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BLUES CRITIC'S

NEW ALBUM REVIEWS

Southern Soul, Rhythm & Blues News And Reviews

The Blues Critic is back! Well, sort of. Many of you may remember that this website began as an album reviews website of new and classic Southern Soul/R&B/Blues albums. We have decided to get back into the opinions game. It's just that...opinion. We actually question the usefulness of reviews so we are just doing it for entertainment purposes. People like to read reviews. Simple as that. We aren't accepting submissions for review. Keep in mind there is no objective way to judge music. You either like it or don't.

In regards to reviews, we will use this grading system:

***** = Excellent. Best Of The Genre
**** = Very Good. Just Shy Of Great
*** = Good. A Solid Effort Though Not Extraordinary
** = Has It's Moments. Mediocre Over All
* = Poor. Not Recommended.

(C) 2018. All written material found on this website is the property of Blues Critic and may only be used with permission and full accreditation (either "Blues Critic" or "Dylann DeAnna of Blues Critic") and link to this website.

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09-24-18

Album Review

Willie Hightower "Out Of The Blue" (SoulTrax)

****1/2 Well I have definitely found a contender for "Album Of The Year". Albums like this are why I bother with this website. Labels such as Daptone and Truth And Soul have been filling the void with phenomenal albums by the likes of Charles Bradley and Lee Fields for years and there's those splendid comeback LPs by old school soulmen like Don Bryant (#2 "Best Soul Blues/Retro Soul Album" of 2017) that come around from time to time. "Out Of The Blue" comes as a surprise as Willie Hightower hadn't had a full length LP of new material be released on him in the decades prior. 1969's "If I Had A Hammer" was basically a collection of singles assembled with a couple of unreleased numbers.

Hightower is best known for his minor R&B hit "Walk A Mile In My Shoes" (#26 R&B in 1970) and the lesser "It's A Miracle" (#33 R&B in 1969). The former was brilliantly covered by Otis Clay recently before his death. His first single was released in 1965 ("What Am I Living For") and a host of others appeared in the late sixties and early-to-mind 70s but he still only placed the two aforementioned records on national charts.

In the 1980s noted record producer Quinton Claunch (of James Carr/Goldwax greatness) recorded a host of sides on Hightower that have only been released on an obscure 2007 compilation entitled "Quinton Claunch's Hidden Soul Treasures", which also featured sides by Jerry L, Ollie Nightingale and Joe L. Thomas. Unfortunately the production quality of these Hightower cuts are demo-grade synthesized mediocrity. The 96-year old Claunch got back in touch with a Hightower to record "Out Of The Blue". Perhaps the best song from those ill-fated earlier sessions, "Rock Me Gently", has been recut for the this new album. This time the production is organic, live drums, bass, guitar, B-3 and horns. The ingredients of all great Soul music. While Hightower, now aged at 77 years, doesn't possess the same Sam Cooke-raspiness of yore his warm, expressive voice is still fantastically soulful and earnest. Most of the selections here are new to Hightower's canon. "Raining All The Time", "I Found You". "Somewhere Dry" being among the best. There's also a new take on a tune he cut in 1972 ("Easy Lovin'"). The only dud among the ten tracks is a rather pedestrian reading of the Ronnie Milsap hit "No Getting Over Me". Overall what you get here is old fashioned Country Soul with crisp, full modern studio sound. It rarely gets any better these days.


09-11-18

Album Review

Johnny Rawls "I'm Still Around" (Third Street Cigar)

*** No one that follows the Soul Blues (and Southern Soul) genre could possibly think Johnny Rawls has not been around lately. The hard working blues man has been steadily releasing high quality sets of Memphis-inspired Soul Blues records almost annually since 1994. (Rawls' first LP was a fantastic duet album with L.C. Luckett entitled "Can't Sleep At Night" in 1994). On the title track he says: "I've been singing a long long time/And I still got a lot left". Despite this being the 18th full length studio album in 24 years and while "I'm Still Around" suffers a bit from sameness to the records that came before, it still manages to deliver. It's being released on an unfamiliar imprint (to me), Third Street Cigar Records so Rawls has apparently completed a very successful tenure for Bob Trenchard and the Catfood Records label. That partnership resulted in copious award nominations and strong positions on the Living Blues charts. Catfood issued eight albums on Rawls from 2008-2016, including one featuring the late Otis Clay ("Soul Brothers" in 2014).

"I'm Still Around" features ten originals all penned by Rawls fitted with those classic organ and horn arrangements he is known for. Things kickoff with the coasting, horn-propelled "Running Back To You", followed by the bumping "What You Do To Me". The album tends to drag in spots from some pedestrian songwriting. "Darling I Love You", for example, sounds delicious to the ears but the generic lyrics and nimble hook taste a little stale. "Dancing Tonight", an upbeat hopper, comes with the plainest of lyrics. "Let's go dancing tonight/We gonna dance tonight/Everything gonna be alright/Now move it to the left/and then you move it to the right/You lookin' good baby/Girl, you know you're out of sight." There's certainly nothing wrong with those lyrics but since the track is boilerplate they tend to stand out. A couple tracks could also use some grit. The shuffle bumper "Back It Up To Me" would be quite formidable with a punchier rhythm, swifter tempo and some passion in Rawls' voice. Keep it mind this is coming from a Rawls fan who can't help but compare this record with other triumphs like "My Turn To Win" from 1999, "Heart And Soul" from 2006 and "Soul Survivor" from 2012. If you didn't know what he's capable of you likely wouldn't notice he's done considerably better. What is slightly subpar for Johnny Rawls may perhaps be a career best for a lesser Soul Blues artist. That said I do enjoy this record very much and it will find a home in my personal collection (a feat occurring less and less over the years).

"I'm Still Around"'s standout track is "Rock With Me Baby", a grinding pounder that gets the head bobbing and toes tapping. Instant add to our Blues Critic Radio. The album also closes on a high note, with the jubilant Gospel jumper "God Been Good To Me". Yes Johnny has been "singing a long long time" but he certainly does have "a lot left".


07-21-18

Special Book Review

"Southern Soul-Blues" written by David Whiteis (University Of Illinois Press 2013)

This 318 page book includes a foreward by the late Denise LaSalle. In it she personifies the lifetime of "Mr. Blues", his mate "Ms. Rhythm", and their children (Rock N' Roll, Jazz, Pop and Rap...and "Southern Soul" for that matter) in America and around the world. Of course "Southern Soul-Blues" is more of a grandchild of Rhythm & Blues. Whiteis goes to great length and with pinpoint accuracy to illuminate the origin of this sub-genre of music. As a side note we here at Blues Critic feel somewhat validated by some of the conclusions the author makes. For instance we start the beginning of "Southern Soul Blues" with the release of ZZ Hill's "Down Home Blues" (see here) in 1981/1982. Turns out Whiteis had already made that determination five years earlier with this book!

