Thursday, December 27, 2012

Top 20 Blues cds of 2012

Before I begin with this annual rite of passage, I need to say a few thank yous. Thank you to Deb and everybody at for letting me play the blues on your internet radio station every Thursday. Thank you to the Promotors and Record Company folks who have sent me some wonderful music this year. And thanks most of all to the artists who make the music.

I've reviewed more music this year than I ever have before, and I still haven't reviewed but about half of what I've received. My plan in this humble blog all along has been to point you in print, dear readers, towards the best of the good stuff. So here is my Top 20 for 2012. And remember if you might like something I've listed here, on Thursday January 3, 2013 from 4-7pm EST I'll be playing selections from these cds on my show at the internet radio station

21.   Ian Siegal and The Mississippi Mudbloods -- Candy Store Kid (Nugene Records)
        A really good blend of English and Hill Country blues--blended but not smooth. Loads of
        invention, passion, and soul. Even better than 2011's "The Skinny."

20.  John Nemeth -- Blues Live (Indy)
        A  souvenir from seeing him live back in the summer. It was funny--I  lived in Atlanta GA for
        five years and he was never there. Then I move to a small town in Missouri and he came
        here and did a great show for about 20 people. 

19.  James Buddy Rogers --  My Guitar's My Only Friend
       Would be higher on this list if I had gotten it earlier in the year. Great singer, great guitar player.
       Review forthcoming.

18.  Zac Harmon -- Music Is Medicine (Urban Eagle)
       I've loved Zac Harmon's music ever since 2005's The Blues According To Zacariah. This is his
       best work yet, but I look forward to the next one. This just barely edged out Robert Cray's
       "Nothing But Love" which was a terrific return to form.

17.  Otis Spann -- Someday (Silk City Records)
       These previously unreleased performances jump out of the speakers. One of the greatest blues
       piano players of all time. Otis played in one of the greatest bands of all time--with Muddy
       Waters--from 1952-1968. A big thanks to Silk City Records for releasing this.       

16.  Delta Moon -- Black Cat Oil (Indy) 
       See my review August 17.

15.  Fred Kaplan -- Hold My Mule (Regal Radio Records)
       Best piano blues music I heard all year. With Junior Watson, Kedar Roy, Richard Innis and
       the terrific Gordon Beadle. See my review August 25.

14. The 44s -- Americana (Rip Cat Records)
      Got this one from my friend Chris Puyear. Thanks Chris. See my review December 11.

13. JoAnne Shaw Taylor -- Almost Always Never (Ruf Records)
      See my review November 16.

12. Altered Five -- Gotta Earn It (Conclave Records)
      This came to me late in the year but it deserves to be on this list. Jeff Taylor has a great voice,
      Jeff Schroedl plays guitar like he is earning his next meal, and the rhythm section of Scott
      Schroedl and Mark Solveson drive the music with power and taste. Music like this is why I love
      the blues. 2012's version of Root Doctor's 2007 release "Change our Ways." Review forthcoming.

11.  Omar & The Howlers -- Too Much Is Not Enough (Big Guitar Music)
       See my review of "I'm Gone" October 17. These guys have been a staple in my life for over 25
       years, and since November 2011 they have released the 2 cd set "Essential" and single cds "I'm
       Gone" and "Too Much Is Not Enough." Omar Kent Dykes is the best singer of Jimmy Reed
       songs out there--nobody can touch him.    

10.  Janiva Magness -- Stronger For It (Alligator Records)
       See my review April 3.

9.   Chris Watson Band -- Pleasure And Pain (Gator Music)
      The best Texas style blues cd of the year. These guys are on the RISE. See my review July 7.

8.   Shemekia Copeland -- 33 1/3 (Telarc)
      This is the best cd so far from Shemekia, backed by Oliver Wood on guitar, Ted Peccio on
      bass, and Gerry Hanson on drums. Buddy Guy and J J Grey guest. Could easily be rated higher. 
      Nominated for Grammy Blues Album of The Year. Review forthcoming.

7.   Cee Cee James -- Blood Red Blues (FWG Records)
      A staple in my cd player. Cee Cee is terrific, backed here by a really good band including Chris
      Leighton on drums, Dan Mohler on bass, Susan Julian on keyboards, Rob "Slideboy" Andrews
      and Rocky Athas on guitars. See my review July 28.

