By Marty Gunther
Shaun Murphy – Reason to Try
(Vision Wall Records)
Honey-voiced Detroit native Shaun Murphy has been thrilling audiences since the ‘70s, when she was signed to Motown and shared billing with Meatloaf on an LP. A genuine superstar in the blues world, she’s also a longtime member of Bob Seger’s Silver Bullet Band and an artist who’s toured and recorded with Eric Clapton, Little Feat, Joe Walsh and The Moody Blues, too.
In the blues community, she’s a former Koko Taylor Award nominee for traditional vocalist of the year who’s released nine solo albums since 2009, piling up multiple honors in the process. But this CD – a rollercoaster of human emotion produced by the talented Kevin McKendree – is her best yet.
Shaun takes you to church for the opener, “Hurt Me Good,” which vows speedy revenge if you cross her. Other top-notch cuts include “Turn Me On,” “Can’t Blame Nobody but Me,” “Roadhouse Rockin’,” “Rumor Mill” and “Same Old You.”
Savoy Brown – Ain’t Done Yet
(Quarto Valley Records)
Guitarist/vocalist Kim Simmonds and Savoy Brown are the founding fathers of what we now know as blues rock, and they shine like a diamond on this disc, the 41st album they’ve released since forming in the bars of London 55 years ago.
Working out of their New World base in upstate New York for decades, Simmonds is an enduring presence in a lineup that currently includes longtime bassist Pat DeSalvo and percussionist Garnet Grimm and which still delivers the spirited, hard-driving sounds the band’s always been known for.
“All Gone Wrong” opens the action with Kim reflecting on past mistakes. The high points come hot and heavy on this one, and include “Devil’s Highway,” which features Kim’s multi-layered attack on the six-string, the acoustic “River on the Rise,” “Feel Like a Gypsy,” “Rocking in Louisiana,” “Soho Girl” and “Crying Guitar.”
Shirley King – Blues for a King
(Cleopatra Records CLO 1768)
After recording a pair of albums in the ‘90s, B.B. King’s daughter Shirley King flew under the radar ever since until this disc hit store shelves this summer, proving it was worth the wait! She delivers a comfortable set of soulful covers here along with a pair of solid originals from producer Jürgen Engler while getting a helping hand from some of the biggest names in the business along the way.
Shirley’s a blues shouter whose smoky alto with pleasant, but rough edges might remind some folks of Koko Taylor. Her guest stars include Joe Louis Walker, Duke Robillard, Elvin Bishop, Pat Travers, Martin Barre, Arthur Adams, Robben Ford, Kirk Fletcher, Harvey Mandel, Steve Cropper and the late Junior Wells.
A shuffle beat drives almost all of the music here. Top cuts are the two originals – “All of My Lovin’” and “I Did You Wrong” – and you’ll enjoy “That’s All Right Mama,” “Johnny Porter,” “Give It All Up” and “Hoodoo Man Blues,” in which Shirley duets with Junior Wells in what was probably one of his final recordings.
King Solomon Hicks – Harlem
(Provogue/Mascot Label Group)
Like the title of this CD implies, King Solomon Hicks is a New York City-based bluesman, and one of the new breed of artists who’ll be taking the music forward for future generations. He’s been making a name for himself since age 13, when he started playing lead guitar with the 17-piece Cotton Club orchestra.
Hicks is an inventive player who blends blues with jazz, gospel, funk and more, and this CD was produced by Grammy winner Kirk Yano (Miles Davis, Mariah Carey). The third album in his catalog, it’s a labor of love that took two years to produce and includes contributions from musicians who work with Jack White and Hank Williams Jr. as well as funk/groove bands Soulive and Lettuce.
Don’t be fooled by the wide-ranging personnel, though. This is a thoroughly interesting modern blues experience. Hicks’ voice and songwriting talents match his guitar skills. Give a good listen to “Rather Be Blind,” three rock-solid instrumentals – “421 South Main,” “Riverside Drive” and an interesting version of Gary Wright’s “Love Is Alive” – as well as “Every Day I Have the Blues,” which has a vocal-instrumental call-and-response arrangement that would have B.B. King smiling.
Sons of the Soul Revivers – Songs We’ll Always Sing
(Little Village Foundation LVF 1035)
Considering all the troubles in the world today, we could all use a faith to carry us through, and there’s nothing more uplifting than traditional gospel as delivered by the Sons of the Soul Revivers. Siblings Walter Jr., James and Dwayne Morgan transport us – at least momentarily – to a better place here as they pay tribute to the Pilgrim Jubilees, a group who remain active since being founded in the 1930s.
Based out of the Bay Area in California, the siblings have been delivering three-piece harmonies since childhood, and are carrying forward their own family gospel tradition, providing positive declarations atop deeply soulful rhythms with swing overtones sure to heal saint and sinner alike.
No matter what your religion, the positive vibes are strong throughout a set that includes “It Isn’t Safe,” “Let Me Come Home,” “We’re the People,” “Time to Testify” “All Things Are Possible,” “The Same Place,” “Step Out” and “Family Prayer.”
