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Marty Gunther’s Red, Hot ’n Blues Music Reviews - March 2021

By Marty Gunther

Curtis Salgado – Damage Control

(Alligator Records ALCD 5002)

One of the best soul-blues voices ever, Curtis Salgado continues to age like fine wine with this disc, which was recorded under the direction of three of the top producers in the business – Kid Andersen, Kevin McKendree and Johnny Lee Schell. The end result is a multi-textured album that’s so good it’ll be hard to imagine another beating it out when the next awards season comes around.

Recorded in the San Francisco, Los Angeles and Nashville, the lineup consists of a virtual who’s who of talents too numerous to list, all of whom are at the top of their game in support of Curtis’ rich, melismatic tenor, delivering a set ranging from West Coast cool to blue-eyed soul and New Orleans funk.

Every cut here is a winner, starting with “The Longer That I Live,” which expresses the desire for a longer candle to burn. Other pleasers include “What Did Me in Did Me Well,” “Always Say I Love You (At the End of Your Goodbyes),” “Hail Mighty Caesar,” “Damage Control,” “Truth Be Told” and “The Fix Is In.” Run, don’t walk to pick up this one!

Steve Hill – Desert Trip

(No Label Records)

A multi-instrumentalist who’s won multiple honors on both sides of the Canadian border, where he’s based, Steve Hill delivers a hypnotic trip through the American west with this tasty collection of original blues infused with elements of folk, country and rock, too.

Hill is a master guitar player who works in multiple settings here – from acoustic to full orchestral arrangements. Primarily penned about five years ago, his state of mind and musical journey at the time foretold the concerns many of us are dealing with in the world today.

If you’re looking for something different, tune in to “Evening Star,” “Follow You Down,” “Cold Hearts,” “Gotta Be Strong,” “Make Believe,” “Judgment Day” and “Tail Lights.”

Skylar Rogers – Firebreather

(Self-produced CD)

Soul has played a major role in the fabric of Chicago blues for decades, and Skylar Rogers delivers a potent brand of it here in her full-length CD debut. She calls it “soul rockin’ blues,” and it’s all that -- chockful of tunes based on the trials and tribulations of growing up in one of the toughest neighborhoods in the city.

Influenced by Koko Taylor and Etta James, but sounding more like a cross between a young Denise LaSalle and a mature Big Time Sarah, Skylar’s a brassy alto with somewhat limited range, but puts her all into every cut. She’s backed by The Blue Diamonds, a band based out of St. Louis, and only been touring since 2019.

The action opens with “Hard Headed Woman,” the realization that a stubborn attitude drove a good man away. Other standout cuts include “Work,” “Like Father Like Daughter,” “Firebreather,” the deeply introspective “Failure,” “Drowning,” “Thankful” and “Insecurities.”

Kid Ramos & Bob Corritore – Phoenix Blues Sessions

(VizzTone/SWMAF Records SWMAF16)

Arizona-based harp master Bob Corritore dips into his extensive musical vault for this one, a collection of performances with West Coast guitar superstar Kid Ramos that were captured at Bob’s nightclub, The Rhythm Room, in Phoenix. Despite dating to the late ‘90s and early 2000s, it’s as fresh as the day the tunes were recorded.

They’re joined by a lineup that includes piano master, Henry Gray, blues shouter Nappy Brown, Arizona Music Hall of Famer Big Pete Pearson, Chico Chism -- the legendary drummer for Otis Rush, Sonny Boy Williamson II, Little Junior Parker and others -- in a set of primarily Chicago blues.

You’ll love “Aw Shucks Baby” with Nappy at the mic, “Come on In,” “I Held My Baby Last Night,” “Mother-in-Law Blues,” “They Raided the Joint,” “Baby Don’t You Tear My Clothes,” “Talkin’ ‘Bout You” and “Snakes Crawls at Night.”

Joyann Parker – Out of the Dark

(Hopeless Romantics Records 1003)

Based out of Minneapolis, firebrand Joyann Parker has turned heads with two previous releases, most recently earning a Blues Blast Music Awards rising star nomination for the all-original Hard to Love in 2018. She picks up exactly where she left with this one, serving up smoldering ballads and searing dance tunes co-written with guitarist Mark Lemoine.

A classically trained pianist and vocalist with a multi-range voice, her material bridges blues, soul and Americana in a slick set co-produced by Kevin Bowe, a hit-maker for Etta James, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Bruce Springsteen and others.

Joyann smokes and simmers from the jump with the ballad “Gone So Long,” picking up steam with the highly danceable “Carry On” before turning up the heat with “Bad Version of Myself,” “Come on Baby (Take Me Dancing),” “Hit Me Like a Train” and “Out of the Dark.”

