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CD REVIEW -- Little Al Thomas


Featuring The Deep Down Fools

Not  My Warden

Blues Boulevard

Little Al Thomas


By Liz Mandeville

It’s amazing to think that Little Al Thomas made his first recording (South Side Story on the defunct Cannonball label) at age 69!  Now, at age 80, the South Side singer has released his third CD, Not My Warden.

Little Al Thomas inhabits every song with his strong, warm baritone that is simultaneously pitch perfect, yet filled with pain. It’s not the histrionic straining or affectation that some people mistake for feel. Al emits a kind of pathos that colors every note with the blues you get from fully living for a very long time.

The liner notes say that, starting in 1960, Little Al regularly opened the show for Bobby Bland, whose influence is evident. Al’s approach is relaxed. Like his mentor, he has a lilting vibrato and uses his impressive range to color notes, effectively phrasing to keep the ear attentive.

I first met Little Al Thomas through my friend, road dog drummer and eight-year veteran of Eddie Shaw and the Wolf Gang, Mot Dutko. With his signature long hair, road house t-shirt, freak brother handle bar and Ohio drawl, Mot was a regular on “real deal” South and West Side blues sets for decades. Mot was playing full time with Little Al and the Crazy House Band, the group on Al’s first release. They did a gig every year in Blue Island and always invited me to sing. It’s one of Mott’s songs, “Long Ride to The South Side”, that opens Little Al Thomas’ masterful new record.  The track sneaks up on you with a fat B-3 chord played over a big spare back beat, frosted by some sexy slide guitar. Sidelined by the big C, Mott’s chair is respectfully filled by drummer Marty Binder. The song paints a picture of Chicago that is the stage for a strong set of deeply felt, well-executed traditional blues that struts proudly into the new millennium.

From downtown to 18th Street to “When I got to 73rd Street I stopped at Big Al’s place,” Little Al sings “I didn’t want no liquor, but I thought I saw my baby’s face…It’s a long ride to the South Side…” and your musical tour of the real Chicago has begun.

Not My Warden, the second studio CD from veteran Chicago Blues singer Little Al Thomas, backed by The Deep Down Fools, is populated with great songs, and I don’t say that lightly. The majority written by guitarist/producer John Edelmann, these are not only catchy tunes with a clever hook, they’re musically mature. What does that mean?  In a word: arrangements!

The Deep Down Fools, anchored by a pedigreed rhythm section of Chicago “blues dues paid in full” guys -- whose muscle has enhanced the likes of Buddy Guy, Debra Coleman and me -- now come to lay down a foundation of indisputable solidity for Little Al on this disc. They are: Marty Binder on drums, Ed Galchick on bass (Mike Scharf plays bass on two tracks, too) and Rob Waters on B-3, all directed by taste-master Edelmann. They play on all 13 well-crafted tracks.

Starting off with a double shuffle on the one, the second track, “I’m Gonna Buy A Politician” is a lesson in Chicago politics. “See that man he works for me, in that long black limousine, shake hands with my own magician, I’m gonna buy a politician! Wrap that man up in a flag, stuff the money in a bag…time to improve my position, I’m gonna buy a politician.” The humor is tongue-in-cheek and the slide guitar is addictive.

Track three shares its name with the CD, a fresh take on the theme of a harried husband taking a stand with the wife (not his warden). With more nice B-3 work from Rob Waters, Edelmann contributes a guitar solo that tips its hat to the great Albert Collins.  His nice, unhurried blue notes and string bends complement Al’s impassioned wail when he begs for leniency!

A floor tom heavy rumba is the groove for “Ready Freddie,” Edelmann’s delicious salute to Freddie King. Stinging, ice cold guitar licks with snare accents and drum rolls that would make Al Jackson, Jr. smile, combine to make it a fine tribute to the blues legend.

The danceable, 12-bar, “Wonder What You Think,” describes a bar-room diva dripping in clothes and jewelry with a young man on her sleeve.  

“Remember the time you changed the lock on our door? Well I got the keys now baby and I don’t love you no more!” declares Al on bassist Ed Galchick’s wry entry, “Don’t Take The Keys,” a swinging jump blues with attitude.

“Anger Heats My House” starts off with a burning, minor key guitar solo. The tone reminds me of classic T-Birds era Jimmie Vaughan. Edelmann squeezes the strings, coaxing overtones and echoing Al’s raging vocal. “I drink all through the daytime and I lie awake all thru the night, I pray for peace of mind, I pray that little girl will treat me right.” A nice rumbling turn from the B-3 is answered by more hot, West Side crying guitar.

“Cartoon Lover” really showcases Marty Binder’s amazing dexterity and craft on the drums.  After several listens, I could pick up on all the really cool, unobtrusive but spicy, comments Binder was throwing in on those skins. Man, that cat has it going on!  The song also allows the listener to appreciate Al’s turn of phrase, Rob’s sweet organ chops and the caress of John’s guitar.

            For “Old Time Used To Be” the whole band chimes in for unison on the chorus. This song feels like an old favorite and makes me think of the dulcet swinging tones of Floyd McDaniels. I wanted to sing along with it from the first listen.

 One of the two cover tunes on the disc is Van Morrison’s “Big Time Operators,” written as a comment on Van’s unsavory experiences playing music in the U.S. for the first time. You’d think Al had written every word; he sings it with such passion and authority. It’s a great choice and who ever brought this song to Al gets a prize.

The other cover tune on the disc is Lowell Folsom’s chestnut “Reconsider Baby,” which opens with a Jimmy Smith type swinging organ groove. Al gives it his own unique phrasing that plays well with the extended guitar solo and understated rhythm section. Rob Waters’ B-3 solo follows another set of Al’s pleading verses, proving his merits as a blues man with jazz cred.

John Edelmann’s, “West Side Wind,” offers a refreshing instrumental break that showcases his skills as a guitarist and demonstrates his wide knowledge of Chicago Blues vocabulary.  Guitarists take note: there was blues before rock and metal. John makes real blues music -- tasteful, understated and on point. Here he has surrounded himself with the perfect complement of musicians to frame his beautiful composition.

The disc ends with the instrumental “Cordova,” a smoky rumba that twists and turns like a rainy night on Lake Shore Drive. John has modified his guitar tone to give it almost an organ sound which works effectively with Marty Binder’s high hat driven beat. Ed Galchick’s bass line, felt more than heard, propels the song through its minor changes in an effortless dance -- the chocolate mint on your pillow at the end of a long day.

Not My Warden is all good blues designed to make you move. Each of these tracks has a flavor and texture that sets it apart from its brother tracks, yet they all hang together so well, thanks to the high level of musicianship and production. It’s a welcome return for an under-recorded blues vocalist who is 80 years young!

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A true renaissance woman, Liz Mandeville is a sultry singer, award-winning songwriter, guitarist, journalist, painter, educator and all around bon vivant. She has performed all over the world and has four CDs on the Earwig Music label to her credit.

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