Thursday, February 29, 2024

Ten Top Tracks from . . . Ian Siegal

Roll up, roll up, for the second edition of Ten Top Tracks, a non-definitive, non-ranked overview of tunes by a Blues Enthused favourite – on this occasion the estimable roots troubadour Ian Siegal.
Ordinarily I might go for a vaguely chronological selection of an artist’s material.  But that ain’t so easy with Siegal, because you won’t find all of his output available on YouTube, my channel of choice for these here things.  So we’re going to be ducking and diving a bit, alighting on
Ian Siegal - sharp dressed man and guitar
renditions of certain tracks whenever happens to be convenient.  Watch out for the links to the various tracks on YouTube, and we’ll make a start with the first Ian Siegal album to cross my path – 2007’s Swagger.
‘Curses’ is a classic example of Ian Siegal’s love of word play – and his penchant for black humour.  It trundles along like a cart on a backwoods track, with flutterings of piano  and pluckings of banjo, fired up by sparks of slide guitar.  Meanwhile Siegal delivers a spoken, basso profundo character assassination of some fella, that evolves into a wish list of inventive curses to be brought down on him. "May he dig up his own father by moonlight, and make soup from his bones,” he suggests before drily concluding “I just don’t like that guy”.   There are several great songs I could have picked from Swagger, but ‘Curses’ demonstrates very nicely that Ian Siegal ain’t just a “my baby done left me” lyricist.
‘Sugar Rush’, from 2005’s Meat And Potatoes, finds Siegal getting down to business on a traditional brand of swingin’ R’n’B.  There’s nothing complicated about it, but Siegal and his buddies Matt Schofield on guitar, Jonny Henderson on organ, Andy Graham on bass and Nikolaj Bjerre on drums, inhabit the rhythmic groove brilliantly, while his vocal delivery and phrasing is as expressive as you could wish for.  Little wonder maybe, that he assembled the same gang to record Swagger.
Siegal likes to get around though, and at some point touched down in North Mississippi, which produced a series of collaborations starting with the 2011 album The Skinny, under the moniker of Ian Siegal and The Youngest Sons.  The sons in question were the Dickinson brothers, Luther and Cody, of the North Mississippi Allstars, plus other North Mississippi Hill Country scions Garry Burnside and Robert Kimbrough.  And ‘The Skinny’ itself does hint at the deeper, more hypnotic grooves typical of the hill country - without becoming derivative - while Siegal stirs some serpentine slide guitar into the mix.
Siegal sometimes likes to stir up a dollop of funk though, of which ‘Hard Pressed’ is a prime example.  It first popped up on his 2009 album Broadside, surfaced again on his collaborative outing Candy Store Kid with the Mississippi Mudbloods, and has been a mainstay of his full band
repertoire over the years.  Here’s the classic version that was available as a bonus download with his live album One Night In Amsterdam, recorded with his long-time band (who perform on their own account as The Rhythm Chiefs).
‘Hard Times (Come Again No More)’ represents a different side of Siegal’s repertoire.  He’s a regular “curator” of other people’s songs, of which this is a very old example, written by American folk composer Stephen Foster in 1855.  Musically it may not be a blues song, but it’s absolutely one in spirit.  Siegal often includes this in his solo acoustic shows, just “man and guitar” as one of his album titles has it.  But this version is my favourite, from the acoustic album The Picnic Sessions that he recorded with the Dickinsons, Jimbo Mathus, and Alvin Youngblood Hart, and which I picked up when it was originally available at gigs in Britain when he toured as a duo with Mathus.
As much as Siegal is a bluesman – and now and then he’s prone to deny it – he also has a soft spot for Americana, or country music if you prefer.  ‘Sweet Souvenir’ was co-written with Jimbo Mathus, and eventually cropped up on his 2018 full band album All The Rage.  But it’s well suited to a solo acoustic treatment, and here he is giving it just that in a 2019 performance.
All The Rage also found Siegal curling his lip at the state of the world on several tracks, and on the album cover too as if to underline the point.  ‘Ain’t You Great’ may be a fairly patient tune, with some Hispanic leanings and guitarist Dusty Cigaar digging out some big twanging.  But Siegal’s brooding vocal goes well with lines like “The asylum doors are open and we’re downupon our knees / They’ve found the biggest lunatics and handed them the keys”.  Released in2018, mid-Trump presidency and in the face of post-Brexit vote wheeling and dealing, there was plenty going on to encourage Siegal’s acidic wordsmithing.
Faced with the lack of live work created by the Covid pandemic and associated lockdown, Siegal combined with a bundle of other musicians under the quirky banner Birdmens, remotely
Life is too short to smoke bad cigars.
Life is recording a one-off album titled Lockdown Loaded to try and keep the home fires burning, as it were. Given the circumstances, it’s a remarkably creative album, but one of the highlights is the back-to-basics blues stomp ‘Cat Drugged Up’, with Siegal digging out his patented Howlin’ Wolf-esque growl.
On his most recent album, Stone By Stone, Siegal got together with Robin Davey and Greta Valenti of Beaux Gris Gris & The Apocalypse, and managed to shake things up again, getting into a gospel/spiritual/work song groove on several tracks, interspersed with some seriously dark and downbeat Americana outings. But as an example of how to make roots music sound fresh I’d submit that the opening track, ‘Working On A Building’, is a masterclass. A work song sorta thing, given a loose and rhythmic treatment that sounds like a bunch of beer buddies having a good time, it’s irresistible.  
Siegal loves a good story, methinks. So for the final slot in this selection I’m going for ‘Gallo Del Cielo’, an atmospheric Mexicano-flavoured tale of a fighting rooster and his owner written by American songsmith Tom Russell. Siegal has been carting this pair of tragic heroes around in his set for years, whether he’s doing an acoustic set or playing with a band. Once again, it shows Siegal exploring a different vibe in evocative fashion.
Ian Siegal ain’t a predictable artist, trotting out the same sound year after year.  He’s a great songwriter in his own right, but also a terrific interpreter of other people’s songs.  And whether he’s serving up originals or covers, live or on record, you can bet he’ll deliver a characterful performance.

