Release date: May 2, 2021
By Steve Jones
Photo: David Tepper
The year 2019 was not a great one for Donna Herula. Her mother’s illness and eventual passing from cancer put this project on hold as she and her sisters helped care for their mother. On top of this, her mother-in-law also died, which added to life’s miseries for both Donna and her husband Tony Nardiello. Herula toughed it out and re-approached this new musical project, completing it in fine fashion. Dedicating the work to both her mother and mother-in-law, Donna delivers fourteen fantastic songs with a smooth and slick blend of rootsy and folky blues music that showcase both the Chicago and the Mississippi Delta as influences for her work. This is her third release and it demonstrates the growth of her music and talents that she has honed both in her performances and in her work teaching at The Old Town School of Music in Chicago.
Herula handles the lead vocals, resonator/slide and other guitars. FJ Ventre (upright bass and also the guy who recorded and mixed the album at his studio in North Carolina) and Dana Thalheimer (drums and percussion) are the backline called to support where needed throughout. She met Ventre and John Shain (who produced the CD and plays mandolin and guitar on two tracks) at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis in 2009, and they have enjoyed collaborating and working together since then. Husband Tony Nardiello also sings and plays guitar on a couple of tracks with Herula; they often perform together and also collaborate musically and as husband and wife. Also appearing are Tony Pons on trumpet, Doug Hammer and Daryl Davis on piano, Bill Newton on harp, and Anne Harris on fiddle. The backing vocalists are Rebecca Toon, Katherine Davis, Janine Grandsart, and Chris Holda along with Shain, Ventre, husband Tony and herself.
The title track “Bang At The Door” opens the album up with some lovely resonator work; Herula’s vocals are emotive as she tells her man “not to come around here no more,” as he bangs at her door. She and her backline open the set with a winner-- it’s a great original tune to kick off a fine CD. Next is “Pass The Biscuits” with piano, trumpet and backing vocals added to the mix. Herula picks and slides with great aplomb as she pays tribute to “Sunshine” Sonny Payne from KFFA radio in Helena, Arkansas who also passed away as she was preparing for this album. Sonny hosted the King Biscuit Time program for over 65 years and Herula played live on this show in 2009 when she participated in the International Blues Challenge; the result was to play another tune right away and a great friendship burgeoned between them (she also dedicates this album Sonny). It’s a great cut along with being a wonderful tribute!
Husband Tony Nardiello sings with Donna as she handles the guitar and also sings on “Can’t Wait To See My Baby” -- a classic train song where they both sing about returning to Chicago to see each other after being gone for 27 days. Herula picks out some fine stuff on the guitar as the two go back and forth as they sing on a fun and well-done track. Drums and bass support are also tight and done right.
The next tune is another original, “Promise Me,” a low-keyed blues ballad where she and Tony both play guitar, Shain adds his mandolin and Ventre backs them all on bass. The resonator, mandolin and acoustic guitar layer nicely over each other while Donna sings about her man who is locked up and she promises him she won’t tell anyone why he’s not coming home. It’s a moving song and Herula does a fantastic job to sell it. “Not Lookin’ Back” follows, another cut where her man is incarcerated. Here the feeling is a lot more negative as her man has spent all their money getting strung out time and again and she’s fed up and done bailing him out. The piano (Doug Hammer this time) and resonator both play big roles in this one, a cool and jazzy cut with more superb vocals and lyrics. The backline remains staunch in support.
Davis, Nardiello and Toon add backing vocals and Newton’s harp also comes in for “I Got No Way Home,” a jumping and slick tune where Herula is seeking a lift home from another woman as her baby left her alone after a late night at the club. She orders a round of drinks and tells of her woes. Harp and guitar do call-and-response as do the backing vocalists to Herula. Nice stuff once again, and here Davis adds some barrelhouse piano in support. The beautiful instrumental “Black Ice” is up next with Herula picking out some outstanding licks and Ventre adding percussion to the mix. Impressive guitar work abounds here.
The first cover is Booker White’s “Fixin’ To Die,” a solo effort where Donna sings with emotion and stomps as she lays out more sweet slide guitar. The song helps pay tribute to those she has lost. Husband Tony takes the lead vocals and plays acoustic guitar on “Jackson,” a super duet cover of Lucinda Williams’ tune. Slow and swampy, the song takes place on the road back to Jackson, Mississippi as Nardiello sings how he won’t miss his woman much. Herula adds her exceptional slide as the song saunters through towns as they wind their way back to Jackson.
The original “Movin’ Back Home” has a nice swing to it as Herula sings and plays about moving back home after losing her job. All her old stuff awaits her in her room and her Momma also awaits her; Herula’s not too happy about it but is doing what she has to do as she makes do with what life has dealt her. The quintet of backing vocalists serve up some slick call-and-response on the choruses. Herula co-wrote “Got What I Deserve” with Jon Shain. It’s a song about the aftermath of teen pregnancy; a screaming baby and a man who either hides from it or sleeps through it all. Anne Harris plays some wickedly cool fiddle on this track and Shain handles the acoustic guitar while Herula sings and backs herself vocally; Ventre again appears on bass. There is a bit of a silver lining as the song ends with her honey entertaining the baby with his guitar and Herula seemingly a bit more upbeat about the situation -- sweet stuff here.
Double entendres fill the original solo tune “Who’s Been Cookin’ In My Kitchen.” She says she’ll be cooking up a storm and making her man beg for more in this track with a great old time feel to it. Herula does a great job strumming and picking and singing once again. The final original track is “Something’s Wrong With My Baby” as Herula laments to the lack of response to getting gussied up and making her man a big dinner. He won’t go to the doctor and seems stuck in a sad and blue state and Donna can’t help snap him out of it. It’s another stark tune with a little upright bass added to help set the mood; another fine and well-done song. The album concludes with the Willie Johnson classic “The Soul Of A Man.” Davis, Nardiello, Toon and Shain all back Herula as she sings and plays and Ventre handles the upright bass. Outstanding finger work on the fretboard and strident singing make this a winner along with the fantastic work by the collaborating artists.
I don’t think I can pick out a favorite cut here because they are all superb. Eleven fine originals and three marvelous covers make for some really interesting and classic performances from top to bottom. This album certainly will be destined for awards -- it’s the best acoustic blues and roots album I’ve heard in at least a year, if not longer. I most highly recommend this CD for all lovers of traditional and acoustic blues. It’s a wonderful mix of Delta and Chicago blues with some great folky overtones. Herula’s guitar and vocals are spot on and make the listener want for more. Add this one to your collection now-- you won’t be disappointed!
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About the Author: Steve Jones is president of the Crossroads Blues Society in Byron/Rockford, Illinois.