By Marty Gunther
Steve Cropper – Fire It Up
Steve Cropper literally built the framework for modern American music since his teens as a songwriter at Stax in addition to long stints in The Mar-Keys, Booker T. & the MG’s and the Blues Brothers. But the 79-year-old guitar legend proves he hasn’t lost a step with this bluesy, soulful CD.
Featuring Roger C. Reale on vocals, this is Cropper’s ninth solo release, and the material here is comprised of song kernels Steve’s compiled in workbooks through the decades, mixing new tunes with outtakes from two previously recorded albums co-featuring keyboard player Felix Cavaliere.
A brief instrumental, “Bush Hog 1,” kicks things off in familiar fashion, accented by Cropper’s rock-steady circular guitar hooks. Other must-listens include the incendiary “Fire It Up,” “One Good Turn,” “I’m Not Having It,” “Out of Love,” “Far Away,” “The Go-Getter Is Gone” and “Heartbreak Street.”
Big Chief Monk Boudreaux – Bloodstains & Teardrops
Whiskey Bayou Records WHIS 1006
The leader of New Orleans’ Golden Eagles Mardi Gras Indian tribe and a longtime member of The Wild Magnolias, Big Chief Monk Boudreaux traces the blues back to their Caribbean roots with this hypnotic album, which was recorded in both Kingston, Jamaica, and along the Gulf Coast.
A 2016 National Endowment of the Arts recipient, Boudreaux is joined here by Tab Benoit, Damon Fowler, Eric Johansen, Jumpin’ Johnny Sansone and artists from the island as he traces the slave trade from the tropics to Congo Square, mixing blues, reggae and more into a deep musical roux.
The disc opens with the reggae, “Bloodstains and Teardrops,” before “Should’ve Been a Preacher” offers up a little bluesy advice about handling tragedies. Other pleasers here include “Mr. Okra Man,” “Kick Me Down,” “Kingston Blues,” “On Bended Knees,” “Blue Mountains” and “Indian Blues.”
Steve Marriner – Hope Dies Last
Stony Plain Records SPCD 1433
One of the most in-demand musicians and producers North of the Border, Toronto-based multi-instrumentalist Steve Marriner used his COVID-19 down time away from bands MonkeyJunk and Manx Marriner Mainline to craft this interesting mix of blues-rooted rock and Americana.
The Juno Award-winner gets helping hands from 16 other top talents, including award-winning guitarists Jimmy Bowskill and Steve Dawson, keyboard player Jess O’Brien and vocalist Samantha Martin, Roxanne Potvin and more. A first, Marriner mixed and engineered most of the sessions.
The hard-hitting blues-rocker “Take Me to the City” kickings things off. Other pleasers include a tasty cover of Tom Petty’s “Honey Bee,” the gospel-tinged “Somethin’ Somethin’,” the haunting “Coal Mine,” “Enough” featuring Martin, the instrumental “Uptown Lockdown” and “Long Way Down.”
Lauren Anderson – Love on the Rocks
Possessing a set of pipes that can rattle windows, Lauren Anderson has been building momentum for most of the last decade, serving as opening act for major artists. But the former Midwest Music Awards vocalist of the year should be on everyone’s radar after the release of this CD.
A Chicago native who once dreamed of a career in opera, she’s now based in Nashville. A melismatic alto with a master’s degree in music therapy, she bridges blues, soul and rock here with backing from her regular band and a special guest appearance from Mike Zito.
Do yourself a favor and give a good listen to “Keep On,” “Love on the Rocks,” “The Way I Want,” “Holdin’ Me Down,” “Just F***ing Begin,” “I’m Done” and “Your Turn.”
Gerald McClendon – Let’s Have a Party!
Delta Roots Records DR-1004
A proponent of old-school Chicago soul-blues and classic Stax and Motown, vocalist Gerald “The Soulkeeper” McClendon emerged from obscurity with Can’t Nobody Stop Me Now last year and continues his ascendency with this mellow disc, a continuation of his partnership with Twist Turner, the drummer, producer and label owner who penned all 12 of the tunes in this set.
A smooth vocalist with a consistent behind-the-beat delivery, McClendon’s backed by first-call musicians from the Windy City and West Coast, including guitarists Melvin Taylor, Rico McFarland, Rusty Zinn, and John Burba. Keyboard players Tony Llorens, Sumito Ariyoshi, Brian James and Jim Pugh contribute on the 88s. The stellar horn section includes Skinny Williams, John “Boom” Brumbach and the Delta Roots Horns. Famed bass players Johnny B. Gayden, Harlan Terson, David Forte and Art Love hold down the bottom while Twist drums on all tracks.
