Issue 15-7 February 18, 2021

Cover photo © 2021 Marilyn Stringer

 In This Issue 

Conrad Warre has our feature interview with Tommy Castro. We have six blues reviews for you this week including new music by Veronica Lewis, Elvin Bishop & Charlie Musselwhite, Shemekia Copeland, Mike Felton, Early Times & the High Rollers and Rick Fines.

 Featured Interview – Tommy Castro 

imageTommy Castro usually looks forward to the dead of winter because he’ll soon be escaping the chilly nights in Northern California for balmy nights of the Caribbean aboard the semi-annual Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise out of Fort Lauderdale to playing before a throng of music lovers some folks describe as the “world’s largest dysfunctional family reunion.”

But not this year.

Like everyone else in these troubled times, he’s dry-docked at home as he awaits the end of the hurricane-like onslaught of coronavirus so he and his band, The Painkillers, can set sail again to do what they do best: deliver some of the hottest music on dry land and the high seas.

No matter where Tommy is today, though, he’s come a lo-o-ong way from the gritty streets of San Jose, Calif., where he was born in 1955. A powerful, soulful vocalist as well as a guitar player with a stinging approach that lands somewhere between Albert Collins and Freddie King, Castro fell in love with the blues early, as Blues Blast learned in a recent interview in which he described his path to success with both a deep sense of humor and an appreciation of what he’s achieved.

His earliest influences as a child came from all directions: West Coast and Chicago blues, soul, Southern rock, the sounds of Latin music permeating his neighborhood and more – something that still surfaces in his play today. He picked up his first guitar at age ten, and described his youth in vivid detail a few years ago on Stompin’ Ground, his stellar release on Alligator Records.

“It was the late ‘60s…Woodstock,” he remembers today. “I was playing in garages around my neighborhood, and listening to all the great music that was out there… (Mike) Bloomfield, Taj (Mahal), Elvin (Bishop), Johnny Winter and (Eric) Clapton, the (Rolling) Stones.

“That’s when I found B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Elmore James and John Lee Hooker.”

Tommy’s first electric ax was a Fender Duo-Sonic, but he longed for a Gibson Les Paul after coming across it one day in a local mom-and-pop music store. “I’d go in every day and play it,” he says, “and dream about it at night, but (I knew I) could never afford it.

“One day, though, the old man at the store said: ‘We see you coming in here all the time, and we know you’re a good kid. We’ll let you pay it off on time – full retail price, but we’ll let you pay it off at $25 a month.”

Like many future musicians, he spent his youth playing in cover bands. And caught many of the top blues acts in action – everyone from Hooker to Buddy Guy and Junior Wells and more – when they cruised through town. Back then, though, he didn’t sing. His interest in that came later — when he was a young adult who was working as a truck driver and hosting a weekly off-night blues jam at JJ’s Lounge, a club that’s been a fixture in San Jose for decades.

image“My day job was making deliveries,” Castro says. “I had cassette mix-tapes full of all my favorite singers, and I’d sing along. If you hear me do a little James Brown, or Wilson Pickett or a bit of Little Richard…if I sound a little bit like Buddy Guy…you hear those influences. Ray Charles…that came from singing along with those tapes.”

Several other top talents emerged from those JJ’s jam back then. Gary Smith — one of the foremost harmonica players on the West Coast — and Mighty Mike Schermer — the guitarist/songwriter who spent years with Marcia Ball and whose most recent CD, Bad Tattoo, was a 2019 Blues Blast Music Awards finalist for contemporary album of the year – both dropped in to play.

“Mike’s just one of the great songwriters of our time,” Tommy insists. “I did his song, ‘Big Sister’s Radio, on one of my records (Painkiller), and it’s one of the most requested songs out of my whole catalog. He was a regular at the jams, and a whole bunch of San Jose local guys would come there.

“Then I started playing in bands on weekends, and took a hard look at what I wanted to do. I thought that if I put all my energy into what I love (making music), it might just work — and I owe it to myself to go for it.”

