Issue 16-14 April 7, 2022

Cover photo © Marilyn Stringer

 In This Issue 

Mark Thompson has our feature interview with remarkable young blues piano player, Ben Levin. We have six Blues reviews for you this week including new music from Mississippi Heat, Duke Robillard, The Nighthawks, J-Rad Cooley, Misty Blues and Virginia & The Slims. Scroll down and check it out!

 From The Editor’s Desk 


Hey Blues Fans,

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Wishing you health, happiness and lots of Blues music!

Bob Kieser


The Blues Blast Music Awards honor contemporary Blues artists and their recordings.

Artists with major labels and independent artists are eligible. All submissions are digital. No physical CDs needed.

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 Featured Interview – Ben Levin 

imageEvery so often, people start wringing their hands in despair over the fate of blues music. One reason that always figures prominently in those discussions is the apparent lack of interest in the music by the younger generations at any given point in time. These days it is hard to believe that the argument holds water, not with brilliant young players like Chistone “Kingfish” Ingram, Jontavious Willis, Marquise Knox, Buffalo Nichols, Melody Angel, and Andrew Alli making beautiful music. Another name to add to that list is Ben Levin, the blues piano player, singer, and songwriter who has come a long way in the last seven years.

As a youngster, Ben’s older brother was really into sports, while Ben had little interest except for a brief turn at soccer. Trying to find something for their other son to do outside of school, Ben’s parents signed him up for piano lessons with a classical instructor when he was about six years old. It did not go well.

“I absolutely hated it. Sometimes I would be crying on the way to a lesson. My Dad finally let me quit. But then he hooked me up with one of his former students who played guitar and taught a little piano. He was able to get me really interested in music. When he came to the house, he would ask me what I wanted to learn. We ended up working on whatever was on the radio at the time that I enjoyed listening to, bands like Coldplay.

“He left after a year, so when I was eight years old I started with my current mentor, Ricky Nye, who taught me all of the fundamentals and basic music theory, like the circle of fifths. Then we got into blues, which really grabbed me. He showed me the 12 bar form. What I really loved was that every couple weeks he would send me home with a new CD to listen to, which is how I got into the three kings of boogie woogie piano – Pete Johnson, Meade Lux Lewis, and Albert Ammons. He also turned me on to Otis Spann, Little Brother Montgomery, Jay McShann, Professor Longhair, and Ray Charles.”

Ben’s father had met Nye through the local Cincinnati blues scene. Nye taught piano but due to some bad experiences, didn’t teach kids.

“Ricky was going to teach me as a favor to my Dad, but when he found out I was only eight, he wasn’t real keen on giving me lessons. Piano is his main thing, but he is also a great organ player, and a really great drummer. He started on drums, then learned accordion before switching to piano. He is a monster player who has toured internationally and has numerous releases under his name.

“Ricky has so much jazz in his playing, emulating the swinging Kansas City style like Jay McShann so perfectly. Of course, he is a boogie woogie expert who can play an hour long set of that music, which I can’t do. There is so much complexity in his music, which is a level I hope to achieve some day. But whatever he does, the roots always go back to the blues.”

Ben’s father, Aron Levin, is a blues guitarist who had started his own band, the Heaters, in 2000, after the family had relocated to Cincinnati. As a youngster, Aron wanted to play drums, primarily because the kid down the street had a beautiful red drum set. His mom turned him down, so he fashioned his own kit out of her pots and pans, which also did not go over very well.

IMAE“Mom said, how about guitar. I asked for an electric model, and she said no. Around the age of fourteen, she finally bought me a cheap acoustic guitar. She would drive me to lessons every week. I was into the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, getting an education in the blues without knowing what blues music was. When I was 16 years old, I mowed lawns all summer and saved the money so that I could buy an Epiphone electric guitar, which I still have 40 years later.”

“I have never been a full-time musician as I was following a very non-linear path to becoming a college professor. Long before Ben came along, I started playing in bands. We left Topeka, Kansas after Ben was born to move to Cincinnati. The Heaters were a weekend band.”

When he was 11 years old, Ben had a chance to sit in with his father’s band at a local bar.

“My mom, Margi Larson Levin, would drive me to the bar. My Dad would have the keyboard all set up. At that point, I only had enough material to do a 30 minute set. It was so fun! I showed up, played my half hour, and then went home. My Dad had to tear everything down at the end of the night by himself. I was living like a star!

“That went on for a couple months. Then the owner of the bar said, hey Aron, when Ben leaves, we lose half of the audience. Is there any way he can stay later? So then we had to work up a whole set, and I was playing all night, plus we started playing different venues. By the time I was 15 years old, I was getting serious about doing my own gigs regularly and started taking over the band. I loved playing music and wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

Some people might think there would be some friction between father and son as the younger Levin took over what had been his father’s band. Truth be told, there were a few rough spots.

