We’re back again with another round of CD reviews we like to call Fresh Biscuits. There’s a lot of great blues out there right now and here we have some of the best reviewed for you below. As always I hope you find something interesting for your ears!
Bernard Allison Group
In The Mix
Release on January 26, 2015
Bernard Allison was born in Chicago in 1965 but spent a lot of time in Florida. He is the son of the late great Luther Allison and is the youngest of nine children. At age 13, he made his first appearance on a record and at 18, Bernard joined his father on-stage during the 1983 Chicago Blues Festival. Upon graduating from high school, Bernard was asked by Koko Taylor to be her lead guitar player. When the Queen of the Blues calls, you go. Bernard spent three years with Koko Taylor’s Blues Machine filling the gaps in his Blues education. By 1990 he was ready to release his first album as a solo artist, while still the bandleader for his father’s band. 25 years and thousands of gigs later, Bernard has stepped well beyond his father’s long shadow and secured his own place in the annals of Blues history. His latest album, In The Mix, on Jazzhaus records, is a welcome return after a long break since 2010’s The Otherside.
In the spirit of that long absence, In The Mix starts off with the hard driving Colin James-penned “Five Long Years.” This tune has terse riffs and a flame-throwing coda that finds Bernard cranking out guitargasmic joy. “Lust For You” is a slow burning jam, fueled by B3 and Bernard’s scorching lead guitar. “Call Me Momma” is a plea for help only a loving mother can answer. When your world is falling apart and your lover has walked out the door you have questions. Momma can help you find the answers. This is a tribute to strong women who have some seen some turmoil and made it through. They are wise and warm and all you have to be is humble enough to ask. Now go call your Momma so she doesn’t have to call you!
Bernard’s voice has a refined maturity that makes his singing an equal partner with his guitar playing on this album. However, great singing and guitar playing would be wasted if the songs were no good. Luckily, Bernard is a skilled writer who comes up with well-constructed songs of his own, and he has a knack for choosing covers that fit with his personal style. Among the Bernard Allison-written songs on In The Mix we get the poignant soul of “Tell Me Who” with its lonesome saxophone, the confident Jimmy Rogers swagger of “Something’s Wrong” where Bernard shows off his slide guitar chops with slick licks and buzzing riffs, and the cascading organ-filled “Set Me Free.” Mark “Muggie” Leach provides wonderful B3 playing throughout In The Mix. Sometimes it’s the focus and sometimes it’s bubbling below the surface, but without it this would be a very different, less enjoyable album.
“I’d Rather Be Blind” has been done by just about everybody, yet Bernard made something new out of it my mixing the crisp drum and bas sound out funky soul with stinging guitar runs. Stripping away all the big arrangements we’ve heard in the past, he brings it down to street level and gets greasy. Bernard also cover’s two of Papa Allison’s tunes – “Moving On Up” and “Move From The Hood.” I’ve always loved “Move From The Hood” and Bernard does a great, if not fundamentally different version of it. The message of the song is the most important part and as long as someone is out there spreading that message I’ll take it. Especially of it’s got sweet saxophone riffs and poetic guitar lines like this one.
I’ve been pondering the significance of the title In The Mix. What I’ve come up with is this: Bernard Allison pulls together all his influences, talent, and skills, adds top notch musicians and in the mix creates a fresh sounding modern album. It bears resemblance to what has come before but it follows no patterns or predefined limits. Bernard’s music is his own because everything he is and knows is In The Mix.
Igor Prado Band
Way Down South
Released on February 17, 2015
Who is Igor Prado? I had no idea. From the name I expected an Eastern European. I was way off. Igor Prado is a left-handed, guitar playing blues man from Sao Paolo, Brazil. As a youngster, he was into Little Richard and Chuck Berry. He credits a trip to a festival called Nescafe & Blues as influencing his love of Blues. He also cites the record collection of Chico Blues, who also works in the studio with Igor Prado Band. Chico is one of the biggest Blues collectors in South America and Igor was privy to the recordings of Charlie Christian, T-Bone Walker, Clarence ‘Gatemouth” Brown, Robert Lockwood Jr., Guitar Slim, Albert Collins, The Three kings and much more. In 2002, along with his brother Yuri, Igor started to play professionally with a band called The Prado Blues Band. They released a self-titled disc in 2003. By 2007, they were the Igor Prado Band and released the album Upside Down. Igor plays the lefty guitar strung like a righty the way Albert King, Coco Montoya, and Eric Gales play it. He plays the Hell out of that guitar just like those guys, too. He is a fan of West Coast blues and even made an album for Delta Groove Records with the late great Lynwood Slim in 2010 called Brazilian Kicks. Now, in 2015 comes Way Down South. The disc is billed as Igor Prado Band and Delta Groove Allstars, and features Kim Wilson, Rod Piazza, Sugaray Rayford, Mud Morganfield, Lynwood Slim and several others.
Way Down South features tracks recorded between 2012 and 2014 when some Northern Hemisphere Blues greats ventured Way Down South to Brazil. The result is a blistering good time. Maybe the best time you could have in Brazil without site-seeing on the beaches of Rio de Janeiro. The band and guests cover a lot of ground, from Chicago to Cali to ole Mississip’, creating a travelogue of this now North and South American art form. Ike Turner’s enduring classic “Matchbox” kicks off the disc and boasts Sugaray Rayford on vocals and Mike Welch on guitar. Rayford was born to sing a song like this and Prado and Welch throw licks back and forth like a grenade without a pin while the horn section swings away just waiting for it all to explode. Elmore James’ “Talk To Me Baby” features Rod Piazza on harp and vocals and Honey Piazza on piano but Igor and the band fuel this gut-bucket boogie. The guests and the band are elevated by the synergy of the collaboration. Prado doesn’t take the bait of an Elmore James tune and play slide either. This is fretted wizardry drenched in reverb, glorious reverb! Damn, what a tone. I think I’ll listen to this track again. I’ll be right back.
