Friday, January 17, 2020

Thorbjørn Risager & The Black Tornado - Come On In

“Do not quench your inspiration and your imagination,” said Vincent van Gogh.  “Do not become the slave of your model.”
Thorbjørn Risager & The Black Tornado have probably never come across old Vincent’s advice, but I reckon they’ve observed the sentiment anyway with the creation of Come On In.  Because this is an album that respects their blues roots and inspirations, but dares to deliver songs and arrangements that are mouth-wateringly fresh.  And in doing so it sets a dizzyingly high standard for new blues releases in 2020.
"Oi - Thorbjørn! Stop posing and get your round in!"
Pic by Christoffer Askman
The opening title track sets the tone.  The lyrics may give a nod and a wink to Stevie Ray Vaughan’s ‘The House Is Rocking’, but the delivery takes a different tack.  A pulsing drum beat sets things in motion, locked into a subdued guitar riff, generating a near motorik feel that’s then augmented by some boinging bass and occasional twangs of ghostly guitar.  “There’s a jukebox over in the corner playin’,” sings Thorbjørn Risager in that rumbling bass voice. “Won’t you come on in?”  Hell yes, that’s what I say!
Acoustic guitar figures heavily in some of the songs, notably the elegiac ‘Two Lovers’, which opens with some simple acoustic strumming, which is then joined by spare, haunted slide guitar notes from Joachim Svensmark and a slow, sombre beat.  More textures are added by hints of wood block, deep bass, and hints of horns and organ, creating the kind of noir-ish cinematic experience they’ve previously mastered with their cover of the Fifties film theme ‘China Gate’.  And they summon up a reflective romantic mood with ‘On And On’, all halting guitar, plangent horns and sparse chimes of piano.
The opening verse of ‘Never Givin’ In’ also leans on nothing more than an acoustic guitar motif and Risager’s expressive voice, before Martin Seidelin’s percussion – bongos, perhaps? – brings a quickening rhythm.  It nags at you like an itch you can’t scratch, and is embellished by a moody bridge, with low moaning horns and more spooky guitar that has the feel of a plaintive harp.  ‘Sin City’ has more old-time sensibilities, with acoustic picking and a simple, muffled beat supporting an archetypal blues melody, before an outro that centres on a repeated phrase from Peter Kehl’s muted trumpet.  The closing ‘I’ll Be Gone’ is in a similar vein, all acoustic strumming and picking of a classic blues riff, with squeaks of electric guitar for emphasis.
The Black Tornado can still whip up a storm though.  ‘Last Train’ may start off with chugs of acoustic guitar over handclap-like percussion, but it lifts off when the drums kick in, with guitar hitting stinging chord sequences and notes as the horns offer support in the background.  ‘Over The Hill’ goes back to Risager’s early influences, swinging like BB King with its walking bass, glittering guitar fills and bursts of horns, and what once upon a time they might have called a ‘hot’ sax solo.  “Good times comin’ my way,” sings Thorbjørn, and he ain’t kidding.  Best of all in this vein, there’s ‘Love So Fine’, with its urgent, crunching guitar riff over the propulsive rhythm section of Seidelin and bassist Søren Bøjgaard.  It could almost be ZZ Top with added horns, not least because of Risager’s voice as he drawls away like Billy Gibbons, while Svensmark adds a cracking guitar solo as the cherry on the cake.
They even have room to get vaguely Latin with ‘Nobody But The Moon’, with a Hispanic-leaning descending guitar riff over what sounds to these untutored ears like a salsa rhythm conjured up by the bubbling bass and drums, leading to an aching chorus.
Risager has said that some of the songs reflect some uncertainty about where he is in his life, but also an assertive and defiant response, and those themes are certainly apparent on the likes of ‘Never Givin’ In’ and ‘Sin City’.  Me, I have no doubts.  With Come On In Thorbjørn Risager & The Black Tornado have reaffirmed their status as torchbearers of modern blues.

Come On In is released by Ruf Records on 31 January 2020.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Listened to lately - Southern Avenue, and Ghost Town Blues Band

It’s time to catch up with the 2019 album releases from a couple of Memphis-based bands, which one way or another I never got round to covering last year.

