By Marty Gunther
Dave Weld & the Imperial Flames – Nightwalk
Delmark Records 874
A fixture in Chicago blues since the mid-‘70s, Dave Weld learned his trade at the feet of legendary slide guitar master J.B. Hutto and as a member of the Houserockers, replacing the late Hound Dog Taylor. He absolutely blazes in this set, incorporating 21st century sensibilities and putting a new spin on the West Side sound that’s been dominant since the ‘50s.
Produced by Tom Hambridge, Weld shares vocals and song credits with the dynamic Monica Myhre throughout with backing from a veteran Windy City lineup and guest appearances from harp player Billy Branch and horn players Sax Gordon, Bill McFarland, Kenny Anderson and more.
There are ten not-for-the-faint-of-heart originals and two covers here. Strap up and enjoy “Mary Who,” “Don’t Ever Change Your Ways,” “Don’t Tell Mama,” “Red Hot Tabasco,” “Now She’s Gone,” “Cry, Cry, Cry,” “She Was a Woman” and “Hit by the 103.”
Vaneese Thomas – Fight the Good Fight
Blue Heart Records BHR 025
Memphis powerhouse Vaneese Thomas outdoes herself on her latest CD, delivering a cross-section of blues, soul, gospel and Americana and joining forces to pen all 12 of the tunes, too, almost all of which focus on the struggles and roadblocks all humans face in a world riled with troubles.
The beats run deep in this star-studded set, which includes contributions from Scott Sherrard (Gregg Allman), Bo Mitchell, the Memphis Horns (Marc Franklin and Kirk Smothers) as well Letterman bassist Will Lee and Saturday Night Live drummer Shawn Pelton. Vaneese’s rich alto has never sounded better.
The highlights abound, including “I Raise the Alarm,” “Same Blood Same Bone,” “I’m Movin’ On,” “When I’ve Had a Few,” “Bad Man,” “’Til I See You Again,” “He’s a Winner,” “Fight the Good Fight” and “Lost in the Wilderness.”
Brad Absher and the Superials – Tulsa Time
A former IBC finalist from Tulsa, Okla., honey-toned vocalist/guitarist Brad Absher debuts his new band and returns to his roots with this relaxed set of blue-eyed soul that’s imbued with a healthy dose of influences from his former homes in Houston and the Gulf Coast.
The eighth album in his career, this one was produced by jazz virtuoso Chris Combs at the famed Paradise Studio, where Leon Russell laid down many of his biggest hits. Tulsa Time delivers everything from horn-backed soul to blues-rock and two-steps that are perfect for grinding on the dance floor.
There’s a laid-back treat around every corner. Don’t miss the originals “Be the Luv,” “Neutral Ground,” “As Hard as I Can,” “Hard Times,” “Should Be Prayin’,” “Turn It Up” and a cover of The Iguanas’ “So Tired.”
Bobby Gentilo – Gentilo
Blue Heart Records BHR 024
An award-winning producer/guitarist who spent 15 years in Clarksdale, Miss., as a member of Big Jack Johnson’s Cornlickers and in its incarnation as the house band at Red’s Lounge after his passing, Bobby Gentilo steps out of the shadows with this debut CD, an interesting mix of Hill Country, funk and soul.
A Washington, D.C., native, Bobby’s backed here by members of his own groups, that he recorded in analog at Right Coast Recording in Columbia, Pa. Gentilo delivers a collection of tunes that are highly danceable and interesting throughout.
A unique and upbeat mix, you’ll dig “Disease,” which opens with an infectious electronic beat, the trance-blues original “Peace Train,” the swinging “Tell Me,” “The Greatest,” “The Real You,” “Treat Me So Mean,” “Tire Fire” and “Higher.”
Big Jack Johnson – Stripped Down in Memphis
M.C. Records MC-0090
Nicknamed The Oil Man and one of the most beloved musicians ever to emerge out of the Delta in the modern era, W.C. Handy Award winner Big Jack Johnson died in 2011 at age 70, but he lives on again in this set where he joins forces with harp players Kim Wilson and George “Wild Child” Butler.
The nine songs here were recorded in 1998 and 2000 as outtakes from two previous M.C. releases, Lickin’ Gravy and The Memphis Barbecue Sessions, and they’re a welcome, warm, intimate treat. The trio are at the top of their game, and the four Wild Child tracks are all never-before-released original treasures.
Turn back the clock a spell and give a listen to “Baby What You Want Me to Do,” “Run Blues Run,” “Aching All Over,” “Alcohol,” “See Me Coming,” “Going to Norway,” “Part Time Love,” and “The Hully Gully Twist.”
