Cover photo © 2022 Roman Sobus
In This Issue
Steven Ovadia has our feature interview with Donna Herula. We have
Featured Interview – Donna Herula
When you think of blues artists, you tend to think of heartbreak. You probably don’t think of marriage counseling. And yet singer/guitarist Donna Herula, known for her acoustic blues, is also a marriage counselor.
“Even as a young child, I think I’ve had a deep sense of empathy for people,” she says, explaining the bridge between the blues and marriage counseling. “I really feel the blues is all about emotion. I think I’m just in a good position to be able to write songs because I see things in a different way than I think a lot of people [do], having that background in mental health. Just having some empathy for people and understanding how hard it is, at times in life, with your relationships, things that happen in your life. There could be loss or trauma that happened to you and how difficult that is. That’s what made counseling intriguing for me and that’s what makes the blues so intriguing for me, is this tapping into that deep well.”
That deep well has worked out well for Herula. She’s a regular performer at Buddy Guy’s Legends club in Chicago. She entered the Chicago Blues Hall of Fame in 2016. And her excellent album, Bang at the Door, was nominated for Best Acoustic Album in the 2021 Blues Blast Music Awards.
Herula’s blues journey began as a child in Chicago. Her arrival was a bit of a surprise to her parents, meaning a big age difference between her and her siblings. She started off learning piano but having an older brother who was playing saxophone around Chicago bars made her want to switch to guitar at age 10. She wound up with an electric guitar at 13, and two years later she was performing her first blues song, “Midterm Blues,” with her high school jazz band. Sadly, there is no known recording of the track.
Herula’s path from electric blues to acoustic is surprising, discovering acoustic blues via Eric Sardinas, perhaps best known for his electric slide work, but with experience in country blues. “[Sardinas] just caught me,” Herula says. “I was not expecting to hear this slide guitar style that was so captivating for me. And it was through his slide guitar playing, when I looked on his website, and it showed that his influences were all these country blues, Mississippi blues, slide players. Many, many kinds. Chicago blues slide players. I started looking them up. And that’s when I found out about Son House. And once I heard Son House’s “Death Letter Blues,” that was it for me. And I knew. I just fell in love with Delta blues, country blues, and that kind of more Mississippi sound, which really was the basis of the Chicago blues sound.”
Herula says she loves the way the blues delivers unadorned feelings. “I’m hooked into the raw emotion of it,” she says. “And the words. When I heard “Death Letter Blues,” it just hit a chord in me. It rang true to me. I don’t know how to describe it, but Son House, his voice, what he’s singing about, the words of the song, and the way he plays his resonator guitar. It kind of all works together. And in my head, I’m like, ‘That’s what I aspire to be like.’ Because I want it to be like Son House, as much as I can. I mean, he’s Son House. And he’s a great blues legend, but as much as I could be like him in the songwriting, with “Death Letter Blues,” which I think is one of the greatest blues songs ever. His voice and the way he plays the resonator guitar. It’s kind of an aggressive style. And that’s why [he’s] one of the people that I model my style after. Son House, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters. All of the greats.”
The Sardinas connection helped Herula discover those greats, but he’s also responsible for another, more direct musical introduction. Her research into Sardinas’ back catalog led Herula to 2001’s Devil’s Train, an album Sardinas made with bluesman David “Honeyboy” Edwards. That led to Herula going to meet with Edwards, who lived in Chicago and was a friend of a classmate from the Old Town School of Folk Music, where Herula now teaches.
“So one day after class, [my friend is] like, ‘Hey, you want to go to Honey’s house?'” Herula says. “I’m like, ‘Sure!’ So she and I, and her friend Don, the three of us drove out to Honeyboy’s house and brought him some whiskey and chocolate and we played together. He actually played my guitar and just chatted about the blues and things like that. And so we went there several times.”
Herula says Edwards had a lot of people passing through his home, but she and her friend probably had an advantage. “I’m sure he liked to have a couple of young girls in his house as well, [to] liven things up,” she says laughing.
Sardinas also gave Herula an appreciation for musical variety. “I’m really taken in by somebody who can be a solo, acoustic, blues slide guitar player, who can do it solo as well as with the band” she says. “Bobby Rush can do that as an artist. Buddy Guy can do the same thing. He can do a solo song and then he can do the whole band, actually work with the whole band. So that’s what I was really inspired by: being able to do both. And that’s what I like doing now too. I play as a solo player, I play as a duo player, but I also have a full band.”
Perhaps unsurprising given Herula’s vocation, her duo features her husband, Tony Nardiello. But with the release of Bang at the Door, she’s touring with a bigger band including Marc Edelstein on upright bass, Tony Wittrock on guitar, mandolin, banjo guitar, and Kenny Smith on drums, giving her a larger on-stage sonic palette.
Herula’s appreciation for variety extends to songwriting. She also cites Lyle Lovett as an example of an artist who can craft different sounds without losing his identity. “[Lovett] does songs where he’s an individual solo guitar player, and then others where it’s a big band,” she says. “And I guess I just get these ideas in my head, where certain songs are just solo songs, and certain songs, I can hear a whole band.”
