Cover photo © 2023 Joseph A. Rosen
In This Issue
Anita Schlank has our feature interview with Rory Block. We have six Blues reviews for you this week including Volume 5 of the Blind Raccoon and Nola Blue Collection plus new music from Benjamin Vo, Steve Hill, Danny Liston, Sistel Lucille and Black Diamond Express: Matchbox Bluesmaster Series Set 11. Scroll down and check it out!
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Featured Interview – Rory Block
What blues artist wouldn’t wish to have a close enough relationship with Koko Taylor that an affectionate nickname was earned? Acclaimed Country Blues artist, (and seven-time Blues Music Award-winner), Aurora “Rory” Block, had such a relationship, and Koko used to call Rory “Little Miss Dynamite”. A reference to that relationship can be heard toward the end of one of the songs on Rory’s latest release, Ain’t Nobody Worried. Blues Blast Magazine had the opportunity to catch up with Rory by telephone recently, and learned more about how that nickname came to be.
“I met Koko in Germany when we were both on tour. I was the opening act for a couple of her concerts as well as on a TV show, and she started calling me ‘Little Miss Dynamite’. We crossed paths again back in the US, where it was clear that ‘Little Miss Dynamite’ was still my nickname. Once in the dining room at a festival we were sitting and talking about our lives— she told me her husband was very ill and she was grieved about being away from him. I felt so sad for her- the demands of the road can be brutal that way. I was recovering from a recent breakup, and my self-esteem was at an all-time low. She was incredibly kind, and said (from memory), ‘Just let him go- he’s a fool, because he just lost a good woman! You can do better. Don’t sit around pining- get up and get back out there.’ It was the ultimate pep talk from a woman of wisdom. I’m so grateful for that moment in time. Now that she’s not with us anymore, her awesome version of ‘Cried Like a Baby’ just jumped out of the speakers and spoke to my heart. I knew I had to record it as a tribute to her. It brought back the wonderful pep talk she gave me to hear her sing: ‘Yes I cried like a baby, when you left me last Friday night, but now I made me some new connections, and everything is really alright!’”
Rory grew up in Manhattan at a time when some of the most talented musicians in the world also lived there, including Bob Dylan, John Sebastian and Maria Muldaur. In addition, blues greats such as Son House, Skip James, Mississippi John Hurt, Reverend Gary Davis and Bukka White were being rediscovered and brought to the area. As a teenager, Rory was introduced to these blues masters by her friend, Stefan Grossman, who knew all the musicians, record collectors and music historians in the area, and took guitar lessons from Gary Davis. Rory was also able to take lessons from Davis, was able to spend time with Mississippi John Hurt, and also had the chance to play with Son House, all at a very early age. Although she had this unique experience of having these masters as mentors, like most other artists, she did not have a mentor to teach her the business aspect of a career in music and about how to survive in the music industry.
“In the beginning I didn’t have a clue about the business side of things, but one is eventually forced to learn the ropes out of necessity. I did get fairly good at accounting over the years. As far as publicity and where you should market your music, it’s a very different world now than it was in the 1970s. Then you were in the hands of the record company. They contacted the radio stations and did all of the publicity. Now that many artists are releasing their own CDs, they have to do most of that themselves on social media. I’m not a social media person, so I would have difficulty if I were starting out today, thus it’s really great to have a label that does all of that for me.
As far as advancing my own career, on the one hand I was dealing with the insecurity and discouragement from my childhood (mostly from my mother), but on the other hand I somehow managed to become irrationally optimistic, believing that ‘the sky is the limit’, and I ultimately came up with some pretty wild ideas- things that made no sense- like my idea that Stevie Wonder could somehow play on my album. But I happened to know someone who worked as an engineer with Stevie, so I said ‘Jim, do you think Stevie might agree to play on my album?’ And Jim said ‘Well, it’s worth a shot.’ So I sent the song, and Jim called me in the middle of the night to say ‘Guess what, Stevie said yes!’ Later Bonnie Raitt, Mark Knopfler, Taj Mahal, and a number of other great artists have also been incredibly kind to me, and have played on my recordings. Honestly, I have exceeded my dreams in that regard and know I’ve been blessed.”
In addition to an entirely different method of publicity, there were other differences in the music industry back in the early seventies. Rory was asked if she endured much sexism throughout her career.
“In the beginning the sexism was bad. People used to tell me, ‘That’s not the way girls are supposed to play the guitar’. When I opened for my friend John Hammond in Australia, there were some people who were actually offended by my playing. Someone came into the back room and admonished me for playing aggressively and slamming the guitar like Charley Patton. I just said, ‘But that’s the way it’s meant to be played.’ The attitude at the time was (at least for some people), “girls don’t do that.’ But I never accepted that of course and have never altered my attack on the guitar for any reason.
