Cover photo © 2021 Laura Carbone
In This Issue
Anita Schlank has our feature interview with Kenny Neal. We have six blues reviews for you including a book by Erik Lindahl and Tommy Löfgren plus new music by Twice As Good, Gregg Martinez, The Set Up Kings, “Big” Al’s Blues Howlers With Jim Liban and David Rotundo.
Featured Interview – Kenny Neal
Multiple Blues Music Award winner and three-time Grammy nominated Kenny Neal feels grateful that he has been blessed in many ways, which is why he finds numerous methods for giving back to others. Blues Blast Magazine learned about some of those projects during a recent trip to Baton Rouge.
“Come on by the house—we’re just lazing around today,” he claimed, although it soon became apparent that this man is not likely to ever spend a day doing nothing.
With what seemed to be limitless energy, he first showed the land he was clearing to make it more accessible for holding the Kenny Neal’s Family & Friends Blues & Southern Soul Festival. This festival, which Neal has brought to the community every year since 2011, often offers opportunities for local musicians to play to a larger audience. Children are likely to especially appreciate the festival being moved to his land because they will have the opportunity to meet his majestic horses “Apollo” and “Brandy”, his mule “Arky”, and his plucky, adorable miniature horse “Charlie”, (who appears to have no insight that he is one-third the height of the others and often tries to challenge them like a Chihuahua who thinks he is a wolf). All are friendly and love attention from humans.
Neal is also nearly ready to open a new club in South Baton Rouge, close to the Mississippi River. His previous club, Neal’s Juke Joint Showcase Room, was started mainly to showcase undiscovered local talent, but only remained open for one year, until he decided he wanted a different location. The highly polished new bar, upstairs seating, and back-room poker machines in the new venue all looked nearly ready for customers. However, Neal shared that he also has plans to add an extension to the building with stadium-type seats to provide an opportunity to feature well-known bands that might require seating for hundreds of fans. Although currently unnamed, he is considering naming the club Kenny Neal’s Legends, in remembrance of the years he played bass with the Buddy Guy Band.
The next stop on the Baton Rouge tour was one of the houses that Neal has been gutting and remodeling for resale. While he completes much of the remodeling himself, (skills he learned “from jobs people gave us as kids”), he also noted that these projects provide opportunities to hire local friends who own small businesses.
“I totally demolished it and am just starting to put it back. I grew up with everybody in this area and always stayed in touch with my friends, so when I came home, I was not a stranger. I don’t feel like I ever really left, totally. All my buddies are still here. If they have a plumbing company, I will hire them to do that. If they have a carpentry company, I hire them to do that. I’m keeping everyone employed.”
Neal was also a key figure in the restoration of a decades-old Boy Scout Hut which was repurposed and turned into a permanent juke joint exhibit at the West Baton Rouge Museum in Port Allen. With extensive blues memorabilia on the walls, this exhibit hosts live music events which provide education to schoolchildren and tourists regarding the history of the blues. Many are aware that Neal is also known to perform at fundraisers for Kids Rock the Nation, a non-profit organization that promotes self-esteem by recognizing musical potential in children and provides musical instruments to students and schools.
Another of Neal’s talents includes the ability to restore antique automobiles. Vehicles he has salvaged are scattered on his properties, including cars from the 1950s and 1960s, and an old school bus. He explained that the bus was the only bus in Erwinvile (where he grew up) to bus the Black children to school for many years, and his mother rode that bus when she was attending school.
“That’s why I’m so proud to receive it and take it to the museum…I think it will be a great conversation starter.”
In his garage is the project that has been his passion for the past five years–a 1948 Buick. Into this special car, he has lovingly and painstakingly added air conditioning and power steering. Kenny noted that he was the eldest of ten children, so his family did not have much money when he was young.
“You never forget what it’s like to be poor. I guess that’s why I see something that looks like junk and I want to keep it and try to turn it into something nice.” he explained.
