I hope you’re all enjoying your weekend. We have four new reviews for you. Yes, I’m a day late and a dollar short but I wrote a lot, went off the rails here and there and even threw in a rant! I hope you enjoy this week’s reviews and find something interesting for your ears!
Otis Clay & Johnny Rawls
Released Date: October 21, 2014
I am not the world’s biggest Soul music fan. I like it but I have to be in the mood for it, and I have conflicting feelings regarding its inclusion under the Blues umbrella. If I go to a Blues festival or show, I want to hear blues. I want to hear some poor bastard with a broken heart playing his guts out in 12 bars or less. I want it lean and mean, and not too clean. Soul music is just too nice. I’ve seen Johnny Rawls, and Otis Clay in concert and while both shows were enjoyable I wasn’t blown away by either. Then again, each set was at a Blues festival and I wasn’t really in the mood for Soul music. Hell, either could have been one of those times I listened to Soundgarden on the way to the show. Soul music doesn’t make its way into my purview all that often. I have my Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett records and that’s about as far as it goes. And now, across my desk comes a new album by two big names in Soul music – Otis Clay and Johnny Rawls. I had low expectations. I hear soul music in movies, or on SiriusXM once in a while for a change of pace, and a lot of it seems schmaltzy. Such was my state of mind when I popped Soul Brothers into the player.
Wow. The first song has these two Soul music gurus doing a classic Dave Mason track. It seems like a sellout to get people interested – the white people that unfortunately make up 90% of the Blues audience. But you know what? It doesn’t matter. The band gets a little funky and the vocal arrangement plays to the strengths of both vocalists and by the end of the first chorus I’m digging in and listening closer. What seemed like a pandering choice started to seem like a bold choice. They could have led off their first full length collaboration with any song but they went with this. I don’t know if it was their idea, the management, the label, or who, but it was a great choice. It helps that the band pulled it off. The band is The Rays featuring Richy Puga on drums, Bob Trenchard on bass, Johnny McGhee on guitar, Dan Ferguson on keyboards, Andy Roman on sax, Mike Middleton on trumpet, Robert Claiborne on trombone, Nick Flood on sax and The Iveys – Arlen, Jessica and Jillian – providing background vocals. I guess it worked on all levels and hopefully not just because I’m white. They definitely got me interested and in the mood to hear more.
This dynamic collaboration started last year when Otis Clay was a guest on three tracks on Johnny Rawls’ O.V. Wright tribute album Remembering O.V. They both put their hearts into Soul Brothers which for my money is better than anything I’ve heard from them individually. The biggest surprise for me is the seamlessness of the originals and covers. Sure you’ve heard “Only You Know And I Know” and “What Becomes Of The Broken Hearted” before but it feels like you’ve heard “Road Dogs” and “Poor Little Rich Girl” too. They’ve crafted a “Best Of Soul” record using original material. It’s quite a feat and a testament to the artistry of these two men. Otis Clay and Johnny Rawls are both in excellent voice and this is one of those recordings where you can hear the smiles going back and forth between these guys. “Road Dog” has them exploring their parallel travels in the business and in Tyrone Davis’ “Turn Back The Hands Of Time” Rawls calls on Taylor to take us back to 1966 just as Otis belts out his testimony as the tune closes. “Hallelujah Lord” finds both men embracing their gospel roots, “Voodoo Queen” is the closest they come to a blues song, and “Living On Borrowed Time” has big bad horn arrangements straight out of Memphis. To call Soul Brothers a tour de force may see like hyperbole and maybe it is, but with Soul Brothers Otis Clay and Johnny Rawls have delivered a timeless Soul and R&B album that needs to be heard by everyone on Pop radio calling themselves Soul singers. Soul Brothers is the real thing.
Duke Robillard Band
Calling All Blues
Released on September 23, 2014
Duke Robillard’s history is in many ways the history of modern blues. He’s been in Roomful Of Blues and Fabulous Thunderbirds, The Blues Music Awards named him “Best Blues Guitarist” four out of five years from 2000 to 2004, and even B.B. King has called him “one of the great players.” Over the years Duke has been a champion for all forms of Blues and has covered most of them. The new record from the Duke Robillard Band is “Calling All Blues” and once again Duke brings together many styles on to one disc.
