By Marty Gunther
Bob Margolin – Star of Stage and Screens
(VizzTone Label Group VT-SRR005)
Bob Margolin hit the heights last year with My Guitar and Me, capturing the Blues Music Award for his first-ever acoustic album in a career spanning 50 years. And he follows it up in style with this intimate, intensely personal disc, which conveys both the depths of despair and hope for the future that we all yearn for in the age of coronavirus.
A man who rose to prominence with Muddy Waters at the height of the master’s career in the ‘70s, Margolin did it all on this EP – everything from writing the songs to recording and mastering while accompanying himself on 1930s Gibson and National steel guitars here.
His sweet guitar licks play counterpoint to dark words in “Star of Stage and Screens,” which contrasts his love for performing with his newfound reality. Other thought-provokers include “Love and Thanks,” the optimistic “After Party,” the minor-key ballad “For My Teachers” and “Let It Go.”
Cathy Grier and Her Troublemakers – I’m All Burn
(CG Music Works)
A former New York street musician who’s now based out of Sturgeon Bay, Wis., Cathy Grier is a stellar singer-songwriter who shines like a diamond on this self-produced CD, an effort that’s enhanced by backing from several of the top musicians living north of the Cheddar Curtain that separates Wisconsin from Illinois.
The lineup includes guitarists Billy Flynn and Greg Koch, Jimmy Voegeli on keys, and harp players Howard Levy, Pat MacDonald and Steve Cohen – all Troublemakers in their own right – who are funky without ever overpowering the star in this soulful set of mostly original, contemporary blues.
This album has a polished, laid-back feel from the jump. Some of the top cuts in this 15-cut, 71-minute set include “I’m All Burn,” “Down on My Knees,” the ballad “Easy Come Easy Go,” “Key to My Survival,” “Good Thing,” “What Fools Do” and “Question of Desire.”
Steve Strongman – Tired of Talkin’
(Stony Plain Records)
Juno and Maple Blues Award winner Steve Strongman has a long history of success North of the Border, but should make waves in America, too, with this album, which was self-produced in 2019 and released solely in Canada, but is now available internationally through his new partnership with Stony Plain Records.
A pleasant tenor who doubles on guitar and harmonica, Strongman’s backed by drummer Dave King, who anchored recording sessions in Hamilton, Ont. and Nashville. Also featured on keys are both Pat Sansone and Jesse O’Brien in separate, star-studded alignments.
With 11 rock-solid originals and a closing cover, this is a powerful, understated set that allows all the players space to shine. Among the standout cuts are “Tired of Talkin’,” “Paid My Dues,” “Still Crazy ‘Bout You,” the stop-time pleaser “Can’t Have It All,” “Livin’ the Dream,” “Hard Place and a Rock” and “Bring You Down.”
Dave Riley & Bob Corritore – Travelin’ the Dirt Road
(VizzTone/SWMAF Records SWMAF15)
Producer/harp player Bob Corritore and Dave Riley celebrate a partnership that’s endured for 15 years with this CD, an expanded re-release of a long out-of-print, deep-in-the pocket album they recorded for Blue Witch Records that’s enhanced with the addition of previously unreleased numbers.
A warm baritone, Riley is a Mississippi native who worked previously with Frank Frost and John “So Blue” Weston, and who was serving as vocalist/guitarist for Sam Carr’s Delta Jukes when he and Bob met. Dave’s the star here as Corritore delivers a textbook performance on how harp players can best back a singer in an old-school blues setting.
Riley reprises Weston’s “I’m Not Your Junkman” to open the action. Other pleasers include “Safe at Last” as well as Dave’s originals “Overalls,” “Let’s Have Some Fun Tonight,” “Voodoo Woman, Voodoo Man,” “Country Tough” and “Friends.”
Corey Ledet – Corey Ledet Zydeco
(Nouveau Electric Records)
Former Grammy nominee accordionist/vocalist Corey Ledet is sure to heat up your cold winter nights and have you dancing across the floor with this short, sweet and red-hot set of the Creole and zydeco sounds his family’s known for.
A Houston native who calls Parks, La., home, this album is Corey’s 14th in a career that began in the mid-2000s. It’s dedicated to his grandfather, Buchanan “Tbu” Ledet, who created the double-clutch drumming style that’s become an institution through his early work with Clifton Chenier and Rockin’ Dopsie, and a multitude of family members have followed in his footsteps.
Corey fires out of the gate to give thanks for the gifts of his forefathers with “This Is All I Want,” a percussive promise that he’ll “never be an average Joe.” You’ll also enjoy the tribute “Buchanan Ledet Special,” “Pel Mo (Call Me),” “On a Roll,” “Nina’s Hot Step,” “Mon Make (I Miss)” and “Arret Ton Train (Stop Your Noise).”