As busy as he was in San Jose, he quickly realized that if he was going to do it, he had to take a leap of faith and relocate to San Francisco. Once there, he bought himself a battery-powered amp and planned to start busking on the street to augment the occasional band gigs he’d get at night – something, he quickly discovered, was an impossible way to make ends meet.

“I was no good at it,” Tommy admits. “You have to really know how to hustle – it’s like turf wars — and I wasn’t prepared for that. I was prepared to go out and set up and play.”

And it really was a turf war, he insists, because he’d plug in his rig and, almost immediately, people would approach angrily, insisting: “No! You can’t play here. This is my spot!”

Fortunately, however, Castro’s luck changed on a street corner one day when he met Randy McDonald for the first time. A frequent fixture in Castro’s bands through the years, Randy was holding down the bass for Warner Bros. recording artists The Dynatones — one of the top proponents of West Coast blues — at the time. Led by drummer Walter Shuffelsworth, its revolving roster included future Grammy-winning keyboard player Jim Pugh, guitarist Steve Edmondson and a horn section anchored by Mike Rinta in various incarnations, during which they shared billing on LPs with both Charlie Musselwhite and Sir Mack Rice.

It wasn’t long before an introduction from McDonald landed Tommy a spot in the the lineup and a chance to travel the world. For years, he played a black 1966 Fender Stratocaster formerly owned by Johnny Nitro, another Dynatones alumnus. A San Francisco institution who died at age 59 in 2011, “Nitro lived in a hotel room above The Saloon (a legendary, hole-in-the-wall bar) in San Francisco,” Castro remembers. “He had a little tiny room with a bathroom down the hall, but he was happy as hell. He had gigs right on the block.”

A man who was such a character that he stood out from the crowd even in the City by the Bay, Nitro possessed a distinctive, raspy voice and kept all of his guitars in pawnshops because he felt they were safer there, Tommy says, adding: “He had all these old vintage guitars that he bought cheap early on. If he needed some money, he’d go get a guitar out and sell it.

“And he was about to sell that Fender to somebody else. He brought it down to the gig one night and said: ‘Yeah, I got a guy coming tonight to buy this.’ I said: ‘Johnny…please…don’t sell that guitar. Let’s work something out.’”

imageHe’s also moved on from that black Strat, currently preferring to play a Delaney custom model. “I was kind of looking for one guitar that would do a bunch of different things,” he says. “So I thought about it, went online and ordered body parts. I wanted Jazzmaster body, a Stratocaster neck like the one I’m used to on my ‘66 Strat. I wanted a humbucker, a (Gibson single-coil) P-90 (pickup) and a Strat pickup, too.”

Initially constructed by his guitar tech as a prototype, it’s now marketed by Delaney as the CastroCaster model.

While Tommy’s appreciative of all the awards he’s received, it’s something that hasn’t gone to his head.

“Yes, I am proud of that, but I don’t put a lot of stock in awards,” he says. “When I don’t get nominated, I try not to let it bother me too much because I know it’s very much a popularity contest. But if I if I do get considered, it’s a great thing because it can help you get better gigs.”

Tommy’s run with the Dynatones came to an end in 1991, when he formed his first iteration of the Tommy Castro Band, feeling that it was time to go out on his own.

“I always liked Randy’s playing, so I offered him the gig,” he remembers, “and he accepted. Then we went looking for others to join.” They recorded their first album, No Foolin’, on the Saloon label with a lineup that included Keith Crossan – another longtime bandmate — on sax and Shad Harris on drums, delivering an interesting mix of originals and covers from across the blues and soul spectrum.

For the better part of the next 15 years, the band made their home at Blind Pig Records, where Castro gradually expanded the lineup to include Tom Poole on trumpet and Pugh on keys. As their fame grew, B.B. King invited them to serve as his opening act for his 2001 and 2002 summer tours.

“I watched B.B. live night after night,” Tommy remembers fondly, picking up all the pointers he could along the way. “When B.B. felt the need to change the tempo, he let the band know — and usually, he wanted it faster – not slower. Wow! And it was a great band: his nephew, Walter King, James Bolden and Stanley Abernathy in the horn section, James Toney on keyboards and Caleb Emphrey Jr. on drums.