“Dad had mixed emotions. He was proud, and had been grooming me to do just that. But he still struggles with it at times to this day. Sometimes I get on him, telling him not to talk so much in between all of songs. He is a Marketing professor by day, so I remind him that the gig is not a lecture hall! I love playing with him. The connection we have translates on stage. He is an entertainer who knows how to connect with an audience, what it takes to keep them happy. I wouldn’t be the band leader I am today without playing so many gigs as a sideman to my Dad.”

Aron knew that he was ready for a change.

“In the beginning, it was the novelty of this cute-as-can-be 11 year old playing fairly proficiently. Ben was learning. About five years later, he was playing with me, and sometimes without me, just Ben and a drummer. Him taking over the band was not an unfriendly coup. I was burned out on gigs. Ben ignited my passion for the music. I am happy to be a sideman. I trust him with everything. He has made it so much better. It is the dream blues band I always wanted to be in, and to be able to do it with Ben makes it extra special.”

In 2017, Ben was booked at the Festival International de Boogie Woogie in LaRoquebrou, France, his first international show. Nye strongly recommended that his protege not go overseas empty-handed, that he should have a recording to sell at the festival. So Ben and his father started making plans.

image“I was really nervous, as you would expect of a 17 year old, but we went into the studio for the first time. It was certainly new and different. Once everybody started playing, I relaxed and it was cool. We cut twelve songs, four of which I wrote, in two or three days. I had the discs by July and took a suitcase full of them to France in August.

“I had broken up with my first girlfriend right before the sessions. The emotions I was feeling helped me write two of the songs, “Little Girl” and “Have You Lost Your Mind”. As it turned out, the funny thing is that I went through another breakup right before we recorded my second album, Before Me. My bass player told me he thought my Dad was paying the girls to dump me before we recorded so that I would write some good songs!”

“I learned a valuable lesson on that trip. After my set, I was trying to sign CDs as people bought them. The mistake was trying to personalize each one. I was having trouble understanding people with the accent, and to spell French names like Jon Jacques! By the end, I had lost a lot of people because they got tired of waiting. My line definitely got shorter. My Dad commented that it was nice that I wanted to personalize the CDs, but in the future, if I have a long line, just sign my name.”

If you listen to Ben’s Blues without knowing anything about the artist, you would quickly find yourself wondering where this veteran performer had been hiding. There was the smooth, confident vocals and some truly fine piano playing that had echoes of Spann, Charles Brown, or Professor Longhair. The influences were there, but certainly not slavish imitation. And the original songs sounded just as good as the covers. Learning that all of that quality music was the work of a 17 year old on his first album left many listeners stunned, not to mention overjoyed at such a rare find. Levin received two nominations for the 2018 Blues Blast Music Awards, one in for New Artist Debut Album, and the other for the Sean Costello Rising Star Award, which he has been nominated for two additional years.

After finishing his senior year of high school, Levin continued playing local gigs. He also found time to have a great adventure.

“Two international friends flew in to join me – Takuto Asano, a guitar player from Japan, and Ben White, a harmonica player from England. We played some local shows, then hit the road. I drove us down to Clarksdale, MS for the Pinetop Perkins Foundation’s Blues workshop. It was my first proper road trip with friends. It was so much fun. We were listening to blues music the whole trip, stopping at roadside food trucks to eat. The workshop was great, and on the way back we stopped in Memphis for a night so we could go to Al Green’s church for a service. It was some of the most fun I’ve ever had in my life. It was a great summer of growth”.

That fall, Levin started studies at the University of Cincinnati while still working a regular gig schedule. Late in the year he returned to the studio to start work on his next album, this time enlisting the aid of two veterans, guitarist Bob Margolin and Bob Corritore on harmonica in addition to the legendary session drummer for King Records, Phillip Paul, who recently passed away. That album, Before Me, showed that his first album was no fluke, garnering a nomination for a Blues Music Award in the Best Emerging Artist Album category.

“Half of the songs are my originals, and there is more straight-ahead Chicago blues on it because that is what the two Bob’s excel at. We did the James Cotton instrumental, “Lightnin’,” and the Muddy Waters version Big Bill Broonzy classic, “I Feel So Good”. I really wanted to stretch out and take on a new challenge by doing Jimmy Witherspoon’s version of “Confessin’ The Blues”. It took me forever to get the intro right on that one. I was somewhat embarrassed having to do more takes than I would have liked, especially with Margolin and Corritore there. But we got it. The title track was my attempt to write a song with a New Orleans swampy feel.

image“You learn a lot being in the studio with older musicians. Phillip Paul had so much energy, given that he had been a studio musician for so long. My favorite story is from an evening session we did where we were all getting tired. My Dad looked over at Phillip, pointed at him, and asked if he needed a break. Phillip looked at my Dad, saying, no, do you need a break? He was 91 years old. We had a blast. The album got picked up by the VizzTone Label group. Richard Rosenblatt and Amy Brat have helped my career immensely. That album was more on the radar for radio airplay and reviews.”

