Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Top Blues Releases of 2009

It’s time again for Bruce’s famous end of the year list. Let me begin by noting that there were LOTS of good blues discs in 2009, some from expected sources, some from newer artists, some from the dead. (Thank you to Landslide Records for “Sean’s Blues.”) Each of the following discs are worth your time and money. These are the discs that have stayed in my cd player and on my mind all during this year.

Essential tracks of terrific guitar and piano blues by two of the coolest blues cats on their respective instruments. Louisiana Red may not be the fanciest guitar player around, but he sings and plays and tells blues stories as well as anybody. David Maxwell has been at the top rank of blues piano players for several years now. He reminds anybody who forgot that the piano can play lead or follow or anything in between. Old school music-making by masters of the art. These guys could have made this record in any year between 1952 and now and they still would have earned a spot on this list. Special note--the last two tracks on this disc are Red talking about blues in the old days, and I need to give the record company cudos for putting this on the cd. Red talking about the blues, talking anything about the blues, is well worth having. This is history first hand.

Live disc of the year. Recorded at Famous Monday Blues in Oxford and Liverpool Marina in Liverpool. Loomis on guitar and harmonica and vocals, and Stratton Doyle on tenor sax, keyboards and vocals, Kent Beatty on bass and Jamie Little on drums and vocals all together make a joyous, lively, warm and happy blues sound in front of a small and very enthusiastic audience. Loomis shows his fine guitar work, and his singing is the best I’ve ever heard from him. Stratton Doyle gives clear evidence throughout --especially on “What It Is” and “Best Worst Day” -- that a saxaphone should ALWAYS be part of every blues band playing live. Part of why I like this disc is that it reminds me of another one of my favorites cds that at the time seemed to come out of nowhere and make listening to music enjoyable again--the cd by Billy Vera & The Beaters from 1981.

Marshall Lawrence is a fine acoustic guitarist and blues singer from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, and on "The Morning After" he continues his successful formula: fiery slices of delta-flavored acoustic slide guitar with just enough backing to fill out the sound. Lawrence writes nine of the 13 tracks here, and the originals are wonderful--modern, bluesy, inviting, expressive. The tone is exactly right--and the covers are very fine, including Blind Willie McTell's "Blue Sky Is Fallin'," Tommy Johnson's "Bye Bye Blues," Charlie Patton's "Moon Goin' Down," and Taj Mahal's "Light Rain Blues." The Tommy Johnson track is the highlight of the disc, as Lawrence absolutely reinterprets the classic number. It's still delta-style country blues, but new. This disc has been my Sunday morning soundtrack most of the year.

Mac Arnold & Plate Full O’Blues have “it”--they play together with a big full blues sound. This is the 3rd cd by Arnold’s latest band, made up of Austin Brashear (guitar), Max Hightower (harmonica), Mike Whitt (drums), and Danny Keylon (bass), assisted by producer Bob Margolin. Twelve of the 13 tracks are originals. The band plays the hell out of every song, and Arnold’s voice is a national treasure. Mac Arnold should be heard on every radio station in America. Special credit for "If Walls Could Talk," my favorite blues song of the year.

6. GEOFF ACHISON -- “ONE TICKET TO RIDE” (Jupiter 2 Records)
This new cd "One Ticket One Ride" is Geoff's response to the experience of living in the US. He wrote all the songs, and he recruited the recording band, which included the red hot rhythm section of Ted Pecchio & Tyler ‘Falcon’ Greenwell with guest spots by Oliver Wood and legendary drummer Yonrico Scott. It's a really wide-ranging cd, stylistically, and the highlights are many. My favorite so far might be "Bootbanger," which is a powerful instrumental blues a la Jeff Beck, but all the songs here feature great song writing and great playing. This is Geoff's best cd so far--it keeps slipping into my cd player while I’m not looking.

5. JOHN NEMETH -- “LOVE ME TONIGHT” (Blind Pig Records)
John Nemeth brings the goods on this, his second cd on Blind Pig. His previous disc, "Magic Touch," was one of my favorites from 2007. Here he is more confident....and tougher. In the blues these days the guitar is front and center. But as Nappy Brown showed us, this music is first and foremost made up of songs, stories made believable by the singing. And how many blues artists out there WANT the microphone in their hands at crunch time? Nemeth sings the hell out of everything here, and he plays an awesome overdriven harmonica. All the songs on this disc but one are originals, even though everything here sounds on the edge of familiar. Bobby Welsh (guitars and keyboards), June Core (drums), Dmitry Gorodetsky and Kedar Roy (bass), help Nemeth spin out every song so that it is powerful and believable. I especially enjoy "Fuel For Your Fire" and "Blues In My Heart," two tracks that would just sound silly if sung by lesser singers. in Nemeth's hands they are highlights. Elvin Bishop guests on guitar on two tracks.

