All CDs reviewed by the BLUES ACCESS editorial staff. Discs that have been given full reviews in this or previous issues of BLUES ACCESS are quoted with the reviewers initials in brackets. Note: Be sure to send us two (2) copies of all new releases.
Rory Block is a terrific acoustic blues guitarist with many recordings and festival appearances to her credit, but that’s not enough this time around. Block divides her 14th Rounder release between uptown ’70s soul and gospel-like, mostly a cappella duets on ancient ballads, but it’s a jarring juxtaposition that doesn’t quite work. On a handful of songs, she’s matched with Paul Rishell, Annie Raines and Jordan Black Valdina, among others, telling tales of death and salvation. Then she puts her dancing shoes on and travels to ’70s-era Memphis, with horns and synthesizers marking her path. One can’t help feeling that these cuts came from different projects. An entire album of the a cappella material would be welcome, but this outing is too schizophrenic to enjoy thoroughly.
— David Feld
Cain’s love letter to Lucille and the legacy of B.B. King is pure joy to hear. Not only do you hear the respect and reverence with which Cain regards his work, but you also hear just how varied King’s oeuvre really is. The song selection steers clear of the well-known tunes and covers numbers that span the ’50s to the ’70s without focusing on any one style or sound. You get the raw stuff like "Hummingbird" along with the smooth, horn-driven R&B productions like "Take Me Home." As usual, Cain’s guitar and vocal work are exemplary, not sounding like a mere King clone but instead managing to pay tribute with just the right touch of originality. A heartfelt homage.
— Jon Martinez
For a singer whose previous releases include "Bone Me Like You Own Me" and "Stroke It," The Best Woman is a rather tame title. But Carr hasn’t changed: she’s still tough, unapologetic, seeking — no, demanding — pleasure. As she tells her rival in the title track, "You tried your best, girl, but the best woman won" (and we know who that is). This is an album of dance-floor soul and ballads. While Carr’s singing is excellent, the material and production suffer from studio stagnation. John Ward wrote, produced, engineered, mixed and played virtually all the instruments (and many of them were virtual). Carr needs a real band to work with so her audience can party along.
— David Feld
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, just keep serving it up hot and greasy. After a series of successful releases on Blind Pig Records, Tommy Castro makes the leap to Tower Records’ fledgling in-house label, 33rd St. Records. The new release is more of what Castro’s fans have come to expect: sexy, spirited blues with soul flavor and plenty of guitar work.
The least successful track, the title cut, has a guest appearance by John Lee Hooker, his last recording before his death in 2001. His vocal riffing has its moments, but Hooker’s signature vocalizing never quite gels with Castro’s soul-blues production.
Despite that weakness, the disc is otherwise a fine, hip-shaking party. The band is right, tight and on the money. Castro’s long-time sax man, Keith Crossan, gets a well-deserved solo run, honking, wailing and squealing on the smoky instrumental, "Naugahyde." Long-running bandmate Randy McDonald on bass and Billy Lee Lewis on drums get an extra punch from the keyboards, mostly contributed by producer Jimmy Pugh.
Tommy Castro continues to develop as a fine, soulful vocalist and songwriter without shorting his guitar hero persona.
If the big heels and the high-production fashion values have you skeptical about this lady, keep reading. Purring and snarling through "Your One and Only," crowing danger through the tasty acoustic gem "Behind My Back," double-daring her way through the buoyant "Purple Tattoos," Cathy Jean has a natural gift for pairing her formidable voice with some pretty mean presence and solid song-writing (not a single cover on the entire CD). Blues fans will want to skip string-coated pop fare like "You Don’t Know," but most of the rest is great stuff — seductive, tough and convincing, backed by a terrific group. Excellent and recommended.
Georgia-based Sean Costello’s third album dips into small-combo soul to provide the perfect backdrop for his fluid guitar pyrotechnics. Although a promising chronicler of heartache ("Don’t Be Reckless With My Heart," "Miles Away"), this 13-song set’s best moments come via lively re-inventions of tunes penned by Willie Dixon ("One Kiss"), Otis Rush ("It Takes Time") and J.B. Lenoir ("Good Advice"). Vocally, the rasping 21-year old still hasn’t reached his peak, but he displays sufficient confidence to allow writing partner/co-producer Paul Linden to practically steal the show with a wild harmonica instrumental ("The Plumber").