In the first part of 2020, Levin was living the good life. He had a steady stream of gigs that kept him busy, having a ball. He also moved out of the house into his own apartment. Then the virus brought everything to a grinding halt.

“We refer to the third album as our Pandemic record. For a couple weeks, I was eating out almost every night. Dad said we needed to write a song about that. I wanted the title track, Carryout Or Delivery, to be a tongue-in-cheek, Louis Jordan style song. The last track on the record, “Time Brings About A Change,” was written by Floyd Dixon. It is a heavy song that each day has more and more meaning. I wanted to end the record with that one. I also play some on the Hammond B-3 organ and Ricky loaned me his 1960 era Wurlitzer piano that I used on a Ray Charles style soul song. It was fun to branch out again.”

Levin has been working on a degree in history, something he feels it goes hand in hand with blues music.

“Once you get interested in the music, you start investigating. What year was the song recorded? Where was it recorded? Who played on the session? Was it a hit? Becoming friends with Phillip has been neat because I have been helping him track down his personal discography. He wasn’t credited for a lot of stuff, nobody was given credit. After listening to him play with me, I can hear his style of playing. I have been able to help identify an additional 15-20 recordings that he played on but didn’t get credit for. It is interesting to do this type of archival, historical work.

“For the last couple of months, I have been interviewing lots of musicians. The goal is to write some articles and eventually write a book. It started with Phillip, who allowed me to conduct several interviews with him. I did one with Walter Cash, a bass player who has played with everyone locally, primarily Albert Washington. I have also talked with Bob Stroger, the great bass player from Chicago.

“Last semester I took a class focusing on Black women in American history. That lead me to try to interview as many Black female musicians as I can. The most interesting woman I have talked to so far is Mable John, the older sister of Little Willie John. She is a great singer in her right. I had been connected with her by phone for several months. I was headed out to Los Angeles to visit family, so she told me to come by her apartment so that we could do the interview in person. I learned so much about her and her brother. It was beautiful.”

In his upcoming semester, Levin will be starting on an independent study program with a professor who will help Levin write a piece for a historical journal. His plan is to apply for a PHD program, to use all of the information he is gathering in his dissertation, and ultimately write a book that he has planned. He also hopes to take a break before starting his PHD program to find out what touring is like these days.

In November of 2020, Aron contracted Covid. Ben came down with the virus two weeks later. After several days, Ben started to feel fine. Aron was not so lucky. Ben still has a hard time remembering those days.

“He just kept getting sicker and sicker. The doctors gave him an inhaler, which didn’t help. My Mom used to be a nurse. She had a pulse oximeter that measures the oxygen in the system. One night the reading was so low that she called an ambulance to take him to the hospital up the street. After a couple days, they had to put him on a ventilator.

“He was on the ventilator for about twelve days. It was a close call, very scary. What made it harder was that we weren’t able to visit him due to Covid restrictions. It was terrible to not be able to be with your loved ones. One day the nurse called to say she had been able to take Dad off the ventilator, that Dad’s breathing had stabilized. It was a slow recovery from there. When I was able to visit, I’d take some music so that we could talk and listen. Before he could walk, he was talking about writing songs, and going into the recording studio. That was a big part of what kept him going as he was fighting for his life.”

imageAron knows how close he came to fulfilling the old cliche about leaving it all on stage because it could be your last time.

“I know that first hand, as it almost was the end for me. If I had contracted Covid six months earlier, I probably would have died. They didn’t know about keeping people prone on a ventilator or had antibody treatments. I was in the hospital for six weeks through the holidays. I spent Thanksgiving 2020 in a coma. When you spend that much time in a hospital bed, everything atrophies. That meant I had to relearn everything, including eating, which we think of as an innate thing.

“I had to relearn how to stand up, how to walk. Everything had gone to sleep while I was in the coma. Once I got home, I tried to play guitar. The muscle memory was still there. I knew what I was supposed to do. But all of the muscles were gone. I became very sad because I could not get my fingers to move at all. I was frustrated and depressed.

“But I went back to playing the “Cowboy” chords, the stuff I learned when I first started. Eventually I got back to my mediocre white boy playing self! Then I just had all of these ideas. It was like my brain was re-awakened. So I told Ben we needed to make a new record to tell our story. It is our most personal project, and means the most to me.”