Lucinda Williams is another influence, with Herula covering her “Jackson” on Bang at the Door. “Lucinda Williams is one of my songwriting inspirations” she says. “When you think of blues, I guess I’m thinking of a broader perspective, like more of roots music or maybe Americana. I only had three covers [on the album]: Bukka White, Blind Willie Johnson, who is really a great slide player as well, and Lucinda Williams. She’s a great songwriter, kind of a country blues type.”
Herula also liked the Williams song because it allowed her to use a different slide guitar style. “It’s a softer, kind of more of a bad, beautiful slide guitar playing,” she says. “So I think for contrast reasons, as well as I love the song, and my husband sings it very well, and we do a really good job when we play the song out at festivals. So I thought that was a great song that we played, and I just wanted to kind of tip my hat to the importance of songwriting, and what Lucinda Williams does with her songwriting.”
Herula’s slide work is impressive, a tool she’s spent time developing, but her singing voice is also well-developed, and something she’s also worked hard to strengthen. “I used to consider myself more guitar player that sang and now I really consider myself a singer who also plays guitar,” she says. “Back in like 2014 or so, I attended this acoustic blues camp out in Oregon. And there happened to be Maria Muldaur, who is a great kind of folk singer, blues singer, who had a master class when I was out there. I took her class, and she had this CD that she created, that has vocal exercises on it. And so I was very intrigued by this and bought one of her CDs, and she really helped me out a lot. I went home and I was inspired to really dig in and really focus on improving my voice.”
Herula also took vocal inspiration from another slide guitar player: Bonnie Raitt. “Originally, I listened to her songs because of her exceptional slide guitar playing skills, but then I realized what a terrific blues vocalist she is,” Herula says. “So I began singing along with her songs to try and imitate her smooth and dynamic vocal style. Her voice is both powerful and beautiful; she is a wonderful role model.”
Herula also takes a lot of inspiration from teaching. She’s taught at the Old Town School of Folk Music for six years, teaching courses like introductory acoustic slide guitar and intermediate finger style. Just this year, she started teaching electric slide, too. “I absolutely love [teaching],” she says. “Some people just want to play for their families. Some people want to just play at an open mic. Some people want to incorporate slide guitar into their act, maybe they’re already performers. So I’ve taught people from all different levels, and it just makes me happy to see them improve and meet the goals that they have.”
Teaching and marriage counseling exist along the same continuum for Herula. “I get joy out of helping people grow and learn and improve,” she says. “So I guess it just goes along with my wish to make the world a better place. Like helping people with their own mental health, and then helping people learn how to play an instrument.”
Teaching and counseling are feminized professions featuring high percentages of women. The blues, while opening up more and more each year, is still a predominantly male field. When asked about this, Herula brings up a Bang at the Door review that said the album came from a woman’s point-of-view. “I think [the reviewer is] absolutely right, because I wanted to write songs from a woman’s perspective for this album, because I think so many times the woman’s view is really not included,” Herula says. “And it’s for no bad reason. A lot of the guys are the ones that have been writing songs for ages, like blues songs, folk songs, country songs. For example, so many blues songs and country songs and folk songs talk about getting in trouble and going to jail or prison. Many songs are about`that, but I wrote a song called “Promise Me” that’s about the spouse, or the partner, or the father, or brother, that goes to prison, and what it’s like for the woman at home, feeling sad, and worried about the person that they care about.”
“The perspective I took when I wrote the album is [I] really wanted to include the woman’s voice in in the blues,” she continues. “And I wanted to offer a range of emotions. I wanted to offer joy, sorrow, strength, excitement, hope, into all the songs. So a real range. Some of my favorite blues artists, like Robert Nighthawk, he has songs that range from humor to sadness to joy and I wanted to make sure that the songs were about a range. It wasn’t just about one same old thing. I wanted to take people on a journey and experience different styles, different emotions, as they went through this journey on Bang at the Door.”
While there’s something initially counterintuitive about a blues artist who saves marriages rather than wrecking them, it makes sense for Herula, whose music isn’t about roughly exposing emotion so much as it’s about gradually revealing it in a safe thoughtful way. She’s tapped into the rawness of the blues, but her light, personal polish gives it a different sheen, one rooted in healing, that still honors the original greats that set her on her blues journey.
Check out Donna’s website at https://donnaherula.com/
Writer Steven Ovadia interviews blues artists about their songwriting process for Working Mojo.
Featured Blues Review – 1 of 10
Sugaray Rayford – In Too Deep
Forty Below Records – 2022
10 tracks; 38 minutes
Sugaray Rayford’s new album In Too Deep, is coming in early March. His previous album, Somebody Save Me was nominated for a Grammy and for the Blues Blast Award for Soul-Blues Album Of The Year.
Again working with Forty Below owner Eric Corne, Sugaray puts in a string of splendid vocal performances, well supported by a strong band of musicians. Sugaray manages to make the songs sound intensely personal although he co-wrote two of them, alongside producer Eric who is credited on all the songs. Musicians include the great Rick Holmstrom on guitar on six tracks, Eamon Ryland replacing him on three, Eric Corne on one. Keys are shared between Sasha Smith and Drake Munkihaid Shining, the rhythm section is Matt Tecu on drums and Taras Prodaniuk on bass; Monette Marino Keita adds percussion to one cut. Horns are provided on most tracks by Aaron Liddard (sax, flute), Simon Finch (trumpet, flugelhorn) and Tom White (trombone), strings by Eric Gorfain (violins) and Richard Dodd (cello). Background vocals come from producer Eric and Gia Ciambotti.