The music has a classic sound and Duke’s gruff raspy vocals are the perfect complement to the songs. His name may be Duke Robillard but he is the King of Tone. Even if he wrote horrible songs they would sound great. I would hate Techno less if they sampled Duke’s tones. Every blues tone you could want is on this new disc. And the acoustic bass? Damn, that thing sounds good. It was recorded perfectly too. It’s unobtrusive but if it was gone you’d probably cry until they put it back. It’s warm, fuzzy, and groovy – this music swings with style. Duke addresses the tones lyrically too, with “Nasty Guitars.” In the liner notes he mentions that he’ll occasionally be playing some beautiful passage in a nice clean tone and people will be looking bored. He knows it’s time to rip it up with some Nasty Guitars.
“Down In Mexico” is a laid back shuffle that suits the fun in the sun vibe. “I’m Gonna Quit My Baby” is a swinging bopper that will have you moving like a tilt-a-whirl. Duke’s open string fills and gritty tone are superb. The beat is countered by stuttering piano lines courtesy of Bruce Bears. It’s delightful. “Svengali” is a mind bending carnival of sound. I don’t know what the Hell is going on in this song but I love it. There are echoes, slides, stomps, string bends, and the machine that goes “ping.” It will make you dizzy, twist your mind, and make you wish you were Big. Keep your hands and feet inside the ride at all times please. “Emphasis On Memphis” is as advertised and “Motor Trouble” seems to be a veiled reference to losing a little bit of your get up and go power. As producer and guest guitarist on many Stony Plain releases, and with his own prolific output, this surely can’t apply to the Duke himself.
I love the tones and tunes on Calling All Blues but “Confusion Blues” is too soft and smooth. It sticks out among the gritty vocals from Duke and all the grimy, low-down grooves on the rest of the album. It’s not a bad song or performance, but it pulls you out of the moment. Otherwise this is a perfect album. It clocks in around 40 minutes and makes the most of it. Even Sunny Crownover turns up to sing her guts out for you on “Blues Beyond The Call Of Duty.” Calling All Blues is calling all blues fans far and wide, mobilizing the troops and bringing in new recruits. Get in line with the Duke and move, people. It’s boogie time.
Skyla Burrell Band
Released On October 7, 2014
Skyla Burrell Band. Never heard of them. It’s a big blues world out there and new contenders appear constantly. I was surprised to learn the band has been in existence for quite some time. The band was formed by Skyla Burrell and Mark Tomlinson in 2002. Their first album was 2004’s Working Girl Blues. The new disc, Blues Scars, is their fifth! The good thing about discovering a band five records into a career is that you don’t have to wait a few years to hear more, if you want to. I want to. The Sklya Burrell Band is tight. They don’t just lay it down; they knock it down and kick it. It’s blues, it’s rock, it’s swinging good time Saturday night fist fight low down hoe down get down and boogie music. Even the ballads have a fair amount of strut and swagger.
The disc kicks off with little fanfare and dives right in to the title cut which features a stuttering riff under Skyla’s vocal. She belts it out and fills in the gaps on lead guitar. Skyla Burrell shares lead guitar duties with Mark Tomlinson. Thankfully the liner notes let us know Skyla takes the first solo in each song and Mark takes second. Their styles mesh like Keith Richards and Mick Taylor. The rhythm guitars are just as important as the leads in this band and they masterfully weave around each other. “Shut You Down” has a marching stomp beat with a sidewinding riff and terse lead guitars. “Love Letter In Blue” is a wistful ballad with tender sentiments and mournful lead guitar lines permeating the soul of the song. On “6 Mile Cemetery Road” they unleash some Screamin’ Jay Hawkins hoodoo and “Juke Joint Tonight” has all the tilted swing of the finest Chuck Berry records. Drummer Ezell Jones, Jr. reminds me of Steve Jordan on this tune, and a few others, from the style to the tuning of the snare. Mr. Jones is a jazzy rocker deep in the pocket. It’s a beautiful thing.