Another example of this was when I was in California. I was 15 years old at the time and playing onstage with Fred McDowell, when someone jumped up and shouted, ‘She plays like a man!’ I have always had a strident guitar style because my dad played his instrument that way- with authority and power- and also, that’s the way country blues was written. But at the time I found that many people had a bias that women were only supposed to play soft little arpeggios and sing in a whispery voice.
Then there was also sexism on the radio. Programmers used to say, ‘we don’t program chick singers back-to-back, we have to space them out and have a certain number of male artists in-between’. That was totally weird. It was as if people might get annoyed, or maybe lose interest, if there were female voices one right after the other. It never made any sense to me, and I would bring it up frequently to anyone who would listen. I remember asking ‘why is it OK to play ten songs by men and only one or two by women?’ Thankfully over time this has changed. Now I often hear that promoters are specifically looking for female artists to feature in their lineup. So perhaps it has evened out.”
Rory is currently on Stony Plain Records, her third record label. She discussed how it can be difficult to find a label that is willing to give artistic freedom to the musician.
“I was with Rounder Records for fourteen recordings. In my prior experience record labels always tried to dictate what and how I would record. As a result, I was amazed when Rounder said when I first signed with them, ‘don’t worry about making a radio-friendly record’. They said, ‘just make a record that you think is beautiful.’ I was blown away- they gave me complete artistic freedom right up to the 14th release. But then they started coming up with themes and assigned me a producer. I know they had the best intentions, and I probably should have followed through, but I felt confined. I’m a free bird that has to have total space artistically. That said it was not a negative parting, I just understood that it was time to see what else was out there. After working with a few different labels (all great people and all good experiences), I connected with Stony Plain Records- and they are really fantastic. They are completely supportive and give me total artistic freedom. I can truly say that I have 100% support from them.”
Rory realized she had some exceptional experiences in her life and decided to write her memoir, detailing the opportunities she had to meet and work with some of the legends in the business. She published the book but found that she had to push past the effects of her upbringing to allow herself to talk about her experiences.
“When I first started to play guitar, my mother was very discouraging. She told me I was being ‘loud’ and ‘pushy’, and that I was just trying to call attention to myself. Of course as a child with a burning desire to play music this devastated me- I ended up with a little voice in my head telling me to tone it down, stay out of the limelight, and not draw attention to myself. I even stopped playing for almost a decade because of this. It still affects me today, but I have managed to come to terms with the reasons my mother felt this way. She was simply repeating what she had been told when she was growing up. She was an excellent singer herself and had once auditioned for The Weavers. Family rumor later confirmed that she had been accepted, but that she declined to tour because she was pregnant with my older sister. And that was 1948, an entirely different world. She later tearfully apologized to me, and we came to a deep understanding. As I got older, she made it clear how proud and supportive she had become, which gave me much joy. But despite all of this, when I wrote my book, it was difficult for me to recount my experiences- meeting the blues masters, growing up among the many famous and great artists who walked the streets of Greenwich Village. A pesky little voice in my head said it would be boasting. I felt I couldn’t say that I knew Mississippi John Hurt or Son House, Skip James, Fred McDowell, and Reverend Gary Davis. I felt I couldn’t say that Bob Dylan lived two doors away from my dad’s sandal shop (the Allan Block Sandal Shop) and was sometimes inside talking with my dad when I walked in after school. I constantly had to push past the feeling that I should stay in the background. But at the same time, as per what I explained earlier, I also had another part of me that believed in great big dreams, in asking Stevie Wonder to play on my album, and this desire to believe in the power of thought, to seek anything at all that you can envision, has probably ultimately moved me forward.”
Her own experience in pushing past discouragement and insecurity has helped her mentor others when she teaches students. She found that she was not alone in being hesitant to be the center of attention, and it was not just other women that she had to encourage to take advantage of the spotlight. She also became skilled at teaching people how to play slide guitar, a technique she initially struggled to learn.
