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CD/DVD/BOOK Reviews - May 2009
Toby Walker – Hand Picked
Once a frequent visitor to these shores, where his fleet fingered acoustic guitar playing has been warmly appreciated. It has to be said that Toby's reputation lies on his guitar playing as is apparent here as his vocals are too strained on the emotional numbers. The picking (alternating thumb a joy) and slide is very tasty indeed, though his covering of, Skip James’, “Hard Times Killin’ Floor” and “Special Rider Blues” are classic songs to get away with; I just felt they could have been tightened up a bit. Toby’s ragtime side has always been crisp, and on the button, and fairly rings out. Toby has a fondness for country legend Hank Williams; he has covered him twice here in very fine style. That leaves the three Traditional songs outside of the seven originals, mostly from Toby’s hand.
Toby is an adept solo entertainer in that his is fully developed solo package, his performances are ear grabbing, and doesn’t sound need accompaniment to fill out his sound, though when he is augmented it gives the disc more variation. Of Toby’s own…. “Mama Keeps Her Kitchen Clean” has a lovely syncopation novelty feel, “Leon’s Little Girl” is a sweet melodious instrumental; while beauty within, “The Secret” echoed Harry Chapin. All in all it’s a mixed bag, with some tasty fully ripe recordings; though some spoiling has occurred within the crop.
Charles 'Big Daddy' Stallings - Blues Evolution
The second album from Baltimore-based Charles “Big Daddy” Stallings is for fans who like a little eclecticism with their blues.
While most of the tracks are as billed - “Good Time Blues with Twist” - there are forays into soul (Hand Dancin), and Latin swing (Hola Seniorita).
Sometimes it works (the jazz-funk Booty Slappin) and sometimes it doesn’t, like on the instrumental Cha Cha 3000 which, while showcasing the undoubted skills of harpist Steve Levine, also leaves a slight taste of Muzak in the mouth.
Stallings has taken to heart the maxim that that you should sing about what you know, and a careful listen will yield much about the life of the former truck driver-turned-bluesman.
On the autobiographical Hobbsville #2 (a follow-on from a track on his debut album One Night Lover) he lays out much of his personal history, from childhood on the family farm – complete with scatological musings of Stallings’ grandfather - to his war service in the US army.
And although he appears to name-check everyone he has ever known, and admired, on this long (10 minute) track it’s done with humour, panache and a big fat voice that fairly drips out of the speakers.
Second stand-out song is the slow-and-dirty Strange Things with Stallings playing a BB King-inspired guitar homage over a neat line in self-observation: I get up in the morning/getting ready for work/I peep in the mirror/You see how I look.
Further evidence Stallings doesn’t take himself too seriously is provided by novelty blues number 2999.
If you were ever yearning for a blues-take on the Carpenters’ Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft, well, here it is.
Except this time the aliens appear to hail from Planet South Carolina.
Stallings has surrounded himself with some fine musicians for this album: particularly Gail Parrish on driving bass guitar and Nighthawks harp player Mark Wenner who guests on five tracks.
There’s a solid brass section with Kelvin O’Neal on trumpet and Joe Thomas on sax. And pianist Glenn Workman plays anything-but-workmanlike boogie-woogie on the first two tracks.
Blues Evolution provides something for everyone, but this isn’t an album with too many surprises. It delivers the goods - most of the time.
Omar Kent Dykes - Big Town Playboy
Jimmy Vaughan and Texas-based blues don Omar Kent Dykes made a fine tribute album a couple of years back: “On the Jimmy Reed Highway”, which brought together Fabulous Thunderbird harpist (and Vaughan former playmate) Kim Wilson, as well as other Austin, Texas, blues notables Lou Ann Barton and guitarist Derek O’Brien (who also produced).
Taylor, who reportedly taught Reed to play guitar and also served as his sidesman throughout much of his career, is credited with keeping his better-known friend in hand (and in time).
But he never achieved Reed’s fame, even though he penned a couple of minor hits of his own.
So to redress the balance, the first two tracks on this new album – the eponymous Big Town Playboy and Up Side Your Head – are Taylor-composed shuffle-blues driven by Dykes pleasing roar.
No Kim Wilson this time round: instead the mighty James Cotton and long-time swampmeister Lazy Lester deliver the harp honours, with Cotton in particular reliving past glories on the title track.
But the pace doesn’t pick up much even when Lou Ann Barton returns for a soulful close-harmony duet with Dykes on Jimmy McCracklin’s “Think”, accompanied by Vaughan’s almost-too-casual guitar at its coolest.