“Those guys would just waltz in…there was never any sound check, and B.B. would just walk in off the bus. You know he’d had been sleeping up to that moment. He could just wake up from his little nap and walk on stage and kill it. He was playing great. I was glad to be there for that.”

Invariably, B.B. closed the night with “You Gotta Love Somebody” and “You Know That I Love You,” occasionally inviting Castro to sit in – something Castro never expected to happen one night in the Bay Area with Carlos Santana in attendance.

“I thought: ‘Well…you know…Carlos!” Tommy says. “’I don’t think he’s going to need me.’ Then, as he (Carlos) was walking towards the stage, B.B. said (to me): ‘Are you going to play with us tonight?’

“I said: ‘Oh yeah!’ He said: ‘This is your town isn’t it?’ I was pretty excited to play with Carlos. I was so nervous that I think I started played my solo in the wrong key!”

That was one of few mistakes Castro made during his Blind Pig years, during which he released a half-dozen rock-solid albums and included guest appearances from heavyweights Dr. John, Curtis Salgado and Delbert McClinton.

His relationship with the label culminated with Pain Killer, which earned the 2008 Blues Music Award for contemporary blues album of the year, the same year Tommy was tabbed as entertainer of the year, too. He’s achieved even bigger success since moving to Alligator in 2009 – a shift that Tommy made with trepidation.

“The move to Alligator was clearly a step up for me, but I felt conflicted,” he says. “I felt like Ray Charles leaving Atlantic (for ABC-Paramount in 1961) – but in a much smaller way. I felt some kind of loyalty to the guys at Blind Pig for helping me make a name for myself when there was a lot of opportunity for guys like me in the ‘90s.

image“But things had changed. By the time 2009 came around, the CD market – actual physical copies of record sales — were way down and budgets were cut. They were doing the best they could to stay in business, and I understood that. But I also thought at that time: ‘Maybe it’s time for me to talk to Bruce Iglauer finally about making it making a move.’”

The Tommy Castro Band’s Alligator debut, Hard Believer, captured both contemporary album and band of the year honors in 2010 for Hard Believer, and nominations in the same categories for its follow-up, Tommy Castro Presents The Legendary Rhythm & Blues Revue Live! That album delivered the same sort of excitement on record as cruisers experienced at sea. The lineup included Rick Estrin, Janiva Magness, Michael Burks, Debbie Davies, Sista Monica Parker, Joe Louis Walker and Trampled Under Foot.

And Tommy made blues history of sorts, too, taking home another top entertainer trophy and putting himself in a tie with Buddy Guy as the only performer to do so.

In another year, Ronnie Baker Brooks probably would have been part of that album, too, because he’s also a regular cruiser. But he and Castro play together whenever their schedules allow. “I’m just a big fan,” Tommy says. “When we’re together, I consciously think to myself: ‘I’m putting him on last when we’re on a show – because I’m not going after him. And I’m going to learn what I can from watching him!

“I was still kinda in my traditional blues when we first met, using heavier gauge strings with no effects and plugged straight into a Super Reverb. I’d used that sound for 15 years, but it was one-dimensional — one tone that I got out of my guitar. And I did everything with that.

“B.B. King had one sound when he played,” he notes, “and Albert Collins did, too. But Ronnie would come up and do all kinds of cool stuff, and using a pedal board. I played his guitar one time. He had lighter gauge strings. When I played it, I went: ‘Man! Why am I working so hard?’”

Castro changed his approach as a result, realizing: “Ronnie was kind enough to show me a few licks he got from Buddy and Albert. If you change your tone, you change the guitar and the amp that you’re playing, it can bring something else out of you.”

All change in the music world is inevitable, and after a comfortable, 20-year run, Tommy made a conscious move to change his approach to the blues in 2011.

