By Marty Gunther
Jose Ramirez – Major League Blues
Delmark Records 872
The runner-up at the 2020 IBCs, it only took a heartbeat before guitarist Costa Rica-born Jose Ramirez exploded onto the international blues scene with his self-produced CD, Here I Am. Jose’s Delmark debut, which features four cuts with all-star Chicago backing, should propel him even higher.
The first-ever major blues artist from Central America, Jose now splits his time between Florida and D.C. He more than holds his own trading licks with Billy Flynn and the late Jimmy Johnson in some of his final recordings on the Windy City tracks, which also include bassist Bob Stroger, drummer Willie “The Touch” Hayes and organist Roosevelt Purifoy. And he keeps the heat on high with his own group in a set captured earlier at Purple Ridge Studio in Canton, N.C.
Biting traditional Chicago blues, don’t miss “Major League Blues,” “I Saw It Coming,” “Whatever She Wants,” “Forbidden Funk,” “Are We Really Different,” “Gotta Let You Go” and “After All This Time.”
Albert Castiglia – I Got Love
Gulf Coast Records GCRX9037
Albert Castiglia’s traveled a hard road in the past two years, suffering through the pandemic with all of his peers and plenty of pain. But there’s been plenty of joy for him, too. Amidst the pain, he discovered a daughter and grandkids he didn’t know he had -- and he celebrates both the ups and downs on this balls-to-the-walls set, delivering material that deals with loss, survival, reinvention and joy, too.
Produced by Mike Zito, Albert’s backed by his regular touring unit – bassist Justine Thompson and drummer Ephraim Lowell – with an assist from former Freddie King bandmate Lewis Stephens on keys.
If you enjoyed his last one, Masterpiece, you’ll definitely love “I Got Love,” “Don’t Pray with the Devil,” “Burning Bridges,” “Sanctuary,” “Long Haul Daddy,” “What’s Wrong with You,” “You Don’t Know Hell” and “Take My Name Out of Your Mouth.”
Mike Guldin – Tumblin’
Blue Heart Records BHR 022
A two-time IBC finalist based out of eastern Pennsylvania for more than 45 years, guitarist/vocalist Mike Guldin teams with several friends on this hourlong set --13 well-crafted originals and two covers -- which covers the gambit of everything from blues-rock and country to Muscle Shoals and swamp pop, too.
Joining in on the action are Keystone State favorites Mikey Junior, Roger Girke and Craig Thatcher and major Nashville talents as well. Also contributing are keyboard players Lewis Stephens and Kevin McKendree, guitarist/fiddler James Pennebaker, and trumpet player Luis Mora -- all of whom add a personal touch to the eclectic mix.
The loping, instrumental title tune, “Tumblin’,” kicks off the action. Other pleasers include “Sad and Lonely,” “Twisted Tail,” “Raise a Ruckus,” “House of Cards,” “That’s All She Wrote,” “Sweet Thing,” “Check Yourself,” “One Percent” and “Waterfall.”
Paul Oscher – Rough Stuff
CoolStreme Music Services
The first white musician to join a major black blues band when Muddy Waters hired him as a teen in the ‘60s, Brooklyn native Paul Oscher succumbed to COVID-19 in 2021. But posthumously, he shines like a diamond on this remastered release – a long out-of-print classic that went unnoticed in the ‘90s, when it debuted on the Lollipop label, which folded soon after.
Paul replaced James Cotton in Muddy’s band and shared living space in Waters’ basement home with Otis Spann, developing prodigious keyboard and guitar skills, too – both of which are on display here both solo and in partnership with former bandmates Pinetop Perkins and Willie “Big Eyes” Smith.
Turn back the clock for a while and enjoy “Iodine in My Coffee,” “Wee Wee Baby,” “Debra Lou,” “Cannonball Rock,” “Sloppy Drunk,” “B&O Blues,” “Mississippi,” “Make Me a Pallet” and “Blues Before Sunrise.” Old-school Chicago blues at its best.
The Weber Brothers – Acüsta
Based out of Peterborough, Ontario, brothers Ryan and Sam Weber usually play vintage rock, but deliver a tasty mix of laid-back blues and roots on their 12th album, delivering a set that hints at their early career when they were mentored as teenagers by Ronnie Hawkins while members of his touring band, the Hawks.
Now in their late 30s and multi-instrumentalists with sweet voices who often sing in harmony, the Webers hail from Baltimore and traveled to Canada on a whim to meet Ronnie. Their musical journey is so unique that it’s the subject of a documentary that won top prize at the 2016 Toronto Film Festival.
If you’re looking for something upbeat and different, you’ll enjoy “Acüsta,” “Good Day,” “Reverend Ken,” “60 Years of Rock and Roll,” “Worn Out Records,” “Make It Through Too” and “I Come From the Future.”
