Victor Wainwright and the Train – Memphis Loud
(Ruf Records 1280)
Keyboard master Victor Wainwright earned a 2019 Grammy nomination for his debut Ruf release with his new, big band, and he steams out of the station in high gear on this one, which was recorded in the Bluff City and co-produced by multi-instrumentalist Dave Gross.
Victor’s vocals ring like a bell in this set of blues, funk, New Orleans soul and Americana as he and his cohorts deliver a wall of sound that hits like a sledgehammer throughout. His regular lineup now includes former Roomful of Blues horns Doug Woolverton and Mark Earley, and his guests include Gross, Monster Mike Welch, harp player Mikey Junior, Reba Russell and Gracie Curran, among others.
The Train pulls slowly out of the station with “Mississippi,” but quickly shifts into high gear. The horn-fueled “Walk the Walk” comes across with a Big Easy beat before “Memphis Loud” urges you to climb on board. Other must-listens include the slow-and-easy “Sing,” the thought-provoking “America,” the upbeat “My Dog Riley” and the introspective song of loss, “Reconcile.”
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Jim Gustin & Truth Jones – Lessons Learned
Based out of Santa Clarita, Calif., vocalists Jim Gustin and Jeri Goldenhar, aka Truth Jones, made it to the semi-finals of this year’s International Blues Challenge, and show why they’re one of the rising groups in the world with this excellent CD.
An all-original collection of blues and horn-propelled R&B, it was engineered by Southern California heavyweight Terry Wilson (Eric Burdon and Teresa James) and features guest appearances from Tower of Power trumpet player Lee Thornburg, Crooked Eye Tommy guitarist Tommy Marsh and others.
Gustin and Jones pair up for a duet on “I’ve Been Drinking” before mixing single leads and duets on the rest of the thoroughly modern set. Top cuts include the piano-driven jazz ballad “When This Ship Sails,” the Latin flavored “Never Forget,” the acoustic “Never too Big for the Blues” and soulful burner, “Rockslide.”
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The Reverend Shawn Amos & the Brotherhood – Blue Sky
(Put Together Music PTM-00008)
The son of cookie magnate Wally Amos, singer, songwriter, harp player and blues preacher Shawn Amos hits the high notes with this interesting mix of swamp blues, funk and roots, the latest stop in an extensive musician journey that’s included being a Grammy-winning producer and service time as chief executive for Quincy Jones’ Listen Up Foundation, which builds bridges between the hearing and hearing impaired.
Amos fell in love with the blues while a film student at New York University and spent his summers on the trail established by music journalist Peter Guralnick in his Feel Like Going Home book trilogy. The ninth release in his catalog, he’s backed here by his new unit of old friends, which includes former members of bands led by the Indigo Girls, Norah Jones and Macy Gray.
The music builds intensity throughout, beginning with the percussive ballad “Stranger Than Today.” Other highlights include the barn-burning “Counting Down the Days,” the soulful “Albion Blues” and the rollicking “Keep the Faith, Have Some Fun.”
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Liz Mandeville – Playing with Fire
(Blue Kitty Music)
Chicago-based vocalist/guitarist/songwriter Liz Mandeville teams up with artists from five different nations and, giving them plenty of space to deliver individual sets, proving once again that blues is a universal language, as they put their own spin on original tunes frequently imbued with sexual themes.
Guitarists Dario Lombardo (Italy), Minoru Maruyama (Japan), Peter Struijk (Netherlands) and Big Dez along with harp player Gilles Gabisson (France) are featured along with American blues fiddler Ilana Katz Katz in segments that range from basic country blues to rip-roaring sounds of the Windy City. Adding to the mix are appearances by guitarist Rockin’ Johnny Burgin and violinist Anne Harris.
A diverse package that’s interesting throughout, some of the top hits include “Just Give Her Chocolates,” “Comfort Food Blues,” “Everybody Got Wings,” “He Loves My Biscuits,” “Boss Lady” and “Hey Babe You Wanna Boogie?”
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Tony Holiday – Soul Service
(VizzTone Label Group VT=THPS-02)
Memphis-based soul-blues singer and harmonica player Tony Holiday delivers a warm and fuzzy follow up to his star-studded Porch Sessions, delivering a set of original tunes co-written with perennial Blues Music Award nominee John Németh and boosted by a drop-in appearance from Victor Wainwright.
Considered to be among the top young harp players in the U.S. today, Holiday possesses a relaxed voice, is skilled on both diatonic and chromatic and carries forward old-school sensibilities to a modern audience, something that comes across on every cut here.
Be sure to tune into “Paying Rent,” a Chicago-style pleaser that finds him heartbroken and living in a broken home and urging listeners to keep their eye on the prize or else they’ll lose everything. Other winners here include “She Knocks Me Out,” “Checkers on the Chessboard,” “Day Dates (Turn into Night Dates)” and “Ol’ Number 9.”