“I’d been driving my teenage kids to school, and they’re listening to Green Day, Jack White and the Black Keys,” he remembers, “and it’s all really based in blues. The more I listened to it, the more I wanted to pull some of that into what I was doing.”

The timing was perfect because McDonald, who’d previously left the band because of health issues, was ready once again to rock ‘n’ roll with Castro. And Tommy wanted to reimage his band as a stripped down, four-piece unit with both a somewhat harder edge and more guitar.

Reborn as Tommy Castro & the Painkillers with keyboard player Mike Emerson – a road dog who’s toured with Elvin, Debbie Davies and Harvey Mandel – and former John Lee Hooker drummer Bowen Brown, the band hasn’t lost a step with the four CDs they’ve issued on Alligator since the changeover.

The latest Painkillers album, Killin’ It Live – offers up a collection of performances captured on the road in 2018, but comes across with the feel of a single show. It was a finalist in last year’s BMAs in the blues-rock category.

In the midst of the coronavirus shutdown, Tommy remains busy, working on a concept album that Grammy winner Tom Hambridge is going to produce – details about which remain under wraps. Meanwhile, he’s itching to get back on the road – hopefully before the tour he’s got scheduled with label mate Marcia Ball this fall.

Check out Tommy’s music and, hopefully, where he’ll be appearing before that by visiting his website:

Interviewer 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 – 1 of 6 

Veronica Lewis – You Ain’t Unlucky

Blue Heart Records – 2021

8 tracks; 33 minutes

Piano enthusiasts rejoice! Soon after a new keyboard prodigy in Cincinatti’s Ben Levin here comes another, Veronica Lewis. Born in New Hampshire just 17 years ago, Veronica is already well established in her native New England where she has been recognized as the Best Young Artist in the Boston area; in 2019 she traveled across the country playing at festivals from Rhode Island to Memphis. On this debut album Veronica is supported by a drummer (one of Mike Walsh, Ben Rogers or Chris Anzalone); sax is added to four tracks by Don Davis and to one by Joel Edinberg. On three tracks Veronica was recorded at home playing her 115 year old upright piano ‘Margaret’! Veronica wrote six songs and there are two covers.

The title track opens proceedings with a New Orleans-flavored tune and it is immediately obvious that Veronica is a terrific piano player. The song stresses the need to think positively (a message we all need at present): “Some people think it’s bad every cherry has a pit, but inside every pit is a whole new tree”. The way that Don’s sax works against Veronica’s rolling piano is excellent on this and the second track “Clarksdale Sun” which takes us down to the Delta with a boogie rhythm and we can really hear how well Veronica handles the bottom end on this one.

“Put Your Wig On Mama” takes us further North to Chicago, a song apparently written for Veronica’s mother. Veronica channels Chicago greats like Otis Spann on this one. On the sole instrumental Veronica moves into pure rock and roll territory on the appropriately titled “Ode To Jerry Lee” which is arguably the standout cut here.

Veronica’s vocals are strong. She sometimes resorts to vocal gymnastics, a tendency that is particularly evident on her cover of Louis Jordan’s “Is You Is My Baby” which is slowed down and played in an arrangement that recalls Gershwin’s “Summertime”. The three songs recorded on the venerable ‘Margaret’ include the second cover, Katie Webster’s “Whoo Whee Sweet Daddy”, which barrels along with Joel’s sax bubbling away behind the boogie rhythm. “Fool Me Twice” again has a New Orleans feel with pounding piano and a great left hand boogie, one of the songs without sax.

“The Memphis Train” is another boogie tune that rolls along at great pace as Veronica celebrates riding the 601, referencing a famous train service that ceased operating in 1968, a very long time before she was born!

This relatively short CD heralds the arrival on the scene of a major piano talent who seems equally at home across the gamut of blues and roots styles.

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 – 2 of 6 

imageElvin Bishop & Charlie Musselwhite – 100 Years Of Blues

Alligator Records

12 Tracks – 52 minutes

Truth be told, Elvin Bishop and Charlie Musselwhite have more than 110 years of experience playing the blues. Both veterans have had extensive careers that have had more than a few historic moments. Both have already earned spots in the Blues Hall Of Fame in Memphis, sponsored by the Blues Foundation.