Sugaray is a veteran himself and opener “Invisible Soldier” discusses the issues faced by veterans with PTSD to a soundtrack of pulsing rhythms, blaring horns and backing vocals, over which Sugaray sings the song brilliantly. The title track “In Too Deep” finds the singer’s character facing financial uncertainties: “Never been devout, but I’m on my knees, I never had my hand out, earned my keep, I keep trying to climb out, can’t find my way out, got to pull myself out, I’m in too deep.” The pace drops for a deep soul ballad “No Limit To My Love” on which the backing vocals and keyboards provide a subtle backdrop to Sugaray’s pleading, partially answered by guitarist Eamon’s wah-wah work.
The horns return for the moody “Under The Crescent Moon” which takes us down to New Orleans, the flute adding to the lightness of touch provided by the keyboards. Sugaray raises social inequalities and that awful modern phenomenon, deliberate misinformation, on “Miss Information”, the upbeat tune enhanced by hand percussion and a strong horn arrangement. Sugaray sounds inspired on the acapella “Please Take My Hand” by the sparse gospel backing vocals, handclaps and occasional percussion, a song that discusses social issues such as voting rights.
“One” is a plea for peace and a sensible approach to vital issues such as protecting the environment, before it really is too late. Sugaray urges us to be positive on a bright and positive “Gonna Lift You Up”, complete with wild sax solo, before the gorgeous ballad “Golden Lady Of The Canyon”. Although the song is not one to which Sugaray contributed it just has to be about his wife Pam: “Always there with a perfect plan, my biggest critic but my biggest fan, baby, you make me a better man than I am, or I could ever hope to be”. Shimmering guitar (Rick Holmstrom), lilting organ solo (Sasha Smith), this track has the lot – simply superb.
“United We Stand” closes the album with a final blast of the horns over a bubbling bass line as Sugaray preaches and implores everyone up on to the dance floor, just like in his live shows, in which this song is bound to feature in the future.
Sugaray Rayford is a force of nature singer who is equal parts showman, preacher and serious thinker and this album delivers all those aspects of his talent. Watch out for this one in those end of the year “best of” lists!
Reviewer John Mitchell is a blues enthusiast based in the UK who enjoys a wide variety of blues and roots music, especially anything in the ‘soul/blues’ category. Favorites include contemporary artists such as Curtis Salgado, Tad Robinson, Albert Castiglia and Doug Deming and classic artists including Bobby Bland, Howling Wolf and the three ‘Kings’. He gets over to the States as often as he can to see live blues.
Featured Blues Review – 2 of 10
Various Artists – Mark Hummel Proudly Presents East Bay Blues Vaults 1976-1988
Electro-Fi Records – 2021
22 tracks; 1:17:57
Harmonica player and singer Mark Hummel documents the East Bay blues scene via Mark Hummel Proudly Presents East Bay Blues Vaults 1976-1988, a compilation of rare performances and 45s that provides a fun blues-tinted window across time and space.
Hummel came to Berkeley in 1974, right after graduating high school. He was hitchhiking cross-country and stopped when he found a blues environment that he liked. The legendary Bob Corritore, another harmonica player, heard tale of Hummel’s stash of recordings and suggested he release them for everyone to hear. Hummel doesn’t appear on every track, but he’s on many, giving you an appreciation for his personal harmonica style, which isn’t flashy, but which propels all of the songs. The collection also serves as an introduction to lesser-known blues artists from the Berkeley scene.
For instance, “Look Out for Sonny Rhodes,” showcases the titular singer’s strong voice, which practically distorts on its own. The track, recorded in 1977, sounds even older, his band, sans Hummel, laying down an easy blues groove that leaves plenty of respectful space for Rhodes vocals and guitar. Rhodes appears again on “It Won’t Rain in California,” a wonderful—and unknown—horn section giving the tune an uptown lilt, while still keeping things down home.
Mississippi Johnny Waters is another revelation. Born Johnny Sandifer, he changed his surname to honor a certain blues artist. Waters and Hummel formed a band called the Blues Survivors, which played out four or five days a week for half a decade. Waters voice bares a sonic resemblance to his Muddy namesake, as does the band’s sound, which is old school Chicago blues. Hummel’s harmonica shines on “I Can’t Hang,” purring through the song, but also hitting some high notes for contrast.
The Ron Thompson Trio is also a fun discovery. “I’m Shakin'” has a jolly rhythm-and-blues bounce with a hint of 1980s funk, foreshadowing from a track recorded in 1978. Paris Slim’s “Stranded” is a leisurely uptown blues with Nancy Wright providing backing sax that sounds like an entire horn section.
These are solid songs from interesting artists. And not just that, but artists who aren’t household names. But the real fun of this collection is flipping between the tracks and notes, learning who is (and was) who. Hummel provides lovely liner notes which are part East Bay blues history and part personal essay. In fact, they’re so good, I’d strongly encourage anyone interested in the album to make sure they get a physical copy. If you missed out on this scene, or want to relive it, Hummel has you covered.
Reviewer Steven Ovadia interviews blues artists about their songwriting process for Working Mojo.
