By Marty Gunther
Dave Specter – Six String Soul: 30 Years at Delmark
Delmark Records 870
Since releasing Bluebird Blues in 1991, Dave Specter has been a key cog at Delmark Records as both a guitarist and in the control room, too, delivering music at the cutting edge of blues and jazz – a relationship that’s celebrated with this must-have 24-track, two-CD set.
Culled from both his solo releases and his work as a sideman, the native Chicagoan’s joined by a virtual who’s who of top talent, including Ronnie Earl, Barkin’ Bill Smith, Tad Robinson, Willie Kent, Brother Jack McDuff, Floyd McDaniel, Lurrie Bell, Jimmy Johnson, Steve Freund, Otis Clay, Jorma Kaukonen, Billy Branch and dozens of others.
From the opening cuts of “Buzz Me” to the topical closing number, “Ballad of George Floyd,” this collection is flawless – and will make a perfect last-minute gift this holiday season.
Ben Levin – Still Here
VizzTone Label Group VT-BL004
Cincinnati-based piano player Ben Levin may be a 21-year-old college student, but he’s already a master of his craft who works nationally alongside Bob Margolin, Bob Corritore and Bob Stroger. Mature far beyond his age, he hits new heights on this disc, which explores the depths of human emotion.
Recorded in old-school mono at the height of the epidemic, Ben’s accompanied by guitarist/co-writer father Aron as he delivers an all-original set that mixes whimsy about bad meals to more serious subjects about romance and his dad’s real-life, six-week hospitalization with COVID-19.
If you like traditional Chicago and New Orleans piano delivered with two-fisted flare, you’ll enjoy “Love and Friendship,” “Still Here,” “That’s the Meal,” “Kissing at Midnight,” “Christmas Rain,” “Her Older Brother,” “I Wonder What’s the Matter” and “I’m Your Essential Worker.”
Robbin Kapsalis & Vintage #18 – Soul Shaker
Bird Song Records
An energetic alto who hits the stage in beaded dresses and white go-go boots, native Chicagoan Robbin Kapsalis and her skintight trio are one of the hottest live acts on the circuit today – something that comes through loud and clear on this long-awaited follow-up to their 2017 debut CD, Grit.
Based out of Washington, D.C., and featuring Bill Holter on guitar throughout, they deliver a mix of contemporary blues, soul and jazz in this set, which includes six originals, a new tune from Deb Ryder and covers from Windy City favorites Junior Wells and Buddy Guy and Lil’ Ed & the Imperials, too.
Put on your dancing shoes. You’ll need ‘em for “Shake It Baby,” “Lost Souls,” “Boogaloo,” “Jukin’,” “From the Heart of the One,” “Silver Spoon,” “The Cannonball” and “You Don’t Deserve Me.”
Corey Harris – Insurrection Blues
M.C. Records MC-0089
One of the most celebrated acoustic musicians in the world, Corey Harris makes his debut on the M.C. imprint to deliver an intimate package about life on a troubled planet. And despite the title, all of the statements expressed in the 15 cuts ring true regardless of your political stance.
A MacArthur Foundation genius now based out of Charlottesville, Va., Corey recorded this one in Italy, mixing a few choice originals with refashioned, timeless first-generation covers. It’s a solo effort aided only by harp player Phil Wiggins and mandolinist Lino Muoio, who appear on one cut each.
From the opening strains of “Twelve Gates of the City” to the closing original, “Scottsville Breakdown,” it’s a masterpiece of contemporary Delta blues. Other pleasers include “When Did You Leave Heaven,” “Special Rider Blues,” “Insurrection Blues,” “You Gonna Quit Me Baby,” “That Will Never Happen No More” and three other tunes infused with West African tradition.
Various Artists – 40 Years Landslide Records
Landslide Records LDCD-1049
The Atlanta-based Landslide label has been flying under the radar for the past 40 years, delivering some of the best music out of Georgia and more, and celebrates its long history with this beefy, specially priced, two-hour collection of blues, roots, rockabilly and jazz.
A special treat for blues lovers, the label’s roster has included Sean Costello, Tinsley Ellis, Piano Red, Scrapomatic, Delta Moon, Nappy Brown, Dave Bartholomew and The Bluesbusters – all of whom are represented on the first platter of this two-disc set.
The second CD ventures into other mediums, but there’s plenty more to whet your appetite, including contributions from the Derek Trucks Band, Widespread Panic, Col. Bruce Hampton, Webb Wilder, Mike Mattison and more. Well worth the price of admission!