6.   Albert Castliglia -- Living The Dream (Blues Leaf)
      I looked forward to this cd for a long time, and it lived up to the anticipation. Saw him in concert
      locally in September--he and his band played for over 2 hours for about 15 people. I hope Blues
      Leaf will add the live single "Drown In My Own Tears" to this cd. See my review June 19.

5.   Rory Block -- I Belong To The Band (Stony Plain)
      A wonderful presentation of songs of Rev Gary Davis. See my review June 20.

4.   Chris O'Leary Band -- Waiting For The Phone To Ring (Fidellis Records)
      A very fine release. These guys' career should be taking off now. See my review Dec 16.

3.   Mud Morganfield -- Son Of The Seventh Son (Severn Records)
      The best Chicago style blues cd of the year. Just barely beat out Big James & The Chicago
      Playboys "The Big Payback." See my review March 5.

2.   Michael Burks -- Show Of Strength (Alligator Records)
      This posthumous release is even better than "Iron Man." The best work of Burks' career, which
      makes his passing even more sad. Strong singing, strong guitar, strong songs. Review
1.   Maria Muldaur et all -- First Came Memphis Minnie (Stony Plain)
      I love Maria Muldaur. A terrific set. Great songs, great singers, great playing. See my review
      November 14.     

Now that Bruce's Top Twenty is out there, I guess I should announce Bruce's Song Of The Year.
I heard more than 540 songs this year, many of them more than once, and a certain few of those stayed in my head in a good way.  The final list of top contenders include these great songs:

Michael Burks' "Feel Like Going Home,"
Ian Siegal & The Mississippi Mudbloods "Green Power,"
Maria Muldaur "Me & My Chauffeur Blues,"
Shemekia Copeland's "Can't Let Go,"
Nathan James & The Rhythm Scratchers "What You Make Of It,"
Chris Watson Band "Hard Luck Woman,"
Lance Lopez's "Black Cat Moan."

But after giving it a lot of thought, my song of the year is Albert Castiglia's "I Want Her For Myself."  

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Doug Deming & The Jewel Tones AND Dennis Gruenling "Rockin' All Day"

 Doug Deming & The Jewel Tones and Dennis Gruenling have spent the past five or six months touring the east coast together supporting these two new cds. Doug Deming hails from Detroit and now resides on the Gulf Coast of Florida. He plays guitar and sings. Dennis Gruenling is from New Jersey, and he plays harmonica and sings. The Jewel Tones have been around since 1991, and the current members are Andrew Gohman on upright and electric bass, and Devin Neel on drums. Both these discs are on the Vizztone label.  
Let me take them in alphabetical order--on "Wht's It Gonna Take" Doug Deming wrote six of the 11 songs. Anthony Smith guests on harmonica on one track, "No Big Thrill." The covers are Willie Mabon's "Poison Ivy," J Hendricks' "I Want You To Be My Baby" and B Johnson's "A Pretty Girl (A cadillac and Some Money)" and Dennis Gruenling's "Bella Boogie." Of the originals, several merit notice--"Think Hard" sounds like a Jimmy Reed song. "One Good Reason" is a showcase for Andrew Gohman's swinging standup bass, and Deming lays a smooth jazzy guitar break. "Stay Away" is a powerhouse, starting with a big drum beat and lyrics that sound like Duke Robillard is singing and a great guitar break. Doug's singing and guitar with The Jewel Tones and Dennis Gruenling are a fantastic compliment--throughout, this seems like a hot 4 piece band, playing a set of blues stylistically featuring jump, rockabilly and swing blues. There are moments when this comes across as old-fashioned, like on "I Want You To Be My Baby," and on "Poison Ivy," but on the rest of the songs here the feel is surprisingly contemporary. Doug Deming & The Jewel Tones are making a new thing out of the old-skool blues, and the results are highly addictive.

