By Marty Gunther
Phantom Blues Band – Blues for Breakfast
Little Village Foundation
Top Los Angeles session players who’ve been working as Taj Mahal’s Grammy-winning backing band for decades while maintaining their own identity, too, Phantom Blues Band calls out superstar guests to honor their beloved keyboard player Mike Finnigan – who succumbed to cancer last year -- on this one, and the results will have you grooving from the jump.
Ruthie Foster, Bonnie Raitt, Curtis Salgado, Mike’s son Kelly and others turned out to celebrate the life of one of the most soulful artists ever to sit at the 88s, and all of the proceeds from this effort will be donated to the Mike Finnigan School for Music at Stiefel Theater in Salina, Kan. Jim Pugh handles keys in his absence, but Finnigan’s present, too, in sessions recorded prior to his passing.
The hits come fast and often, beginning with “I’ll Take What I Want.” Don’t miss “Get Involved,” “Move on Up,” “OK I Admit It” featuring Mike on vocals, “Country Boy,” “Laughin’ & Clownin’,” “I Know You Don’t Love Me” and “Stuff You Gotta Watch.”
Miss Bix – Bring It
Blue Heart Records BHR 026
After making a name as smooth jazz vocalist and then children’s music when she teamed with Dick Van Dyke, Miss Bix fuses West Coast, Hill Country and New Orleans blues on this album, which features contributions from fellow vocalists Keeshea Pratt and Tiffany Pollack, keyboard player Tom Canning, guitarist Franck L. Goldwasser and harp player Jimmy Z.
A follow-up to We Don’t Own the Blues, her 2017 tribute to the Delta, it’s an uplifting effort that puts an optimistic spin on survival in a world filled with social injustice, political strife, COVID and personal tragedies that include losing her home in a California wildfire.
A multi-layered, all-original mixed-bag treat, tune in to “Ain’t No Such Thing,” “You’ve Got a Nerve,” “Cocktail Hour,” “Trail of Tears,” “Red Walls,” “Cheer Up, Sallie Mae,” “Daddy Why,” “You Better Believe It” and “Movin’ On.”
Dennis Johnson – Revelation
Based out of San Francisco, Dennis Johnson is one of the foremost slide guitarists in the U.S., and he packs an emotional punch with his latest CD, using a smorgasbord of stylings to take listeners on a jaw-dropping journey across the broad spectrum of the blues.
Influenced by Roy Rogers and David “Honeyboy” Edwards, Johnson possesses a stinging attack so seemingly effortless that he can trick you into believing he’s playing two guitars at once. He penned six of the ten cuts here, backing up his playing with strong vocals while working in full-band settings.
A treat for the ears and a textbook for young guitarists, too, give a listen to “Going Down,” “Talk to You,” “Revelation,” an exceptional cover of “32-20 Blues,” “Lonesome Valley,” “Ramblin’,” “Two Lights” and “Don’t Owe You a Thing.”
Bob Margolin & Bob Corritore – So Far
VizzTone Label Group
Stars in their own right and partners with Bob Stroger in the Bobs of the Blues, guitarist Bob Margolin and harp player Bob Corritore have worked together frequently for decades but team as a duo for the first time for this set of straight-ahead, laid-back, acoustic blues.
The duo first crossed paths in 1974 when Margolin appeared with Muddy Waters at Corritore’s high school in suburban Chicago. The 13 tunes here are free of amplification and include eight originals, two of which feature an appearance from ex-Conan bandleader Jimmy Vivino on six-string and vocals.
“Steady Rollin’ On” eases out of the gate with Margolin on the mic. Other pleasers include “Running Through High Water,” “It Makes No Difference,” “ Outrage and Inrage,” “Broken Heart,” “Salt River Stomp,” “Red Hot Kisses,” “What If,” “Blessings and Blues,” “I Want to Go Home” and “Little Machine.”
Kat Riggins – Progeny
Gulf Coast Records
A petite powerhouse who’s now an international sensation after emerging from the South Florida blues scene about a decade ago, Kat Riggins shines like a diamond on this set of contemporary, all-original tunes that range from soulful ballads to high-energy blues-rock and a taste of gospel, too.
Produced by Mike Zito, who also provides guitar throughout, and brimming with grit, this one features backing from former Freddie King keyboard player Lewis Stephens. Also on guitar are guest appearances from labelmate Albert Castiglia and Melody Angel, a rising star based out of Chicago.
From the determined opener, “Walk On,” to the cautionary “40 25:40,” which takes you to church to close, you don’t want to miss this one. Other pleasers include “Sinkin’ Low,” “Warriors,” “Walk with Me Lord,” “My City,” “Cross the Line,” “Woahman” and “Mama.”