Whiteis reaches back to the birth of Soul music through the Gospel Soul of Ray Charles, who ingeniously began singing non-religious lyrics on top of undeniable Gospel instrumentals. The term "Rhythm & Blues" existed alongside the Deep Soul of the 1960s ala O.V. Wright, Otis Redding, Percy Sledge, Etta James, etc.  In an email to me Whiteis writes: ""Rhythm & Blues" was coined by Jerry Wexler in the late '40s when he was still writing for Billboard, as a marketing tool to recognize the fact that more and more white kids were getting into the music and so the old "Race Music" term was no longer appropriate.   I think I make it pretty clear in the book that the term "soul" as a signifier of Black identity and pride extends at last back into the 1950s, and that it was being applied in musical contexts (e.g., "soul jazz") well before the turn of the decade.  For a long time, though, Black popular music was categorized as "rhythm and blues" -- even mainstream jazz artists like Duke Ellington and Count Basie, when they had a hit, were on the "rhythm and blues" charts.  And, of course, the term "rock & roll" was originally applied to Black musicians and bands playing music that we'd now call "R&B". Without going further into the politics and social motivations for the music suffice it to say the rise of Stax Records lead to the stylistic melding of Soul and Blues ("Soul-Blues"). Albert King is what I consider the pinnacle of this amalgamation. His 1972 album "I'll Play The Blues For You" is in our estimation the greatest Soul-Blues album ever made. According to Whiteis "straight-ahead Blues singers" like King, BB King and Little Johnny Taylor enjoyed success on the R&B charts (not just Blues) by "increasingly featuring the same kind of hard-booting horns and Funk-flavored Rhythm lines that characterized the music of Soul stars such as Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin and James Brown". Now, also, keep in mind this music was being created in the Southern United States, which then properly can be called "Southern Soul-Blues" but as we shall see it evolved from there. The location eventually didn't matter but the style- the sound-can still be dubbed "Southern Soul-Blues" wherever it's created. "When Stax, the label that virtually created Deep Soul in the sixties , closed its doors, its sound had evolved". Whiteis goes on to write: "(Stax) helped blur the distinction between 'Soul' and 'Blues' , a blurring that set the stage for the hybrid called 'Soul-Blues'".

In 1981 and 1982 ZZ Hill's "Down Home Blues" didn't "create a market...as much as it unearthed one already there". Malaco Records, which dubs itself "the last soul company", and their release of Hill's song and album of the same name, started a revival of the Blues genre. Soul and/or Blues legends like Tyrone Davis, Little Milton, Bobby 'Blue' Bland, Shirley Brown, Johnnie Taylor, Latimore, Denise LaSalle and others increasingly began adapting to the "down home" Soul-Blues style while with Malaco (and twin label Waldoxy). Other labels and its artists like Sound Town (J. Blackfoot), Ace (USA)/Avanti (Willie Clayton, Cicero Blake, Lee Fields, Pat Brown, Robert Tillman) and Ichiban (Clarence Carter, Vernon Garrett, Artie 'Blues Boy' White, Little Johnny Taylor) followed suit with a modernized version of the style, which often incorporated synths and programmed rhythm tracks instead of simple gut-bucket live pickin' and playin'. It wasn't just 'Down Home Blues" but Memphis Soul shuffle bumps and Deep Soul balladry that all became a part of today's "Southern Soul-Blues".

Soon labels like Mardi Gras Records, Senator Jones' Hep' Me Records and perhaps most notably Ecko Records became prodigious producers of this sound. Over time the "sound" has expanded to include Contemporary R&B/Hip Hop, Zydeco and even reggae elements. And the rest is history as the cliché goes. Whiteis' book is the best treatise I've come across on how exactly we got here with "Southern Soul Blues".

The book also contains fascinating chapters on some of the key artists of the genre like Denise LaSalle, Shirley Brown, Bobby Rush, J. Blackfoot, Willie Clayton, Sir Charles Jones, Ms. Jody and others. This book is essential for any fan of this music. Major props to Mr. Whiteis for devoting so much time and energy to an oft-ignored and/or maligned style of music that for the most part is still underground...but thriving. "Southern Soul-Blues" may just be the "Bible of Southern Soul".


07-15-18

Album Review

Ms. Jody "I'm Doin' My Thang" (Ecko)

** This is the 14th album of new material (dating back to 2006) from the reigning Queen of Southern Soul Blues. What's remarkable and a testament to John Ward's Ecko Records and his stable of songwriters (mainly himself) is that the quality of the material all these years; all these albums, has held up admirably. Still it should come as no surprise that the latest, "I'm Doin' My Thang", finally reflects a shortage of Grade A songs. When you cut a brand new album each year it's bound to happen. Lyrics about "cats" (metaphor for part of the female anatomy), cheating, partying and lots of attitude are par for the course but there's a surprising lack of punch in the tracks themselves. You know there's something off when the lead single is weak. "I'm Ms. Jody (I'm Doin' My Thang)" is so stale I had to go back through her catalog to see if this is a remake of an earlier song. It isn't. Her debut LP, "You're My Angel", had a song entitled "Ms. Jody", and while a different song, it pretty much said the same thing. She's Ms. Jody and Ms. Jody is going to do what she do. She's got the best lovin' and she'll take your man if she wants. She was the "new freak in town" in 2006 and in 2018 she's just still "doin' my thang" but that feeling of "been there-done that" is impossible to ignore if you've been paying attention to her career. In fairness, to stay in line with her whole persona, there's just only so much you can write about. Nevertheless, Ecko has gotten a ton of mileage out of bold, brash, bawdy, bodacious, independent women. They began with Barbara Carr and carried on with Sheba Potts-Wright, Denise LaSalle, Sweet Angel, Val McKnight....but most notably, Ms. Jody.

After this non-starter of a leadoff track we get another couple of boring songs ("Curiosity Ain't Gonna Kill This Cat", "Let's Play Hide And Seek") that just don't pop with that reliable big Ecko sound. The programming is sterile, flat and generic. I reckon it's more noticeable because the melody is thin and Jody's vocal performance sounds phone in. On past Ms. Jody albums these two tracks would be outtakes rather than album fillers. "Southern Soul Bounce" is endemic of the album's shortcomings. Just based on the title you'd expect a big, bouncy dance jam but it's simply too lean with that slapping programmed percussion, electric piano and a serious lack of bass. The track misses the oomph that was found on Ecko hits like "Booty Bounce" and "Booty Scoot".