Let me pick up "Rockin' All Day." On this cd Dennis Gruenling plays all the songs with Doug Deming on guitar and vocals, and half of the songs they are backed by The Jewel Tones. The other half of the songs Gruenling plays with members of his sometimes road band, Scot Hornick on bass and Tom Papadatos on drums. Dave Gross is in the producer's chair, and he plays piano on one track. Dennis even sings on one song. He has been playing harmonica since he released his debut cd in 1999, and let me tell you, he has plenty of chops to spare. Here he wrote 4 of the 12 songs, and Doug Deming wrote one.  Things start off on a high level, a harmonica showcase of "Jimmy McCrackin's "Rockin' All Day (Reelin' & Rockin')" There's no letdown after that either. The next song is Jimmy Harris's "Roll Your Moneymaker," and when they had these two in the can, they knew for sure this was going to be a strong release. On the third song, Gruenling's original "The Rev," one of three instrumentals here, Dennis rips the roof off with a chromatic harp workout...and Deming brings a seriously great guitar break in the middle. Then we get two hot swinging covers, "Saturday Night Fish Fry" followed by "One Scotch, One Bourbon, One Beer." Those songs might be over 50 years old, but the band is so hot the songs simply don't feel old.  Everything here and for the rest of the disc just swings with loads of energy and style. Seeing these guys live would be a treat!

Let me finish with a couple of quotes:

"Doug Deming & The Jewel Tones deliver the sound and styles of Blues and Swing fresh way past the expiration date."   Bob Margolin

"Dennis Gruenling is a leading light among a new generation of blues harp players...a true innovator..."                Blues Revue

Don't buy just one--buy them both. These cds can be bought at

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Chris O'Leary Band -- "Waiting for The Phone To Ring"

I sincerely apologize for the lateness of this review. The Chris O'Leary Band released this cd last June, and I have been playing it regularly on my radio show ever since, and in all that time I never got around to writing this review.

Do I need to tell you, dear reader, that Chris O'Leary was the singer/frontman for Levon Helm's Barnburners for 6 years? That the Chris O'Leary Band won the 2011 Blues Blast Music Award for "Best New Artist Debut CD" for their first cd, "Mr. Used To Be"? That this follow up was recorded at his Fat Rabbit Studios with Dave Gross sitting in the producer's chair? That this disc is dedicated to the memories of Jeff Sarli, Bill Perry, Hubert Sumlin and Levon Helm?

All these clues point you toward the stellar quality of the music captured here. The COB is an all-star combo, with Chris O'Leary on vocals and harmonica, Chris Vitarello on guitar & vocals, Sean McCarthy on drums, Frank Ingrao on upright and electric bass, Willa McCarthy on vocals, Andy Stahl on tenor sax, Chris DiFrancesco on bari and tenor sax on two tracks, and Jeremy Baum on piano, B-3 organ and accordian on two tracks. In addition, Dave Gross plays guitar, drums and percussion on six tracks, Michael Bram plays drums and percussion on four tracks, Scot Hornick plays upright bass on eight tracks, and Vinnie Nobile plays trombone on two tracks. This is a big band with a full sound, and lot of depth and talent. And the coolest thing about this cd is that everything here has that great ensemble flavor like the very best blues always has. Everybody plays together--no egos anywhere, just great playing by everybody on track after track.  All the songs are written by Chris O'Leary. And no matter what kind of blues you favor, these 13 tracks can hook you--the band covers the proverbial waterfront of styles--West Coast blues, Chicago blues, New Orleans gumbo.

Here's how Mark S Tucker, from The Folk and Acoustic Music Exchange describes it:
“Chris O’Leary’s got it, man, he’s got it. From rol­lickin’ rock (Give It) to week­end stomp (With­out You) to slinkin’ down-lo back-alley swank (Louisiana Woman) to bar­rel­house bal­ladry (Pic­tures of You) and well beyond…and, lord, that’s only the first four of thir­teen cuts [on his sec­ond CD, Wait­ing for the Phone to Ring,] deliv­ered with piz­zazz, panache, plenty of pig’s feet n’ gumbo, and more than a lit­tle pugilis­tic punch-up all through the blues’ back yard. His ace band knows how to cen­ter O’Leary’s vocals while parad­ing all around him, hot and hip but per­fectly in con­trol, ac-cen-tu-atin’ the pos­i­tive, the neg­a­tive, the ques­tion­able, and even the down­right nasty.“

I can't add anything to that. A very fine cd. You can buy it at Amazon and I-Tunes.