Ben’s latest release, Still Here, certainly chronicles his continued growth as an artist. The title track and another original song, “Christmas Rain,” eloquently express the full range and depth of the emotional turmoil that the younger musician experienced during his father’s struggle to survive.

“After all that we have been through, this album has that gut bucket down-home feel. I stick to the piano, but there a variety of configurations like piano & guitar on some songs, one that is piano & drums, and some with the full band. The opening cut, Jimmy Witherspoon’s “Love and Friendship,” was the most difficult song I have learned so far. It took days, weeks for me to get that piano part right.

It reminded me of cramming for a final exam. I practiced it all night before the recording session. My song “Her Older Brother,” is based on a true story.

“Lately I have doing some special shows with artists like Bob Stroger and Little Jimmy Reed. I really want to connect with musicians of that generation while I still can. To me, Little Jimmy Reed is as talented as anybody but he doesn’t have anyone helping him get gigs in this country. He can tour all over Europe. He told me that he has never been to Chicago. He is over 80 years old but wants to work, and is very spry.

“Also, there is a lot of music history in Cincinnati that needs to be uncovered. There is a local piano player and singer, Sonny Hill, who is originally from Helena, Arkansas. He told me a story the other day that blew my mind. When he was a kid, he sang in a gospel group that used to sing on the radio r right after the King Biscuit Flour Hour. So he met all of those guys that played on that program like Robert Nighthawk, Houston Stackhouse, and Pinetop Perkins. Sonny said Pinetop bought him his first Coca-Cola. I really want to record with him because Sonny has such a beautiful voice.

“I want to do it all. My goal is to become a professor while playing gigs on the weekends and during the summer. I see history as an opportunity to tell the stories of all of these great musicians who otherwise wouldn’t have an outlet. I had a professor tell me the other day that oral history is becoming more and more popular. Instead of a historian hearing a story, analyzing it, and then retelling the story, let the person tell the story like they are in the room speaking to the reader. This city has done a lot for me, so I want to give something back. Through it all, music is definitely my driving force.”

Visit Ben’s website to see where to cahth at live show at

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

imageMississippi Heat – Madeleine

Van der Linden Recordings VDL710

12 songs – 56 minutes

Mississippi Heat has been delivering what they call “traditional blues with a unique sound” out of Chicago for the past 30-plus years and celebrate their anniversary with this star-studded album, proving once again why they’re at the forefront of the music in the Windy City.

A launching pad for blues talent since 1991, the band came together one night after harp Pierre Lacocque and guitarist Jon McDonald – a longtime fixture in Magic Slim & the Teardrops — jammed at Café Lura, a small lounge on the city’s Northwest Side. Soon after, they recruited bassist Bob Stroger and drummer Robert Covington – who regularly worked with piano legend Sunnyland Slim – to join them. The roster has changed multiple times since, but the dozen previous albums they’ve released have been a bellwether of the Chicago sound.

The standard bearer for Heat since its founding has been Lacocque. The son of Belgian parents – his father is a Protestant minister and Old Testament scholar, Pierre was born in Israel and lived in three countries in Europe prior to the family relocating to the Windy City in 1969 when he was 16. Influenced by Little Walter, he’s been hooked on the harmonica since shortly after his arrival after seeing Big Walter Horton perform at the University of Chicago.

Through the years, Lacocque has teamed with the cream of the crop of the city’s blues artists, including guitarists Lurrie Bell, Billy Flynn, James Wheeler and Carl Weathersby, vocalist Dietra Farr, keyboard player Barrelhouse Chuck, former Muddy Waters bassist Calvin “Fuzz” Jones and drummer Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith and others. Bell, Weathersby and Smith all make guest appearances on this one.

The current lineup features the powerful Inetta Visor and Daneshia Hamilton on vocals along with guitarists Michael Dotson and Giles Corey and keyboard player Chris “Hambone” Cameron. Bassist Brian Quinn and drummer Terrence Williams hold down the bottom with Mark Franklin on trumpet and Kirk Smothers on sax. They joined by Nanette Frank, Diane Madison and Mae Kohn – aka Nadima – on backing vocals along with Johnny Iguana and Ruben Alvarez who guest on keys and percussion.

Produced by Lacocque and Grammy-winner Michael Freeman, this set was captured at V.S.O.P. Studios in Chicago in November 2019 and mastered in Nashville by Paul Blakemore, another Grammy honoree. Pierre penned nine of the tunes in this all-original set with Visor contributing one and Dotson two others.

“Silent Too Long” fires out of the gate to open the action and features Corey with Weathersby on the mic, delivering a complaint about a woman who whines so much that he’s losing sleep and drowning in all of her demands. Lacocque shines on a mid-tune solo as does Cameron on the outro. Pierre rips and runs before Daneshia takes over for “Batty Crazy,” a medium-paced shuffle about a lover who’s reverted back to his old habits and headed to jail if he doesn’t change his ways.