Son House – Forever on My Mind
Easy Eye Sound EES-024
Here’s a treat for lovers of first-generation country blues. Pre-War superstar Son House recorded the music on this disc only a few months after he was “rediscovered” in 1964 by future Blues Hall of Famer Dick Waterman, Nick Perls and Phil Spero who tracked him down after he “vanished” in the ‘40s.
The eight tunes in this set were captured live at Wabash College in Indiana, when Son was still playing in the unadulterated style of his past. The tapes remained on a bookshelf for 58 years being remastered and released by Waterman in partnership with Easy Eye label owner/Black Keys front man Dan Auerbach.
Son’s voice is powerful, and his slide playing on National Steel guitar is deeply nuanced and emotive throughout. Give a listen to “Forever on My Mind,” “Preachin’ Blues,” “Empire State Express,” “Death Letter,” “My Black Mama, Part 2,” “The Way Mother Did” and more. Essential listening!
Fonky Donkey – Donkeyland
Formed in Little Rock, Ark., in 2019, this veteran four-piece ensemble has already found a welcome home on the festival circuit across the Mid-South, delivering a rock-steady collection of original, slide guitar-based blues and roots with hints of Memphis, Hill Country and the Delta, too.
Guitarist Gil Franklin and guitarist/harp player Ben “Swamp Donkey” Brenner – president of the Arkansas River Blues Society – team to pen all of the material on this one and share vocals with drummer Lance “Bug Tussle” Womack. Lynn Fitzgerald handles bass duties.
If you like your music downhome and funky, you’ll enjoy “Queen of the Devil’s Den,” “Mozark Line,” “No Peace,” “White River Blues,” “Too Broke to Pay My Dues” and “When Gilbo Sings the Blues.”
Todd Sharpville – Medication Time
It’s been 12 years since British guitarist Todd Sharpville released Porchlight, an emotion-packed effort penned after the deaths of both his marriage and his father, but he returns with a vengeance with this humor-infused roller-coaster ride that deals with agony -- his separation from his beloved daughters after the divorce, an event that literally landed him in a mental hospital for two months in the ‘90s.
A musician who’s worked with blues and rock royalty on both sides of the Atlantic for decades, Todd reunites with Duke Robillard, who produced his last one and his quartet. Recorded in Rhode Island, it features guest appearances from harp player Sugar Ray Norcia and guitar powerhouse Larry McCray, both of whom join him for duets, along with a four-piece horn section with Roomful of Blues roots.
Despite the deep themes, this one will lift your spirits. Tune in to “Walk Out in the Rain,” “Get Outta My Way,” “Tangled Up in Thought,” “Brothers from Another Mother,” “Medication Time,” “God Loves a Loser,” “Money for Nothing,” “Stand Your Ground” and “I Don’t Need to Know Your Name.”
Lew Jetton & 61 South – Deja Hoodoo
Endless Blues Records LJEBR032022
Based out of Paducah, Ky., Lew Jetton & 61 South have made a living playing honkytonks, juke joints, dive bars and festivals for 30 years, and they celebrate both their longevity and their anniversary with this 16-tune collection that’s culled from their four previous, well-received CDs.
Jetton’s a sweet tenor who doubles on guitar and vocals, fronting a five-piece unit that also features Sam Moore and Dan Bell on guitar and keys. A former Sirius/XM Bluesville “Pick to Click,” they’re augmented by guest appearances by piano player Bob Lohr (Chuck Berry), Carl Perkins bandleader Wes Henley, Legendary Shack Shakers harp player J.D. Wilkes and others.
Barroom blues at its best, tune in to “Waffle House Woman,” “I Been Cheated,” “Mexico,” “Move On, Yvonne,” “Keeping Me Awake,” “Who’s Texting Me,” “Drinking Again,” “Getting Colder” and “Will I Go to Hell.”
Johnny Sansone – Into Your Blues
Short Stack Records SS1013
The son of a saxophonist who worked with Dave Brubeck during World War II, multi-instrumentalist Johnny Sansone has been a fixture in the New Orleans music scene for decades but takes a break from the sounds of the Big Easy to deliver this pleasing set of original, steady-rocking blues.
Johnny puts his accordion on the shelf, accompanying himself on harp and resonator guitar and getting helping hands from Jason Ricci and guitarists Little Freddie King, Mike Morgan and Johnny Burgin. Add Sansone’s warm voice, a horn section and backing vocals from Tiffany Pollack and it’s a winner on all counts.
The music simmers from the opener, “Into Your Blues.” Other pleasers include “Pay for This Song,” “Desperation,” “Blowin’ with Fire,” “People Like You and Me,” “The Getaway,” “Something Good Going On,” “Single Room” and “Southern Dream.”
Sass Jordan – Bitches Blues
Stony Plain Records SPCD1450
The undisputed queen of Canadian rock, Montreal-based Sass Jordan has worked alongside everyone from Aerosmith and the Stones to Van Halen, but she cut new ground in 2020 with Rebel Moon Blues, which established her as an individual to be reckoned with in the blues, too. This follow-up proves that stellar effort was no fluke.
