Cover photo © 2022 Laura Carbone
In This Issue
Bucky O’Hare has our feature interview with Michael “Mudcat” Ward. We have six Blues reviews for you this week including new music from Eric’s Blues Band, Dylan Triplett, Steve Bailey, Committee Of Vultures, StratCat Willie & the Strays and Stacy Jones. Scroll down and check it out!
Featured Interview – Michael “Mudcat” Ward
“Most sidemen don’t get a lot of attention. Some guys they go to gigs and they see there’s a whole band up there and they actually see that there’s something goin’ on that’s a product of the whole.”
Michael “Mudcat” Ward creates the product of the whole. One of the pillars of the 80’s and 90’s Blues explosion, Mudcat has developed an immediately recognizable bass sound. A die hard New Englander hailing from Lewiston, Maine, Mudcat is the torch bearer of, as he calls it, “string bass.” This is the large acoustic stand up bass that was an integral part of the early transition of the Blues from solo and small group rural Blues to the electrification and extended ensembles of Chicago, Memphis, Helena and beyond. A consummate sideman, meaning he plays his bass to accentuate the music and he says “make the leader look good,” Mudcat is also a clever, prolific and at times irreverent songwriter. A founding member of Sugar Ray and the Bluetones and Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters, two of the most enduring modern day Blues units, Mudcat has been the trusted low end for countless Blues legends including Big Walter Horton, Big Mama Thornton, Hubert Sumlin and Jimmy Rogers.
Mudcat, Ronnie Earl, Sugar Ray Norcia, Duke Robillard, Anthony Geraci and a host of other New England based Bluesmen helped to supercharge the East Coast Blues in the late 70’s in hallowed and long shuttered Boston and Rhode Island clubs such as The Speakeasy, The Met and Lupo’s. Mudcat, who resides in Cambridge, MA, continues to be the go to traditional Blues bassist in New England. This interview was conducted in person, something rare in the post COVID world. Meeting just outside of Inman Square in Cambridge where 45 years earlier Mudcat and Ronnie Earl used to run from club to club, Mudcat detailed his life in Blues through an at times thick Northern New England accent, resplendent with elongated “r’s” and dropped syllables.
The late 60’s was a great time to be on fire with music. New England was also a good place to do it. Many people trying to escape the often dangerous crush of New York City moved North, and major national and international acts stopped in to cater to fans. Young precocious Michael Ward took advantage of every opportunity and chased down musical dreams that didn’t include the bass.
“I started out as a want-a-be piano player. I took piano lessons as a kid. I was like one of those kids that the teacher tricked. You know I wasn’t really learning how to read (music) but I could memorize everything she was teachin’. She put the music, either the wrong music or upside down or something, and you know I was actin’ like I was readin’ it. I got busted. But she thought ‘you know this kid should really learn Jazz, but I can’t teach that, I don’t know that.’ So I really had no instruction for a couple of years but I was playing by ear.”
“We had a piano in the house. My mother played Classical piano and my father played Jazz piano and trombone in the marching bands. So I had musical inspiration in the house. My father had Mingus records and my mother had a Bob Dylan record before I did, you know that kind of thing. I was born in ‘54, so when I was growing up in the early 60’s, pre-Beatles and the early Beatles that was all important. Anyway I wanted to be a piano player and I was trying to be a piano player and I had bought an electric piano.”
“In ‘69 I went to Woodstock. I actually wanted to go to this festival in Atlantic City that had B.B. King advertised and a lot of Blues acts. But my parents wouldn’t let me go, that seemed either too far or too dangerous. So I bugged them for the rest of the Summer. The Woodstock one was advertised and I think they let me go because they had told me no on the other one. Woodstock wasn’t really a Blues guy’s festival, it had Paul Butterfield and Canned Heat, if you count them. I mean it was still a great experience obviously, it was a mind blowing thing.”
It is comical in hindsight to think that Woodstock was the safer festival to go to for the young Ward. Mudcat’s Summer of ‘69 Blues love continued though.
“That same Summer I had seen the Jimi Hendrix Experience in Lewiston, Maine where I grew up, at the City Armory. I used to go in there in the afternoons, I used to like to watch bands set up and that kind of thing. I went in there and it was me and the janitor and we watched Jimi Hendrix. They came and the gear was set up for them and he played for 20 minutes for me and the janitor. Basically for him (Hendrix), he played for himself. But you know we were like (mouth gaped open) this is incredible.”
“Jimi Hendrix was a step removed, you know I’d seen Buddy Guy and I’d seen Magic Sam. I’d seen Charlie Musslewhite and the Aces, that was Junior Wells’ band, with Fred Roulette on steel and Skip Rose on piano that was in Portland in 1969 too. So to see Magic Sam and Jimi Hendrix I was already slapped in the face with plenty of Blues excitement. And that was a good thing too, that you could really see some of the real innovators of the music at that time, if you’re my age.”
On fire from music and hunting down all the Blues he could, Mudcat also had a bit of a rebellious streak. “I went to a boarding school in New Hampshire for high school because I was gonna be dead probably by the time I got out of high school,” he confesses.
“My parents had an idea about that. It was my choice, but they offered to send me to boarding school, prep school, so I went to Phillips Exeter. At Exeter I noticed in the music building there was kind of a curtain and all these Fender amplifiers behind it. I was thinking ‘ah this might be a good place after all.’ When I finally showed up for school in 1969 I’d just had that Summer of incredible inspiration. I’m there with my Hohner electric piano under my arm and I’m lookin’ for other kids at the school that wanna play Blues.”