The band delivers “Havana En Mi Alma” with Latin flair with Inetta handling vocals and Carl guitar lead before Lurrie and Kenny join the action for the straight-ahead pleaser “Uninvited Guest,” a deeply personal number that describes looking happy on the outside but being haunted by unimaginable blues from within. The personal torment continues in the blazing “Nothin’ I Can Do,” which finds Daneshia unable to express her affection for the man she loves because she knows he’s got another woman on the side.

The horn- and harp-fueled shuffle, “Empty Nest Blues,” features Inetta and delivers an interesting view of parenthood. The house is empty, but instead of yearning for company, she wants to be left alone. Up next, “Ridin’ on a Hit” features Iguana as Daneshia celebrates the band’s travels from Chicago to Tokyo and back before Dotson takes command for the unspecified call-to-action, “Everybody Do Somethin’.”

Lacocque pays tribute to Emma Magdalena Van der Linden with the unhurried instrumental, “Madeleine,” and the action heats up again with “At the Lucky Star” before the slow blues, “Truth Like Rain,” confronts a crying lover about an unspoken affront. The album closes “Trouble,” the realization that the singer’s the only person who’ll be able to dig herself out from the pile of bills that have piled up.

Madeleine should bring Mississippi Heat major awards when all’s said and done. It’s an outstanding collection of contemporary blues.

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 

imageDuke Robillard – They Called It Rhythm & Blues

Stoney Plain Records

18 songs, 1 hour and 7 minutes

Duke Robillard is the greatest Blues guitarist of all time. No your reviewer has not lost his mind and it is fully acknowledged that this stance could be controversial and that there are many Blues guitarists, contemporaries and forbearers, who are at equal level to Duke. BUT, the Duke’s prowess, his encyclopedic knowledge, the monument that is his continuing to be undaunted career and his soulful deeply personal style at the heart of it all are pretty undeniable. That is why for Blues fans such as us it is a pure joy that Duke is so prolific. He keeps pumping out consistently thoughtful, creative and entertaining albums.

They Called it Rhythm & Blues is his newest entry into what seems to be a run of loose concept records. Picking up from 2017’s all female sung His Dames of Rhythm, 2019’s classic catchy pop-wise Ear Worms, and 2020’s gut bucket straight up Real Deal Blues Bash, They Called It is a survey of the music that was originally defined in the 50’s and 60’s as R&B. It harkens back to an eclectic time when Muddy Waters, Ray Charles, T-Bone Walker, Etta James and Chuck Berry were all on the R&B charts together.

To help Duke get this concept across he enlisted a host of guest performers, all of whom are veterans of the Blues boom of the 80’s and 90’s. Sue Foley and Mike Flanigin sent their Texas Blues swagger up from Austin. New England legend and running buddy Sugar Ray Norcia added his deep Blues holler and harp. Duke’s former bandmate in the Thunderbirds Kim Wilson offered that distinct West Coast by way of Texas style he is a master of while Michelle “Evil Gal” Wilson absolutely obliterates the soul on her 2 vocals features. And the modern Country Blues legend John Hammond offers 2 devastatingly emotive performances.

Duke Robillard started his career as a band leader founding Roomful of Blues so it’s no surprise that the Duke Robillard Band has been one of the go to institutions for serious Blues sidemen. The current DRB line up is one of the tightest, most talented Blues bands working today. New England veterans all, the band is anchored by the distinguished go-to rhythm section of Marty Ballou on bass and Mark Teixeira on drums. Doug James blowing bari and tenor sax and Bruce Bears tickling the ivories add charge and style. James’ low-end horn is augmented on a few tracks by Mark Earley on sax and Doug Woolverton on trumpet. The feature of the band is DRB vocalist Chris Cote who sings 6 tunes here to Duke’s 3 vocal performances. Cote has a confident and fully realized tenor that perfectly matches and complements Duke’s own vocal bravado and warble.

After years of lugging guitars and standing and delivering the Blues, the wear and tear finally caught up with Duke in the mid 20-teens. After surgery and rehab it was questionable if Duke would still play guitar. He did regain his ability to play but with less speed, slowing him down. In 2020 Duke told Blues Blasts’ Marty Gunther “The fact that I’m able to play at all is simply amazing. But in some ways, it might have improved my playing. There’s not as much flash, and I concentrate more on what the notes mean, which is a good thing — and that’s what older musicians do anyway.”

On They Called it Rhythm & Blues Duke’s words ring true. Gone is some of the facile mind bending speed and precision, the chameleon-like referencing and inhabiting of other guitarists’ styles that characterized Duke’s early work. But stripped bear, Duke’s soulful center, the flourishes of his unique style and instrumental voice that was always present but at times obscured, ring in a way they didn’t before.