— Ken Burke
Working with veteran producer and songwriter Dennis Walker, Scott Ellison turns in a guitar-driven disc for the Portland, Oregon-based Burnside label. Ellison and Walker share songwriting credits on the disc, resulting in predominately rocking blues tunes like the title track. Ellison’s vocals, like those of many guitarists, are not his strongest suit, but his interpretations have an edgy, raw quality that suits the material, and on the compelling, atmospheric "Whistlin’ in the Graveyard," Ellison’s voice has a dangerous, raspy quality. Producer Walker is a veteran of many successful outings with Robert Cray, and another Cray veteran, Jimmy Pugh, brings some extra punch to the disc with his revved-up keyboards. Co-producer/engineer Alan Mirikitani adds some soul-blues to the proceedings with his horn arrangements on tracks like "I Wish I Knew."
The Rocky Mountain back-porch acoustic picker serves up another platter of modest, laid-back country blues, deftly mixing her originals with solid interpretations of tunes by Mance Lipscomb, Memphis Minnie and Ivory Joe Hunter. Flower spices up the mix with a jazzy take on Toots Thielemans’ "Bluesette," a medley of "Yes Sir That’s My Baby," "I’ll See You in My Dreams" and "Darktown Strutter’s Ball," and an unlikely wedding of "Baby Please Don’t Go" with Booker T’s "Green Onions." Former members of the subdudes help flesh out the proceedings as Flower delivers some clean finger-picking and slide work.
— Jon Martinez
Robben Ford & the Ford Blues Band
One of the reassuring things about the Ford family is that they never stray too far from their commonly shared blues roots, despite guitarist Robben’s years as a quasi-fusion sideman with Miles Davis and others. This collection is notable in that it includes most of the members of drummer Patrick Ford’s original and current bands. Apart from the expected high-energy, harmonica-led raves like "Screamin’" and "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl," this CD has plenty of gorgeous little flourishes, like Dewayne Pate’s lovely, lilting bass riff and a dead-perfect horn section on "Last Hopes Gone" and Volker Strifler’s acoustic guitar on the hymnal "In My Own Dream." Lead vocal duties are traded amongst Andy Just, Mark Ford and Robben Ford, giving the CD a consistently fresh veneer, and the playing is tight and economical throughout. Very good.
Dick Heckstall-Smith & Friends
He started with jazz, moved into blues with Alexis Koerner, and now saxophonist Dick Heckstall-Smith has surrounded himself with some of the best in British blues players: John Mayall, Peter Green, Mick Taylor and Jack Bruce. The result is an electric romp through the blues on a number of songs penned by Heckstall-Smith. The disc opens with a terrific turn on "Rollin’ and Tumblin’" and proceeds into a more modern vernacular, including "Hidden Agenda" (with Jack Bruce on vocals), "Spooky But Nice" and "Twilight Shuffle." While the musicianship is excellent throughout, some of the vocals are a bit uneven, leading us to wonder if Heckstall-Smith would have been better served making an album of instrumentals instead.
— John Koetzner
Joe "Guitar" Hughes
Hughes is a fine blues musician from the great state of Texas for whom the blues is second nature. He’s got that same deep, direct and soulful sound possessed by his contemporaries Johnny Copeland, Johnny "Guitar" Watson and Albert Collins, but he dropped out of the scene for years to pursue the "normal" lifestyle. Now this 64-year-old retiree is back, captured live in front of an appreciative San Francisco crowd. He hasn’t forgotten the lessons he learned backing Bobby "Blue" Bland, Fats Domino, Sam & Dave and other luminaries: Keep it tight and in the pocket. Hughes’ snarly guitar and savvy vocals are well worth investigation.