“So I met these guys that were playing Blues and I go to their rehearsal. The piano player was 100 times better than I was even back then. It was Ben Tench, ended up being Tom Petty’s piano player. So it was like this isn’t gonna work for me. He was like ‘no, no we need a bass player. So take that piano back to where you came from at Thanksgiving when you can go home. If you can go to a pawn shop and swap it for a bass you’ve got a gig.’ So that’s exactly what I did. It was his instructions and I followed ‘em and I’ve been playin’ the bass ever since. So thank you Ben, I guess he’s Benmont, but he was Ben back then.”
In the band with the future Heartbreaker, Mudcat began to get his first taste of being on the stage, being in a band and traveling to play, things he would chase down consistently for the rest of his career.
“Actually we had a gig that next weekend, as soon as I got back from break. We played all the events, like after a football game there’d be a mixer they would call it. So we rode on our amps in the back of the bus with the football players. We’d be high and they’d be thinkin’ to find some beers at the end of the night. It came kinda easy to me, I knew what to do playing the bass. I’m not sure I was attracted to the bass per se like some guys, ‘you know that’s the sound I want to make.’ But I saw it as a function of a band that I could be part of the music and maybe I’ll be a piano player later on. But, I found that I liked it and I actually got half good at it at some point, maybe not back then.”
After Exeter, Mudcat went to Hampshire College in Amherst, MA. The relatively new college “was still an apple orchard really.” Then a move to Cambridge, MA with his guitar playing brother Peter Ward, later known as Peter Hi Fi. It was in the mid 70’s when Hi Fi and Mudcat went to the Speakeasy, a fabled Blues joint in Cambridge, that they “fed cigarettes” to the blazingly good guitarist on the bandstand Ronnie Horvath, soon to be known internationally as Ronnie Earl. A lifelong friendship and musical partnership was born.
“I hooked up with Ronnie soon as I got out of college and started bands down here in the Boston area. We were kind of obsessed with Blues, couldn’t listen to Disco, couldn’t listen to anything else. Had to be Blues or nothin’. It took that kind of mental sharp focus, I think, to get where we got with the music. I mean we were crazy, we’d play all night for nothing if that was available to us, it was just not enough.”
“Back then you would call up clubs and get gigs that way. It was always hard to find a manager or agent who got you any work or got you any money. We (Mudcat, Ronnie and Hi Fi) moved into an apartment in Inman Square up the street here that John Nicholas had had. He moved down to Austin, TX, he joined Asleep at the Wheel at that time. So we moved into his place, it was a 4 apartment building on Wyatt Street that had been abandoned by the owner. So we were there rent free. I was always worried someone would light it on fire just to collect the insurance.”
Mudcat and Ronnie were running buddies, jumping from club to club, sitting in wherever they could. It was Ronnie’s unique style, and his take no prisoners Queens, NY attitude that propelled them forward.
“He was fearless. He would go right up to B.B. King or anybody and introduce himself. I always noticed they treated him like an equal even before hearing him. Then they would invite him up to sit in and they’d like the way he played. Afterwards they’d have a drink together. He was one of the extended Blues family and it always was, in my eyes, he was that. He was doing exactly what they were doing, just not for as long.”
“When I first started paying with him he was notably the Bluest guy out here. Some guys could play faster, some guys could play more styles of stuff. He couldn’t. He could basically only play Bluesy. He didn’t learn Rock first, he didn’t grow up with it. He didn’t play guitar his whole life, he started late in life. Blues was what he wanted to play, what he was interested in. We had these blinders on basically. He couldn’t even exactly manage to copy. He managed to develop a style, it worked in his favor. With the feeling and approach and the really single mindedness to play the deepest Blues he could. No one else was doing that. Ronnie could play like Hubert, he could play like B.B, he could play like Freddie King. But, it always had a little more Ronnie in there.”
“I owe him a lot. He made me feel like I could be a Blues player. There’s no reason you can’t be a Blues player. I used to feel like I’m a white guy from Lewiston Maine, really? I like playing Blues so much and I like playing bass, but does this really even work? He was like yah, you have as much standing to do it as Bobby Anderson, or any other bass player that you can find. There’s no difference between those guys in Chicago, Mississippi or Texas and you. That was a hurdle I needed to get over. He pulled me right over it.”
Ronnie and Mudcat needed a singer, neither had a strong voice. So out of Westerly, Rhode Island came the 3rd piece of the puzzle Raymond “Sugar Ray” Norcia. Then with the addition of Berklee College of Music maestro Anthony Geraci (“he was writing a concerto on his front porch when we convinced him to drop out of school and tour with us”) and drummer Neil Gouvin – Sugar Ray and the Bluestones were born. It was the unique talent of Sugar Ray, the big voiced, tasty harp blowing frontman who brought the group together. “Sugar was a great player right from the get go.” Mudcat qualifies “I wouldn’t say miles above everybody else but really nobody around here was playing like him.”
“You know how some guys are fully formed when they first come out? Jerry Lee Lewis is a good example. Did he ever sound like somethin’ else? Some guys you get it right from the start, or at least from when you first find out about them. Sugar Ray’s harmonica’s playing, Sugar Ray is like one of those guys. I’d say his singing too but his voice got deeper, more baritone as he got older. But his harmonica playing, he came right out from the first time you heard him, not a flashy guy but very Blue and direct, real direct. Not a lot of notes for the fun of it, everything said something.”