Listening to Duke spare with firebrand Sue Foley, or melt in remorse and sadness on “Someday After Awhile,” or jump and wail on “In the Wee Wee Hours,” it is clear that Duke Robillard is undoubtedly a stronger more expressive guitarist than he was as a younger man. As an artist this seems to be the goal, continue to hone and refine your craft while adapting and augmenting your approach to the normal progression of age. Duke has done this with grace, strength and dedication. We are all lucky he still has such a jones for producing music, we all get to age gracefully with him.

Reviewer Bucky O’Hare is a slide guitarist, songwriter and singer. Based out of South Eastern Massachusetts, Bucky plays Slide Guitar Soul Jazz and Funk Blues inspired by the music of the 60’s and 70’s all around New England.


 Featured Blues Review – 3 of 6 

imageThe Nighthawks – Established 1972

VizzTone Label Group

14 songs – 49 minutes

Founded in 1972 by harping front man Mark Wenner, The Nighthawks have proven time and time again that they’re the hardest working road dogs and best bar band in the business, and they celebrate their golden anniversary with this smoking-hot set, a mix of all shades of blues, R&B and roots that demonstrates clearly why they’re still just as vital today as they were 50 years ago.

Based out of Washington, D.C., Wenner fell in love with the music as a youth while attending concerts at the Howard Theater, one of the most important stops on the chittlin’ circuit. With an early lineup that included guitarist Jimmy Thackery and the then-veteran rhythm section composed of bassist Jan Zukowski and drummer Pete Ragusa, they quickly became a first-call band whenever Muddy Waters and James Cotton were looking for an opener. And through their own bookings, they established a path on the blues highway that opened doors for the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Robert Cray, Stevie Ray Vaughn and dozens of others to follow.

After Thackery left in 1986 to launch his award-winning solo career, the trio regularly toured the East Coast in the company of Elvin Bishop, John Lee Hooker, Pinetop Perkins and John Hammond. And different iterations of the band have included Jimmy Hall (Wet Willie), Jimmy Nalls (Sea Level) and several more lesser known talents who’ve gone on to establish themselves across the musical spectrum.

The current roster includes longtime Thackery percussionist Mark Stutso, guitarist Don Hovey and bassist Paul Pisciotta, all of whom deliver vocals and had a hand – along with Wenner — in penning some of the on this one, all of which were composed during the coronavirus crisis.

This one was produced by The Nighthawks along with longtime friend and associate David Earl, the owner of Severn Records, and it was captured at his Severn Sound Studios in Annapolis, Md. Tommy Lepson sits in on keys for two cuts, and Earl lays down guitar tracks on another.

“Nobody,” a ‘60s hit for Bruce Channel penned by Wayne Carson Thompson, fires out of the gate to open the action with a funky drumbeat. It’s a driving rocker that features Mark at the mic with choral responses from the band and fat runs from Paul prior to Wenner’s mid-tune solo. Hovey’s “You Seem Different” lopes from the open and he handles vocals with a slight country edge, describing the growing distance between lovers sharing the same bed. And the solos that he and Mark share are saccharine sweet.

The band delivers a smooth, contemporary update of “I’ll Come Running Back to You,” a ‘50s chart-topper for Sam Cooke, before Stutso’s “Coming and Going” drives from the jump atop a funky shuffle as it sings praises of a lady who looks good in no matter what way you see her. Then the band turns back the clock once again for a stripped-down version of Jimmy Reed’s familiar “Take It Slow” and fiery take on “Johnny Too Bad,” penned by Delroy Wilson, the early Jamaican ska, rocksteady and reggae star.

Three more pleasing covers — Mose Allison’s jazzy “Ask Me Nice,” Rayford Starke’s “West Memphis” and Ivory Joe Hunter’s “Ain’t That Lovin’ You” – follow before “Gas Station Chicken,” a funked-up, original, bluesy rap that sings praises of the food that keeps the band fueled up and ready to go.

The final four songs feature three more Hovey creations. The percussive “Houseband” opens the run with an shuffle and harp run. It’s an interesting number that describes the joy and action that bluesmen discover on the other side because folks on this side are “so hateful.” Up next, “Fuss and Fight” swings from the hip as it wonders why there’s so much conflict in life because we all reach the same, final end. A take on “Run Red Run,” a 1959 hit for The Coasters, precedes the unhurried closer, “Driving,” a sweet ballad that states that the singer doesn’t get behind the wheel much anymore because of the haze in his eyes, but he’s still willing “to give you a ride.”

The Nighthawks have put out some great albums across the past five decades, and this one ranks right up with the best of ‘em. Must listening – and a whole lot of fun!

