There were a lot of great Blues albums that came out so far this year and unfortunately some that aren’t so great. I’ve been away from reviews for a while and focusing on other things but we’re back and our upcoming reviews will sort through the junk so you don’t have to. Let’s hit it!
If Sass Jordan formed a blues band called AC/DC it would sound like Jane Lee Hooker and she’d make us all believers. The real Jane Lee Hooker is a no-nonsense, no frills, no-fucking-chance-of-hearing-anything-pretty street fighting New York City bunch of Rock & Rollers high on Blues power and Hell bent on riding on Howlin’ Wolf’s God damned shoulders out into the shadowy alleys of your soul. With their debut album No B! on Ruf Records they bring along tough original songs like “In The Valley” and high octane covers like “Mean Town Blues” and “Shake For Me,” and their version of “Mannish Boy” will have the North Carolina potty police checking their hardware, if you know what I mean.
Guitarists High Top and Tina ‘T Bone’ Gorin played together in Helldorado from 1997-2001 before a host of personnel issues killed that band. In 2013 they reconvened and have been bringing their raucous guitar sparring to the masses ever since with Jane Lee Hooker. Singer Dana “Danger” Athens earns her name on every track on No B! as the band courageously occupies an improbable space where Punk, Blues, and Rock & Roll collide. You can’t fake this music and anyone who tries will probably get run over by a biker with a Jane Lee Hooker tattoo. And it would serve them right.
Released on May 20, 2016
Big Dog continues the upward march of Albert Castiglia’s career and reputation as a hard hitting singer and guitarist. Big Dog has all the blazing guitars you come you expect but every song is a keeper which is a high-water mark for any artist. The album blasts off with a solid punch in your slick, pop-blues loving face. “Let The Big Dog Eat” is strutting, grunting, fighting, biting, no-punches-pulled back alley dog fight with the leader of the pack coming to claim what has been rightfully surrendered. Much of Big Dog falls into the realm of funky, gritty, dirty, and stanky. From the grooves to the guitar tones and snarl in his voice Albert infects the music with a nasty South Side Trojan horse virus that will actually cure your Blues.
Harp maestro Johnny Sansone sits in on two tracks, getting mean and evil on “Where The Devil Makes His Deals.” Producer Mike Zito wrote and performs on “Don’t Let Them Fool Ya” and together they tag team that track like a college Lacrosse team on Saturday night. Zito has been a common thread in many of the best blues albums of the last few years including a few of his own. He certainly inspired to Albert to play his best and sing from the soul. Albert is clearly hitting his stride as a well-rounded musician. Albert’s voice sounds great on Big Dog. It is strong, deep, and authoritative. He sings with conviction and his emotions sell the songs regardless of the words. As for the guitar playing, this is is my kind of album. From gutbucket slide to razor sharp Albert King licks and all points in between Big Dog has it. if Albert Castiglia comes near your town, do not hesitate; just “Get Your Ass In The Van” and go.
Promised Land Or Bust is a return to the hard blues by this workhorse band from Kansas. They are ready to rumble and the rumble in these grooves is deep and wide. Once again this trio presents the Blues in a familiar yet fresh fashion which blends everything from Little Walter to Soundgarden into a denim and sweat smoothie that will put boots on your feet and hair on your face. The band eschews cliches of classic and modern blues and even though songs like “Mean And Evil” touch on common themes they are addressed from new perspectives. The lyrics examine loneliness, desperation, atonement, and redemption. Even their brilliant choice of covers like Mike Hosty’s murder ballad “Hannah” and Ryan Taylor’s bleak “Why’d She Have To Go (and Let Me Down)” blend seamlessly with their own meditations on the heart of darkness. Few bands can walk the tightrope between visceral and cerebral and even fewer can capture us in that nexus like Moreland & Arbuckle. Their songs will punch you in the gut, explain to you why it had to be done and by the way, it’s for your own good!
Drummer Kendall Newby is the unsung and un-named secret weapon of Moreland & Arbuckle. His powerful yet nuanced drumming makes him the John Bonham of Roots and Blues. He drives “Mean & Evil” to the precipice of Hell, lays down a full court press on “I’m A King Bee” and underscores the melancholic majesty of “Mount Comfort.” Since joining the band about five years ago he has put his stamp on their whole catalog but his contributions to the new music cannot be overlooked. Elsewhere, Promised Land Or Bust offers delicate beauty on “Waco Avenue,” and the raucous shuffle they have perfected is represented by “Woman Down In Arkansas” and the marauding “Long Way Home.”