Joe Louis Walker – Eclectic Electric
Cleopatra Records CLO2391
Like the title infers, Joe Louis Walker pulls out all the stops on his latest album, teaming with music royalty from multiple areas to deliver a mix of blues, gospel, funk and more that’s tied together with the powerhouse guitar runs that he’s known for.
A collection of four originals and seven covers that Joe truly makes his own, the disc features contributions from vocalist Bette Smith, guitarists Waddy Wachtel, Jimmy Vivino, Doyle Bramhall II and Murali Coryell, the B.B. King Blues Band and others. But JLW’s definitely the star throughout.
Give a good listen to “Uptown Girl Blues,” “Bad Betty,” “Gone and Alone” and “Regal Blues” as well as interesting takes on “Hotel California,” Keith Richards’ “Make No Mistake,” Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London” and a reprise of The Countdown Singers’ “All She Wants to Do Is Dance.”
Fred Hostetler – Fortuna Redux
A blues/rock veteran whose career began in the ‘60s, Fred Hostetler disappeared from sight for about 18 years when he emigrated to India to do voluntary service in an ashram, but hits the high notes with this tasty set of gentle acoustic blues, his third release since returning home in 2018.
Based out of Whidbey Island, Wash., Hostetler’s background includes work with Jeff Beck, Billy Squire and Johnny Winter as well as the popular West Coast band, Blue by Nature, which he founded with Rick Dufay of Aerosmith. An accomplished songwriter, his tunes have appeared in several major movies.
A multi-layered solo set, you’ll enjoy “Taming the Wolf,” “Shelter from the Storm,” “Rain on My Window Pane,” “Lady Luck Fortuna Redux,” “He’s Gone Rogue” and “I’m a New Man.”
Sugar Queen & the Straight Blues Band – Better Days
A classically trained pianist, Sugar Queen – aka Michele Denise – is a Southern-born singer/songwriter who spent a decade delivering Chicago-style blues in Malaysia and China before relocating to the Netherlands, where she’s now based, and adopting her current identity about five years ago.
Possessing a beefy – albeit limited – alto, her first release under her new name, 340 Blues, placed in the Top Ten album of the year on Chicago-style blues charts, and five of its tunes received major airplay. Her follow-up, Sugar Queen LIVE, continued her ascendency.
An all-original set with subjects mined from the artist’s African-American heritage, give a listen to “I’m That Kind of Woman,” “Better Ways,” “Change My Name,” “Looking Back,” “Lovin’ Only Keeps a Man,” “Creeping Going On” and “Shake Off Dem Blues.”
John Winkler – Juke’s Blues
Known as Juke Joint Johnny or the Harmonica High Priest of the Southeast, John Winkler has been a fixture on the Charleston, S.C. blues scene for 30 years, but makes his debut as a front man with this CD. One listen and you’ll be asking yourself why it’s taken so long.
A native of upstate New York, Winkler cut his teeth with Joe Beard, fronting his own band and touring the world with keyboard player Gary “Shrimp City Slim” Erwin for decades. He teams with Erwin here along with Elliott & the Untouchables – another top Low Country unit -- to deliver a sensational set of original Chicago and West Coast blues.
Possibly the best debut album you’ll hear this year, give a listen to “Lucky,” “Playin’ for Keeps,” “Somebody New,” “Positively Prezlee,” “Short Fat Fanny,” “Slow Roast,” “Millionaire,” “Tell Me True,” “Meetin’ Mama” and “The Nine Harp Thing.”
Ted Hefko & the Thousandaires – Down Below
A Wisconsin native who’s been based in New Orleans for 20 years, Ted Hefko is a multi-instrumentalist tunesmith who usually heats up the night with a classy mix of blues, jazz and soul, but takes an interesting turn here by infusing backwoods country and old-school Louisiana R&B, too.
Ted possesses a sweet, relaxed mid-range voice, and doubles on guitar and sax while fronting a backing group composed of top Gulf Coast talent. They combine to produce a warm, slightly-behind-the-beat sound that will have you grooving no matter what blues-rooted style they’re playing.
If you like blue-eyed soul, you’ll love this one. Give a listen to “Lay Your Problems on My Knee,” “Hurtin’ Too,” “Please Don’t Refuse,” “My Life in Bars,” “In My Head Again,” “Down Below,” “Big Thing” and “One More Picture of You.”