Bishop’s fame began to build as a founding member of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. During his long solo career, he has released a number of highly regarded albums that featured his striking original songs, attaining hit record status with “Fooled Around And Fell In Love.” Musselwhite has received 22 Blues Music Award nominations for his harmonica playing alone, not to mention an equal of nominations in other categories, many recognizing his recorded work over the past 30 years.

This recording takes both musicians back to the early days of their careers, scuffling around Chicago clubs in the 1960s, learning from the legends like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Sonny Boy Williamson II. The stripped down sound is captured perfectly by Kid Andersen at his amazing Greaseland Studios. As producer and recording engineer in addition to mixing and mastering the material, Andersen once again works his magic in creating a soundscape that highlights the personalities of both men along with the feel of a late night session in a rowdy blues club on a Saturday night.

Andersen also contributes on bass guitar on four cuts, including the opener, “Birds Of A Feather.” a Bishop original that finds him encouraging listeners to get loose over a propulsive groove, with help from frequent Bishop collaborator Bob Welsh on guitar, a role he fills on seven tracks. The multi-talented Welsh also adds his noteworthy piano skills on the remaining five tunes, laying down some Otis Spann inspired playing behind Musselwhite’s weathered vocal that takes “Good Times” to a place far darker than the the title’s promise.

The format is simple – the lead switches back and forth from track to track. Bishop updates one of his songs on “What the Hell?,” pondering our current inability to get along as Musselwhite answers with some of his trademark harp blowing. The mood brightens considerably, with Bishop’s sense of humor on full display, on “Old School,” a cut from a prior Alligator release. Perhaps Bishop’s finest moment occurs on a cover of Leroy Carr’s “Midnight Hour Blues,” a dark, brooding slow blues. Musselwhite’s mournful harp cries echo the depths of despair in the guitarist’s measured vocal. The instrumental “South Side Slide” is a musical conversation between the three men, with Bishop on slide guitar.

When his turn comes around, Musselwhite also shows that the passage of time has not diminished his skills. His powerful voice captures your attention on “West Helena Blues,” a Roosevelt Sykes original with more fine piano emanating from Welsh’s fingertips. Equally strong is the driving take of “If I Should Have Bad Luck,” the two guitarists making sure Musselwhite has a solid foundation behind him, showing his appreciation with some upper register Jimmy Reed-style harp playing. The original “Blues For Yesterday” finds the harp player pondering his life, thankful the experiences while voicing awareness that the journey might soon be coming to an end.

The men co-wrote the closing title track, built around Bishop’s tense guitar work. They take listeners back to the old days one more time, sharing the vocal lead, then setting up an intimate instrumental dialogue that epitomizes the proper way to play in the electric Chicago blues tradition.

Nominated for 2021 Blues Music Awards for Traditional Blues Album and Album Of The Year, this release certainly is one of the highlights of last year. If you have missed this one, make sure you rectify that omission quickly, as this one is indeed 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 – 3 of 6 

imageShemekia Copeland – Uncivil War

Alligator Records

12 Tracks – 46 minutes

For the tenth release of her compelling career, the eighth for Alligator Records, Shemekia Copeland once again unleashes her riveting voice to call attention to the woes plaguing modern society as well as issues of the heart. With noted producer Will Kimbrough’s guidance, in addition to his first-rate guitar work, Copeland commands your attention at every turn. Even the contributions of a number of top-flight guest artists fail to relegate her out of the spotlight for very long.

Listeners get a history lesson on “Clotilda’s On Fire,” a deeply moving hymn about the last slave ship to arrive in our country. The snarling guitar interplay between Kimbrough and guest Jason Isbell adds layers of emotions to the singer’s recitation of a journey made in chains and despair. “Walk Until I Ride” is sparked by the cries from Jerry Douglas on the lap steel guitar. Copeland proudly delivers a message of strength, unwilling to bow before the forces that fail to treat people as equals, finishing off with a burst of gospel intensity.

