When I started this weekly review feature I thought I’d be able to rein in my ramblings and turn out five short reviews each week. I was way off. I’d rather be thorough and give the work of the artists the time it deserves. So, some weeks we might have five, some weeks less. This week we have four. I hope you enjoy them and find something interesting for your ears.
Altered Five Blues Band
Release Date: October 28, 2014
The Alternate Five Blues Band formed in 2002 and quickly gained a reputation as a powerhouse live band from Milwaukee to Minnesota and all around the Midwest. Their 2008 debut album focused on the band’s ability to re-arrange popular covers. Titled Bluesified, the album featured juke joint versions of songs like Jane’s Addiction’s “Been Caught Stealing” and The Romantics “What I Like About You.” Their 2012 release Gotta Earn It featured original material and received rave reviews. 2014 brings us their third record Cryin’ Mercy. The disc is produced my Tom Hambridge, the writing is mature, and the performance is white hot. Cryin’ Mercy is their best yet.
The music is tight but loose and the grooves are deeply in the pocket. The lyrical content avoids clichés and even when singling out modern excesses like Prada shoes and Coach purses, the sentiments are timeless. And you just have to smile at lyrics like this phrase from “Demon Woman” – “I bet an x-ray of your body shows your head has two horns!” In “I Got You” vocalist Jeff Taylor sings “I don’t need your trust but I’d like your fortune cookie.” I don’t know if that’s dirty, sexy, or dangerous. Maybe it’s all three.
Mark Solveson provides fat bass riffs, powering “Stay Outta My Business” and “Demon Woman” with low down rumbling force. Solveson’s inventive bass playing is compelling and is a breath of fresh air in the modern blues genre. “Demon Woman” has a taut riff that lands on a devilish sounding chord. Guitarist Jeff Schroedl’s playing burns like Hell fire and keyboardist Raymond Tevich puts a nefarious twist on some Brimstone fueled Gospel organ riffing. “I’m In Deep” is a swift shuffle with Raymond Tevich whipping up a Jimmy Smith style sermon. Jeff Schroedl is a guitarist’s guitarist. He plays for the song, but shows off his chops occasionally. He doesn’t over-play and chooses tones that match the tune. The MVP of Altered Five Blues Band is keyboardist Raymond Tevich. His playing and phrasing is tremendous and he uses a full range of keyboard timbre. He melds his influences into a greasy giblet gravy that makes everything better.
Vocalist Jeff Taylor is a powerful singer. Minor cracks in his otherwise smooth voice give it character and add poignancy to a song like “Find My Wings.” Taylor’s voice is just gruff enough to lend gravitas to his words. It makes it all real. This is Blues, people. We want imperfections. We want the real deal. Luckily Altered Five Blues Band gives us more than just the real deal. Their Maximum Groove Blues will have you Cryin’ Mercy for sure!
Chris Duarte Group
Blues Bureau International
Release Date: October 14, 2014
Chris Duarte seemed to burst onto the music scene in 1994 but he was far from an overnight sensation. He’d been playing music in Austin, Texas for most of the 80’s. He’d been in a number of bands and even released an album in 1987 called Chris Duarte & The Bad Boys. After seemingly endless lineup and name changes with The Bad Boys, Chris put together the first Chris Duarte Band and since 1991 he hasn’t looked back. The new disc Lucky 13 on Blues Bureau International is indeed the thirteenth record from Chris Duarte Group. Whether it will be lucky or not is yet to be seen, but the band’s sound is fully realized and Chris seems to get better every year.
Early on, short-sighted critics dismissed Chris as a Stevie Ray clone. Over the years Chris has had to overcome this one-dimensional stigma but it has focused his musical vision. In the modern era of blues, guitar is king and kings of guitar influence almost everyone. From Albert, Freddie, and B.B. to Hendrix, Albert Collins, and Johnny Winter, players of a certain age have similar influences. But it’s all about how you make them your own that counts. Chris Duarte plays big bad Texas blues. The shuffles strut with pride, the minor blues dig deep in the Texas sand, and his licks are as spicy and smoky as Lockheart barbecue.
