By Marty Gunther
John Mayall – The Sun Is Shining Down
Forty Below Records FBR 026
The father of British blues, John Mayall is well into his sunset years at age 88 with hundreds of recordings to his credit, but he’s never sounded better than on this star-studded CD, a mix of six of his own tunes with others penned by Bobby Rush, Roosevelt Sykes, Bernard Allison and Tinsley Ellis.
John shines on harp and keys and his voice glistens like a diamond in a lineup that includes bandmate Carolyn Wonderland, both Buddy Miller and Scarlet Rivera from Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Review, Marcus King, The Heartbreakers’ Mike Campbell and Chicago transplant guitar master Melvin Taylor. It’s a funky set punctuated by horns, violins and more.
True blues with an upbeat feel, you’ll enjoy “Hungry and Ready,” “Can’t Take It No More,” “Got to Find a Better Way,” “One Special Lady,” “A Quitter Never Wins,” “Deep Blue Sea” and “The Sun Is Shining Down.”
Chris BadNews Barnes – BadNews Rising
VizzTone Label Group VT-CB19
After a lengthy career as a funnyman/actor, Chris BadNews Barnes has established himself in the past decade as a proponent of hokum blues before shifting to a more contemporary version of tunes infused with humor and sexual innuendo. He teams here with Grammy-winning producer Tom Hambridge and delivers a mix of original music that mixes new-age hokum with intimate autobiographical memories.
A native of Scranton, Pa., whose background includes time with Saturday Night Live, Carroll Burnett, Second City and more, Chris co-wrote with Hambridge and features backing from several of the top sessions players in Nashville. It’s a fully realized set that should establish him as a standout in blues, too.
You’ll dance, chuckle and – just maybe -- shed a tear or two as you lend an ear to “You Wanna Rock,” “When Koko Came to Town,” “My Baby Be Cray Cray,” the intimate “I Slow Danced with Joni Mitchell,” “Chicks Dig Me,” “The Creamy Caramel Café,” “Texas Weiner” and “I Like Cleavage.”
Tinsley Ellis – Devil May Care
Alligator Records ALCD 5008
Sidelined from touring for the first time in 40 years, blues-rocker Tinsley Ellis spent his down time during the coronavirus shutdown revisiting guitars and amps he hadn’t used for decades and polishing his already prodigious songwriting skills. The ten tunes in this muscular, burning set are the result.
Tinsley had just started traveling in support of his BMA-nominated Ice Cream in Hell when the world came to a halt. In the months that followed, he kept fans engaged by posting some of the songs that made it to this CD online during the shutdown, a beefy blend of Southern rock, blues and more.
“One More Reason” puts a positive spin on the end of a relationship before reality sets in with “Right Down the Drain.” But the action sweetens dramatically for the ballad “Just Like Rain.” Other pleasers include “Beat the Devil,” “Juju,” “Step Up,” “28 Days” and “Slow Train to Hell.”
AWEK – AWEK
Based out of Toulouse, France, AWEK are a veteran ensemble that delivers deep-in-the pocket, straight-ahead Chicago-style blues. Their previous release, Let’s Party Down, was produced in California by Kid Andersen. Someone else was at the controls for this one, which soars from the jump.
Featuring the vocals and guitar of Bernard Sellam and the harp work of Stephane Bertolino – winner of the Lee Oskar Award at the 2008 IBCs, and a rock-steady rhythm section, the 11 originals and four covers here meld classical blues stylings with French cocktail lounge sophistication.
Highlights include “We’re Gonna Make It Through,” the humorous love song “Bring It On,” the instrumental “Smokin’ Mambo,” “I Like to Be Alone,” “Beer O’Clock,” “The Healer,” “Tell Me What’s the Reason” and “I’m Staying Home.”
Diane Durrett & Soul Suga – Put a Lid on It
Blooming Tunes Music
Georgia-based Diane Durrett and her ensemble, Soul Suga, join forces with fellow Atlantan Tinsley Ellis for their ninth album, a sizzling mix of blues, gospel, funk and more that offers up messages of hope, love and laughter to a world in need of all they provide and a whole lot more.
A smoky alto who’s a regional board member of the Recording Academy, Diane fronts a group whose most recent previous release, Diane Durrett & Soul Suga LIVE, soared to the top of international soul-blues charts. This release is destined for similar acclaim.
Mellow and perfectly modulated from the open, you’ll enjoy “In My Soul,” “We Got It,” “Sweeter Love Grows,” “Blue Water,” “Put a Lid on It,” “Good News” and “Make America Groove.”