Check out the Gimme 5 feature with Ian Siegal, in which he shares some of his inspirations with Blues Enthused, here.

Friday, February 23, 2024

Walter Trout - Broken

Broken is Walter Trout’s 31st album.  That’s a whole lotta guitar notes under the bridge.  Now, I must admit that I’ve really only cottoned on to Walter in the last ten years or so, so I can’t really comment on the quality of all his stuff.  But hell, he can still uncork some eye-popping tunes.
Take ‘Courage In The Dark’, for example, the third track on Broken.  It’s a moody blues, built around low key, hypnotic guitar notes and a hesitant beat, and it’s simple but utterly convincing. The lyric contemplates the fear of bad times, and the need for courage to get through them, and Trout delivers it with real sensitivity, while elevating the song and creating a light in the black by means of some wonderfully expressive guitar work.
Walter Trout - out of the black, and into the blues
Pic by Leland Howard
So ‘Courage . . .’ ticks the “sophistication” box, and then the following ‘Bleed’ confirms that ol’ Walter sure as hell still knows how to rock.  A
 song about the importance of stickability and going the extra mile in order to achieve success, it's a hard-hitting blast of raunch, with pulses of organ brightening Trout’s chugging, fuzzed-up guitar, interspersed with howls of harp from Will Wilde. And there’s a casual wit about Walter’s paternal nudge of “Play your harmonica, son” to Wilde before the latter lets loose on a skating solo.
At the other end of the album, the surging ‘Heaven Or Hell’ is given an original twist by the declamatory, spoken vocal with which Trout embodies the fiery preaching of a blind man he encountered on the street, complemented by a fizzing guitar solo and then an anthemic outro over Michael Leasure’s thumping drums.  And the closing ‘Falls Apart’ offers something distinctive, with an epic vibe triggered by spangly guitar strumming and reverb-treated vocals. Trout has made a tongue-in-cheek comparison with Pink Floyd, but in truth this is always more unconstrained than the pink ‘uns would ever be, even with the embellishment of some stylish, wordlessly soaring harmonies.  But there’s a still a dreamy quality as the refrain of “It falls apart” accompanies Trout’s piercing guitar through to the end.
There’s plenty of solid interest in the middle of the album too, from the electric sitar propelling the melodic ‘Talkin’ To Myself’ to the quasi-talking blues of the loping ‘No Magic (on the street)’, on which it seems Trout has a bash on harmonica himself while reflecting on a lack of connection to the modern world. Meanwhile Dee Snider turns up to partner Trout on the snarling, out-and-out rocker ‘I’ve Had Enough’. Feel the electrical charge in the riffing folks, and if no-one’s around then let yourself go and bang that head!
There’s romance to be had in the instrumental ‘Love Of My Life’, with its string-like keys and liquid, sustain-heavy guitar work, and in the light-touch love song ‘I Wanna Stay’.  And there’s wistfulness too, in the deliberately Faces-evocative ‘Breathe’.
In fact the only songs that don’t hit the bullseye for me are the opening pair of ‘Broken’ and ‘Turn And Walk Away’, and with both it’s down to personal taste.  Beth Hart guests on the subdued opener ‘Broken’, and promptly unwraps the heavy vibrato that always grates on me – she may have toned it down successfully on some recent outings, but sadly not here.  The slowly revolving ‘Turn And Walk Away’ which follows is tidy enough, with a tasteful closing solo, but it’s essentially a cowboy-style blues, and a little of that goes an awful long way for me, pardner.
But never mind my quibbles.  Broken don't need fixin'.  It's top drawer blues-rock, with several imaginative highlights along the way, and a reminder that at 72-years old Walter Trout is still cutting it, still as relevant as any of the young pups that garner all the hype.
Broken is released by Provogue Records on 1 March, and can be ordered here.