Big Pete Pearson may be the finest living blues shouter out there. He has been making great music snce back in the 50s, but this is no nostalgia act. "Finger In Your Eye" is produced by Bob Corritore. Pearson wrote all ten songs here. Backing Pearson is the Phoenix-based Rhythm Room All-Stars--Bob Corritore on harp, Chris James on guitar, Patrick Rynn on bass, and Brian Fahey on drums--along with guest appearances by a who's who of great players: Duke Robillard, Johnny Rapp, Eddie Taylor Jr and Billy Flynn on guitars, Pinetop Perkins, Henry Gray (whose piano work almost steals the show on "Heartaches"), Matt Bishop, Michael Kocour, and Bruce Bears on piano and organ, and Doug James on bari saxophone. Everybody plays great, and every song is a timeless slice of Chicago style blues.

3. NICOLE HART -- “TREASURE” (Blues Leaf Records)
Nicole has always had a great voice, and a way to "sell" a song, and a really good band leader in Lance Ong. I've always thought that the key for her is strong material. Well, "Treasure" is her major label debut, and she has captured all that Nicole Hart magic on one disc. Nicole sings her ass off, and she gets strong musical support from a group of New Jersey's A-listers, including Sonny Kenn, Ron Rauso, and Marc Shulman on guitars, Swami and Ian Carroll on drums, and Sandy Mack on harmonica on two tracks. She covers a wide range of styles, and the strongest songs here include a hot cover of Stevie Wonder's "Higher Ground," featuring the aforementioned Lance Ong on keyboards, and Albert Castiglia brings his tasteful guitar to one track, a wonderful Patsy Cline-ish cover of Percy Mayfield's "You Were Lyin' To Me,” and Hart does a bravura take on the Fletcher Henderson/Henry Troy song "Gin House Blues," and there is a sweet cover of Paul Kennerley's "Heart Trouble" which cuts the take by Martina McBride. And there are two Hart/Ong originals, including the title track, which fit right in.

Levee Town’s third release in a career that goes back to only 2002 has to be good to make this list. These guys are good enough to be International Blues Challenge Finalists in 2007 and 2010 from Kansas City. The quartet consists of Brandon Hudspeth (guitar & vocals) Jimmie Meade (harmonica & vocals) Jacque Garoutte (bass & vocals) and Jan Faircloth (drums& vocals). They wrote these 14 tracks that sound like a bunch of old guys--and then they all sing and play them like a band of brothers. When I hear these guys I think of NIck Moss & the Flip Tops, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Sugar Ray and the Bluetones and a dozen other bands that travel the land, telling the blues truth on stage every night.

1. SEAN COSTELLO -- "SEAN’S BLUES” (Landslide Records)
My number one disc of the year because of the dozen songs here that were previously unreleased. There are five tracks from 1998, including a great "Walking Blues" featuring Susan Tedeschi on vocals and Paul Linden on harmonica. There are three exceptional live tracks, "All Your Love (I Miss Loving)" and "Mojo Boogie" from a show in Marquette Michigan in 2000 and "Motor Head Baby" from a show in Chicago in 2001. In fact, "Motor Head Baby" might be not only the highlight of this disc but of Sean's entire recorded output so far. Incredible. And then there are four studio tracks from 2002, including a marvelously understated and passionate "You Don't Know What Love Is" and two songs that appeared on later cds in re-arranged form--"Feel Like I Ain't Got A Home" and "She Changed My Mind." When the last notes of this disc fade away I am sad all over again at what we have lost, but I am grateful for what we have. Thank you Landslide Records, for a wonderful addition to the Sean Costello discography.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Texas Slim: "Driving Blues"

On "Driving Blues" Texas Slim brings his authentic Texas blues guitar and vocals! This is Slim's second cd, after 2002's "I Have Arrived," and it is great to get another slice of Slim's top-notch rockin' blues guitar styling. Slim sounds great--every track shows the variety of that smoking Texas blues, with all the grit and growl and that great Texas guitar sound. The band is Aaron Comess from the Spin Doctors on drums bass and production, Alan Comess on keyboards, Pat Daughery on electric piano on "Deville," and Todd Horton on trumpet on "Cool With The Flow" and "Deville" and they give Slim a great sympathetic backing throughout. Every song is hot--things start off with "Welcome To The Game" and it just keeps going. The title track and "Three Bridges Blues" are big time SRV homage--they would fit in with any set of SRV songs, on every radio station in the country. "You're Hip" sounds like the Fabulous Thunderbirds, and "Funky Love" sounds like the master himself--Johnny Winter. On "Deville" Slim nods toward Tom Waits, just a bit, a fine soulful ballad featuring great work by the Mr Daughery and Mr Horton and a guitar solo that Jeff Beck would be proud to claim. And that's just the first half of the disc! Believe me, it's all good--check out "Coffee Shop Girl" and you'll have that tune running in your head all day long.

In my humble opinion, this is one of the best cds of the year, and the best cd to come out of Texas since Jim Suhler's "Dirt Road" in 2002. Top Cat Records has another winner. You can buy this disc at http://www.topcatrecords.com