“The most common issue I find with students is insecurity. I urge aspiring players not to be apologetic— to play louder and with more confidence. I tell them to harness their own personal energy: ‘Play so people can’t ignore you’. I think of a particular student who was learning play Son House, but thought he wasn’t good enough to sing. In fact, he was an excellent player with a fine voice, and really just needed to sing louder and play with more authority. He has since formed a duo and has a solid following. Regarding teaching slide guitar, I think of it as being completely personal to each and every player. Finding ‘the pocket’ is a little bit like mastering a tennis back hand. You simply have to do it your own way. In the beginning I tried to play Robert Johnson without a slide, just using my bare fingers. But finally, I realized it was going to be a necessary part of my style. So, I struggled with it for the longest time. For years there were no slides in stores at all. You simply had to find a way to create your own. My guy friends would make them out of wine bottles, but I never found anything small enough to fit my hand- they would just fall right off my finger. Then people started bringing me custom-made slides: glass, porcelain, brass- and I built up a nice collection, but still, nothing ever fit me. Finally, John Hammond said to me, ‘go out and get yourself a socket wrench—they come in all sizes’. So, I tried on a bunch of sockets until I found one that fit, and they sanded the end off for me right there, and I started practicing. Still, I didn’t find that ‘Zen’ place right away. Then when Bonnie Raitt played on one of my albums and we were mixing, the engineer soloed her playing in the speakers, I could immediately hear that I had been doing it all wrong. She had a beautiful relaxed style- I say it was as if ‘she was taking a stroll up the neck.’ I was racing around nervously overshooting and undershooting, and my vibrato was razzing and buzzing, and just not in the pocket. Her vibrato was easy and funky. She would also make these incredible leaping notes, jumping right off the neck with the slide. So cool, so much blues energy… and that’s when I started practicing for real, listening to Bonnie, Ry Cooder and Brendon Croker (an excellent British guitarist who was in a band with Mark Knopfler at the time called ‘The Notting Hillbillies’). One day I was practicing and all of a sudden I thought, ‘hey—I think it’s working’. Something must have just clicked. That’s the ‘Zen’ thing— a peaceful feeling just descends along with an out-of-body experience. You let in other energy. Most of what I play and write is through this out-of-body state. Townes Van Zandt once said, when asked how he wrote Poncho and Lefty, ‘I have no idea. It just flew in through the window.’ And that’s how it feels when you’re in this creative space.”
In addition to ingeniously interpreting songs she covers, Rory is also a gifted songwriter. One of the more intriguing of her original songs is “Father and Two Sons,” which tells the tale of the prodigal son. Rory revealed that she was commissioned to write and perform this song.
“Some years ago, a film producer named Merle Worth contacted me about a video project she was producing for the American Bible Society. They were doing modern translations of well-known bible stories and wanted to put them out in a music video format because they believed that young people were moving away from reading and would be more likely to watch a video. The producer, Merle, had heard me singing ‘Walk in Jerusalem’ (on one of my early Rounder Record releases), and felt I would be right for the project. They needed me to write a ten-minute song, and I would be required to use the exact words that they provided. In much the same way I mentioned above, the song just ‘came in through the window’, and somehow, I was able to create the full ten minutes. Merle loved it, I felt proud of my accomplishment, and the American Bible Society gave it the thumbs up.
So, we all went down to Marietta, Georgia to do the video. It turned out to be a major production, filmed over several days on a beautiful horse farm, with a large crew and multiple actors involved. In one of the scenes, I was going to be riding a white stallion bareback just as dawn was breaking. We all arose in darkness and were in place with the horses awaiting the morning light. There was a mist coming off the water as dawn started to break. This is exactly what they wanted, so they started filming me riding bareback along the water, when all of a sudden, we heard a rumbling sound which got louder and louder. Then a herd of horses appeared, racing towards us, and it turned out they were coming to kill the horse I was riding! My horse was a stallion, and they were geldings, so this was just some kind of instinctive call of the wild. There was complete hysteria as the herd surrounded my horse, banging up against us from all sides while my horse reared and snorted. I was scared out of my mind and knew I was about to die. If I had fallen off or received a direct hit with a hoof, I would have gone down and gotten trampled. Luckily, I was an accomplished rider and stayed on my horse. The expert staff from the stable somehow managed to drive the horses away and run them back up the hill. My life was spared. I realized this is what actors must go through when they make action films. It can get dangerous. It turned out to be an amazing video, and no one got hurt. Although the song wasn’t intended to be on any of my records, I showed the video to Rounder, and they loved it. They wanted to put it on the recording I had just completed, so we asked permission from The American Bible Society, and ‘A Father And Two Sons’ ended up on my ‘Angel of Mercy’ release.”
Rory often finds that people in the audience feel a certain bond with her over songs she had written, such as “Lovin’ Whiskey”. People who have loved alcoholics find that song resonates strongly with them, and it can be healing to hear in the words that they are not alone in the pain they are experiencing. Rory was asked about this and about whether there were any songs where the actual process of writing was therapeutic for her.
“While almost all my originals are therapeutic for me when I write them, ‘Spider Boy’ was probably the most intense of all. It was about the death of my oldest son, when he was eighteen, in a car accident. He was a new driver and was following another friend when he lost control around a curve. This is a loss you never get over, and the comfort it brings to others in the same situation can’t be estimated. The song ‘Rosaline’ was about a miscarriage, so it’s another one about loss and grief. ‘Lovin’ Whiskey’ is my most famous original, and many people have told me it helped them through the hardest times in their lives. ‘Silver Wings’ is another one that people say is personally healing to them. It’s about the loss of a dear friend. Then there’s ‘Mama’s Blues.’ I probably can’t think of all the songs I have written that are about the things we all struggle with in life, which is most likely how they end up helping others. If it’s personal to me, it’s probably personal to someone else too, or maybe even many other people. A lot of my songs are about life and death struggles and what it all means. There is much spiritual content. When a person needs healing, just knowing you’re not alone is incredibly important.”
Rory lives in a very small town in upstate New York, and she and her husband bought an abandoned church building. They have used it as a venue for music events, and Rory also became ordained as a minister and has held services there.
