My initial idea for the Friday Fast Five CD Reviews was to do quick reviews of about 300 words each. I knew I wouldn’t be able to rein it in that low. I hope you’ll stick with me and the longer reviews. I like to have context and some artist background to help you get into the mindset of the music and my opinions. Thanks for reading so far and I hope you gain some insight and interest in some new music over the course of the next 2600 words. Damn, 2600…
Released June 3, 2014
Dave and Phil Alvin were at the vanguard of the early 80’s post-punk music scene in Southern California. They knew the value of simplicity and the Do-It-Yourself work ethic of punk but instead of cutting rock & roll down to a stump and burning it like the punks, the brothers were interested in cultivating the roots. With their band The Blasters, they dug deep in to Blues, Rockabilly, Country & Western and Rhythm & Blues. Armed with Dave Alvin’s timeless songs, and Phil Alvin’s distinct voice and incendiary delivery, The Blasters reminded everyone within earshot of the true nature of Rock & Roll. Unfortunately, brothers don’t always get along and by the mid-80’s Dave split and developed a rich legacy on his own and big brother Phil has kept The Blasters going lo these many years, including occasional reunions with Dave. In 2012, Phil Alvin almost died due to a complication from an abscess tooth that caused his throat to swell up during the last song of a show in Valencia, Spain. Phil was rushed to the hospital where he flatlined. Phil woke up two days later with a hole in his throat from a tracheotomy. In the meantime, Dave had been getting calls with bad and better news, from Phil being dead, to brain-dead, to alive and well. He described the experience as unnerving. Go figure.
The Brotherly love resurfaced and the two found Common Ground for fresh musical collaboration in the songs of Big Bill Broonzy. They went back to the blues, the heart of American Music, and came up with a stunning album. These tracks could be Blasters tunes. Big Bill’s influence is obvious when you hear this record. Maybe it’s Phil’s voice; he makes every song his own. His timbre, his inflection, his enunciation; it’s all distinctly Phil Alvin no matter who wrote the song. However one of the true highlights of the album is hearing Phil and Dave sing together. They trade verses in several tunes and Phil provides powerful background accents in “Stuff They Call Money.” The disc opens with “All By Myself” which finds Phil and Dave sharing vocals on this acoustic guitar driven track. The title and theme clearly doesn’t apply to the Brothers Alvin anymore, who are thankfully back to making music together.
There are too many highlights on Common Ground. “How You Want It Done” combines Rockabilly, Blues, and Country & Western into a fast pickin’ two-step boogie that proves Blues is the Mother of all those styles. Phil blows a mean harp behind Dave’s lead vocal on “Southern Flood Blues” which also features some incendiary lead guitar from Dave Alvin. “Truckin’ Little Woman” will have you checking all the truck stops to find her. “Key To The Highway” is epically jaunty, and the world weariness of both Phil and Dave’s vocal delivery give authenticity to the rambling itch. You can see them tossing guitars in the back of a long black Cadillac and hightailing out of town with the women waving goodbye in the distance.
As a long time Blasters fan, I had high hopes for Common Ground and it exceeded all my expectations. I would place it high on any best of 2014 list. The arrangements compliment the songs, which are performed with love and respect for Big Bill Broonzy evident in every note. More importantly, you can hear the love and respect Phil and Dave have for each other. There’s a strange comfort that comes from knowing Phil Alvin is singing along with his brother Dave’s guitar playing again. With Common Ground on the stereo, for 43 minutes everything is right with the world again.
Refuse To Lose
Released May 6, 2014
Jarekus Singleton is at the vanguard of young blues musicians. The Mississippi native is a former college basketball star and played three years as the starting point guard at the University of Southern Mississippi. Unfortunately, an ankle injury ended his basketball career. Jarekus then turned his attention full time to his music career. Jarekus got his musical start singing in church and his uncle had him playing bass in the church band at age nine. He performed as rapper for a while but eventually turned his attention the indigenous music of Mississippi: Blues. Jarekus’ wordplay and hip-hop background have helped him develop a fresh approach to lyrics that skips the tried and true couplets, and opens things up for more developed story telling. At 29, Jarekus has a surprising amount of stories to tell and he does so in a way that draws you in. Refuse To Lose is his debut on Alligator Records and it is a testament to Jarekus’ fortitude and positive attitude.