On the plus side the slowie "We Got The Real Thing" has a lovely melody and an earnest vocal from our gal. Even better is the Bluesy stomper "We've Got To Cheat On Schedule", a great song that didn't get it's just desserts when it was released on Earl Gaines back in 2008. This should have been the single. "I've got a husband and you got a wife/ So you know our time is already tight/If you come to late you'll only get your need/But if we keep our schedule we both can be pleased". Seems fair. Nice, tart guitar solo from Ward. Personally I would love Jody's next album to have more real Blues numbers as every one I've heard she seems to nail. "Where I Come From" from last year's "Thunder Under Yonder" being one such gem.

Being that all of her albums sell quite well and the songs sent to radio get almost automatic airplay nowadays I just don't expect much to change regarding her recording output. Perhaps they could give her a year off so they have more time to find new variations on the themes that were already perfected many albums ago. One thing's certain, Ms. Jody is, in fact, still doin' her thang and there's no reason for her to stop.


06-27-18

Album Review

Billy Price "Reckoning" (Vizz Tone)

****1/2 By my count this is the 16th album release from Pittsburgh's own Billy Price. Price had won his first Blues Music Award in 2015 for "Best Soul Blues Album" when he teamed up with Otis Clay and recorded the album, “This Time For Real”, but as I review "Reckoning"; it's already flirting with being his very best to date.

On "Reckoning" Price was produced by Kid Andersen, member of Rick Estrin and The Nighcats. Andersen assembled ace pickers and players like bassist Jerry Jemmott; Jim Pugh (former keyboardist for Robert Cray);  drummer Alex Petterson and the horn section of Johnny Bones (saxophones) and Konstantins Jemeljanovs (trumpet).

The stomping "39 Steps", written by Billy Price Band keyboardist Jimmy Britton, kicks things off in a most auspicious manner. Icy keys and in the pocket drumming assist Price's commanding vocal on a real piss-off song. Speaking of Price's vocals he's never sounded better and more soulful than on the midtempo, creeping "Dreamer". Many will recognize this from Bobby "Blue" Bland's 1974 version. I can't believe I'm saying this but I find Price's version even more convincing. If that ain't high praise then those words mean nada.

Other remarkable covers include a disparate reading of Swamp Dogg's "Synthetic World" (Swamp produced Price's 1999 LP "Can I Change My Mind?") and the Denise LaSalle-penned Bill Coday tune "Get Your Lie Straight". Great horn arrangement by Andeson on this number. Price has shown his wide knowledge of modern Soul Blues and "Southern Soul" in the past. On last year's "Alive And Strange" he covered Carl Sims' "It Ain't A Juke Joint Without The Blues" and a latter day Johnnie Taylor classic "Last Two Dollars" on his live collaboration with Fred Chapellier, "Live On Stage", from 2010. Here he covers the contemporary Johnny Rawls with "I Keep Holding On" then reaches back to Atlantic Records' heyday for Otis Redding's "I Love You More Than Words Can Say".

And speaking of guitarist Fred Chapellier with whom he released the "Night Work" album from 2009 and the aforementioned "Live On Stage" he gets a couple co-writing credits like the midtempo grinder “Never Be Fooled Again” and the piano/saxophone/organ attack of "Expert Witness", which also gives another co-writing credit to Britton. Anderson employs a coral sitar on Philly Soul-inspired "Love Ballad" (previously cut by George Benson 1n 1979).

The album's centerpiece is without a doubt the moody title cut. Marcel Smith starts the track with a brief churchy sermon and the foreboding message warns of forthcoming consequences "coming for you" for "The things you do/It's all wrong/You know it's true". Noteworthy backing vocals courtesy of Sons Of The Soul Revivers, Courtney Knott, Lisa Leuschner Anderson and those glorious horns again! Praise for these women and the horn section demands repeating on the coasting "One On One" written by Price and Britton.

It's unusual for an artist to hit his/her peak nearly four decades into a career but that's exactly what's happening with "Reckoning". This album should cement Price's place on the A List of Soul Blues. Born November 10, 1949 in Passaic, NJ, the "East Coast King of blues-eyed soul" & Pittsburgh PA's dynamo Price initially gained notoriety as vocalist on two records by legendary guitarist Roy Buchanan ("That's What I'm Here For" , "Livestock") before creating his own Billy Price and the Keystone Rhythm Band in 1977.


06-20-18

Album Reviews

O.B. Buchana "Parking Lot Love Affair" (Ecko)

***1/2 This is now the 13th full length on Buchana for Ecko Records. It's his 15th overall excluding two compilations. Though it recycles a couple songs (both "Get On Up" and "Goody Good Stuff" were first cut by Sonny Mack on his superior LP, "Get On Up!" from 2016) it is commendable of John Ward and his co-writers how they are able to keep finding new variations on their tried and true formula. This album and all Ecko albums stay on pace and often pull ahead of any competitor. Just listen to the booming bumper "I Wanna Get With You". Try not to tap your foot, bob your head let alone get up and dance. It's so simple but it is irresistible. "Teach Me How To Swing" features a retro 70s Disco influence so drop the needle (okay pop the disc in if you insist) and it's party time. Dig that phat bassline. The song also appears as an extended club mix. This is one of the best concoctions the label has produced in many a year. It's that retro lean that charms.

Buchana himself co-wrote the title cut. While some prefer the back road, the turn road, etc.. O.B. ain't ashamed to let you know he likes to get freaky in a parking lot. It happened initially by chance. "I met her at the grocery store/The vibe she gave me I couldn't ignore/Well we laughed as we walked out the door/I knew I wanted her without a doubt/When I looked in her eyes they said/'I can't wait to get you in the bed'". Well they couldn't wait to find a bed and got down right there in O.B.'s car. How come I've never gotten this lucky?

"Keep On Rollin'" has a reggae influence on a song that is, well, simply about sex. I have to consider it one of few filler tracks. Also filler but much better is the midpaced "Las Vegas Mississippi". Another hole in the wall song that emphasizes them backroom card games. "As soon as the weekend come around/There'll be a whole lotta party people all over town/And at every one of those holes in the wall/You will find they own gambling hall/We call it Las Vegas, Mississippi."

The album closer, "The Mule", is best described as New Wave Funk thanks to it's grinding 80s bass n' chang-a-lang guitar attack. I love it when Ecko goes retro with their arrangements and I hope the trend continues.