Mike Stevens – Breathe in the World, Breathe Out Music
Stony Plain Records SPCD1452
One of the most beloved musicians in Canada, the uber-talented harp player Mike Stevens almost lost his ability to walk, think and hold an instrument because of late-stage Lyme disease, but bounces back strong with this interesting mix of blues, roots, country and West African music.
A 35-year music veteran best known in the U.S. through the Grand Ole Opry, where he’s made more than 300 appearances, Stevens handles vocals on four tracks along with six instrumentals aided by guitarists Kevin Breit, Jesse Wells and other top North-of-the-Border talents.
The sweet country blues “Like a Little Bird” opens the action. You’ll also enjoy “Watermelon Pie,” “Grumbling Old Man Grumbling Old Woman,” “Bad in a Good Way,” “Jesse’s Request,” “Ida Red,” “Devil’s Bride” and a wild, rapid-fire reinvention of “Orange Blossom Special.”
Jay and the Cooks – Dried Up Dreams
Juste Une Trace
Based in France for decades, native Chicagoan Jay Ryan and his band of 60-something ex-pats deliver a hard-to-peg mix of driving blues-rock and roots on their latest CD. With backing from driving drumbeats, fiddle, banjo and more, Ryan delivers thought-provoking lyrics reminiscent of Tom Waits.
A distinctive baritone that’ll grow on you despite his limited range, Jay spent years in Austin, where his group served as the first-ever opener at the legendary Continental Club, and New York, where he was a punker. His background includes service time with Chuck Berry, Percy Sledge, Jeff Healey and more.
If you’re looking for something different, this one definitely qualifies. Lend an ear to “Alton McCarver,” “Frontline Worker Blues,” “Chew the Cud,” “Poor Everybody,” “Organic Lush,” “Dried Up Hearts,” “Empty Glass of Love” and “Confederate Son.”
Angel Forrest – Angel’s 11 Vol. 11
Ad Litteram Records
A seven-time Maple Blues Awards female vocalist of the year, Montreal-based Angel Forrest hit nothing but high notes in 2016 with Angel’s 11, a concept album that features 11 of top Canadian guitarists. It’s a seamless follow-up to a previous release of duets with leading singers across the blues/roots spectrum.
The roster includes 2020 BMA vocalist of the year and former IBC winner Dawn Tyler Watson, the sensational Crystal Schawanda, Brandon Isaak, Harry Manx, Rob Lutes, Ricky Paquette, Kal David and Lauri Bono, Jonas Tomalty and a handful of other heavyweights.
Mellow and deeply emotive throughout, give a listen to “Living in Bardo,” “Mad River,” “Gypsy Heart,” “Hope,” “Just Enough,” “Whiskey & Wonder,” “Glitter & Glow” and “Please, Please, Please.”
Henry Kaiser & Rome Yamilov – The Lenoir Investigation
Little Village Foundation LVF 1046
Guitarist Henry Kaiser – an ethnomusicologist and composer who’s a colossus in freeform jazz, rock and electronica – teams with Russian-born Rome Yamilov – a rising San Francisco fret master – to reinterpret tunes from ‘50s giant J.B. Lenoir’s songbook in a way that they’ve never been heard before. Despite being light years apart in style, their love for Lenoir’s music makes every track an off-the-wall winner.
The duo put an all-electric spin on Lenoir’s country blues. Delivered in English, Russian and Hindi, it’s a cross-cultural, highly improvised, sometimes psychedelic treat. Yamilov handles most vocals with backing from Jim Pugh, Kid Andersen, Aki Kumar and June Core.
This set will blow your mind. Dial in “The Whale Has Swallowed Me,” “People Are Meddlin’ in Our Own Affairs,” “I Feel So Good,” “How Long,” “Play a Little While,” “God’s Word,” “What About Your Daughter,” “I’ll Die Trying” and “Alabama March/Down in Mississippi.”
Ann Peebles & the Hi Rhythm Section – Live in Memphis
Select-O-Hits/Memphis International Records MIR 2038
This disc finally reaches an audience after 30 long years. Captured in February 1992 at the Peabody Hotel, it was supposed to be the first self-produced and funded album by showbiz consulting giant David Less. But the show butted heads with Michael Bolton who packed 18,000 fans into The Pyramid across town, and Less took such a hit because of poor attendance that he never released it.
Fans can rejoice, though, because this teaming of St. Louis-born soul-blues superstar Ann Peebles with the hit-making Hi Rhythm Section – guitarist Thomas Bingham, drummer Howard Grimes and brothers Leroy (bass) and Charles (keys) Hodges -- simply smolders and smokes throughout.