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 – 4 of 6 

imageJ-Rad Cooley – Yard Sale

VizzTone Label Group

9 songs – 36 minute

A singer/songwriter who doubles on keys and harmonica, J-Rad Cooley makes his recording debut with this disc – and he does it in style, joining forces with Memphis-based producer Tony Holiday and perennial Blues Music Award contender and Grammy nominee Victor Wainwright sitting in on four of the nine cuts.

Born in Salt Lake City, Utah and only 23 years old, J-Rad – aka Jared McLean Cooley – is already a gifted storyteller who mixes a touch of rock, jazz, ragtime and soul that’s steeped in the blues tradition. He started out as a guitar player at age 13, quickly switched instruments and has performed locally with The Arvos and Ol’ Fashion Depot, which evolved into his self-named band a year or so ago.

Cooley’s influences span the musical spectrum and include Lightnin’ Hopkins, Blind Willie McTell and Robert Johnson, Ray Charles, Dr. John and Louis Armstrong and Muddy Waters and Sonny Boy Williamson, too. And you can hear a little of all of many of them in the grooves of this collection, which hints strongly of past eras across eight originals and one cover.

The album was laid down at Wild Feather Recording in Hendersonville, Tenn., with Zach Kasik, the bassist for Too Slim & the Taildraggers, at the controls. Both he and his bandleader, guitarist Tim “Too Slim” Langford, participated in the session along with guitarist Aubrey McCrady, drummer Shake E. Fowlkes, bassist Josh Karris and Wainwright on keys with Hannah Jason providing backing vocals.

J-Rad opens the original, “Livin’ Downtown,” on harp for a brief intro before launching into lyrics that describe the aftermath of a relationship gone bad. His vocals are pleasant and mid-range, and his touch on the reeds is light and clean. A funky, medium-paced shuffle, it features Victor on the 88s and call-and-response on the chorus. He shifts to keys for “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home,” a tune that first charted for Bessie Smith in 1923, and delivers it with a feel that would have fit comfortably in the decade it was created.

It dovetails nicely into the ballad “Now She’s a Drifter,” a harp-and-keys pleaser. Cooley stretches out vocally as he describes a former actress who’s now “flirting for dimes on Beale.” The feel shifts to a contemporary groove for “Running Away from My Hometown” as Langford shines on six-string as J-Rad serves of the complaint that, after leaving, he’s now tired of being alone.

“All Night Mama,” an unhurried, stop-time ballad with old-time appeal, features some tasty work on the 88s from Cooley and more vocal dynamics before Wainwright sits in again for the title track, “Yard Sale.” Delivered with Big Easy cool, the singer’s already pawned his prized possessions, but facing the reality that he’s got to do more despite working two jobs to make ends meet. The theme continues in “My Wallet’s Dry” and funk rises to the fore as J-Rad on harp and Victor trade riffs.

There’s a distinct aural shift at the open of “The World Will Call Me Mister,” a bluesy rocker that revisits the decision to leave home and is delivered prior to the actual departure. It precedes “Til’ Hate Is Gone,” a slow-paced contemporary number delivered from a position of peace and comfort, but looks forward to the time when the singer can reflect on the life he’s lived without regret.

J-Rad Cooley is a young man who bridges time and space to deliver music that’s fresh, but still deeply grounded in the past. An excellent debut, it’s well worth the listen and should put you on the lookout for even better works ahead.

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 – 5 of 6 

Misty Blues – One Louder

Lunaria Records

11 songs time – 48:40

It’s my genuine pleasure to review Misty Blues’ current CD after having reviewed their marvelous Pickled And Aged CD. The creativity and spirit of the band just keeps chugging along. Gina’s musical vision and creative spark remains intact and ever evolving. In a more perfect world they would be a household name, but silly rabbits, they are compelled to create real music instead of much of the drivel that today passes for music. As usual they delve into a riveting blend of musical genres. The jumping off point is rhythm & blues accented with blues, funk, jazz and God knows what else. The commanding pipes of Gina Coleman take the lead over the talented group of musicians gathered here for this project. Ten of the eleven tracks are either written or co-written by Gina. Her co-writers are Diego Mongue, Ed Moran, Seth Fleischmann and Ben Kohn. A host of emotions and vibes are visited along this musical adventure.

An acoustic slide guitar-piano intro give way to the gospel infused and intense “A Long Hard Way”. The electric slide guitar of Seth Fleischmann along with Aaron Dean’s sax go neck and neck to propel the breakneck speed of “Freight Car” as it speeds down the track. Aaron Dean on sax and Bill Patriquin on trumpet bring up the rear with a frantic horn duel. The vocals on “How The Blues Feels” are shared with Big Llou Johnson. Bob Stannard lends his harmonica skills to the tune. Ben Kohn lets loose on some funked-up organ goodness. Once again the skittering horn section of Dean and Patriquin drive the infectious “This Life We Live“.

