Cover photo © 2023 Laura Carbone
In This Issue
Marty Gunther has our feature interview with John Fusco. We have six Blues reviews for you this week including a book about Hound Dog Taylor plus new music from K.K. Hammond, Justine Blazer, Paul Crowley, Alabama Mike and Seth Rosenbloom. Scroll down and check it out!
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Featured Interview – John Fusco
Blues benefactors come in different forms. Some are super fans. Others are patrons. And then there’s John Fusco, who’s turned hordes of folks onto the music in a different way entirely.
John’s been making waves as a blues organist and vocalist for the past few years, delivering some of the most interesting roots-drenched tunes you’ve ever heard while fronting his band, the X-Road Riders. But most moviegoers are probably more familiar with him as the screenwriter or producer of several Hollywood blockbusters — Young Guns, Thunderheart, The Forbidden Kingdom and Hidalgo included.
But the blues has always been in his blood. A high-school dropout at age 16, he spent his youth busking on street corners across the Delta and Gulf Coast while scouring the region in search of talent that never made it to the spotlight.
More important to anyone reading these words, however, is that Fusco eventually created a groundswell of new blues fans when he blended his own life experience with Mississippi folklore and created the script that would become his first major movie, Crossroads, a semi-autobiographical modern-day retelling of the Robert Johnson myth about trading his soul to the devil for stardom and more talent.
Now back in the groove again as a musician after a 30-year break, life’s come full circle for the man who still remains as down-to-earth as his humble beginnings in Prospect, Conn., a small town that, for John, was light years away from the idyllic view most folks imagine when they think of the state.
“We lived up a long dirt road, and my father owned a junkyard,” he says. “It was right next to a pig farm. And I worked beside him, crushing cars during the day and watching guard over the yard at night.”
Fusco spent his youth dreaming about a career in Hollywood, but his life changed at age 14 when his older sister, Kathleen, took him to Veterans Coliseum in New Haven – about 30 miles to the south in the central part of the state – to catch the Allman Brothers Band in action.
“I never took my eyes — or ears — off Gregg that whole night,” he remembers.
For him, it was a case of love at first sight for both the band and the organ – a romance that accelerated soon after when he was hypnotized by the performance of Keith Emerson when he and Kathleen traveled down to the Yale Bowl to see Emerson, Lake & Palmer.
Totally obsessed, Fusco kept bugging his father for a keyboard. After much prodding, a Hammond T-200 with built-in Leslie speaker finally found a home in the family’s basement.
“That instrument saved my life so-o-o many times,” John insists today. “It became my horse, my companion, my chapel and church. I honed my writing at that organ and confessed all over those keys.”
But it quickly became a major point of contention.
John’s dad, an old-school Italian-American, envisioned his son wearing dress clothes and white shoes and playing in Italian dance bands at weddings and other celebrations. But all John wanted to do was play blues, gospel and Southern rock while dressed in jeans and – like Duane Allman — Frye boots adorned with a dog collar around the heel.
Theirs was a constant, growing conflict.
John was growing more and more in love with the blues, something enhanced by studying the liner notes of the Allmans’ albums and following the music down the rabbit hole of discovery thanks to the band covering several blues songs on their early albums. Fillmore East, for example, included “Statesboro Blues,” “Done Somebody Wrong” and “Stormy Monday,” which were created by Blind Willie McTell, Elmore James and T-Bone Walker. Other LPs led him to Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson and the desire to trace blues back to its source.
The battle came to a head when Fusco was 16. A few friends had a band, booked a gig and wanted John to play with them. “My dad was out for the night,” he remembers. “So six of my friends — big guys — came over and lugged the T-200 – it weighed about 400 pounds – up the stairs and onto the back of a pickup.”
When his dad came home and discovered the organ gone, he hit the roof. The argument that followed was so intense that John dropped out of school and ran away from home shortly thereafter, heading straight to Daytona Beach, Fla., and the dive bar where the Allmans had launched their careers.
It was the mid-‘70s, and John quickly fell in with what he describes as “the last batch of true American hobos” — itinerants who took jobs – like he did — in carwashes to support their habits when not traveling the road. For Fusco, that journey took him to the backroads of the Mississippi delta and down to New Orleans.
“Through the hobo culture, I got to meet some really great, old bluesmen who were connected to the greats,” he remembers. One of whom was Roy Dunn, a Georgia-born, Piedmont-style guitarist who’d worked with early legends Curley Weaver, Buddy Moss and McTell and pretty much remained undiscovered until releasing his only one album, Know’d Them All, shortly before he and John met.
“My idea back then was to find some really obscure bluesmen and their songs and do my thing with ‘em,” Fusco says. “I really wanted to get down to the roots. There were a few of ‘em who told me: ‘Look, if you really want to learn this, you’ve got to start with the spirituals and go to the church’ – so I did.
“There was this old Baptist church that I’d go to and listen to the sermons and what they were doin’ on the organ. Of course, I couldn’t travel with an organ at that time, so my instrument was a harmonica…and pen-and-paper…writing tunes and stuff. That was my high school!
“Roy was really my prototype for the Willie Brown character in Crossroads. He also blew harmonica and was something of a mentor to me. He’d been shot in his left arm by ‘a jealous husband’ – as he put it. In order to play guitar, he’d strip his belt off, belt his left arm to his left leg and move his leg to get his arm to move up and down on the frets.”