Sam Joyner – When U Need a Friend

(Self-produced CD)

Keyboard player/tunesmith Sam Joyner teams with several top musicians in greater New Orleans for this unhurried set of deep grooves from the Big Easy and Chicago, where he was born and raised.

A fixture at Spirits On Bourbon and Teddy’s Juke Joint in Zachary, La., near Baton Rouge, he’s backed here by one of the best rhythm sections on the planet -- Benny Turner on bass and Jellybean on drums – with Lil Ray Neal, Mark Stone and Henry Sterling on handling guitar duties.

You’ll be grooving across the dance floor to “Must Be Jelly,” “Goin’ to Chicago,” “Hard 4 Your Money,” “Them Bluez,” “Breakin’ Up Our Happy Home,” “Natural Born Luvah,” “Onions Ain’t the Only Thing” and “Long Distance Call.” The funk runs deep on this one.

Brad Stivers – Six

(VizzTone Label Group VT-BS02)

Playing in a driving guitar style that fuses West and Gulf Coast blues with the more traditional sounds of the three Kings, Brad Stivers is a larger-than-life, 20-something character with a light, smooth technique. He’s been touring internationally since making it to the finals of the International Blues Challenge a few years ago.

Produced by his wife/percussionist Lindsay Beaver – a former Alligator recording artist herself, this set was recorded in their home studio in Driftwood, Texas, and features a classy mix of blues and R&B that’s aided by contributions from Sax Gordon, Canadian keyboard veteran Barry Cooke and Dallas-based guitarist Reo Casey.

Stivers captures a real throwback feel throughout, loping out of the gate with “Lose Your Love” then picking up steam with “Three Times a Fool.” You’ll also like “The Very Thought of You” and “Your Turn to Cry.”

Andy Cohen – Tryin’ to Get Home

(Earwig CD 4976)

A virtuoso fingerpicking guitarist, Andy Cohen is a product of the ‘60s who intersperses intimate first-generation Delta, Piedmont and big-city covers with a handful of originals here, providing aural relief for anyone seeking a respite from songs encased in the misery of modern times.

Since touring with the Rev. Gary Davis, Jim Brewer, Honeyboy Edwards and others in his youth, Cohen has devoted his life to mentoring others in old-school acoustic blues and by organizing venues and festivals where they can perform. He released this album in conjunction with Small but Mighty: Songs for Growing People, another Earwig release targeted for children and the young-at-heart.

In addition to reverent reprises of tunes from Blind Boy Fuller, Charley Patton, Dave Van Ronk, Davis and others, be sure to check out the originals “Louis Jay Meyers Memorial Stomp,” “Puffin’ That Stuff,” “Reverend Gary Rag,” “Earwig Stomp” and “Planxty: Miss Joanna Swan.”

Junior Wells – Blues Brothers

(Cleopatra Blues CLO 1936)

One of the most beloved entertainers ever to grace a blues stage, Junior Wells left us in 1998, but he lives on in a new way with this collection, which remasters his original vocal and harmonica gymnastics with new backing from several of the top guitarists on the scene today.

Buddy Guy’s familiar licks are gone, but the tunes take on new life thanks to Joe Louis Walker, Bernard Allison, Kirk Fletcher, Colin James, Eric Gales, Tyler Bryant, Mike Zito, Bernard Allison, Popa Chubby, Guitar Shorty and Albert Castiglia along with harp player James Montgomery who takes Wells’ familiar riffs in new directions on six of the 13 cuts while maintaining deep respect throughout.

If you liked Junior during his life, you’ll love this one, which includes several of his biggest tunes: “Blues Hit Big Town,” “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl,” “Messin’ with the Kid,” “Baby, Scratch My Back,” “When the Cat’s Gone the Mice Play,” “Snatch It Back and Hold It,” “Hoodoo Man Blues” and more.

Ghalia Volt – One Woman Band

(Ruf Records RUF 1288)

Belgian-born vocalist Ghalia Volt delivers Hill Country blues with punk-rock attitude on her third since crossing the Atlantic to follow her musical dream. Her 2019 release, Mississippi Blend, topped the charts, but she reinvents herself as a one-person band here, accompanying herself on guitar and percussion and recorded in real time without multi-tracking at Royal Sound Studios in Memphis.

A melismatic alto with distinctive delivery, she previously was a fixture on the European rock scene before immigrating to New Orleans, where she recorded with Johnny Mastro & the Mamas Boys. Her only aid here comes from guitarist Monster Mike Welch and bassist Dean Zucchero, who sit in on two cuts each.

This is modern Hill Country at its best, showing that Ghalia’s fully integrated into the U.S. blues scene. Top cuts here include “Last Minute Packer,” “Espiritu Papàgo,” “Evil Thoughts,” “Reap What You Sow,” “Loving Me Is a Full Time Job,” “Bad Apple” and “Just One More Time.”