Hector Anchondo – Let Loose Those Chains
VizzTone Label Group VT-HA-01
The 2020 International Blues Challenge solo/duo winner, Omaha-based guitarist Hector Anchondo delivers a tour de force collection of original acoustic pleasers here, spanning both sorrow and joy without ever being depressing or overpowering.
Influenced by John Lee Hooker, Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’ and a 25-year road dog, Hector recorded this one in Crystal Lake, Ill., and Bradenton, Fla., backed solely by a rhythm section. He displays exemplary fingerpicking skills throughout, and his tunes are both fresh and unique.
Be sure to tune in to “Let Loose Those Chains,” “I’m Going to Missouri,” “Current River,” the saccharine-sweet love song “Candy Shop,” “Sometimes Being Alone Feels Right,” “Strike It Down,” “Vested Angels,” “Momma’s a Hard Man” and “You Know I Love You but You Got to Go.”
Starlite Campbell Band – The Language of Curiosity
Based out of the United Kingdom, the husband-wife duo of bassist/keyboard player Susie Starlite and guitarist Simon Campbell found love on stage and struck gold with their full-band debut release, Blueberry Pie, a few years ago. This follow-up is just as tasty.
Nominees in both the British and European blues awards for their previous effort, they’re festival favorites across the Continent and in Australia, too, possessing a sound that’s all their own. They describe this all-original set as a Rubik’s Cube view of life in the modern world.
The action opens with the blues-rocker, “Distant Land,” but quickly settles into a steady groove with “Gaslight.” You’ll also enjoy the driving “Language of Curiosity,” “Bad Sign,” “Take Time to Grow Old,” “Stone Cold Crazy,” “Lay It on Me” and “Ride on Cowboy.”
Rusty Ends Blues Band – Rusty Ends Blues Band
Earwig Music Company CD 4979
A guitarist/vocalist who’s been recording since the late ‘60s, Rusty Ends mixes blues and blue-eyed soul on this all-original disc. Originally issued in 1996 on the soon-to-be defunct Rollin’ & Tumblin’ imprint, it’s just as vital today as the day it was released and quickly disappeared.
An enigmatic fixture from Louisville, Ky., who’s rumored to have studied Native American mysticism in the swamps of South Florida, Rusty spent time backing up several top R&B outfits – including the Shirelles, Drifters, Coasters and Marvelettes -- before turning to blues full time. His backing unit includes horns, keys and harp with a guest appearance from vocalist Robbie Bartlett.
There’s a whole lot to like in the 17 cuts here, beginning with “What Next?” Other pleasers include “Blue Shadows,” “I Wanna Know,” “A Man Can’t Understand a Woman,” “Something Wrong Going On,” “Broken Dreams for Sale,” “Whips & Chains,” “One Step Forward” and “The One Wish.”
Miss Lady Blues – Moe Betta Blues
A native of Tuscaloosa, Ala., who now resides in Atlanta, Miss Lady Blues – a.k.a. Tikeshia McMullen Boyd – shows why she’s the reigning female artist of the year in the Alabama Music Awards with this collection of original old-school soul-blues sure to have you belly-rubbing on the dance floor.
A follow-up to her 2017 debut, Pieces of My Soul, she’s an emotive, honeyed alto with limited range who simmers behind the beat. She’s backed by Dexter Allen, the longtime Bobby Rush guitarist who’s now a star in his own right, and musicians who bridge both gospel and blues.
Grab your significant other and trip the light fantastic with “Back It Up with That Lip,” “She Ain’t Me,” “Being in Love,” “Addicted,” “Loving You,” “Baby” and “Can’t Be Love.”
Luca Kiella – Ready for You
Cypress Road Productions
Luca “Kiella” Chiellini hit the pinnacle of the blues world as keyboard player in Welch Ledbetter Connection a couple of years ago and shines on his own with this release, an all-original, high-octane collection of contemporary New Orleans funk, horn-infused soul-blues and more.
A native Italian, Luca recorded this one in Chicago and the Big Easy with backing from Bonerama trombonist Mark Mullins, trumpet player Bobby Campo, saxophonist Brad Walker and the skintight Windy City rhythm section comprised of drummer Paul Hall and bassist William Paggett.
The hits come fast and furious beginning with “Till Tomorrow.” You’ll also enjoy the percussive “Here No More,” “I Hate My Boss,” “Ready for You,” “Many Reasons Ago,” “A True Connection,” “Let You Go,” “Won’t You Please” and “Is There Any Love Left for Me?”