Others included Frank Frost — who traveled the road in his youth as Sonny Boy Williamson II’s guitar player — and Sam Carr — Robert Nighthawk’s son — his longtime drummer and partner in both the Jelly Roll Kings and the Juke Joint Jumpers.
“Another great blues artist I got to know during that time – he certainly wasn’t obscure – was Son
y Terry,” Fusco notes. “I loved Sonny…he was just so kind and compassionate, generous with his wisdom. When Ry Cooder (who composed the Crossroads score) asked: ‘Who are you hearing with the harmonica stuff?’ I said: ‘Sonny!’ A week later, I got a call, telling me Sonny had been hired on to the movie.”
The last song Terry ever recorded was the film’s closing theme, “Walking Away Blues.” He passed away on March 11, 1986 – three days before the movie’s premiere.
At 18, John returned home and co-founded the Travis McComb Band, a Southern rock outfit that was composed of several friends from his past.
“I had all these original songs — and a deeper understanding of the blues,” he says, “along with a different idea of rocking up the blues that other people weren’t doing. Everybody was playing Elmore James and ‘Stormy Monday.’ I said: ‘What about (Dunn’s) ‘She Cooks Cornbread (for Her Husband)’…stuff that nobody heard. ‘Let’s go uptempo and funk it up!’”
At that point, Fusco was playing a Farfisa keyboard, but he soon graduated to a clone organ, which he fed through an antique upright “grandfather” Leslie speaker, which resembled a clock. It was so old, he says, he had to inject it with sewing machine oil “every 30 seconds” to keep it up and running.
The McCombs quickly built a strong local following, caught the eye of the the manager of the Grateful Dead and recorded a demo for him. But everything changed the night when they opened up for the Dixie Road Ducks, a group that still works today out of Virginia.
“I was so enamored of them because they were bonafied, touring Southern rocker – much older than me — with a big bus,” John admits. “They invited me on it after the gig – but no one else in my band. They said: ‘We love your original music and how you do lead vocals from behind the organ. How would you like to join our band and go on tour?’
“My homies were like: ‘C’mon, man…we’re just getting things together.’ But I was a high-school dropout, and these guys wanted to pay me. I thought the stars were lining up for me and went with ‘em.”>/font>
For the first couple of months, Fusco remembers, it was pretty exciting. But he quickly burned out on road life. “I asked them: ‘What’s your vision to make it?’ and they said: ‘We have made it, man!’
“We were in the Carolinas on a long, barren stretch of highway. I was the only one awake other than the driver, and I did some real soul-searching…‘Am I on the beam? Am I where I’m supposed to be creatively?’
“‘If this is the pinnacle of being a road musician, deep inside, I really want to pursue my filmmaking dream. I’ve learned how to be a risk-taker. When this bus gets back up North, I’m leaving, going to night school to get a GED, and I’m going to try to get into film school.’”
Fusco attended a community college in Connecticut. That’s where he met wife Richela Renkin, who was the star actress in the school’s drama program. It didn’t take long before they realized they shared a common goal: to attend New York University, which – then and now — possessed one of the top theater arts programs in the country.
“We both applied and took jobs because we were both broke. We needed to save up our money to have some cash behind us if we were accepted ,” he remembers. “My wife worked as the certified recreation director at an assisted living home, and I got a job as a department store detective — my nickname was ‘Serpico’ because I was so bored on the job that I wore different disguises.
“One day, she called me and said: ‘I think I’ve got something you’ll find really interesting…we have a new resident…he’s from down South – and he’s got a cabinet full of harmonicas. And he’s telling really interesting stories.
“The next day, I drove over to meet him. It was only a 20-minute drive, and I had this fantasy: What if this guy blows killer harp and I discover that he has some cryptic backstory about why he left the South, it ties back into the deep blues mystique and my desire to find lost bluesmen and lost songs…imagine if it ties back to Robert Johnson.
“I had all this stuff goin’ on…he’ll befriend me and we’ll head back down South and try to find this unfinished business of his.
“So, basically, I really wrote Crossroads in my head on that drive over!”
Unfortunately, whatever talent and stories the beautiful old man possessed were already lost to dementia, he notes, but Fusco had struck on the seed of a story that would forever change his life.
Their dream fulfilled, Richela became an educator after graduating from NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, while John excelled at its renowned Tisch School of the Arts. Surrounded by younger students who only drew ideas from the films they’d seen, Fusco already possessed “a satchel of unusual, real-life stories” that quickly caught the attention of his professors.
“I was very fortunate that there was not one, but three blacklisted-during-the-McCarthy-Era, Oscar-winning screenwriters – Waldo Salt, Ring Lardner Jr. (M*A*S*H) and Ian McLellan Hunter (Roman Holiday) – along with Lorenzo Sample Jr. (Three Days of the Condor) mentoring me,” he says.
“I remember Waldo kept me after class and said: ‘What’s your story?’ When I told him, he said: ‘Do you know that I used to hobo with Woody Guthrie? And your script reminds me of my script for Midnight Cowboy. If you stay true to your experience and don’t try to write the next Star Wars, you can really do something.’”