Featured Blues Review – 3 of 10
Various artists – Landslide Records, 40th Anniversary
Landslide Records – 2021
33 tracks; 2:15:02
If you were wondering what to get the Atlanta-based Landslide Records for its birthday, you might want to think about something ruby since the label is celebrating 40 years of diverse releases with the appropriately-named Landslide Records, 40th Anniversary, a two-CD set jam packed with a variety of styles.
If you’re not familiar with Landslide’s roster of artists, although there are some big names here, or are looking for a good introduction to the a vibrant, Southern-influenced scene, this collection is a great place to start. There’s plenty of blues for blues lovers, but also some other types of music.
In terms of blues, you can’t go wrong with Tinsley Ellis, who has two tracks here. “Drivin’ Woman” features a powerful horn section and “Walkin’ Thru the Park” is old-school Chicago blues featuring Chicago Bob Nelson on harmonica. Piano Red also pops in with “Rockin’ with Red,” from his Lost Atlanta Tapes album, which he recorded during a live show in the 1980s, but didn’t release until 2010.
And that’s the joy of compilations like this. They send you scurrying back to research the artists and albums. In a different time, this collection probably would have come with a thick booklet, but in today’s times, when releasing any music is a high-risk business venture, you’re directed to a link for the full credits. And unfortunately that link doesn’t work, although the one in the press release does.
There are also some fun tracks that are less bluesy. The Derek Trucks Band checks in with “Mr. PC,” a track that’s more jazz-oriented, but which features blues soulfulness in Trucks’ playing. Widespread Panic shows up with “Travelin’ Light,” an example of their country/rock/jam/Grateful Dead-influenced fusion.
Interestingly, Col. Bruce Hampton gets only two tracks, which feels like a bit of a disservice, given Hampton encouraged Michael Rothschild to found the label back in 1981. Hampton’s music is hard to describe, in the way that Captain Beefheart, perhaps a member of the same branch of service, touches on so many styles, but his “King Greed” and “Walking with Zambi (Try Hoodah),” both recorded with The Late Bronze Age, are odd and smile-inducing.
The variety of styles is the strength of this collection. There’s plenty of straight-forward accessible music, like Sean Costello’s “Motor Head Baby,” a 2009 tune tune that sounds like Costello recorded it in the 1960s, but there are also tracks like Curlew’s “Panther Burn,” which includes George Cartwright on saxophone and Bill Laswell on bass, creating some pretty out-there jazz. Taken all together, Landslide Records, 40th Anniversary feels like you’re listening to a really solid college radio station on a long drive with good reception.
The quality of the music is a given here. Even if you don’t appreciate the various genres in the mix, you can’t argue with how good the musicianship is. However, I wish the packaging had been a bit stronger. Better liner notes and a more organized track list, perhaps chronological, would have made this amazing collection of music feel a bit more cohesive. But if you’re a fan of any or some of the artists here, it’s a compilation worth checking out.
Reviewer Steven Ovadia interviews blues artists about their songwriting process for Working Mojo.
Featured Blues Review – 4 of 10
Dave Specter – Six String Soul – Thirty Years on Delmark
28 tracks on 2 disks (14 on each
Thirty years in the making , this is a retrospective of the career of Dave Specter on Delmark Records. Dave appeared on the Chicago blues scene in 1985. He has appeared across the US and in at least 19 other countries over his career. This compilation begins with music from the Blue Bird Blues album in 1991 and goes to the single “The Ballad of George Floyd” from 2020. In between, we have a wonderful group of songs from the storied career of a fantastic guitar player whose talents rank up there with those on the Mount Rushmore of blues guitar prowess. Few can create the tone and sound on their six stringed instruments that Dave can. He is one of my favorite guitar players and deserves to be recognized for the great contribution of music he has created and added to the genre.
Specter started his own band in 1989. Before that he cut his teeth with many a great bluesman including Son Seals, Steve Freund, Hubert Sumlin, Sam Lay and The Legendary Blues Band. He has also performed and recorded with pretty much anyone who matters in Chicago blues over the last 30 years. The list is a veritable Who’s Who of the blues world. He’s played for the Mayor of Chicago, the Governor of Illinois and for the President of the United States. Few can match that accomplishment.
His guitar graces over 50 albums, including 12 of his own on Delmark Records. A 2018 inductee into the Chicago Blues Hall of Fame, Dave is also part owner of the fantastic music venue SPACE in Evanston and hosts the podcast Blues from The Inside Out.
His 1991 album Blue Bird Blues also features Barkin’ Bill Smith on vocals and includes Ronnie Earl helping out on guitar. The first three tracks on the album come from that album and feature many greats including Ken Saydak and Bob Stroger; Specter’s guitar is sublime as we get to hear him featured for the first time on his own album.
In 1992, Fortune Tellin’ Man with Jesse Fortune and featuring Dave Specter and the Bluebirds got released. We get to listen to two tracks from that album with Fortune fronting the band as Dave provides superb guitar work. Then Blueplicity from 1994 features Dave and the Bluebirds again and we get to hear the first recorded collaboration with the wonderful Tad Robinson on harp and vocals. One cut (“Ridin’ High”) is featured here.
1995 gave us Live In Europe with the same lineup as the last album. Two tracks are included in this set and once again the listener is treated to one of my favorite collaborative duos in the blues world: Dave Specter and Tad Robinson. The album Wild Cards was also released in 1995 with Al Miller, Dave, Willie Kent and Tad. His long time and current partner on bass Harlan Terson is on this album and is featured on the second track of the two included from that album.