— Jon Martinez
Herbert & Rufus Hunter
Common wisdom places Nashville at the center of country music and Memphis as the Valhalla of R&B — but, in fact, Nashville had an active and thriving R&B scene in the late ’50s and early ’60s, and local brothers Herbert and Rufus Hunter were mainstays. This collection, second in a series on Nashville R&B, centers on the Hunters’ early recordings and predominately features Herbert. His vocal versatility really shines on the heartbreak pop of "Love Has Taken Over Me" and the rather poorly-recorded "I Gotta Sit Down," both written by Hunter brothers’ mentor Ted Jarred. Rufus’ recordings are somewhat more contemporary sounding, evidencing a heavier James Brown soul influence ("Win Or Lose") and early-’70s funk ("Clean With Your Dirty Work"). Excellent liner notes on both singers and Jarred, although precious little on the recordings themselves.
Big George Jackson Blues Band
The second release by the Minneapolis-based Big George Jackson Blues Band on the Dutch Black & Tan label is a healthy dose of no-nonsense urban blues, heavy on wailing harmonica and the brawling, straight-up vocal delivery of Jackson himself. Hints of Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker surface in Jackson’s heavy, expressive vocals, and the band behind him (with Jeremy Johnson and Phil Schmid handling guitars) is all straight-no-chaser rave, schooled in deep Chicago and barely a showboater’s cut on the collection. Our favorites include the broken-man story-telling of "20 Years" and the bad-news mojo of "Dirty Haints." Low-key and close to his roots, this guy has got the goods without needing the fireworks.
What more can be said about the Grand Dame of Soul? Like fine wine, her voice continues to mellow with age, gaining a full-bodied richness that leaves a refreshing aftertaste. This CD continues her collaboration with pianist Cedar Walton, creating exquisite interpretations of jazz and pop standards. "He’s Funny That Way," "These Foolish Things," "Love Letters," "Cry Me a River" and others are re-invented as bluesy, introspective, late-night ballads that both captivate and relax the mind. Good company for those long, quiet winter nights.
— Jon Martinez
Jimmy Johnson/Luther Johnson, Jr.
Another in a series of Marcelle Morgantini’s ’70s-era live recordings from Chicago’s West and South Side clubs, and this one’s pretty good. Most of the first half features guitarist Jimmy Johnson singing and playing with Jimmy Dawkins’ band, and Johnson’s playing is impressive: Check out the succinct, fluid phrasing on Tommy McClennan’s "Crosscut Saw" and the fleet trills of "Ma Bea’s Rock." There’s a nice, relatively low-key helping of Jimmy Johnson’s "Get Ready Here I Come," stripped down and appropriately bluesier than either the Temptations or Rare Earth versions. Luther’s cuts have a looser, more R&B-flavored vibe to them, especially the rousing "You Gotta Have Soul," with Johnson singing damn near out of his shoes. Decent recordings make this a good period collection.
— Dave Kirby
Good ensemble work and some accomplished harmonica blowing mark this re-release of a 1990 album by the Syracuse, New York-based Kingsnakes. The tunes, mostly original, are played solidly in the amplified Chicago blues style and feature harmonica player/vocalist Pete McMahon. The band used to back up Hooker on his East Coast jaunts and takes its name from Hooker’s "Crawling Kingsnake." The disc gets extra punch from guest appearances by Kenny Baker on sax and Deacon Jones on organ, both members of Hooker’s Coast to Coast Blues Band.
The perfect gift for the part-time Kooper archivist, this two-CD collection features a predictably schizo collection of recordings spanning 30 years of the mercurial artist’s recording career. On Rare, the spacious and bluesy-cool ’90s-vintage "I Can’t Stand the Rain" features a dreamy and diffident vocal complete with trademark letter-perfect horn section. The track is oddly placed behind the ’70s-era pop grin of "Autumn Song," which sounds a shade like Steely Dan meets the Beach Boys. The upbeat single "Nuthin’ I Wouldn’t Do (For a Woman Like You)" smacks of sleek, late-’80s pop, and the bittersweet blues-soul raver "I Believe to My Soul," complete with back-up chorus, is absolutely sumptuous, high-calorie stuff. Check out the covers of "Hey Jude" and "Making Plans for Nigel." The Well Done side features choice morsels from Blues Project, Blood, Sweat & Tears and the Super Session days, including "Season of the Witch" and "Flute Thing." Exquisitely reproduced renderings of this stuff is almost worth the price alone. Trust us, you want this one.