As an undergraduate, John explored his Florida background and experiences with Native Americans for Blues Water. Ironically, it was something that came about by accident because he’d misheard his professor’s instructions to submit a ten-page treatise and written a full script instead. It earned him a FOCUS — Films of College and University Students – Award, a national honor that included his first trip to Hollywood for the awards ceremony as a finalist, the eventual top prize: a Nissan Sentra — and a contract with the William Morris talent agency.
Fusco eventually sold the car to pay for his studies, penned the script for Crossroads as his bachelor thesis — and won a second FOCUS Award. This time, however, he kept the car. He was still in school when Columbia Pictures bought the script, and he told the chairman of his department that he was going to attend the filming in Mississippi.
“I told him: ‘I’m not going to finish,’ and he told me: ‘Yes, you are! We’re going to make sure you leave here with your degree.’ They designed creative classes for me to make it happen. It was literally rags-to-riches…one minute, I was wondering where I’d get my next meal, the next I was down in the Delta, seeing this thing come to life.
“And the influence the movie had on the new generation of blues and rock musicians…that, to me, is so-o-o rewarding. Nothing makes me happier.
“And 30 years later in 2018, when we were shooting The Highwaymen, I was back in the French Quarter in New Orleans. But instead of living in a doorway, I was staying at the Four Seasons and had my nights free to walk around, taking in the street music in places where I used to busk and going into the blues and jazz bars.
“It was a homecoming, and it brought a real sense of personal reward to me. I thought: ‘Here I am, but I’m not hungry. I’m getting a movie made. But I can listen to and appreciate all this music without the pressure and insecurity.’”
He was also bitten by the blues bug again and reached out to old family friends Cody and Luther Dickinson of the North Mississippi Allstars. They invited him “to take a drive across the Delta and come see us. Let’s hang out – and tell us stories about our dad,” Jim, the legendary Memphis session player and producer who’d worked with everyone from Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Aretha Franklin to Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones.
“I met Jim when I was doing rewrites on the Crossroads script when we were getting ready to shoot,” Fusco says. “Ry asked me: ‘Do you want to talk to somebody who’s really deep into the blues?’ Not long after, I had Jim on speed-dial and called him a couple of times each day to talk through scenes. I really loved him.
“At the time, I knew he had two young boys, but Jim was a little concerned because they were both into punk rock. But when we had a rough-cut of the movie and were ready to screen it, he took them to see it, and they walked out and told him: ‘Dad, you’re right…the blues is cool.’”
Flash forward to 2018, and Fusco was already feeling the spirit once again. New tunes were coming to him each time he sat at the keyboard. Taking the Dickinsons up on their offer, even the drive to see them proved to be a spiritual journey, producing the song “Hello Highway” in which he envisioned seeing a solitary, 16-year-old version of himself hitchhiking in the wide-open spaces of the Delta and surrounded by ghosts and more.
“By the time I got to Cody in Southaven, I was ready to play,” John remembers, “and he took me into the studio and said: ‘Let’s jam, man, let’s jam!’ I sat at the organ and he hopped on the drums, riffin’ off some blues between stories I told him about his dad.
“Then I started playing a song, and he said: ‘What’s that?’
“‘Somethin’ I’ve been workin’ on.’
“‘You gotta be kiddin’ me!’ he replied, hitting the record button.”
For the next few days, the duo caught lightning in a bottle as they worked up several of Fusco’s ideas. When John said “I’ve always heard gospel singers doing call-and-response on this one,” Dickinson raced to the phone. An hour later, Risse Norman of the Norman Sisters arrived from Memphis, gave the tune a listen and then added her voice to the track. When he launched into an updated version of Johnson’s “Crossroads,” saying he wanted to do it in a way “the young guys down here will relate to it,” Cody called in Al Kapone of Three-6 Mafia to add a freestyle rap.
“Before long, John says, “we had an album.”
With Fusco on vocals, keys organ bass and acoustic guitar, Dickinson on six-string, dobro, bass and more as well as a full horn section, the end result was John Fusco and the X-Riders, which was released on Cody’s Checkerboard Lounge imprint. The raw, different sound that it delivered caught listeners by surprise and received high praise from reviewers.
Hooked by the positive feedback, Fusco kept writing, bought a B3 for his home and enlisted three of the best organ players in the blues — Bruce Katz, Anthony Geraci and Ira Friedman – for lessons.
“No one has better control of Hammond Leslie dynamics than Bruce Katz,” Fusco insists. “There are a lot of B3 players who randomly work the fast and slow, but there’s a method to the Leslie madness, and Bruce really has that down.”
A ten-time BMA nominee who’s a professor at Berklee College of Music in Boston – a few hours southeast of John’s farm in Vermont, Katz invited him down to spend a few hours together in the school’s B3 lab.
“’A B3 lab?’ I asked. I said: ‘Okay, man!’ and put the pedal to the floor. I drive down there and it’s six B3s in a circle. It was like going to heaven. He sat across from me, and we worked on mechanics all day and taught me Cannonball Adderley’s ‘Moanin’,’ which became one of my B3 staples. I used that song like a lab itself to experiment with a lot of the voicings and other things he taught me.
“Then, when I got back up here, it was like the music gods were looking out for me because Anthony Geraci (the BMA’s 2021 Pinetop Perkins Award winner) needed to be in my town for a few weeks, and he came to my place to give me lessons once a week. He was a back-to-basics stickler. I was back to scales, working the pedals and playing some standards.