The title track is a quieter number that ponders the wide divisions and acrimonious conversations that have become the norm in our country. Copeland’s pleas for understanding are framed by Sam Bush on mandolin and Douglas on dobro, his regular instrument of choice. Kimbrough rips it up on “Apple Pie And A .45,” pulling a steady stream of ferocious licks out of his guitar, while Copeland offers a searing depiction of the American gun culture. On “No Heart At All,” she has finally had enough of a man stuck in the midst of an emotional wasteland, offering nothing in spite of her best efforts to raise a spark.

Taking us to church one more time on “Give God The Blues”, the singer reminds those who profess to believe, that God loves all beings, that “God ain’t no Republican, he ain’t no Democrat, he ain’t even independent. God’s above all that,” and he even loves karaoke singers. The rhythm section of Lex Price on bass and Pete Abbott on drums are rock solid through the album, especially on the good time rocker “She Don’t Wear Pink,” featuring the legendary Duane Eddy and Webb Wider on guitar. Lisa Oliver-Gray and Janelle Means join in on backing vocals, a role they handle on several other tracks.

One of the rising stars of blues music, Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, gets to showcase his prodigious guitar skills while Copeland takes on mankind’s rape of the natural world on “Money Makes You Ugly,” making it clear that the bill is coming due real soon, and it won’t be pretty. “Dirty Saint” is Copeland’s upbeat, second-line tribute to Dr.John, who had been her friend and supporter since childhood. Phil Madeira fills out the arrangement with some fine organ playing.

The three covers are also standout tracks. The stripped down take of the Rolling Stones hit “Under My Thumb” showcases Copeland’s ability to dig deep into the emotions expressed in the lyrics while making it clear that the roles have definitely been reversed. Junior Parker’s slow blues classic, “In The Dark,” is even more indicative of Copeland’s abilities, her meticulous phrasing and mournful cries articulating the searing heartache caused by an unfaithful lover. Even Steve Cropper’s beautifully constructed six string solo pales in comparison to Copeland’s devastating performance.

As she does on every album, the singer includes a song written by her father, Johnny Copeland. This time she closes the album with “Love Song,” setting aside all of the hurts and social injustice for a few minutes of feeling good, expressing her devotion to the blues with Kimbrough, Price, and Abbott providing one final dose of outstanding accompaniment.

Labels are often tossed around right and left. Everybody is a star, or a legend in-the-making. Mostly it is all part of marketing campaign that overstates reality. Some years ago, Shemekia Copeland was crowned the Queen of the Blues by Koko Taylor’s daughter. While that label may have been unfair and a bit premature in that moment, the singer has continued to hone her talent while adopting a fearless attitude about the music. She does what the best blues artists have always done – sing about the realities of their life, the people they encounter, and how it all plays out in the wider world. A work of true inspiration, this is a must-hear album.

(Shemekia Copland has received five 2021 Blues Music Award nominations, including Album of the Year, Song of the Year, Contemporary Blues Album, Contemporary Blues Female Artist, and B.B. King Entertainer award.)

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 – 4 of 6 

imageMike Felton – Fast Mikey Blue Eyes

Landfill Records

12 songs time – 56:07

Chicago based roots(Americana) singer-songwriter Mike Felten on this his sixth studio CD may better labeled as a purveyor of “Chicagoana” as mentioned in his promo handout. He talk-sings and/or talks his way through songs inspired by the Windy City. He accompanies himself on acoustic guitar backed by top notch musicians, including Chicago blues stalwarts Corky Siegel on harmonica and Barry Goldberg on piano. Curiously missing is electric guitar that is usually found in music of this sort. The lead positions are taken up by harmonica and keyboards. Mike wrote all but one song for this project.