“Things kinda just progress and you don’t realize how they are at the time. When we put the band together Ronnie and me and Sugar and Neil Gouvin and then added Anthony Geraci on piano. We immediately called up places in DC and Virginia and got gigs, so we immediately started traveling. We had this steady thing in Rhode Island and then we had Sunday nights in Cambridge at the Speakeasy. The thing is just take as many gigs as possible. I mean we ended up taking gigs at Disco clubs where we didn’t belong. We played weddings, we played anything really.”
An unbridled searching talent like Ronnie Earl couldn’t stay in one place for too long. Pretty soon the line ups of the 2 main New England bands – The Bluetones and Roomful of Blues – would shift and set the groundwork for heights to come.
“When Duke (Robillard) left Roomful of Blues with John Rossi the drummer, Greg Piccolo (Roomful’s lead horn player) immediately scooped up Ronnie. That’s just inevitably gonna happen, a band with real bookin’ agents and 6 night a week gigs. And a weekly salary, I think it was only $250 a week or whatever, but it was guaranteed no matter how many gigs you had. They even had health insurance at one point, we were scrapin’ around at $40 a man a night on a good week you know.”
“But we kept moving. We had my brother Peter Hi Fi on guitar and Kaz (Kazanoff) on saxophone. Kaz decided to go to Texas and Peter was hired by Jerry Portnoy to play with Pinetop (Perkins) and Willie Big Eyes Smith, what was Legendary, Muddy’s old band. So we held auditions and we found Kid Bangham that way.”
Mudcat remembers “we didn’t really know Kid and he wasn’t really from around here. He was from Pennsylvania and he was living in Somerville.” The virtuoso guitarist was some kind of naïve savant. Mudcat recounts his less than impressive image in his audition for the Bluetones which is comical considering what an integral part of the Bluetones sound Kid Bangham became.
“He didn’t have a case for his guitar. We had an audition at the drummer’s house. I remember talking to him on the phone ‘do you have a car, can you get there?’ ‘No but I’ll get there though.’ I said do you know Magic Sam? No. Do you know Little Walter? No. Have you heard of B.B. King? Yeah. Well okay, do you know how to march? And he’s like yeah. It turns out he didn’t know what I was talkin’ about. He had a great march though, (humming and moving his shoulders in the looping 1-2 beat of classic Blues marching). He ended up calling Duke out of the blue and saying ‘hey Duke, what’s a march?’ And I think Duke just went (same humming and movements) just like that over the phone to him.”
“So he came to the rehearsal late and he still got the gig. We had a guy come from California, John Knox. He was pretty well versed. He was talkin’ to Anthony on the phone, and I’m sure Anthony had had a few drinks. Anthony goes ‘oh, yeah sure come on.’ He’s like ‘I’m coming from Sacramento.’ Oh yeah sure that’s not too far. So this guy shows up at the airport pretty much thinking, I think, he’s got the gig. He played fine. Then the Kid had his audition. He shows up late and he has his rusty strings. Okay let’s play a song ‘Same Old Blues.’ Do you know that? ‘No, but just play it, I’ll play it.’ And he plays great, just nails it. Kaz was still hanging with us he says ‘man if you don’t hire this kid, you’re out of your mind.’ We all heard it. Then we had the bad experience of telling John Knox, who may have given up his house or rent or girlfriend or who knows what his life was like, I was afraid to ask. To lose a gig to someone who clearly doesn’t have any band experience couldn’t have felt all that great.”
“Kid was great from the start. He was a little bit absent minded. He left his guitar in a hotel one night, didn’t remember he had done that until 40 miles out of town. So we drive back to get it and he still has his hotel room key. He opens the door but the guitar isn’t in there but the room has been cleaned and made up. So we go to the office and there was his guitar. He was lucky.”
After hard touring Sugar Ray and the Bluetones were ready to start making records. The first record on Rounder was recorded in Western Massachusetts at Longview Studio where they “ended staying 2 nights and having a long party.” The record is solid and introduced the band to B.B. King’s piano player and future producer Ron Levy. Levy became an key part of the early Bluetones sound. He helped move them to their 2nd record in which the band had to balance out some creative differences.
“On the second record we did, Don’t Stand in My Way, Anthony always wanted an expensive studio. Sugar and I didn’t care where we did it as long as there was a good performance. Some of our favorite records the audio quality isn’t that great, it’s the performance. But Anthony was one of those guys that really wanted to have a high sounding, high audio sound. So Ron Levy said ‘Rounder is working out a budget for your next record. Why don’t yah bring 4 songs and come over to (future co-founder of Vizz Tone) Richard Rosenblatt’s basement, he’s got a little studio set up in there.’ Anthony’s like (with a stern voice) ‘they got a grand piano in there?’ Well no. So Anthony’s already unhappy with it.”
“It was, you know, 8-track, it wasn’t the full state of the art. All we were supposed to do was go down there and see, could we imagine making a record down here. Rounder’s thinking we could do it on the cheap and it’s an intimate room. So we went in there and recorded 4 or 5, maybe 6 songs and expecting to be told at that point ‘okay what do you think?’ Anthony, we already know what he thinks (chuckling). And it wasn’t that at all. It was ‘okay, half your record’s done. Now let’s just pick a day to finish the other half.’ Anthony was not a happy camper.”
A masterpiece of 80’s Blues, Don’t Stand in My Way led to more records and more touring. The Bluetones’ sound got deeper and fuller. The line up changed, but Sugar, Mudcat and drummer Neil Gouvin remained. The record business was not always kind though. Mudcat still bristles at the many indignities, mostly suffered by his heroes, at the hands of music commerce.