Possessing a huge, gritty set of pipes, Sass is both a Juno Award winner and an actress who starred off-Broadway in Love, Janis – based on the life of Janis Joplin and toured the world in A Bowie Celebration. She’s backed here by the Champagne Hookers, an all-star group that includes multi-instrumentalist Steve Marriner.
The Mighty Mississippi runs deep here. Pleasers include “Still Alive and Well,” “Chevrolet,” “Even,” “Still the World Goes Round,” “Sailin’ Shoes,” “Ain’t No Big Deal on You” and “Change Is Coming.”
Hubert Dorigatti – A Walk with Blind Boy: The Songs of Blind Boy Fuller
Based out of the Tirolian Alps in northwest Italy, guitarist Hubert Dorigatti delivered a terrific set of contemporary blues in 2021, but turns the clock back a century with this stunner, lovingly dipping into the catalog of North Carolina bluesman Blind Boy Fuller and delivering a masterpiece of fingerpicked acoustic pleasers.
A former trumpet protégé who put the horn aside in his teens to study classical six-string at conservatories in Trento and neighboring Austria, Hubert loves jazz, but his respect for first-generation blues comes through on each note of this set, which features sparce accompaniment.
Blind Boy’s smiling from the Great Beyond over this one. You’ll enjoy “Walking My Troubles Away,” “Get Your Yas Yas Out,” “Meat Shakin’ Mama,” “Screaming and Crying Blues,” “Weeping Willow,” “Mama Let Me Lay It on You,” “Jitterbug Rag” and “Mankind Blues.”
Michael Rubin – I’ll Worry If I Wanna
Many Hats Records
Texas-based multi-instrumentalist Michael Rubin is one of the most innovative harmonica players in the world, and finally gets a chance to shine here after being in the shadows for decades in the classroom and as a sideman. Backed by guitarist Mike Keller and other Austin-based talents, he delivers an all-original set that’s humorous, interesting and a lot of fun, too.
A quirky musical theorist who was taught by Rick Estrin, Gary Primich, Andy J. Forest and others, Michael’s skills include being able to produce the full range of a chromatic harp on a simple diatonic. His originals deliver a taste of the Lone Star State, the Big Easy and more.
“Little Rabbit” puts his skills on display to open. And don’t miss “Go Milk Your Own Cow,” “Kama Sutra Girl,” “Can We Break Up Again,” “I’ll Worry If I Wanna,” “Beer Belly Baby,” “Fourth Coast” and “Chain Letter Blues.”
Cliff Stevens – Better Days
Red Flagg Records RF558-2
A passionate songwriter and guitarist, Montreal-based Cliff Stevens toiled as a sideman for years, acquiring addictions along the way that led to his downfall. But he’s risen like a phoenix since achieving sobriety in 1998, something that comes through loud and strong with this well-fashioned, introspective CD, his fifth solo release since his recovery.
Now a college graduate with a master’s degree, Cliff penned 11 tunes in this 12-song set that includes blues-rock, traditional and country blues, all of which are devoid of pyrotechnics but full of emotion. He’s backed by former Paul DesLauriers drummer Sam Harrisson and other top talent.
You’ll enjoy “Better Days,” “Passion,” “No Room Left,” “Time for Me to Go,” “Light of an Angel,” “I Love You Still,” “You Hurt Me,” “I Been Thinking About You” and “Slim Picking.”
Mighty Mike Schermer – Just Gettin’ Good
Finedog Records/Little Village Foundation
Considered by Tommy Castro as “probably the best blues guitarist, singer and songwriter you’ve never heard of,” Mighty Mike Schermer worked for years with Marcia Ball, Angela Strehli, Maria Muldaur but shines bright on this all-original CD. It’s promoted as 52 minutes of fun, and it’s all that and more.
This is the eighth solo album for the native New Yorker who’s divided most of his life between Austin and his California home. This one rips and runs from the jump and features top Bay Area musicians along with guest spots from John Nemeth, sax giant Terry Hanck and other major talents.
A soulful, energetic set, you’ll love “Just Gettin’ Good,” “Leave More (Than You Take Away),” “This Is Where My Love Is,” “The Hungry Dog,” “Gypsy Ways,” “Let’s Make Time for Love,” “Kimmy Gimmee,” “Silence” and “It’s Not Me, It’s You.”
About the Author: The blues came calling for Marty Gunther in the 1960s, when he witnessed Muddy Waters, Mississippi John Hurt, B.B. King and Howlin' Wolf perform at the Newport festivals in his native Rhode Island. A longtime Chicagoan who's now based out of Charlotte, N.C., he's a professional journalist and harp player who studied under Sugar Blue before co-founding the Nucklebusters, a band that's filled clubs in south Florida since the '80s.