It’s that time again Biscuiteers. Friday means CD reviews and today we have a Tale Of Two Winters – two recent Johnny Winter release battling it out for the soul of his legacy. Beyond that epic struggle, we have a brand new release from Linsey Alexander and two auspicious debut releases.
Come Back Baby
Released August 19, 2014
Come Back Baby is the new album from Linsey Alexander on Delmark. Linsey is one of the leading artists performing Chicago Blues today. This album cover captures the nostalgic look of past Blues records but the music inside takes us to Chicago’s North Side clubs last weekend. “Booze And Blues” is lowdown and gritty with Linsey’s live guitar tone prominent in the mix. On some of Linsey’s recordings, his guitar tone is smoothed out and loses the elusive ‘it’ quality. Here Linsey has kept his sound intact and he rips it up in this funky club style workout. “I Got A Woman” is a slow burning tune that also highlights Linsey’s wonderful tone and deep Blues roots. His bends say everything you need to know, and the rest of his licks are exactly what you want to know. His vocal delivery is impassioned, burning with desire. He’s dazzling her with his finger work on the fret board and you just know he’s taking her downtown tonight.
On Come Back Baby, Linsey demonstrates his range and skill with deep Blues cuts, strutting shuffles, and funky uptown boogies like “Booty Call.” They don’t call him the Hoochie Man for nothing. He has an eye for the ladies and he’s not ashamed to let them know. Saxophonist Chris Neal dazzles on this one as does Linsey. His guitar riffs are blues club mating calls and according to the song, they’re drawing responses all around town. “Things Done Changed” is a poignant look at the changes in racial strife over the years since Linsey was a young man getting served food out back instead of inside a restaurant. He couldn’t sit where he wanted on the bus, or use just any public restroom. By singing about the positives in his life now, he seems to be making the point that others can be successful by embracing the changes and working toward more.
Come Back Baby closes with “Goin’ Out Walkin’” wherein Linsey proclaims, near the end of the tune and album, “I ain’t got no time to waste.” At 70 years old, he certainly feels the truth of that statement. However, Linsey wrote all but two songs on his new album, his voice sounds strong, and his guitar playing is authoritative and sharp. Come Back Baby is the best Linsey Alexander record I’ve heard. I haven’t heard them all, but of the four I have, this is the best. There have been other high points, but I finally feel the energy, fun and dynamics of his live sets have been captured on disc. The horns are unobtrusive and don’t water down the songs. The keyboards don’t smooth out the rough edges of the core quartet and Billy Branch guesting on three tracks makes it a jam. If you want to hear today’s Chicago blues played by a master of the form, Linsey Alexander’s Come Back Baby is the place to start.
Here’s Nikki Hill
Deep Fryed Records
Released April 2014
I never would have heard of Nikki Hill if not for my love of her husband Matt’s records and live shows. When I heard he was giving up his career as a bandleader and joining her band full time I was dubious. Then I checked out some videos on line and got a sense of her talents. Fast forward to the arrival of Here’s Nikki Hill, the new album from the Hill’s own label Deep Fryed Records. Nikki and Matt Hill are hosting a rock and soul revival. The songs hit hard and fast, with most clocking in around three minutes. Those three minutes pack a lot of punch, like their early Rock & Roll and Blues predecessors. The songs harken back to the days of Chess, Sun Records, and Stax. Nikki Hill’s voice is powerful, energizing every tune and Matt Hill fuels the fire with his incandescent rhythm guitar and lead work. The rhythm section, Ed Strohsahl on bass and Joe Meyer on drums, plays simple and perfectly effective back up. In the Nikki Hill Band, less is more and these guys back up the boss in style.
“Ask Yourself” kicks off the record by throwing down the gauntlet to her suitor. In essence, he better ask himself if he can handle a strong woman. “Ask Yourself” sets the tone for the rest of the album. Nikki Hill is very much the focus of the record, as she should be. The songs are stripped down, uncluttered, and keep your attention on Nikki’s voice. “I’ve Got A Man” gets the boogie going Mississippi Hill Country style. Matt Hill’s guitar tone is lean, clean, and mean as he leads the band through the hypnotic groove. In “Right On The Brink,” Nikki Hill sounds menacing and dangerous. ”I Know” is an authoritative cover of the great Barbara George track.