The title says it all: This is a compilation of LaSalle’s best (not necessarily her biggest-selling) songs from her late-’70s/early-’80s releases on ABC and MCA, and it’s an excellent collection of Memphis-style soul — big productions that never lose touch with the beat. LaSalle wrote most of her own material — songs about cheating, love triangles, and broken hearts. Through it all, she survives and, ultimately, gets what she wants. There are smooth ballads, like "Too Little in Common to Be Lovers" (but too much going for us to ever say goodbye) and dance floor hits like "Love Addict" and "Tighten Up Your Good Thing." With almost ridiculously comprehensive liner notes, this is LaSalle at her (pre-Malaco) best.
— David Feld
Don Lataraski & Rue de Blues
The Pacific Northwest is not particularly known as a hotbed for spawning blues artists, but the guitar work here by Don Latarski tells me we should be hunting for more players like him. Latarski penned the songs, impeccable guitar playing fills the disc, and his band Rue de Blues is a tight backing unit that gives him the backbone for a series of cuts that are moody and trace the fringes of jazz too. This live recording is as intimate as sitting in a club late at night watching a master play.
— John Koetzner
Rick Lawson tries to keep the classic soul sound alive, but ill-advised production techniques favoring electronic percussion, synthesized bass and horn parts render the music largely sterile and ineffective and reduce Lawson to little more than a karaoke artist. Not to imply he can’t sing, mind you: Lawson has a pleasingly rich, traditionally soulful R&B style that comes through despite the forgettable backing. But rhythm & blues wasn’t meant to be played by button-pushing studio wizards. It should be genuinely gritty and powerful, with acoustic drums, bass, keys, horns and guitar, just the way Otis, Wilson and Aretha did it back in the ’60s. Rick Lawson’s 24-7 is way too tame.
Harry Manx turns in sweet and beautiful acoustic guitar-and-harp blues with a personal twist: the shimmering influence of the many years he spent studying the traditional east Indian version of the slide guitar with a master, Vishwa Mohann Bhatt. Manx’s bright-toned slide guitar and picking style is evocative and colorful, and his voice is a cultivated folk-blues instrument. All but four of the 13 tracks are originals, well-crafted and compellingly portrayed with stripped-down passion, and the covers betray Manx’s roots in Delta blues and traditional folk. Those who enjoy the singer-songwriter-guitar-picker efforts of artists like Keb’ Mo’, Chris Smither, Kelly Joe Phelps and even Dave Alvin (Manx has a much different vocal tone but similar roots and conviction) should give Toronto-based Harry Manx a good, hard listen. This is a fine, fine CD.
— B.J. Huchtemann
Enduring classic is what comes to mind as Blues Breakers bursts from the speakers — a disc that is a must-have for any blues collection. From cuts like "Hideaway" to "Ramblin’ on My Mind," this disc reminds us what the British blues invasion was all about and why it still has a lasting imprint on blues history. Newly remastered with a couple of bonus cuts, it’s difficult to fathom that this album was recorded 35 years ago. Clapton’s guitar work rightfully made his reputation, and Mayall’s soulful harp playing on "Another Man" reminds us of how he gets inside the blues. Even if you have it on vinyl, it’s time to get it on disc.
— John Koetzner
Irish guitar veteran Rab McCullough is just beginning to make a name for himself on this side of the Atlantic. Obviously enamored of another great Irish guitarist, the late Rory Gallagher, McCullough blazes through seven original songs that cover the stylistic gamut from slow blues to hot funk. Recorded on analog equipment in Dover, New Jersey’s Showplace Studios, Belfast Blues has only one fault: It’s too damn short. Tracks like the deadly "Trouble" and "Louisiana Woman" burn with excitement, leaving the listener wanting more. McCullough is a very worthy blues guitarist and vocalist who deserves more attention. Highly recommended.