The next year saw the release of Left Turn on Blue, featuring Lynwood Slim and Jack McDuff with Specter. The great Barrelhouse Chuck appears on the first of the two cuts here, too. The album West Side Baby from the next year gives us his take on “St. Louis Blues” with Floyd McDaniel on vocals and guitar and Mike McCurdy and Mark Fornek from the Bluebirds as the backline. Kiss of Sweet Blues from 1998 includes Lurrie Bell, Terson, and also Mike Schlick on drums. That song concludes the first CD. What a great set of tunes so far!
The second disc opens with “Blues On My Mind” from Blues Spoken Here. Also from 1998, we get to hear Dave, Harlan, and Mike with Lenny Lynn fronting the band. Then 2000’s Speculatin’ offers “Texas Top” as it’s entry on this album. Rob Waters plays organ and Ken Saydak is on piano as the lineup from the last album sans a front man appears here; this is a super instrumental cut.
Is What It Is is represented next. The 2005 album features Freund, Waters and Terson with Marty Binder on drums with Dave on another fine instrumental piece entitled “Riverside Ride.” Then we get 2008’s Live In Chicago gives us two more cuts and we get to hear Jimmy Johnson and Sharon Lewis sing while Brother John Kattke gets to add his organ and piano.
Kattke and the superb Otis Clay join Dave for Message in Blue. This 20014 album is marvelous and we are graced with four tracks from it; Otis Clay is featured on vocals on the first two and fourth track while Brother John is on the third cut. In 2019, Specter released Blues from The Inside Out with Jorma Kaukonen and Brother John. Dave fronts the band for the first of four cuts (the title track), his first foray in fronting his band and he does a great job. Kattke handles the next track. The third is the instrumental “Sanctifunkious” and the Kattke handles vocals on the fourth song with Jorma also playing guitar.
The final track is from 2020, “The Ballad Of George Floyd,” where Specter and Billy Branch both sing on this song which is about the execution of Floyd. Branch also plays harp, Danny Shaffer is on acoustic guitar and Kattke handles the organ.
Dick Shurman offers up the liner notes as he did thirty years prior. It’s hard to believe it’s been thirty years. Six String Soul offers the listener a little bit of everything Dave has done on his own with some all star band members joining him. If you are new to Specter, this is a great introduction. His fans will savor the depth and breath of the exemplary work included here.
I most highly recommend this album. I love Dave’s music and he is a fine human being on top of being a fine musician. Add this one to your collection now!
Reviewer Steve Jones is president of the Crossroads Blues Society and is a long standing blues lover. He is a retired Navy commander who served his entire career in nuclear submarines. In addition to working in his civilian career since 1996, he writes for and publishes the bi-monthly newsletter for Crossroads, chairs their music festival and works with their Blues In The Schools program. He resides in Byron, IL.
Featured Blues Review – 5 of 10
Whitey Somers – The Call of the Blues
Self-Produced – 2021
10 Tracks, 44 Minutes
Canadian Whitey Somers presents a variety of musical styles in his latest release of all original songs, The Call of the Blues. The album opens with a beautiful slow blues song, with pure and elegant guitar notes and some impressive work by Nico Rhodes on keys. What really stands out about this album is the excellent musicianship. In addition to Somers on guitar and Rhodes on keys and saxophone, Nick Dokter is featured on drums, Todd Sacerty on bass, and special guests include David Essig, Jay D. Styles, and Lazy Mike Mallon. Not surprisingly, all the solos are outstanding.
The best tracks on the album are the slow blues numbers, of which there are three, one at the beginning, one in the middle and one at the end. The middle song, “A Free Man,” also contains the best lyrics of the album, and appears to reference the struggle of someone in recovery. For example, it notes, “Walked hand in hand with the Devil. Had an angel by my side You’ve got to see a lot of darkness before you ever see the light. But I’m a free man. I’ve got no chains upon my soul.”
Somers also features two songs with a strong country sound to them, including one that sounds Johnny Cash-influenced, entitled “Gone”.
However, not all blues fans will appreciate how far Somers drifts from the blues for a few tracks. For example, the hard rocking “Can’t Control It” strays so far to the end of blues-rock spectrum that the blues influence is unrecognizable. And while the vocals on that track clearly emote the out-of-control feeling referenced in the song, they also reach the level of an uncomfortable screech by the end.
In summary, The Call of the Blues nicely highlights the excellent musical ability of all the fine artists featured, including Somers, but was a bit too eclectic for this reviewer.
Reviewer Anita Schlank lives in Virginia, and is on the Board of Directors for the River City Blues Society. She has been a fan of the blues since the 1980s. She and Tab Benoit co-authored the book “Blues Therapy,” with all proceeds from sales going to the HART Fund.
Featured Blues Review – 6 of 10
Various Artists – Low Blows for Ida: Harmonica Blues for Hurricane Relief
50 songs – 114 minutes
Arizona-based producer Tom Walbank is a man with a mission in promoting acoustic harmonica blues, and he outdoes himself with his latest effort. He’s recruited 38 world-class reed-benders – including Charlie Musselwhite, Kim Wilson, Rick Estrin, Mark Hummel, Bob Corritore and other top names from around the globe – in a charitable effort to raise funds for folks along the Gulf Coast who were devastated by Hurricane Ida last August.