“We did a tour with Big Walter Horton as his band. Also JB Hutto and his band and Left Hand Frank Craig from Chicago and his band – the 3 bands. Those shows were all great. They taped the one at the Knickerbocker in Westerly and ended up selling it to this guy John Stedman who ran a record label in England, JSP Records, who released the Big Walter set. Nobody paid us. I think we had a 2 week stint, just how it worked out, that was the last night of the tour and we didn’t get paid right for the night, Big Walter didn’t get paid right. And that’s the night they taped and made a record so we got screwed on the gig and didn’t get paid for the record. Big Walter never saw a dime from the record.”
“As a matter of fact on that tour I had also played bass with Left Hand Frank’s band, the opening act. And to my surprise I found a CD of that, so I bought it. I was down in Memphis for one of the Blues Music Awards shows and I saw Nick Moss and his wife Kate. She comes up to me and says ‘ oh I just wanted to say hello, I just want to tell you one thing, that record you did with Left Hand Frank is one of my favorite recordings of all time.’ and I had only heard of it, found out about it 60 days before she had said that to me. If I hadn’t gone into this used record shop, I’d have had no idea what she was talking about. I bet somebody owes me something for that one too.”
Mudcat is a fantastic songwriter. From the first Bluetones record on, he has contributed irreverent and heartfelt originals. “It’s completely different from what I do as a bass player.” He demurs, “I’ve written songs where I’ve forgot to have a bass part. Some of these things you play the bass to ‘em like you’re backing up somebody else’s song.”
The piano player in him still resides in his songwriting. It could also be his Yankee heritage, clever and analytical while also prone to tall tales and never allowing facts to get in the way of a good story, that helps Mudcat produce such memorable songs.
“I don’t know what song writing’s all about really. I’ve written a bunch of songs over the years for the Bluetones records and what have you. The newest Bluestones record with Little Charlie Baty I wrote ‘The Night I Got Pulled Over’ which is a recitation. Duke and Little Charlie swap 12-bar, kinda Jazz-y slow Blues verses in the background. Sugar does this recitation about gettin’ pulled over and asking the policeman what’s the deal. Is it because of a tail light? No. And just goes through a host of possibilities, all of which are not the reason. So it’s kind of a little story to it.”
“So I like to write songs of that nature, just a recitation so there’s no melody to it. But I also really like to write melodies and find lyrics to go with those. It works both ways for me. And sometimes I just pull a song out of the air, which I’ve heard other people can do. Or just sit down at a piano and within 10 minutes a song’s materialized, not necessarily the arrangement, but the gist of it. It just happens, I can’t really explain it, and I can’t really make it happen. Well I can craft a song if I have to, but to just have that kind of inspiration, which is a very weird but natural thing, that happens to me.”
In 2021, after more than 4 decades in music, Mudcat released his debut solo record. The self-titled album is a Folky acoustic homage to Ward’s life in music, his love of music and his lasting relationships. “Some of these songs I wrote a while back, the other’s were written just prior to recording or even during. It’s folk music, it’s not exactly Blues in the technical sense.”
Mudcat had started the record in 2020 and then the pandemic hit. Reconfiguring the music to be multi-tracked and recorded in isolation allowed him to play with the instrumentation and dismantle some of the traditional more rigid Blues forms he has so well mastered. “Someone asked me ‘why didn’t you play bass on every song?’ It’s not like there’s another bass player on here. I just didn’t think every song required bass.”
But there was also something lost in the fractured nature of the recording. In his thoughtful liner notes he laments that his dear friend Ronnie Earl couldn’t contribute due to the pandemic. For a musician who has spent the bulk of his career playing live whether it be on stage or in the studio, the isolated process was hard.
“It was all sent by tracks. Which is not how you want to do everything. You don’t always want bass and drums to be layered and done like the Rock records are made. You lose something. What you lose on a Rock record is not as much of an omission as on a Blues or a Folk or Traditional type of tune if you don’t have bass and drums working together. Even mistakes don’t hurt yah. There’s just a lack of the togetherness of it, it’s a compromise. I think it came out okay, but for some of these songs I’d have never imagined not being in the same room at the same time with the string bass and the drums.”
Chock full of talented artists such as Eric and Ulrika Bibb, Dennis Brennan, Sugar Ray and Monster Mike Welch, Michael Mudcat Ward the album is a testament to Mudcat’s artistry both as a bassist and as a songwriter. One track in particular stands out as being a departure for the Bluesman.
“‘Joe Lewis Blues’ I wanted to write a kind of historical song. Steve Earl does a lot of that. It’s in that singer songwriter tradition. Townes Van Zandt’s ‘Pancho and Lefty,’ you can kind of call that a genre. Historical fiction. Joe Lewis, I wanted all true facts about him so I did kind of a research project. Did everything I could to find out about him and found a song structure that I could get a lot of information out. Actually that song I didn’t think I could sing it, I tried to get everybody else to sing it including Eric Bibb, and they were all ‘no no that demo you have it shows that it’s your song.’ Well I thought Dennis Brennan, he could do it. Racky Thomas, he could do it. None of them would do it. But Dennis did say ‘I have to tell you one thing, that song’s too long.’ So I went back and wrote 3 or 4 more verses, made it a little longer.”
Mudcat is one of the great “string bass” players. He has his own style – big toned and “behind the beat.” He’s been playing the same acoustic bass that his wife picked out for him in the early 80’s. “I was on tour,” he reminisces, “and she had put a down payment, I think it was $10, on a bass in the window of the Music Emporium which used to be here in Boston. When I got home she brought me over and said ‘I got you that bass, but you have to pay for it.’ And I happily did (chuckles).”