“There is a beautiful old church building on my street. It was an active church with services, weddings and a wide range of events when I first moved into my house. Gradually it fell into disuse. I heard that it had been ‘decommissioned’ and had come onto the market as ‘residential’ (think condos and permanent historic changes to the building). Through an amazing series of unlikely events, it eventually became possible for me to purchase it to save the building. So, I put down a binder, but then someone else immediately outbid me. To make a long story short, they later withdrew the offer, and the building ended up with me and my husband. Although we were really in no position to buy it, I am a preservationist at heart. It gives me joy to have saved it, and quite a few people in the community thank us for this.
At first, I thought my friends at the local AME church might be able to use it, as they needed more parking spaces. But they were not able to move at the time, so, I wondered, who would run the services? I’ve always said I am a ‘blues preacher’- so I decided to get ordained. The pastor at the AME church recommended a worthy organization, and I wrote a thesis and stated my reasons. Then their board looked over my application and evaluated my goals. I got approved and ran services until the shutdowns, but unfortunately, we haven’t been able to open since then. We had a very small but faithful group, and I quickly got a profound education in what it means to be the pastor of a little flock. I did a wedding, and a funeral, and someone brought their child to the church for healing. She had a rare condition where she was regressing instead of getting older, and it just kept getting worse. They asked me to lay hands on her and pray. I wasn’t sure exactly what I was supposed to do, but I jumped in, and I can say they were encouraged. If I can help someone through music, or through the church- anything that is positive and supportive- then that’s what I want to do.”
Like most musicians, the pandemic took a toll on Rory. But she and her husband started doing home broadcasts to keep connected to fans and raise some income.
“The power of fear is really unfathomable. We were all terrified we’d catch this horrifying disease and choke and die. As a singer this was beyond frightening to me. And as we all know, tragically, many, many people did die, and there was so much suffering! During this time lots of people got deeply depressed. We lost friends to suicide during the shutdowns. And it was overwhelming to have all the shows cancelled. Three different times we rescheduled just to have everything cancel all over again. We realized we were going to have to reinvent ourselves to survive, so we started doing home broadcasts, and it had an amazingly healing effect. We formed a community and kept in touch that way. We are still doing these broadcasts and have done 198 shows thus far, with March 27th having been our three-year anniversary since starting the home broadcasts. During shutdowns I also was able to continue making records at home because my husband is my engineer. It saved my life— gave me a way to continue doing the thing I love most on earth— music.”
Rory tends to avoid the use of social media, so was unaware of recent discussions during which some artists criticized white blues musicians for appearing as if they were attempting to appropriate Black culture.
“I always say, ‘it’s not your skin, it’s your soul. You can’t control what inspires the human heart.’ I fell in love with the music that was around me when I was growing up. It was the most haunting and powerful music I had ever heard, and it spoke to what was in my heart. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time, and as such was able to spend in-person time with blues giants like Son House, Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James, Reverend Gary Davis, Fred McDowell and others as a teenager. There was always a feeling of deep connection. None of these great artists ever treated me with disrespect or disdain and I always treated them with total respect. I loved them. They were blues gods, and I was in awe. I never had a feeling that I shouldn’t be doing this- the connection was so strong I really had no choice. Music- country blues, old timey country music, gospel, classical, folk, and a little bit of jazz- is simply a calling on my life.
I have always credited the original songwriters, and not because it was politically correct (that didn’t exist then), but because it is the right thing to do. I’ve always been upset when people fail to credit those who wrote these old songs. In the beginning there was a trend towards thinking that this music had faded into the background, and that nobody would care who may have originally played or written it. I say give proper credit to the artists who wrote and performed the songs. I honor the people who wrote the music and love the original arrangements, which I play as faithfully as possible out of respect.”
One way in which Rory has honored them is through creating tribute albums. She has released albums paying tribute to Son House, Rev. Gary Davis, Mississippi John Hurt, Bukka White, Bessie Smith, and Son House. Rory Block was taught by the masters and is truly a legendary acoustic country blues artist. She is currently nominated in three categories for Blues Music Awards. If you witness her live performances, you will quickly see how she came to earn that nickname, “Little Miss Dynamite”. To find out more about Rory’s tour dates and albums, (or to purchase her autobiography), visit www.roryblock.com
Writer 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 – 1 of 6
Various Artists – Blind Raccoon and Nola Blue Collection Volume 5
Blue Heart Records BHR 039
30 songs – 134 minutes
One of the busiest partnerships in the music industry, Blind Raccoon and Blue Heart/Nola Blue Records have released dozens of high-quality albums in the past few years and celebrating their artists with beefy, two-CD compilations. As in the past, this release – the fifth in the series – features a smorgasbord of talent – ranging from major, established talents to rising stars — across the blues and roots spectrum.