Friday, December 14, 2012

The No Refund Band -- "The No Refund Band"

This is the debut recording for the No Refund Band, but don't confuse that with inexperience. Collectively, the band members have toured and recorded full time for multiple decades. The No Refund Band was formed in 2007 by guitarist Mike Crownover and they had some success, especially around Dallas/Fort Worth. But they really found magic in a bottle 2 years ago when Ricky Jackson (vocals, lead guitar) and Rik Robertson (bass) joined forces. In 2010 those three connected with Anthony Terry (sax) Diamond Jim Brady (trumpet) and Walter Cross (drums), and the No Refund Band was underway.
Special guest on this cd is Tommie Lee Bradley, and you can't call what she adds "background vocals"--she has never been in anybody's background.

The No Refund Band members have strong songwriting abilities in addition to instrumental prowess. Of the 12 songs on this cd, six are written either by Ricky Jackson and/or Jackson-Crownover-Robertson. The remaining six are covers. The originals are good. I especially like "Come Down Slow," "Top Side" and "Got Whiskey"--those three would fit in any playlist anywhere for any occasion. And the covers are strong and interesting--they range from the classic blues standard "Blues Is My Business" through "MacCartney-Lennon's "Eleanor Rigby," done in a fresh blues arrangement, to Warren Haynes "Soulshine," which seems like a natural for Terry's sax and strong sweet vocals by both Jackson and Bradley, and Hoyt Axton's "Never Been To Spain" including the original "Spain Prelude," and a burning "Willie The Wimp," which features an all too rare trumpet solo by Jim Brady. On the cover of my copy of this cd I wrote in sharpie: "All are fine for airplay."

The blues sometimes can get a bit stale. There's a lot of follow-the-leader stylings, and all too often a kind of paint-by-numbers approach. Only rarely do bands feature both top-notch musicianship and risky arrangements. The No Refund Band is a breath of fresh air, a band that can bring the goods and always come across as interesting and thoughtful. Texas Blues at their very best.    

You can buy this cd at

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The 44s -- "Americana"

Lately I've been looking back over the music I've heard this year, with an ear towards working on my end of the year top 12 or 15 or 20--that list will be posted here on December 27. One of the cds I've really liked was the 44s "Americana." I am actually surprised that I didn't review this cd in this space back in April or May, but it's amazing how many times I keep finding this cd in my car cd player.

So consider this a make-up review. The 44s started up in 2007 in Los Angeles. This is the 44s' second cd, after "Boogie Disease," and it is on City Hall Records. The band is Johnny Main (vocals, guitar), Tex Nakamura (harmonica), Mike Turturro (bass), and J R Lozano (drums). This time out the 44s have Kid Ramos in the producer chair, and he also plays guitar, and Rob Dziubla also guests on horns on several songs. 10 of the 13 songs here are originals--they also cover Howling Wolf's "My Highway Man" and Willie Dixon's "You'll Be Mine." 

The flavor of the cd is West Coast and Chicago blues, and these guys get every detail absolutely right, communicating sizzling blues on track after track. I love the way Johnny Main and Kid Ramos weave the vocal and their guitars around the harp work by Nakamura over the great rhythm work by Turturro and Lozano. The opening track, "Hanging Tree" starts things off with a great boogie, and the next two numbers, "Lady Luck" and "Cocaine," (not the JJ Cale song, by the way) just keep that great vibe going. "Dixie" is an all-too-short rockabilly romp, and "Hard Times" is a standout--really good vocals, and guitar, and harmonica. The band does justice to the covers, and they burn the place down with "99 To Life." And when they unleash Dziubla on horns, on "Hold On," the intensity is off the charts.

Highly recommended. This is a really good cd by the 44s, and I look forward to their next one. They play the old blues with authenticity and passion, and they update the sound with soul and taste. The 44s remind me of another West Coast based band that does Chicago blues very well--a band called the Insomniacs, on Delta Groove Records--and that is a big compliment. With really good music coming out like this, I am optimistic about the future of the blues.       

You can buy this cd at