Mudcat’s music is traditional. He plays a Chicago indebted, gritty New England style of Blues that he and his friends developed.
“Style is a very important part of traditional music, and that’s one of the great things about it too. Ronnie understood this years before other guys. Blues is a 12 bar, 12 measures, I – IV – V music. It’s what you do within the limitations of a basically shared thing, you know we’re all sharing the same format. And yet you make it your individual thing. That’s the game and if you can do that, you know, you’ll do pretty good. Is it finished, has enough of it been done, is it time to move on? I don’t know, I don’t know the answer to that. Just when you think everything’s been said, someone says something new. I would never bet against that.”
Michael Mudcat Ward is the epitome of a sideman. He has dedicated his life to creating the foundation for other musicians to excel and, in doing, has found his own voice and his own art. Mudcat looks to mentors such as drummers Fred Below, Ted Harvey or Willie “Big Eyes” Smith for inspiration. He looks to progenitors of the “string bass” in Blues such as Big Crawford, Ransom Knowling and the more well known Willie Dixon as models of how to support the music. He feels kinship with next generation bassists like Rodrigo Mantovani (from Nick Moss Band) or Andrew Gohman (from Doug Deming and the Jewel Tones) in whom he hears the same dedication and respect for the tradition that he has. Mudcat has given his all to mastering a style of Blues that is traditional but not simple. Blues that are deep and heartfelt. Blues that come directly out of his well framed bass notes and his well crafted songs. Mudcat is the sideman.
“Bass players and drums, and sometimes piano players, there is a sideman role in a lot of bands. Some bands are real bands, it’s the same guys all the time, like Springsteen’s E Street Band. And there’s a guy like Elvis, he’ll have a band behind him but it could change. It’s not a band, it’s not a unit, it’ll change over time. The sideman learns to play the sound of the guy they’re working for, so the sound doesn’t change unless that’s what they (the band leader) is looking for. I’m a band member when I play with Sugar Ray in the Bluetones, I’m a sideman when I play bass with somebody else. Some guys are fast learners and then some guys are like me. Then you have to go with instinct and do the best you can and most of the time it works out fine.”
You can keep up with Mudcat on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Mudcat-Ward/1390464755/
For an interesting history of The Speakeasy and its place in Boston Blues check out this article from The Blues Audience from 2007: http://thebluesaudience.com/cambridge-speakeasy
Writer 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.
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Featured Blues Review – 1 of 6
Eric’s Blues Band – Rolling Avenue
Eric’s Blues Band is from Sweden and are completing their twenty third year as a group. Led by Eric Hansson on vocals and guitar, the rest of the band is Jan Petersson on keys, Surjo Benigh on bass, and Kjell Gustavsson on drums and backing vocals. Guest artists include Jerry Portnoy on harp for two cuts, Alan Haynes on guitar for the opening track, Anders Lewen on guitar for the second track, Derek January and Kiralinas Salanday on backing vocals, and a horn section of Tomas Jonsson (sax), Martin Pålsson (trombone) and Per Grebacken (clarinet) who were arranged by Jan Bjerger (trumpet).
“Stay With Me” opens the album, a slower tempo blues rocker with nice guitar, organ and horns. The band is tight and the sound is great. More great guitar is featured on “Evil Games.” The horns play a big part here and the backline sets a solid groove. Guitar and piano solos are really nice and the vocals are good, too. “Drinking Man’s Blues” is next; we get some excellent harp added. It’s got a Bo Diddley beat really gets the dancing genes moving. Next is “Who Are You,” some Chicago blues with guitar, organ and rhythm section driving the cut. A good guitar and later organ solo and work by the horn section make this fun. They turn the tempo down for “Give Me An Hour,” a solemn and ethereal cut with guitar and organ giving us an almost church-like effect. The horns get added for effect, a pretty piece. Thinks get rocking with “Next Train South.” Portnoy rejoins the fray and is the response to Eric’s vocal calls. It’s got a jumping beat and again is one that will get the dancers up. The piano addition is nicely done.
“Girl” is another pretty straight up blues with a thumping beat and lots of cool horns. It’s a swinging and jumping song. Up next is “Is This The Prize I Have to Pay?” which is a slower and dirty blues with stinging guitar lead and solo and nice backing work by piano and horns. “Ball and Chain” is another straight up blues with a nice groove of heavy guitar and drums. “You Make Me Fly” concludes the album with guitar, piano and horns laying it out for all to hear. A nice, big pair of guitar solos here are well done, too.
Johansson’s lilting accent adds a continental flair to the mix. The band is outstanding and all the songs are originals. This is a nice album done up by professionals who are at the top of their game.
Blues Blast Magazine Senior writer Steve Jones is president of the Crossroads Blues Society and is a long standing blues lover. He is a retired Navy commander who served his entire career in nuclear submarines. In addition to working in his civilian career since 1996, he writes for and publishes the bi-monthly newsletter for Crossroads, chairs their music festival and works with their Blues In The Schools program. He resides in Byron, IL.
Featured Blues Review – 2 of 6
Dylan Triplett – Who Is This?
VizzTone Label Group VT-NNF01
10 songs – 42 minutes
Once in a very rare while, a singer’s voice will stop you dead in the tracks. That’s the case with Dylan Triplett, a 21-year-old St. Louis-area native with an explosive, four-and-one-half octave range who’s been performing since age nine but finally makes his debut on this CD – a labor of love that was four years in the making.