Gregg Martinez – Mac Daddy Mojeaux
(Nola Blue Records NB/011)
One of the foremost active proponents of swamp pop – a blues of New Orleans funk, Memphis and Philadelphia soul and Texas swing, vocalist/trumpet player Gregg Martinez has spent five decades as front man for King Fish, The Boogie Kings and The Heat, but hasn’t lost a step in this set of tunes that draw inspiration from the the ‘60s and ‘70s.
A sweet, melismatic tenor, Martinez is backed by horns, keys and backup singers throughout, delivering a wall of sound guaranteed to keep you up and moving on the dance floor. Recorded at four studios in the Gulf Coast and another in New Jersey, it features contributions by Grammy-winning guitarist and tunesmith Tony Goulas.
Put on a pair of comfortable shoes and swing the night away to Ray Charles’ “I Believe to My Soul,” which opens and pleasers that include “This House,” “Starting All Over Again,” “Just Stay Gone,” “Moonlight & Magnolias” and “Can I Change My Mind” before ending with Randy Newman’s familiar “Marie.”
Dave Keller – Live at the Killer Guitar Thriller
(Tastee-Tone Records TT-3044)
A fixture out of New England for the better part of three decades, delivering equal helpings of gutbucket blues and deep soul, vocalist/guitarist Dave Keller has released six previous album in the past decade, but this one – captured at a Bucks County Blues Society event in Edgely, Pa. – is his first live recording ever.
A Massachusetts native now based in Montpelier, Vt., Keller was mentored by the late Mighty Sam McClain and tours regularly with soul-blues superstar Johnny Rawls. He’s also served as Ronnie Earl’s vocalist for the award-nominated CD Living in the Light, which included some of his original tunes, too. He’s backed here by his regular rhythm section: bassist Alex Budney and percussionist Jay Gleason as they deliver a 77-minute set.
A mix of originals and well-chosen covers, be sure to give “Slow Train” a good listen. Other pleasers include “My Younger Days/Moanin’ for Molasses,” a Sonny Boy Williamson II-Jody Williams medley, “Heart on a String,” “Right Back Atcha,” “Every Soul’s a Star,” “Are You Going Where I’m Coming From” and “Hot Tamale Baby.”
8 Ball Aitken – Swamp Blues 2
(indieExtreme/Red Rocker Records)
Originally from Australia, but based in Nashville for the past eight years, 8 Ball Aitken demonstrates that the blues are alive and well Down Under with this deep-in-the-pocket collection of modern blues and blues rock that’s built atop a swamp blues structure.
Aikten’s a pleasant vocalist and slide guitarist who swings steadily throughout backed by John Meyer/Tedeschi Trucks drummer JJ Johnson, bass player Glenn Fukunaga (Robert Plant, Dr. John, Dixie Chicks) and keyboard player Buddy Leach (George Thorogood). This album has been topping the Aussie charts since its release.
The band lays down a steady groove from the opening strains of “Tremelo Rain” and rolls steadily throughout this interesting set. Some of the highlights include “Week Man,” “My Sexy Guitar,” “The Bed You Made,” “Chocolate, Jack Daniels and LSD,” “L.O.V.E.” and “Cold Shoulder.”
Hurricane Ruth – Good Life
(American Showplace Music ASM 2020)
Hurricane Ruth LaMaster is a petite powerhouse who’s been performing since childhood and possesses a voice – like her stage name – so commanding that it can rattle windows and doors. The fifth album in her catalog, this is her debut on the New Jersey-based American Showplace label after her stellar 2017 Ain’t Ready for the Grave CD.
A native of central Illinois, she delivers a collection of eight originals and two covers on this one under the direction of Ben Elliott, the beloved label owner/producer who lost a valiant battle with cancer this past spring. The lineup includes award-winning keyboard player Bruce Katz and Grammy-winning drummer Tony Braunagel.
Good Life isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s mostly hard-driving, balls-to-the-wall blues-rock, beginning with the opener, “Wild Fire.” Among the other standout cuts are “Dirty Blues,” the silky-smooth shuffle “What You Never Had,” the ballad “Good Life,” “She’s Golden,” “Late Night Red Wine” and “I’ve Got Your Back.”
Ilya Portnov – Three
The only artist ever to graduate from the prestigious New England Conservatory of Music specializing in diatonic harmonica, Ilya Portnov is one of the classiest, most polished and inventive instrumentalists in the blues world today, something that’s instantaneously apparent when you give this stellar, all-instrumental album a spin.
Produced at Greaseland Studios in California under the supervision of Kid Andersen, who sits in on guitar and bass, it features the Russian-born, Los Angeles-based Portnov delivering an interesting mix of mostly minor-key tunes that touch on jazz, Balkan folk, Latin and New Orleans music while never straying far from the blues root.