Other highlights include a mildly threatening bass-heavy version of Slim Harpo’s King Bee and a pleasing cover of No More Doggin’ (John Lee Hooker) with Cotton again diving into the high register for some lovely blow-bend fills.
This is a respectful, if occasionally too-solid, homage to R&B’s golden years.
Listen to it for authenticity and enjoy its laid-back charm, but don’t expect to be blown away by anything too adventurous.
Doug MacLeod – The Utrecht Sessions
Doug MacLeod is one of the most distinctive of the contemporary American solo acoustic bluesman wandering the globe and doing the have-guitar-will-travel thing. He’s been around a while, and of late he’s been putting out a fine new CD just about every year, on the excellent Dutch label Black & Tan. The Dutch association accounts for the title of the CD, and one of the guitars he plays on it, a Stella 12-string he describes in the sleeve notes as ‘past tired’, was lent to him by the owner of the extraordinary Palm Guitars shop in Amsterdam.
This is the fourth of his Black & Tan releases and the relationship seems to work very well, because on all of them MacLeod has found an individual sound that shows his playing, singing and songwriting to the very best advantage. He just about never does covers, and his own material is strong, with considerable range. There are slow, melancholy numbers, ruminating on personal life; there are up-tempo, angry pieces, sounding off about political and social issues; there are plain good-time romps; and there are bawdy songs in the tradition of some of the old ragtime and hokum tunes. There are no clichés in the lyrics, and nothing from the well of old blues songs rather than thinking of something new to say. These are new songs in the blues style, rather than straight blues songs.
Doug Macleod is a very fine guitar player indeed, and his mastery of a variety of acoustic blues playing styles is amply demonstrated all over the CD. He’s a top quality picker, a highly emotional and dexterous slide player and his toolkit also includes a fast strum-cum-pick technique that takes some of the faster numbers along at a lick. He usually plays Nationals which he has given names like ‘Scrapper’, ‘Spook’ and ‘Mule’. He makes a terrific sound on them, and the as-live, no-overdubs recordings do full justice to the instruments and the playing. Some tracks also have drums/percussion and double bass which fit very well with his playing.
He has a high-register, plaintive voice, the pretty well total opposite of the standard gruff blues vocal sound. The best word for it is ‘keening’ – he sounds like a wolf howling rather than Howlin’ Wolf (that pun is not one of my proudest moments but it’s actually true). It’s a thing all of his own, and he doesn’t sound like anyone. If you like the first twenty seconds of what you hear, you’ll like all of it.
Doug Macleod is out there doing his blues all over the place, with a lengthy gig list in many countries and a high-quality body of work on CD. He’s fantastic live, a raconteur and showman who grabs audiences. I know this from my sister-in-law in Helsinki, who saw him not long ago there. I, however, have never seen him. He comes to this country just about every year for a series of dates, but he never plays anywhere near London. Sort that out, someone.
Hans Theessink & Terry Evans – Visions
Hans Theessink is doing some of the most interesting things around in the field of acoustic blues. His last two CDs, Bridges (2004) and Slow Train (2007) have been particularly marked by the stunning sound and atmosphere generated by the combination of his voice with full band fronted by acoustic guitar, and a fantastic group of African singers called Insigizi. This time, he’s combined his voice and solo playing with the more gospel/soul sound of Terry Evans’ voice. The combination is sheer joy.
Terry Evans had a degree of prominence back in the 70s when he did a stint with Ry Cooder, in his touring band and on record at the time when Cooder had reached some degree of mainstream success. He’s one of those really good people who’ve never really had their due. He and Theessink are mates, and they got together to make this CD just because they fancied it and it seemed like a good idea. It is a good idea.
Theessink plays his understated acoustic guitar, and some understated electric guitar, and they sing together with soul and passion, Theessink’s hushed, low tones melding perfectly with Evans’ higher register, much more powerful delivery. It’s not really harmony singing in the conventional sense, it’s two voices doing their own thing instinctively and fitting together perfectly.
The CD has a very powerful atmosphere, with a slightly echoey rather than dry production. It reminds me very much of Muddy Waters’ Folk Singer album of 1964, the acoustic album he made with young Buddy Guy on acoustic guitar. Some people didn’t like that record because they thought Muddy had been forced into it by oppressive white folk who wanted him to act like a hick from the Delta rather than do his natural electric band thing. I think they got it all wrong. It’s a deeply felt record, not a token. It’s a record so quiet that you have to crank the volume up to hear Muddy practically whispering the songs into the mic. It gives off the feeling of someone who’s gone into the zone, remembering what their life was like, actually living that life again for the duration of the songs; there’s a tremendous power to it, this man quietly and broodingly looking back.