However, the projects that Neal seems most excited about are his studio, Brookstown Recording Studio, and his new record label, Booga Music, (which he has opened in partnership with Vizztone Records and Bratgirl Media). The studio is located in the first home Neal ever bought, but includes nearby properties as well, to provide apartments in which bands can reside while they are recording their albums. On the walls of the studio are numerous photos of Neal with blues superstars, such as Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, Koko Taylor, and BB King. He noted how grateful he was that his father, Raful Neal, used to hold band practice at the house, so he met many great artists at an early age and later had the opportunity to play with all the blues giants that he admired. (Raful Neal, a legend in the Louisiana blues scene, started his first band at age 17, which included first “Lazy Lester” Johnson on guitar, and then a very young Buddy Guy. Buddy Guy later recruited Kenny Neal to play in his band.)
In Brookstown Studio, there are also paintings of Neal that have been given to him, including a particularly inspiring one painted by a boy who was paralyzed from the neck down, who completed the painting by holding the brush in his mouth. On the walls are also many interesting guitars, such as the alligator-shaped guitar made for him by James “Super Chickan” Johnson, and the bass that used to belong to Junior Wells which has a painting of Neal’s face on the back of it.
“When I was young and still learning, Junior went into the basement and brought out a jazz bass. I played it and it felt like silk to me. I had never felt anything so slick and smooth. I asked if I could use it on the road and I kept it for about a year. I got my friend to paint my picture on the back of the bass even though Junior hadn’t really given it to me yet. I used to pop the bass and play it with my teeth and I pulled it up and Junior saw my picture on the back of it and said ‘I’ll be Goddamned—who told you to put your damn picture on my bass?’ right into the mic. He was cracking up…That’s the kind of person Junior was—we got close like that. He would call me up when I first got to Chicago and say, ‘hey, those little knit pants you got aren’t going to work. Let me take you out and help you get some clothes.’ Junebug, I called him that, was just so down-to-earth. He was like a big brother to me” he recalled.
Neal noted that he hoped to use Brookstown Studio to provide opportunities for musicians to record their music who might not be able to afford a bigger production, with an emphasis on younger, local musicians.
“I just always had that vision because of my friend, Bob Greenlee, who gave me my first break. He did the same thing. He was wealthy, but didn’t give a crap about money and would show up barefoot. He had a big heart and opened up a studio and brought me in as one of the first artists—he really believed in me. Bob paid for everything. Then he got pancreatic cancer and died, but he will always be in my heart. Now I want to help younger guys coming up and give people the chance and an opportunity. That’s what they need when they can’t afford it—just an opportunity. I’m just giving back. I think it’s time for that because I appreciate what people have done for myself.”
In addition to providing opportunities to young, aspiring musicians, Neal has also been approached by some veterans. He noted that Tito Jackson has asked him to produce his upcoming blues album.
“He sent me demos and I will take it and bring in all the artists I think can handle his style. I can make it come alive. When they hear it and they say, ‘Wow—I didn’t know it could sound like this,’ that’s the fun part for me.”
The Booga Music label was named “after what I used to call my son, Kenny Jr, when he was little. He hated it when he got bigger, but now it’s my company’s name, so he doesn’t mind it.”
Booga Music has released its flagship album, Brody Buster’s Damn, I Spilled the Blues. Buster, a child prodigy who was called the best harmonica player of our time by BB King when he was only ten years of age, caught Neal’s attention when he returned to the blues after a long absence and competed in the International Blues Challenge as a one-man-band while Neal was one of the judges.
“I thought he was amazing…I said, ‘this kid is badass.’ Then he won and I saw him a couple of years later and asked him what kind of record deal he was given, and he said none, so I said, ‘you’ve got something now.’ I told him he needed to come to Baton Rouge and that’s what he did. That’s the kind of thing I enjoy—if I can just help somebody. Every little bit helps.”
When asked what the experience of working with Neal was like, Buster replied, “Working with Kenny Neal was like hanging out with the Badass Grandpa I always wanted. I had the songs ready to rock. Kenny and the crew were perfect for me to bounce ideas off of—true professionals! It was a true honor to have Kenny guide me. It was easy—supernatural, like we had been doing this together for years. In my opinion, he is the true King of the Blues, and the nicest man you would ever meet. I’m just counting down the days until I get to work with him on my next album, or any projects Kenny would throw my way.”