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Ellis Blake "Trouble Waters" (Brimstone)

** Bluff City, Arkansas' Ellis Blake has spent most of his career in the Gospel field. He released two LPs with the group the Sensational Bright Stars of Bluff City. 1976's "Introducing" and 1978's "God Is So Able" (thanks to Soul Express for this info). His first recording, however, was an obscure 45 "Take a Little Time to Pray" with B-side "Too Close" in 1975. Blake first appeared on the Southern Soul scene on a project entitled Soul Unlimited Featuring Ellis Blake, which issued "Good Lovin'". That LP was first released in 1994 before Lee Parker's Brimstone label re-issued and promoted it in 2012. Though somewhat dated it had big enough production quality to effectively back Blake's earthy n' churchy old school Soul voice. "Try Me" was a minor hit as well as "I'd Rather Have You Than Memories" and the title track.

"Trouble Waters" suffers from low-fi production with Blake's voice often buried underneath the overly loud keyboard leads (faux horns). The title track is an exceptional song and when you can hear Blake he sounds fabulous but the mix is just bloody awful. "Hunting Ain't No Fun" is a mildly Funky groover. "I'm Movin' On" utilizes a Hip Hop drum machine pattern on a Tyrone Davis-inspired midtempo bump. Another midtempo number, "One In A Million", would be a classic if not for the muddy mix. This track (and many others) reminded me of the late great Lou Pride. Please, somebody, remix and remaster this then put it back out there. It's pure Southern Soul gold. The would-be dancer "Shake Your Tailfeather" would sound dreadful in the club thanks to the demo-quality keys and weak bass. Blake is best on slower songs, anyway. The aforementioned title track, "I Got Patience" and the true Blues "The Sun Went Down On Our Love" would, again, be excellent if not for the poor sound. In conclusion: This is a terrific set of songs but a very frustrating listen. Blake sings great despite using an obviously cheap microphone. What a missed opportunity. Hopefully Blake will emerge again with backing music befitting his Soulful chops.


06-18-18

Album Review

Sir Charles Jones "The Masterpiece" (Southern King Ent)

**** "Heyyyyyyy Mr. Sexy Man what your name is?". Sir Charles Jones? Was Nellie Tiger Travis singing about Sir Charles? Probably not but if you ask any Southern Soul lady fan out there the phrase fits. This is a man that recorded a song called "In The Water" (not on this album) with a video of him singing in the bathtub! This immediately reminded me of Prince in the "When Doves Cry" video and D'Angelo's video "Untitled (How Does It Feel?") where he stood buck naked for the entire video. I reckon the ladies (and plenty dudes) do not object. While these artists peddle in sex appeal the good news is their musical talent is even greater. The first thing I noticed about "The Masterpiece" was it's missing the 2017 Blues Critic Awards' "Best Southern Soul/R&B Song" winning duet with Wendell B. "I'm Goin' Down Slow". Not to worry. I reckon it will appear on the next Wendell B. album. Just like his 2014 effort "Portrait Of A Balladeer", this new opus is heavy on slow jams. Nobody in Southern Soul does them better, however. The first couple tracks that have saturated the Southern Soul market are the sublime love song "My Everything" and "Call Me". The latter joint features Calvin Richardson & Omar Cunningham. The three trade vocals on verses and harmonize throughout in the background. There's more creamy ballads like "This Is Your Night", "Destiny" & "Squeeze Me". Pure aural sex.

Now onto the few uptempo numbers. The hard-slapping "Wherever I Lay My Bone" features the red hot Pokey Bear. The duo share brags on this promiscuity-loving paean that features some icy synths and a Funky bass guitar lick. The song just screams out for a remix highlighting that bass lick. While Sir Charles inhabits an entirely different stratosphere vocally the pairing with the shouty Pokey works surprisingly well. This will be a hit. Meanwhile, "Step It Out" employs a Zydeco rhythm and talk box.

My pick for best cut is hands down "Fight The Pain", a midpaced beater with lots of dirty guitar, dramatic keyboard synths, live drums and a vocal arrangement that brought Johnnie Taylor to mind. It's a busy track instrumentally and it creates a suitable atmosphere for a song that says: "Sometimes in life everything don't work out the way you want it to work out/Sometimes you need to shake it all off and fight the pain". It may be the best thing the man has yet recorded. Stunning.

It's quite the ballsy move to call your album "The Masterpiece". Some would decry this as hubris but Jones has delivered the goods with a terrific album that's certain to battle for Album Of The Year.

Born in Akron, Ohio but raised in Birmingham, Alabama Charles Jones quickly became one of the more famous faces on the "Southern Soul" scene. Very much a bedroom crooner with a sexy image and slick contemporary R & B-flavored Southern Soul. He hit paydirt with his 2001 album "Love Machine", which cracked the Billboard Top 30 R & B Albums chart. Since then he's issued six more full lengths including "Southern Soul" in 2002, "Thank You For Holding On" in 2005, "My Story" in 2008, "Tribute To The Legends" in 2009 and the aforementioned "Portrait Of A Balladeer" in 2014. He has also released two compilations featuring songs exclusive to those LPs and a DVD. See our Sir Charles Jones Page HERE.

 


06-16-18

Album Review

Bettye LaVette "Things Have Changed" (Verve)

**** LaVette has time and time again proven she is an innovative interpreter of other person's songs. One such person is Bob Dylan. She crushed Dylan's "Unbelievable" on her 2015 LP "Worthy" and "Everything Is Broken" from 2012's "Thankful N' Thoughtful". Those turned out so well LaVette has logically decided to mine the Dylan catalog for an album's worth- songs that span 43 years from 1963's "The Times They Are A-Changin'" all the way up to "Ain't Talkin" from Dylan's acclaimed 2006 album "Modern Times". It's a smart set of picks with only two ubiquitous hits ("Times Are A-Changin'" and "It Ain't Me Babe") It's no surprise the results are excellent. Her recent foray into the "British Rock Songbook" (full title: "Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook") was revelatory. On "Things Have Changed" her phrasings are often unpredictable and disparate. I've always loved the straight ahead, broad melody of "Don't Fall Apart On Me Tonight" (from Dylan's 1983 effort "Infidels"). It's a very sing-able refrain. In LaVette's (and producer Steve Jordan's) hands it is transformed into a stripped down piano ballad and LaVette alters the hook. She sings "Don't Fall On Me Tonight" late, as in not immediately after the bridge as Dylan (and Aaron Neville for that matter) sang it. At first I found it unnerving but the more I listened the more I appreciated the new detour into an unknown cavern the song was now leading. By the way Jordan, who himself played with Dylan, employed other former Dylan sidemen including guitarist Larry Campbell, bassist Pino Palladino and Leon Pendarvis on keyboards.