Southern Avenue – Keep On

Voices.  That’s where to focus first of all when you listen to this second album from Southern Avenue.  Because lead vocalist Tierinii Jackson and her drumming sis Tikyra dish up some of the most sublime soul vocals you’re likely to encounter in this day and age.  That’s not all
that Southern Avenue have to offer, but oh mama it’s a helluva trump card.
The vocal quality is probably most obvious on the dreamy soul ballads ‘Savior’ and ‘We’re
Southern Avenue - cool threads gang!
Pic by David McClister
Gonna Make It’, both of which feature the combination of the Jackson sisters’ voices in luscious harmonies.  The former features a delicious vocal-dominated outro, and demonstrates their willingness to shrug off typical verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-solo etc song structures. amd the latter serving up a delicate, bluesy guitar solo.  The latter is a gospel-tinged closer, sporting an affirmative lyric and a delicate, bluesy guitar solo from Ori Naftaly.
But they can funk it up too.  There’s the tickling riff and sparse rhythm section of ‘Whiskey Love’; the twitchiness of ‘Jive’ with its spiky guitar line, its upbeat sax break that adds seasoning, and Tierinii’s soaring vocal notes; and best of all ‘Switchup’, which sounds like a James Brown track sung by Aretha Franklin.
The do straighter soul well too, as on the opening title track with its sophisticated rhythm, its shifts from ripples of guitar to toots of horns and the swirl of Jeremy Powell’s organ, and a divine Tierinii vocal that peaks with a startling high note.  Or on ‘Too Good For You’, where a skipping rhythm, smooth swells of horns create a sweet soul groove that gets jaunty over repeated “Bye byes”, ahead of a brief and understated piano-guitar interlude.
The other highlight though, is the bump’n’grind of ‘She Gets Me High’, a frank description of how, when things go wrong with her man, the protagonist is more than happy to get some sexual healing from her girlfriend.  The horns double up on a neat guitar line over a steady beat, and after a nifty little bridge a piercing Naftaly solo leads towards a more urgent, er, climax.
Now and then I reckon Naftaly’s guitar and Powell’s keys could be given more prominence, to complement the plentiful vocal pleasures and lend a bit more oomph to a couple of rather slight songs.  But Keep On does more than enough to ensure that Southern Avenue stand out from the herd.  And they can do it live too, where Tierinii Jackson shows off firecracker performance levels.  Little wonder they’ve picked up Blues Music Award nominations for Band Of The Year and Best Soul-Blues Album.

Keep On was released on Concord Records in May 2019.

Ghost Town Blues Band – Shine

I’ve had a soft spot for GTBB since encountering them live in the Rum Boogie Café in Beale Street, while holidaying down the Mississippi.  Their combination of rhythmic blues and horn-infused Stax soul, with occasional injections of cigar box guitar from front man Matt Isbell, was delivered with wit and a sense of fun, and was right up my street.
Listening to their latest album Shine, I get the impression they’ve been broadening their horizons a bit.  They can still serve up a warm Southern vibe, as on the opener ‘Running Out Of Time’, with its light, loping riff complemented by horns, its rootsy slide guitar fills and its easy-going chorus.
GTBB enjoy the Blues Enthused verdict on Shine
Or on the Stax-like blues of 'Shine' itself, with its grooving rhythm guitar and horn riffing, sparky, scampering guitar solo, undertow of organ and “C’mon people” refrain.  But now there are also songs that seem to carry hints of Southern rock.  There are distant echoes of ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ in the laid back ‘Lyin’ To Yourself’, with its tinkling piano and patient, clear-toned guitar soloing from Taylor Orr that acquires more bite when they surge into another gear towards the end.  But in the latter half of the album it’s the Black Crowes who seem to enter the equation, ranging from the mid-paced ‘High Again’ with its appealing melody and tripping rhythm, to the slower highlight ‘Carry Me Home’, with its woozy guitar intro and mournful swells of horns, and ‘Heading Nowhere Fast’, on which an organ break mingles with flickers of guitar, while Isbell’s distinctive, husky voice sings of “Heading nowhere fast but making good time”.
They do have other strings to their bow though, with the upbeat shuffle of ‘Givin’ It All Away’ showcasing an excellent trombone solo from Suavo Jones, some hip-hop rapping giving a modern edge to ‘Dirty’, and the slow and quiet start to the engaging ‘Hey There Lucinda’ featuring weeping slide guitar and organ before the beat picks up.
Shine demonstrates that Ghost Town Blues Band aren’t content to keep peddling the same old, same old.  It may feel a bit sombre at times, but overall it does what it says on the tin.  And my soft spot for them endures.