Long John Hunter and the Lone Star State are represented by a rollicking romp through “Ride With Me Baby.” Here, the band is joined by another legendary Texan, Kim Wilson. Kim sings this one for all the glory and the song ends before you realize he didn’t even play his harp. Junior Walker’s “Shake & Fingerpop” swings through a classic Soul and R&B groove and Prado’s impassioned vocals are a revelation especially after hearing so many other fine vocalists on the first five tracks. Prado’s voice is full-bodied and emotive, easily on par with the stellar guests on Way Down South.
The production on Way Down South lets the instruments breath and the mix is never cluttered. The disc has a very open air feel, like a band playing in a big room and grooving. Rodrigo Mantovani plays acoustic bass on a lot of these tracks and the boom of that enormous instrument provides more than just bottom end. Even though the tracks were recorded over a long stretch of time, the production and sound are consistent. Igor Prado, Chico Blues and their team know how to make great sounding records that embody the spirit of classic sides yet exemplify modern recording capabilities. Simply put, this is a great sounding record. Luckily the songs match the effort put into making the record and the band and guests give every bit of energy to the project. It’s pretty early in the year, but Way Down South is currently my favorite of 2015.
Smokin’ Joe Kubek & Bnois King
Fat Man’s Shine Parlor
Blind Pig Records
Released on February 3, 2015
I first heard of Smokin’ Joe Kubek & Bnois King in the mid-nineties while I was searching for something to fill the gaping hole in my musical heart left by the death of Stevie Ray Vaughan. I was looking for anyone who could make a Strat swagger, swing, scream, and sing. I found a lot of guys trying, but very few have stuck with me. They were copy cats. They knew the how but were utterly lost when it came to the why, but not Smokin’ Joe. He was the real deal. A genuine Texas guitar slinger who played in Freddie King’s band, played every BBQ Pit and roadhouse in the great Republic of Texas, and was personally encouraged by B.B. King. Smokin’ Joe has played Lucille. Let that sink in for a moment while I tell you about Bnois King. Bnois is a damned fine guitar player too, with a jazzy approach to chords and a more laid back style than his partner Kubek. Bnois is a gifted, witty lyricist and a smooth vocalist who could sing his way into any pair of pants he chooses. This pair is arguably the most complementary team of opposites to ever play the Blues. I look forward to every new record from this duo and I have yet to be disappointed. Sometimes I’m even impressed. Their return to Blind Pig Records, the new Fat Man’s Shine Parlor is definitely impressive.
A boogie riff leads us into the disc and Bnois tells a tale of woe over a broken heart. “Got My Heart Broken” he says as he sings about bedding married women. It’s a Blues topic older than Robert Johnson but Bnois’ tongue in cheek, laid back delivery makes you wonder if it really happened. He’s only 72 so I’m betting on Bnois! The song has Texas swagger all over it and pithy guitar licks punctuate Mr. King’s claims of conquest. This song ends and leads into a track about the thing a traveling musician thinks about the other 20% of the time: food. “Cornbread” is the lead single from the album and captures all the hallmarks of Kubek & King’s great partnership. Kubek’s tough rock riffs, King’s relatable lyrics, and plenty of sparring guitar licks. The two trade off during the solo sections heating up the kitchen to the boiling point. Check those ribs, we don’t want ‘em overcooked.
There’s a good sense of dynamics on Fat Man’s Shine Parlor. Mixed between the strutting rockers like the big riffing twin guitar powerhouse “Brown Bomba Mojo” and the appropriately swinging “Lone Star Lap Dance” are mellow moments like “Diamond Eyes” and Bnois’ honest plea for a one night stand in “Don’t Want To Be Alone.” Bnois is getting busy out there on the road. I’m starting to think the Fat Man’s Shine Parlor was a brothel. However, even his lusty songs have good messages. They’re warnings to men and women alike. Don’t take things so seriously and don’t expect to marry someone with whom you only had a fling. Road relationships and late-night hook-ups are not promises and don’t expect them to be. Keep it casual, people.
“Crash And Burn” is full of Bnois’ astute observations of modernity’s fascination with fashion and appearances, and musically the track contains some sweet unison and harmony lines from the guitarists. Smokin’ Joe and Bnois are joined in the studio by Shiela Klinefelter on bass and Eric Smith on drums, with Kim LaFleur adding guitar to a trio of tunes. The duo has worked with a lot of rhythm sections but Shiela and Eric work well with Joe & Bnois. I know Shiela has played with them on the road for a few years and she really has a feel for the groove these guys create. Musical chemistry or the lack thereof can make or break an album even when the songs are good. This is a performance art and the musicians have to be in sync. They got the right band together on Fat Man’s Shine Parlor and it shows from start to finish. Kubek’s production, the duo’s guitar gymnastics, potent songwriting, and a tight band make this a high water mark in a recording career that started 25 years ago. If you’re looking for smart, strutting, energetic blues your first stop should be at Fat Man’s Shine Parlor.