By Marty Gunther
John Primer – Hard Times
Blues House Productions BHP JB2022
A fixture in Chicago since the ‘70s, when he first made a name as Junior Wells’ band leader at Theresa’s Lounge after emigrating from Camden, Miss., and one of the most beloved musicians ever to set foot on a Windy City stage, John Primer serves up a treat with his latest album, putting a new spin on 13 of the tastiest tunes culled from his 40-plus albums.
A mix of straight-ahead and soul-blues, John’s joined by his regular harp player Steve Bell, Carey’s son, and gets helping hands from keyboard player Johnny Iguana and Muddy Waters bandmate Rick Kreher on second guitar. John’s 17-year-old daughter Aliya makes her recording debut on one tune.
Traditionalists will find a whole lot to love here, including “You Got What I Want,” “Don’t Wait too Long,” “Blues-Blues-Blues,” “Chicago,” “Tough Times,” “My Sugar Mama,” “You Mean So Much to Me,” “Hot Meal” and “Whiskey.”
Harrison Kennedy – Thanks for Tomorrow
Electro-Fi Records 3462
A founding member of The legendary Motown group Chairmen of the Board and a seven-time Blues Music Awards nominee, 80-year-old Harrison Kennedy switches things up on his latest CD, joining forces with Ruthie Foster, Colin Linden and several top musicians from his native Canada to deliver a rousing set of contemporary originals.
Co-produced with Jesse O’Brien, Levon Helm’s longtime keyboard player, this disc delivers a smorgasbord of stylings, ranging from straight-ahead blues, soul and barrelhouse rock and adds a dash of country, too – all of which is guaranteed to put a smile on your mug.
“All I Need Is You,” a duet with Ruthie, opens the action. Don’t miss “Easiest Thing to Do,” “Thanks for Tomorrow,” “Checkin’ You Out,” “Crazy Love,” “Memphis Trippin’,” the upbeat “Cranky Woman” and the uptempo rocker “Just Wanna Play.”
Seth Walker – I Hope I Know
Royal Potato Family
Asheville, N.C.-based singer/songwriter Seth Walker takes listeners on a roller coaster of emotion on his 11th CD, an intimate effort that deals with the uncertainties of life, recovery from the end of a longtime love affair and a career upended because of COVID-19. It serves up salve for the soul for anyone who’s suffered similar fates.
A veteran of both the Austin and Nashville music scenes, Seth’s 2019 release, Are You Home?, debuted in the No. 2 spot on Billboard’s blues chart. He penned seven of the ten tunes here, three each with Grammy winner Gary Nicholson and Wood Brothers front man Oliver Wood.
Looking for a little healing? This one will help. Tune in to “The Future Ain’t What It Used to Be,” “Why Do I Cry Anymore,” “Hope I Know,” “Satisfy My Mind,” “River,” “Peace in the Valley” and covers of Bobby Charles’ “Tennessee Blues” and Van Morrison’s “Warm Love.”
Jack’s Waterfall – American Roots Project
Fronted by piano player/vocalist Jack Licitra, a 30-year veteran of the New York blues scene, Jack’s Waterfall swings from the hip on its debut CD, mixing a highly danceable blend of funk, ragtime and straight-ahead blues that deliver a big tip of the hat to the sounds of New Orleans.
Influenced heavily by Henry Butler, Allen Toussaint and Pinetop Perkins, Licitra founded regional favorites Water Street Blues Band in Oneonta in the ‘90s. His three-piece unit includes Grammy-nominated producer Mark Carpentieri – head honcho at M.C. Records – on drums and Trifon Dmitrov on bass with a guest appearance on harp from Water Street co-founder Steve Demanchick.
The feel of the Big Easy flows strongly throughout, beginning with “Louise,” a tip of the hat to Toussaint. Other pleasers include “Them Blues,” “My Baby’s Gone a Long Time,” “Soul Rider,” “Jack’s Rag,” “West Texas Ghost Story,” “I’ve Been Listening” and “Like an Eagle.”