Shine was released on 4 October 2019.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Jimmy Carpenter - Soul Doctor

Listening to the easy grooves of Jimmy Carpenter’s latest album is what we in Scotland would describe as “comfy”.  Like getting your slippers on and putting your feet up on a filthy winter’s day, such as it is as I write, it’s a relaxing experience that puts a smile on your face.
Carpenter is best known for his sax playing talents, for which he has received multiple Blues Music Award nominations.  But on Soul Doctor he also lays out his songwriting and vocal credentials to good effect over the course of ten songs, eight of them originals.  In his best moments he puts me in mind of the likes of Delbert McClinton and Southside Johnny, even
Jimmy Carpenter - check that horn!
if vocally he doesn’t have quite the personality of either of those characters.
You might suppose that the Southside Johnny comparison originates in Carpenter’s sax playing, and the additional horns of trumpeter Doug Woolverton and and baritone sax man Mark Earley that are put to good use across several tracks.  But what we have here isn’t the hard-driving soul usually characteristic of the Asbury Jukes.  Instead, on my favourite track ‘When I Might You’, there’s an old soul vibe that reminds me of Southside and the gang covering Sam Cooke classics.  It’s a really good tune, well suited to the horn-led approach, while Carpenter’s crooning vocal delivery shows off his voice at its best, and his sax solo is spot on.
The following ‘Wild Streak’, meanwhile, has that Delbert vibe in more ways than one.  Musically, it’s a catchy, swinging slice of country soul boogie.  And lyrically it captures Carpenter’s wry sense of humour nicely.  It also benefits from some rinky-dink piano backing from Red Young, while for good measure long-time buddy Mike Zito adds a good time slide solo (rather than on the following track, as the sleeve notes suggest, I believe).
Other highlights include the cinematic, jazz-tinged instrumental ‘LoFi Roulette’, with its smoky, low down sax, underpinned by tasteful bass from Jason Langley, and featuring an edgy, piercing guitar solo from Chris Tofield.  'Need Your Love So Bad' is a dreamy slow blues with a Fifties mood and another tastefully smooth vocal plus a rich and romantic tenor sax solo, while ‘Wrong Turn’ deploys a quasi “shave-and-a-haircut” rhythm and ringing rhythm guitar, elevated by a knife-edge Tofield slide solo and the additional raunch of some harp from Al Ek.
The opening title track sets the tone sets the tone for all of this nicely, with its funky soul groove, a neat guitar solo from Nick Schnebelen, and the first of Carpenter’s cracking sax solos.  A cover of Eddie Hinton’s ‘Yeah Man’ rounds things off nicely, with a droll, catchy chorus and hints of Dion in the tune, embellished by twinkling guitar and subtle organ, and sax and guitar intertwining cleverly as it winds to a close.
There may be a couple of lightweight offerings on Soul Doctor, but there’s still plenty in here to recommend it, all wrapped up in a suitably cool and funky cover painting of a sax-tooting Jimmy by Randy Frechette.  All in all Soul Doctor makes for a refreshing change from yer typical guitar-dominated blues affair – and, of course, a relaxing one.