“Strapped To The Beat” is a swinging R&B tune and features a completely different band. Felix Reyes is on guitar, Ted Beranis on bass, Kenny Smith on drums, and Steve Eisen on saxophone. They cook up a rocking good track and Nikki Hill’s timeless voice makes the whole thing sound new yet nostalgic. The whole disc has a retro feel but it has an authenticity that elevates it above mere imitation. Everything about Nikki Hill is convincing, from her stage attire to her voice. She is the genuine article and Here’s Nikki Hill will make you a believer.
The Reverend Shawn Amos
The Reverend Shawn Amos Tells It
Released April 22, 2014
Shawn Amos was an A&R executive at Rhino Entertainment and vice president of A&R at Shout! Factory, where he produced and recorded multiple Grammy-nominated projects. He is founder and CEO of the digital content studio Freshwire, and is considered an “up and comer” by Forbes magazine. He’s the son of Wally “Famous” Amos and he plays a mean harp. The Rev is joined on his first outing, The Reverend Shawn Amos Tells It, by his “gut bucket power trio” – Don Medina on drums, Chris Roberts on guitar and Ed Terrio on bass. They are occasionally joined by Anthony Marinelli on Hammond B-3 and vocalists Gia Ciambotti and Kim Yarbrough. The band makes a mission statement with “Hoodoo Man Blues.” They conjure the spirits of the past as Amos channels Junior Wells and the gut bucket power trio earns its nickname. On “(The Girl Is) Heavy” Gia Ciambotti and Kim Yarbrough add a touch of gospel soul to a song clearly about sinning.
“I’m The Face” is a full blown Chicago Blues treatment of an early High Numbers B-side. You might know The High Numbers as The Who. The Reverend Shawn Amos and his band give this tune the Maximum R&B for which it was destined. This is my favorite track on the EP. “Something Inside Of Me” is a low down and lonesome take on the Elmore James tune. At five minutes, it is the longest track of the set and gives everyone room to shine. Chris Roberts shimmering guitar ripples through the tune like waves loneliness. Amos gives his vocals everything he has and the anguish is palpable. “Good Morning Little School Girl” is a tried and true blues classic and it’s a little creepy. It has an awesome riff that draws people in, but damn, it is a lecherous sexualization of children and I pretty much wish people would stop covering it.
The EP closes with an Amos original called “Sometimes I Wonder.” It’s a slow R&B ballad that harkens back to Otis Redding. The Rev belts it out and brings it down real low. He puts his heart and soul into the song and it’s clear this captain of industry may have found his true calling. The Reverend Shawn Amos Tells It has only six songs, clocks in around 21 minutes and shames almost every popular record pressed in 2014. This is organic music played with love, skill, and dedication and it’s out there right now waiting for you to discover it.
Released September, 2, 2014
Step Back is the new record from Johnny Winter, who passed away this past July. Like his previous record, 2011’s Roots, this one is all covers and features a myriad of guests. Fortunately no pop stars showed up and it doesn’t devolve into Santana territory but it still doesn’t quite ring true as a Johnny Winter album. Johnny’s rhythm guitar is noticeably absent as is his signature guitar tone which has been a mainstay since the early 80’s. You know the one; it sounds a little thick and chorusy, and it’s all high-end from having the bass and mids dialed down on his Music Man 410 combo. On Step Back, much like on Roots, you’re hard-pressed to pick out what’s Johnny and what isn’t, which is probably why each track lists who solos when. On some tracks the guests are obvious but only because guys like Billy Gibbons and Brian Setzer came in with their signature tones intact.
Johnny Winter was pushing 70 when he made this record. He had a lifetime of health and personal issues. Compared to other active musicians at or around 70, like Buddy Guy, Linsey Alexander, Bobby Rush, Warner Williams, Bob Dylan, Stephen Stills, Dr. John, and others, Johnny was frail and feeling his age more than his peers. Still, when he sat down and played that guitar he was impressive. Maybe this was the best record he could make in his state of health. If you follow the credits, you can tell Johnny still had the chops even if his diminished tone is obscuring his identity. His voice is surprisingly strong, but sometimes he sounds disinterested in the material which makes me wonder who chose some of the songs.