"It Ain't Me Babe" is again stripped down to percussion, bass, electric piano and subtle guitar licks. It may sacrilegious but this is how this song should have been done from the jump. LaVette does away with the nasally refrain and instead croaks mightily just at the right syllables. It's no longer Folk but a muscular kiss off song. "Political World" (from "Oh Mercy") employs an entirely different arrangement and laidback rhythm, perhaps unnecessarily (with guest Keith Richards). Can't warm up to this one. "Ain't Talkin'" stays faithful to it's source melodically only with sinister violins courtesy of The Firey String Company, accordion and barely audible keyboard bass as the backdrop. It's a stunner.

Sometimes our heroine plays it straight. The title cut, which always struck me as a sequel to "Times Are A-Changin'", was Dylan's last "hit" single. Dylan's version was from "The Wonder Boys" movie and charted #58 in the UK. LaVette and Jordan wisely keep the hypnotic thump of the original with a tasty lead guitar line added. Meanwhile the sole parishioner from Dylan's so-called "Gospel period" is a rocking take on "Do Right To Me Baby (Do Unto Others)" found on 1979's "Slow Train Coming". The track has been resurrected as a superior being indeed. LaVette sticks to the phrasing but Jordan & Co. deliver fire and brimstone backing. One of the highlights easily.

Being I'm a child of the 80s two of my many favorite Dylan albums are the aforementioned "Infidels" ("Don't Fall Apart On Me Tonight") from 1983 and 1988's often-maligned "Empire Burlesque". Well, surprise surprise "Empire" is represented by two ace cuts. Dylan's bitter "Seeing The Real You At Last" is given a somewhat pedestrian reading but the gorgeous ballad "Emotionally Yours" is another story. The song had already been covered back in 1991 when The O'Jays took it to #5 on Billbaord's U.S. R&B Songs chart. Well as good as that version was LaVette slays on her version. That weathered, almost-too-soulful-for-it's-own good voice of hers really soars on this one. The track opens with acoustic guitar and piano and slowly builds with Bettye's voice rising to a crescendo of raspy power and then gliding back down for the fade out. That's the Bettye LaVette formula. Slow burning grit and raspy power. There's no one more Soulful recording today.


05-25-18

Album Reviews

Big Woo "I Came To Party" (Big Woo)

**** Henry King aka "Big Woo" was one of the main members of Bigg Robb's side group project Da Problem Solvas who released a strong album entitled "Every Woman Deserves 2 B Satisfied" back in 2004. Woo also was a featured vocalist of many of Robb's early albums. After apparently laying low for many years Woo finally steps up to the plate on his own with "I Came To Party".

It sports high caliber keyboard tracks (credited to co-producer Brian "Lil B" Jones) in the shuffle bump, slow jam and downhome Blues mode. The latter style is best represented by the plaintively titled "I Got The Blues" and "Strong Black Woman" on which Woo sings: "This goes out to all my strong black women out there/You are the nucleus that holds this family together...Ain't no love like a strong black woman" and goes on to use mom as a great example of a "strong black woman". Mom gets some more love on "You Did It Mama (I Want To Thank You)", a finger snappin' slowie that would be ideal for Urban AC radio (if given a chance). It's lovely. "Plus size women" get a "shout out" from Woo on the bumping "Ain't Nothing Wrong (A Little Meat On Those Bones)". Meanwhile "I'm Going To The Club" and the title cut (also appearing as a "Club Mix") are bangers, "Lovers & Friends" a slick stepper and "Good Loving" and "On A Mission" are delectable downtempo jams that allow Woo to show off his vocal chops, which are reminiscent of a Vick Allen mixed with a pinch of Bill Coday. "Good Loving" made me smile as it references the great Carl Marshall's "Good Lovin' Will Make You Cry". Bottom line: "I Came To Party" is a very auspicious start to Woo's career as a solo artist. Highly recommended.

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Peggy Scott-Adams "Too Far Gone" (Hook One Record)

*** Sheeeee's back! While this is not truly a brand new album it may as well be as 99% of us likely aren't familiar with the source material here other than "In Love By Myself", a single Adams released a couple years ago. "Too Far Gone" is a remastered reissue of Peggy's 1984 joint effort with the late Jo Jo Benson entitled "Nothing Can Stand In Our Way" minus two cuts ("Oh What A Feeling" and "Nothing Can Stand In Our Way" were dropped and replaced by "In Love By Myself" and "Make Me Yours", which also appeared on Adams' 2012 effort "Life After Bill"). The original LP, which is dedicated to the late Benson, was produced by Wayne Blackmon and Clayton Ivey and issued in 1984. It has a dated but classic 80s Soul production. In essence this is a singer's singers album. Benson & Adams possess exemplary voices and they are are full throttle here. I hadn't noticed it before but Benson sounds strikingly like J. Blackfoot and a bit like Otis Clay. None too shabby! Adams of course possesses that quintessential earthy charm that helped make her one of the Queens of Southern Soul in the latter half of her career (peaking with 1996's "Bill"). These are often excellent songs as well. The title track has just been released as the single. Tinkling electric piano, subtle guitar, horns and the dueling, soulful voices of Adams and Benson give way to a big, sweeping refrain that'll build a nest in our ear for some time. Though it's unmistakably retro it surprisingly works as a new single in the inclusive, collective, Southern Soul zeitgeist of today.

More horn-fueled and/or synth-driven goodies like "Right Feeling At The Wrong Time", "Long Way Home From Here", "Before The Fire Dies" come close to making this "A hidden treasure - release after 35 years" as reads a blurb on the album cover. While a completely new Peggy Scott-Adams is sorely needed this stop-gap release is a satisfying proxy.

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Da' Twinky Man "Do The Hurricane" (1 Stop Graphics)

**1/2 Oh how I wish I could rate this higher as this modern day Blues comedian ala Joe Poonanny often comes up with some witty, outlandish hilarity. Da' Twinky Man released an album as Willie C. in 2001 titled "Take Your Clothes Off" before reinventing himself as a Hostess-inspired treat. "Do The Hurricane" is a compilation that boasts new cuts plus some past triumphs like "I'm In Love (Luv) With A Crackhead" (from an album of the same name), the Carl Marshall-produced "Living On A Fixed Income" (from the various artists "mixtape" album "Southern Soul & Party Blues, Vol. 2"), "D Devil Is In The Church House" and "Broken Hearted Mother" (from "Take Your Clothes Off") and likely due to these multiple sources the quality of the production fluctuates wildly. Poor production plagued the "Crackhead" album, which because of some clever compositions would have been stellar had it sounded better. Along with the title jam this new collection includes "Man Shortage", "Use Me For A Young Man", "Stand Up Ladies" ("Stand Up Lady" here) and "Love Hurts".