Soul Doctor was released in Britain by Gulf Coast Records on 29 November 2019.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Mike Zito - Live From The Top

He’s been a busy fella this last year or so, has Mike Zito.  What with launching new label Gulf Coast Records with his partner Guy Hale, producing albums for a number of their artists, and releasing a tribute album to Chuck Berry in collaboration with a bundle of other blues honchos.  So when’d he find the time to go recording a live album?
Answer - he didn’t.  Live From The Top is a reissue of a live album recorded at the after-party from the 2010 Blues From The Top Festival in Colorado – and a reminder of just how good Mike Zito can be. 
Mike Zito - havin' a guitarin' good time
The show kicks off with ‘Natural Born Lover’, one of nine tracks from the 2009 studio album Pearl River, which sets out Zito’s stall very nicely, thank you very much.  A relaxed bit of bumpin’ an’ grindin’, its warm sound accommodates Zito’s easy-going voice, a skidding slide solo, and a sax break from his long-time buddy Jimmy Carpenter, as well as folding in small spoonfuls of ‘You Shook Me’ and ‘I Just Want To Make Love To You’.  And from there right through to the close with the fun boogie of Elmore James’ ‘Ice Cream Man’, scudding slide and all, Zito and his confreres deliver a swingingly good time.
So consistent is Live From The Top that picking out highlights ain’t easy.  But it’s worth noting how Zito can nudge the blues envelope in different directions to good effect, as with the quirkily jazzy ‘Dead Of Night’ on which John Morris knocks out an oom-pah-pah bass line that could easily come from a tuba, while Zito wraps some witty, nimble guitar around a lyric about “dancing on the beach in the dead of night”.  And the following ‘C’mon Baby’ – in what, 6/8 time? – begs for a waltz-like turn around the room with its yearning, romantic feel.
‘One Step At A Time’ seems like a straightforward enough animal in its evocation of this particular bluesman’s recovery from alcoholism.  But with Zito twirling out bright, ringing chords while Morris’s bass carries the riff, and a wonderful sax solo from Carpenter, it reaches out towards Tom Petty or John Hiatt territory.  (It ain’t gonna happen, but the thought has occurred to me now and then that if he put his mind to it, and the cards were to fall his way, Zito has got the songwriting juice to break out beyond the blues to a wider audience.)
As always, Zito has a knack for funkiness too, whether it’s ‘Big Mouth’, on which the guitar,
Aaaaand . . . relax!
bass and drums get a sweet groove on while he delivers a typically funny lyric about relationship problems, or the slinky ‘Sugar Sweet’, which is right in the wheelhouse of guest Ana Popovic, who delivers an almost voicebox-like wah-wah solo before the two of them get down to some conversational guitar duetting.  And there’s more where that came from.
There’s great blues too of course, such as the dark and sombre ‘Pearl River’, with its references to Billie Holliday’s ‘Strange Fruit’, the purposeful grind of ’19 Years Old’, with slicing slide guitar from guest Nick Moss and chirping, growling and squeaking harp from Curtis Salgado.  And guitar aficionados will appreciate Zito’s substantial and expressive exploration on ‘All Last Night’.  But whatever they’re serving up, fanfares are also required for the drumming of Rob Lee, who delivers rock solid but supple rhythmic foundations from start to finish.
But you know what?  However you cut this particular cake, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  Meaning:  Live From The Top gets you in the room with an audience having a few beers, having a few laughs, dancing their asses off, and generally having a damn good time.  And that, my friends, is what it’s all about.

Live From The Top is released in Britain by Gulf Coast Records on 12 January.
The videos of 'Big Mouth' and 'Pearl River' are taken from different performances in 2010, with the same band as on Live From The Top.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Jimmy "Duck" Holmes - Cypress Grove