This Atlanta-based journeyman has hot licks to spare, and they come down fast and furious throughout his sixth release. McDonald varies his guitar tone according to each tune’s mood and groove, from lean and clean on "T-Bone Shuffle" to thick and nasty distortion on the up-tempo rockers ("Travellin’ South") or slow burners ("Five Long Years"). McDonald’s flat-out Southern style of wailing is ably supported by a tight band featuring Raymond Victor’s excellent vocals and tasty guest shots from Barry Richman on two tracks and the subtle slide work of Bob Margolin on "Ode to Billy Joe." Lovers of white-hot guitar will not be disappointed.
— Jon Martinez
While most people don’t think of drummers as band-leaders or blues composers, Jimmy Morello is one exception who captures the coolness of West Coast blues in the tradition of Johnny Otis. This disc not only displays Morello’s craftsmanship as a songwriter but also captures his production work as well, highlighting how much influence he has had on the recent careers of Roy Gaines and Carol Fran. Compiled from two of his own discs and some of those he has produced, West Coast Redemption is a testament to Morello’s soulful singing and playing. His voice is gritty and emotive on "Too Much Crime in the City" and "I Read Your Letter," but it’s his production work that really shines on the disc.
— John Koetzner
Johnny Neel, the keyboardist who fuels and fills the fiery sound of the Allman Brothers Band on record, is no neophyte in the world of blues-rock. On this disc his keyboard stylings move from New Orleans funk to boogie-woogie to rock. Growling through these songs sounding like a cross between Dr. John and Lowell George, Neel enjoys strong guitar support from Shane Theriot, Rick Vito and Ricky Ray Rector. The rest of the supporting players fill in solidly as Neel delivers the heat on cuts like "Caught Me on the Blind Side" and "Murdered by Love." This disc should win him some new fans.
— John Koetzner
Fernando Noronha & Black Soul with Ron Levy
Brazilian guitarist Fernando Noronha shows us blues is an international language. Although unknown in the United States, Noronha has gained some notoriety in South America with his battered Fender Stratocaster and wickedly rocking blues. Practically every cut is a guitar workout, with Hammond B-3-for-hire Ron Levy on organ and production duties. Noronha sings soulfully in English (with a hit of Texas drawl yet) and sports a very good backing band. The music is mostly up-tempo, with the accent on guitar pyrotechnics. Nothing terribly original going on, but Fernando Noronha & Black Soul’s third disc is a winner. Muy bueno!
— Bob Cianci
Joe Poonanny isn’t likely to become anyone’s idea of a blues icon, but the guy is just too damn funny for words. With his barrel-chested voice and over-the-top comedic timing, Poonanny holds forth on subjects ranging from the length of a woman’s leg hair ("Hair on Her Legs") to Ben Franklin’s $100 head looking like a bad case of mumps ("Big Head Money") to general misbehavin’ ("Hole in Your Draws"), with various blues-idiom send-ups in between. The music here is slick, cleanly-rendered funk and drum-programmed R&B, but don’t mistake this for hip-hop. We’ll carefully characterize this one as Rodney Dangerfield meets George Clinton (we’re not kidding), joshing around with the blues oeuvre without disrespecting or trivializing it. Great stuff.
Paul Reddick & the Sidemen
Canada’s hottest contemporary blues band delivers the biggest pleasant surprise of the year: steamy Southern roots-rock-blues with a ’30s feel, braced by profoundly refreshing song-writing and intelligent, poetic lyrics filled with colorful metaphors. Reddick, a self-described purveyor of "hard blues for modern times," put down 16 remarkably even, consistently powerful tracks. If you loved the swampy slide guitar of Lowell George, the old-time Delta harmonica wail of Sonny Boy Williamson and the refreshing brashness of early rock’n’roll, get with this. Their foot-stomping, exuberantly fun blues, played with tasty fineness and heartfelt feeling, will soon have us all singing, "All the world is a silhouette of Sleepy John Estes with a cigarette." A real gem, this Rattlebag.