This joyous blast from the past features several of Ann’s biggest hits, including “If I Can’t See You,” “Didn’t We Do It,” “I Feel Like Breaking Up Somebody’s Home,” “I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down,” “(You Keep Me) Hangin’ On” and “I Can’t Stand the Rain.” Don’t miss this one!
Mick Simpson – The Slow Blues Sessions
Mad Ears Productions
A fixture in the UK scene since the ‘80s, Mick Simpson has flown under the radar in the U.S. despite being one of the most stylish guitarists on the planet whose credits include membership in Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings and creation of songs that have appeared in Running Man, Three Men and a Baby and other blockbusters.
Mick finally began releasing his own albums in 2010 after 25 years in the business. This tasty, mellow. 11-song compilation captures 58 minutes that encapsulate some of the high points of the four discs he released during the ensuing decade. And his voice shines just like his fretwork.
Rich, contemporary blues devoid of pyrotechnics but infused with class, you’ll adore “Love Me Tonight,” “You Gotta Change,” “When the Sun Goes Down,” “Unfinished Business,” “Somewhere Down the Line,” “Drowning in My Tears,” “Promised the Earth” and “Remember.”
Kenny Neal – Straight from the Heart
Ruf Records RUF 1296
2022 BMA contemporary artist of the year nominee Kenny Neal calls out the big guns for his latest CD, going old-school as he pays homage to the jazz- and soul-infused music that dominated his youth in Baton Rouge, La.
The eldest son of harmonica giant Raful Neal and a member of one of the largest family musical aggregations the world has ever known, Kenny joins forces with Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, Tito Jackson, Rockin’ Dopsie Jr. and the Zydeco Twisters, brother Darnell, daughter Syreeta and several other Red Stick talents to produce a roux that cooks from the jump. His first trip back to the studio since the Grammy-nominated Bloodline in 2016, it should contend for honors, too.
Rock steady to “Blues Keep Chasing Me,” “Mount Up on the Wings of the King” featuring Kingfish, “Two Timing” featuring Tito, “Louise Ana” and “Bon Temps Rouler” featuring the Twisters, “It’s Been So Long,” “Someone Somewhere,” “I’ve Got to Tell Somebody” and “New Orleans.”
Bennett Matteo Band – Shake the Roots
Gulf Coast Records GCRX9083
Fronted by world-class guitarist Gino Matteo and his equally talented vocalist wife, Jade Bennett, the Bennett Matteo Band explodes out of the gate with this experimental, all-original mix of contemporary blues, soul and funk.
Recorded and co-produced by Kid Andersen at Greaseland Studios, Jade’s wall-rattling alto shines throughout. The duo are backed by an all-star lineup that several regulars from the Little Village Foundation talent pool, including Pugh, Rick Estrin & the Nightcats percussionist Derrick “D’Mar” Martin, Nic Clark and The Sons of the Soul Revivers.
Cutting-edge music for the 21st-Century world, tune in to “Doesn’t Really Matter,” “Shiny Creatures,” “Believe in Me,” “Paid & Broke,” “Warm Inside,” “Oh Lord,” “Table for Two” and “When I Close My Eyes.”
Randy McAllister – Power Without Power
A melismatic vocalist who apprenticed with harp legend “Earring” George Mayweather, sixth-generation Texan Randy McAllister has been a fixture in the blues since the ‘90s when he worked with Mike Morgan & the Crawl and Andrew “Jr. Boy” Jones. He simply dazzles in this highly percussive set of acoustic blues.
McAllister is a former Grammy nominee and lifelong drummer, too – something that’s apparent here through his rhythmic delivery, which is enhanced by sparse backing from guitarists Brandon Hudspeth (Levee Town/Dustin Arbuckle) and Howard Mahan, who sits in on three cuts.
Ten toe-tapping originals and a single cover, give a listen to “Surprise!!!,” “Face First,” “Envy’s Embrace,” “Sweet Spot,” “C’mon Brothers and Sisters,” “Clear My Head,” “Donnie Downer” and “Like Nothin’ Else.”
Sugaray Rayford – In Too Deep
Forty Below Records FBR 027
Sugaray Rayford captured a Grammy nomination in 2020 for the CD Somebody Save Me and serves up another masterpiece with this one – ten deep-in-the-pocket grooves chockful of upbeat messages about social justice, civil rights, post-traumatic stress disorder and more.
A two-time BMA soul-blues male artist of the year, a B.B. King Entertainer of the year and an undeniable force of nature on stage, Suga and his skintight ensemble will have you dancing throughout, but his gritty lyrics shine the brightest on this one.
Top tracks include “Invisible Soldier,” “In Too Deep,” “No Limit to My Love,” “Miss Information,” “Please Take My Hand,” “Gonna Lift You Up,” the love song “Golden Lady of the Canyon” and “United We Stand.”
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.