It doesn’t get much more authentic than this, the latest album from Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, the Mississippi bluesman who owns the Blue Front Café, one of the most famous juke joints still on the go in the South.  Now, Jimmy is 72 years old, so not the oldest wheel on the blues train – Buddy Guy is 83, after all.  But Cypress Grove sounds like blues that has been discovered in a time capsule and dusted down for the present day.
At the heart of the album are two things.  First, there’s the groove Holmes imparts with the riffs he plays, whether on acoustic or rhythm guitar.  And second, there’s his voice, which has an ancient blues quality.  The two elements are there, virtually unadorned, on the opening ‘Hard Times’ – spare strumming and picking, and a low moaning vocal, often wordless – that set the tone for what will follow.
Jimmy "Duck" Holmes - down, down deeper and down
There is a bit more elaboration across the rest of the album, mind you, as producer Dan Auerbach and a handful of other musos add subtle accents to that central groove.  But it’s done in the most simpatico fashion imaginable, so that ‘Devil Got My Woman’ is still centred on Holmes’ haunting vocal melody, amid subterranean bass, shimmers of cymbal, casually scattered acoustic chords, and brief guitar licks.
Yeah, ‘Catfish Blues’ features a guitar break that winks at Hendrix, who of course also recorded the song, but in its styling the solo still seats itself in the contemplative vibe created by Holmes, along with earlier sparks of electric guitar, and subtle percussion from Sam Bracco, who here and there puts bongos to good use in addition to an everyday drum kit.
The subtlety is such that listening to Cypress Grove is akin to being hit over the head with a gold brick wrapped in thick velvet.  The version of ‘Little Red Rooster’ is simply magnificent, with a scratchy guitar opening and more bongos leading into a wonderfully simple descending riff – the kind of thing Jimmy Page might once upon a time have been inclined to pocket when no-one was looking, and later turn up to 11.  Another guitar tickles away in the background while Holmes patiently tells his tale, then some sax from Leon Michels slides into the mix, snaking around the groove, and some tasteful guitar notes float around – and then it fades out.  Three and a half absorbing minutes, job done.
‘Goin’ Away Baby’ is all pitter patter drums, ticking guitar and what sounds like Jew’s Harp, conjuring up a trance-like vibe into which a few stabs of tough, mid-pitched guitar are injected.  ‘All Night Long’ develops a different, almost Latin rhythm, anchored by a three note bass line from Eric Deaton that’s right in the pocket, creating a laid back feel over which Marcus King delivers a woozy slide guitar outro.  And Deaton's mastery of the nagging, insistent bottom end is apparent throughout, not least on the title track, to which Auerback adds a creepy electric drone in the background while Holmes sings about "When your body starts aching, and your body starts to get cold".
The album closes with ‘Two Women’, which is topped and tailed by a classic blues riff, and in between lopes along on an offbeat rhythm, with brushed cymbals and bursts of acoustic guitar, and a spiky, minimalist guitar break bringing a dash of modernity to Jimmy’s relationship musings.
Cypress Grove is not about catchy tunes or earworms.  It’s not about guitar showmanship either, so devotees of blues rock shredding should look elsewhere.  Jimmy “Duck” Holmes is an inheritor of the Bentonia, Mississippi blues tradition, and Cypress Grove mines that rich seam - elemental minor key stuff that’s shaped into mesmerising Delta grooves.  These roots go deep, real deep.  Close your eyes, pin back your ears, and follow ‘em down.

Cypress Grove was released by Easy Eye Sound on 18 October 2019.

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Blues Enthused Christmas Stocking 2019 - Part 2