— Frank Matheis
Earl Seratte & the Blues Kings
With a smooth, jumpin’ sound and a mix of originals and sassy cover tunes like the old chestnuts "She Walks Right In," "Just a Little Bit" and "Walking by Myself," Earl Seratte & the Blues Kings puts down a sound that’s ready to party.
The West Coast band features some warm, tight chorus harmonizing that enhances the sophistication also present in many of the arrangements. Occasional tracks like "Keep on Movin’" and "Complicated" cross over into a contemporary power-pop-rock vein, but the jump-blues, harmonica-fueled tunes fronted by Seratte’s forceful vocals are the stand-out tracks, with real personality that comes across on disc.
This is the Blues Kings’ first recording. The playing is solid and versatile, and the production choices are interesting enough to make this a band worth seeing live if they hit a club near you.
— B.J. Huchtemann
James Solberg Band
Former Luther Allison bandleader and co-writer James Solberg has a reputation for producing quality work, and he keeps that streak alive here, offering up strong, straight-ahead grooves. "Too Much Damn Lovin’" leads off with a huge up-tempo groove featuring the nimble and searing slide work of special guest Chris Bingham. Chugging stompers, soulful slow burners and Chicago-style rompers follow, with Solberg’s gruff and ready vocals and stinging guitar work leading the way. It’s all anchored by a tight backing band, and it’s a solid effort.
— Jon Martinez
Born in 1917, Myra Taylor was the featured vocalist with Harlan Leonard and his Famous Rockets in the ’40s. Traveling throughout the world, she lived in Europe for many years before returning to the U.S. in 1977. After a half-century she has returned to the studio for a set of enjoyable, danceable swing and jazz standards. Her vocals are straight-forward and unembellished, with a hint of Jimmy Scott in her octogenarian alto. Highlights include her own "Spider and the Fly" and the R&B classic, "Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean." The backing musicians are solid on this pleasant, if unexceptional, release.
— David Feld
Taylor’s career as a guitarist and band-leader spans four decades. He’s worked with Otis Redding, Sam & Dave and the Isley Brothers, among others, and attained legendary status in the Long Island blues community (he was recently inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame there) as a player and an inspiration to students of the genre. Here he dispenses some easy-rollin’ numbers that combine contemporary rhythms with a modest, laid-back delivery befitting a true veteran. Features some nice sinewy lead work from violinist Heather Hardy.
— Jon Martinez
Bill Thomas is a transplanted Texas guitarist now living in England. His approach is reminiscent of another famous Lone Star axe-slinger with the initials "SRV," and that’s not surprising, given the glut of Vaughan imitators out there. Like Vaughan, Thomas works with a bassist and drummer that provide a solid, uncluttered groove. The material is passably good, and Thomas is an able if not unspectacular guitarist and an understated vocalist. He offers up funk and reggae rhythms with some success, but all in all, Bill Thomas’ latest disc veers too close to the SRV precipice for this writer’s taste.
— Bob Cianci
Any Woman’s Blues, part of Rounder’s Heritage Series, is a highlight of past and present glories in the female vocalist department. Like all good compilations, it features a buffet of voices and styles of blues that stir the pot real good. There’s soul/rock from Miki Honeycutt and Barbara Lynn, the acoustic roots of Rory Block and Maria Muldaur and some hard-core swing from Candye Kane and Kim Nalley with the Johnny Nocturne Band. Michelle Willson, Angela Strehli and Ann Peebles round out the artists, and there’s not a flawed song in the bunch.
Ruth Brown gets two deserved cuts: a cool duet with Charles Brown (the loose "Tell Me Who") and a lush big-band ballad ("Sold My Heart to the Junkman"). One of the best recent female recordings was the Marcia Ball/Tracy Nelson/Irma Thomas collaboration Sing It! and two of those songs are featured here: the threesome "Shouldn’t I Love Him" and the heart-breaking "You Don’t Know Nothing About Love."
A lot of people think the blues is a man’s world, but Any Woman’s Blues should easily prove otherwise.
