Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Johnny Rawls -- "Soul Survivor"

Johnny Rawls has a new cd out, which is cause for celebration! "Soul Survivor" is the follow up to 2011's "Memphis Still Got Soul" which received three Blues Music Awards nominations--Soul Blues Male Artist, Soul Blues Album, as well as Song of The Year for the title track. In my review, I called "Memphis Still Got Soul" Rawls' best album so far, and let me say it right up front, "Soul Survivor" is even stronger. Again the focus is on soul blues, and the band is terrific. On nine of the songs the band includes Richie Puga (drums, congas) Dan Ferguson (keyboards) Johnny McGhee (guitar) and Bob Trenchard (bass) and Jessica and Jillian Ivey (background vocals).  They are often joined by a horn section of Andy Roman (sax) Mike Middleton (trumpet) and Robert Claiborne (trombone). But as is always true with a Rawls record, the vocals and lyrics lead the way. Nine of the ten songs were recorded at Tornillo, Texas; the other one, "Yes," was recorded in Helena Montana with Dan Nichols (drums) Michael Kakuk (dobro, harmonica) Doug Skoogs and John Moore (keyboards). Nine of the ten songs are originals, mostly written by Rawls and Bob Trenchard, with some contributions from other band members, as well as Catfood Records artist Sandy Carroll, who co-wrote one song. The one non-original here is a song written by Rawls' mentor, the late great soul music legend O. V. Wright, "Eight Men, Four Women." Rawls does one O. V. Wright song on each album.

This time out my favorite song changes every day. It is either "Soul Survivor," which features Rawls smooth vocal name-checking O. V. Wright and Little Johnny Taylor, or "Yes," which has a sweet acoustic guitar intro, (maybe by Rawls himself?) a cool harmonica solo, and lyrics which recall Otis Redding over a solid beat.

Johnny Rawls started out as while in his early 20s as the band director for O. V. Wright, and after O. V. died in 1979, Rawls kept the band together and toured with Little Johnny Taylor and others. By 1985 Rawls was touring and recording as a solo artist. I tell you these things to say that Johnny knows what he is doing, and he has been doing it very well for a very long time. Every new cd is a cause for celebration!

You can buy this cd at http://www.johnnyrawlsblues.com

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Rory Block -- "I Belong To The Band: A Tribute to Rev. Gary Davis"

There are many styles of blues out there, from Howlin' Wolf's physicality to Mississippi John Hurt's gentleness, from John Lee Hooker's soulfulness to BB King's urbane embrace. Well, nobody will ever mistake Rory Block for anybody else. Rory has been a singer/acoustic guitar player for over 45 years, and she is without a doubt at the top of the heap of those playing in her style. Furthermore, she has spent a good portion of her career and talent as a musicologist, preserving the delta blues tradition.

This new cd is the third in what Rory calls her "mentor" series saluting blues masters she met in person and greatly influenced her as a musician. It follows the release of similar tributes to Son House and Mississippi Fred McDowell, for which her "Shake 'Em On Down" earned Blues Music Award nominations in the Acoustic Artist and Acoustic Album categories for Rory at the event in Memphis last May 10th. These songs come from a deeply personal place in Rory's own life--she met Rev. Davis at his home in the Bronx, New York, and took lessons from him with Stefan Grossman when she was 14 years old. The liner notes are fascinating as they describe those days.    

This collection is a personal treasure to me, as well, because I have been a fan of the songs of Rev. Gary Davis for my entire ministry. Over the past 25+ years I've sought out these songs, I've listened to them sung by Rev. Davis and Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead and Dave Von Ronk and Jorma Kaukonen and Hot Tuna and a host of others. In good times and difficult times I've clung to the mixture of hope and discovery and faith contained in these songs. Well, let me say it--Rory Block has nailed it here--NAILED IT. Solo guitar and voice, and with both instruments she does beautiful versions of "Sampson and Delilah" and the title track and "Death Don't Have No Mercy" and "I Am The Light Of This World" and "Twelve Gates To The City" and a bunch more. Rev. Gary Davis is smiling from heaven--probably still smoking that cigar, but smiling. 

I love the way Rory Block has done these songs. One great artist carrying forward the words and music of another. You can buy this cd from Rory Block at her website: http://www.roryblock.com/ Better still, see her in person as she tours the US this summer. Her itinerary is at the website.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Albert Castiglia -- "Living The Dream"

Albert Castiglia's sixth cd, and fourth on Blues Leaf Records, is "Living The Dream." It is a massive leap forward from my first contact with him, 2002's self-released "Burn." On the earlier disc there are flashes of promise, some good performances such as "Can't Be Satisfied," "The Day The Old Man Died" and "Cadillac Assembly Line," but most of that could be attributed to Graham Wood Drout's writing. Albert's promise still had a long ways to go. But in the past week I've gone back and listened to all of Albert's cds, and in the ten years since he released "Burn" Albert has gotten better as a songwriter, guitar player and as a singer. And not a little bit better. A lot better!

Let me say it this way--in my opinion, at this point, Albert is second to only a very few when it comes to playing the guitar, and he is one of the best blues singers anywhere on the scene.