The brainchild of Memphis-based Betsie Brown, the head honcho at the artist management organization, Blind Raccoon, and Sallie Bengston, who operates Blue Heart and Nola Blue out of Pennsylvania, this set follows the same formula as the four previous releases. It’s a mix of fan favorites, unreleased bonus tracks, early listens to tunes on upcoming albums and more from their large — and steadily growing — talent base.
One glance at the names on this one – which include 2023 Grammy nominee Teresa James, BMA keyboard player of the year Anthony Geraci, soul-blues giant John Németh and Freddie King brother/bassist Benny Turner — and you’ll know you’re in for a treat. And with 26 more artists from coast to coast to choose from, the hits keep on coming.
James and her Rhythm Tramps kick things off in style with “I’d Do It for You,” in which she delivers a laundry list of things she’ll do for her lover than she won’t do for anyone else. R&B keyboard player Floyd Dixon left us at age 77 in 2006 but lives again through the ballad “Time Brings About a Change,” which features a young Kid Ramos on six-string, leads into the uptempo “Jefferson Way” by female harp player/guitarist Stacy Jones and a bluesy reading of “The In Crowd” by Steve Howell & the Mighty Men.
A new star who makes her debut in her mid-50s, Gayle Harrod will grab your attention with “Come on People” before former Band collaborator Professor Louie & the Cromatix’s deliver the encouraging “Elevate Yourself” and veteran British guitarist Dave Thomas revisits his “Repossession Blues.” Things heat up again for Carol Sylvan and the Uptown Horns’ “Savin’ Up for Your Love” before sultry vocalist S.JA joins New York guitar great Robert Hill for “Maybe You Will Someday.”
Other must-listens on disc one include the Canadian supergroup The Maple Blues Band’s “Hey Nola,” Big Easy favorite Tiffany Pollack’s “Dissent,” harp master Kenny Parker’s rock-steady “Tight Black Sweater” and Reverend Freakchild’s acoustic, gospel-tinged “Good Shepherd.”
Geraci opens disc two in style with “Haven’t Seen My Baby,” a two-fisted barrelhouse workout that echoes the greats of the 88s before Németh and his Blue Dreamers celebrate their decades-long partnership with “My Baby’s Gone.” One of the top organists in the world, John Ginty dazzles with the instrumental, “Switch,” before Minnesota veteran Mark Cameron bemoans lost love in “That’s a Fact” and Debbie Bond adopts a world beat for “Blues Without Borders.”
David Lumsden pays tribute to Hendrix with “Ode to Jimi (Slow Burn)” before the label pays tribute to late Philadelphia bluesman Frank Bey with inclusion of “Imagine” from his final, Grammy-nominated CD. Trevor B. Power’s guitar-fueled “Troubled to the Core” drives steadily before yielding to Texas firebrands Rochelle & the Sidewinders’ “My Baby Came Back.”
Other choice cuts from disc two include Anthony “Big A” Sherrod’s Howlin’ Wolf send-up, “Everybody Ain’t Your Friend,” rising Alex Lopez’s uplifting “See the Light,” Carlos Elliot and Bobby Gentilo’s Spanish ballad, “Cielo,” and Turner’s unhurried, deep-blue closer, “Born in This Time.”
There’s no better way to discover new artists than to dive into a collection like this one. Dive in, and I’m sure you’ll agree!
Blues Blast Magazine Senior writer Marty Gunther has lived a blessed life. Now based out of Charlotte, N.C., his first experience with live music came at the feet of the first generation of blues legends at the Newport Folk Festivals in the 1960s. A former member of the Chicago blues community, he’s a professional journalist and blues harmonica player who co-founded the Nucklebusters, one of the hardest working bands in South Florida.
Featured Blues Review – 2 of 6
Benjamin Vo – Poor Sam
Self-Release – 2023
10 tracks; 43 minutes
Benjamin Vo is a young guitarist from Pennsylvania. This album arrived without any information apart from the track list and the fact that the songs were all written by Benjamin. Not a lot to go on, but a quick surf on the internet revealed that the musicians involved were Benjamin on guitar and vocals, François Byers on piano, Jeff Pickel on bass, Joel Stoltzfos on drums; Peter Wile McKibben adds harmonica to one track.
The overall style is stripped back electric blues, typified by opener “Looking For My Baby” which sounds like early Fleetwood Mac as Benjamin delivers the mournful vocals over steady drums, bass and piano, adding stinging piano to good effect and François playing strongly towards the end of the track. “Weeping And Praying” is a stripped back solo acoustic performance on what sounds like a National Steel guitar before a fine slow blues, “Sweet Like Honey” on which Benjamin pays tribute to his lady while playing some lovely licks. Slide guitar gives “I Wonder Why” a Delta feel, another solo piece, well done on the steel guitar. “Wiggly Worm” is a short solo guitar instrumental which shows Benjamin’s picking abilities and acts as a sort of half-way point in the album. The full band is on hand for the lugubrious slow blues “Let Me Die With A Smile”, Benjamin’s guitar lines adding just the right tone of sadness to fit the title; the longest track on the album, this one is a great vehicle for Benjamin’s playing; check out the echoey guitar around the five minute mark, another trademark Peter Green styling.