David Rotundo Band – So Much Trouble
(Dreams We Share)
This CD is a dream come true for Toronto-based harmonica player David Rotundo. He got to meet and play with Lee Oskar, one of his idols, at a festival Rotundo promoted in Mexico in 2019; the War/Lowriders legend was so impressed that not only did he give Rotundo an endorsement for his brand of harps, he joined forces with him to record this album for his own label.
A two-time Maple Blues Awards winner with a rough-hewn tenor voice, and a 20-year veteran of the blues scene, Rotundo began his career fronting The Blue Canadians, and frequently shares the stage with top U.S. talent. He’s backed here by Oskar and several top 20 musicians from Canada and the American Pacific Northwest.
This stellar set of 11 contemporary originals and one traditional cover is an unassuming treasure throughout. Don’t miss “She’s Dynamite,” “I Must Be Crazy,” “Hard Times Coming,” “Drinking Overtime,” “That Thing Called Love,” “Foolish Love” and “Long Road.”
Jeff Fetterman Band – Southern Son
Based out of Bradford, Pa., guitarist Jeff Fetterman has a huge regional following, but deserves more attention than he already receives, playing in a style that’s strongly influenced by Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Chris Duarte and B.B. King.
A former ASCAP scholarship winner for previous studio work, he recorded this collection of 11 originals and one cover at Kid Andersen’s Greaseland Studios in California, and – as you might expect – it’s a winner on all counts. Fetterman delivers modern blues with over-the-top feel with a guitar and vocal attack that’s consistently behind the beat throughout.
Give a good listen to “I Don’t Want To,” “Memphis Sky,” “Living with the Blues,” “Feels Like Rain,” “Blues for Charlie,” a tasty take on Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” “Voodoo Funk” and “Southside Blues.”
The Smoke Wagon Blues Band – The Ballad of Albert Johnson
A seven-piece ensemble based in Toronto, Smoke Wagon Blues Band delivers 12 originals and one cover here, displaying mastery of a wide variety of skills, ranging from New Orleans R&B and swamp to Memphis soul and more, thus showing why they’ve been fan favorites since forming in the ‘90s.
Fronted by Corey Lueck on vocals and harp, this group is funky to the core with a lineup that includes keyboard player Brandon Bruce, two guitars and sax, too. Their most recent previous release, Cigar Store, captured honors in the Independent Blues Awards for R&B song, new blues and modern roots album of the year.
There’s a lot to like on this one. Give a listen to “Memphis Soul,” a tremendous cover of the Dave Bartholomew/Fats Domino penned “The Fat Man,” “Sacrifice,” “Mescaline,” “A Song for Cheryl” and “Streaming Comrades Harp Boogie,” just to name a few.
Gráinne Duffy – Voodoo Blues
(Blue Star Records)
At first listen to this all-original album, you’d figure that vocalist Gráinne Duffy was a product of the Mississippi Gulf Coast, but you’d be way off-base. A melismatic powerhouse, she grew up in County Monaghan, Ireland, and has enjoyed gigs at the prestigious Glastonbury Festival and top venues across Europe.
A melodic guitarist who blends blues and soul with her Irish Celtic roots and teams with co-writer Paul Sherry, Duffy delivers an emotion-packed set of contemporary sounds and delivers a message of hope that looks beyond the difficulties we all face today.
The opening title track,“Voodoo Blues,” reeks of the swamp and sets the stage for the relentlessly intense tunes that follow. The highlights include “Mercy,” “Blue Skies,” “Don’t You Cry for Me,” “Roll It,” “No Matter What I Do,” “Tick-Tock” and “Hard Rain.” When this one’s done, you’ll be begging for more.
Kerry Kearney – Tales from the Psychdelta
A New York Blues Hall of Fame slide guitarist who’s been playing his own brand of music for four decades, Kerry Kearney dips into his vaults for this collection of tunes that mixes in-your-face blues-rockers with a big helping of well-crafted, original Delta pleasers.
Kearney has toured with Dicky Betts and the Allman Brothers in addition to fronting his own band, a power-trio unit that’s occasionally enhanced with keyboards and harp here. His delivery is built atop powerful rhythms with a light, sweet slide touch on the strings.
“Five Time Man” blazes out of the gate before Kearney shifts primarily into Mississippi mode. Be sure to give a listen to “Fatherless Boy,” “Mississippi River Stomp,” “Thank You, Jesus” – featuring vocals from the late Sam “Bluzman” Taylor, “Voodoo Down the River,” “Lawdy Mama” and the ballad medley “Schaefer Time/Duck House,” which brings the action to a close.
Fiona Boyes – Blues in My Heart: 20th Anniversary Edition
(Blue Empress/Reference Recordings)
Australia’s most decorated blues artist ever, finger-picking guitarist Fiona Boyes has earned eight Blues Music Award nominations since launching her solo career. This 20th Anniversary reissue of Fiona’s often overlooked debut album shows why she’s a fan favorite around the world.