An album featuring a promising artist from Israel, Andy Watts, (and featuring guest artist Joe Louis Walker), was also recently released on Booga Music, and seems likely to become extremely popular with fans. Other artists on the label include Patti Parks, Harvey Knox, The Lighthouse Gospel Singers, two cousins who are both named Terrell Griffin and sing gospel, and Neal’s back-up drummer, Michael Harris, who has his own funk fusion band. Neal is determined to introduce others to their talents, possibly through a compilation album featuring numerous “Booga Music” artists. Neal is also about to release an album he recorded with Lucky Peterson, shortly before his death.
“He flew here and stayed here for a week or so. It will just be the two of us on this album, with a more traditional sound. It was his last session. He played on every album I ever recorded, and I didn’t realize this would be our last. I will feel lost without him.”
In addition, Neal has nearly completed a very special album including the entire Neal Family. He has a long history of touring with family members, and when he moved up to Toronto, he brought his brothers with him to play as the Neal Brothers Band. They often played behind such great artists as Big Mama Thornton and John Lee Hooker. However, his brothers soon decided that the cold winters of Toronto were not for them. Neal has continued to tour frequently with members of his family and the album that is soon to be released will include all three generations of the Neal Family.
“I always wanted to do something with the entire Neal family—but I didn’t realize we would lose four members. Even though my sister, Dad and two brothers are deceased, I’m still going to add them onto the album. I have some recordings of them” he noted.
Neal discussed teaching himself about the business part of music.
“It’s about 50% of the music. You can have all the talent you want, but if you don’t understand the business part of it, you won’t be successful.”
He described developing a strong habit of discipline from his time acting on Broadway in the play Mule Bone, for which he received the Theatre World Award for Outstanding New Talent on Broadway. He did not want to read for the part, but he was strongly encouraged to do so by his manager. Although he initially did not believe the audition went well, he realized later that “they probably wanted me because they knew I really knew the blues.”
“It’s probably easier for them to teach a young blues artist who knows how to play the old stuff how to act than it is to take an actor and teach him to play.”
Neal described undergoing intensive coaching lessons in which he had to read the entire script every day.
“She coach made me sing every line of it. Then every morning we had the workout class, doing what we thought were exercise routines, but what she was doing, she was tricking me. She taught me to dance without me even knowing it.”
“Broadway was good for me. When I came back to the stage, I brought that attitude of discipline with me—no drinking, no smoking, no nothing on stage. I couldn’t tolerate unnecessary stuff on the stage. It cleaned my stage up. So, I learned a lot from Broadway, even though I initially didn’t want to do it.”
When asked how he seemed so energetic and motivated while many other musicians have reported finding no inspiration to even write a single song during the bleakness of the COVID-19 pandemic, Neal responded that when a person has been through some of the things he has endured, it becomes relatively easy to take the pandemic in stride.
“I buried my daddy, my brother and my sister within eleven months, back-to-back, and my sister was murdered. For somebody to just cold-blooded take her life, that was the biggest hit. If I got through that time in my life, I can handle the rest of it. This is a piece of cake. It’s just what we’ve got to deal with. The music is embedded in me – it’s not going to go anywhere” he explained.
However, even when speaking of these past tragedies, Neal quickly turned to the subject of his gratitude toward his wife for her support throughout the difficult period which occurred during their first years of marriage.
Yes, Kenny Neal is grateful for his many blessings. . We can expect to continue to see great things from his new club, recording studio and record label, and will eagerly await the release of the Neal Family album.
You can check out Neal’s music at www.KennyNeal.net. Also, artists wishing to go to Baton Rouge to record under Neal’s production can send him demos to the studio’s address: 5224 Byron Street, Baton Rouge LA 70805, or email him at Kennynealnews@gmail.com.
Interviewer 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 – 1 of 6
Twice As Good – Double Down
10 songs – 40 minutes
A father-son duo who’ve been touring nationally since 2003, Twice As Good have seen more than their share of troubles since releasing their most recent album, That’s All I Need, seven years ago – surviving raging wildfires that charred California on an annual basis before coronavirus struck. But Rich Steward and son Paul are true blues survivors who set the nights ablaze with their own brand of tunes.
Members of the Pomo tribe who call Elem Indian Colony on the shores of Clear Lake north of San Francisco home, the Stewards – aka 2XG — are among the most decorated Native Americans performing today after learning their trade from Richard’s mother and Hank Gonzalez, an older cousin and country music star who enjoyed a large following in the region.