Benjamin gives us another instrumental, “Poor Sam”, which starts solo acoustic but the band then comes in and the fast-paced section rockets along with François’ piano leading the charge – a fun cut. Back to less cheerful stuff with “Hospital Bed Blues”, another beautifully poised slow blues with sad lyrics over a tune that recalls “Need Your Love So Bad”, Benjamin’s guitar also carrying that feel; his solo here is particularly well done. “Wer Willy” rocks things up a bit, the drums and percussion leading into a New Orleans beat with the guest harmonica adding a different sound to the track. The lyrics are fairly minimal but will probably be enough to make it a track not for radio – you can use your imagination from the title! The album closes with “Gray In White”, another instrumental, again solo acoustic but more in folk style, providing a different side to Benjmin’s playing.
Peter Green is clearly a strong influence on Benjamin’s playing and throughout the disc you can hear echoes of Green’s clean and eloquent phrasing. I enjoyed the disc a lot and so will anyone who enjoys the original Fleetwood Mac.
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 – 3 of 6
Steve Hill – Dear Illusion
No Label Records; 2022
10 tracks; 38 minutes
Canadian Steve Hill is best known as a phenomenal guitarist. However, he is also a talented multi-instrumentalist who has spent nearly half of his career performing as a one-man band, using his feet to play drums and various percussion instruments, and with a harmonica frame around his neck. On his latest release, Dear Illusion, he plays guitar, bass, drums, pedal steel, piano, mandolin, and harmonica, as well as providing the vocals. However, he also collaborates with eight-time winner of the UK award for Drummer of the Year, Wayne Proctor, and has added a fabulous horn section. Of course, it is his guitar work which stands out as the most impressive.
All songs are written or co-written by Hill, and many of them reveal personal stories about his life. He has noted that a painful failed relationship led to several of the songs on this album, such as the title track, “Steal the Light from You”, and “She Gives Lessons in Blues”. In “Dear Illusion” he notes, “your heart can lead you astray. Who is this? Oh, my Lord, how could I have been so blind, to go and lose my mind for an illusion?” In “She gives Lessons in Blues,” he reframes the pain by crediting the woman for teaching him important lessons that will improve his music: “I want to thank you for putting the hurt on me…before I met you, I never knew the meaning of the blues. I’ve been singing the blues for twenty-five years but didn’t know what I was talking about…It only took six months of you to finally make a blues man out of me.”
Hill also takes on some social issues, such as noting the ridiculousness that can be reached by some social media in his song “Don’t Let the Truth Get in the Way (of a Good Story). And one of the most interesting stories from this album explains how he came to write “So it Goes”. He has stated that he got the title from a Kurt Vonnegut book where the character goes to war and whenever someone dies responds by saying, “so it goes”. Hill noted that he knew many people who died fairly recently, and it was those experiences which led to the inspiration for this track.
Despite these fairly intense themes, the album manages to be extremely upbeat, with an overall theme of resilience. He encourages others to carry on, and to put your best foot forward despite any past misfortunes. Hill’s vocals are solid and well-suited to expressively delivering the messages of each song.
Dear Illusion falls fairly far over on the ‘rock’ end of the ‘blues-rock’ continuum, leading it to being labeled by some as “R&B informed” rather than blues-rock. But those who appreciate such a genre, and who appreciate excellent musicianship and clever lyrics, will want to add this fine album to their collection.
Writer 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 – 4 of 6
Danny Liston – Everybody
10 songs time – 45:12
St. Louis singer-songwriter-guitarist Danny Liston, a former member of Southern rockers Mama’s Pride, lends his soulful and forceful pipes to ten slices of R&B, blues and Southern Rock infused songs. The songs drip with intense sincerity. He brings a top-drawer team of seasoned musicians along for the ride to good effect. Danny wrote or co-wrote nine of the ten songs.
The title song is the template for what is to come, as his heartfelt and soulful vocals get energetic reinforcement from Bekka Bramlett, the progeny of Delaney And Bonnie. Will Mcfarlane adds some delicate George Harrison-ish slide guitar. A swampy-funky pilgrimage to find the source of blues magic is embodied in “Didn’t Find My Blues”. The horn section really shines here. “Real Man” is a plaintive, slow sermon on love.
“Old Friends” is a feel good tribute to “old home week”, a celebration of togetherness. The horns bolster the vibe, including a nice SNL sax solo. “Love Everybody” is a smooth R&B number that exalts peace and harmony. Lynyrd Skynyrd attitude is evoked in “Goodbye Jack Daniels”, about cleaning up one’s act and getting sober. “Right As Rain” is a tribute to finding a perfect love. On the other side of the love situation “Scandal” explores an entangled love triangle.