Josh Hyde – Parish Blues
A stylish singer/songwriter who spent his youth in Baton Rouge, La., where he regularly appeared at Tabby Thomas’ club, The Blues Box, Josh Hyde delivers an interesting, intimate mix of Gulf Coast blues and roots on his latest disc -- a long-awaited follow-up to his well-received 2019 offering, Into the Soul.
Influenced by slide guitarist Sonny Landreth, Josh delivers tasty, pyrotechnic-free runs on the six-string throughout with solid backing from keyboard player Jimmy Wallace, drummer Jamey Bell and bassist Shawn Stroope. Former New Orleans fixture Rockin’ Jake guests on harmonica.
This one eases out of the gate with the emotion-packed “Where to Start” and “Since You Left.” Other relationship-based pleasers include “I Can’t Leave the Night,” “Holding on to Dreams,” “Stuck in a Rut,” “So Long,” “All Alone Again” and “So Sweet.”
Horojo Trio – Set the Record
Stony Plain Records SPCD 1446
Fronted by vocalist/keyboard player Jeff Rogers with JW-Jones on guitar and Jamie Holmes on percussion, the Horojo Trio captured band-of-the-year honors at the 2020 IBCs without even possessing a release under their own name; they simply smoke in this soulful debut CD.
Three Canadians, whose trophy cases already included multiple Juno and Maple Blues awards, the trio came together by chance after a jam session that left them – and their audience – wanting more. They’re currently in the running for group of the year honors at the 2022 Ottawa Awards.
Put on your dancing shoes and give a spin to “Man of Steel,” “A Little Goes a Long Way,” “Set the Record Straight,” “The Night,” “Hard as I Can,” “Ragman’s Blues,” “Give and Take” and “Real Deal.”
Trudy Lynn – Golden Girl
Nola Blue Records NB 018
Trudy Lynn has been cranking the hits out of Houston since the mid-‘60s, when she served as a backup singer with Archie Bell & the Drells and she’s still at the top of her game at age 75 with this dynamic mix of soul-blues, classic R&B and torch songs that glitter throughout.
A 13-time Blues Music Award nominee, Trudy called on Grammy nominee Terry Wilson (Teresa James & the Rhythm Tramps) to produce her 18th solo release. The lineup includes top talent from Texas and California, including Anson Funderburgh, Kevin and Yates McKendree and Teresa James, too.
Trudy and Terry penned all of the 11 tracks either solo or together. Groove along to “Tell Me,” “Golden Girl Blues,” “If Your Phone Don’t Ring,” “I’m Just Saying,” “Take Me Back,” “Heartache Is a One-Way Street,” “I Just Can’t Say Goodbye” and “Life Goes On.”
The Simon Kinny-Lewis Band – King Biscuit
An incendiary guitarist based out of Sidney, Australia, Simon Kinny-Lewis consistently teams with top talent from around the world to record his albums, and he pulls out all the stops for this blazing effort, trading licks and holding his own with six-string giants Robben Ford, Josh Smith, Kirk Fletcher and fellow Aussie Ray Beadle.
An adept vocalist and skilled arranger, Simon traveled to Nashville, where Ford produced this one at Grammy winner Casey Wasner’s Purple House studio. The roster also features West Coast harp player Andy Just and Lachy Doley, one of the top keyboard players Down Under.
Crank up the sound to 11 and give a listen to “Swamp Rat,” “Just Need a Kind Hearted Woman,” “You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover,” “Crawling Kingsnake,” “Black Cat Bone,” “Waiting for the Hurt to Go” and “Little Red Rooster.”
The Sully Band – Let’s Straighten It Out
Belly UP Records BUR001
A ten-piece ensemble fronted by radio/TV personality Robert “Sully” Sullivan, The Sully Band makes their recording debut with this CD, a red-hot collection of ten soul-blues covers that demonstrate why they were crowned the best group at the talent-rich 2020 San Diego Music Awards.
An all-star lineup that works internationally, members include Motown horn/harp player Tripp Sprague, Righteous Brothers’ flugelhorn player Steve Dillard and top talent from Japan and Panama. The project was supervised by two Grammy winners: bassist/musical director James East (Eric Clapton, Michael Jackson) and producer Chris Goldsmith (Olivia Rodrigo, Megan Thee Stallion).
Dance ‘til you drop to masterful takes on “When the Battle Is Over,” “Hallelujah, I Love Her So,” “Ice Cold Daydream,” “Nothing from Nothing,” “If Only I Could Be Sure,” “If You Love Me Like You Say,” “Let’s Straighten It Out” and “Higher and Higher.”