When this disc showed up I had no idea what to expect. The CD cover’s Windows Paint lettering screams low budget ambivalence and the band shot looks like a Prom photo gone wrong, with the band leader looking like she just stepped off the Walk Of Shame. Is it wrong to complain about album covers? I know budgets are tight but still, you want something representative of the music. You don’t want somebody putting the CD down or passing it by altogether because it looks like maybe you just didn’t give a damn how your hard work was represented on the cover. The high energy, rough and tumble spirit of the band would have been better captured almost any other way. I have mad Photoshop skills. I volunteer to do the next cover for them, free of charge. And it’s not just this band. There are several out there with album covers of dubious origin and it obviously irritates me. Maybe the record labels are to blame. I don’t know, just fix it! Okay, end of rant. It’s the music that matters and I want people to be interested enough by the cover to want to hear the music.
Blues Scars is a Rock & Roller’s blues album. It swings, it bops, it zips, and it dips. It’s old style Rock & Roll that came straight from the Blues. This band hits it fast, hard, and often. Most of the songs are between two and a half and four minutes. They fill the songs with hot licks, sweet tones, impassioned vocals, and undeniable spirit. Between Skyla’s tremendous voice, twin blazing guitars and deeply grooving rhythm section you have a recipe for all night boogie marathons that are guaranteed to leave a few Blues Scars behind. Get yours today!
Head For The Hills
Released Date: October 28, 2014
Markus James loves percussion and he loves the blues. Markus has been playing blues-based music with traditional West African musicians since 1994. In that year he made his first visit to Niafunke, the northern Mali home of the legendary Ali Farka Toure. Markus James has studied the West African rhythms, cadences, and styles as well as their blues counterparts in the United States, particularly in Mississippi. As he traveled around Mississippi after a successful 2003 appearance University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, he encountered familiar music and was drawn in by the old-school drummers. At one point, after performing in Mali, West Africa, Markus James made a realization, “I came back to the US, saw the Deep Blues film, and was amazed to see the exact same thing that I had just seen in the sand dunes outside Timbuktu: three drummers and a guy playing what they call a cane flute. It was just such an obvious connection between the musical traditions I had been immersed in in West Africa and some of the traditional music in North Mississippi.” On his new album, Markus chose to Head For The Hills. The North Mississippi Hills.
Markus James recruited Junior’s son Kinney Kimbrough, Calvin Jackson who played with R.L. Burnside, and Junior Kimbrough, Aubrey “Bill” Turner from Otha Turner’s fife and drum band, and R.L. Boyce who played with Jessie Mae Hemphill. In addition to these A-list rhythm makers he brought in Marlon Green, who was the last drummer for John Lee Hooker, and who is currently working live shows with James. The drummers, who split duties on the album, are the only instrumentalists aside from Markus James on the album but James plays a plethora of instruments himself. He sings and plays electric slide guitar, 3-string cigar box guitar, gourd banjo, slide dulcimer, acoustic guitar, harmonica, beatbox, and a snakeskin-covered 1-string diddley bow. The result is an earthy, primitive, and complex combination. Everything about this music is percussive, even James guitar playing. The way he plucks the strings and slaps the guitar while playing slide belie the heart of a drummer. Even the most stripped down tracks on Head For The Hills will give you plenty to hold on to and will keep your foot tapping.
You can’t get much more primitive than “Diddley Bow And Buckets” which has only the instruments named in the title. Still it is a compelling track, solidifying the notion that excellent music can come from unlikely objects. Album opener “Just Say Yes” is a driving, thumping Hill Country trance-inducer, “Gone Like Tomorrow” is a spacey, wide open adventure in dreamland, and “Nomo” is an anguished dirge. “Woke Me” which features Kinney Kimbrough has a “Rollin’ And Tumblin’” groove. Head For The Hills closes with an appropriately organic acoustic piece called “Green.” Most of the music can’t really be described. The tones and beats come at you in unfamiliar combinations and every song raises your expectations for the next. Head For The Hills is a wonderful exploration of primordial music in a high tech world and makes the musical connection from future to past.