Moreland & Arbuckle have been together under their own moniker for over ten years and they continue to move from strength to strength. For me, their last album 7 Cities was perfect in every way but it stepped away from the blues farther than any of their previous efforts. Promised Land Or Bust returns the band to the Blues. It is a crowd-funded effort through a Kickstarter campaign and their persistence and dedication to the music and the dedication of their fans paid off when Alligator Records picked them up. Their ten years of toils have landed them on the premier Blues label in the world. The Promised Land is on the horizon and closing fast. You owe it to yourself to join them for the journey.
I love a good live album and Live At The Kessler doesn’t let me down. Jim Suhler & Monkey Beat are red hot, tight, and rocking. They blend Rock & Roll, Zydeco, Blues, Boogie Woogie, and more into a concert experience full of highlights and plenty of music that will make you dance. From the opening classic Texas Shuffle of “I Declare” to the new song “Doin’ The Best I Can” the tone is set to good times, big grooves, and deep rhythm pockets. About midway, they take it down for a bit to let you catch your breath. “Texassippi” is a sweet tea sipping back porch hymn, “Reverie” offer elegiac repose before the swirling storm of “Sunday Drunk.” The set is closed by a slide guitar tour de force called “Restless Soul” which interpolates “Bullfrog Blues” wherein Suhler name-drops Rory Gallagher and lets it rip for a Rory style rave up.
Suhler is a tasteful and skilled guitar player. He plays things that fit the songs but he unleashes the big guns at all the right times too. His licks can bring you in close and tight or knock the Stetson right off your head and pin it to the roadhouse rafters. The band is locked in like a fine Swiss watch. Each piece fits and elements like accordion blend to make a deceptively spicy gumbo. Altogether Live At The Kessler is rip roaring fun and an excellent overview of Jim Suhler & Monkey Beat’s catalog of tunes and styles. It’s a brilliant primer for those unfamiliar with their work. Be sure to check out Jim Suhler’s website where he is offering fans two special digital downloads: “Lipstick Pickup,” co-written by Jim with Ray Wylie Hubbard and performed by Jim Suhler & Monkey Beat and “Chasin’ Down the Devil,” written and recorded by Jim with the Tejas Brothers. For more live action from Jim Suhler, you can catch him and the band live in person or see Jim as a member of George Thorogood & The Destroyers.
Anni Piper is a lovely woman and based on her album covers, she know it. All too often, if an artist is showing T&A on an album cover it’s to distract you from the music contained therein. Sadly that is again the case with More Guitars Than Friends. Truly, her songs are not bad but they are just too blah for the Blues. They take a rocket ship to the lowest common denominator and for music lovers looking for that elusive X-factor, it won’t be found here. We’ve heard all this before. After hearing this album for the first time I was surprised to learn Anni Piper won the Best New Talent award at the 2005 Australian Blues Music Awards. Australia gave us the Blues of Dave Hole and Fiona Boyes. The music on More Guitars Than Friends is far, far removed from what I imagine, at my peril apparently, all Australians worth their salt would like. I imagine rough and tumble rabblerousers with booming amps and wicked riffs but then again I probably listen to too much AC/DC.
Anni Piper sings in a sultry style and she is a capable singer. She would probably have a great career if she moved to Nashville. She has the look and voice that could make her a huge star of Pop Country. I don’t like writing reviews like this. I know artists put a lot of work into their music and they are rightfully proud of their success. I’ve never put out an album and I truly respect everyone who has taken the gamble and made it to that point. But this is Blues. This is the music of Son House, Charley Patton, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Bessie Smith, and Koko Taylor. I get countless discs from Blues musicians, some established and some weekend warriors hoping to quit the day jobs. Recently there have been too many albums with formulaic blues, slick production, vapid lyrics, and guitar soloists hitting me over the head with Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Albert King licks. Sometimes I have to wonder if they ever even heard Albert. I suppose I decided to take a stand on this one because of the cover. Anni flaunts her curves on other album covers and her promotional materials. When so much skin is uncovered you have to wonder what is being covered up, like bad music.
Eye catching covers are important but the music has to live up to the promise of a great album cover. When your cover is the singer in a sensual pose showing off her curves it seems you’re counting on sexual arousal for album sales. And if you look like a 10 your album better not be a 2. Sure, Blues has a glorious history of sexuality but it’s also about passion. Outer beauty invokes a response but inner beauty builds passion. There is no inner beauty here. If this slick pabulum fuels your passion then you may be a soulless, hollow cyborg ready-programmed for Clear Channel’s homogenized corporate radio. But you’re a Blues fan right? You deserve better than this.