By Marty Gunther
Charlie Musselwhite – Mississippi Son
If you’re just a casual blues fan, you already know that Charlie Musselwhite is a master harmonica player, but you might not realize that he’s just as gifted on the six-string, too. It was his first love – and a talent he picked in his youth hanging out with Will Shade and the Memphis Jug Band before sharing space with country blues giant Big Joe Williams in the basement of Jazz Record Mart in Chicago.
Both of those skills come to the fore in this stripped-down, semi-acoustic pleaser. The sounds of the Delta fill all 14 tracks with Charlie at his laidback best, accompanying himself on both instruments with assists from only a barebones rhythm section composed of drummer Ricky “Quicksand” Martin and bassist Barry Bays.
Sit for a spell and enjoy “Blues Up the River,” “Hobo Blues,” “In Your Darkest Hour,” “Stingaree,” “When the Frisco Left the Shed,” “Remembering Big Joe,” “Blues Gave Me a Ride,” “My Road Lies in Darkness,” “Drifting from Town to Town,” “Rank Strangers” and “A Voice Foretold.”
Ronnie Earl & The Broadcasters – Mercy Me
Stony Plain Records SPCD1449
One of the classiest guitarists ever to play the blues, Boston area-based Ronnie Earl outdoes himself on his latest disc, delivering what will rank as one of his best-ever releases in a 45-year career. A 12-tune, 80-minute excursion that’s chockful of the soulful blend of azure-infused soul and jazz he’s known for.
Primarily an instrumental set, Ronnie and his Broadcasters – keyboard ace Dave Limina, bassist Paul Kochanski, percussionist Forrest Padgett and vocal treasure Diane Blue, get helping hands from top New England talent – keyboard player Anthony Geraci, sax players Mark Earley and Mario Perrett and guitarist Peter Ward – for the most mellow set of blues you’ll hear this year.
“Blow Wind Blow” and “Alabama” pay tribute to Muddy Waters and John Coltrane to open. Other must-listens include “Blues for Ruthie Foster,” “Blues for Duke Robillard,” “Soul Searching,” covers of “Only You Know and I Know” and “Please Send Me Someone to Love” and the Geraci original, “A Prayer for Tomorrow.”
Markey Blue Ric Latina Project – Jumpin’ the Broom
SoulOSound Records SOSRCD104
Vocalist Jeannette Markey and guitarist Ric Latina had two reasons to celebrate with this soul-drenched collection of contemporary blues: Not only does it mark the tenth anniversary of the partnership they forged in Nashville in 2012, but it’s also their first release since tying the knot in 2019, too.
Backed by several top Music City session players, Markey – a former Las Vegas showgirl and standup comedienne with a dynamic set of pipes – and Ric – a native Rhode Islander with a deep country music pedigree – might not be familiar names, but their material appears in major movies, top TV shows and streaming services as well as in the soundtracks of two major airlines.
A consistently strong set packed with a roller coaster of emotion, give a listen to “Bad for Real,” “Hanging On,” “When It’s Blue,” “Be With Me,” “Lowdown Voodoo Woman,” “Right Kind of Woman,” “Crying Out Loud” and “Where Are You,” a country-tinged ballad – bring the set to a close.
Bubba and the Big Bad Blues – Drifting
Fullerton Gold Records PRCD003
Based out of Southern California and fronted by honey-voiced Christopher “Bubba” Clerc, Bubba and the Big Bad Blues haven’t released an album in 20 years, but should hit the jackpot with this one, which teams them with Grammy-winning producer/percussionist Tony Braunagel and members of the Taj Mahal/Phantom Blues Band.
A four-piece unit that deliver blues in all shades, the quartet includes longtime Walter Trout keyboard player Sammy Avila and features contributions from Tears for Fears/Genesis drummer Nick D’Virgilio and sorely missed Hammond B3 organ genius Mike Finnigan in one of his final sessions.
Bubba shines on “I Want to Make Love to You Baby” to open before the band rocks out on “Helping Hand.” Other choice cuts in the all-original set include “Drifting,” “She’s Your Problem Now,” “I Own the Road,” “Lose These Blues,” “If You Need Me” and “My Love.”
8 Ball Aitken – Heart and Soul
Red Rocker Records
8 Ball Aitken recently returned to his native Australia after a decade in Nashville but made a name for himself internationally before he left as a fiery blues-rocker with Hill Country sensibilities. But he shifts gears in the best way possible here, joining forces with Buddy Guy producer Tom Hambridge and delivering an original collection of sweet, understated soul-blues.
His previous hard edge is gone but this one cooks aided by an all-star alignment that includes George Thorogood sax player Buddy Leach and top artists from Down Under, including Sydney soul singer Taya Chani, indie vocalist Pepper Jane and 8 Ball’s brother Dillion James on keys.
