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

By Marty Gunther

Tommy Castro – A Bluesman Came to Town

Alligator Records

One of the most beloved artists on the blues circuit today, Tommy Castro outdoes himself on this CD. No stranger to change, he shifted from a horn band to a stripped-down blues-rock outfit a few years ago, but changes gears again, delivering a concept album that’s deep blue, incorporates soul and rock – and might very well be his best yet.

Tommy’s stinging guitar runs and powerful voice dovetail 13 original tunes into a package that traces the life of farmhand from his discovery of the blues to becoming a star while experiencing all the joys and pitfalls along the way before finally realizing that his happy place is right back where it all began.

The all-star lineup includes guest appearances from Jimmy Hall and Terrie Odabi on vocals, Deanna Bogart and Keith Crossan on horns and Kevin McKendree and Rob McNelley on keys. Produced by Tom Hambridge with a helping hand from Kid Andersen, you don’t want to miss this one!

Jason Ricci & Joe Krown – City Country City

Gulf Coast Records GCRX9035

New Orleans-based harmonica master Jason Ricci has delivered some of the most incendiary music on the planet, but reveals a totally different side of himself on this partnership with keyboard wizard Joe Krown, who’s spent years on the road behind the late Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown and, more recently, Kenny Wayne Shepherd.

Backed only by Doug Belote on drums, they combine to produce what can only be described as a sweet, joyful, intimate set that resides at the crossroads of blues, jazz and Big Easy R&B – and a perfect example of the sounds Jason and Joe produce when working small-club settings in the Big Easy. Included are instrumentals, vocals, covers and originals.

If your tastes run to the jazzier side of blues, run – don’t walk – to pick up this one! Enjoy “City Country City” (from the band War), “Down ‘n Dirty,” “My Mama Told Me So” (Joe Sample), “Feel Good Funk,” “Upshot,” “The Jimmy Smith Strut” (Taj Majal), “Just a Playboy” (Sonny Boy Williamson) and a tasty reworking of Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billy Joe.”

Big Daddy Wilson – Hard Time Blues

Continental Blue Heaven Records CBHCD 2041

An ex-pat American born in Edenton, N.C., Big Daddy Wilson teams with perennial BMA nominee and longtime friend Eric Bibb to deliver a moving set of acoustic and electric blues with strong religious overtones here, a powerful follow-up to his 2019 soul-blues release, Deep in My Soul.

Born Adam Wilson Blount, Big Daddy didn’t discover the blues until he was an adult living in Europe. Now 61, he took to the music like a duck to water. Recorded in England, Sweden, Germany and Italy, this is his 13th album, and one listen will convince you he deserves to be a star in his homeland.

Top tracks include “Yazoo City,” “The City Street (Ps. 23),” “Hard Time Blues,” “Meatballs,” “Dearly Beloved,” “New Born,” “I Can’t Help but Love You,” “A Letter,” “Maybe It’s Time” and “Testimony.”

Jonathon Long – Parables of a Southern Man

Wild Heart Records

A sweet tenor with a large sound, Louisiana-based guitarist/songwriter Jonathon Long joins forces with Samantha Fish’s Wild Heart imprint to deliver a rapid-fire collection of tunes that bridge blues and Southern rock with a hint of country, too – and it’s a winner on all counts.

Only 29 but a pro since age 14, Long was mentored by Baton Rouge mainstay Henry Turner; he has gone on to tour the world and play festivals when not serving as opening act for headliners back home. Produced by Samantha, this is Jonathon’s fourth CD, and it’s chockful of stellar fretwork and songs that run the gamut of human emotion.

Pleasers include “Madison Square Garden,” “My Kind of Woman,” “Pain,” “All I Need,” “Savior’s Face,” “My Kind of Crazy,” “Cheap Romance” and “Crazy.”

Lindsay Beaver & Brad Stivers – Lindsay Beaver & Brad Stivers

VizzTone Label Group VT-LNB-01

Two of the hottest young talents on the Austin scene today, Lindsay Beaver and Brad Stivers team together on stage and off when not touring with their own bands, but join forces as headliners on disc for the first time here, delivering a consistently high-quality set that mixes blues, soul and Americana.

Both in their early 30s, Lindsay’s a classically trained vocalist/percussionist/guitarist with a take-no-prisoners attitude from Halifax, Nova Scotia, while guitarist Brad grew up in a military family and rose to fame while in college in Colorado. They’re joined here by organist/bassist Barry Cooke with guest appearances from guitarists Kirk Fletcher, Zack Zunis and Garrett Mason, plus harp player Joe Murphy.

Modern blues that’s packaged with a heaping helping of traditional feel, you’ll enjoy “One Condition,” “I Know What to Do,” “Hesitate,” “Getting Gone,” “It’s Love,” “Somebody Else Will,” “You’re So Fine” and the instrumental, “Slim Pickin’.”