“Made To Rock & Roll” is presented from the perspective of a guitar and it is well represented by some biting Southern Rock guitar soloing. The CD closes out with “A Change Has Come”, a slow-burning profession of faith.
The powerful and moving voice of Danny Liston is the center point of this well healed collection of Southern Rock influenced music. Grammy Award winning producer Jim Gaines has worked his magic here once again. All the instruments are clearly presented, highlighting the top notch top players assembled here. Really nothing here that one could call blues music, but there is a whole lot that you can call great music.
Reviewer Greg “Bluesdog” Szalony hails from the New Jersey Delta.
Featured Blues Review – 5 of 6
Sister Lucille – Tell the World
Blue Heart Records – 2023
10 tracks – 43 minutes
First it should be established that there is no one in the band named Lucille. The band consists of Kimberly Deal on lead vocals, Jamie Holdren on guitar and vocals, Kevin Lyons on drums & percussion, and Reed Herron on bass. Chris Stephenson is shown a s a guest playing keyboards and the B3. Kimberly debuted at the Opry at the Ryman Theater as a teenager and opened for country singer Kitty Wells.
The group name although not directly established in any information provided by the group might have originated from the name of B.B. King’s guitar, Lucille. This determination comes solely from the fact that one of the songs on this their sophomore album, is titled “My Name Is Lucille”, which tells the story of how the name came to be applied to King’s guitar.
The group calls their music “Memphunk”, a reference to the roots, soul and blues music that flows out of Memphis but is enhanced by their own spin adding a funk and jam sound to the mix. While the band originates from Springfield, Missouri, their sound captures the music of Memphis, and the group made their debut on Beale Street in 2014. Their debut album, Alive, charted for 22 months on the Roots Music Report’s Top 50 Blues-rock albums and finished at #10 of the top 200 albums on 2020 year-end chart. Each of the eleven songs on that album hit the Top 50 songs at different times, and three received regular play on Sirius/XM’s Bluesville. The album was also selected for Blues Blast’s Award for Debut Album in 2020.
Songstress Reba Russell and Dawn Hopkins, her partner in Blue Heart Records, recorded, engineered and co-produced the album. Reba also provided one of her songs and performs a duet with Kimberly on the song. Peter Climie on sax, Will Palaldino on trumpet and Freedman Steorts on trombone guest to provide a horn section on the album.
On the opening title track, Kimberly’s excitedly announces she has found a new love and she wants to “Tell the World”, and Jamie’s wah-wah guitar provides a powerful run with Al Gamble guesting on organ on the cut and the horns weaving through the sound. Kimberly remorsefully admits her sorrow “Every Time I Leave ” and misses “your blues eyes and your smile”. Jamie Holdren takes the vocal lead, demonstrating a powerful tenor, and noting that she is “Breakin’ My Heart” as she “pushes my love away”.
As mentioned previously, Reba Russell performs a duet with Kimberly on Reba’s song, “Why Not You”. Jamie pulls out the slide guitar and lets it rip as the twosome announces the power of women who should “lift their voices/ lead the nation”. “Women together cannot fail.” as a total declaration of woman power is declared.
On “My Name Is Lucille”, Kimberly recites the background story of B.B. King’s Gibson ES-330 guitar. Kimberly becomes the voice of the guitar as she declares “I loved the King/ he knew just how to bend my strings.” and “He had a gentle feel”. The song is very sexy and certainly invokes a feeling of love between the musician and the instrument. A casual listener might even just accept it as a touching love song.
“Montezuma Red” was a bright red lipstick, perhaps similar to the color Kimberley wears on the album cover, that was developed in 1941 to match the red piping on women’s military uniforms of the era. Kimberley notes the color is a symbol of power and the song is a backlash against a lover who maybe is trying to control her. That theme continues as Jamie’s guitar lashes out, and he provides the vocals on “Devil in a Red Suit” about an untrustworthy and slippery character.
Kimberly comes back to the mike on a country shuffle “Ready for the Times to Get Better” that was originally recorded by Crystal Gayle in 1976 in a song flagging past bad times and looking forward to a better future. On “My New Lovers”, Kimberley proclaims, “I’m not a one-man woman, I need a lot of lovin'” and compares the loving she gets from several named suitors. The album ends with a powerful version of “Soulful Dress”, a Chess soul recording first released in 1964 and covered by a number of artists over the years including Marcia Ball and more recently Ana Popovic. Sister Lucille lets the whole band loose on the number that would certainly get you on the dance floor and just as certainly get you bouncing around in front of the stereo.
Kimberly’s strong alto and Jamie’s guitar work along with a great rhythm section and supporting horn section make for an enjoyable album.