John Fusco and the X-Road Riders – John the Revelator

(Checkerboard Lounge Records)

Best known as the writer of the semi-autobiographical film, Crossroads, and as the producer of Young Guns, Thunderheart and Hidalgo, John Fusco’s a gifted vocalist and keyboard player, too – something he proved with a debut CD a couple of years ago and proves again with this beefy, two-CD set, a blistering set of blues-infused roots and swamp with touches of gospel and jazz.

He’s backed by The X-Road Riders, a supergroup that includes Cody Dickinson, Samantha Fish and Memphis soul singer Risse Norman. They’re joined by former Dr. John band leader/trombonist Sarah Morrow and guitarist George Walker Petit, who co-produced with Cody.

Fusco penned the majority of the 20 tunes, and provides gritty, weathered vocals in two distinctly different settings. Red and Blue State musicians back him on separate discs with distinctly different, but compatible feels throughout. Like many of John’s films, this one’s strongly recommended.

Cousin Harley – Let’s Go!

(Little Pig Records LPR011)

Firing on all cylinders, Cousin Harley are a power-blues trio out of Vancouver, B.C., who bill themselves as hillbilly rockers, but they’re far more than that. They deliver jump, blues, rockabilly and swing in a pleasing mix that will keep your toes tapping and feet on the floor.

They’re led by vocalist Paul Pigat who’s worked with James Burton, Jeff Beck, Brian Setzer and others. He delivers fat, stinging guitar runs throughout backed by the rock-steady duo of Jesse Cahill on drums and Keith Picot on bass.

If you like your blues with a heaping helping of reverb and twang, too, you’ll enjoy “Right Back with the Blues,” “Let’s Go,” “Rained Like Hell,” “Where’d She Go,” “Who’s That Lyin’,” “Gone, Gone, Gone” and “Merle the Gypsy.”

Catfish Keith – Blues at Midnight

(Fish Tail Records FTRCD018)

Based out of Iowa City, Iowa, Catfish Keith Kozacik has proven himself to be one of the foremost modern practitioners of first-generation country blues. What separates him from the pack is his ability to deliver originals with a traditional feel – something that rings true in this collection of tunes he’s penned across the past 40 years.

A four-time BMA nominee and self-described guitar geek, he plays 13 different instruments here, ranging from a 1927 Gibson Nick Lucas Special to a 2018 National Reso-Phonic Exploding Palm Baritone Tricone, which provide an aural rainbow as his play hints of David “Honeyboy” Edwards, Johnny Shines and Henry Townsend, all of whom were his teachers.

Surround yourself with opener “Xima Road” as he pays tribute to a dusty road in Mexico. Other treasures include, “Pack My Little Suitcase,” “Blues at Midnight,” “Weep Like a Willow (Hey, Pretty Mama),” “Can’t Be Undone,” “West Indian Waltz” and “Oh Mr. Catfish.”

Stratcat Willie & the Strays – On the Prowl

(Self-released CD)

Based out of the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, guitarist Stratcat Willie Hayes is a 50-year veteran of the blues scenes who hits on all cylinders with this collection of 13 originals imbued with the comfortable feel he acquired through his love of Mike Bloomfield, T-Bone Walker, B.B. King and others as a youth.

With a playing style that ranges from swing to blues and funk, Hayes previously recorded four albums with Blue Plate Special. In this new alignment, he’s backed by keyboard player Neal Massa and two rhythm sections who are contemporary in their delivery, but never stray far from the root.

Be sure to give a good listen to “Come on In,” “Sure ‘Nuff Got the Blues,” the Latin-flavored “I Know,” “1:38 in the Morning,” the instrumental “Scramblin’,” “Life Is Good,” “Take It Easy Baby,” “Eat, Drink, Boogie, Repeat” and “Good News of the Blues.”

Selwyn Birchwood – Living in a Burning House

(Alligator Records)

Florida-based Selwyn Birchwood has been making major waves since his debut on Alligator Records with Don’t Call No Ambulance in 2014, winning both the IBCs and the BMA for best new artist in the process. The son of a West Indian father and British mother, Selwyn takes his tunes to an entirely new level with this powerful, mature set of modern blues.

With an MBA from the University of Tampa, Selwyn’s all business here, expanding his familiar sound by adding keys to the mix and playing glockenspiel in addition to guitar, lap steel and his usual stellar vocals; he’s accompanied by longtime bandmate Regi Oliver on sax and flute.

This is definitely not your grandfather’s blues. Birchwood digs a deep hole rhythmically to open “I’d Climb Mountains” and stays there throughout. Among the winners here are “I Got Drunk, Laid and Stoned,” “Living in a Burning House,” “Searching for My Tribe,” “She’s a Dime,” “Freaks Come Out at Night” and “Through a Microphone.”

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