We’re back again for our weekly CD reviews. This week we’re featuring a reissue, a terrific album from 2014, and a biscuit so fresh you can’t even get it in a store yet. We hope you can check them all out and find something interesting for your ears!
Southside Blues Jam
Release Date November 18, 2014
What can you say about Junior Wells that hasn’t already been said? He is a legend truly deserving of his stature. Junior took over the harmonica slot in Muddy Waters’ band when Little Walter left the group. Together with Buddy Guy, Junior Wells made one of the greatest Blues records in history with Hoodoo Man Blues. Junior and Buddy – the original Blues Brothers – worked together on and off until the time of Junior’s death in 1998 but along the way, Junior forged his own style, was a master of the harmonica, and a powerfully passionate singer.
Southside Blues Jam was Delmark’s attempt to capture on tape the feel of Junior’s regular working band that had a weekly Monday night gig at Theresa’s Lounge on Chicago’s South Side. The band you could find weekly at Theresa’s featured a Who’s Who of Blues legends. Buddy Guy and Louis Myers on guitar, Fred Below on drums, Ernest Johnson on bass and the incredible Otis Spann on piano. You almost have to wonder what Junior had to contribute. One listen to Southside Blues Jam and it becomes apparent what Junior had. Beyond the obvious, Junior was a band leader who could draw great performances out of his band. He can be heard directing the soloists, calling out arrangements and tempos, and he lends a tremendous presence to the proceedings.
The first sound you hear on South Side Blues Jam is Otis Spann’s piano. Spann is a master pianist and if you didn’t know it before, you’ll know it by the end of this album. His work provides the harmonic backbone of every song. His triplets, trills, and tangents add flair to the songs and make his a standout performance. “Stop Breaking Down” is the lead track and Junior blows his harp like Hell, fired by the spirit of Otis Spann. Junior emotes the words as much as he sings them, pleading the blues like no other. “I Could Have Had Religion” is another powerful performance. Junior seems to be improvising lyrics about then recent blues tragedies like Howlin’ Wolf’s heart attack, Muddy Waters’ car accident, and the death of Magic Sam. At the end you hear him talking like it was a rehearsal take. The informality in the studio gives it the feel of a true late night blues jam but Junior sang those improvised words with fire and passion. This is the real blues.
Let’s say a few things about Buddy Guy. Buddy is a show-off. He’s a head cutter, a ball buster, and an all-round son of a mother, but when he takes on the role of sideman he checks his ego at the door. His playing here is exceptional, but it never overpowers Junior or any of the other musicians. Buddy plays in the open spaces and never detracts from the main event. Buddy stretches out on “Lend Me Your Love” and hearing it now I can easily understand why guitar heroes like Clapton, Beck, Page, Hendrix, and Vaughan all worshiped at the feet of Buddy Guy.
The original album ends with track eight on this reissue which is a fantastic duet/duel between Buddy Guy and Junior Wells. They share the vocals and go toe to toe with their solos. Their rapport transcends music. It transcends the bandleader/sideman dynamic, and their obvious friendship. It’s nearly eight minutes of pure blues improvisation with Junior, Buddy, and Otis at their finest. If this is what was witnessed on Monday nights at Theresa’s, get my time machine ready, we’re going to hear some Blues!
The reissue features seven previously unreleased tracks, nearly doubling the amount of music on the original album. The biggest difference is the absence of Buddy Guy. Louis Myers handles the guitar work on most of the bonus tracks and proves to be a more than capable foil for Junior Wells. Junior dedicated “Rock Me” to Muddy Waters and Spann pulls out all the stops. Junior whips up a fierce Windy City bluster as he plays his harp in honor of his old boss. “Lexington Movies” is an amusing bit of studio chatter, and the disc closes with an upbeat tune called “Got To Play The Blues” which belies Junior’s fascination with James Brown.
The bonus tracks are less formal than the cuts on the original LP. However, it is during these bonus tracks that you get a feel for Junior as band leader. You can hear him directing Spann and Myers during “It’s Too Late Brother” and on a rambunctious, and thematically very different alternate take of “I Could Have Had Religion” you hear Junior direct the band to do it “funky, low down, and dirty – just like that.” This simple, off the cuff directive from Junior perfectly sums up this record. Funky, low down, and dirty – just like that.
Release Date February 3, 2015
Tinsley Ellis has been making music for a long time. He got started on guitar at a young age and by his teenage years he was already an accomplished musician. Tinsley was born in Atlanta but spent his early years in south Florida. He left Florida behind, returning to Hot ‘lanta in 1975. He formed a band with future Fabulous Thunderbird Preston Hubbard and in 1981 formed a new band called The Heartfixers with Chicago Blues man Bob Nelson. By the time of The Heartfixers’ 1983 platter Live At The Moonshadow, the Washington Post declared Tinsley to be a “legitimate guitar hero.” By the end of the 80s, Tinsley was picked up by Alligator Records and hasn’t stopped. He tours consistently and since starting his own label, Heartfixer Music, he has put out a new album every year. The latest is Tough Love and Tinsley’s scowl on the cover is letting you know he’s not fucking around.
While Tinsley may be deadly serious about his music and his gruff expression on the cover might make you think he’s going to be pissed if you even point at it, Tough Love is a welcoming album. He brings you in right away with “Seven Years.” This funky lead track features slinky, clean lead guitar licks that bring to mind Robert Cray. Ellis’ voice is in terrific form here and throughout the new disc. Somehow it is simultaneously raspy and smooth as he delivers his tales and punctuates them with biting commentary from his guitars.