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Reverend John Lee Hooker Jr. – Testify
(Steppin’ Stone Records)
John Lee Hooker Jr. spent his troubled youth following in the musical footsteps of his father in a life marred by drug addiction and prison sentences. But he finally cleaned up his act after turning to God, something that comes through loud and clear on this stellar CD, a powerful blend of autobiographical content and deep spiritual messages delivered in blues-infused gospel.
Always deeply religious despite his issues, Hooker graduated Newburgh Seminary in Indiana after serving for a decade as a hospital chaplain. Now back home in the San Francisco Bay area, he currently ministers to prison inmates. He’s assisted here by Charlie Musselwhite, a full horn section and seven-piece choir as he delivers the gospel and a whole bunch more.
Hooker’s strong baritone details his early struggles in the opener, “Listen to the Spirit,” before weaving the story of his recovery and salvation through the rest of the uplifting set. The highlights are bountiful. Don’t miss “Preach It Like It Is,” “Let That Devil Go” and a stellar arrangement of “Amazing Grace,” among others.
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Ruthie Foster – Live at the Paramount
(Blue Corn Music BCM2001)
There’s a good reason that Texas songbird Ruthie Foster won back-to-back Blues Music Awards as traditional female vocalist, but she’s got a lot of uptown cool, too – something that’s evident on this surprising disc on which she fronts a 14-piece orchestra and three backup singers directed by a world-class conductor while reinventing some of her own hits and delivering a few familiar standards, too.
A former big-band singer in the U.S. Navy, Ruthie returns to her roots, donning a blue gown instead of her customary jeans for this over-the-top, but laid-back set of tunes arranged by conductor John Beasley and powered by a 10-piece horn section atop a traditional four-piece blues ensemble.
Foster’s introduced by daughter Maya before launching into a set that features stunning versions of “Brand New Day,” Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire,” “Death Came a-Knockin’/ Travelin’ Shoes,” “Joy Comes Back” and show-stopping takes on “Fly Me to the Moon” and “Mack the Knife,” too. Don’t miss this one. It’s a treasure!
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Mark Telesca – Higher Vibrations
One of the brightest lights on the South Florida music scene, Mark Telesca celebrates his victory over cancer with this collection of acoustic blues – nine originals that mix perfectly with six blues and gospel covers culled from the pre-War era and more.
A singer, songwriter, guitarist, bassist and bandleader as well as author, he’s best known nationally through his work with Mick Kolassa, with whom he released the well-received You Can’t Do It CD. This is his second solo effort following a 2016 album of electric blues. A stellar fingerpicker with an exceptional sense of time, his only accompaniment here is snare drum contributed by his producer, Bob Taylor.
Among the high points are “99 Years,” a timeless original delivered from the point of view of someone trapped behind bars for something he didn’t do, “Black Dress,” a clever plea for his lady to quicken her pace readying for a night out, “Lookin’ for Some Gold,” “Life in the City,” a sprightly view of Manhattan, and an interesting acoustic cover of Al Green’s song of desire, “I’m a Ram.”
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Tinsley Ellis – Ice Cream in Hell
(Alligator Records ALCD 4997)
Beloved Atlanta-based blues-rocker Tinsley Ellis has never sounded more focused than he does on this all-original album, cutting like a knife with his six-string as he dissects the downside of romance from several different directions.
The 20th CD in Tinsley’s career, it’s a welcome return to the studio for him after spending most of the past year touring in the company of Tommy Castro. It’s a follow-up to 2018’s Winning Hand, a more upbeat effort that received plenty of awards attention.
Among the must-listens here are “Last One to Know,” which describes love as a combat zone – and you’d better be ready to fight, “Ice Cream in Hell” – the time when he’ll take back his ex, “Hole in My Heart,” “No Stroll in the Park,” “Evil Till Sunrise,” “Unlock My Heart” and the poignant ballad, “You’re Love’s Like Heroin.” Don’t be dissuaded from buying this one because of the themes, though. It just might be his best yet!
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Bob Corritore & Friends – Do the Hip-Shake Baby
Now based in Phoenix, Ariz., where he’s owned and operated the Rhythm Room for the past 25 years, Bob Corritore is a Chicago-born harmonica player who surrounds himself with the best talent on the planet and delivers music in true Windy City fashion – something that’s unmistakable in the grooves of this one.
Produced in association with the Southwest Musical Arts Foundation, it’s a 13-cut CD on which Corritore plays in support of a roster of 20 major talents from all corners of the U.S., including Kid Ramos, Junior Watson, Bob Welsh, Bob Stroger, the late Henry Gray, John Primer, Andy T, Anson Funderburgh, L.A. Jones and many more – and allowing all of them plenty of space to shine.
This one powers out of the gate with Mighty Joe Milsap and The Freemonts in charge for “Shake Your Hips” and flows like a river throughout with updated versions of several classics, including “The Twist,” featuring Gray in one of his final recordings, “Trying to Make a Living,” “Stand By Me” and a whole lot more.