The Record Company – Play Loud
Grammy winners in the rock world, members of The Record Company have always acknowledged a deep debt to Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed and the blues – something that’s evident throughout the grooves of their latest CD, a powerful effort that bridges both mediums with class.
Based out of Los Angeles and led by Chris Vos on guitar and vocals, they deliver a sound that’s highly polished rock one minute and driving blues the next – a formula that follows in lock step with their previous EP, Side Project, which reimagined material culled from Big Mama Thornton, Willie Dixon and others.
The percussive “Never Leave You” opens. Other azure-based pleasers include “How High,” “Gonna Be Movin’,” “Today Forever,” “Get Up and Dance,” “Awake” and “Lady Lila.” If your tastes straddle both the blues and rock worlds, this one’s definitely for you.
Willie Jackson – All in the Blues
Based out of Savannah, Ga., and a fixture across the Low Country for the past decade, Willie Jackson is a powerful baritone who grew up in the church, but turned to the blues full-time after an accident derailed him from his day job on the railroad.
An old-school belter with limited range but plenty of emotion, Willie penned all of the tunes in this pleaser. He’s backed by his regular unit, Tybee Blues Band, with guest appearances by a pair of hitmakers from the R&B/soul world: Mary Davis of the SOS Band and Jimmy Williams from Brink.
A three-time winner in the recent Indie Music Channel Awards, some of the top cuts include “I’m Your Landlord,” “Come Here Junior,” “Beautiful Disease,” “Sticky Hands Blues,” “Coon Hound Nose,” “Give Me My Rib Back” and “Brother I’ll Take Her.”
Colin James – Open Road
Stony Plain Records SPCD1434
A fixture internationally since opening for Stevie Ray Vaughan in his native Saskatchewan in 1984, guitarist Colin James veers slightly off the course he established in recent years, delivering a tasty mix of both blues and Americana on the 20th release in his catalog.
A Juno Award winner for his most recent previous release, Miles to Go, James should be headed toward more honors for this one, which infuses four originals and nine cleverly refashioned covers from Albert King, Magic Sam, Otis Rush, Bob Dylan, Booker T. Jones and others.
The new tunes – “Open Road,” “When I Leave This House,” “Raging River” and “There’s a Fire” – all shine. And you’ll like his takes on “As the Crow Flies,” “It Takes Time,” “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” and “Bad Boy,” too.
Luther “Guitar Junior” Johnson – Once in a Blue Moon
Blues Media Production
A beloved member of the Boston music community since leaving the Muddy Waters band after a decade run in 1980, Luther “Guitar Junior” Johnson delivers a heaping helping of old-school blues in this live set, which was recorded at the height of the pandemic in front a small but enthusiastic crowd in St. Petersburg, Fla.
Backed by his regular group, The Magic Rockers, Junior enjoyed a long solo career on Telarc and Bullseye Blues prior to a lengthy hiatus, and this disc is a follow-up to the all-acoustic Won’t Be Back No More, which marked his return to the studio and was released about the same time as this CD was recorded.
If you’re a fan of classic Chicago blues, you’ll enjoy his 13-minute take on “C.C. Rider,” which opens, “Flippin’ & Floppin’,” a medley of Muddy’s “Hoochie Coochie Man” and “I’m a Man” and the originals “Thank You Sugar,” “Stealing Chickens” and “You Got Me Wonderin’.”
Mike Nagoda – Outside of the Box
The 2020 winner of the Toronto Blues Society talent search, singer/songwriter Mike Nagoda cuts new ground in the blues world on this CD. Born with cerebral palsy, he celebrates both the guitar styling that helped free him from his body and boldly delivers a few originals that honor his identity as a queer male, too.
Backed by the Spectrum Blues Band and produced by Chris Birkett (Buffy Sainte-Marie, Sinead O’Connor), Mike’s got a pleasant, mid-range voice and accompanies himself on both organ and six-string using the double-slide technique invented by late countryman Brian Cober, who mentored him until his passing.
Subject matter aside, this is one stylish album. Open your mind and heart, and give a good listen to “He’s My Man,” “Kingdom of Heaven,” “P.R.I.D.E.,” “Busker’s Blues,” “Crumble and Fall,” “Conquistador” and “We’ve Got a Party.”
Various Artists – Low Blows for Ida: Harmonica Blues for Hurricane Relief
Arizona-based producer Tom Walbank served up a winner with Hootmatic Blues last year, a compilation that featured top harp players in primarily solo acoustic settings, and he outdoes himself with this release: a 50-cut, two-hour effort that features 38 world-class reed-benders as a fundraiser for Gulf Coast residents who were inundated by Hurricane Ida.