The newly recorded tracks include "Do The Hurricane", a raucous, funky dance jam that would make James Brown smile (actually the late genius, Brown, would probably be annoyed and accuse Twinky of ripping him off since everyone else did). It's a whole lotta fun that pretty much makes a solid case for buying this album despite it's flaws. "My Daddy Stole My Woman" is a fast downhome Blues shuffle with Twinky lamenting: "I had a pretty girl she's was six foot two/man that big legged woman sure know what to do/Until my daddy came along and stole my woman away from me". And you think your family has problems?

Twinky does "but seriously, folks" on the excellent closing track, "Jesus Is Holding My Hand". An authentic Gospel number with an earnest vocal from Willie C. Young ('cuz it's hard for me to imagine him using his Twinky persona on this one!). There's an admirable Sam Cooke-touch included here. This convinces me Twinky could make one mighty fine religious album if he so chooses. Despite the low rating I still believe this album is worth owning- especially if you don't have his previous albums. I'm hoping for a new album with the big fat booming production contained on the title track, however (or that proposed Gospel album).


05-03-18

Album Review

Rue Davis "Collectors Edition"  (1 Stop Graphics 2018)

****1/2 As it says on the album cover Rue Davis is a "man of many voices", which makes reference to his uncanny ability to imitate famous Soul Blues voices like Little Milton, Johnnie Taylor, ZZ Hill, Bobby 'Blue' Bland, Tyrone Davis, Ray Charles, Al Green and the list goes on. For a prime example of this vocal chameleon's talent check out the the 1998 Avanti Records LP "Sings With Friends", which had Davis singing like (not really "with") his friends from track to track. An exceptional writer, producer, recording artist and performer of Blues, R&B and Southern Soul Music for many years, Davis has bounced from label to label. Despite being or perhaps because of being a cherished artist of the Southern Soul Blues universe Davis has appeared on no less than eight different record labels from 1995 until now and has yet to record with the big five (Malaco/Waldoxy, Mardi Gras, Ecko, CDS Records). There's at least nine full Rue Davis albums for this "best of" to choose from not counting his collaborative albums with Little Buck and Bobby Powell. So how did "Collectors Edition" do in cherry picking tracks for this 13 song collection? Pretty darn good in my estimation.

Davis' first release was the 1995 album "You Are My Honey Poo" (later re-issued as "Heaven Has Sent Me Your Love" in 2003 via Kon-Kord Records) and this new release extracts "Honey Poo" (his very first chitlin circuit hit) and the equally good "I'm In Love With The Girl Next Door". Because "Edition" is limited it doesn't include other essential gems like "Heaven Sent Me Your Love" and "Love is So Good When You're Stealing It". His 1997 sophomore album, "Somebody Wants You", is perhaps his very best studio album and is represented by the gorgeous "Our Love Divine" and the title track. Proper picks for sure but including "Shoopedoo" would've been perfect. The aforementioned "Sings With Friends" has two tracks lifted ("Can't Help Myself" in Tyrone Davis mode and "Thanks For Saving Your Love"). So far these selections are nearly spot on. From 2001's "Candy Sweet" comes the title cut and "I'll Be Your Shoulder" but the "Honey Poo" sequel "Tippitaboo" is more essential than "Shoulder". The next album, "Dapp Daddy" gets ignored and it really is his weakest album anyway.

The hit single, "Tell Me What You Want", comes from the terrific 2005 album "For Real", which is an album you should own in whole. The Marvin Gaye-inspired "Between The Sheets" should have been here too. His tracks on the two Little Buck albums ("I'mma Stir It Up" & "I'mma Blues Man") are skipped (one track, "Big Hip Woman", appeared on a later Rue Davis LP) while the collection snags "I Promise", and "I'm Giving Up The Streets" from 2008's "Return Of The Legend" and the title cut to "Big Hip Woman" (2016). 2014's "Shake It Loose" has no tracks and neither does Bobby Powell's "Juke Joint Blues". That leaves one track unaccounted for, "Your Man". I wasn't able to source this excellent saxophone blessed slow beater (other than a digital-only self released "Love Songs" album from 2006, which is identical to "Collectors Edition" other than missing the song from "Big Hip Woman" ) so it may be be previously unreleased.

If you have no or very little Rue Davis in your collection buy this NOW, but be warned you're going to want more. This is the ideal sampler to the Rue Davis canon. That said, longtime fans like myself, know that one album cannot contain the "best of Rue Davis". (footnote: the track listing running order doesn't match what it says on the artwork)


04-17-18

Album Reviews*

(* edited further after publishing)

Wilson Meadows "Facts Of Life"  (Music Access 2018)

** Wilson Meadows has been one of the most popular Southern Soul artists in the business ever since his "That's Still My Love" became a hit in 1997- twenty-one years ago!  "Facts Of Life" is his first set of new material since 2011 (his 2014 release "Tighten Up" was a compilation of older tracks with a few new added). The LP was preceded by the single "Lady Luck" by nearly a year. That single broke new ground with a Jazzy Neo-Soul/funk sound featuring female counterpoint Thesis. The new direction works artistically on this cut but unless it had managed to crossover to bigger markets the song was D.O.A. in the Southern Soul market. The second single "A-T-Ti-Tude" is somewhat closer to Meadows' familiar sound. Instead of just programming, however, it has some grinding bass, chiming guitar and Thesis in the background again but the track lacks punch and is a bit clumsy, hardly settling into a comfortable rhythm. Meadows is still in fine voice, perhaps breathier but his signature vibrato is intact.

The album is schizophrenic. It wants/thinks it's someone new but as if for insurance there's a few old personality Southern Soul tracks ("Jump On It" and "Good Thang") that feel generic and pale in comparison. The two minds are at odds. What's worse some tracks were mastered at a lower volume so you'll need to fiddle with the knobs to keep the same audio levels. But even the "new" personality falters at times like on the obnoxious "Don't Turn Me Down", with it's irksome Pop concessions. The refrain is pretty and it even starts to groove but the way Meadows sings the versus is a huge turn off. It smells like midlife crisis the way the seasoned veteran Meadows rap-sings his lines. I have to skip this track every time. And what's with the flat sounding snare that almost ruins the cool vibes ballad "We Can Fall In Love"? This track already appeared on 2011's "Man Up".