Fiona plays in a hard-to-define style that blends Delta and swamp to Chicago blues and more in the grooves of this self-produced disc, which has been digitally remastered from analog; the sound quality is so crisp on the updated version, you’ll swear she’s playing in your living room.
An accomplished graphic artist and writer, too, Fiona provides an intimate look at each of the 16 cuts in the accompanying 24-page booklet she designed herself. Some of the top cuts include “Blues in My Heart,” “She Could Play That Thing,” “Have Faith,” “Honey You Can Take My Man,” “Two-Legged Dog” and “Hotel Room.”
Artur Menezes – Fading Away
(VizzTone Label Group VT-AMM-01)
Brazilian-born, California-based Artur Menezes combines the rhythms of his homeland with heavy blues and rock influences here, demonstrating why he has earned international acclaim. Menezes won both the Albert King Award as top guitarist at the International Blues Challenge and grand prize in a competition run by instrument manufacturer Ernie Ball in the past three years, earning an invitation to perform at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival in the process.
The founder of a society that introduces blues to new audiences through free concerts in his homeland, Artur has performed with Joe Satriani and opened for Buddy Guy during a Brazilian tour. He sings in perfectly unaccented English in a set produced and recorded by guitar master Josh Smith that features a guest appearance by Joe Bonamassa.
Menezes’ fifth album, Fading Away, consists of complex, multi-layered arrangements. Some of the standout numbers include “Fading Away,” the ballad “Devil’s Own,” “Come On,” “Northeast,” “Free at Last” and “Green Card Blues,” a nine-minute pleaser that recounts his journey to get to the U.S.
Tomás Doncker – Wherever You Go
(True Groove Records)
New Yorker Tomás Doncker cut his teeth in the No Wave music scene in the ‘80s as lead guitarist with James Chance & the Contortions before launching a career as a producer, songwriter and vocalist who’s worked with Madonna, Bonnie Raitt, Shemekia Copeland and international artists across the music spectrum.
Recognized as the founder of global soul movement and a powerful baritone, Doncker’s backed here by his Blue Ruin Band who recorded their tracks across eight time zones at the height of the epidemic, delivering sounds that range from first-generation Delta, Chicago to Hill Country with a dash of gospel thrown in for good measure.
“I’m Gonna Run to the City of Refuse” -- a modern reworking of a tune penned by Blind Willie Johnson – opens, and the pleasers are abundant. Be sure to tune in to “Wherever You Go,” “Have Mercy Baby Please,” a reinvention of Skip James’ “Hard Time Killing Floor,” “Drown in Blue” and “Door to the Dome.”
John McLean, Charles Barkatz & Friends – Shadow Man
Here’s one of the most surprising albums you’ll hear this year. American jazz flute and bagpipe virtuoso John McLean teams with French guitarist Charles Barkatz – and some all-star Austin backing -- to make his debut as a blues artist here. The results are a spectacular blend of interesting grooves that will have you yearning for more.
Both front men are veterans of the Paris music scene, where John fronts the Fairweather Quintet and Charles plays regularly in multiple formats, influenced heavily by Wes Montgomery and Kenny Burrell. Sounding a lot like John Mayall and setting his instruments aside, McLean trades vocals with Barkatz throughout in a set produced by Mark “Kaz” Kazanoff.
If you like jazzy, uptempo, modern blues with an easy, breezy feel, you’ll love “Leaky Shoes Blues,” “The Brooklyn Blues Café,” “Shadow Man,” “She Cry Blues,” “Sister of Mine,” “Bathtub Blues,” “Silver Lake” and “New Life.”
Mick Kolassa – If You Can’t Be Good, Be Good at It!
(Endless Blues Records MMK022020)
Fresh off his all-acoustic Blind Lemon Sessions, which was recorded in Germany and released last summer, Mick Kolassa teams with blues-rock firebrand Jeff Jensen and several top Memphis-based musicians for this interesting mix that encompasses everything from the sound of the city to gospel.
A pleasant vocalist and clever tunesmith, Mick’s donating all of the proceeds from this disc to Generation Blues and the HART Fund, two charities run by the Blues Foundation, where he’s a former member of the board of directors. It was recorded at the legendary Ardent Studios in Memphis and Farmhouse Studios in Moscow, Tenn.
Contribute to the tip bucket to help out young artists and professionals in dire need of assistance as you tune in to the R&B pleaser “I Can’t Help Myself,” the percussive “If You Can’t Be Good,” the sweet ballad, “A Good Day for the Blues,” the horn-fueled “We Gotta,” “Sweet Tea” and “She Kept Her Head Up,” a song Mick penned for his daughter during her battle against breast cancer.