Corky and Barry both appear on the good timey “Three Drinks In” to lend blues “cred” to the song. Mr. Goldberg returns for some rollicking piano on “Detroit Woman”, along with the tasty harmonica of Harmonica Hinds. A rootsy and upbeat vibe is given to one of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s signature songs “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean”. Mike commits himself admirably on acoustic slide guitar as the sole instrument on the melancholy “Chasing A Rumor”. He regales us with tales of a bad area in Chicago called “Homan Avenue”. Bob Long supplies barrelhouse piano on this one.

“Godzilla Jones” is used as another word for a mental depression. Harmonica Hinds flavors this one with his harmonica chops. Mike’s main slide guitar riff on “2302”, about his old address, is pretty much lifted from “I’m A Man”. He expounds on racism on “Y’all Are Guilty”. “Like Listening To Charlie Parker” is a straight ahead stream-of-consciousness talking vamp. It meanders seemingly without a point over a backdrop of electric piano and organ.

What it all amounts to is Mike’s observations and ruminations on life set to rousing musical accompaniment. What the individual thinks about his vocal delivery is a matter of taste. It’s worth a listen to this diary of life experiences.

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


 Featured Blues Review – 5 of 6 

imageEarly Times & the High Rollers – The Corner

VizzTone Label Group VT-ET01

10 songs – 37 minutes

Originally from Sacramento, Calif., and best known nationally as a groundbreaking deejay on Sirius Satellite Radio, the precursor to SiriusXM, Early Times is one of the most enigmatic folks in the blues world – a guitarist and vocalist of note who’s reinvented himself as a New York-based street poet and blues-rocker. And the music he serves up here is worthy of putting him in the spotlight once again.

His long out-of-print albums Society for the Misunderstood, Hobo Deluxe and others made him a fixture in the Sammies (Sacramento Area Music Awards), where he compiled more nominations than anyone in their long history. During his youth, Early also operated Fantasia Music, an internationally distributed label for a while and was in a jazz combo that included future blues heavyweight Johnny Heartsman.

As a sideman, he toured the world with vocalist E.C. Scott, handling lead guitar chores on two of her CDs, including Masterpiece, which was a Blues Music Awards finalist for soul-blues album of the year in 2001, during which she was also regularly compiling nominations for soul-blues artist honors.

He also toured with the rockabilly/swing band left the stage for Sirius shortly after their launch in 2002 and spent the next seven years hosting a daily blues show that included guest appearances from Buddy Guy, Allen Toussaint and a host of others. His run ended in 2008 when the company merged with its former competitor, XM Satellite Radio.

Early currently operates two Manhattan Recording and Dealer’s Choice Records out of his New York studio, where he’s been based since 1998, living on the East Side in an Uptown neighborhood populated by characters he describes in song as Little Hustler, Uptown Charlie, Tijuana Madonna, Sweet Lou the Butcher and Mary with her Cha Cha hat.

A follow-up to his 2017 release, Hit & Run, this all-original set was recorded at The Chocolate Factory with Times handling vocals as well as guitar, keys and percussion. He gets a helping hand from Dan Schnapp (keys), Joshua Keitt and Jay Messina (percussion), Hardan Long-Johnson (bass) and Colleen Messina (backing vocals). Popa Chubby makes a guest appearance on lead guitar for one cut.

“Come On, Let’s Ride” opens the action with an easy-greasy beat as Early delivers imagery of kids in the park playing stickball, folks throwing dice in the alley and more. His fretwork shines atop arrangements that are both deep-in-the-pocket and lushly funky, too. The pace quickens slightly for the title cut, “On the Corner.” Mary and other creatures of the night surface in “Do What She Do,” which opens with a light acoustic feel, but quickly picks up steam and swings from the hip to follow.

Chubby shines on “She’s About to Lose Her Mind,” a pleasant, slow-blues shuffle in which Early brings several more characters to life, before the pace quickens for “Rosie’s Herbs ‘n Ting,” a minor-key instrumental that simply cooks through the changes. It speeds up a little more for the percussive “He’s Got a Jones,” which describes a stockbroker and his lady who live by rules than differ from mainstream society – summed up succinctly in the verse: “He’s got a jones, and she’s got a Jody,” another man on the side.