And Albert has developed into a pretty good songwriter. He has always written songs--he wrote five songs on 2010's "Keepin' On"--but this time out he writes five of the 12 songs on "Living The Dream," including the title track and "The Man," and his writing is strong. Albert's road band is backing him on this cd, and it's strong, too, featuring Bob Amsel on drums and A J Kelly on bass, along with guests Sandy Mack on harmonica, Juke Joint Jonny Rizzo on acoustic slide guitar, John Ginty on piano and B-3 organ, and Emedin Riveras on percussion. When they cover Freddie's King's "Freddie's Boogie" it is good, damn good, with guitar bombs going off everywhere, but it isn't a highlight of the cd. When Albert covers Little Richard's "Directly From My Heart To You" he sounds like what he is--a good singer singing a good song. "Sometimes You Win" is an acoustic song written by the aforementioned Graham Wood Drout. "Public Enemy # 9" is one of my favorites here--it's a cooker. "Lovin' Cup" is written by Paul Butterfield, and shows the greatness of Sandy Mack. Albert began his career playing behind Junior Wells, and he has a talent for showcasing great harmonica players. "Fat Cat" is a hot instrumental, and "I Want Her For Myself" is 3 minutes of pure acoustic musical magic by Albert & Juke Joint Jonny Rizzo & Sandy Mack--a candidate for best song I've heard in 2012. After that, there are still three more songs--almost 20 minutes of good music, including 9 minutes of "Walk The Backstreets," and a cover of "Parchman Farm" that ranks up there with Johnny Winter as the best by anybody ever.  

Is this a rave review? You betcha. This cd was released on June12. You can buy this cd wherever good blues music is available.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Nighthawks -- "Damn Good Time"

The Nighthawks have been on the road playing great blues music for over 40 years now. think about that for a second, and give thanks. Forty years! And the current band of Mark Wenner (harp and vocals, although everybody in the Nighthawks sings) and Paul Bell (on guitar) and Johnny Castle (on bass) and Mark Stutso (on drums) is playing better than ever and finally getting some much-deserved recognition.

From the website: In 2009, Sirius XM’s Bill Wax, having heard that The Nighthawks were playing some acoustic shows, invited the band to record some live tracks for his “B.B. King’s Bluesville” channel. In less than two hours, the band cut almost a dozen tunes. A week later, Bill handed them a mixed version with permission to release. After Bill Wolf's magic-touch in the mastering, "Last Train to Bluesville" was released on RipBang Records. With the able assistance of publicist Mark Pucci and radio promoter Todd Glazer, the CD won Acoustic Album of the Year at the Blues Foundation’s Blues Music Awards in Memphis in May 2011.

I really liked "Last Train To Bluesville" and I like "Damn Good Time" even more. These guys have paid their dues and it shows--there's a moment in nearly every song here where I just lean a little closer to the speakers to hear the magic getting made. An early favorite for Bruce's Album of the Year, this disc just cooks throughout. Every song shows a different flavor, but like barbecue, every flavor is spot-on, rich and tasty. Highly recommended.

More from the website: “This album represents the next chapter, after American Landscape,” Mark Wenner says, “and it’s still true to the fundamental blueprint laid out in 1974’s Rock & Roll.

Mark goes on to talk about some of the songs on the CD and how they were developed for the recording:

“Why not start with ‘Too Much,’ the Elvis tune my grandma bought me at Sam Goody's in New York for my 8th birthday? Taking it back toward its R&B roots, the song is now channeled through the ghost of Jimmy Reed.

“Next up is one we learned working behind blue-eyed-soul monster Billy Price, ‘Who You’re Workin’ For.’ I thought I'd take a crack at a different vocal interpretation. Billy wrote this one with the late, great Glenn Pavone.

“'Damn Good Time,’ the title cut, started as a country song. When the late Warren King brought it to Mark Stutso, it had been taken to Soulsville. Mark took it from there, and he and Johnny finished it. The title does say it, doesn't it?

“’Minimum Wage’ comes out of Mark Stutso's Pittsburgh musical brain-trust with the mad genius, Norm Nardini. ‘Down to My Last Million Tears’ and ‘Heartbreak Shake’ are also products of the Nardini/Stutso mob. ‘Tears’ is the perfect R&B grinding shuffle and ‘Heartbreak’ rocks it on out.

“'Bring Your Sister’ shows how much Johnny, already the king of garage rock, has learned hanging out with the boss of power pop, Nick Lowe.

“’Send for Me,’ Nat King Cole's most rockin’ cut, is lightened into the perfect follow-up to our version of the Buddy Johnson classic and crowd favorite ‘Pretty Girls and Cadillacs.’

“Jimmy McCracklin wrote ‘Georgia Slop’ about an actual joint, Peg Leg Lee's, that was about a mile from present-day Atlanta blues haven Blind Willie's. ‘Nightwork’ is another tune we learned backing Billy Price. People like to holler on that one”

After 40 years, The Nighthawks are still having a Damn Good Time. And so will you. Listen up!

You can buy this cd at: http://www.thenighthawks.com/merch.html