Stew Cutler – The Blues from Another Angle
An in-demand session guitarist, arranger, bandleader and producer who began his career backing Z.Z. Hill while still in his teens, New York City-based Stew Cutler has only released seven albums across the blues, jazz and gospel spectrum in his 40-year career, but when he does…wow!
Stew’s talents grace material released by Percy Sledge, Eddie Floyd, Wilson Pickett and dozens of others. His music appears in film and TV soundtracks, most recently Martin Scorcese’s The Irishman and Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, on which he also appeared as a member of the strip club house band.
If you like your blues classy and jazzy, you’ll love the cover of Tyrone Davis’ “Can I Change My Mind,” which opens, as well as “Blews,” “Can’t Say It Again,” “Janque,” “Plane to a Train,” “Say What You Mean,” “Nightshift” and “Shine or Rain.”
Mississippi Heat – Madeleine
Van der Linden Recordings VDL710
Led by founder/harp player Pierre Lacocque, Mississippi Heat has been delivering their own brand of unique, contemporary blues out of Chicago for the past 30 years. With Madeleine, the band’s 13th album, MH celebrates its longevity and hits the jackpot.
Co-produced by Pierre and Grammy winner Michael Freeman, the band includes the cream of the crop of Windy City musicians with Michael Dotson, Inetta Visor and Daneshia Hamilton handling most of the vocals. The lineup’s enhanced by guest appearances from heavyweights Carl Weathersby, Lurrie Bell, Giles Corey, Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith, Johnny Iguana and others.
The all-original set smokes out of the gate with “Silent Too Long.” Other pleasers include “Batty Crazy,” “Havana En Mi Alma,” “Uninvited Guest,” “Empty Nest Blues,” “Ridin’ on a Hit,” “Madeleine,” “At the Lucky Star,” “Truth Like Rain” and “Trouble.”
The Nighthawks – Established 1972
VizzTone Label Group VT-NH01
Billed as the “best bar band in the world,” founder Mark Wenner and his current lineup of The Nighthawks celebrate their 50th anniversary with one of the best albums they’ve ever produced – a familiar mix of blues, R&B and roots that swings from the hip and proves beyond a doubt that, like fine wine, they continue to get better with age.
Jimmy Thackery, Jan Zukowski and Pete Ragusa are long gone from the roster, but the 2022 version of the band – Wenner on harp, Don Hovey on guitar, Mark Stutso on drums and Paul Pisciotta on bass – are worthy successors who combine to deliver six clever originals and eight covers that are chockful of humor and wry commentary about the human condition.
The bountiful treats include “Nobody,” “You Seem Different,” “Coming and Going,” “Ask Me Nice,” “Gas Station Chicken,” “Houseband,” “Fuss and Fight” and “Driving,” a double-entendre closing ballad about aging that’ll have you grinning from ear to ear.
Midnite Johnny – Cohorts & Accomplices
Mosher St. Records
One of the most stylish guitarists you’ll hear this or any year, Midnite Johnny Morana’s been based out of Manchester, England, for a decade, but is an American blues treasure whose background includes touring the U.S. out of South Florida with Kilmo & the Killers and working with Harvey Mandel, Charlie Musselwhite and John Mayall, too.
Johnny’s UK band keeps the beat with guest appearances from artists on both sides of the Atlantic, including Rod Mayall – John’s brother -- on organ and Rockin’ Jake on harp. They team to deliver a comfortable set of traditional blues and blues-rock played the way it used to be.
Traditionalists will love the originals “Mean Woman Blues,” “Hey Now Baby,” “Green Banana,” “My Heart Keeps Turnin’,” “Lyin’ Eyes,” “Too Much” and “Nothin’ Left to Say” along with seven well-executed covers.
Diunna Greenleaf – I Ain’t Playin’
Little Village Foundation LVF 1045
Despite winning the BMA’s Koko Taylor Award in 2014 and 2017 as traditional female vocalist of the year, it’s been 11 years since Houston-based Diunna Greenleaf has released an album, and one listen to this collection of deep, soulful blues and you’ll agree it’s a long-overdue treat.
A powerful alto with gospel roots who served as a past-president of the Houston Blues Society, Diunna’s backed by the cream of the crop of blues talent here, including producer/guitarist Kid Andersen, Little Village founder/keyboard player Jim Pugh, bassist Jerry Jemmott, drummer Derrick “D’Mar” Martin and guest appearances from Igor Prado, Sax Gordon and a host of others.
If soul-blues is your thing, you’ll enjoy “Never Trust a Man,” the originals “Running Like the Red Cross,” “Answer to the Hard Working Woman,” “Sunny Day Friends” and “Back Door Man” and nine stellar tunes culled from Johnny Copeland, Deitra Farr, Big James Montgomery and – surprisingly – Vince Gill.
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.