Up next, “Say Man” opens with a jazzy Puerto Rican salsa beat as Early delivers a running, spoken monolog about a woman he misses seeing after her man left her and she started dancing at a club Uptown. The rocker “Charlemagne” apparently continues the theme forward. The singer questions the title lady about who does her hair before asking for suggestions about quitting smoking and where to go to get a tattoo of her on his neck while she’s in the midst of dancing for him.

“Someone Help Mary” – a number that opens with an early folk-blues feel, but becomes haunting and electric – describes an elegant lady who’s down on her luck, sleeping on the cold ground and fading away. The uptempo rocker “Return of the Queen” ends the action on an upbeat note, apparently celebrating her recovery.

There’s a lot to like with this one. Early Times is stronger than the whisky that shares his name when it comes to fashioning clever lyrics atop a true-blue beat. You’ll be toasting him repeatedly when your listening is done.

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 

imageRick Fines – Solar Powered Too

Self-Release – 2021

12 tracks; 43 minutes

Canadian Rick Fines has been recording since the late 80’s, both solo and in bands. His fourteenth album was mainly recorded off-grid at a solar-powered home studio in the woods: the title presumably refers back to a 2006 album entitled Solar Powered. Rick mainly recorded with co-producer Alec Fraser who suggested that some of his songs would work well with a rhythm section, so five tracks were recorded in Toronto with additional musicians. Rick recorded with a number of guitars but concentrates on resonator which he used on seven cuts.

Rick handles all lead vocals and guitars, Alec plays bass on six tracks and adds backing vocals to two; Gary Craig plays drums on five, Jimmy Bowskill plays mandola, mandolin, fiddle and pedal steel on three tracks, Roly Platt adds harp to two, Rob Phillips piano to one, Melissa Payne and Suzie Vinnick sing on one track each and backing vocals on one further track are by Stacie Tabb, Samantha Martin and Sherie Marshall. The sound is crystal clear throughout and Rick’s weathered voice reminds you of mid-period Dylan as he sings eleven originals, five written solo and six with collaborators P.J. Thomas, Grainne Ryan and Matt Andersen; the sole cover is a Jesse Winchester tune.

First of all, the six tracks recorded in the woods.“Below The Surface” is a thoughtful opener, the lyrics play on the notion of the sun coming up and the moon going down below the horizon and people keeping their feelings hidden. The resonator is the perfect instrument for “Worry Be The Death Of Me”, the blues element further underlined by Roly’s overdubbed harp. The solo “Laundry On The Line” is an Americana piece with melancholy lyrics about an elderly person passing away while her laundry is left out, Rick concluding that you have to “keep moving because you can’t sit still…until you just sit still”.

“Fundamental Nature” finds Rick reflecting on the wonders of the animal kingdom all around us with the elegant tones on his resonator the sole accompaniment (though you can just discern the gentle tapping of his foot). “Dark Days” explores some appropriately ‘down’ images in another solo resonator piece with Roly’s overdubbed harp adding some eerie high register sounds that make you think for a moment that a flute is present! “One Lone Loon” adds pedal steel to another rather mournful Americana tune while “Scared To Dance” was recorded in a Toronto studio and its jaunty rhythms and positive lyrics make an upbeat end to the album.

The first track with additional musicians simply puts a rhythm section behind Rick’s dexterous picking on the resonator while he sings very positively about how he will “Live Forever” now that he has found a soulmate. The Jesse Winchester cover is a fetching version of “That’s What Makes You Strong”, the mandola adding a high end over the Cuban tres and acoustic work, Melissa Payne joining in on the chorus. Rick’s resonator is supported by piano and heavier drums on “You Only Want Me When You Need Me” which rolls along well with the trio of backing vocalists adding to the chorus, undoubtedly the catchiest tune on the album, though the country feel of “Yellow Moon, Indigo Sky” with fiddle and mandolin runs it close; the country rhythms remain on “Never Let Go”.

This album is not pure blues but covers country and Americana also. Rick Fines offers us a well played, engaging album with thoughtful songs that cover a range of themes.

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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