“Midnight Ride” is a hard strutting shuffle and Tinsley unleashes the beast during his solos, bending the Hell out the high notes until they’re screaming like over-heated tires burning rubber and launching the midnight ride. “Give It Away” is an acoustic guitar based ballad that is an exact match for Tinsley’s older and wiser crooning. “Hard Work” reminds me of J.J. Cale and features plenty of grooving slide licks. Like anything Tinsley does, his slide playing is not a retread of someone else’s ideas. His slide licks are just far enough outside the box to sound fresh. Maybe it’s because he is not primarily a slide guitarist. His approach is different and the results speak for themselves.
Ellis is joined on Tough Love by a core band of Lynn Williams on drums, Steve Mackey on bass, and Kevin McKendree on keyboards. “Should I Have Lied” is a piano ballad that gets set ablaze when Tinsley lets loose on his guitar. It sounds like he’s using a hollow body guitar and it has an earthy tone. Tinsley is a master at matching the guitar to the song. This tune pulls together all his strengths as a singer, player and writer. It is superb. The set closes with another smoldering slow blues called “In From The Cold.” McKandree plays a mellotron, of all things, on this one and it’s a delight. I’m pretty sure they won’t be bringing the ancient behemoth on tour but damn it sounds great on the record. It’s like King Crimson meets B.B. King at John Paul Jones’ house. I don’t know who had the idea, but kudos to Tinsley for running with it. This mix of old sounds spurred some damned fine, fresh-sounding music.
Somehow, Tinsley Ellis manages to consistently present engaging new music. It seems like stepping away from big blues labels and making music for his own record company has freed his spirit. The music of his last few albums has been filled with joy. Anyone wondering if Blues is just depressing songs needs to look no further than Tough Love. Tinsley tells it like it is. Sometimes it’s rough and ugly but sometimes it’s the best thing in the world. It’s all here.
Full Moon Night In Memphis
Soars High Productions
Release Date September 18, 2014
J.P. Soars came to the Blues world from the south Florida heavy metal scene. Soars credits a trip to Memphis and a meeting with the legendary Jessie Mae Hemphill as a life altering experience that eventually led to his career in the Blues. By chance, Soars met cigar box guitar pioneer John Lowe and was smitten by the rustic instruments. Soars traveled to Memphis again as a member of David Shelley and Bluestone for the 2007 International Blues Challenge. The band made it to the top ten. Soars was inspired to form his band, the Red Hots. With the Red Hots, he won the South Florida Blues Society competition two years in a row and represented the group at the IBCs where in 2009 they won. Soars also took home the Albert King Blues Guitar award. The heavy metal kid has mixed influences from Django Reinhardt and Guitar Slim to Black Sabbath and Jimi Hendrix into a signature sound that capitalizes on his distinct voice as much as his guitar prowess.
J.P. Soars’ latest foray is Full Moon Night In Memphis. The title track and album opener is an urban mixture of Hill Country cigar box guitar, driving rhythms, and howling Mississippi saxophone courtesy of rising star Brandon Santini. Soars’ voice reminds us of a guy who got his start in Memphis all those years ago. J.P. has a Howlin’ Wolf style rasp that serves the music well. It seems to be his natural voice. It doesn’t come across as shtick. It definitely fits with the grinding tones of the cigar box guitars. It’s a match made on the wrong side of the tracks somewhere in Hell and I can’t get enough.
The next tune is called “Back To Broke” and it is one of the catchiest sing-along Blues I’ve come across in a long time. Sometimes you hear a song and think “that’s catchy” but then it disappears as quickly as it arrived. “Back To Broke” will stick with you for a few days. The music is funky and it will get you moving while you join J.P. in singing “I’m back to broke, it ain’t no joke. I had some money in my pocket but it went up in smoke.” Mark “Muggy Doo” Leach adds some Memphis style B3 BBQ sauce to this tasty musical concoction and J.P.’s fingers dance their way through a jaunty solo. It’s refreshing to hear such a happy memorable tune about a dire situation. That’s Blues at its best, right?
“Somethin’ Ain’t Right” is another standout tune. It is built around a monster riff that could have been born in 1970 at Leslie West’s house. I hope Leslie wasn’t home because this thing is ripping up everything in sight. J.P. feeds the monster with freewheeling solos while drummer Chris Peet and percussionist Raul Hernandez propel the beast. Somethin’ ain’t right if you don’t like this song.
Full Moon Night In Memphis isn’t all bluster and blooze. Soars covers a lot of ground. There’s a trip through that other famous Tennessee music city on “The Road Has Got Me Down” which also features the wonderful harp playing of Brandon Santini. J.P. works his full moon magic on Lap Steel and the backup singers croon like the Carter Family. Again, this is a well-constructed song; it feels fun, and uplifting even when the subject would otherwise seem very sad. He’s on the road and missing home but turns it into a sprightly song. Soars seems to have a knack for songwriting. All his prowess as a guitarist would be for naught if he couldn’t wrap great songs around it. Luckily he can. He successfully takes on Latino guitar instrumentals with “Lil’ Mamacita” which features his incredible chops on acoustic guitar, and closes the album with a jump blues number that would make Louis Jordan proud. It’s a Full Moon Night In Memphis and anything can happen. With this new album from J.P. Soars, you can be certain something will.