Now on to the highlights. "Lady Luck" was already mentioned, indeed a noble failure, but there's a lively new version/remix(?) of "Still My Love" and "Us" has some Funky swagger going for it. Great vocals again from Thesis, tasty saxophone fills and tinkling piano peppered throughout the track. "I'm Falling" is a lovely ballad where Meadows sounds completely in his element, even with the vocoder backing vocals ala Bigg Robb. A new version of "Tell Me You Love Me" (originally appeared on 2000's "Dealing Real") is another delicious slowie with finger snaps n' water drips percussion, tambourine, subtle bass and guitar. One thing is made clear. Meadows is a balladeer who has always somewhat struggled with dancey material. All in all there's enough positive going for it to make it worth checking out but somebody has to employ some better quality control next time 'round.


04-09-18

Commentary/Review

"When I'm Wrong I'm Wrong (But I'm Usually Right)"

I began writing album reviews from 2005 thru 2008 and I didn't hold back from writing a negative review of an album. I wrote some scathing reviews for sure. Since I began writing here again I have (thus far) opted not to publish one star (*) reviews (and delete any from the past). Oh, believe me, I come across an ungodly amount of music due to this website and, well, most of it I don't particularly like. Some is just putrid and soul crushingly awful. I've been tempted to review some of the product that's so bad I'd advise you to avoid any continent there's a chance you'd be subjected to it. Do I need to include one star reviews to have more credibility and/or comparison to the other higher-starred reviews? Like some critics I don't feel I need to warn people of crappy music as if I were that important. Life's too short and there's too much music. I'm just going to tell you what I like and/or think and you can read between the lines. If my positive review influences you to seek out an album and you like it I would feel great about that. I understand negative reviews are useful. But in today's age and with the ubiquitous youtube, etc. the chances are high you will have an opportunity to listen to samples before purchasing any music. Now, if I was writing movie reviews I would definitely write negative reviews because sample scenes of a movie fail to give you a good enough impression on the movie which must be taken as a whole. With most music you can buy the single. By the way any new album we add to our store we will add sound samples.

As far as those one star (*) reviews and for your amusement here are two reviews I wrote for the same album back in 2007 and then late 2008. At first I hated it but later felt I was wrong and wrote a revision that never got published. I'm not sure why I disliked it so much as I love Ellis Hooks' voice and the work of Jon & Sally Tiven so I can only guess it's because critics often feel they need to include negative reviews to give more credence to their positive ones. Or maybe I was in just a bad mood that day. Well I was wrong with my original review so it shows you just can't trust a critic.

Original Review:

Ellis Hooks "Another Saturday Morning" (Evidence 2007)

* I'd like to give this record a rave just for the fact it's packed fair and square with 16 new tracks (!) all written by producer Jon Tiven, wife Sally Tiven and Ellis Hooks. What a bargain. Sadly, it's the blandest batch of songs I've heard from Hooks and the spousal writing team. The Tivens have written and produced terrific discs by Hooks ("Godson Of Soul") Wilson Pickett, Sir Mack Rice & most recently the four-award winning (W.C. Handy's) "Think Of Me" by Little Milton. This time out they forgot to bring the goods. We got the same raspy Soul voice, punchy rhythm, real ingredients (organ, horns, guitar) that worked before but the songs contain few precious few hooks (no pun intended) and melody. Case in point: "Black Dirt" kicks up mighty dust with an authentic Stax groove and Hooks' Soul shoutin' but it becomes clear a minute into it we have a failed attempt to re-write "Shotgun". Song after song the disc has the sound but not the substance. "You Move Too Fast" has a nauseating, repetitive horn arrangement; "Don't Stop Dancing" will make your ass feel like a ton; "Your River" starts with a chiming hybrid of acoustic guitar and sitar that builds up but delivers an anti-climactic refrain; and the disappointment continues. Still, a few tracks might be worth burning onto your hard drive. "Bad MF" has a nasty little rhythm that would've made for a dynamite song if it were not for the weak hook. "I'm a bad mutha. That's the real deal". Naw, this time out you're just bad.

Revised Review:

Ellis Hooks "Another Saturday Morning" (Evidence 2007)

*** I'd give this record a rave just for the fact it's packed fair and square with 16 new tracks (!) all written by producer Jon Tiven, wife Sally Tiven and Ellis Hooks. A lotta bang for yo' buck. The Tivens have written and produced terrific discs by Hooks ("Godson Of Soul") Wilson Pickett, Sir Mack Rice & most recently the four-award winning (W.C. Handy's) "Think Of Me" by Little Milton. There's a winning formula. We got the same raspy Soul voice, punchy rhythm, real ingredients (organ, horns, guitar) that worked before and while the songs contain perhaps less immediately gratifying hooks (no pun intended) the results show there's plenty fuel left in the tank. "Black Dirt" kicks up mighty dust with an authentic Stax groove and Hooks' Soul shoutin' that makes this the "Shotgun" for our time. "Your River" starts with a chiming hybrid of acoustic guitar and sitar that builds up and delivers a subtle but rewarding refrain upon multiple listens. Those last few words are key to discovering this record's less obvious charms. Sure it sounds great from the jump but do the songs stick and stay? At 16 tracks there's a lot to digest here. I was a bit underwhelmed my first few listens (the first draft of this review was pretty damn negative when I look back) but I noticed it just kept getting better and better. Suffice it to say I enjoy this effort just as much as the previous LPs. This stuff ain't no soft, safe, easy listening, sip-on-your-wine music. No way. Much like Hooks considers himself this album is a "Bad Mofo". There's nobody else out there right now dealing out the MF'ing grit the way Hooks and the Tivens are. Hooks sings "I'm a bad mutha" and that's the real deal. (The album is ranked #10 in our Best Of 2007 Retro-Soul/Soul Blues List)


03-06-18

Album Reviews

Billy Price Otis Clay "This Time For Real" (Bonedog/Vizztone 2015)

****1/2 Shortly before his death in 2016 the great Otis Clay recorded a pair of duet albums with two fellow Soul-Blues peers and admirers. The first, "Soul Brothers", was recorded with Johnny Rawls in 2014 and released by Catfood (that label name always gives me a chuckle as if the guy runs the label to pay for, well, his cat's food and that's something close to my heart). Rawls' & Clay's voices meshed marvelously as expected but I find the combo of Clay and Billy Price to be an even finer fit.  Clay's career stretches back to 1964 (with the Gospel Songbirds) but is of course most famous for his stint with Hi Records where he had hits like "Trying To Live My Life Without You" (#24 R&B) and "That's How It Is" (#34 R&B"). Meanwhile relatively unsung Pittsburg hero Price has a discography that stretches back to 1981, including a now classic album produced by Swamp Dogg ("Can I Change My Mind?" 1999) and his excellent first long player for Bonedog Records, "East End Avenue". The latter made our Top 10 Retro-Soul/Soul Blues Albums of 2006 list. Price possesses a modest yet tension-filled voice that emits pent up soulfulness. Unlike Clay he doesn't seek to knock you on your ass with shouty rasps but picks expertly at your heart with pinched earnestness. Price's style is a perfect foil for Clay's powerful throaty harshness. While not as piercingly sharp as back in the day (he was 72 when he recorded this record) Clay still has that Deep Soul timbre and grit.