Released as a digital download, it includes contributions from Charlie Musselwhite, Kim Wilson, Rick Estrin, Mark Hummel, Bob Corritore, Annie Raines, Phil Wiggins, Peter “Madcat” Ruth, Deak Harp, Adam Gussow, Joe Filisko, Terry “Harmonica” Bean, Andrew Alli and Aki Kumar as well as 24 more equally gifted artists from the U.S., Canada, France, Italy and the United Kingdom, too.
A master class for harmonica players and a delight for fans, too, there’s far too much here to describe in three short paragraphs, but there’s a highlight at every turn. Contribute to a good cause by purchasing it through Bandcamp (web address above).
Roger Connelly – Lifetime of the Blues
Lyin’ Dog Records
A native Chicagoan now based out of Nashville, Roger Connelly returns to the studio for the first time in 20 years for this interesting set of original blues-rockers, all of which are presented from a unique point of view.
A longtime fixture at the Millennium Maxwell House Hotel in Music City where he doubles on guitar and harp, Roger was a member of Maxwell Street legend Jimmie Lee Robinson’s last touring band before joining Spencer Davis’ Catalina Island All-Stars. A clever tunesmith, his songs have appeared in two major films.
Just Connelly’s third solo album in a long career, you’ll enjoy the medium-paced shuffle, “Epitaph,” which opens, as well as “I’m Comin’ Down with Somethin’,” “Lifetime of the Blues,” the fingerpicked ballad “It’s Only a Matter of Time,” “Oughta Be a Law,” “A Song for Kathy” and “Point of View.”
Joseph Veloz Presents: Joseph and the Velozians
Big O Records
Here’s a CD that’ll catch you off-guard. A veteran bassist who’s toured with Matt “Guitar” Murphy, Lucky Peterson, Thornetta Davis and Larry McCray, Joseph Veloz assembled some of the top talent from his home state of Michigan – Thornetta and Larry included -- for this clever blend of blues, funk and rock.
The roster also includes jazz keyboard master Jim Alfredson, Bob Seger guitarist Drew Abbott, percussionist Donny Brown and a host of others who combine to deliver a slick, highly danceable package.
McCray handles vocals and guitar for the opener, “Pretty Is as Pretty Does,” before yielding to Davis for “I Got My Mojo Working.” Other pleasers include “The Velozian Shuffle,” “Mr. Cooper,” “What You Won’t Do for Love (NeoSoul Experiment),” “Just Jammin’ Again” and “Up in My Ear.”
Dionne Bennett – Sugar Hip Ya Ya
Hunnia Records HRCD-2116
A British-Jamaican singer/songwriter and radio personality, Dionne Bennett explodes out of the gate on her debut CD, an incendiary package that mixes blues, R&B and Afro-Caribbean rhythms and was produced in Budapest, Hungary, by former IBC-winning guitarist Little G Weevil.
Bennett possesses a sultry alto who spent 18 months prior to COVID-19 touring Europe in the official Blues Brothers Musical. She also chairs Ladies of Rage, a non-profit that supports women in electronic music genres. She’s backed throughout by Little G, who had a hand in penning all the originals, and top local talent.
You’ll be dancing from the jump to a stellar cover of Etta James’ “Tell Mama” and swing and sway throughout to “Sugar Hip Ya Ya,” “Spy Me,” “My Life,” “Yes We Can Can,” “Don’t Fall for Love” and “Get Style.”
Lowell Fulson – Live with Jeff Dale & the Blue Wave Band
Pro Sho Bidness PSB 1983
One of the most influential of all West Coast guitarists in the modern era, Lowell Fulson lives again in this live set thanks to bandleader Jeff Dale who unearthed this stellar set after rummaging through a long-forgotten box of tapes in his home while housebound at the height of the coronavirus crisis.
A native Chicagoan and a respected bluesman guitarist, Dale was in his early 20s when he met Fulson backstage at the Cathay de Grande club in Hollywood, Calif., in the early ‘80s. They formed an instant friendship that led to touring with him and other blues giants. The music here was captured on Nov. 5, 1983, during a stop at Club 88 in Los Angeles.
Turn back the clock a while and check out a true master at the top of his game in a set that features several of Lowell’s gold-standard originals, including “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” “Too Many Drivers,” “Reconsider Baby,” “Do You Feel It,” “Blues Pain,” “Lowell’s Lollipop” and more.