If your tastes run to Tyrone Davis, Artie “Blues Boy” White or Syl Johnson, you’ll love “Keep on Keepin’ On,” “Let’s Have a Party,” “If It Ain’t the Blues,” “Pack Your Bags and Go,” “Throw This Dog a Bone,” “I Just Can’t Stand Myself” and “Funky Stuff.”
EG Kight – The Trio Sessions
Big South Records
Veteran singer/songwriter EG Kight has been a blues treasure since the ‘90s after a career in country music that included a regular gig on Nashville Now. A Georgia native, she heats up the stage with a rich mid-range voice and fires on all cylinders in this intimate set that comes across with the feel of a house concert.
Drawn to the blues through the stylings of Koko Taylor, EG’s worked with everyone from George Jones and Conway Twitty to Luther Allison and Pinetop Perkins. An excellent tunesmith, her tunes have found homes in the catalogs of Taylor, Saffire – The Uppity Blues Women and Shakura S’Aida, among others.
Kick back a while and relax for a spell with “Alone Too Long,” “Burned,” “Evil,” “Feelin’ a Healin’,” “Tell Me,” “You Just Don’t Get It” and “You’re Drivin’ Me Crazy.” You’ll be glad you did.
Nina Simone – The Montreux Years
BMG/Montreux Jazz Festival
An enduring talent from her debut in the ‘50s until her passing in 2003, Nina Simone’s smoky voice and classical piano bridges blues, jazz and roots, too. She’s at her absolute best in this two-CD collection that was captured at Switzerland’s Montreux Jazz Festival between 1968 and 1990.
Spanning more than two and a half hours and including her debut show there in its entirety, the Tryon, N.C., native put a unique spin on everything she played in addition to serving as the soundtrack of the Civil Rights movement, too.
Ranging from simple expressions of love and joy to dead-serious politics and history lessons, everything here is worth visiting again – especially “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free,” “No Woman No Cry,” “Four Women,” “Don’t Smoke in Bed,” “What a Little Moonlight Will Do,” “Liberian Calypso,” “See-Line Woman,” “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” and “Backlash Blues.”
Christone “Kingfish” Ingram – 662
Alligator Records ALCD 5005
Already an incomparable talent at age 22 with seven BMA statuettes in his trophy case and a Grammy nomination to boot, Christone “Kingfish” Ingram pours his heart out and and bares his soul on this all-original CD, delivering tunes with an understanding of life far beyond his tender age.
Only the second album in his career, he reteams with producer/songwriting partner Tom Hambridge with backing from top Nashville session musicians along as well as longtime Chicago keyboard stalwart Marty Sammon (Buddy Guy) and bassist Tommy McDonald (Curtis Salgado, Johnny Winter) as he honors his late mom, his hometown (Clarksdale, Miss.) and deals with affairs of the heart.
If you love powerful, single-note guitar runs and a voice to match, you’ll love “662,” “She Calls Me Kingfish,” the poignant “Another Life Goes By” and “Not Gonna Lie,” as well as “Too Young to Remember,” the slow blues burner “That’s All It Takes,” “That’s What You Do” and “Rock & Roll.”
Sean Chambers – That’s What I’m Talkin’ About
Quarto Valley Records QVR 0143
Sean Chambers returns to his roots with this CD, a loving tribute to Hubert Sumlin, the longtime Howlin’ Wolf sideman who was both an inspiration to a generation of guitarists and also the man responsible for setting the Chambers, a Florida-born firebrand, on the path he walks today.
In October 1988, Hubert hired Sean and his band to back him at the Blues Stock festival in Memphis, beginning a working relationship that endured for four years. Sumlin would be smiling if he could hear his protégé today. Delivered primarily in power-trio format, Chambers rounds out the lineup with Bruce Katz and John Ginty, two of the best organ players in the music today.
The disc opens with a tasty version of Sumlin’s “Chunky” with the majority of the set consisting of contemporary covers of material Hubert recorded with Wolf, all of which were reworked with passion. Not to be missed: The Chambers original tip-of-the-hat, “Hubert’s Song.”
Robert Billard & the Cold Calls – Stop
Fifth Chord Studios
Based out of New Westminster, B.C., Robert Billard has established himself as a major player in the Canadian music scene and one of the nation’s top architects, too. Formerly a folk artist and more, he constructed a sturdy album of all-original blues songs that you’re sure to enjoy.
Billard’s backing unit includes BMA-nominated keyboard player Kenny “Blues Boss” Wayne, recent IBC winner JW-Jones and other artists who’ve combined to capture six Juno Awards – Canada’s equivalent to the Grammy – along with eight more nominations.