So this is Twixtmas, that twilight zone between Christmas and New Year when we all struggle to remember which day of the week it is.  Peace has possibly descended for a couple of days until the next round of celebrations, so it’s a chance to catch up with Part 2 of the Blues Enthused Christmas Stocking!
Steve Van Zandt preaches soul to the faithful
Part 1 of this review of 2019 focused on album releases, and there’s a little more to be said on that front, but let’s kick off by talking about some of the best live shows seen this year.  And for the third year in a row, one of the very best gigs I saw was courtesy of Little Steven & The Disciples Of Soul.  This time it was in Milan, while I was in Italy for a lengthy holiday this summer, and once again Steve Van Zandt and his gang delivered the kind of life-affirming rock’n’roll celebration that’s a joy to behold.  Loved it, basically, and it set the bar very high for anyone else.  Here’s an example from elsewhere this year, with‘Trapped Again’.
Samantha Fish gave it a very good go though, on a run of incendiary dates in Britain and Europe.  I caught four of ‘em, greedy man that I am, and though all of them were great, the two on my home turf in Scotland were in the jaw-dropping category.  Fish’s band, sans horns on this European trip, have a terrific chemistry, while she of course adds blazing guitar, unique vocals, and knock-em-dead performance levels to the mix.  Here they are with the dreamy ‘Fair-weather’, at the Troubadour in L.A. a couple of months ago.
Both Stevie and Samantha also delivered new albums this year of course, and very impressive they were too.  Van Zandt and his soul train’s Summer Of Sorcery may have been a little uneven, but tracks like ‘Love Again’ and ‘Superfly Terraplane’ were irresistible, Kill Or Be Kind could have been a contender for my favourite album of the year, if it had had a more impactful closing track, an explosive rocker perhaps, to bookend the album with opener ‘Bulletproof’.  As it is though, with its gathering together of soul, blues, punkish rock’n’roll and down and out pop elements, it was the outstanding crossover album of the year.  And I managed to collar the lady for a pretty good interview too!
Situation normal - Samantha Fish tearing it up
and it was undeniably fun.  Meanwhile Fish’s
Getting back to the live stuff, the early months of the year produced some other corking shows.  In January, Sugaray Rayford provided a bonkers evening of entertainment, an out and out party to complement the more disciplined delivery of his subsequent album Somebody Save Me.  Here's Sugaray feeling good on, er, 'Don't It Feel Good'.
The following month King King created a communal, even congregational atmosphere at their Boiler Shop show in Newcastle, which was sadly the penultimate show to feature bassist Lindsay Coulson and, less expectedly, drummer Wayne Proctor in the fold.  I’m not sure when I’ll get the chance to see their new line-up for the first time, due to other commitments, but it’ll be interesting to see for myself what the new rhythm section of Zander Greenshields and Andrew Scott bring to the party, both live and on their upcoming album.  In the meantime, here’s the new line-up performing ‘Old Love’, on this summer’s Keeping The Blues Alive Mediterranean cruise.
February also brought the tremendous double act of Blue Oyster Cult and The Temperance Movement to Glasgow.  In my view BOC are one of the most underrated hard rock acts of yesteryear out there, and this performance confirmed me in that conviction.  And while Donald ‘Buck Dharma’ Roeser may not indulge in much posturing or posing, as a guitar hero his playing speaks for itself – eloquently.  Check out this run through their old classic ‘Harvester Of Eyes’.   The Temperance Movement, meanwhile, underlined their credentials as one of Britain’s leading rock’n’roll outfits, like a modern, edgy incarnation of The Faces.  Here they are with ‘Take It Back’, from a show in July this year.
A month later my first live exposure to Wille And The Bandits was another example of a current band in a classic rock vein who manage to produce something fresh, blending both world music influences and post-grunge punch into their blues-rock core, and doing so with smiles on their faces and a very distinct lyrical manifesto.  As with King King, Wille And The Bandits enter the new year with a couple of line-up changes, but it would be good to see them continue on an upward trajectory.  Check out the new line-up on this ‘live in the studio’ rendition of‘Make Love’.
The late Wee Willie Walker
Later in the year, another live introduction was to London-based Jawbone, who impressed me hugely last year with their self-titled debut album.  And they did it again onstage, injecting rock’n’roll energy and a good-time vibe into the delivery of their top drawer, rootsy but pigeonhole-defying material.  I wanna see ‘em again, and I wanna see a bigger audience getting into their distinctive sound.  Here they are performing ‘Leave No Traces’ earlier in the year.
My summer sojourn in Italy also allowed me to pay visits to a couple of Italian outdoor music festivals, in Pistoia and Porretta Terme.  The former may have been a straightahead show featuring guitar hotshots Eric Gales and Robben Ford, albeit in the shadow of Pistoia’s cathedral, but the latter is a remarkable small town affair, which every year showcases some legendary soul names.  This time around the bill included the likes of Don Bryant, Pee Wee Ellis, and Wee Willie Walker, the last of whom sadly passed away just a few weeks ago.  Seeing performances like these, in the purpose-built amphitheatre of Rufus Thomas Park, was a singular experience.
These were just some of the highlights of 2019, but there were plenty of other artists keeping music live in terrific fashion in the course of the year.  Even if they weren’t listed here, more power to their collective elbow, and here’s to more of the same in 2020.