“You Know You’re Wrong” fades in to start the album, building from a quiet, gentle lead-in blowing up into an alternating high-low riff that will spin your head. Chris’ rhythm playing is tighter than an oil baron’s purse strings. One song into the disc and you know it’s going to be a fun listen. “Angry Man” is a rockin’ shuffle tune with some stop time maneuvers that’ll give you whiplash. The infectious chorus will make this one a great live song. Chris is in great voice too, and he fits about six minutes of guitar notes into this five minute romp. Damn, that man can play!
For all the Big Texan fireworks, Chris Duarte also has serious jazz chops. From his chord voicing to his lead phrasing, Chris demonstrates a deep connection with guys like Grant Green, Kenny Burrell, and Charlie Christian. On “Who Loves You” Chris blurs the lines between Jazz and Blues for a fun, upbeat tune that will have you smiling while you shake your head at his guitar mastery. “Let It Go” is a slow minor key blues a la “Tin Pan Alley” and it too spends time in Jazz territory. There’s a slight echo to Chris’ tone on “Let It Go” that gives it a damp, late night alley feel. Chris plays delicate fluid lines whose attainment should be the desire of any serious guitar player.
There are fourteen songs on Lucky 13 and they range from full-on rock to smoky jazz. He has some sonic fun with “Not Chasing It” and lyrical fun on “Ain’t Gonna Hurt No More” singing lines like “your Daddy wants to see me dead.” “Minefield Of My Mind” gets into Jazz Fusion territory. Not crappy 80’s jazz fusion either; we’re talking Mahavishnu Orchestra/RTF barnstorming. The disc closes with another ride into Jazzland. This time Chris and the band “Jump The Trane” for a twisting journey through the wilds of Texas Blues Be-Bop. It’s sick. You shouldn’t be allowed to end a record this way. It’s like kissing someone good night and then punching them in the face. I love it.
The record may be called Lucky 13 but Chris Duarte’s success has more to do with hard work, incredible talent, intense focus, and solid song writing than any mystical fates. Chris has put the time in. Now it’s your turn. Get yourself some Lucky 13.
Soul Stew Records
Release Date: February 3, 2014
Damn! Norman Taylor’s voice is smooth. I never heard of this guy until his new disc Blue Soul crossed my path. Acoustic Blues is not really my thing. I like to play it but listening to it throws me off. I don’t know why. I can appreciate the artistry; I just don’t want to hear it. We all have our shortcomings. Sometimes I hear some that hold my attention though. Norman Taylor has a deep, emotive voice that defies categorization. He sounds like a Soul Man, a Preacher, and a Blues Belter. His guitar playing is exquisite too. The combination held my ear and sent me to the worldwide web to learn more about Mr. Taylor. I didn’t feel too bad about my ignorance once I found that even the almighty Google knows next to nothing about this excellent musician.
I did learn that “Norman Taylor is a Singer/Songwriter/Acoustic Blues performer from the South Jersey/Philadelphia area. His style is entrenched in the country blues of people like Robert Johnson and Skip James, and contemporary acoustic blues men like Keb’ Mo’, Eric Bibb and Guy Davis.” It’s not much but it is spot on, although I would put him more in the Guy Davis camp.
He may be from the greater Philadelphia area but he takes us on a road trip to Memphis on disc opener “100 Miles From Memphis.” He name drops all the hot spots he’s dreaming of to keep his mind off the last 100 miles. Taylor’s finger picking, combined with accompanists Steve Goldstien on guitar and Roycee Martin’s rumbling bass give the song a rotary feel like wheels on asphalt spinning toward the Mississippi Bridge. As he sang about ribs at the Rendezvous and breakfast at the Blue Plate I got pretty damned hungry by the time the song was over. Road trip!