Demetria Taylor – Doin’ What I’m Supposed to Do
Delmark Records 875
The Jus’ Blues Foundation’s reigning Koko Taylor Award – female vocalist of the year – winner and the daughter of Chicago blues giant Eddie Taylor, Demetria Taylor was a full-grown woman when made she made her recording with the well-received Bad Girl a decade ago and finally serves up a long-awaited follow-up with this one.
It features an all-star cast of Windy City talent, including three members of the Mike Wheeler Band – keyboard player Brian James, bassist Larry “L-Dub” Williams and Mike on guitar and sit-ins from guitarists Carlos Showers and Billy Flynn, percussionist Melvin “Pookie Styx” Carlisle and vocalist Deitra Farr, too.
An old-school/contemporary mix that includes eight originals, give a listen to Eddie’s “83 Highway,” “Baby Be Good,” “Bad Girl Day,” “Doin’ What I’m Supposed to Do,” “Done,” “I’m Gonna Tell It,” “Nursing My Kitty Cat,” “Stay Gone” and “Young Gun Taylor.”
Keb’ Mo’ – Good to Be…
Concord Music Group/Rounder Records
Delivering some of the smoothest, most upbeat music in the blues today, Keb’ Mo’ outdoes himself on his latest CD, teaming with some surprising guests and spreading light, love, joy and encouragement to folks living in a world wracked by disease, political strife and more.
Now based in Nashville, Keb’ joins forces with Vince Gill and Darius Rucker, Old Crow Medicine Show, Kristin Chenoweth, Christone “Kingfish” Ingram and dozens of others to deliver his usual blend of blues-infused Americana. This set is destined to receive the sixth Grammy in his storied career.
Deep in the pocket and relaxed throughout, every track here’s a winner. You’ll dig “Good to Be (Home Again)” – which celebrates the repurchase of his childhood home in Compton, Calif., “So Easy,” “Sunny and Warm” “Good Strong Woman,” “The Medicine Man,” “Marvelous to Me,” “Dressed Up in Blue,” “Louder,” “So Good to Me” and “Quiet Moments.”
John Neméth – May Be the Last Time
Nola Blue Records NBR 020
A seemingly indestructible force in the blues with one of the most golden voices ever, both John Németh’s career and life appeared in jeopardy earlier this year when he was facing risky surgery to remove a benign tumor that forced removal of most of his lower jaw. He’s bouncing back strong now, but like the title infers, it could literally have been recorded during his final trip to the studio.
Truly a labor of love, this set was organized almost immediately after the announcement by Kid Andersen, a former bandmate, to provide financial support for John and his family through his ordeal. And Németh’s former boss, Elvin Bishop, quickly joined the effort along with Bob Welch and Willy Jordan, his partners in The Big Three Trio.
Németh’s never sounded better in this 11-tune set. The action opens with the somber gospel number, “The Last Time,” but things heat – and brighten -- up thereafter with “Rock Bottom,” “Sooner or Later,” “Stealin’ Watermelons,” “I Found a Love,” “Come on In This House,” “Elbows on the Wheel” and “I’ll Be Glad.” Don’t miss this one!
Steve Dawson & the Telescope 3 – Phantom Threshold
Black Hen Music BHCD0097
An award-winning guitarist and producer in his native Canada, Vancouver-born, Nashville-based Steve Dawson delivered a tour-de-force tribute to blues and roots with his last album, Gone, Long Gone, and continues on the same path here, offering up a hauntingly beautiful all-original, all-instrumental set on which he plays pedal steel instead of six-string.
The second of three releases he’s masterminded during the pandemic, he’s joined by keyboard player Chris Gestrin, drummer Jay Bellerose, bassist Jeremy Holmes and violinist Fats Kaplin – all of whom contributed to the project remotely from Los Angeles, British Columbia and Music City.