An understated talent, Ilya glides effortlessly across the reeds, delivering some of the sweetest riffs you’ll hear this year. Some of the top cuts include “Sly Dog,” a sweeping blues with jazz overtones, the samba “Corta Jaca,” “Crawfish Stomp,” “Tilt-a-Whirl,” “Big Breaths,” “Up in the Sky” and “Sphere Dance.”
Gravel & Grace – Bringing the Blues
(Ava Grace Music AVGX1200)
Fronted by vocalists Ava Grace and Big Earl Matthews, Gravel & Grace are a smoking hot seven-piece band who united last year in California’s Central Valley since forming last year, delivering high-octane original tunes, that quickly made them local favorites and led to national tours.
Just 17 years old and still a junior in high school, Ava has a strong, sultry voice with exceptional range that belies her tender age, and she became interested in singing thanks to Mississippi roots. She a good match for Matthews, a 20-year music veteran. The pair work as a duo when not fronting this unit, which includes both keys and sax.
A rock-solid debut, give a listen to “Scares Me,” with Grace at the mic, “Next Move,” featuring Big Earl, the duet “Love on the Brain,” the uptempo, gospel-flavored “Sunday Afternoon,” the ballad “Not About a Boy,” the rocker “Picture Perfect” and “Wash My Blues.”
Rae Gordon Band – Wrong Kind of Love
One of the most powerful vocalists in the Pacific Northwest, Rae Gordon teams with producer and percussionist Jimi Bott for this powerful collection of horn-driven blues, showing why she’s been a five-time female vocalist of the year in the Cascade Blues Association’s Muddy Awards.
Originally from Los Angeles, Rae’s been based in Portland, Ore., for years. She worked in comedy clubs and piano bars to hone her craft before recording her debut release,Blue Lemonade, which soared to the No. 10 spot on Billboard blues charts. Fronting a six-piece band anchored by guitarist Kivett Bednar and keyboard player Pat McDougall, she’s been a fixture at top clubs and festivals ever since.
The tunes run hot and deep on this one. Some favorites include the groove-filled “Comin’ Back for More,” the cautionary, but optimistic “Don’t Look Now,” “How You Gonna,” “Might as Well Be You,” “Last Call” and “Get Right with the World.” A winner on all counts!
Joe Louis Walker – Blues Comin’ On
(Cleopatra Records CL 01714)
An enduring force who’s been expanding the boundaries of the blues since the mid-‘80s, Joe Louis Walker calls out the big guns on this explosive album, delivering a heaping helping of what fans have come to love: red-hot guitar and one of the most distinctive voices in the business.
With Eric Gales, Dion, Keb’ Mo’, Jorma Kaukonen, John Sebastian, Lee Oskar, Arlen Roth, Vanessa Collier, Rick Estrin and a host of others in tow, Walker sets a high bar here, mixing five originals and seven surprising covers to produce a musical stew that ranges from modern urban blues, to soul, gospel, country blues and more.
The highlights include “Feel the Poor,” co-written with Gabe Jagger, Dion’s “Blues Comin’ On,” “Someday, Someway,” “The Thang,” “Come Back Home,” an amazing version of Charlie Rich’s “Lonely Weekends,” “Uptown to Harlem” and “7 & 7 Is.” Run, don’t walk to buy this one. It’s that good!
Too Slim and the Taildraggers – The Remedy
(VizzTone Label Group VT-UW-02)
One of the hardest working bands in the U.S., Tim “Too Slim” Langford and his Taildraggers have been delivering their own brand of blues-rock out of the Pacific Northwest for the past 30 years. They take no prisoners here, powering steadily throughout.
The 21st release in a career littered with honors, this one was captured in Nashville at Wild Feather Recording under the direction of Zack Kasik, who doubles as the band’s bassist. As usual, Too Slim’s guitar pyrotechnics are featured throughout along with a few surprises, including some well-placed banjo and guest appearances from three harp players: Jason Ricci, Sheldon Ziro and VizzTone major domo Richard “Rosy” Rosenblatt.
Be sure to fasten your seatbelt for “Last Last Chance,” “Devil’s Hostage,” “Keep the Party Rollin’,” “Platinum Junkie,” “Snake Eyes,” “Think About That” and “Half the World Away.” Exhausting – and a whole lot of fun.
Kaz Hawkins – Memories Of
One of the most soulful voices anywhere, Northern Ireland songbird Kaz Hawkins has been known for several outstanding collaborations during the past couple of decades, but nothing better than the “Memories of Etta James” tour she launched with her Band of Men earlier this year. Now, the entire world can enjoy her interpretations of James’ classics via this CD.
A radio deejay, storyteller and advocate for mental health causes in her other life, Kaz is back with a vengeance after being sidelined with a serious bout of pneumonia, and she’s never sounded better, breathing new life into ten classics backed by a full band complete with horn section.
From the opening cuts of “Something’s Got a Hold of Me” to the closing “At Last,” you’re in for a treat. All of the cuts are standouts, but don’t miss “Miss Pitiful,” “Security,” “Tell Mama,” a stellar retelling of “Blind Girl” and “Just Wanna Make Love to You.”