In addition to being semi-finalists in the 2016 International Blues Challenge, two of their previous albums took top honors in the Annual Indian Summer Music Awards, blending the blues of B.B. King, the soul of Al Green and the Indigenous rhythms of the reservation into a highly danceable style of music that’s all their own.
Recorded and mixed at Elevated Studios in Santa Rosa, Calif., and the seventh album in their career, Paul handles most of the instrumentation, switching off lead guitar, bass keys harmonica, tenor sax and drums and Richard on rhythm guitar. He shares vocals with Richard, who handles rhythm guitar. They’re augmented by one-song guest appearances from Kevin Stewart and Robert Reason on keys, Robert Watson on bass and Julius Johnson on drums.
Once the go-to set closer in Chicago, Freddie King’s familiar “Hide Away” kicks off the action, differing from the hundreds of previous covers because of the rapid-fire shuffle triplets from the bottom that drive it and clever turns during lead guitar breaks. The original, “Let’s Fall in Love,” takes the disc in another direction, opening with a brief keyboard intro that hints of a ballad before sliding quickly into a modern soul-blues that urges a lady to take a chance at romance – primarily because the couple are in the same room.
“Come and Get Your Love” — a No. 5 Billboard Hot 100 hit for the rock band Redbone, a mix of Mexican-Americans and members with Yaqui and Shoshone heritage – undergoes a pleasant, percussive update perfect for the dance floor before a sprightly, traditional take on Elmore James’ “Shake Your Moneymaker” and reimagined retelling of B.B.’s “I Like to Live the Love” in which Paul surprisingly eschews King’s familiar six-string runs to make the song far more than a simple cover – a welcome break from the norm.
The original “Walkin’” is a Steward original that’s built on the pattern of Jimmy Rogers’ Chicago blues, “Walking By Myself,” but differs enough in tempo, arrangement and lyrics to stand on its own. It gives way to a fresh, breezy rendering of Eddie Floyd’s ‘60s Memphis pleaser, “I’ve Never Found a Girl (to Love Me Like You Do),” which gets a jazzy update and a son-father call-and-response that would make the creator smile.
The original ballad, “Don’t Give Up on Love,” flows effortlessly to follow as it offers up a bit of hope for the brokenhearted as it urges a romantic partner to give the singer one more chance for redemption. A fairly faithful reading of John Lee Hooker’s “Boom Boom” offers up fresh instrumental breaks before Paul’s “I’m Placing My Bet” – a loping blues delivered by Richard – doubles down in its promise to live life to the fullest to close.
Available as a download from Spotify and other online sites or as a disc from the band’s website (address above), 2XG delivers an understated treat here for anyone with an ear for a good time. Upbeat and welcome in an era of doom and gloom.
Blues Blast Magazine Senior writer Marty Gunther has lived a blessed life. Now based out of Charlotte, N.C., his first experience with live music came at the feet of the first generation of blues legends at the Newport Folk Festivals in the 1960s. A former member of the Chicago blues community, he’s a professional journalist and blues harmonica player who co-founded the Nucklebusters, one of the hardest working bands in South Florida.
Featured Blues Review – 2 of 6
Gregg Martinez – MacDaddy Mojeaux
13 songs, 51 minutes
Swamp Pop is a genre of music created in the late 1950’s by Cajun and Black Creole young people in Southern Louisiana and adjoining East Texas. Like their contemporaries in places like California, the Midwest, and even England, the young people of Lafayette and rural surrounding areas were inspired by the seismic big bang of early Rock and Roll pioneers like Fats Domino, Elvis Presley, Ike Turner and Buddy Holly. But, unlike some other musicians in the 50’s, the Swamp Pop architects lived in the fertile musical basin of Louisiana where Acadian folk music, Black Creole chanting and early Zydeco was simmering along with an open minded appreciation of Country Western musicians such as Hank Williams, Bob Wills and the like. Swamp Pop musicians like Cookie and the Cupcakes, Johnnie Allen, Slim Harpo and Rod Bernard developed a unique style of music that combined all these elements into an alternately plaintive and raucous dance music that was popular throughout the 1960’s and highly influenced the development of Swamp Rock in the late 60’s and 70’s epitomized by Creedence Clearwater Revival and The Band.