Something of that atmosphere is present here too. Dutchman Hans isn’t remembering a youth in the Delta, but he might as well be. And Terry is remembering that, particularly in the closing seven-minute epic Come To The River, in which he talks and sings us through his childhood experiences of church in Mississippi. It’s a timeless and moving finale to a very good CD indeed.
Robin Rogers – Treat Me Right
It is always with great pleasure for a writer when an artist they have championed for awhile, is elevated to a more prominent position….enter Robin Rogers. Capable of singing different styles of Blues, and close related genres aplomb. Robin also has the blessed distinction in being the owner of an instantly recognisable voice, with just the right measure of accent. For me I can draw a strong comparison between RR and Lulu, though thankfully less the screeching. Robin was a finalist at the 2004 International Blues Challenge, and scooped the “Best Self-produced CD” the following year with her second album “Crazy, Cryin’ Blues”, a collection of traditional Blues.
The opener is the title track, and is a B.B. King number, a good recording and a second tier success. The follower, “Don’t Leave Poor Me” is another cover, and fits Robin’s talents better. Punchy vocals with a Latin dance rhythm that is one of a few songs herein that belie an Otis Rush influence. “Ain’t No Use” is an end of relationship tale, sang with a fair amount of resignation, with soft’n’supple jazz guitar and cascading piano lines. “Can You Hear Me Now” has that Otis Rush blues wail over another tale of dried up love. A pattern of classically put together repertoire emerges, and a very strong presence this disc is giving out. Then we hit Robin and her husband Tony Roger’s, “Color-Blind Angel” that scooped second place in the International Song Writing contest. If all this song was to achieve was that you Googled the subject’s name, then it has accomplished something grand. This is the tale of murdered Mother of five, Viola Liuzzo by the KKK. The harp at the beginning did worry me a little as it takes on that eerie cowboy theme, but the work-song alternative foot stamping and clapping along with a Paris, Texas-like bottleneck guitar is perfect casting.
The follow-up had to be finely gauged as to contrast otherwise it would be like dropping off a precipice. “Promised Land” succeeds as the arrangement and lyrical content is easy on the ear, and fresh contrasting with the weight of the former. “Nobody Stays” is not only beautifully sung, but is such a poignant and uncommon lyric. Based upon Robin’s early life it narrates so many around her leaving her upon this life; it has a strong bluesy feel yet it is a laid back jazz tune. “Drunkard’s Alley” is one of the borrowed traditional tunes used to purvey Robin and Tony Rogers’ lyrics. My only problem on yet another strong tune is that if the word ‘so’ was omitted in the line, “Where salvation is so hard to find” would have made the lyrical line far less wieldy. “Nobody’s Gonna Hurt You” is the fourth cover that carries a high level of consistency throughout this release, with muted trumpet and swirling organ. “Moan is one of the strongest tracks, and another slight return to Rush’s falsetto. The lyrics are worthy of quotation, “Don’t it make you want to cry, don’t it make you want to moan; well don’t it make you pack up all your pain and run away from home. That’s a heavy hurtin’ heartache….” “Dark Love” winds up what has been a discography without any turkeys for Robin Rogers. Only slight weakness in lyrical department, it mars but does not kill the overall effect.
Unlike Janiva Magness who has for a couple of albums been let down by poor A&R, Robin Rogers has been skilfully handled. Along with Reba Russell, where else are you going to find four R’s that spell, under-recognised, talented and satisfying!