A British émigré and top-notch harp player himself, Walbank flew under the radar earlier this year with the stellar Hootmatic Blues, which delivered an hour-long collection of mostly solo acoustic treasures that paid tribute to Sonny Terry, and many of the same artists who appeared on that one have contributed to this digital-only project, too, including Joe Filisko, the undisputed king of country blues harp in the U.S. today.
The roster includes Annie Raines, Phil Wiggins, Peter “Madcat” Ruth, Deak Harp, Adam Gussow, Johnny Mars and Terry “Harmonica” Bean as well as rising star Andrew Alli, all of whom shine brightly in American circles, Canadians Harpdog Brown and Carlos del Junco, Indian transplant Aki Kumar, Brits Paul Gillings, Gareth Tucker, Will Wilde, Steve Baker and Paul Lamb and others from France and Italy, too.
And when you add contributions from top harmonica instructor David Barrett, RJ Mischo, Wade Schuman of Hazmat Modine and other lesser known, but equally skilled players to the mix, if you’re a harp enthusiast, you can’t go wrong with this one.
Like the title of the collection suggests, work on the low end of the harmonica features prominently, beginning with Musselwhite opening on chromatic for “Strolling on Issaquena.” That song flows effortlessly into Gillings’ take on “Blowing a Low A” before Gussow follows suit with the first of two versions of “Poor Boy” he serves up in the set. After a subdued opening few measures, Tucker heats up the action dramatically in “Swinging Low (Blues for Charlie H.),” an amplification of the familiar “Swing Low Sweet Chariot.”
It’s impossible to include all of the pleasers here even in an extended review. But the highlights include Alli’s workout on “Simple Times,” Wilson’s lilting “Instrumentalism,” Filisko’s dazzling “Lost Rock Chase,” Walbank’s workouts on “The Cuff,” “Tomcat Boogie,” “Baby Train” and “Fifty Blue,” which closes, as well as Wilde’s haunting “And the Rain Fell.”
Be sure to give a good listen to Corritore’s “Jambalaya,” Tom Ball and Ross Garren’s duet of “Backyard Blues,” Hummel’s tasty “Rice Pudding” and “Poor Pouree,” Parisian master Charles Pasi’s “Tea Cup in a Storm” and his countryman Vincent Bucher’s “Angata,” Estrin’s “Estrin Boogie,” Barrett’s stylish “Sonny’s Bird” and Bean’s sweeping “Terry Bean Boogie.”
And don’t miss Wiggins’ bare-bones “Tone Down,” Ruth’s blazing and whooping “Pa-Sh-Hup-Pa,” Adam Pritchard’s lilting “Gob Iron Boogie,” Mischo’s “Paper Shoe Shuffle,” del Junco’s “CDJ’s Harmonica Riff,” Schuman’s percussive “In a Cave in France,” Raines’ sweet “Cryin’ Mama,” Harpdog’s “Louisiana Moan,” Mars’ reworking of “Amazing Grace” and Ol’ Shady Pete’s “Journey to the Sky.”
If you’re a harp player, Low Blows for Ida will serve as a master class collection for developing your skills. If you’re “just” a blues fan, you’ll love it to. Contribute to a good cause by downloading it from Bandcamp (address above).
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 – 7 of 10
Daniel de Visé – King Of The Blues: The Rise And Reign Of B.B. King
Atlantic Monthly Press
482 pages Hardcover edition
Over the course of his lengthy career, B.B. King saw his fame steadily grow until he was undoubtedly the universal ambassador for blues music. Beloved by fans around the globe, King offered a vivid contrast to those who pictured a blues man with a beat-up guitar and dressed in overalls. His sharp appearance and genuine humble manner combined with his expressive vocals and stinging guitar licks served him well, from the small clubs in Memphis in his early years to the largest stages in countries all over the planet.
Given his impact on the music, one would think that there would be a number of books documenting his life and legacy. Yet, other than several books on his guitar techniques, there are only a handful of books that take a close look at his life, including his 2011 autobiography, Blues All Around Me, done with noted biographer David Ritz. With his new book, Daniel de Visé offers a career spanning look at King’s life, including an unfettered view of his final years, which is missing from the earlier works.
The author has two other books to his credit, one on the friendship between Andy Griffith and Don Knotts, the other on American cyclist Greg LeMond. He has worked at a number of major newspapers including the Miami Herald and the Washington Post. In 2001, he was part of a team that earned a Pulitzer Prize.
His journalism background certainly gives de Visé the skills required for the research needed to develop a thorough reckoning of a legendary career. That is apparent as you peruse the variety of source material he refers to as laid out in the 35 page “Notes” section. Another key element is the first-hand accounts that the author gathered through interviews with King’s band members, producers, managers, family members, and fellow musicians. Consequently, readers are treated to a well-rounded portrayal of the artist and the man that doesn’t shy away from delving into some sensitive issues.
Born in the Mississippi Delta, King’s life in the early years was spent on farms, moving around between the homes of different family members after his parents separated. His entry into the world of music was singing tenor in a local gospel group, giving him a taste of attention, especially from local girls. It was his cousin, Bukka White, who inspired King’s interest in the guitar, through his frequent visits. At the age of 16, King received an advance on his salary to pay for a fire-red Stella acoustic guitar, quickly proving his willingness to master of the instrument with far more gusto than he applies to his school studies.