The disc opens with “I Refuse To Lose.” The band includes James Salone on organ, Ben Sterling on bass, and John “Junior” Blackmon on drums. They are spandex-tight and the guitars are searing as Jarekus sings his “soul is a weapon and I won’t conceal it.” “Keep Pushin’” is another autobiographical song which tells of his travails and trials as an upcoming basketball titan and his path to the blues. His singing and playing are powerful and impassioned as you’d expect but he crafted an excellent song. Jarekus Singleton’s guitar playing and singing are terrific but his strength as a songwriter will keep him relevant. The songs on Refuse To Lose are several steps forward from his independent debut album. Heartfelt was a promising start but Refuse To Lose shows immense growth in writing, performance, and arrangements. Bruce Iglauer, President of Alligator Records heard Jarekus at the 2013 International Blues Challenge, signed him to Alligator and took him under his wing. To his credit, Jarekus seems to have absorbed as much as possible so far from Mr. Iglauer, and applied it to his music.
“Hell” is a smoldering blues that recalls all the Kings of the blues and even invokes the name of Stevie Ray Vaughan in a creative lyrical twist. Jarekus plays custom instruments from Clevenger Guitars and he gets rich tones from guitars that have almost no bodies. “High Minded” and “Hero” seem linked by the allure of bling and flash either for you, or admiring it on others. In “Hero” Jarekus was impressed by someone who seemed to have it all, except an admirable moral center. In “High Minded” he sings about a woman with her mind on herself, superficial things, and little else. Obviously, Jarekus values a strong spirit and personal fortitude but also self-awareness and awareness of others. It comes through in his lyrics and his passionate guitar playing.
Altogether, Jarekus and the band have crafted a fine second album. There is no sophomore slump here. There has been a lot of hype surrounding Jarekus Singleton and label mate Selwyn Birchwood as keepers of the flame in the blues world. Sometimes it becomes hyperbole but sometimes the hype is matched by talent, ability, and originality. Such is the case with Refuse To Lose. Refuse To Lose isn’t just an album title but a credo. From triumph to tragedy and triumph again, this young man has faced adversity and simply refused to give up. In the crucible of those experiences, a seasoned performer, and writer, was forged. Give in to the hype, pick up Refuse To Lose, and get out there and see this band live.
Girl With A New Tattoo
Smelly Cat Records
Will be released on September 30, 2014
I’m not sure what’s been going on in Canada in the last ten years or so, but it has become a fertile breeding ground for Blues in the 21st Century. The music has followed the Mississippi River way up north and taken hold. Almost as an antidote to the bloated, big business popular music in the United States, it seems Canadians are looking deeper for more meaningful music that requires skill and attention to the craft. Kirby Sewell Band definitely fits into that movement. Hailing from Calgary, they released their first disc in 2010. Led by six foot six inch blues belter Kirby Sewell, the band has been spreading the word and sharing their mix of Americana roots music. Girl With The New Tattoo is their next step forward.
“The Devil’s in The Details” offers a churning riff and funky chords, and Sewell’s smooth honey-oak cured voice. “Simply Not Enough” has some sweet sounding guitar harmonies. The guitar team of Neil Gunhold and Morgan Turk put together well placed harmonies all over this record. Neil Gunhold is listed as producer and primary song writer. He certainly builds satisfying arrangements. Some great examples are “Carry Me Home” and “Stop And Go” which provide a back to back study in layering and intertwining instrumental parts. The pieces fit like an exquisite jigsaw puzzle that appears seamless when complete.
“$1.11” boogies with a classic stomping jive beat while Sewell laments “I sold my soul for a dollar, I sold my dreams for a dime. I sold my heart for a penny in a pawnshop on the corner. Now I got a $1.11.” I hope he doesn’t spend it all in one place. I can’t tell if Sewell is scornful of the “Girl With A New Tattoo” or if he’s shining her on to get lucky. He says he hasn’t seen a tattoo of a unicorn in a while so I’m guessing it’s the latter. He’s obviously smitten either way and it seems any tattoo gets his motor running. The disc cover is adorned with lovely Betties showing their ink and it’s quite eye-catching, but there’s nary a unicorn in sight. Maybe it has been a while after all.
Girl With A New Tattoo is not strictly blues. If you’re looking for Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, or Son House this isn’t where you’ll find it. But hey, there are plenty of Muddy Waters songs to listen to after you give Kirby Sewell Band a spin or two. If you like neatly arranged songs with plenty of energy and instrumental interplay to follow, and smooth, but rousing, hot-blooded vocals this is a great place to start.