There are some moments of brilliance on Step Back. “Who Do You Love?” is reinvented as a rockabilly tune with snarling slide guitars and bouncing roadhouse piano from Mike DiMeo. “Who Do you Love?” is a true step forward in every way and stands out far above most others on Step Back. Elmore James’ tune “Can’t Hold Out (Talk To Me Baby)” gets a rave-up featuring Johnny’s molten slide and guest Ben Harper ripping it up on a lap steel. There’s a lot of energy in this tune it kicks up a lot of dust in its wake. “Long Tall Sally” actually has Johnny playing rhythm guitar and it is immediately obvious. I knew before I looked at the notes because Johnny Winter had an inner rhythm all his own. It was his western swing rock and roll rhythm and blues heart beat coming through his hands and out in his music. It is a terrible loss for this album to have Johnny relegated only to solos and fills. Leslie West guests on this one and the two continue their streak of exciting collaborations. Check out Johnny sitting in on “Busted, Disgusted Or Dead” from Leslie’s excellent new disc Still Climbing.
My favorite track on Step Back is Son House’s “Death Letter.” The only performer on the track is Johnny Winter, playing slide on a steel guitar and belting out an emotional vocal take. This is the record he should have made. Ditch the guests and the band and Step Back in time to the dawn of the blues Johnny loved so much. Instead, we get a tepid foray back into guest-o-rama and it comes up short. Step Back does little to advance Johnny’s legacy. Maybe the guests like Eric Clapton, Joe Perry and Joe Bonamassa will entice people to check this out, but they won’t be getting music representative of Johnny’s stellar career. Hopefully they will look further.
Live Bootleg Series Volume 11
Released July 29, 2014
One of the best things manager Paul Nelson did for Johnny Winter’s legacy was to start the Live Bootleg Series. Now at Volume 11, the series remains a treasure trove of unreleased live recordings, but for archivists it is an absolute nightmare. The liner notes provide no dates or locations, and much of the time no band members are listed. For instance, on Volume 11, the only musician listed is Johnny Winter on vocals and guitar, even though all the tracks are full band performances. But then there’s the music. Oh, the music. If you want to explore Johnny Winter’s musical legacy, forget about star-studded pabulum and dig into the Bootleg Series.
Volume 11 spends a lot of time exploring Johnny’s fascination with Muddy Waters. Johnny performs blistering versions of two Muddy classics – “Long Distance Call” and “She Moves Me.” Before “Rollin’ And Tumblin’” Johnny mentions that he’s done it twice and Muddy’s done it a couple times. The archivist in me knows I have that intro on tape somewhere. I’ll eventually find it. This track sounds like it was recorded with a larger group of musicians than his usual trio, but even in a trio Johnny and the band would raise a ruckus. “Rollin’ And Tumblin’” is a Johnny Winter slide guitar tour de force that will leave you exhausted and in need of a smoke. It’s no wonder it closes the disc; nothing could follow it.
There are several other stunning moments that will remind you of the power and intensity that was once Johnny Winter. Around 1:28 into “Boot Hill” all Hell breaks loose as Johnny blasts open the cemetery gates and unleashes the screamin’ demons. It’s spine-tingling, head-shaking, finger-aching blues as only Johnny could play. The source tape for this performance is a little rough, but so is singing about sending someone out on “Boot Hill.” You’ll get over it once you hear it. Another hair-raising, eye-glazing, happy-facing moment comes around 6:28 in “She Moves Me” as Johnny’s solo kicks into even higher gear with a flurry of notes flying so fast you can’t even hear them all the first time.
Every track on Live Bootleg Series Volume 11 is a keeper. The recordings are archival and not necessarily professionally done. Most sound like they came from soundboard recordings or FM transmissions. This is a bootleg series after all. One curiosity is the existence of track one, “Opening.” It is just ten seconds of crowd noise and utterly pointless. Otherwise, musically, this is a near perfect glimpse of Johnny Winter in his prime. The Live Bootleg Series is must-own music for any serious Johnny Winter fans and would provide many lessons to budding guitar players everywhere. Go out and get it!