“I loved the way he taught because I was completely self-taught. But I’ll be honest…it wasn’t till the end of our student-teacher relationship that I truly got a grasp on his background and who he was. He’s played with just about everybody – Sugar Ray & the Bluetones, Ronnie Earl, James Cotton, Big Walter Horton and more. Watching him work the B3 was like watching someone fly a fighter jet or something.
“And I started working with Ira Friedman (a Vermont treasure best known for his work with soul-blues vocalist Dave Keller), doing band workshops. That really helped me get back out playing live again. He’d put a group of players together and made a band out of them. That group wanted to stay together, but I already had my X-Riders northern chapter coming together here, so I went with that.
“I couldn’t have had three better mentors on the organ!”
In the year that followed, Fusco divided his time between home in New England, Cody’s Hill Country studio and movie sets. “I finally told Cody: ‘I think I recorded too much stuff…I’m feelin’ it right now,’” he says. “And he told me: ‘Let’s do a double, man!’”
The end result was the two-CD set, John the Revelator, which featured two distinctly different bands – one in the South and another in the North. One disc was recorded in Mississippi, the other in Burlington, Vt., under the direction of Boz Scaggs’ and Michael McDonald’s producer, George Walker Petit.
Like the bands, the music in each set was different. One delivered emotion-packed ballads in a singer-songwriter mode, and the other traditional blues and blues-rock. Despite their disparate sound, thanks to Fusco’s songwriting talent, they held together as a package.
His latest disc, Borderlands, meanwhile, is a complete departure from his previous work. It’s a highly cinematic, blues-based exploration of Southwestern themes that are all delivered from the point of view of someone being caught between past mistakes and an uncertain future. Produced by Petit, it’s something one critic described as peyote-infused passion play.
Top numbers include “Horseback Jesus,” about a brown-skinned stranger who’s on a mission to save souls – only to be murdered while carrying out his task, and “Coyote Man,” about a smuggler who sneaks migrants across the border only to strand them in the desert. Another deals with a female saloon owner who woos piano players with drugs, booze and sex before casting them aside when another comes along.
“That came together during the pandemic,” John says. “I was holed up and spending a lot of time at the piano. The first song I hit on was ‘Horseback Jesus.’ I came up with the riff and just saw the visuals. It sorta came out of my Western writing background, and it led to something thematic and neo-Western.”
At first glance, the tunes might appear to deliver a linear package. On closer examination, however, you’ll find that they each tell a different story. As Fusco describes it, the work was a creative experiment and the themes are tied together as interconnected chapters. It’s something that he and Petit achieved through the use of a soundscape that includes the howling of coyotes, a mariachi band and other elements – “almost like it was a TV series with different episodes,” he says, “with a narrative folk-ballad feel.”
Some of the songs are set in biblical times, others in the old West and the modern era of drug runners, human traffickers and more. Some of the material was based on true events, and all of it was imbued with a Western feel.
In recent months, John’s been playing a few gigs when not touring to promote his latest movie, The Wind & the Reckoning, a fictionalized account of the real-life story of 19th-century native Hawaiians who rebelled when colonizers attempted to exile them to Molokai after becoming infected with leprosy.
But Fusco definitely isn’t resting on his laurels. His next two projects will serve up treats for fans in both the music and film world. “I’ve come back full-circle,” he insists, “and I’ve felt it’s really time to bring the two together. I wrote a full-out movie musical – called Phantom – as an experiment. It’s based on Phantom of the Opera, but it’s based in the world of R&B, blues and jazz in New Orleans.
“I wrote it on spec, and I didn’t tell anyone about it. I just sat at the piano, organ and laptop, wrote the songs then sent it to my agents. They said: ‘We should send this to our client, Harvey Mason Jr., the CEO of the Recording Academy’ (the producer of both LaLa Land and Aretha).
“They did, and I had a call with him. He asked: ‘Would you mind if I send this to John Legend?’ I said: ‘Twist my arm!’ I got a call back a week later that John loved it and wants to sign on as the producer and write some music for it.”
Fusco recently sold the script to Universal Studios, and filming will probably begin in the Big Easy by the end of the year.
But, John says, there’s more!
“Then Harvey called me and said: ‘I have another music-themed project I think you’re right for. I’m just going to say a name…Muscle Shoals.’ I said: ‘When do we start?’”
In recent months, Fusco traveled back and forth to the FAME Studios in Alabama and going into the vaults with the son of its founder, Rick Hall, sitting down at the Wurlitzer Spooner Oldham has been using since the ‘60s and gathering material for a film that will bring Hall’s autobiography, The Man from Muscle Shoals: My Journey from Shame to Fame, to life.
“I actually wrote ‘The end’ ten minutes before this call,” he said as our talk closed. “If this is the third act for me…the union of movies and music…I’m all for it. It’s a happy ending if I ever heard one. I have an attitude of gratitude, for sure!”