Aitken’s voice is as rich and warm throughout. You’ll dig “The One Who Loves You,” “Better Than You Found Me,” “Never Giving Up on You,” “We Are All in This Together,” “Righteous Loving,” “Empathy,” “Better for It All,” “Singing on a Sunny Day” and “When Will It End?”
Nick Andrea – Blues @ Dark
Possessing blues and jazz sensibilities and a “velvet sandpaper” voice, Los Angeles-based trumpet player Nick Andrea makes his debut with this appealing 13-song set, a semi-autobiographical collection of tunes that describe broken dreams and regained optimism and are infused with dark humor.
Originally from western New York, Andrea’s backed by keyboard player Jeff Paris and TJ Sullivan, Nick’s partner in the duo Law & Chaos, and a cast of top Southern California session players. One of the tunes here, “Whiskey Whispers,” was a chart-topper in the UK last year when released as a single.
A multi-layered, thoroughly contemporary effort, open your ears to “Now All I Do Is Play the Blues,” “Motherless Soul,” “Missus 2nd Place,” “Skeletons in My Basement,” “Bittersweet Blues,” “Half-of-a-Man,” “The Bill Is Coming Due,” “I Fall in Love Too Easily” and “Last Time Blues.”
Catfish Keith – Land of the Sky
Fish Tail Records FTRCD019
One of the foremost exponents of the resonator guitar on the planet and an exceptionally gifted picker, Iowa City, Iowa-based Catfish Keith Kozacik has won Blues Blast acoustic album of the year honors two of the past three years and serves up another hypnotic treasure with his latest disc.
Initially inspired by Son House, this is Keith’s 20th album in a 40-year career that began in East Chicago, Ind. As an adult he picked up tips from Jessie Mae Hemphill, Henry Townsend, Johnny Shines and David “Honeyboy” Edwards. A prolific songwriter, he’s a sweet, melismatic tenor, too.
There’s a lot to like in this 13-tune set. Give a good listen to “Away Out on the Mountain,” “Bimini Girl,” “Samson & Delilah,” “Santa Claus Blues,” “Scoodle Oot ‘n’ Doo,” “Listen to the Mockingbird,” “Johnnie Mae” and “Some of These Days.”
Ethan Askey – Walk When You Wanna Run
Ethan Askey has made a name for himself in Canada for decades as a sideman, but the Calgary-based singer/songwriter/harmonica player will grab you from the jump with this disc, which mixes original, modern blues with touches of Latin, psychedelia and more, too.
Best known for his work in roots, country, honkytonk and funk and known lovingly as Shorty, Askey’s blues chops are deeply influenced by Junior Wells. He co-produced the album in partnership with multi-instrumentalist Steve Marriner, a perennial JUNO and Maple Blues award nominee North of the Border.
A multi-layered, uniquely different set with distinctive beats and excellent musicianship throughout, dial in “Stoners,” “Swing Like That,” “One Foot in the Grave,” “Walk When You Wanna Run,” “Exuberance,” “The Lowly Bee,” “Tuvimos” and “Of Different Kind.”
J-Rad Cooley – Yard Sale
VizzTone Label Group VT-JRC-01
A 23-year-old A singer/songwriter who doubles on keys and harmonica, J-Rad Cooley teams with Victor Wainwright, Tim “Too Slim” Langford and producer Tony Holiday to make his recording debut with this disc, a treat for folks who favor contemporary blues with a traditional, old-school feel.
A Salt Lake City, Utah native, Cooley successfully updates sounds of the ‘20s and ‘30s with eight originals and a single cover that blend blues, jazz, ragtime and soul. It was recorded in Hendersonville, Tenn., by Zach Kasik, Langford’s bassist in the venerable road dogs, Too Slim & the Taildraggers.
“Livin’ Downtown” will grab you from the jump. Other pleasers include “Now She’s a Drifter,” “Running Away from My Hometown,” “All Night Mama,” “Yard Sale,” “The World Will Call Me Mister” and “Til Hate Is Gone.”
Anthony Geraci – Blues Called My Name
Blue Heart Records BHR 028
It took Massachusetts-based Anthony Geraci 15 nominations before he finally captured the Pinetop Perkins Piano Award as instrumentalist of the year at the 2021 BMAs, but one listen to this all-original, star-studded follow-up to Daydreams in Blue, which topped the charts a year, and you’ll wonder why it’s taken so long.
A Berklee College of Music grad who was a founding member of both Sugar Ray & the Bluetones and Ronnie Earl & the Broadcasters, Anthony’s joined here by Sugar Ray Norcia, Monster Mike Welch, Walter Trout, Anne Harris, Erika Van Pelt and the Boston Blues All-Stars for a jazz-laced set of contemporary blues.
