s harp is set over a frenetic rhythm and electric slide guitar on “Rain Keeps Coming Down”, a re-working of the Noah’s Ark story, and there is some moody, shimmering slide on the final track “Got To Make A Change” which gives a suitably eerie feel to a song which has fascinating lyrics about needing to decide whether to look back at history, look forward to your own future, or is it actually the time to make a fundamental shift in your life.
Kevin’s harp features on several songs, notably opener “I Ain’t Got No Problem With It” which has a mellow groove and the uptempo “Should Have Never Left Me Alone” in which Lewis’ piano makes a good foil for Kevin’s impressive playing. There is also plenty of Kevin’s guitar, from the twangy leads on “Purdy Lil Thang” to the soulful playing on the intensely catchy “I’m Busting Out” where the keys and guitar work up a fair head of steam.
Across these eleven tracks we get a good impression of Kevin’s multiple talents: a strong, clear vocalist, guitarist and harp player, plus a skilled songwriter. A strong album that makes Kevin Burt one to watch.
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
Tim Woods – Vortex
Self-Release – 2019
10 tracks; 40 minutes
Tim Woods has made a big record with ”Vortex.” I get the impression that when Woods and his producer Bobby Lee Rogers stepped into the studio, and asked themselves what they were going to use, they said in unison “Everything!”
Woods, originally from Western Pennsylvania, moved to Macon Georgia at 18, and became steeped in the classic blues of Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. In the early 2000’s Woods was a founding member of the Mountain Jam Band. “Vortex” is his third album, his first was entitled “The Blues Sessions” and included guest appearances by David “Honey Boy” Edwards, Ike Stubblefield and Jeff Sipe among others. In 2012 Woods was inducted into the New York Blues Hall of Fame. His second album release “Human Race” like “Vortex,” was also produced by Rogers, who contributed drums, bass and keyboards while Woods delivered guitar and vocals and composed all ten tracks on the new album. Woods asserts his guitar-playing is influenced by his guitar instructor, the Pittsburgh blues musician Ernie Hawkins, and the Piedmont Blues fingerstyle playing of the Reverend Gary Davis.
The title track “Vortex” is the most compelling musically, and includes ethereal vocal harmonies by Woods’ sons Derek and Ryan. The album is predominantly blues-rock with a flair for the wall of sound sometimes reminiscent of Oasis or Pink Floyd, most especially when you hear a steel string acoustic guitar blended into the wall of keyboards and electric rhythm guitars. The album performances switch up musical styles from the wall of blues-rock to the funk groove of “Some of Your Love” – the melancholic instrumental “Sage” to the twelve bar “I Don’t Know Yet,” and the rockabilly “telephone-morphed” vocals of “This Mess.” The renowned record producer and keyboard player Paul Hornsby contributes a beautiful piano accompaniment to the song “Destination Unknown.” Hornsby has played with Elvin Bishop, and with Duane and Greg Allman in the Hour Glass in 1967, and has produced Charlie Daniels, Wet Willie and the Marshall Tucker Band. His piano playing is somewhat obscured by the organ track, and in my hearing would well have served the song better if it was brought up in the mix and more pronounced.
The standout tracks are “Vortex,” and the opening song “Ready” which brings the heavy guns of Woods’ rolling guitars driving the song in front of producer Rogers’ propulsive drumming. These two characters have clearly spent a long time together practicing their art, and fit together musically hand-in-glove. The album deserves attention for the power of Woods’ dreams. There’s enough contrast and dynamic variance in the musical landscape it depicts to merit repeated playing. We should look forward to what comes next from these guys.
Reviewer Conrad Warre originally from London, England, is a freelance writer and plays lead guitar in the Boston-based acid-blues band Bees Deluxe..
Featured Blues Review – 5 of 6
Phil Manca – Dancing Spirits
Tremelo Editions Productions
10 songs – 46 minutes
Paris-based blues-rocker Phil Manca hit the high notes a couple of years ago with Signs, a CD that let his high-voltage guitar work do the talking as he left the singing to others, and he follows the same formula with this powerful follow-up, which should please hardcore fans of the genre no matter where they’re based.
A native of the City of Lights, Manca’s been a fixture on the French music scene since the ‘80s both for his fretwork and his songwriting skills. Fans in the U.S. probably are most familiar with him because of his stint in eRa, a New Age project undertaken by composer Eric Levi that blended Gregorian chants with modern music that sold seven million copies of its debut 1996 release around the world.