Lafayette native son Greg Martinez is one of the modern torch bearers for the pure uncut Swamp Pop of the 60’s. Like so many great modern musicians performing and creating within a roots idiom, Martinez has taken his culturally inherited musical legacy and brought the genre into the present day. Sidestepping the influences of harder Rock interpretations, Martinez highlights the R&B connection to the music. On his latest release MacDaddy Mojeaux (“MacDaddy” is his nickname), Martinez and an expansive list of side musicians and collaborators create a thumping, funky and sentimental statement of modern Swamp Pop.
Album opener “I Believe To My Soul” is a Donny Hathaway reading of the Ray Charles tune in which Martinez sets the tone for the set. Taking a well worn R&B hit, nodding to the interpretations of the song, and infusing it with his own decidedly swampy sensibility is at the heart of MacDaddy’s charm. This conceit is taken to even deeper relief in the reading of the Skylark minor hit “Wildflower.” An 60’s Soft Rock A.M. staple with MacDaddy’s Swamp stamp on it, this sentimental performance transformers into a pleading, cathartic emotional release resplendent with lush background vocals, swaying horns and fiery lead guitar.
Grammy winning guitarist, singer, and songwriter Tony Goulas is MacDaddy’s main man. Collaborating throughout this record, the pair duet on a classic cover of “Starting All Over Again” highlighting again the way to interpret modern R&B through the Lafayette swamp. Local singer Charlene Howard adds her powerhouse pipes on the Sam and Dave chestnut “Don’t Pull Your Love.” Howard and Martinez are in perfect sync swooping over each other and counter pointing perfectly. Takeing the music out into the country, Lafayette heritage stars Rockin’ Dopsie Jr., Anthony Dopsie and slide wizard Sonny Landreth all contribute on the Zydeco leaning original Eva Delle.
Gregg Martinez has had a long career proselytizing the Swamp Pop gospel. He uses his smooth emotive tenor to convey love, pain, power and tradition. It is also clear that like all great Blues musicians, MacDaddy lives the music. From his pastel and extravagantly printed shirts to his variety of hats, Martinez exudes a modern day old world charm. Check out MacDaddy Mojeaux for a river boat ride through some fun and powerful Blues adjacent music.
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 6
The Set Up Kings – Live on Frenchmen Street
11 songs, 59 minutes
New Orleans’ music scene is so hip and so legit that even their bar bands are first rate and unique. Case in point The Set Up Kings, captured live here on their second release. This quartet of Mark Appleford on vocals and harp, Tony DeFelice on guitar, Dr. Jack Carter on bass and Willie Panker on drums harken back to the hard driving strutting swing of 60’s Chicago Blues. This tight unit sounds like what would have happened if Junior Wells’ Hoodoo Man Blues sessions continued on indefinitely. With a set list full of Blues standards, Live on Frenchmen Street is a fun propulsive party.
Lead Set Up King Mark Appleford is a great harp player. Out front and center, Appleford’s scraggly voice rasps while his harp chops expand and blow. His extended solo on Little Walter’s “Up the Line” with some chromatic runs and Middle Eastern modal substitutions elevates. Guitarist DeFelice is an economical player with a clean authentic guitar sound. No big distorted stadium sized shredding. DeFelice’s solo breaks on the well tread “You Don’t Love Me” surprise. Instead of mimicking the seminal licks of Duane Allman or Jessie Ed Davis, DeFelice uses his own clean stinging single not jangle more in a Rick Holmstom or Duke Robillard vein.
A band can’t play 60’s Chicago Blues with the clean alternating restrain and fire needed to sound as good as The Set Up Kings without a great rhythm section. Dr. Carter and Panker are in perfect sync. Sounding like the reincarnation of Jack Meyers and Fred Below, this crew slaps, thumps, boogies and shuffles with flexibility and dynamics.
When in medium to medium-fast tempo and shuffling hard, The Set Up Kings shine. Songs like “Kiddio” with it’s swinging throb, the Johnny Dyer/Holmstrom penned “Big Leg Woman” with it’s descending insistent riff and the King’s original Latin Blues “Black Coffee, Black Cherry” all land and highlight the band’s skill. Some of the material here is a little over wrought though. The only ballad of the set, another original, “The Last You’ll See of Me” doesn’t quite hold together. Appleford’s voice is just a bit too rough for this, just missing the Louis Armstrong ballad gruff. Some of the war torn covers like “Further on Up the Road,” and “Snatch It Back and Hold It” don’t really add to the cosmic legacy of these songs. Fine interpretations but not as dazzling as for example the set closer an impassioned reading of Otis Rush’s “Keep On Loving Me Baby.”