From there, the author traces King’s career in chronological order with his first trip to Memphis in 1946, and a return visit in 1949, when the determined guitarist talked and played his way onto WDIA radio, a station that focused on the black Memphis population. Getting his own radio program allowed King to promote his live shows in the area, which quickly raised his status with the show’s audience. But King had some rough edges, so his early band members tutored him on the concepts of timing and tempo, as much for their sanity as King’s continued success. The author also covers the development of King’s unique guitar sound and playing style, which became the standard for guitar players to emulate.
Soon the guitarist hit the road, establishing a relentless schedule that kept him touring for hundreds of nights year after year, only easing up in the latter years of his life. At critical junctures, de Visé highlights key records that steadily built King’s visibility, with “3 O’Clock Blues” hitting number one on the Billboard Rhythm & Blues chart in 1952, and peaking with his Completely Well album in 1969, featuring the classic “The Thrill Is Gone.” At that point, the guitarist started playing large concert halls like the Fillmore West, and opened for the Rolling Stones tour that year, providing doorways to the coveted white listening audience.
The book also delves into the many musicians that influenced King and some of their history. King certainly tried to emulate T-Bone Walker’s guitar prowess while studying the vocal style of blues shouter Roy Brown, who had a huge hit with the song ‘Good Rockin’ Tonight.” When it came to entertaining an audience, King looked to hitmaker Louis Jordan for ideas. Several record producers and their contributions are highlighted by de Visé as well.
King eventually achieves a higher level of international fame than any of his contemporaries. He gained admission to several Hall of Fame’s while still alive, played for Presidents and other dignitaries, and was a consistent draw throughout his career. The other side of the story is not ignored by de Visé. He chronicles the toll that decades of touring took on King’s health, and of his band members, many of whom were loyal to the leader for long stretches. Another part of the story is the guitarist’s great love for members of the opposite sex, which at times reached epic levels. He claimed to have fathered numerous children, but de Visé offers evidence that seemingly contradicts the veracity of the claims.
The last part of the book documents King’s decline as age and health issues steadily robbed him of his abilities, particularly on guitar. In his final years, concerts became more about talking and telling stories, with music shoved to the back-burner. Those shows were tough for band members and longtime fans. With his death came the fight over his estate, pitting his extended family against his closest friends and caretakers at the end. It was a sad finish to a glorious career.
This work is exactly what you would expect from a first-rate biography. Throughout, de Visé does an excellent job of telling B.B. King’s story while grounding it in the people and events that impacted the tale at key junctures. Readers will find it hard to put the book down, a true testimonial to de Visé’s talent for weaving all of the elements into a compelling narrative. For blues fans, and particularly anyone with an interest in B.B. King, this biography comes highly recommended!
Blues Blast Magazine Senior writer Mark Thompson lives in Florida, where he is enjoying the sun and retirement. He is the past President of the Board of Directors for the Suncoast Blues Society and a former member of the Board of Directors for the Blues Foundation. Music has been a huge part of his life for the past fifty years – just ask his wife!
Featured Blues Review – 8 of 10
Mojo Parker – The Mojo Parker Express
10 songs, 52 minutes
Jam music is best when it is fully steeped in Blues and Soul and it has drive and intention. The endless unfocused noodling of Jam bands (who will remain nameless) would be great if there was just a strong singer and/or a sharp guitarist with some vision. Well Virginia is lucky enough to boast a shining light of salvation in Danny “Mojo” Parker. Parker is an impassioned soul singer with a strong rhythm guitar style and a focused songwriting voice. On Mojo’s 2nd full length The Mojo Parker Express named after his hot band, Parker and Co. featuring a sharp slide guitarist Grady Clark, jam out soulful roots music.
The Mojo Parker Express is a live in the studio album, meaning the performances were done in real time directly to “tape.” Parker says so in the opening introductory piece “Welcome Aboard the Express.” Over a laid back acoustic groove, Parker invites the listener into the room with the band and sets the tone for an original and intimate experience. Throughout the proceeding 8 songs Matt Gildner on bass, Manuel Rey on drums and Parker’s percussive raggedly thick rhythm guitar create a grooving versatile foundation. Parker’s vocals, Grady Clark’s guitar and Caleb Dance’s saxophone and flute float, grind, sway and moan over the rhythm section. Virginia’s resident authentic Roots music impresario “Big” Jon Atkinson is also credited for drums and harmonica, Atkinson always being a welcome addition to any proceeding.
The Mojo Parker Express moves between acoustic Blues/Folk, stepping up-beat jams and expanded expressively rough Soul epics. There is nothing quick or efficient about this express trip – the musicians take their time on each track and squeeze out every last drop of fun and feeling. First and foremost Mojo Parker is in the center of it all. His slightly scratchy Soul howl is equal parts Wilson Pickett bombast and Marvin Gay croon. The tone of his voice and his tradition informed phrasing move the music even if he is, like the greats always did, just repeating the same phrase riding the wave of the groove. Clark’s guitar and Dance’s sax and flute work in perfect harmony, often literally for instrumental passages like on the breathtaking “Must Be Love.” Clark in particular stretches out with inventiveness and creativity in his lead guitar work. Often guitarists shy away from big statements when they are in a vocalist’s band, but Clark lashes out as an equal melodic voice in ways that only accentuate Mojo’s powerful central statements.