Phil’s also composed the score for several films, produced a rock opera and Jack et Le Haricot Magique, a rock musical for children based on Jack and the Beanstalk that toured for ten years. More recently, he decided to start recording himself as a blues-rocker after spending two years touring in tribute to the late Northern Irish guitar wizard Gary Moore, who – along with Eric Clapton, Rory Gallagher and Jeff Beck – was one of his childhood idols.
This is the third CD Manca’s issued since 2018, when he made his debut as a front man with Signs, which featured a blazing remake of AC/DC’s “Down Payment Blues.” Like that, his new disc — one which features seven originals among its ten tracks — pushes the blues to the edges of heavy metal without losing its touch with the root. Josselin “JJ” Jabard returns to handle vocals with bassist David Jacob and drummer Eric Lafont powering on the bottom throughout.
“Crying for Freedom” opens the action with a brief, understated guitar intro before heating up quickly. Jabard joins the action delivering perfectly unaccented lyrics as Manca alternates between intense single-note accents and rapid-fire single-note runs that put him in the upper echelon of rock guitar gods worldwide. The title cut, “Dancing Spirits,” picks up where that one leaves off as it describes the entities breathing on the singer’s neck, and flows into the driving ballad “Talia,” which consoles a lady who still believes in happily-ever-after.
“Betty Blue,” a ballad with a much sweeter edge, offers up the most true-blue feel in the set as the singer promises lifelong devotion before the rocker “Sea of Stone” opens as an unhurried blues, but slowly erupts into a full-on rocker, yielding to “Mask of Snow,” which provides a little downtime from what came before with an extended acoustic feel and pleasant two-part harmonies.
A cover of Titus Turner’s familiar “All Around the World” follows with a driving, contemporary beat and fiery runs but original blues feel before the intense original “Got to No” and two more covers – a sweet take on the John Watson/Maxwell Davis penned “Someone Cares for Me” and a rapid-fire version of Brazilian rocker Nuno Mindelis’ “Motorhead Baby” – bring the disc to a close.
Available through several major online retailers, Dancing Spirits will be right up your alley – especially if you’re a metalhead from the ‘80s or ‘90s. If you’re a traditionalist, however, look elsewhere. Don’t get me wrong, though. This is a rock-solid album, but there’s simply not enough true-blue meat on the bone here to fill your ears and belly.
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 – 6 of 6
Andrew Riverstone – Andrew Riverstone
Atlantic Highway Records – 2020
9 tracks; 40:53
Riverstone is British, with a background in session work, and pulls from American sounds, as well as fellow British artists who latched on to music from the other side of the Atlantic. Riverstone’s songwriting tends to settle in around interesting grooves that are based around drum beats and vocal lines that let the listener float along. It’s low-key without being dull.
On a track like “Waiting On The Other Side (Heavy Stone),” that means beautiful melodies that twist and turn but don’t jostle. There’s a 90s alt-rock energy that’s defused by Riverstone’s chill vocal approach, which makes the song feel relaxed. His guitar is similarly right there with his singing, often repeating his vocal melodies, but otherwise providing counterpoint that energizes the track without distracting from the song. There are undeniable flashes of guitar chops, here and across the album, but Riverstone tends to stick to his session roots, and not stray too far from the song.
Riverstone does have some moments where he stretches out musically, though. “Guitar Solos And Other Sins” is one area, unsurprising given a song title that’s a green light for extended musical interludes. The track is acoustic slide guitar paired with electric, all over a haunting groove, transitioning into a poppy, electric guitar solo, finally returning to the cool slide riff. In many ways, it feels like a big wink to the listener, his long guitar solo a bit of a sin, especially since it makes the track feel like two different songs welded together, but the self-awareness buys some patience with the concept.
His cover of “Midnight Special” also uses some bluesy slide. Where the famous Creedence version kept a brisk tempo, but Riverstone lays back here. The song still echoes the Creedence version, but digs back to the standard’s bluesier roots. Having said that, no one is going to mistake this for Lead Belly’s version. This is more Riverstone going down a blues layer from Creedence into the bands and sounds that influenced their work. But Riverstone isn’t taking his version all of the way back to the early 20th century.
Riverstone is a thoughtful performer, making sure everything sounds just right. He also played every instrument on the album, which is impressive. But sometimes a little friction creates more excitement in a track, even at the expense of sonic perfection and some more mistakes and conflict within the songs might give the album a sense of danger that would ratchet up the energy. Obviously, it’s hard to butt heads musically when you’re working solo, but Riverstone might consider more band-driven recording to add some sandpaper to his solid songs.
Reviewer Steven Ovadia writes about music and technology. You can see more of his music writing at https://steven.ovadia.org/music/.
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