Johnny Ray Jones – Way Down South

Moondogg Records

Based out of Southern California where he was mentored by Sam “Bluezman” Taylor, Johnny Ray Jones has been in the business since the ‘80s, but made his debut as a front man four short years ago. He shines on like a diamond on this CD, which delivers a mix of blues and blue-eyed soul.

Johnny possesses a warm, mid-range voice that’s part velvet and part grit. Produced by Tony Braunagel, he’s backed by several members of the Taj Mahal/Legendary Blues Band, and the lineup includes a guest appearance from six-string heavyweight Coco Montoya, too.

From the opening notes of “Steamy Windows,” this one will keep you dancing throughout. Other must-listens include “I Got the Will,” “Don’t Burn Down the House,” “Way Down South,” “Tunica Motel,” “L.A. Fog,” “Give Away None of My Love” and “Nothing Takes the Place of You.”

Sue Foley – Pinky’s Blues

Stony Plain Records SPCD1430

Canadian-born, Austin-based songbird Sue Foley reached the apogee of the blues world in 2020 when she captured Koko Taylor Award honors at the BMAs as the best traditional female artist of the year; she is certain to maintain her status and more with this disc, a deep-in-the-pocket set that’s loaded with sounds that made the Lone Star State famous.

Sue recorded Pinky’s Blues (named after her pink Telecaster), at Fire Station Studios in San Marcos, Texas, under the direction of producer Mike Flanigin, who also handles Hammond B3 organ duties throughout. Former Stevie Ray Vaughan drummer Chris Layton appears on all cuts, and Jimmie Vaughan sits in, too.

Tune in to the instrumental opener, “Pinky’s Blues,” “Two Bit Texas Town,” “Southern Men,” “Hurricane Girl,” “Stop Those Teardrops,” “Boogie Real Low,” “Someday” and “When the Cat’s Away the Mice Play.”

Keith Scott – World Music Society

Self-produced CD

Based out of Chicago since the early ‘80s and a former bandmate of both Jimmy Dawkins and Hip Linkchain, guitarist Keith Scott calls his brand of music “heavy blues.” But as the 71 minutes of this all-original set demonstrate, the native New Yorker is as old-school as anyone can get.

Recorded in Illinois, Michigan and Los Angeles, this one’s a mix of straight-ahead, modern Windy City, Hill Country and New Orleans sounds penned in the current era, but soaked with tradition and classic appeal throughout. Calvin Conway shines on harp throughout.

Never rushed or overplayed, lend an ear to “Down That Road,” “Lonesome Blues,” “Trouble,” “Ain’t Gonna Suffer,” “Shoreline Blues,” “Used to Be,” “On the Bayou,” “Picking Up the Pieces,” “Strut That Stuff,” “Raining All the Time” and “Hatchet Face.”

Mara Kaye & Carl Sonny Leyland – It Had to Be You

Bigtone Records

Considered “one of Manhattan’s greatest gifts to the world” by the New York Times, youthful songbird Mara Kaye teams with venerable British ex-pat keyboard player Carl Sonny Leyland to turn back the clock for this collection of classic blues that debuted in the ‘40s in high-fashion cabarets.

Possessing a distinctive, melismatic voice, Mara fell in love with the blues through Queen Victoria Spivey and has built an international reputation as a jazz singer. This is her first album. A fixture on the West Coast since the ‘80s, Carl has shared the stage with hundreds of name acts and is recognized as one of the premier boogie-woogie pianists on earth.

Produced in analog by Big Jon Atkinson in Bristol, Tenn., pour yourself a cocktail and lend an ear to “Dystopian Blues,” “In Love Again,” “Black Sheep Blues,” “It Had to Be You,” “Going Crazy with the Blues” and “Stop Lying on Me.”

Memphissippi Sounds – Welcome to the Land

Little Village Foundation LVF 1043

Memphissippi Sounds is a partnership consisting of Bluff City-based harp player Damion Pearson and Magnolia State-based drummer Cam Kimbrough -- grandson of Hill Country legend Junior. They team to deliver a refreshingly different set of one-note trance blues that’s suitable for backwoods jukes and big-city stages, too.

An all-original album recorded at legendary Sun Studios in Memphis and produced by Bay Area harp player Aki Kumar, Pearson and Kimbrough share guitar and vocal duties, too. Even though you might think their style of music is stuck in a bygone era, one listen will convince you that it’s as vital today as the day it was first created.

“Who’s Gonna Ride” and “Groove with Me” will have you swaying steadily from the jump. Other pleasers include “I’m Mad,” “Go Downtown,” “Saturday Morning” and “Look Out for the Wolf.”