Check out John Fusco’s music and his movies. You’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 – 1 of 6
The Curse of K.K. Hammond – Death Roll Blues
11 songs, 43 minutes
In the early 20th Century, before all modern communication, brilliant sensitive regional Blues artists expressed their feelings and the shared experiences of African American communities through song that was, and still is, nuanced, varied and complex. Modern masters of this style of Acoustic Blues understand the difference between the delta brawn of Charley Patton and the flashy smirk of East Coaster Blind Willie McTell; the vast space between esoteric individualists such as Skip James and the more professional genius of Memphis Minnie. And of course everyone can understand the singular brilliance of Robert Johnson’s genre transcending greatness.
There is a growing movement in the UK of artists finding new sparks of creative inspiration from these complex and varied styles of Acoustic Blues. K.K. Hammond has made a pretty commanding statement of purpose for this movement with her debut full length Death Roll Blues. Billed as “The Curse of K.K. Hammond” this resophonic guitar obsessed singer/songwriter creates what she refers to as “Swamp Blues from the darkside,” infusing her mostly Bentonia styled Blues (that’s Skip James’s style of hypnotic minor key dirges) with “Southern Gothic horror.”
The formula for Death Roll Blues is quite simple. Hammond performs all the music: 1 or 2 simply, but masterfully, played, resophonic guitars (popularly referred to as Dobros), Hammond’s bracingly clarion voice at times multi tracked, and occasional claps, stomps and tambourine rattles. The deceptive simplicity requires multiple listens. At first pass the passive listener could be fooled into thinking this mostly mid-tempo program is easily understood as stylized Southern American fetishism.
A second and third listen to Death Roll Blues, preferably at loud volume, begins to unlock its secrets. The lacey interlocked guitar parts have layers of harmony and complexity. The singing is at times tender and vulnerable, at times sneering and brash, and at times horrified and traumatized. The Southern Gothic imagery is used as tools, as cultural markers, for self expression.
K.K. Hammond cleverly expresses complex emotion through, what would be in lesser hands, trite and overused cliché. It’s truly an act of sorcery. On the slow bruising “Anhedonia,” Hammond draws out modern headlines and then breaks into an almost Hawaiian slack key major chorus of “Mama says that I was never happy, Mama says that I’m always blue, but that’s not true…this codeine.” A startling juxtaposition, Hammond is able to make the political personal. This is post COVID, the world is burning, centering and personalizing.
Spooky songs that bring the horror also abound. The title track features fellow British Acoustic Blues devotee David & the Devil’s gravel scarred background vocals. Opening with a brazenly modern descending guitar figure that sounds like a bizzaro music box, the song gives way to a clapping stomping call and response. Again using familiar imagery of gators and cypress trees to fashion a picture of a swampy landscape and the ever looming presence of Death. Then that opening figure comes back as a fragile and quivering chorus damning the listener to a “curse that knows our names.” Chilling in all the good ways.
Death Roll Blues is very British. Being recorded at the legendary Abbey Road Studios would be enough. But, what Hammond does with the Acoustic Blues, what she does with the clichés and tropes, is also very British. In the best British Invasion traditions of John Mayall, Peter Green, Jeff Beck, or Faces, Hammond filters American culture through her own unique European/British lens. What she then produces is something different; something fresh while also being reverent and vital. Death Roll Blues is the start of something truly great. The Curse of K.K. Hammond is upon us. Watch out!
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.
Featured Blues Review – 2 of 6
Justine Blazer – Girl Singing The Blues
10 Tracks – 38 minutes
Justine Blazer grew up in Detroit and started her singing career there in her brother-in-law’s blues band. But a move to Nashville shifted her focus to country music. During that stage of her career, she opened for country stars Jason Aldean, Kathy Mattea, and Lonestar among others. She was a Grammy contender in 2021 for seven categories: Song of the Year, Record of the Year, Producer of the Year, Best Arrangement, Best New Artist, Best Country Song and Best Country Solo Performance. She has had seven previous #1 singles on the independent charts.
Now after seven previous country albums, her eighth album, released on August 30, 2022, becomes her debut blues album. The album was #1 on the iTunes Top 100 Blues Albums, #1 on the Amazon Best Sellers and New Releases, and was on the Billboard charts for three weeks where it peaked at #18. Justine said “I feel like this is some of my best work to date. Being originally from Detroit, I grew up around the blues, R&B and Motown.” The album contains ten original songs written or co-written by Justine and was produced, mixed and mastered by her.
The album opens with a horn driven R&B number straight out of Motown, “Pretend in The Dark” with her soulful voice expressing that everything is alright. On a soulful ballad she says it will be a “Cold Day in Hell” “…when I go running back to you” as Kirk Wakely’s piano and Alan Baker’s organ underscores the song before Larry Mitchell’s guitar rings out.
She then delivers a positive message on a more poppish “Big Bright Beautiful Day” with Claudette King (B.B. King’s Daughter) joining her on vocals and Syreeta Thompson adding a jazzy trumpet. She returns to a more soulful and jazzy song as she is crying “Tears of Blue” and they won’t stop over you. Suzanne Grzanna provides some soft sax work emphasizing her sadness.
The “Sound of My Heels” rocks out as she states, “that this is the last sound you hear from me as I walk out that door.” Lou Molitch’s guitar booms out throughout the song and Luke Mosely adds a nice organ run. Next, she offers a little story about learning lessons the “Hard Way” that has something of a country feel. A soft “Between Here and Gone” offers a duet with Damian Wyldes that continues to blur the line between country and the blues.