Triplett grew up in a musical family headed by his father, sax player Art Pollard. His earliest influences came through the Jackson 5, Luther Vandross, James Brown, Ray Charles and Oliver Sain. And he now incorporates a healthy mix of blues in his act after being tutored by veteran vocalist/percussionist Charles “Skeet” Rodgers and younger torchbearers Alonzo Townsend – the son of piano and guitar great Henry – and Marquise Knox.
Once billed as “Little Dylan,” Triplett started singing professionally at age 15, provided backup for another rising star, R&B vocalist Carolyn Mason, before moving on to front his own band, which includes his dad and brother. Prior to relocating recently to Nashville, his pipes hypnotized audiences at such major events at the Blues at the Arch, the Big Muddy Blues Festival, the National Blues Museum and showcases at B.B.’s Blues & Soup.
A mix of blues and soul with a little jazz to boot, this CD was produced by Taj Mahal/Phantom Blues Band bassist Larry Fulcher and co-produced by Dr. Wayne Goins, the director of jazz studies at Kansas State University and a guitarist who worked with Kenny Burrell, Jimmy McGriff, Clark Terry and other top talents. It was recorded at Blue Lotus Studios in St. Louis, Texas Southern University Recording Studio in Houston and Ultratone Studio in Studio City, Calif., where it was mixed by Fulcher’s longtime bandmate, guitarist Johnny Lee Schell.
All three of the principals above contribute their talents along with two giants who are no longer with us: organist Mike Finnigan and percussionist Montez Coleman. The all-star lineup also includes Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, Sean MacDonald, Mitch Montaldo, Paul Niehaus and Tru Burn on guitars, Ryan Marquez on keys, Kyle Turner, Pollard and Joe Sublett on saxes with Lenny Castro on percussion and Kudisan Kai and Maxayn Lewis on backing vocals.
The disc opens with “Barnyard Blues,” a Fulcher/Schell/Finnigan original that incorporates lyrics penned by 19th Century poet and novelist Paul Laurence Dunbar. A medium-paced shuffle, it soars from the jump aided by a Kingfish solo before Dylan explodes vocally as he describes a “country cousin who never went to no college/But he ain’t no fool/See…he dropped down with some knowledge,” noting: “He learned more in the barnyard than he ever learned in the street.”
Bill Withers’ “Who Is He (and What Is He to You?)” serves as the title track, shows that Triplett’s no copycat and hints at his range before the topical ballad “Brand New Day…Same Old Blues” – co-written by Fulcher and Annika Chambers-DesLauriers – recounts awakening in the morning, turning on the TV and seeing the same old blues. It features ever-increasing vocal dynamics as it progresses. “Dance of Love” powers out of the gate to brighten the mood. It’s the first of three consecutive tunes penned by either by Dylan or in concert with his bassist. Soul-blues at its best, it gives way to “Junkyard Dog,” which swings from the gate as it describes an irresistible girlfriend whose meanness increases as the sun goes down, and “I’ll Be There Waiting,” a slow blues that’ll have you grinding on the dance floor.
Covers of Jimmy McCracklin’s “She Felt too Good,” Marvin Gaye’s “That’s the Way Love Is,” Lonnie Brooks’ “Feels Good Doin’ Bad” and Miles Davis’ “All Blues” – all of which feature dynamic vocal interpretations and outstanding musicianship — bring the album to a close…and leave you begging for more.
Dylan Triplett has a voice for the ages, and this one ROCKS! Be the first kid on your block to turn others onto him. They’ll be glad you did!
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 – 3 of 6
Steve Bailey – Crazy ‘Bout You – A Tribute To Sonny Boy Williamson
a p m Records
11 songs time – 49:37
Holding true to the time worn saying “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”, Brit Steve Bailey and his band cover eleven of the legendary Sonny Boy Williamson’s songs. Ok, they aren’t really imitating anything here, rather paying tribute via presenting these songs in their own style. For the uninitiated Sonny Boy II represented here is actually Rice Miller or Alec Miller. He took the name of the original Sonny Boy to gain recognition. The original John Lee Williamson is renown for such classic blues songs as “Good Morning Little School Girl” and “Bluebird”. Sonny Boy II actually went on to become the more famous and remembered Sonny Boy partly because Sonny Boy I passed away at a rather early age. Among his repertoire Sonny Boy II left us with such iconic blues songs as “Help Me”, “Nine Below Zero” and “Fattening Frogs For Snakes”. His reputation as a heavy drinker, womanizer and all-around rascal are remembered about as equally as his harmonica skills and singing. Steve Bailey and band take some songs at a livelier pace than the original versions. Sonny Boy’s gruff vocal delivery and menace in his voice is missed, but the songs stand on their own as reimagined by Bailey and cohorts.
Bailey handles all the vocals and harmonica playing. Mississippi MacDonald is featured on lead electric guitar. Texas Joe Brown plays the drums. Phil Dearing plays guitar, piano and bass as well as producing the session. Steve is versatile in his harmonica playing. He knows what he is doing and does it well. Unlike some players, he doesn’t just play enough to show a little blues cred. This guy is up there with the best. That is not to slight his smooth vocal delivery. Some of Sonny Boy’s better-known songs are covered here. The avid Sonny Boy fan knows “Too Young To Die”, “Nine Below Zero”, and “Fattening Frogs For Snakes”. Even the lesser-known tunes are given the first-rate musical treatment.