You can read Part 1 of the 2019 Christmas Stocking here.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Blues Enthused Christmas Stocking 2019 - Part 1

Santa’s checking his list by now I reckon – probably checking it twice.  Been naughty or nice, people?  Okay, I’ll believe you.  And to prove it here’s the Blues Enthused Christmas Stocking, a selection of treats to whet your musical appetite.
The first thing I’d say about 2019 is that it’s been an absolutely stellar year for blues and roots music, judging by the albums I’ve been able to lay my hands on, and some of the gigs I’ve seen.  Seriously, I think it’s the strongest year I’ve witnessed since I started on this caper.  You’ll no doubt have your own highlights, but here are some of mine.
Albert Castiglia gets heavy
My favourite album of 2019 has been Masterpiece, by Albert Castiglia.  I’ll be honest, although I knew the guy’s name this was the first time I’d actually been confronted by any of his work.  And right from the off the album grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and demanded my attention, with its combination of stomping, visceral ruff’n’tuff blues, and more thoughtful songs like the title track, ‘Love Will Win The War’, and this one - the rippling slow blues of‘Heavy’.  As someone perceptively put it, “Masterpiece is raw and primitive, down to earth and defiant, emotional and honest.”  Oh wait – that was me!
Also coming out of the States were a number of albums showcasing different blues styles in bloody marvellous fashion.  Late in the year Toronzo Cannon came up with a belting example of up-to-the-minute, forward looking Chicago Blues, in the form of The Preacher, The Politician And The Pimp – lyrically intelligent and witty, and with great arrangements, guitar and vocals.  Cop an earful of the title track.
The North Mississippi Allstars came up with a wonderful celebration of their Hill Country musical upbringing in the form of Up And Rolling.  But in the last couple of days I’ve also been listening to the recently released album Cypress Grove by Bentonia bluesman Jimmy ‘Duck’ Holmes, and I can tell you it’s the real deal when it comes to deep Mississippi blues.  I’ll be reviewing Cypress Grove soon, but in the meantime here’s Jimmy performing ‘Catfish Blues’ in his own Blues Front Café juke joint.
The soul-blues album that had the biggest impact on me was Sugaray Rayford’s Somebody Save Me.  Sugaray, a hugely entertaining live performer, collaborated with writer/producer Eric Corne to come up with a Grammy-nominated outing that knows its roots but still sounds modern, as on ‘I’d Kill For You, Honey’.
Going way down south, for me the rootlingest, tootlingest collection of original Texas blues came not from Jimmie Vaughan, much as other people praised his Baby Please Come Home, but from Rosie Flores, with her marvellously engaging Simple Case Of The Blues.  Honestly, if you liked Jimmie’s effort you should give Rosie a listen – and you can start with this performance of ‘Drive Drive Drive’.
Nine Below Zero - the boys are back in town!
Then heading back up north, like waaay up north and out of the US, Canada’s Matt Andersen came up with a stunning example of laid back, semi-acoustic roots music.  Call it soul, call it blues, call it what you will, Halfway Home By Morning is a gorgeous album, just about the best backing vocals you could dream of, courtesy of the McCrary Sisters.  And here he is with his pal Amy Helm, on the delightful with'Something To Lose'.
Meanwhile, back here in Britain, the year started with an adventurous album from Wille And The Bandits, Paths.  Are they blues?  Possibly not.  But with their album Paths they served up modern blues-inflected rock, with an inclination towards world music which sets them apart from the pack.  They’ve just gone through a major line-up change, and here are the new outfit performing ‘Make Love’.
We also had a new album from those R’n’B/soul veterans Nine Below Zero, with Avalanche.  The suitably updated NBZ band are a fun proposition to be sure, but they’re also capable of covering a number of bases to great effect.  Here they are with 'One Of Sour, Two Of Sweet'.
And, lastly for now, this year had a some kinda wonderful excursion into rootsy Americana territory by Geraint Watkins.  Being honest once again, like what I like to be, I’d never heard of the guy before his album Rush Of Blood came my way, and knocked me out with its rootsiness, its musical charm, and its romance.  Here’s our Geraint playing live in London last month, with a rather different take on ‘Johnny B. Goode’.
Merry Christmas folks.  Keep on rockin’, and Blues Enthused will be back with the second part of the festive package before New Year!