“Bad Love” again rocks out as she laments “that I thought you were the one that would always be there”. Natalie Jean joins on a duet on “Never Get Away” as she notes that “I love you! I hate You” “You always break my heart, but I will never betray you.” as Kirk Wakeley’s piano drives the song. The title song offers a soft, jazzy conclusion with her declaration that she is just a “Girl Singing the Blues”.
Justine’s voice is certainly enjoyable and draws you in constantly and clearly shows her current country influences.
Writer John Sacksteder is a retired civil engineer in Louisville, Kentucky who has a lifelong love of music, particularly the blues. He is currently the Editor of the Kentuckiana Blues Society’s monthly newsletter.
Featured Blues Review – 3 of 6
Paul Cowley – Stroll Out West
Self – Released
12 Tracks – 51 minutes
Paul Cowley is a blues musician who grew up in Birmingham – England, not Alabama. He discovered the blues late in life when in his early 40’s he first heard Lightnin’ Hopkins’ album Coffee House Blues. He said, “It was like flipping a switch.” He was particularly further influenced by acoustic country blues performed by songwriters and storytellers such as Mississippi Fred McDowell, Mississippi John Hurt, Blind Willie McTell and others.
In Birmingham, he sharpened his skills on the guitar, meanwhile being instrumental in the formation of a blues club, The Sutton Blues Collective, which booked artists such as Guy Davis, Doug MacLeod, and Watermelon Slim. After ten years, he decided to pursue the blues life for himself. He moved from Birmingham to southern Brittany in France, where he chose a very rural space with a granite barn. That barn with its great acoustics became his recording studio for his most recent five albums. According to his web site, he has released a total of eight albums, the first dating back to 2005.
The title of his new album Stroll Out West comes from a line he heard from Robert Petway’s Catfish Blues. He felt that the title referenced his own gradual westward moves in life. He regularly tours around France and does a few extra shows in England and Belgium. The album is mostly just the smooth singing voice of Paul and the fine work with his guitar. Pascal Ferrari mixed and mastered the album and does add some backing instrumentation with bass, percussion and additional guitar on seven of the twelve songs. The final mastered tracks were delivered to Paul on New Years Eve 2022 and sets the stage for Paul’s next step in 2023. Seven original songs are mixed together with five covers that Paul rearranged to fit his style.
The opening track describes his idea of the perfect woman on “My Kinda Girl”, as “one who will help me when I am down”. He declares he is “On My Way” as he looks to the future. According to his notes, the next song is a “mischievous not malicious song about a neighbor” who is “Nosey”. “World Gone Crazy” describes the current world political scene in a descriptive manner that probably many around the word feel today. Everything is “upside down, inside out” and he observes that it is “mankind’s continued sleepwalk into its own demise”.
Skip James’ classic “Special Rider Blues” is the first cover. Paul’s interpretation slows the song down and adds slide guitar into the mix to make it his own. Paul says that he was enamored by Smokey Robinson and The Miracles’ “Tracks of My Tears” for decades. He turns the tune into a quiet acoustic version while maintaining a soulful approach to the song. Pascal’s drum adds some welcome rhythm.
Paul credits his friend Jim Crawford, a fellow musician with whom he occasionally performs as providing the inspiration for “Songs of Love”. He says that those songs “just come down from above”. Paul’s father passed away in 2021, which led him to the realization that ” Life Is Short” and “just how fleeting and precious life is”.
“Stagger Lee” has significantly different versions written over the years and performed by many different artists. What is known about the song is that at Christmas 1895 in St. Louis, Billy Lyons was shot down by “Stag” Lee Shelton. A song titled “Stack-a-Lee” about the murder was first mentioned in an 1897 newspaper as being performed by Prof. Charlie Lee, the piano thumper. However, it is generally known that there were many folk songs circulating about the event at the time with other variant names. The first publication of the song occurred in 1911 and the first recording of the song was by Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians in 1923 using the title “Stack O’ Lee Blues”. While the true origins of the song are certainly nebulous, the well-known song has long enamored many musicians over the decades. Here Paul chose to use a 1928 version by Mississippi John Hurt as the basis for his arrangement.
As mentioned at the beginning of this review, a line from Robert Petway’s “Catfish Blues” provided the title for this album. Paul mixes some slide and electric guitar into his version of the song. Paul finishes the album with Robert Johnson’s “Preachin’ Blues” providing some great slide guitar. The song famous for its description of the blues as “a low-down achin’ chill” is an apt finish for the album.
Paul’s warm vocals blend his affinity for smooth understated acoustic guitar to provide some of the finest country styled blues I have heard in a while. While he has never been to Mississippi, he certainly has studied well at the feet of the masters.
Writer John Sacksteder is a retired civil engineer in Louisville, Kentucky who has a lifelong love of music, particularly the blues. He is currently the Editor of the Kentuckiana Blues Society’s monthly newsletter.