Many of the songs are stretched out allowing for extended harp solos. “Mighty Long Time” features a pronounced country music loping beat. This recording isn’t just for Sonny Boy followers, it stands on its’ own as a satisfying blues experience. From the harmonica, singing, guitar and piano, everything gels here into something based on authenticity. Bands like this breath life into the blues.
Reviewer Greg “Bluesdog” Szalony hails from the New Jersey Delta.
Featured Blues Review – 4 of 6
Committee Of Vultures – Everybody Wants The Blues
Jersey Delta Records – 2022
12 tracks; 58 minutes
Committee Of Vultures is a loose ensemble of experienced musicians based in New Jersey. The members’ careers include stints with Bob Dylan, The Blues Brothers Band, Lenny Kravitz, Rick Derringer, Donald Fagen and Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes. The album contains twelve songs written by Robert VanKull who sings on some songs (and plays guitar and harmonica) and the album was produced by Benny Harrison and Bob Zaleski. A large number of musicians are involved: Benny Harrison is on keyboards and guitar, Kevin Hadley, PK Layvengood, Robert Mills and Steve DeAcutis are on guitar, bass duties are shared between Jack Daley, Glen Burtnik, Brandon Morrison, Tony Servedio, Charlie Torres, Gerry Babo and Kenny Aaronson, drums between Dave Halpern, Ray Grappone, Lee Falco, Andy Kenopensky and Joe Bellia; pedal steel comes from Jimmy Ryan, horns from Al Chez, Darrell Hendricks and Baron Raymonde, accordion from Kraig Greff, fiddle from Tim Carbone and harp from Rob Paparozzi. Vocals are spread around with Rob Paparozzi, Ken Darcy and Robert Mills on one song each, writer Robert handling seven and Ada Dyer contributing to four; backing vocalists include Lisa Lowell, Sheryl Marshall, Patti Maloney, Leslie Wagner and George Unverzagt. The music covers a lot of ground with soul, country, rock and Americana all competing with the blues for space at the table.
“Lightning Struck The Crossroads” is a strong opener, fine gospel-influenced vocals by Ada Dyer on a strange tale of a storm in Nevada, the lyrics full of fairground characters and twin guitars exchanging strong riffs and delicate arpeggios. Robert’s gruffer tones explain why “Everybody Wants The Blues”, starting with biblical references to Moses, John and Paul (the Saints rather than the Beatles, one assumes), the blues quotient raised by harp and slide guitar, and we continue with the blues on “Jenerosty”, a cautionary tale of tough streets and low lives, a song delivered by Rob Paparozzi who also plays harp. “Criminal Minds” combines rock guitar, slide and accordion on a pounding tune on which Robert sings about a wild character, not a song for the faint-hearted with some lyrics that would not pass the test for radio! Ada is back on vocals for another tale of seedy night life as the central character is “Dressed To Get Naked”, very likely if the barman keeps serving all those drinks she mentions! This one is enhanced by horns and Ada again does a sterling job. Robert takes us out West on “Across The Thorny Country”, campfire harmonica and jangly guitars suiting the themes of the song which is perhaps the furthest away from the blues on the album.
The album is divided into two sides and “Crossroads Dancing” opens side two, Robert Mills handling the vocals and the combination of pedal steel, fiddle, accordion and bass harmonica suit the lyrics which seem to be inspired by Scottish folk themes. The horns make a second appearance on “Terrible Driver”, Robert bemoaning the skills of his girl behind the wheel and confessing to the cop that “I was only ridin’ shotgun, the lady is my girlfriend and I’m a happily married man – she’s a terrible driver, but I’m the one who pays her fine, sir”! “Our Lady Of Angles” features Ken Darcy’s higher pitched vocals and pedal steel, giving the tune a definite country feel. Robert is joined by Ada on soulful harmony vocals on “Book Of Kings”, another song with plenty of biblical references, albeit linked to modern America in lines like the closing “I’d trade Manhattan for a bag of rings to see my name in the Book Of Kings”. Acordion, banjo and mandolin are all on on “Vainglory” as Robert tells the tale of one Savage Henry, once the boss of the town, the tune also including a fine electric guitar solo. The final cut “Expert On Grease” makes lyrical play around Greece, grease and grief as Ada sings the choruses featuring the female character, Robert the male character. The song has a stately musical feel and recounts a doomed romance and was, for this reviewer, the outstanding song on the album, albeit not at all a blues tune.
One final comment is that many of Robert’s songs have extended lyrics and the imagery therein is impressive, ranging from tales of urban back streets to widescale vistas of open country, some including a welcome touch of humour, many focussing on darker themes. Much of this album falls outside the blues but those with wider tastes should find something to appreciate here.
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 – 5 of 6
StratCat Willie & the Strays – On a Hot Tin Roof!
CD: 12 Songs, 39 Minutes
Styles: Ensemble Blues, Contemporary Electric Blues Rock, All Original Songs
Smooth. The word describes coffee, suave speech, silk. Carlos Santana turned it into the most famous title of one of his most famous songs. Can it describe the blues as well? More often than not, it’s been characterized as raw, rough, unrefined, made for barrooms and poolrooms instead of drawing rooms. I would say six or seven out of ten artists’ work fits the bill. However, New York’s StratCat Willie and the Strays thread the needle with aplomb on their new offering, cheekily titled On a Hot Tin Roof! Its twelve original selections would be equally welcome at your local tavern or nightclub. They’re so short that if you blink, you’ll miss them, but they add up to thirty-nine minutes of some of the most appealing music I’ve heard this year – overall.