The disc features two versions of “Betrayed Blues.” The first is a slow, sad acoustic ballad and the second, which closes the disc, is the only full band electric song on the album. It’s also my favorite. The tune is rearranged into a funky stuttering shuffle with stinging lead guitar and pulsating bass. Acoustic guitarists often chose different phrases on electric guitar than those who play electric most of the time. The acoustic players regularly have to choose notes and combinations that will fill spaces. They use more chord shapes than scales. They think outside the Blues Box, so to speak. It makes it really interesting when they switch to electric. Taylor and Goldstien play off each other with both playing tasty leads and the rhythm work is elegantly brilliant. This is an interesting way to close an acoustic record but it effectively showcases the range of Norman Taylor and his cohorts including drummer Tom Callan who provides the funk.
Altogether, Blue Soul is worthy of your attention. To me, it seems perfect for late night listening, or while sipping a cold drink and sitting on the porch on a warm summer’s day. Norman Taylor’s rich voice will draw you in and focus your attention. All your troubles will fall away for a while and all will be right with the world.
Cut Me Loose
Screen Door Records
Release Date: November 11, 2014
18 year old Norwegian Magnus Berg received his first guitar at the age of seven. The instrument was built by his grandfather and set young Magnus on his musical path. Initially infatuated with Angus young, Magnus eventually developed an interest in the roots of Angus’ playing and started moving backward in time toward the Blues. He found some favorites of his own like B.B King, Howlin Wolf, Muddy Waters, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Otis Rush and Jimmy Reed. Berg’s family spent time in Florida each year and during one stay in late 2012 he caught the ear of singer/songwriter Kirsten Thien during a sit-in with Mike Zito. Thien and Berg became songwriting collaborators and she eventually brought him into her live band. Together they have toured together in the USA, Norway, France, Germany, Belgium and The Netherlands giving young Mr. Berg a trial by fire on stages around the world. Their relationship also led to Berg’s signing with Thien’s Screen Door Records which has just released Magnus Berg’s debut album, Cut Me Loose.
Aside from the tough, gritty riffing on the opener “Cut Me Loose” the most noticeable aspect of the music is Magnus Berg’s voice. 18 years old or otherwise, Magnus has a perfect voice for blues. His phrasing is developed well beyond his years and there is no hint of a teenager’s under-developed voice and range. His love of Muddy Waters is apparent from the first notes of “One Way To Please You.” Stylistically it owes as much to Nashville as it does to Chicago, but the harp is all Little Walter and they definitely have their mojo working on the vibe. Later in the record they turn “Hoochie Coochie Man” on its ear by removing the signature riff. They replaced with an equally authentic and rustic sounding arrangement and Berg’s Telecaster slide work is refreshingly simplistic and organic. “When You Leave Me” is a lonesome dirge with killer harmonica playing from Bjørn Tore “Daffy” Larsen. The whole band is solid and plays great together. Beyond “Daffy” and Magnus there are Håvard Sunde on drums and Roy Oscar Pettersen on bass. The quartet has the feel of a true band and not just wunderkind plus back up musicians. The interplay is tight and intuitive, and everyone gets a chance to shine.
The maturity level is high on Cut Me Loose. It doesn’t feel like a debut record and Magnus doesn’t seem like a teenager. I hate to focus on his age but it could be a sticking point for a lot of people, including me. I think it’s great that young people are interested in Blues and I strongly encourage it, but teens as bandleaders often fall short. In this case, Magnus Berg delivers in a big way. So far, he seems like the total package. He writes good songs, comes up with credible re-arrangements of classics, sings well beyond his age, and is confident enough to be part of the band. It will be great to see him grow as an artist and I bet he’ll have one Hell of a voice ten years from now. It’s way too soon to cut him loose, he’s got a lot of miles to go and I suggest you get on the train sooner than later.