Altered Five Blues Band – Holler If You Hear Me

Blind Pig Records BPCD 5173

Fronted by baritone Jeff Taylor and anchored by guitarist/songwriter Jeff Schroedl, Altered Five Blues Band has been taking the chill out of frigid winter nights in Milwaukee for a decade, and they groove from the jump on this all-original effort.

Consistent showstoppers and award winners, too, the group’s trophy case includes IBC honors for best self-produced CD and top prize in the 2019 International Songwriting Competition for material that appeared on their previous release, Ten Thousand Watts. Jason Ricci joins them on three cuts.

There’s a whole lot to like here, beginning with “Holler If You Hear Me.” Other pleasers include “Guilty of a Good Time,” “If You Go Away (She Might Come Back),” “Holding on with One Hand,” “Where’s My Money,” “Clear Conscience, Bad Memory,” “In the Name of No Good,” “Leave Before I Let You Down” and “Fifteen Minutes of Blame.”

Zac Harmon – Long as I Got My Guitar

Catfood Records

Bluesman Zac Harmon hit the high notes with Grammy-winning producer Jim Gaines for his Mississippi Bar BQ album, and the two reunite for this follow-up, a synthesis of soul-blues and the traditional sounds that flourished on Farish Street in Jackson, Zac’s hometown.

A collection of eight originals penned by Harmon and Catfood label owner Bob Trenchard and two others composed by gifted tunesmith Sandy Carroll, Zac’s backed by the label’s skintight session band, The Rays, in parts of the set and his regular touring band in others.

Silky-smooth and slightly behind the beat throughout, you’ll enjoy “Deal with the Devil,” “People Been Talking,” “Soul Land,” “Long as I’ve Got My Guitar,” “Waiting to Be Free,” “New Year’s Day,” “Imagine a Prayer” and “Ashes to the Wind.”

Brad Vickers and His Vestapolitans – Music Gets Us Thru

Man Hat Tone Records MHT 2010

Veteran New York-based guitarist/bassist Brad Vickers’ pedigree includes extensive work with Pinetop Perkins, Hubert Sumlin and Little Mike & the Tornadoes, but his own tastes are much broader than Chicago blues -- something that he’s displayed across seven CDs with the tunes that hint of a different era.

Basing their name on an open-tuning technique favored by pre-War guitarists, the Vestapolitans are an all-star group that includes Dave Gross on second guitar, Dave Keys on keys, Mikey Junior on harp and Margey Peters on bass and vocals, among others.

For a pleasant break from the troubles of modern times, you’ll enjoy “Dumb Like a Fox,” “Take It Slow,” “I’ll Never Let You Go,” “The Music Gets Us Thru,” “What in the World,” “Grab My Car Keys,” “I’ll Be Sittin’, I’ll Be Rockin’” and “Birds on My Family Tree.”

Teresa James & the Rhythm Tramps – Rose-Colored Glasses Vol. 1

Jesi-lu/Blue Heart Records BHR-015

One of the most polished, honeyed voices in American music, Los Angeles-based Teresa James and her Rhythm Tramps share the spotlight with eight top guitarists for this outstanding collection of modern blues, all of which put a positive spin on romance, perseverance, redemption and more.

A former Grammy nominee, Teresa and hubby/bassist/producer Terry Wilson co-wrote all the material. They get a helping hand from Anson Funderburgh, James Pennebaker, Johnny Lee Schell, Yates McKendree, Dean Parks, Lee Roy Parnell, David Millsap and Snuffy Walden.

The pleasers include “Show Me How You Do It,” “Takes One to Know One,” “I Got a Love I Wanna Hold on To,” “Wish It into the Cornfield,” “Everybody Everybody,” “Things Ain’t Like That,” “Rise Together” and “Gimme Some Skin.” Highly recommended.

Carolyn Wonderland – Tempting Fate

Alligator Records ALCD 5007

A Houston native who’s been based in Austin for decades, Carolyn Wonderland explodes out of the gate and doesn’t let up on this disc, her first-ever effort on a major label despite a recording career that began in the early ‘90s. It’s a tour-de-force effort that mixes Lone Star State and Delta blues.

One of the most joyous, wall-rattling singers on the planet who’s often compared favorably to Janis Joplin, she delivers a sound that’s barbed wire coated in honey, and possesses prodigious guitar skills, too, most recently touring as a member of John Mayall’s band before he announced his retirement from the road.

Run, don’t walk to pick up this one, and tune in to “Fragile Peace and Certain War,” “Texas Girl and Her Boots,” “Fortunate Few,” “Crack in the Wall,” “The Laws Must Change,” “Honey Bee,” “On My Feet” and “Loser.”


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