Monday, February 19, 2024

JJ Grey & Mofro - Olustee

I’m all for artists stretching the envelope, throwing a curve ball, tossing something different into the mix, and JJ Grey & Mofro do a good job of that with ‘The Sea’.  Opening a blues’n’soul album like Olustee with a dreamy, piano-led reverie may be a surprise move, but when it’s as elegant and imaginative as this, featuring falsetto vocals from Grey, rippling acoustic guitar, and swatches of strings, it works just fine, thank you.
Mind you, my favourite track on the album is something from the other end of the spectrum.  'Olustee' is a tale of a wildfire that swept parts of Florida in 1998, and it captures the drama in some
JJ Grey, sans Mofro
Pic by Steve Rapport
style.  It’s urgent and gutsy, bristling with a stiletto sharp guitar riff, throbbing bass, and squeals of harp, topped off with some fiery, attention-grabbing guitar showcase from (I’m guessing) Pete Winders that does the story justice.
There are several more songs in low key styles, which work to varying degrees.  ‘Waiting’ is a soul ballad about the frustration that comes with not giving it your all in life – which is ironic when Grey’s vocal impresses big time with its passion and personality.  The closing ‘Deeper Than Belief’ is another success, a solemn meditation on “all space and time and thought and mind” that references a Zen saying about “chopping wood, carrying water all day” – miracles being grounded in everyday life.  Whether the lyrics really make their point is up for discussion, but the subtle colourings from piano and flute, and the strings that arrive to provide extra elevation, all hit the mark.  Adding three more downbeat tunes seems excessive though, especially when neither ‘On A Breeze’ nor ‘Starry Night’ really do enough to stand out.  And while ‘Seminole Wind’ is better, with its slow-slow-quick-quick-slow melody and a tasteful, low-moaning trumpet solo, I’m still not sure it’s worth six minutes plus.
Upbeat soul songs like ‘Top Of The World’ (not the old blues classic) and ‘Wonderland’  are pleasing enough without being head-turning.  ‘Free High’ is in a similar vein, with a funky Memphis vibe à la Otis Redding, and if it’s nothing mould-breaking or profound it still gets a satisfying groove on, punctuated by some punchy horns.  But ‘Rooster’, a slice of low-slung funk with ticking guitar, stuttering bass, cool semi-spoken delivery from Grey, and sassy female backing vocals, is more focused and convincing.
When Olustee is good, it’s very good.  Several songs are deserving of high marks, no question. But some tracks are merely middling, and for me the balance of the material leans too heavily towards the reflective.  A bit less navel-gazing and a bit more wildfire would have been welcome.
Olustee is released on 23 February by Alligator Records.