— Matthew Socey
"A star-studded collection of the groggiest and greasiest instrumentals from the classic R&B era," the back-cover blurb reads, and you couldn’t come up with a more dead-on description of the 25 sides of juke-joint heaven contained within. From Pee Wee Crayton’s "Blues After Hours" (1948) to Booker T & the MGs’ "Red Beans and Rice" (1965) and all points in between, you won’t find one tune that fails to get your fingers poppin’ and toes tapppin’. As usual, a joyous, lovingly-compiled and -annotated celebration of the lost art of the invigorating R&B instrumental from Ace Records. Save those quarters for this one.
— Jon Martinez
This generous collection represents the output from two labels Willie Dixon worked closely with while on the outs with the Chess brothers in the late ’50s. Dixon was interested in giving young and unknown players a break that Chess wouldn’t, and while his relationship with Eli Toscano, the shady chief proprietor of ABCO and Cobra, was on shaky ground, this is ample proof that his efforts brought some excellent talent to light. Check out Betty Everett’s sweet, bluesy sway through "Killer Diller" and offhanded but raucous recording of Memphis Slim’s "No Mail Blues." Bits of fame (Sonny Boy Williamson, Shaky Horton) and obscurity (Clarence Jolly, Morris Pejoe) sit side by side here, a nice cross-section of Chicago blues and pop R&B of the period. Outstanding liner notes as well.
Tony Vega Band
This all-original contemporary album by a gifted Texas guitarist who demonstrates his ability to play varying styles with equal skill rocks but has the backbone of traditional blues. Vega’s boogie shuffle, "Old Maid," features his compelling, razor-sharp guitar style and weighs in as the best up-tempo cut here. "Wild Rose" is a rocking, free-wheeling romp with some great guitar licks, and "Frisco" is a traditional 12-bar urban blues tune reminiscent of B.B. King’s ’50s recordings that showcases Vega’s first-rate voice and terrific lead guitar speed and tone. "Ghost Train" is a medium-tempo instrumental tribute to the ghosts of the Delta blues masters written by the Mighty Ork and featuring his tasty licks on Resophonic guitar.
— Jim Shortt
Waters is another lost treasure from the Nashville soul/R&B circuit who never quite caught that one break to stardom and was doomed to obscurity until the release of this compilation, which contains all of Waters’ material on the Ref-O-Ree label as well as select tunes from the even more obscure October imprint. These 45s run the gamut from lush orchestrated ballads ("I’m Afraid to Let You Into My Life," "Love Is a Two-Way Thing") to Sam & Dave sound-alikes to socially-conscious ’70s funk (Curtis Mayfield once released a Waters tune that became a regional hit), with lots of Stax-style soul in between. If smooth and soulful crooning circa mid-’60s/early-’70s is your cup of tea, check out this posthumous release by a talent worthy of wider recognition.
— Jon Martinez
This is the first studio recording in five years for Whitley, and in the meantime his deconstructed techno-blues howl has evolved into a thoroughly unique concoction, diffident of its occasional failures and relentless in its pursuit of inside-outside emotiveness. You get the sense that the presence of grin-grass super-star Dave Matthews (he guests on acoustic guitar and owns the label this is released on) serves to temper Whitley’s restlessness and angularity from time to time. The poised, almost guitar-less "Something Shines" and the melancholy but large "Say Goodbye" work well for us. Not much for blues, but a fascinating release anyway.
Marva Wright is the big-voiced, gospel-trained dynamo from New Orleans. Her approach: rear back and let it fly. You can be enraptured by her style, or you can be overwhelmed by it. There are several gems on her eponymous new release: "Difficult Woman" is a long, slow song that displays her full tone to excellent effect, and there’s good New Orleans funk on Huey "Piano" Smith’s "Rockin’ Pneumonia," Dr. John’s "I Been Hoodood" and the Meters’ "Cabbage Alley." I even liked June Yamagishi’s chinka-chink guitar on Dylan’s "Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door." Other tunes are less successful: ballads or mid-tempo soul tunes with nothing going on except over-the-top vocals. Still, the diversity and musicianship displayed on this Australian import make Marva a keeper.
— David Feld