Gotta Keep Rollin’
Released September 9, 2014
Rob Stone is a Boston native who caught the blues bug at a Charlie Musselwhite show. Stone spent some time learning from Jerry Portnoy and playing with Rockabilly legend Sleepy LaBeef. During his four yearstint with Sam Lay, Stone met Chris James and Patrick Rynn. Together they left Sam’s band and have been playing together ever since, churning out Chicago Blues in classic style, with high energy and authenticity. While they have dropped the C-Notes from the Rob Stone & The C-Notes band name, the core of Stone, James, and Rynn is very much intact on Gotta Keep Rollin’. Their chemistry is undeniable and they have produced a tour de force of Post War Blues revelry.
“Anything Can Happen” features Chicago Blues legend Eddie Shaw on saxophone. In a show of deference and class, Stone’s harp sits out and he allows his guest to shine. Eddie Shaw guests on two tracks, as does another legend, John Primer. Both men served as long time sidemen and as band leaders so they know how to make the song the centerpiece. All egos are left in the alley. On “Lucky 13” Stone and Primer trade licks in a stirring harp and guitar conversation. “Move Baby Move” has a “Shake Rattle & Roll” rhythm and Patrick Rynn’s bass keeps the beat surging. Chris James rips it up on guitar and Eddie Shaw offers up a hard-charging Rock and Roll sax treatment. This is the boogie woogie flu you won’t mind catching. John Primer sits in again on a mid-tempo eight bar blues called “Cold Winter Day.” There are not enough good eight bar blues these days. It’s like a lost art and I applaud them for doing this Willie McTell tune and doing it well.
Every Blues album needs a song about Bigfoot and Gotta Keep Rollin’ comes through with “Strollin’ With Sasquatch.” Stone’s harp is howlin’ like the Northwest winds as we slowly, softly shuffle through the redwoods in search of the elusive lost chord known as Sasquatch. I just want to say Sasquatch a lot. Sasquatch. What the title really says is that Rob Stone doesn’t take himself too seriously and wants to have some fun, even if it’s just the title of smoking instrumental. His brand of Chicago Blues is fun. The tempos get you moving, the lyrics make you smile, and playing with get you shaking your head and playing air piano. This is not downtrodden misery. It the music that makes you forget about the misery and puts a little swing in your step because if you’ve got the blues you Gotta Keep Rollin’.
Pro Sho Bidness
Released July 8, 2014
Jeff Dale is from the South Side of Chicago. He’s an award winning songwriter and performer who learned to play the blues from West Side Chicago musicians around age 13. He wrote his first blues tune at 14 and eventually became an accompanist for legendary blues performers Lowell Fulson and Etta James. He put out two records in the ‘80s and pretty much disappeared. In 2009, Jeff returned with a new band, The South Woodlawners and the album Blues From The Southside Of My Soul. This year, Jeff Dale and his band put out their third album in five years, Good Music. You can really open a can of worms calling your record Good Music. It takes a fair amount of confidence and thick skins to endure the flogging you might get if it falls short of the title. I know my first reaction to the title was “I hope so.” After a look at the song titles, Dale’s grizzled visage on the cover, and a cigar box guitar on the inside cover I felt much better about the chances.
Trouble with Femme Fatales figures prominently on Good Music, and I’ve often said people happy and in love can’t make good music, so I was encouraged by this development. “Naked Woman In My Bed,” “Murder,” “She Love Me,” and “My Brain Took The Night Off” all describe the myriad effects of women. I must say I love it that Dale made the first line of “Naked Woman In My Bed” “I woke up this morning.” It’s a cliché turned on its head when he completes it with “there’s a naked woman in my bed.” Dale’s lyrics have a wry smile and reflect real life, which is sometimes funny and sometimes not. Dale is a keen observer and translates his findings into illustrative words. For instance in “Town Line Road” he sings “just because I can’t bathe you in diamonds baby, don’t mean that I’m no good.” He punctuates the sparse words with searing guitar licks reinforcing his frustration with the separation of sides on Town Line Road.
As Producer, Dale takes chances and brings in unexpected instrumentation. He has Dane Little on cello as the lead instrument on the slow burning “Final Destination.” The mournful cello weaves through the tune following Dale like a Hellhound on his trail. On “Murder,” Dale brought in Marilyn Schram to solo on oboe. Good Music is all about the unexpected, from instrumentation to topics, it will keep you guessing. You may even expect the title to be hype, but through clever writing, stylistic divergence, and songs about naked women you’ll come out the other side agreeing and shouting “Yeah, yeah! I like Good Music.”