Saturday, February 17, 2024

Philip Sayce - The Wolves Are Coming

If you’re someone who judges the quality of a guitar player based on the key metrics of: 1) the speed at which they can pick dem strings; and 2), the level of, shall we say, Hendrixity in their style, then I’d say Philip Sayce is going to be near the top of your league table.
As evidence of the former, I submit ‘Backstabber’, a track with a sledgehammer riff and cacophonous guitar sound, reinforced by seismic drums from Michael Leasure, on which Sayce delivers a guitar solo of blistering velocity – before the whole damn thing goes further into overdrive for a short'n'sharp finale like a goddamn drag race.
Play that funky rock music, Philip!
Pic by Amp Photography
As for metric 2, I draw your attention to ‘The Moon Is Full’, an Albert Collins tune that Sayce gives the full Jimi treatment, with rhythmic, funky, choppy, wah-wah inflected riffing, and a solo you could visualise Hendrix delivering on some black and white Sixties TV show.  I mean, I know Sweet Fanny Adams about guitar effects, but I gather Sayce’s pedal board features a few gizmos symptomatic of the classic Jimi sound, and by the sound of The Wolves Are Coming he makes plenty use of ‘em.  Check out, for example, ‘Your Love’, which starts with some Vocoder-ish guitar articulation and ends with a solo encoded in intergalactically “wobbly” tones, all bracketing a mid-paced, lop-sided kinda groove enhanced by some guitar/vocal harmonising.
Which is not to suggest that Sayce is a one-trick pony.  Sure, Hendrix played funky, but ‘Lady Love Divine’ squelches and bumps along happily in a vein more suggestive of Stevie Wonder à la ‘Superstition’.  Although, to be fair, near the end it deploys a very ‘Hey Joe’-like staircase-descending riff to good effect.  Meanwhile ‘It’s Over Now’ is a melodic ballad that kicks off with a hazy guitar sound, builds to a soulful, quasi-anthemic chorus, and features a gentle, bluesier guitar solo.  And ‘Blackbirds Fly Alone’ combines acoustic strumming, some more brittle guitar tone, and swirling, phased vocals.  There’s a nice bit of dynamics, dropping down for Sayce to solo, and if he then gets his wail on for the conclusion, it’s without going OTT.
Opening track ‘Oh! That Bitches Brew’ sets out Sayce’s stall, with a distorted, push’n’pull guitar riff and distorted vocals too for good measure.  It’s driven along by pounding drums from Leasure, who is well suited to this kind of modus operandi, before some descending chords herald a yowling guitar solo, interrupted by a neo-psychedelic, “merman I shall turn to be” type interlude.  But Sayce’s ability to get heavy with some different engine components is demonstrated later by ‘Black Moon’, which is propelled by a boom-da-da-boom glam rock stomp suggestive of The Black Keys in El Camino mode, with well and truly fuzzed up guitar chording for good measure, complemented by an off the wall tone that produces an acupuncture-by-guitar Sayce solo.
The closing coupla tracks offer contrasting moods.  The instrumental ‘Intuition’ starts off mellow, all moonbeams and starlight embellished by keyboard flavourings from Fred Mandel, then it steps into a grinding riff, full of foreboding, as the backdrop to some no-holds-barred guitar acrobatics that reach a whooshing conclusion.  Then the closing ‘This Is Hip’ is a perky, relaxed little blues, penned by John Lee Hooker but not in his typical brooding mood.  Instead it’s all easy acoustic guitar and rippling piano, and might have been better positioned as a mid-album palate cleanser, but it still makes for a breezy finish
In the midst of all the guitar wrangling Sayce is actually a pretty good singer, by the by.  But then, y’know, singing and lyrics probably aren’t what Philip Sayce fans will be shelling out for The Wolves Are Coming.  They’ll be holding their breath waiting for some kitchen sink guitar work driven by metrics 1] and 2] above.  And they won’t be disappointed.
The Wolves Are Coming
 is released on 23 February, and can be ordered here.

Monday, February 12, 2024

Mike Zito - Life Is Hard

Track four on Life Is Hard gets right to the heart of the matter.  ‘Forever My Love’ is a song that Mike Zito wrote for his wife Laura several months before she finally succumbed to cancer.  It’s a personal and passionate blues ballad, a soulful affair on which Zito delivers a soaring, heartfelt vocal.  A simple song at heart, it’s beautifully arranged, with subtle French horn contributions and some transcendent Zito guitar, and boy does it have emotional impact.
The moods of the songs on Life Is Hard may vary – they’re not all as emotive as ‘Forever My Love’.  But in essence this album is a memorial to Laura Zito, a concept the couple agreed on before she died, on which Zito undertook to open his heart through the blues.  It’s a catharsis, if you will. And holy moly but it delivers.
Mike Zito - finding a light in the black

If ‘Forever My Love’ is a keynote track, ‘These Eyes’ is another.  A heightened, deepened overhaul of a 1969 song by The Guess Who, it’s a wonderful, soul excursion fit to compete with anything on Springsteen’s Only The Strong Survive album, and then some.  Over a patient beat, washes of organ, moans from those French horns, and marvellously Motown-ish harmonies from Jade Macrae and Danielle Deandrea set the tone for Zito to take the spotlight. It’s sweet and dreamy, but never saccharine, and is set off by some gorgeous, FX-treated guitar.
The album gets under way with something less intense, mind you, with the vibrant, funky boogie of ‘Lonely Man’, a Little Milton tune that’s upbeat in spite of its protagonist’s tears, and which features a lush organ solo from Reese Wynans and a zinging Zito guitar break.  The lazy swing of ‘Have A Talk With God’ is a similarly easy-going, with breezy backing vocals and guitar soloing, and if I don’t really go with the lyrical sentiment that’s just me; given Mike Zito’s status as an alcoholic in recovery – a process in which his wife was pivotal – it’s a philosophy he’s entitled to follow.  Meanwhile ‘No One To Talk To (But The Blues) provides some different light relief, of a rock’n’rolling, Texas blues kinda variety, more muscular and immediate than the 2019 reading by Jimmie Vaughan.
But this album ain't titled Life Is Hard for nuthin', and the title track is the first to look into the void. Another blues ballad, it comes with more soul-drenched organ from Wynans, while Zito is absolutely in the zone both vocally and on guitar, as he laments that “I can’t count the tears I’ve cried, ‘cause life is hard, and then you die.”   ‘Darkness’ is more solemn yet, a solemn blues over a dragging beat that shifts in tone from sparse to epic, Zito’s guitar swirling and darting around like a kite in the wind.  And at the very end there comes the stark ‘Death Don’t Have No Mercy’, which starts with Zito singing alone, unaccompanied and staring death squarely in the eye. Gradually the voices of Steve Ray Ladson, Macrae and Deandrea arrive to add an even deeper moaning-the-blues vibe, and then the song swells further, spooky guitar notes evolving into a writhing danse macabre until it comes to a sudden stop.
There are some other flavours along the way, like the tough and fuzzy ‘Dying To Do Wrong’, with its grinding riff and eerie middle section with washes of organ and sparse, reverb-inflected guitar notes.  And the cover of Walter Trout’s ‘Nobody Moves Like Me You Do’ is a strident declaration of love in a gritty blues-rock vein, with a ‘Mistreated’-like riff and a wiry guitar solo.
Life Is Hard was co-produced by Joe Bonamassa and Josh Smith, and credit to them for capturing Mike Zito’s vision to life with a perfect sound palette, while the assembled musos all contribute to a marvellous ensemble effort.  But it’s always Mike Zito who is in the spotlight, as singer, guitarist and interpreter.  God knows how he pulled his off, with the emotional baggage he must have been carrying, but he did.  Life Is Hard is an open-hearted blues triumph.
Life Is Hard is released by Gulf Coast Records on 23 February, and can be ordered here.