Stand out tracks that illustrate the interplay of the full band include “Let It Ride” the first real song on the record. A swampy laid back lope in which Mojo employs an Al Green high tenor. The over 6 minute track allows guitar, horn and rhythm section to dig deep into the 2 chord vamp. The aforementioned stunner “Must Be Love” is a tender slow jam brought to the heights of group creation for almost 9 minutes of blissed out grooving. The acoustic version of “Your Love Is Gone” featuring Atkinson on harp, is a classic she-done-me-wrong hard luck romp. Sadly the electric version of this song tagged onto the end of the record doesn’t really land, but it is more than excused by the charisma of the front porch swing of the acoustic version. And for die hard Blues fans the 7 minutes of “South Border Blues” is pure slow Blues power with Clark sliding through with serpentine energy.
Jam Band gatekeepers please take notice, Mojo Parker and his Express are a balm to the wasteland of redundant rhythmic jamming. Steeped in deep Soul, staggering talent and group cohesiveness, The Mojo Parker Express is a great ride that thankfully makes all the stops.
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 – 9 of 10
Mean Old Fireman and the Cruel Engineers – Dumpster Fire
Self-Release – 2021
10 tracks; 44:41
Bollé has worked as a firefighter and paramedic for 20 years and you can hear the work imagery in his lyrics, and see it in the album art, if not the album title, which, to be fair, is a reference to 2020 and not a specific dumpster fire. His singing voice is gruff but sincere, but the selling point of Dumpster Fire is Bollé’s slide guitar work.
“Tour 3,” an original, is a plodding blues groove that allows Bollé to stretch out with some gorgeous slide lines that are pure melody. The tune also provides ample space for Dana Andrews’ harmonica, which soars through the song. Coming in at over five minutes, there’s a lot of ground covered, which lets you see what both musicians are capable of.
“Got No Spoons,” another original, is a slower blues, where Bollé flirts with jazz, aided by John Wadkins’ organ work. Like “Tour 3,” the tune has plenty of time for Bollé to solo. However, guitarist Toby Soriero joins him on the track here, contributing fretted guitar, the two seamlessly trading licks. Each guitarist has a strong musical persona, so you know exactly when each of them is playing, but it never feels jarring. They’re both listening to each other, and the song, creating pleasant waves of guitar.
The album also features covers. “Rocket 88” has what sounds like a sea of horns, all of the saxophones courtesy of Marty Phillips. The take here is a bit manic, with some of the original’s groove lost in this version’s brisk tempo. Conversely, Bollé’s take on Robert Parker’s go-go classic “Barefootin'” drags a little more than the original, causing the tune to lose its signature, iconic bounce. It’s notable that the originals tend to work better than the covers. Sometimes that’s a sign an artist needs to focus more on their own songwriting, and sometimes it’s an issue of cover selection. In this case, it might be indicative of Bollé’s slide guitar work, which can make any song sound good, but which seems to thrive within his own work.
Despite the title, Dumpster Fire is an album of solid slide guitar. Bollé’s vocals aren’t for everyone, but this is a collection of interesting songs from a tight band.
Reviewer Steven Ovadia interviews blues artists about their songwriting process for Working Mojo.
Featured Blues Review – 10 of 10
Mick Kolassa – Uncle Mick’s Christmas Album
Endless Blues Records – 2021
9 Tracks; 36 Minutes
Even though it is now past Christmas, and even if you usually hate Christmas music, you are still likely to be a fan of Mick Kolassa’s latest release Uncle Mick’s Christmas Album. He, along with Jeff Jensen, brought excellent musicians together, including Bill Ruffino on Bass and James Cunningham on drums. The talented Reba Russell and Susan Marshall provide excellent backing vocals.
The album opens with a much slower, bluesy version of Mariah Carey’s song, “All I Want for Christmas is You.” Although that song is very overplayed, you will find that this version of it sounds fresh and new. Adding a New Orleans flavor and trumpet (played by Marc Franklin) to “Frosty the Snowman” also was an unexpected improvement on that song.
The album has two original songs, including a slow blues number which may be the best on the album. That original song, “Merry Christmas Baby” contains wonderful solos by Eric Hughes on Harmonica and Rick Steff on keys. Kolassa wisely changed the melody and tempo of “Jingle Bells”, and that change, along with the rasp in his voice, makes it much more interesting. “Winter Wonderland” is modified just enough to also make it seem nearly new, and the instrumental number, “Beale Street Christmas Jam”, which is a medley of numerous Christmas songs, is a fun way to end the album.
Although it is a long time to wait until next Christmas, you might want to buy this now and hold onto it. Not only is it a great album, but all profits go the Blues Foundation, split between the HART Fund (which pays for medical and mental health expenses blues musicians can’t afford to pay) and Generation Blues (which provides financial assistance to aspiring young blues musicians).
Reviewer Anita Schlank lives in Virginia, and is on the Board of Directors for the River City Blues Society. She has been a fan of the blues since the 1980s. She and Tab Benoit co-authored the book “Blues Therapy,” with all proceeds from sales going to the HART Fund.
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