Albert Cummings – Feel So Good (live)
Blues/rock recorded in the old Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield, Massachusetts in March this year. from a guy who also builds multi-million dollar homes of repute. Albert is in a power trio that consists of himself on guitar/vocals, Daniel Broad bass/backing vocals and Aaron Scapin on drums. Legendary Jim Gaines oversaw the production with Blind pig’s Edward Chmeleski and Jerry Del Giudice as the executive producers. The first two tracks strangely share almost an identical rockin’ boogie rhythm, ideal for Status Quo fans. The “Hoochie Coochie Man/Dixie Chicken” has the Norman Greenbaum “Spirit in the Sky” guitar riff; the Muddy classic is casual run through with rock guitar solo, with Lowell George’s classic lacking that tight funk’n’molasses. This is a loose live recording that maybe cool at the venue, but sounds diluted through your home speakers. The rockier up-tempo stuff is far better than slow tunes. “Sleep” has a kind of MOR Santana quality, while, “Barrelhouse Blues” is Cummings at his best. B.B. King’s chestnut, “Rock Me Baby” is a rock wail, and has its merits. Cumming’s own songs make him more distinctive like, “Your Own Way” (slight “All Along The Watchtower” influenced), and “Blues Makes Me Feel Good” with its Billy Gibson-esqueness (Memphis harp man) to it. The rocking blueser does play some pretty neat lines simultaneously as he sings. Albert Cummings was turned on by SRV, and indeed has recorded with members of ‘Double Trouble’, but Albert is no Little Stevie, and I would rather hear Tommy Castro any day of the week. The rock/blues field is a heavily populated arena of guitarist/singers players with chops. More head-banging here than Blues, though the crowd apparently went for it.
Magic Slim & The Teardrops – Midnight Blues
Stalwart of old school Chicago Blues, Magic Slim (Morris Holt) this time out has an all star guest CD, which features James Cotton, Lonnie Brooks, Elvin Bishop (also has a all star CD out), Lil’ Ed Williams, Otis Clay, Gene Barge, Chicago Rhythm and Blues Kings and Nick Moss as Producer. The guests play on but one track apiece so it isn’t overrun with contributors. There are no poor tracks to speak of as Slim is a solid performer, though there are stand out cuts. Top songs being, Muddy’s “You Can’t Lose What You Ain’t Never Had”, Little Milton’s “Lonely Man” and Slim’s own “What Is That You Got”. Lonnie Brooks is fine on guitar, but I preferred Elvin Bishop’s up front fire power better; James Cotton belies his age and health problems with sterling harp. Magic Slim shows a couple of nods to Freddie King’s guitar style, and is no slouch on guitar when he lets go either.
I was not impressed by the choice of opening track with an awkward almost mechanical rhythm guitar groove. There are two Little Milton songs, two from Muddy’s pen, one by Willie Dixon “Spider In My Stew”, Hound Dog Taylor’s “Give Me Back My Wig”, one from Willie Richard, the country number “Going Down The Road Feeling Bad” and that leaves five originals by Slim himself. The country standard is a sing-along tune, with the soul/blues track with a horn section, though there are a few Chicago clump-de-clumps. Nick Moss has given magic Slim a clean, but not clinically so atmosphere that has an almost live recording except the bass is in check. Talking of bass, Teardrops own Danny O’Connor and drummer David Simms provide Magic Slim with a fine tight bed throughout. There is an honest air, business as usual, and with one of my favourite old guard Bluesmen passed away – Willie Kent; now Slim is in a niche Chicago veteran position.
Scott Ellison – Ice Storm
This is a CD to slowly get to know as it does not reveal its worth straight off. Scott Ellison has a very good rock/Blues growl, though he has also a commercial appeal, and there is a prominent Memphis influence as well as a roadhouse feel. Most of the tunes involve relationships, with the almost compulsory tales of infidelity. “Big Blue Car” has Blues soul and rock all rolled into one, with hooks and sweetness alongside raunchiness with wide appeal I might add. I am not sure if the ex Gatemouth Brown rhythm guitarist has had some of these tracks out in the past, as they were recorded in the years 1997, 1999, 2000, 2002, 2006 and 2007. Scott has apart from his touring with big named bands had his music used on top TV and film projects. The are far too many musicians to mention as they have been from so many sessions, but Scott has both The Vine Street and The Dukes of Soul Horns in tow.
Scott is a very good guitarist with lots to his bag of tricks with cool tone too. “Keys To My Heart” has a Eric Clapton come Dave Mason feel about it. “I’m in Trouble” is a top cut with a standard white boy Blues approach with lots of searing guitar. “Who Will Be The Fool Tonight” is very radio friendly with its very catchy sound, and up front blistering guitar lines. “Why’d Lie To Me” is a grungy blues with last sleaze loping slide guitar, and Howlin’ Wolf vocal inflections. The title track is in swing-time instrumental with lots of saxophone, and Scott’s nimble improvisation on guitar. The CD goes out on a high with yet another commercially ear tugger, “Where You Stand With Me” replete with melodic rock/blues and soulful horns. Not all the cuts are memorable, but a high proportion grabbed by attention and interest.