The Set Up Kings are a band you want to go see live in an intimate New Orleans bar, off the beaten path. Released pre-pandemic this album sparks nostalgia for going to see incredibly talented regional bands do their thing. If you need a pick me up to get through, some inspiration for things to come, crack a beer, crank this record and dance in your living room like it was 2019.
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 – 4 of 6
“Big” Al’s Blues Howlers With Jim Liban! – Get It While It’s Hot
10 songs time – 42:22
Buy one harmonica player, get two free. If you’re a fan of harmonica blues, you’ve come to the right place! “Big” Al Dorn and Benny Richun share harmonica and guitar duties along with special guest Jim Liban featured on harmonica and vocals on two tracks. This Milwaukee, Wisconsin band has “Big” Al handling all the other vocals. They are steeped in The Chicago Blues style. Although “the Mississippi Saxophone” is the pervasive instrument here, the guys handle the guitar chores well, supported by a first rate rhythm section. All songs are written by “Big” Al or Jim Liban.
The album opens and closes with harmonica based instrumentals featuring Benny Richun doing the harp honors. The opener “Jack Hammer” is boogie based and a tad repetitive. He fares better on the livelier title track “Get It While It’s Hot”, which it definitely is. Al turns in a good showing on guitar on this one as well as throughout the proceedings.
“I’m A Sinner” and “Without Her” are slow blues with Al on vocals and harmonica on the first and Jim Liban doing honors on both for the latter. The second is a slow shuffle. Al handles vocals and guitar on the jive talking “The Cadillac Kid”. Al and Benny double up on harmonicas on the energetic “Let You Go” to great effect. Jim Liban checks in for his second vocal and harmonica turn on the Chicago style blues “Talk Is Cheap”.
Al and Benny team up for a harmonica duel on the hard charging “Boogie Jump”. It’s a good prelude to the afore mentioned title track that closes out things grand Chi-Town form.
What more could an upstanding blues lover ask for than over forty minutes of solid blues goodness executed by top shelf practitioners of the genre? Bands like this are “keepers of the flame”. Any music aficionado will derive much pleasure from this recording. What ever the case, music of this quality needs your support. Chase away those closed in blues we are experiencing.
Reviewer Greg “Bluesdog” Szalony hails from the New Jersey Delta.
Featured Blues Review – 5 of 6
Erik Lindahl and Tommy Lӧfgren – 44 Days On The Blues Highway
140 Pages Hardcover edition
Undoubtedly many blues fans have dreamed about taking an extended amount of time off to travel across America to hear blues music performed in all of its various permutations in a variety clubs, while getting the opportunity to talk with many of the musicians you might encounter. Imagine being on the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise for weeks at a time. Such a trip would assuredly generate memories that would last a lifetime.
Towards the end of 1980, four friends left Sweden to embark on an adventure like no other. In the days before cellphones and the world-wide web, they made a few arrangements in advance by mail, based on contacts several of them had developed during previous US visits. One of those contacts was keyboardist Mark Naftalin, who was a member of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and later organized his “Blue Monday Party” series in several San Francisco area clubs. He contributes the “Foreword” that offers readers the first insights on how the trip materialized.
All four men were long-time blues fans, involved in what is now the Swedish Blues Society, and contributors to the organization’s Jefferson magazine, which is the world’s oldest still-published blues periodical. Erik Lindahl, Tommy Lӧfgren, Jӧrgen Sander, and Lasse Linder planned to fly San Francisco to start their journey, then head for Los Angeles with other stops in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Memphis, St. Louis, and finally Chicago to finish the trip on a high note.
Lindahl was making his second visit to the US, having spent every night for three weeks listening to music in Chicago clubs two years before. Working professionally as a freelance photographer, he was responsible of using his camera to document the people and places encountered on their journey. His amazing black and white photographs are the heart and soul of the book. Lӧfgren, who served as the Editor of Jefferson magazine for 19 years, contributes thoughtful reminisces on the majority of the photos. The book is dedicated to Sander and Linder, who passed away before the book was completed.