In the liner notes, Willie Hayes explains the origins of the CD’s opener, a big-band blast called “Have a Blues Party.” “When I wrote [it] back in the summer of 2021, I sorta figured, even hoped, that by the time it was released, it would no longer be relevant! And yet things continued to drag on. But it looks like now we may finally be on the other side of all this. So I invite you to join me for a long-awaited party! Let’s ‘drive on through the rain’ and explore the many moods of the blues. From the tears of a love gone bad, to the playfulness of tunes in the styles of Louis Jordan and T-Bone Walker. And the Blues will get us all through it, together, in the end.” Truer words were never spoken than these last, yet every genre guru repeats them.
Who’s reveling along with StratCat (guitars and vox)? Neal Massa on keyboards, John Wisor and Vinnie Burvee on bass, Dave Fiorini and Dave Salce on drums, Mabel Welch and Sing Trece on vocals, Rich Graiko on trumpet, Josh Cohen on sax, and Jeremy Hummel on percussion.
Almost never have I heard such a seamless quality to a CD, the way one track flows into another with nary a hiccup, sustaining the momentum that the first number builds all the way to the end. This goes for the instrumentation as well. As with all ensemble bands, there’s a lot to unpack, from sax to bass to trumpet to keyboards to lead and background vocals. If they’re not only mixed well afterward, but balanced skillfully during the studio takes, it just sounds like chaos. Noise. In this case, that’s not the case, and I’m grateful. StratCat and the Strays know exactly what they’re doing. From the high-voltage funk of the title tune to the tongue-in-cheek humor of “Redneck Woman” to the tenderness of “My One True Love,” each separate song is as connected to the others – almost interconnected – as beads in a rosary or links in a chain. You won’t find that intangible aspect on many blues albums, so I’m thrilled I found it here.
StratCat Willie and the Strays offer up smooth blues while they’re On A Hot Tin Roof!
Reviewer Rainey Wetnight is a 43 year old female Blues fan. A child of 1980s music, she was strongly influenced by her father’s blues music collection.
Featured Blues Review – 6 of 6
Stacy Jones – World On Fire
Seattle based Stacy Jones and her band have lit up the Washington blues scene for the past few years, garnering many an award and accolade since 2015. Her recording career began in 2003and she and her band have released some great albums over the years. She’s performed at the Chicago Blues Festival and has received many awards from the Washington Blues Society in a state where the blues scene is quite large.
Stacy Jones sings, plays harp, organ, piano and acoustic guitar on this album. Jeff Menteer plays electric guitar and backs Stacy on vocals. Stacy’s husband Tom plays bass and helps lead one track vocally. Rick Bowen in on drums and percussion. The horns are Mike Gunther on trumpet and Gene Laukkonen on tenor and baritone saxophones.
The album begins with some greasy harp and slide and Stacy getting right into the mix. “Jefferson Way” is a great cut and Jones sings with emotion and lots of guts. The harp work is super and the groove the band lays down is outstanding. Did I mention slide guitar? Also well done. The standard “Juke” follows with some pretty harp work. A great instrumental piece, delivered tastefully. The original “Love Me Just The Way I Am” gives Jones the vehicle to show off her sultry and seductive side. A jazzy, lounge feeling is set up, but it’s certainly bluesy as the harp punctuation is a cool addition. Next is the title track, a slower torch song of sorts, another well done cut. A tasteful guitar solo adds to the performance and the song builds to a fiery conclusion. Next is “Everything is Going To Be Alright,” with the horns playing a bigger role. Another well done guitar solo is added here, too. Willie Dixon’s “Insane Asylum” follows with her husband Tom starting the lead vocals and then Stacy comes in with a forth right entry into the song. The duo and harp continue and it’s a great number. “George Stinney” is another original, a story telling about an unjustly arrested young black teen who was executed in South Carolina. The case was reexamined and the charges vacated in 2004, seventy years after his execution. Jones howls about the injustice. Stinney was only allowed to see his parents once between his arrest and eventual execution about three months later.
“Oxen Heart” is up next, a Celtic sort of ballad that Jones delivers with passion and feeling. A guitar solo is offered up here that adds to the feeling. Next is the acoustic original “Sunday Morning.” a nice, down home track with acoustic and slide guitars. “Midnight in Harlem” follows, a song we all know from Susan Tedeschi originally done by her and her husband’s band. This is a super rendition filled with feeling. The organ is sublime and the slide is equally beautifully done. Next is “Shine;” it and the next cut, “ We Are All Going to Make it Through” were written by Menteer with lyrics by Bowen and Tom Jones respectively. The former is a pretty, lighter number while the latter is bouncing and swinging. Both are enjoyable. Aretha’s “Think” is next and Jones does a nice job singing and playing harp with this big and soulful song. The horns and guitar add nicely to the fray. The album concludes with the stark and bare “With Music on My Side” with Stacy singing and playing harp and acoustic guitar. It’s a dong of surviving because of what the title says. Well done!
Exceptional vocals, great harp work and a super band make this an album you will listen to over and over again. I enjoyed the album and I am sure blues fans who listen to it will, too. I recommend this one!
Blues Blast Magazine Senior writer Steve Jones is president of the Crossroads Blues Society and is a long standing blues lover. He is a retired Navy commander who served his entire career in nuclear submarines. In addition to working in his civilian career since 1996, he writes for and publishes the bi-monthly newsletter for Crossroads, chairs their music festival and works with their Blues In The Schools program. He resides in Byron, IL.
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