If you’re looking for a taste of something different, tune in to “Road to Nowhere,” “Six Ptarmigan,” “I’ll Leave You Alone,” “Groove,” “Waiting on Time,” “Nothing Can Stop Me Now” and “Home.”
Urban Ladder Society – The Summit
Fronted by Victa Nooman -- a hip-hop emcee from Jackson, Miss., with lengthy recording credits, Urban Ladder Society is a diverse mix of musicians who deliver a cutting-edge fusion of blues, rap and more that will have even old-school fans grooving steadily and paying attention.
Deep in the beat throughout, the roster includes well-established acoustic guitarist Chris Gill, who trades licks with session player Stevie J Blues (Bobby Rush, Denise LaSalle). Female vocalist Jonte Mayon -- best known for her work at B.B. King Blues Clubs on land and sea – spices up the lineup.
Definitely not your grandparents’ blues, but stretch out your listening habit a little by tuning in to “What’s on Your Mind,” “Da Blues,” “Dysfunctional,” “Mission,” “We Got This Covered,” “Juke Joint Lover,” “Same Ole Thing” and “Love You Forever.”
Andy Peake – Mood Swings
Big Little Records BLR2021
Percussionist Andy Peake has been a familiar face recently through his work with the band Big Shoes, but he’s a 40-year veteran of the Nashville music scene, where he’s kept the beat for several major blues, soul and country acts. He steps out of the shadows for the first time every with this album, which features his own eclectic brand of blues.
A pleasant, relaxed tenor, Peake assembled a cast of top Music City veterans for this one, including guitarist Will McFarlane (Bonnie Raitt), keyboard players Kevin McKendree (Delbert McClinton) and Al Hill (Bettye LaVette) and sax player Jeff Taylor (Elvis Costello), among others. His original tunes are wry and clever throughout.
“Make Peace with the Blues” opens the action with a rhumba beat before giving way to the bluesy salsa, “Hip Replacement.” Other must-listens include “Mood Swings,” “If the Blues Was Green,” “My Baby’s Got a Light On,” “Untangle the Line” and an interesting reworking of Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released.”
Gene Jackson – The Jungle
Blue Lotus Records
Based out of St. Louis, soul-blues vocalist Gene Jackson was a local fixture for decades before bursting into national prominence in 2017 with 1963, which earned him a Blues Blast Music Award nomination for best debut album of the year. This long-awaited follow-up proves that honor was no fluke.
The son of vocalist Mary Jackson, who worked with Ike and Tina Turner, the Shirelles and others, Gene grew up in the church and was an overlooked treasure for decades despite performing professionally since he was 15. He’s a tenor with great range and a gritty delivery.
There’s a whole lot to like on this one, beginning with “Thinking About It.” You’ll also enjoy “Can the Woman Be You,” “Won’t Hold Water,” “That’s What I Want,” “It’s Not Just Sex,” “Love’s the Air (That We Breathe)” and “Vaccine,” which describes his personal battle with COVID-19.
The Flaming Mudcats – Forever and a Day
Based out of Aukland, New Zealand, The Flaming Mudcats are no bottom-feeders! A tight four-piece unit amplified by a full horn section and keys, they deliver a heaping helping of good-time music on their fourth CD, a combination of soul-infused blues with a taste of lump-de-lump Chicago, too.
They’re fronted by Craig Bracken -- a triple threat on vocals, harp and sax – and guitarist Doug Bygrove with bassist Johnny Yu and drummer Ian Thomson, all of whom combined to compose an all-original contemporary set that comes across with the feel of show bands from the past.
Guaranteed to keep you smiling and on the dance floor, some of the top cuts include “All Around the World,” “Shake It,” “On the Town,” “Good Behaviour,” “100 Days,” “C’mon Baby,” “So Glad,” “Black Limousine” and “Forever and a Day.”
Guy King – Joy Is Coming
One of the best guitarists in the world today, guitarist Guy King bridges the worlds of contemporary jazz and blues on this release, delivering lightning-fast runs with a light touch in this follow-up to his 2016 effort, Truth, on Delmark. It brims with upbeat messages in turbulent times.
An émigré from Israeli who’s been based in Chicago for the past 20 years, Guy cut his teeth in America as guitarist and bandleader for Willie Kent and the Gents. Possessing sweet, melismatic pipes that match his skill on the six-string, he’s backed here by horns, keys and a string section, too, with guest appearances from guitar hero Joe Bonamassa and vocalist Vanessa Bell Armstrong.
If you like your music classy, this one’s for you. Standout cuts include “Joy Is Coming,” “Devil’s Toy” featuring Bonamassa, “Choices,” “Sanity,” “Don’t Do It (If You Don’t Want to Do It),” “A Prayer for Me” and “Looking for You.”