Lonesome acoustic down-home blues guitar lends “Birch Tree” a hauntingly atmospheric tone. All along these songs benefit from Gina Coleman’s deeply felt and soulful vocal delivery. Gina visits the throatier range of her voice on “Leave My Home”. The conviction in her voice here makes you want to get yourself up and haul ass. the horn section of Bill Patriquin on trumpet, Aaron Dean on sax and Chris Rand on bari sax punch up the groove and add depth to the song. Ben Kohn adds a taste of his funky organ. For the lack of a better word, “Hit You Back” is just catchy as all get out, down to the funky slide guitar of Seth Fleischmann, Ben Kohn on organ and omnipresent sax of Aaron Dean. The band ventures down to New Orleans via an assist by accordion man David Vittone and Professor Longhair style piano by keyboard master Ben Kohn on “Seal Of Fate”. Drummer Rob Tatten just nails the New Orleans shuffling drum pattern.

“I’m A Grinder” is a sexy, moody slice of simmering R&B. Gina’s vocal is plain seductive. Diego Mongue’s bass funks it up nicely, while Ben Kohn’s organ and the horn section liven things up. Most of the band joins in on unison vocalizations on the funky and jazzy percussion and organ driven “Do My Thing”. the inclusion of Yahuba Garcia on percussion bolsters the funk element with the help of Ben Kohn’s tasty organ sounds. Ben Kohn once again helps Gina out with the vocals while blues guitar stalwart Joe Louis Walker supplies his commanding lead guitar skills on the intense “Take A Long Ride” to cap off the recording. The horn section ably supports one of Gina’s most soulful and heartfelt vocals found on this recording.

The “Energizer Bunny” of modern R&B and blues shows no signs slowing down their creative output. Gina and her cohorts manage once again to conjure up a satisfying performance that deserves a much larger audience in a perfect world. Everyone will enjoy this group of super players and their music.

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

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 Featured Blues Review – 6 of 6 

imageVirginia & The Slims – Busman’s Holiday

Self-Release – 2020

10 tracks; 37 minutes

What a great name for a band! When the Asheville, N.C. band started out in 2013 the vocalist was called Virginia and her husband came up with the name. As time passed, Virginia left to raise a family and personnel came and went, so founder and saxophonist James Kamp is the only original member remaining. The vocalist is now Joanna Best and the pair are joined by Howie Neal on guitar, John Davis on bass and John Barrett on drums; Hank Bones is credited with backing vocals and as ‘Tea Boy’! The material contains some jump blues, some ballads, some jazzy elements, even a touch of latin. John is the main writer with six credits, three songs are by Joanna and Jon Mark Walker who passed in 2019 and to whom the album is dedicated; there is one cover.

“Let It Go” sets out the band’s stall with a catchy rhythm and fine sax work. Joanna is relaxed in vocal style and conveys the songs really well. John and Howie both take solos, a good opener. Paul Simon’s “Take Me To The Mardi Gras” is the cover, re-worked in Mariachi style, which works very effectively. “Sugar Baby” is an upbeat jump tune with strong vocals and great sax and “The Way I Walk” a shuffle with busy drum work behind Joanna’s clear vocals and more of that stylish, relaxed sax. “I’ll Be Back Again” has a brooding quality that reflects lyrics about “when my soul was shattered”, surviving that and ready to start over; an organ is clearly heard on this tune, but is again not credited. The short “Your Money’s No Good” is a catchy shuffle, with some scat singing and harp added to the mix. The oddity is “When Will I Find Him”, a mournful tune with the feel of an elegy or a religious tune, Joanna’s powerful vocal set against just piano, again uncredited. The stark accompaniment is both striking and frustrating in equal measure as some of Joanna’s vocals echo in the background.

The three songs written by Joanna and Jon include “Trace”, a jazzy tune that lyrically deals with the world in conflict around us, but the sight of her guy has left a trace on her heart, a relaxed tune with the rhythm section getting busy to introduce the song. “Push On Through” is a song about perseverance and combines elements of gospel, a hint of Latin and blues, courtesy of the anonymous harp player. Their final song is “Shine” which closes the album on a cheerfully upbeat note with Caribbean rhythms and choral vocals, Joanna encouraging us to “stand up and take what’s coming to you” while Howie and James leave us with two ringing solos.

It is always good to hear original music and even the sole cover here is substantially transformed. The musicianship is good and the generally relaxed style is enjoyable, though some may find the album to lack fire. I suspect that the keyboards and harp may all be the work of main man James, but it would have been good to have the full credits of all the instruments involved.

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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