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The Nighthawks – Tryin’ to Get to You
(EllerSoul Records ELL 20202)
Harmonica player Mark Wenner and The Nighthawks have been traveling the highways and byways of America for 48 years and are considered to be one of the best bar bands ever. But they cut new ground on this CD, which delivers the same powerful music, but with a lineup that features two new members who take their music to higher levels than ever before.
Guitarist Dan Hovey and bassist Paul Pisciotta join longtime percussionist Mark Stutso signed aboard after longtime members Paul Bell and Johnny Castle decided they no longer wanted to tour. But the four-piece band’s feel and four-piece harmonies continue unabated in this mix of old-school blues, rock, R&B, soul and doo-wop. Wenner and Hovey now split lead vocals.
The highlights include a great remake of “Come Love,” which was first recorded by Jimmy Reed and penned by the owners of Vee-Jay Records in the ‘50s, the Elvis classic “Tryin’ to Get to You,” T-Bone Walker’s “I Know Your Wig Is Gone” and the originals “Baby It’s Time,” “Somethin’s Cookin’” and “The Cheap Stuff.”
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Vince Agwada – Light of Day
Los Angeles-based guitarist/vocalist Vince Agwada cut his teeth on the South Side of Chicago and has been a fixture on the blues scene since the ‘70s, where he established himself in the house bands at both Theresa’s and the Checkerboard Lounge and spent extensive time working in support of Lefty Dizz, Junior Wells, Sugar Blue, Koko Taylor, Larry McCray and others.
Vince finally launched a solo career in 2008, and Living Blues magazine recognized him as one of the 40 greatest young blues talents of his generation. Despite the honor, this is only the third release under his own name -- a lengthy, fiery mix of original contemporary blues and blues rock delivered with the assistance of several of the most important sidemen still working in the Windy City.
Vince flies under the radar, but definitely deserves your attention. Some of the standout cuts here include “Two Tons of Fun,” “I Wanna Fly,” “Quicksand,” “Angelina,” “Southbound 69” and “Credit Card,” a deep blues lament about excessive spending that will strike a familiar chord with anyone struggling to make ends meet today.
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Catfish Keith – Catfish Crawl
(Fish Tail Records FTRCD017)
Catfish Keith captured the 2019 Blues Blast Music Award for his most recent previous CD, Reefer Hound, an all-acoustic collection of songs with marijuana themes. A guitarist who switches between traditional and resonator instruments, he carries forward the songster tradition on this one, delivering a mix of well-chosen covers and tossing in four originals for good measure.
Born in East Chicago, Ind., but based out of central Iowa, Keith is a three-time Blues Music Awards nominee who’s been a fixture on the international country blues circuit for decades, mixing Delta and roots, singing in a pleasant, mid-range baritone and accompanying himself with foot stomps as he delivers light and airy music that’s full of warmth and deep emotion.
The covers here come from the catalogs of Jessie Mae Hemphill, Big Bill Broonzy, The Carter Family, Johnny Shines and others, and all are terrific. And Catfish’s originals – “Catfish Crawl,” “Don’t You Call Me Crazy,” “Little Pal of Mine” and “Memphis Morning Train” – all come across with a timeless feel.
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Linsey Alexander – Live at Rosa’s
(Delmark Records DE-862)
A fixture in Chicago since the early ‘60s and known as The Hoochie Man, Linsey Alexander possesses a booming baritone voice, straight-ahead, no-frills guitar skills and more energy than most men half his age, something that’s easily apparent in this live set.
Following the blueprint laid down by Otis Rush on another Delmark release, All Your Love, I Miss Loving, Linsey recorded this set at Rosa’s Lounge on the city’s North Side and backed by keyboard player Roosevelt Purifoy, percussionist Big Ray Stewart and bassist Ron Simmons, who’s been at his side for four decades.
Traditionalists will love this mix of five originals and four covers, which deliver contemporary blues with a familiar, throwback feel. Some of the best cuts include “Please Love Me,” “My Days Are So Long,” a tremendous cover of Latimore’s “There’s Somethin’ ‘Bout ‘Cha,” “Snowing in Chicago” and “Going Back to My Old Time Used to Be.”
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Albert Castiglia – Wild and Free
(Gulf Coast Records)
South Florida-based blues-rocker Albert Castiglia follows up on his Blues Music Award-winning CD, Masterpiece, with this powerful live set, and the end result should put him in major contention for another trophy when next year’s prizes are handed out.
Captured in January at the Funky Biscuit, a jewel on the blues highway in Boca Raton, Albert’s delivery is in-your-face throughout backed by his road band, Justine Tompkins on bass and Ephraim Lowell on drums, with Lewis Stephens on keyboards and guest appearances by Mike Zito and John Ginty.
This one’s unrelentingly intense from the opening bars of “Let the Big Dog Eat.” Other pleasers sure to rock your socks off include “Hoodoo on Me,” “Get Your Ass in the Van,” “Keep on Swinging,” “Too Much Seconal” and covers of Paul Butterfield’s “Lovin’ Cup” and Freddie King’s “Boogie Funk.”