This one’s ideal to spin while you’re relaxing at the end of a long day. Tune in to “Cozy Corner,” “Burnt End,” “Twig Bucket,” “Phantom Threshold,” “You Still Believe in Me,” “Lily’s Resistor,” “That’s How It Goes in the Relax Lounge” and “Whirlwind.”
The Dig 3 – The Dig 3
The union of three of the most revered musicians in the Midwest, The Dig 3 are making their debut as a trio with this set and should establish themselves in the forefront of the industry with this 53-minute set of deep-in-the-pocket, straight-ahead blues. One look at the lineup and you’ll know why.
Best known for his work as the leader of Central Illinois-based Kilborn Alley Blues Band, Andrew Duncanson handles guitar and the mic with Ronnie Shellist, one of the foremost harp players in the world today, and one-man band Gerry Hundt (Nick Moss, Corey Dennison) on guitar, bass, harp, mandolin and percussion. Add Moss bassist Rodrigo Mantovani to the mix and the set soars.
An all-original release, each of the exceptionally tight tunes here walk the tightrope between urgency and ease with style and grace. There are too many standout cuts to list. Don’t miss this one!
Blue Moon Marquee – Scream, Holler & Howl
Composed of guitarist A.W. Cardinal and upright bassist/percussionist Jasmine Collette, British Columbia-based Blue Moon Marquee team with fret master Duke Robillard on their latest CD and cut new ground with a hard-to-peg mix that includes elements of vintage blues and jump, gypsy jazz, swing, Native American influences and more.
Since forming in 2012 and working as a duo, trio or quartet, A.W.’s gravelly baritone has served as an interesting counterpoint to Jasmine’s honeyed alto. Duke co-produced this set, which also features contributions from several award-winning talents from the fertile Vancouver music scene.
A set of 11 “different” originals and two covers, you’ll dig “Scream, Holler & Howl,” “Thunderbird,” “Hound Dog on a Chain,” “Lowlands,” “Country Man,” “Medicine Man,” “Red Dust Rising” and “Another Night to Cry.”
Emanuel Casablanca – Blood on My Hands
Kings County Blues KCB-0001
The former lead guitarist/vocalist with the soul/funk/rock band VICE and a touring musician who’s backed major players from across the music spectrum, Brooklyn-born multi-instrumentalist Emanuel Casablanca called out the big guns for his debut CD, an autobiographical 16-tune roller coaster of blues-drenched emotion laid down atop deep beats.
He’s joined here by guitarists Eric Gales, Albert Castiglia, Paul Howells and metal/hard rock god Paul Gilbert along with sax player Jimmy Carpenter, vocalist Kat Riggins and harp player Felix Slim.
The experimental “Afraid of Blood” opens in a jarringly discordant manner but things quickly settle into a groove, It’s an album full of tunes with sanguine titles, but fear not! Enjoy the pulse-pounding “In Blood,” “Blood on My Hands,” “Like a Pulse,” “Bloodshot Eyes,” “Nashville,” a cover of Robert Nighthawk’s “Anna Lee,” “Testify,” “Blood Money” and “Shaky Tables.”
GA-20 – Crackdown
Since forming in Boston in 2018, GA-20 put a unique spin on traditional blues with their chart-topping Try It You’ll Like It…GA-20 Does Hound Dog Taylor, reworking tunes from the blues giant’s ‘70s catalog and infusing it with their own contemporary feel. They continue their ascendency here with an all-original release with plenty of similar appeal.
Led by guitarist Matthew Stubbs, who’s been touring behind Charlie Musselwhite since 2007, the trio features Pat Faherty on vocals and second guitar with drummer Tim Carman. They record old-school with everyone in the same room and using vintage equipment to produce music deeply influenced by ‘50s blues, rock and R&B.
Their no-frills attack shines throughout everything in this set. Give a listen to “Fairweather Friend,” “Dry Run,” Easy on the Eyes,” “Crackdown,” “By My Lonesome,” “I Let Someone In,” “Double Gettin’” and “Gone for Good.”