Divided in sections covering different periods of the trip, the first portion covers two weeks in California, starting with a show featuring zydeco legend Clifton Chenier & His Red Hot Louisiana band. One photo has Chenier on stage with his new accordion while another has Sander and Linder presenting the musician with a $475 check from the then Swedish Blues Association to help with his recent medical expenses. From there, they keep rolling along, from catching guitarist Luther Tucker at Eli’s Mile High Club to one of Naftalin’s parties featuring singers Frankie Lee and Buddy Ace, then off to Los Angeles for more fine fretwork from Phillip Walker, Smokey Wilson, and Pee Wee Crayton.
One delightful aspect of the book is that Lindahl did not limit himself to pictures of the artists live on stage. He also captured them in more relaxed moments at home, or relaxing after a show. His portrait of Crayton and his wife Esther is a beautiful homage to the love they shared. The following page shows pianist Floyd Dixon and guitarist Roy Gaines outside another historic spot, the Dolphin’s of Hollywood record store. The rest of West coast stay finds them enjoying shows by a pantheon of blues legends – Charles Brown,Percy Mayfield relaxing at home, Roy Brown, Gaines about to embark on a bike ride, Big Jay McNeely, and to finish it off, Big Joe Turner!
After seven days of traveling, the intrepid travelers made it to San Antonio for a Flaco Jimenez show before heading to Lake Charles, LA for what should have been a Bobby “Blue” Bland show, but they had received inaccurate information. So they ventured on to Lafayette to spend time with more zydeco royalty including Stanley “Buckwheat Zydeco” Dural, the late guitarist Paul “Lil’ Buck” Senegal in a charming photo at home with his wife, young son, and the Christmas tree, and several of Rockin’ Dopsie (Alton Rubin).
Swamp blues fans will marvel at Lindahl’s capture of Silas Hogan and Guitar Kelly playing at Miss King’s Place in Baton Rouge. They also visited the outstanding piano man, Henry Gray, as well as Tabby Thomas, in one photo seen smiling on stage, with his youthful son Chris Thomas King stoically backing him on guitar.
They finally catch up with Bland at a club in New Orleans. As Lӧfgren relates, with one exception, they are the only white people in the audience. There is a close-up of Bland working his magic on stage followed by his two stellar guitarists, Mel Brown and Wayne Bennett, in a relaxed mood. Another fine picture finds a smiling Bland unwinding backstage, pointing at the camera along with his four year old son Rodney, now a drummer of note in Memphis.
The travelers wind their way through Mississippi next, and the encounters with legendary figures continues unabated. A Christmas Blues show, put on by the Mississippi County Blues Society, features a stunning line-up of Sam Chatmon, Big Joe Williams, and the Jelly Roll Kings, with Frank Frost, Sam Carr, and Big Jack Johnson. Lindahl again manages to convey the excitement of that event in through his camera’s lens.
One of the trip’s highlights was seeing Johnson one more time, on Christmas Day in Glendora, MS at Miss Applewhite’s juke joint. The next day, the gents stopped to see Jessie Mae Hemphill for a bit at her home far from town. That visit is memorialized in a close up of the guitarist’s radiant smile. They also stopped by R.L. Burnside’s house, but missed him as he was off chopping wood. Next up was a quick stop In Memphis for an evening with the one man band, the unique Ironing Board Sam. Several days in St. Louis meant more music, with local guitar kings Tommy Bankhead and Big Bad Smitty highlighted.
The last five days in Chicago were a fitting end to a glorious trip. First up was Buddy Guy at his Checkerboard Lounge, playing cards in one shot, then firing off some hot licks in another. There is also a small photo of Junior Wells sitting at the bar. Another amazing photo features Junior Pettis, Guy, and Magic Slim on guitar, backed by Nick Holt on bass and “Killer” Ray Allison on drums. On New Year’s Eve, the quartet was entertained by singers Bobby Jones, Artie “Blues Boy” White, and headliner Z.Z. Hill. Lӧfgren notes that Hill would not achieve real stardom until the following year with the release of his second Malaco album, Down Home Blues.