Monday, February 5, 2024

Jack J Hutchinson - Battles

It’s time for one of our periodic expeditions into the Valley of Hard Rock, folks, where today we will explore Battles, the new album by Jack J Hutchinson.  Now, our Jack’s name is often associated with blues-rock, but on Battles he generally steers away from that kind of sound. Instead Mr Hutchinson has mounted an earth-mover, and dug up a few mighty, mighty riffs for your consideration.
Opening track ‘Constellations’ is a case in point, serious head banging stuff with a crunch-and-twirl riff that, like one or two other outings here, puts me in mind of Dio-era Sabbath.  Which is ironic, because Hutchinson’s voice is of a distinctly more Ozzy-like timbre – though better, because less whiny, and benefitting here and elsewhere from some judicious double-tracking
Jack J Hutchinson - think he needs the decorators in
Pic by Rob Blackham
which rounds it out.  Oh yeah, and there’s a tyre-squealing wah-wah solo that very much fits the bill too.
‘Bullets’ is another hard-charging affair, steaming along like a locomotive powered by Phil Wilson’s drums and Charlie Rachael Kay’s bass, and with some interesting “stings” of guitar giving a pleasing twist to the riff towards its conclusion.  There’s a Diamond Head-like intensity to ‘Rip It Up’, with its guttural-meets-spiky riffage, a melodic chorus concluding that “The reflection that you see is love not hate”, and a guitar break that’s short’n’sharp.  And there are two more out and out rockers with ‘Don’t Let the Fuckers Get You Down’ and ‘Overdrive’.  The former is all whirling, spiralling guitar punctuated with cowbell to go with Wilson’s wrecking ball kick drum, before it hits the accelerator for a turbo-charged solo over a storming backdrop that ultimately crashes into a bundle of ringing, semi-discordant power chords.  Hutchinson has suggested the riff to ‘Overdrive’ carries echoes of Metallica, and he may well be right.  Not being an aficionado of the Sandman chaps, I’ll just say that its simple, chugging groove has plenty of oomph, the bass and drums locked in tight.  But there’s a decent tune in there too, and Hutchinson adds satisfactorily wailing wah-wah commentary too.
It's not all heads down, no nonsense stuff though, as Hutchinson throttles back a tad for the moodier ‘Days Are Gone’ and lurching ‘Running On Empty’.  Then three tracks are even more diverse.‘Road To Hell’ goes for a slower, widescreen Western kinda vibe about a man who has “one hand on the bottle, one foot in the grave”, which is a bit hackneyed for my taste even though it’s done nicely enough, with more of a keening, reverb-treated vocal.  ‘Love Is The Law’ is also toned down, and more soulful, with good harmonies layering a lush, appealing chorus, and a subtle solo over fuzzy guitar chords.  And ‘Stay With Me’ is a properly sensitive ballad, opening with twinkling guitar and solemn vocals from Hutchinson, ahead of an aching, harmony-embellished chorus, adding up to an impressive slice of radio-friendly melodic rock that Def Leppard would be happy with.
Hats off to producer Josiah J Manning, who has worked with a host of British acts including the Kris Barras Band and Wille & The Bandits, and does a sterling job here, co-writing the material and capturing the heavy stuff with a diamond-hard edge, and also buffing up Hutchinson’s vocals to a fine lustre.
Battles isn't what you'd call a revolutionary recording.  But it is a well-conceived, clearly executed piece of handiwork on Jack J Hutchinson’s part. The arrangements are short and to the point, and there are no extraneous tracks to dull the senses.  So, if you’re ready to rock, dive in!
Battles is released on 9 February, and can be ordered here.

Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Ten Top Tracks from . . . The Black Keys

Welcome to the first outing of a new Blues Enthused feature.  Note the wording in the title though.  This ain't no ‘Top 10’, ‘Best Of’, or league table of tunes.  It’s a vaguely chronological overview, a gateway to the Black Keys’ canon if you like, and if I were to compile it next week I might well choose 10 different tracks.  And the first subjects for the Ten Top Tracks series are The Black
The happy-go-lucky Black Keys
Keys because they are, as I’ve suggested before, pretty much where my rediscovery of blues music began.  All clear?  Then pay attention to the links below if you want to listen to a particular track, and let’s rock!
‘I’ll Be Your Man’ from The Big Come Up (2002):  I remember reading an interview in which drummer Pat Carney said that when they got together all his buddy really Auerbach really listened to was “fucked up blues”, and this original track epitomises the raw, crackling, don’t-give-a-shit quality of their debut album – that last quality underlined by the very, er, quirky closing “song” ‘240 Years Before Your Time’.  The Akron drums’n’guitar duo throw a few impressive covers into the mix, including a pretty heavy take on the old blues classic ‘Leavin’ Trunk’, but their originals announce their arrival with a sackful of personality. 
‘have love, will travel’ from thickfreakness (2003):  Auerbach and Carney eschewed capitals for the song titles on their second album, but if anything it should be titled THICKFREAKNESS to reflect the mountainous sound the duo generated.  It’s one of my favourite Black Keys albums, partly because of that sound, and also because it’s stuffed with so many good tunes.  But from the various potential picks I’ve gone for this belting cover of a garage rock classic previously best known for the 1965 version by The Sonics.  Worth knowing though, that it was written by
one Richard Berry, who also penned ‘Louie Louie’, and though both these classics were popularised by white kids (The Kingsmen in the latter case), Berry was a black doo-wop and R’n’B artist.
‘Just Couldn’t Tie Me Down’ from Rubber Factory (2004):  The Black Keys continued to mine their productive early seam of punk-ish blues on their third album, which was recorded in – guess what? – a disused rubber factory.  This irresistible original epitomises the strengths in their early sound, with walloping drums from Carney, a humdinger of a choppy riff and ear-
curdling slide guitar from Auerbach, and a seriously catchy melody.  Shake those hips people – you know you want to!
‘Psychotic Girl’ from Attack & Release (2008):  A&R shows the first clear signs of the Keys spreading their sonic wings with the aid of new producer Danger Mouse (aka Brian Burton), who would go on to be half of Gnarls Barkley and here introduces a raft of different instrumentation.  Songs like ‘I Got Mine’ and ‘Strange Times’ still pack a punch and a hook, but when ‘Psychotic Girl’ arrives it’s with a dreamy, psychedelic vibe, accentuated by crooning backing vocals from Carla Monday and a delicate, plinking piano motif from the Mouse fella.
‘Howlin’ For You’ from Brothers (2010):  Brothers seems to me something of a transitional album, coming in the wake of a hiatus in which Auerbach and Carney barely spoke to each other, to the point where Auerbach didn’t even tell his bandmate he was releasing a solo album, while for his part Carney’s marriage was falling apart.  But it’s also the point at which the Keys became a seriously big deal, winning Grammys, registering hit singles, and the album eventually going platinum.  ‘Howlin’ For You’ is one of those gold disc singles, its glam-rock stomping vibe pointing forward to what would come next.
‘Little Black Submarines’ from El Camino (2011):  When I first heard El Camino, I remarked to a friend that it was like Jimmy Page and John Bonham had stumbled across a T.Rex recording session, and Jimmy had drawled, “Nah, that’s not how it’s done Marc.  This is how it’s done!”  That thumping glam-rock vibe produced a couple of mammoth hits in ‘Lonely Boy’ and ‘Gold On The Ceiling’, and it still tickles me that there’s a riff on ‘Run Right Back’ which carries echoes of Mud’s ‘Tigerfeet’.  (Did the Keys ever “really love your tigerfeet”?  Somehow I doubt it.)  But ‘Little Black Submarines’ actually is even more Zeppelin-esque, with a couple of wistful, acoustic verses before ripsnorting chords and crashing drums demonstrate just how heavy they can get, a shout of “Hey!” heralding a lipsmacking Auerbach lead guitar salvo.
‘Weight Of Love’ from Turn Blue (2014):  If ‘Psychotic Girl’ had a quasi-psychedelic feel, the near seven minutes of the opening track of Turn Blue sounds like Pink Floyd having a bash at a soul ballad.  The intro is patient and elegiac, and after the sweetly sad verses (stacked with high harmonies from the wonderful McCrary sisters) the song culminates in a sweeping, soaring,
layered guitar workout from Auerbach.  Turn Blue isn’t the most accessible of Black Keys albums, but ‘Weight Of Love’ is still a statement track.
‘Sit Around And Miss You’ from ‘Let’s Rock’ (2019):  If Turn Blue wasn’t entirely radio friendly, ‘Let’s Rock’ is very much the opposite – carefree and hit-heavy.  I could probably have picked from half a dozen tracks across the album’s breezy 39 minutes, among them the terrifically catchy ‘Lo/Hi’ and ‘Get Yourself Together’, but I’m going for the delightfully woozy ‘Sit Around And Miss You’, which sounds like our boys have been giving Stealer’s Wheel a damn good listening to.
‘Sad Days, Lonely Nights’ from Delta Kreme (2021):  Having produced an album of face-slappingly upbeat spontaneity, Auerbach and Carney then slammed on the brakes and headed back to some of their seminal influences, recording a bundle of covers typified by the deep grooves of North Mississippi hill country big cats Junior Kimbrough and RL Burnside, collaborating with veterans of their bands.  The mood is low-down, slow-down, and ‘Sad Days, Lonely Nights’ is a perfect example of its loping, hypnotic sound.
‘For The Love Of Money’ from Dropout Boogie (2022):  The most recent album from the Akron boys is a bit of an uneven affair, with a few songs that probably won’t do much to turn your head.  Even ‘Your Team Is Looking Good’, which has a killer hook, is a bit of a one-trick pony.  But I’ve fished out ‘For The Love Of Money’ for the way it welds a typically bluesy riff to a late period Beatle-ish melody and rock’n’roll sensibility, with Auerbach channelling John Lennon on his vocals at times.  And frankly ‘Burn The Damn Thing Down’ is even more brazenly Fab Four-esque.  The pair had covered ‘She Said, She Said’ way back on The Big Come Up all of 20 years before, so it seems what goes around comes around.
It's in the nature of this beast that I’ve skipped a couple of recordings along the way, notably the album Magic Potion and the six track tribute Chulahoma: The Songs Of Junior Kimbrough, both from 2006, though there are a few more curiosities out there if you’re minded to look for them.  But hopefully this is a good enough Bluffer’s Guide to Akron’s finest – and will tee you up to make the most of their next album Ohio Players, due for release on 5 April.  Turn it up, folks!