The rocker “The Old Pine Box” opens, and things swing from the hip throughout. Give a good listen to “The Blues Called My Name,” “Boston Stomp,” “Corner of Heartache and Pain,” “Into the Night,” “I Ain’t Gonna Ask,” “Wading in the Vermillion” and “Song for Planet Earth.”
Gina Sicilia – Unchange
VizzTone Label Group VT-GS07
A Pennsylvania native now based in Nashville, honey-toned alto Gina Sicilia goes old-school on her latest disc, teaming with producer/guitarist Colin Linden to deliver a powerful collection of gospel-infused pleasers delivered in stripped-down format but packed with intense feeling in each unhurried note.
Gina rose to prominence in 2008 when she was a BMA nominee for best new artist. Now a fully mature talent, she delivers six originals – two self-penned and four from Colin – along with three well-executed and refashioned covers with minimal backing that allows emotion to dominate throughout.
Buckle up for “Healing Time” and “Unchange,” which deal with two views of a broken relationship, along with “Let’s Set the World on Fire,” “Valentine” and “Don’t Be Afraid to Be Wrong” as well as the spiritually uplifting “One Last Tender Moment” and “There’s a Bright Side Somewhere.”
Josh Smith – Bird of Passage
Flat V Music
Guitar virtuoso Josh Smith has delivered intense blues-rock since childhood, but he’ll shock and amaze you with his latest project. After regularly holding his own on stage with Joe Bonamassa and Kirk Fletcher, he delivers a sensational disc of jazz-infused, big-band blues here.
It’s a project that Josh and co-producer/co-writer/bassist Calvin Turner discussed for years. It features Larry Goldings on organ with Lemar Carter on drums along with backing from several of the top trumpet, trombone and French horn players in Nashville. It’s a tour-de-force effort on which Smith delivers crisp, dazzling single-note runs throughout.
Each of the seven original tracks – six instrumentals and a single vocal – rocks in a manner Josh has never rocked on disc before. If you’re a fan of George Benson, you’ll adore this one.
Jeremy Joyce – Street Poet
Like the title infers, the lyrics are just as important as the score of this beautifully conceived album from Philadelphia-born guitarist/tunesmith Jeremy Joyce, who’s now based in New Orleans. He fuses blues, jazz and funk with Big Easy imagery into an original, contemporary package that flows like the mighty Mississippi.
Produced by Grammy nominee Mike Harvey (Samantha Fish, The Wild Magnolias), the album includes guest appearances from sensational vocalists Ghalia Volt and Emily Robertson, percussionist Scott Graves and appearances by several top Crescent City street and session artists.
Get hip to “Street Poet,” “Love Changes,” “We Could Linger (Through the Teardrops),” “Be Bad to Me Baby” featuring Volt, “What Love Used to Be,” “Things We Shouldn’t Do,” “Lower Decatur Blues” and “All Night All Night.”
Dana Fuchs – Borrowed Time
Florida-born Dana Fuchs has delivered fiery, autobiographical originals for years, but cuts new ground with this one, blending blues, Southern rock, soul and more to deliver an original set of story-driven character studies propelled by driving guitar accompaniment.
Dana rose to prominence starring on Broadway in Love, Janis and through her appearance in the Golden Globe-nominated film, Across the Universe. Produced by Texan Bobby Harlow, this one features fretwork from Dana’s regular Jon Diamond and six-string master Kenny Tudrick of the Detroit Cobras.
If you like your blues with a harder edge, you’ll enjoy “Double Down on Wrong,” “Blue Mist Road,” “Call My Name,” “Curtain Close,” “Borrowed Time,” “Nothing You Own,” “Lonely Lie,” “Last to Know” and “Star."
The Hogtown Allstars – Hog Wild
Stony Plain Records SPCD1453
Adopting a former moniker for their home base, Toronto, Ont., The Hogtown Allstars truly live up to their name. Pulling their seven members from two of Canada’s most beloved blues organizations, they’ve won more than 25 Maple Blues and JUNO Awards in their careers, and they swing from the hip here.
Harp player/vocalist Chuck Jackson fronts the ensemble, which includes his bandmates in Downchild Blues Band -- sax player Pat Casey, bassist Gary Kendall, drummer Jim Casson and keyboard player Tyler Yarema – as well as Teddy Leonard (guitar) and Howard Moore (trumpet) from The Maple Blues Band. They’ve been gigging together as a supergroup for the past nine years but this is their recording debut.
Eight originals and two pleasing covers, you’ll enjoy “Mr. Lucky,” “Hog Wild,” “I Just Think of You,” “Angel in My Bed,” “Subway Casanova,” “Biscuits & Beans” and “I Ain’t Lyin’.”
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.