HowellDevine – Strange Time Blues
An acoustic trio with contemporary appeal, HowellDevine have been delivering their own version of traditional Piedmont, Hill Country and Chicago blues since 2011, and serve up a treat with their fifth CD, laying down strong grooves that relate to the troubles we face in modern times.
Fronted by vocalist Josh Howell on National steel and Epiphone guitars and anchored by Pete Devine on drums, washboard and jug and Joe Kyle Jr. on upright bass, they successfully weave together four originals with six familiar covers that still stand the test of time.
Mississippi Fred McDowell’s “East St. Louis” sets the tone to open. Other pleasers include “Smoke,” “Hey! Oh Really?,” R.L. Burnside’s “Long Haired Doney,” “Nila,” “Strange Time Meltdown” and Robert Wilkins’ “That’s No Way to Get Along.”
Crystal Shawanda – Midnight Blues
True North Records TND794
Possessing a distinctive, raspy voice often compared with Janis Joplin’s, Nashville-based Crystal Shawanda has a style all her own; she was a rising star in country before making a switch eight years ago. With four well-received azure CDs already to her credit, she should explode to the top echelon of the blues world with this disc.
An Indigenous Canadian-American from Wiikwemkoong First Nation in Northern Ontario, Crystal delivers six stellar originals and four freshly minted covers in a set produced by hubby Dewayne Strobel. It features appearances from harp players Steve Marriner and the late Harpdog Brown as well as R&B great Sean Jones.
An awards-worthy treat for anyone whose interests run toward female vocalists, you’ll enjoy “Midnight Blues,” “What Kind of Man,” “How Bad Do You Want It,” “Why Do I Love You,” “I Want My Soul Back,” “That’s Just the Woman in Me,” “Hold Me” and “Walk with the Moon.”
Breezy Rodio – Underground Blues
WindChill/Bloos Records BLO-15
A distinctively different guitarist who picks with his thumb instead of a plectrum, Breezy Rodio made a name for himself behind Chicagoan Linsey “The Hoochie Man” Alexander for a decade, during which he launched a solo career. He delivers crisp, clean runs on this set, which was recorded and co-produced in Texas by Anson Funderburgh who guest stars, too.
A native Italian, Breezy’s previous effort – 2019’s “Sometimes the Blues Got Me” on Delmark -- was one of Living Blues magazine’s Top 50 albums of the year. And this all-original effort delivers music that’s thoroughly contemporary but is rooted strongly in the golden era of Windy City blues.
Chockful of tasty, biting single-note solos with plenty of soul, don’t miss “Half Way in the Devil’s Gate,” “C.H.I.C.A.G.O.,” “Playing with My Game Too,” “That Damn Cocaine,” “Lightning Strike,” “The Asymptomatic,” “Gerry Told Me,” “Hello Friendo,” “Sugar Daddy” and “Bluesoned.”
Bob Corritore & Friends – You Shocked Me
VizzTone Label Group/SWMAF Records VT-SWMAF-21
Arizona-based harp player/club owner/producer Bob Corritore has released four stellar compilation CDs lately but outdoes himself with this 16-track effort that was recorded between 2018 and 2022 and features appearances from John Primer, Alabama Mike, Diunna Greenleaf, Johnny Rawls, Jimi “Primetime” Smith, Sugaray Rayford, Oscar Wilson, Bob Stroger, Francine Reed, Willie Buck and Bill “Howl-n-Madd” Perry on vocals.
Corritore’s runs on the reeds serve as the tie that binds across multiple blues stylings with additional backing from guitarists Bob Margolin, Kid Ramos, Johnny Main and L.A. Jones, keyboard players Fred Kaplan, Ben Levin and Anthony Geraci and several more major talents.
The high points abound beginning with Primer’s “Hiding Place.” You’ll also love Squeeze Me Baby,” “You Shocked Me,” “The World’s in a Bad Situation,” “Blinded,” “Josephine,” “Train Fare,” “Don’t Need Your Permission,” “Back to the Crossroads” “Happy Day Friends” and “Blues for Hippies.”
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.