Featured Blues Review – 4 of 6
Alabama Mike – Stuff I’ve Been Through
Little Village – 2023
11 tracks; 61 minutes
Alabama Mike (Benjamin) is a fine vocalist who has featured on several albums recorded at Greaseland Studios in recent times; he also helped finish the last album by the Andy T Band when Nick Nixon’s health declined and was a featured vocalist on Junior Watson’s 2019 album Nothing To It But To Do It. I believe that this is his fifth solo album since 2005 and it’s a fine, all original effort that combines catchy tunes with both serious and comic messages. There is a large cast of musicians, producer Kid Andersen on guitar throughout, Bobby Young playing on four cuts and heavyweight guests Rusty Zinn and Anson Funderburgh appearing on one cut each: keyboards are shared between Jim Pugh and Lorenzo Hawkins, bass between Jerry Jemmott, AJ Joyce and Endre Tarczy and drums between Derrick ‘D’Mar’ Martin and Ronnie Smith; Lisa Leuschner Andersen and Vicki Randle share the backing vocals, Vicki also adding percussion. Horns are by Bernard Anderson and Doug Rowan (sax), Mike Rinta (trombone) and Jeff Lewis (trumpet) and strings by Don Dally and Lars Anderson. Mike himself is on lead vocals throughout and plays harmonica on one track, Rick Estrin playing on the other cut with harp.
The album opens with the title track, a personal statement about getting through hard times: “Stuff I’ve been through would have killed the average man, but by the grace of God, here I stand”. It’s a big production number with Jerry Jemmott’s bass underpinning dramatic strings and powerful horns, Rusty Zinn’s central solo catching the mood of the lyrics. Alternating serious and comic songs, Mike decries what he calls ‘fat shaming’ in a bouncing, funky number in which he recognizes that he may be overweight, but he is not willing to let people “Fat Shame” him. Amongst the great lines in the song are some serious criticism of airline JetBlue, plus we get this as part of the chorus: “I’m fat, I’m lit, you can’t tell me s**t”! California is not all streets of gold, as Mike tells us in the slow blues “This Ain’t No Disneyland” with the backing vocalists and mournful trumpet featured. In complete contrast “Goodbye Tamika” is an attractive soul tune with great horns and a terrific groove, albeit that the song celebrates the end of a relationship, the title character failing to live up to Mike’s standards, slumped on the couch watching TV and smoking dope – it’s a standout track on the album.
“King Cock” is a classic tale of the metaphorical strutting rooster who dominates the barnyard and “Pine Bluff Arkansas” pays tribute to the classic ‘big fine woman’ on a swirling blues with good horns and features Mike’s only harp work here. More women troubles abound on “Woman On The Warpath”, complete with drumming that fits the title and a heavy production with big guitars and horns, another excellent track. Mike then adopts the suave soul singer model as he half sings, half talks about his ability to “improve your mood” as he is ‘Mr DC’ – “Damage Control”. We return to a second part of “Fat Shame” which closes the studio album, but be sure to also check out the video for the song on YouTube, it’s great fun!
Added to the album are two live cuts. The first is “Mississippi”, recorded in San José, CA, with Rick Estrin sitting in on harmonica, a blues tribute to the state with great piano from Jim Pugh and D’Mar’s exciting drum work; Mike works the crowd brilliantly, getting them involved in spelling out the name and warning them that only one state has previously messed it up. Mike’s regular set closer is “God Is With You”, on this occasion taped in Basel, Switzerland at Patrick Kaiser’s Groove Now sessions. Lisa Andersen shares the vocals and shows herself to be a fine gospel-soaked singer, the extended tune making a great finale to a fine album that may well figure in the awards lists later in the year.
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
Matt Rogers – Goodnight Boogie: A Tale Of Guns, Wolves, & The Blues of Hound Dog Taylor
272 Pages Paperback Edition
If the only thing that Theodore Roosevelt Taylor did during his career was to serve as the inspiration for Bruce Iglauer to start his Alligator Records label for the sole purpose of recording Taylor, that alone would be enough to guarantee the guitarist a well-deserved place of honor in the history of blues music. But, as author Matt Rogers makes abundantly clear, there is plenty more to the story of an artist who’s influence still reverberates almost 50 years after his passing, as witnessed by the band GA-20 recently releasing a full album tribute to the iconic blues man.
Born in Mississippi in 1917, Taylor had a familiar upbringing – parents that were sharecroppers, learning music in church, and not getting much of a formal education. After a disagreement, his stepfather forced the nine year old Taylor to leave home. He went to live with his sister, who had a house nearby with a piano. That became Taylor’s first instrument. Once he became confident about his abilities, he began to play house parties and juke joints, sometimes using a mule and wagon to haul the piano across fields to his next gig.
By the time he was 20 years old, Taylor had made the switch to guitar, which was far easier to transport. He learned by watching other area guitar players, eventually shifting to slide guitar just as Robert Johnson had done. Being born with an extra digit on each hand certainly helped his slide work. Taylor had heard plenty of Johnson’s music growing up. He claimed to have taught a youthful Elmore James how to play Johnson’s classic, “Dust My Broom,” which later became a huge hit for James, much to Taylor’s dismay.
In 1942, Taylor left Mississippi after an armed confrontation with a local white man who suspected that the guitarist was interested in his wife. The next day, a posse of the Ku Klux Klan appeared in his yard, setting a cross on fire. Taylor slipped out the back, managing to sneak away. He quickly decided to take a long bus trip to Chicago where he could stop looking over his shoulder.