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 – 6 of 6
Black Diamond Express: Matchbox Bluesmaster Series Set 11
Six CD Set
In the 1980’s, Johnny Parth, a well-known Austrian music collector and curator, compiled significant collections of from the early days of blues recordings from the 1920’s and 1930’s. He joined with Paul Oliver, a world authority and significant researcher of early blues musicians, provided significant notes and insights into the artists and their songs. 42 albums were initially released on the Saydisc Records label between 1982 to 1988. Those albums have been compiled into 5 – 6 cd box sets that were released in the first seven box sets. The collection has now been expanded to cover 72 CD’s. The additional cd’s are compiled from earlier cd’s released by Saydisc in the late 60’s which further covered the early years of the blues both on song releases and, in many instances, field recordings of the musicians. The various sets cover the gamut of early blues from gospel, hokum, and ragtime leading to the advent of modern blues, rock & roll, and the 1960’s British blues boom. Many of the recordings come from very obscure and rare 78’s. The box sets have all of Paul Oliver’s notes provided in the original releases.
As shown in the title, this is the eleventh box set release. For the most part, this set focuses on early piano blues. Those cd’s include Peetie Wheatstraw on two CD’s, Little Brother Montgomery, and a compilation of various piano players. Kokomo Arnold is the only non-piano playing blues artist in the set. However, his connection to the other music in the box is that Kokomo was a frequent performer with Peetie Wheatstraw. The final cd in the set focuses on a wide range of pre-WWII and post war recordings of gospel music.
The first cd is labeled simply as Piano Blues and features 14 songs by eight different artists. Oliver comments that prior to these releases, piano players were mostly ignored and not even particularly considered to be part of the history of blues. The obvious focus of historians was the southern influence, particularly Mississippi, of the era’s guitarists. The earliest recordings on the album are two songs, “Crazy About My Baby” and Bustin’ The Jug”, from Blind Roosevelt Graves featuring Will Ezell on piano recorded in Richmond, Indiana in 1929. Most of the remaining songs in the set by Shorty Bob Parker, Little Brother Montgomery, Springback James, Mississippi Jook Band (Roosevelt Graves with Cooney Vaughan on piano), Lee Brown with Sam Price on piano, and Pinetop and Lindberg (Aaron & Lindberg Sparks) were recorded in the mid 1930’s. Cripple Clarence Lofton has two songs, “I Don’t Know” (1939) and “Policy Blues” (1943).
James “Kokomo” Arnold, born in Lovejoy, Georgia, is featured on the second cd. Fourteen songs are again featured on the album. The songs provided are from 1935 to 1938 and are a selection from over 100 songs Kokomo recorded in his brief career. Kokomo’s musical trip began in 1930 under the name of Gitfiddlin’ Jim. The represented songs also do not include his best-known songs that were hits in the era, “Milk Cow Blues” and “Old Original Kokomo Blues”, the first still showing up on modern era albums. His bottleneck guitar style is considered to be unique. Arnold reportedly got fed up with the music industry, stepped away to work in a Chicago mill, and further refused to ever have anything to do with the recording industry although he continued to play.
Discs 3 and 4 features Peetie Wheatstraw. The first is titled The Devil’s Son-in-Law (1930-36) and the latter’s title is The High Sheriff From Hell (1936-38). Wheatstraw, real name William Bunch, was born in Cotton Plant, Arkansas. He recorded over 170 songs under his own name and was one of the top-selling blues artists of his era. Blind Boy Fuller, Sonny Boy Williamson and even Robert Johnson cited him as an influence. His songs deal heavily with his sexual prowess, gambling and other similar proclivities leading to his nicknames provided as the series’ album titles. Both cd’s include 16 songs. His song “Sugar Mama” including Lonnie Johnson on guitar was later recorded by John lee Hooker.
Disc 5 Little Brother Montgomery (1930 – 1969) covers the career of Eurreal Montgomery, who was born in 1906 in Kentwood, Louisiana. Unlike many pianists, Montgomery could play anything from jazz to opera and in the 1960’s was a regular performer at Chicago’s McParlans Lounge, an Irish bar, where he mixed his blues with popular Irish songs. Unlike the first four cd’s, the sixteen songs are about an equal mix of songs from the 30’s and songs from the 50’s and 60’s finishing with three songs from a 1969 release, two years after he had to quit performing after suffering a stroke. Jean Carroll provides vocals on two of those latter songs.
On Disc 6, the music provides 26 songs divided equally between pre-war and post-war gospel music. The disc’s title, Black Diamond Express to Hell, somehow feels in contrast to the music presented. Per notes provided by The Rev. Doug Constable for this cd, the music is “an expression of common traditions and social outlook, common convictions about man’s way to redemption, and of an intimacy within the congregation that is unfamiliar to members of European churches”. The music presented here is authentic music as heard in many church gatherings of African Americans.
As might be expected of recordings that were transferred from 78 RPM records and from field recordings made from setups from the back of a car almost 100 years ago, the music is scratchy and sometimes difficult to hear the vocals. However, for those who wants to delve into the deep history of the blues, the Bluesmasters series is certainly an excellently archived collection. The twelfth and final box set in the series is scheduled for release in September 2023 and will feature Matchbox’s role in the introduction to the British blues boom.
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.
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