Also among the Chicago pictures are guitarist Sammy Lawhorn at Theresa’s Lounge, another focused on a boyish John Primer, and a killer shot of Byther Smith & Magic Slim at the historic Florence’s Lounge. The last show of the trip is late on a Sunday night at Mary’s Lounge on the West side, where Taildragger had a regular gig featuring Eddie Taylor on guitar. The final photo has both them outside the club with the owner, another memorable photo.
Looking at pages of amazing photos full of many of the key figures in the history of blues music, it is hard not to be overwhelmed by the magnitude of what the four Swedish adventurers were able to see and hear in a six week stretch. Thankfully we now have this fine edition that allows the rest of us to share in the memories, and to spark dreams of our own big adventure.
If you have more than a passing acquaintance with many the artists mentioned throughout this review, this is a must-have book that is most certainly highly recommended!
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 – 6 of 6
David Rotundo – So Much Trouble
Dreams We Share – 2020
12 tracks; 57 minutes
David Rotundo is from Canada and became obsessed with the blues after seeing James Cotton play in 1991. Bitten hard by the harmonica bug he traveled round US blues hot spots like Chicago, Memphis, Clarksdale, New Orleans and Austin. Returning to Toronto he played with local bands and had a stint with Jack De Keyser before starting his own band in 2001. He writes his own material and this is his fifth album, but the first for a new label started by another harmonica man, Lee Oskar (of War fame), who also produces.
David handles all lead vocals, harmonica and occasional guitar, alongside a large number of musicians. The core band is Ron Weinstein on organ, Milky Burgess on guitar, Dean Schmidt on bass and Andrew Cloutier on drums; Darian Asplund adds sax to six tracks, Phillip Peterson cello to two, Ed Weber piano to two and guitarists Skylar Mehal and Desmond Brown appear on one track each. Additional percussionists appear on five tracks – Joseph Ravi Albright (tabla), Denali Williams (assorted percussion), Thor Dietrichson and Ernesto Pedianco (congas). A host of backing vocalists are also involved: David himself, Lee Oskar, Annie Jantzer, Erik Yager, Chris Weortink, Nick Foster, Timothy Hill, Julia Vega, Brian Madsen and Ginger Woo.
The album opens with two real winners: “She’s Dynamite” is a rocking boogie with piano, guitar and sax beefing up the chorus, harp and organ taking the solos as David issues a ‘beware’ notice about the femme fatale he has met; David’s gravelly vocals work very well on “I Must Be Crazy”, a slower tune that brings Otis Rush to mind, particularly in the rhythm guitar work. “Funky Side Of Town” lives up to its title with plenty of wah-wah washes, the cello and backing vocals offsetting the chorus.
The title track “So Much Trouble” lyrically points fingers at how humanity is creating its own problems with disregard for the environment, as well as how we behave to each other. With sax, twin guitars and choral vocals, this is a big production number that gets its message across well, David’s central solo beautifully set over keyboard and guitar flourishes. Principal backing vocalist Annie Jantzer features on “Too Blue” as David tries to drink away his troubles, a theme that also features on “Drinking Overtime”, a rocking shuffle with amusing lyrics, sax and piano driving the rhythm and Ron’s organ swirling away behind David’s expressive harp.
Darian’s sultry sax is a key component on the moody “That Thing Called Love” as we return to matters of the heart before David ups the tempo again with the staccato rhythms of “Trying To Find It”, an enigmatic song about searching for eternal truths. “Foolish Love” is a gentle piano-led ballad with no drums or harmonica but does rather expose David’s vocal limitations and was the track that worked least well for this reviewer.
“Hard Times Coming” is one of three tracks on which David plays guitar. It’s a slow Delta blues with resonator guitar, bass and harp and lyrics typical of the style as David searches for peace of mind in difficult times. The other tracks on which he plays guitar appear at the end of the album: “Long Road” has an acoustic base with both David and Milky on guitars, with tabla, congas and cello adding an Eastern feel, choral backing vocals underlining a message of hope for our future; David closes the album with a solo reading of the traditional “Trouble In Mind”, lonesome harp accentuating the familiar lyrics of overcoming life’s tough times.
David Rotundo offers us a good demonstration of his talents as writer, singer and harmonica player across the varied palette of this enjoyable album.
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.
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