Once he arrived, it took a few years of playing clubs to start to get noticed. He recorded several tracks for small record labels, which helped him get better gigs. While playing a gig at a West side club, Taylor meets guitarist Brewer Phillips. The two quickly learn that they speak the same musical language. Several years later, Taylor makes the decision to ask drummer Ted Harvey to join his band. Harvey had been backing Elmore James until his untimely passing. The final piece was in place. Hound Dog Taylor and the HouseRockers were ready to take on the world.
With Harvey laying down a driving beat while Phillips added bass lines and fills on his guitar, Taylor had the perfect band for his raucous style. Playing his inexpensive Japanese guitar through a worn amplifier cranked to the point of distortion while sitting in a chair, Taylor seldom failed to turn an audience into a swirling mass of dancers. The trio was soon filling any venue that booked them, gaining a reputation as the band to beat in town.
With the release of their first album on Alligator, and Iglauer’s guidance, the band’s popularity spread quickly, leading to better bookings, including festivals and European tours. The music was raw and intense, the money was right, so the future looked promising.
At least until Phillips and Harvey decided that they deserved a bigger share of the money coming in. Taylor had been a heavy drinker all of his life, and Phillips was in the same league. They would get into arguments time and again, with Iglauer and Harvey doing their best to smooth things over, especially when the disagreements occurred on stage. It all came to a head late one night with near tragic consequences.
The release of the band’s second album, Natural Boogie in 1974, kept Taylor in the spotlight. Rolling Stone magazine did a feature piece on him, a high honor for any blues artist. Soon he and Iglauer started working on tracks for a live album, a recording that promised to capture the band at its houserockin’ finest. Then Taylor began to feel poorly, and a few short months later he was gone.
The foreword, written by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, describes the lasting influence Taylor had on Auerbach’s style. Additional praise at several points comes from another famous slide guitarist, George Thorogood, who spent a career trying to emulate Taylor’s sound. It is a tale with many surprising twists and turns, told in fine fashion by Matt Rogers, making this fascinating biography a highly recommended addition to your blues library!
Blues Blast Magazine Senior writer Mark Thompson lives in Florida, where he is enjoying the sun and retirement. He is the past President of the Board of Directors for the Suncoast Blues Society and a former member of the Board of Directors for the Blues Foundation. Music has been a huge part of his life for the past fifty years – just ask his wife!
Featured Blues Review – 6 of 6
Seth Rosenbloom – As the Crow Flies
9 songs, 47 minutes
New England has a Blues sound. The home of Duke Robillard, Ronnie Earl, Sugar Ray Norcia and Anthony Geraci, throughout the 1970’s from the bottom of Rhode Island to the top of Maine was bristling with Blues Power. A swinging melting pot of Chicago marching, West Coast Swing, Texas shuffle and a bit of Mass-hole defiance, New England Blues rides a Blues Rock line that tips more Blues than Rock. New England also produces generation after generation of Blues musicians. Current elite Bluesmen and women Monster Mike Welch, Susan Tedeschi and Erin Harpe all learned at the feat of Robillard, Earl and company.
Waltham, MA born guitar firebrand Seth Rosenbloom is a fine ambassador for a new generation of New England Blues. Rosenbloom’s 2nd full length As the Crow Flies features a meeting of generations while presenting a view of how the Northeast sound could be moving forward. A combination of original material, co-writes with local artists and excellently chosen covers, As the Crow Flies snaps along at an unhurried pace, letting the Blues slowly work their way around the listener.
Rosenbloom assembled a murderers’ row of musicians. Top on the bill are the husband-wife team from the Boston collective Band of Killers, Sonya Rae and Ryan Taylor on background vocals and guitar respectively. Duke Robillard Band members Bruce Bears on keys and Mark Teixeira on drums offer veteran polish and flourish. Boston based bassist, and current North Mississippi All Star, Jesse Williams rounds out the rhythm section. Local singing sensation Erica Van Pelt contributes additional background vocals and Michael Rosenbloom (one can assume a relative of Seth’s) adds violin and Andra Voldins Dix adds viola. This is truly a mixing of the generational music scene that is at the core of New England Blues.
The music is also cross generational. “Gotta Roll” is a tune penned by Sonya Rae Taylor that shuffles and scrambles. The darkly riffing co-write between Ms. Taylor and Rosenbloom “Did You Try to Break My Heart” is all menace and anguish. These new tunes are put in contrast with the title track, a 1972 Tony Joe White boogie. Here played for maxim thump with Ryan Taylor slashing at Rosenbloom’s lead work with Duane Allman styled slide runs.
The stand out performance on the album that drives home its regional roots is “I Wish You Could See Me Know.” Written by Ronnie Earl and Darrell Nulisch from Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters’ 1990 landmark recording Peace of Mind, “I Wish…” is a gem of Soul Blues invention from a foundational band. Rosenbloom is not the singer Nullisch is, nor is anyone a guitarist of the same caliber of Earl (except his friend Duke Robillard). What Rosenbloom does is pay homage, pay respect. By being himself and employing his crack band to breathe modern life into this 30 year old song, Rosenbloom transcends and makes the New England Blues his own.
Seth Rosenbloom has crafted a great album in As the Crow Flies. The music is performed with feeling and intention. The tempos are unhurried allowing for extra grind and swagger. There is space and dynamic creating drama for all of Rosenbloom’s solos to scorch. Seth Rosenbloom is showing he understands the lessons to be learned from his elders. He is also taking advantage of the possibility the music holds for the future.
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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