You can read Part 2 of the Christmas Stocking here.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

DeWolff - The Tascam Tapes

Check out what it says on the album cover for The Tascam Tapes.  “This is Dewolff’s new album.  It was recorded on the road for less than $50.  But it sounds like a million bucks!”  What’s that all about then?
Well, the genesis of The Tascam Tapes is more than a little unusual.  For the uninitiated – like me, fr’instance - DeWolff are a guitar/drums/keys trio from the Netherlands, formed in 2007, with a penchant for psychedelia and Southern rock and soul.  This is their seventh ‘studio’ album, but it was recorded on the road in Europe, using a 1980s-vintage Tascam four-track cassette machine.  And while Pablo van de Poel played guitar as per usual, his 
DeWolff - Groovy gear, guys!
brother Luka eschewed his regular drums in favour of loading a bundle of rare soul and funk beats into a sampler, and Robin Piso made do with a battery-powered synth in place of his Hammond organ.
So much for the back story.  Is it any good?  Yes, I have to report that in its singular way it damn well is.  The Tascam Tapes comprises 12 tracks spread across just 33 minutes.  But it has a healthy quota of good songs and ideas, and an undeniable freshness.
If The Black Keys were to make an album inspired by Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, it would probably sound like ‘It Ain’t Easy’ or ‘Made It To 27’.  The former is a soulful tune with a handy hook, plinking synth piano and funky bass sounds, falsetto vocals, and a sweet guitar line that Pablo repeats several times in lieu of a traditional solo.  The latter has a fingersnapping Motown-ish soul sound, another catchy melody and appealing vocal harmonies, and a neat guitar solo over lazy bass and beats – and is a meditation on the crappier aspects of the touring life, recorded by the actual roadside, near Carcassone in France.  ‘Rain’ slows things down in a similar vein, with a delicate melody and instrumentation.  And while ‘Love Is Such A Waste’ features some off the wall vocal screeches, at heart it’s a simple, sweet soul tune, with more falsetto vocals and piercing guitar work, even if it’s a bit wordy.
But they explore some other angles too.  The opening ‘Northpole Blues’ kicks off with a
Nice boys - when they're dressed up
belting North Mississippi Hill Country-like groove, all fuzzy guitar and rickety drum sounds, with a bluesy ‘Trouble, trouble, trouble’ vocal, before breaking down into a rather messy stomp with bleeping guitar.  At the other end of the album ‘Life Is A Fish Tank’ is an ear-catchingly great slice of funky soul, with bendy bass sounds, a sparkling guitar break, and some well-suited harp playing courtesy of their pal Arthur Akkermans.  And in between there’s ‘Let It Fly’, a jaunty dance track played out over twitching bass and drum sounds, and the Beck-like ‘Awesomeness Of Love’, which features an outro on which a bassy riff seems to tip the hat to a Robert Plant vocal passage from ‘The Ocean’.
Oh yeah, and there are ‘Blood Meridian I’ and ‘Blood Meridian II’.  How many bands would be inspired by Cormac McCarthy’s blood-soaked tale of a nineteenth century trail of massacres in a baked southern America landscape?  And then set it to a bass heavy groove over an intricate drum pattern, with shooting star synth sounds punctuating the chorus, as on ‘Blood Meridian I’?  
On one level The Tascam Tapes is an interesting experiment.  But it’s also a showcase for DeWolff’s impressive songwriting abilities.  Now I’m off to explore their back catalogue, and find out what these guys can do when they’re fully equipped.

The Tascam Tapes is released by Mascot Records on 10 January 2020.