A playlist of all ten tracks discussed above is now available on the Blues Enthused YouTube channel, here.
You can pre-order the new Black Keys album Ohio Players here.

Tuesday, January 30, 2024

Quickies - Evan Nicole Bell, Robby Krieger And The Soul Savages, Harpo Walker

Evan Nicole Bell – Runaway Girl EP

Twitter-using blues listeners may be familiar with the name Evan Nicole Bell.  She’s the young thing from Baltimore who shares videos of her sitting outside on the steps in the sunshine, playing covers of blues songs.  Armed with just her guitar, some loops and rhythms, and her honeyed voice, she comes across as something fresh and charming, and has garnered millions of views.
Somewhat disappointingly, her first proper release comprises just three tracks, plus a radio edit of the title track.  But still, what has young Evan got for us?
Evan Nicole Bell - playing on a front step near . . . Baltimore
Opening track ‘Burn’ has a vaguely Latin feel, and if there’s something sunny about the relaxed sway of it, the lyrics are a bit more downbeat.  After a minute drums arrive to pep up the clicking rhythm a bit, but overall the vibe remains a bit too nu-soul, a bit like Sade but without the sleek froideur.
It’s a handbrake turn from there into ‘Catfish Blues’, which Bell launches with a flurry of trilling guitar notes en route to the riff being delivered with Hendrixy fuzz over a steady beat and stutters of bass.  Bell’s vocal ranges from reflective to sultry to hints of raunch, while she saddles up on guitar to deliver a couple of tasty breaks before wrapping up sharpish in three short minutes.
‘Runaway Girl’ itself is the strongest offering here, though some way off what could reasonably be described as blues.  At its core are stop-start piano chords over a lazy beat, while Bell manipulates the interesting melody into a rattle-and-pause vocal.  For a while it sounds like the skeleton of some modern R&B chart-directed tune, but it gets more impressive as Bell’s vocal gets more agitated and soulful, culminating in a guitar break of needle-sharp wiriness.
The Runaway Girl EP is little more than a toe dipped in the water from Evan Nicole Bell.  A full assessment of her talents will have to wait for a more substantive outing.
The Runaway Girl EP is out now.
Robby Kreiger And The Soul Savages – Robby Krieger And The Soul Savages

I think it’s safe to say that I’m not really the target audience for this all-instrumental album from one-time Doors guitarist Robby Krieger.  Whereas the Doors came up with a string of great, distinctive songs that I could absolutely get behind, the Soul Savages offer up a sleek brand of jazz-fusion that doesn’t do much for me at all.
The musicianship is certainly high-level, focused largely on the interplay between Krieger’s
Robby Krieger - not such a savage soul
guitar and the keyboards of Ed Roth, but the chops of bassist Kevin Brandon and drummer Franklin Vanderbilt are also self-evident.  The trouble is that they’re collaborating on material
that, despite their name, lacks any real soul.
For example, there are interesting things going on in the opening ‘Shark Skin Suit’, from the funky bass groove to some queasy, oddball keyboard fills, and low-bending guitar picking up the main theme before Roth and Krieger get busy on an organ break and a more upscale guitar solo respectively.  But the whole doesn’t really sum like even the sum of its parts.  And could ‘A Day In LA’, with its laid grooves, form the background to a movie scene involving beautiful people messing around on a sun-kissed West Coast beach?  Or is it just elevator music?
‘Contrary Motion’ is interesting in so far as it’s built around a theme – nothing so vulgar as a riff on display here – that sounds maddeningly familiar.  Is it a facsimile of something from Colosseum II’s Variations, or an echo of some 60s/70s movie theme?  Whatever, Krieger adds some interestingly warped guitar play, and Roth some pseudo-classical organ, but it all feels rather like an exercise in cleverness, without any emotional content.
On ‘Bouncy Betty’ it feels like Betty isn’t so much bouncy as a bit coquettish, fluttering her musical eyelashes.  Meanwhile ‘Richochet Rabbit’ has neither the zing of a ricochet nor the scurrying energy of a rabbit, comprising largely inconsequential noodling.
I’ll give ‘em some credit for ‘Blue Brandino’, on which an intriguing opening groove is interrupted by peremptory bursts of twiddling guitar and organ, in a manner vaguely redolent of Paice Ashton Lord’s ‘Ghost Story’.  Krieger adds a more muscular guitar solo, and late on there’s aheap of phasing going on to maintain the attention, but that’s about as good as it gets.
Tom Walker plays invisible harp
I have visions of Fagen and Becker sitting in the control room while some session guns for hire doodle away for a few minutes at the end of a recording session, and Fagen saying:  “Yeah, well we don’t need any of this shit, do we?”  “Hell no,” replies Becker.  But like I say, this really just isn’t my scene, man.
Robby Krieger And The Soul Savages is out now on The Players Club/Mascot Label Group, and can be ordered here.
Harpo Walker – Bruised Heart Blues

This is one of the more interesting instances of “ones that got away” from last year – kept meaning to write about it, but never quite managed it.
British singer, harp player, guitarist and songwriter Tom ‘Harpo’ Walker emigrated to Australia a couple of years before the pandemic, and shortly afterwards rediscovered his musical mojo after walking into a Sydney pub and tripping over a blues jam.  And so here he is with Bruised Heart Blues, covering a few blues bases, mostly in a laid back kinda vein.
A couple of tunes carry hints of JJ Cale, the more convincing of them being the opener ‘I’m A Fool’, with its groaning vocal, sporadic moans of harp and squeaks of conversational slide guitar.  A couple of others explore a folkie-pop groove, ‘Nothing Worth Knowing Comes Easy’ is warm, mellow and acoustic-driven, and if the melody is a bit thin, it’s still nice enough, while ‘Don’t Stop’ is a jaunty little outing with echoes of Stealer’s Wheel.
Two of the most pleasing tracks feature guest appearances from British blues chanteuse Dani Wilde.  ‘Ride On’ centres on a very ‘Smokestack Lightning’ riff, but it’s Wilde’s smoochy vocal that catches the ear, forming a nice contrast with Walker’s more gravelly tones, while Ewan Lund adds pleasing spurts of pinging guitar.  Then Wilde reappears to get all breathy on the dreamy, Ray Charles-like soul of ‘Start Again’, with Lund contributing some more tasteful solo-ing.
‘Time Bomb’ brings a smoky groove and some wheezing harp to a decent, rolling tune.  Meanwhile ‘Tearing Me Up Inside’ approaches Wily Bo Walker’s ‘Voodooville’ territory, with a noir-ish, characterful narrative atmospherically delivered by Walker overly a Latin-tinged groove, to which Lund this time adds some biting guitar embellishment.
Bruised Heart Blues comes over like an easy-going session in the back room of a pub on a sunny afternoon, with a few beers and some enjoyable chat in friendly company.  If that sounds like your kind of thing, then get a round in.
Bruised Heart Blues was released in May 2023 on Big Rock Records.