"This Time For Real" is a worthy showcase for these two soulful gents consisting entirely of smart covers. I say "smart" because we aren't forced to hear the godzillianth version of "Mustang Sally" or "My Girl". In fact other than Sam & Dave's "You Got Me Hummin'", Clay's own "All Because Of Your Love (#44 R&B)" and The Spinners' "Love Don't Love Nobody" this 12 song set features deeper catalog songs I wager aren't terribly familiar. I myself assumed 4 or 5 were originals so whomever selected these numbers knows their music history better than I. I was unacquainted with but enchanted by Percy Wiggin's Country-fried "Book Of Memories" and the vulnerable "I'm Afraid Of Losing You" originally cut by Quiet Essence on Hi Records circa 1972. One of the most moving and faithfully arranged covers is Los Lobos' "Tears Of God". This deep lilting slowie is one case where the cover version completely eclipses the original. Price and Clay wrench your innards with dueling bittersweet, aching phrases on top of icy organ and under luxuriant horn fills. Gorgeous. And speaking of horns Mark Earley (saxes) and Doug Woolverton (trumpet) absolutely slay on the swinging "Somebody's Done Changed My Sweet Baby's Mind" and the Funky rhythm & blues stomper "Going To The Shack". In fact praise must be given to the rest of the personnel: Duke Robillard (guitar), Mark Texixiera (drums), Brad Hallen (bass) and Brice Bears (keyboards) gave Price and Clay the keys to one hot ride that  cruised through Soul's expansive history to gather these twelve songs.

"For Real" was produced by guitarist Robillard and despite my familiarity with some of his mammoth amount of work I had no idea he was this skilled behind the board. An internet sweep only highlights his work as a bandleader and many guest artist gigs. Well, add producer to his many trades. This album is substantial Soul music. "This Time For Real" is as actual as gravity

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Eugene Smiley Sr. "Blues With A Touch Of Jazz" (KCity)

*** Upon receipt of his promo package I was already familiar with Eugene Smiley Sr from back when I was hot and heavy writing album reviews for this website (before taking a long walk thru the wilderness with CDS Records). I reviewed his album "Legends" (as well as several discs from his label KCity Records) back in January 2007 and it ranked #4 of our Best Of 2007 list for Retro-Soul/Soul-Blues albums. I had almost forgotten about it until the pleasant surprise of new music materializing in our PO Box. The enclosed letter read: "It's been ten years since I've sent you any of my music." Smiley apparently had been busy helping up and coming Kansas City artists reach for their dreams during this time before suffering a "health setback" that sidelined him from 2014 until recently. Now recovered he's back to recording and despite my high expectations "Blues With A Touch Of Jazz" doesn't disappoint. Just as on "Legends" Smiley serves us with ten newborn beauties of horn-backed Soul Blues goodness. I'll admit any album I receive with the word "Jazz" in the title makes me nervous. The only Jazz I appreciate is the esoteric Ornette Coleman-type and I've yet to hear anyone dare attempt mixing Soul Blues with that. In actuality there's only a "Touch Of Jazz" as the title promises, almost entirely on the nifty instrumental closer "Sleep Walking".

The album briefly loses it's footing at the starting gate with "A Real Good Sign". It's a fine song as such but Smiley's vocals are mixed too low and given too much reverb. A remix would remedy that and, fortunately, things quickly get better. Track 2 is one of many cuts that's prime fodder for the Southern Soul Blues market courtesy of that ubiquitous cheating theme. It's a midtempo floater in which Smiley heard it through the grapevine that "People Are Talking" about his gal cheating on him. Perhaps things are looking up for him on the Sam Cooke-kissed "Ooh Baby", a shaggadelic Beach number where Smiley may have just found a new woman to replace the cheater. Maybe this happened when he was searching for "Someone To Love", which is also the first cut we added to our Southern Soul Radio station. Elsewhere Smiley gets to squeeze out some guitar licks on the bumping "Traveling Man" and slow blues "Blues This Morning". Just like "Legends" ten (11 actually) years earlier this is a fine assemblage of Blues styles with that teeny "touch" of Jazz. The production isn't as consistent as one would hope and a few songs suffer from muddy mixes but it is still on par sonically with most of the independently produced Southern Soul/Blues currently making the rounds.

Eugene Smiley Sr. once was part of an R&B group that recorded for the famed Brunswick record label subsidiary Dakar (Tyrone Davis, Major Lance). Originally called the Delmontes, they changed their name to The Visitors and enjoyed some local Chicago area hits in 1968 with "I'm In Danger" and "Changes". The group was short lived so Smiley moved to Kansas City in 1976 where he put together a group called Essence Of Love but by 1979 he retreated from the music business until 1992 when he formed another group, BWB and formed his label KCity Records on which we have "Blues With A Touch Of Jazz"


2-20-18

Blast From The Past Album Reviews

I was listening to some Prince today so I dug out an old review I did nearly a dozen years ago. Also, one of my favorite albums of that year was by Willie Walker & The Butanes so here's two reviews from 2006. Prince & Willie Walker...

Prince "3121" (NPG 2006)

**** The artist once again known as Prince has enjoyed a bit of a comeback the last few years partly due to nostalgia as the 80s generation has come of age. His previous disc "Musicology" was a mixed bag that mostly sold on the strength of high profile appearances (such as with Beyonce at the Grammys), a great video ("Musicology") and a monster tour. There really were no major hit singles from that record and this time it's obvious he's gunning for the charts. After all, his last bona fide smash was "The Most Beautiful Girl In The World" (#3 Pop) and that was 1994! So on "3121" he comes out swinging with everything from the Princely bag-o-tricks: You got the Al Green-kissed falsetto voice, synth/funk ("Black Sweat", "Get On The Boat"), Prince guitar rock ("Fury"), keyboard pop ("Lolita", "Love"), sultry slow jams ("Satisfied") and some good ole' eccentricity ("3121"). Firstly, I gotta admit I kinda dig the new Prince image. Since he's been involved with the Jehovah's Witnesess and become cleaner and seemingly happier he just oozes cool confidence. That said- what about the music?

Well, you know how it is- because Prince hit such highs with albums like "1999", "Purple Rain" & "Sign O The Times" everything the artist does is overshadowed by those triumphs. Face it the "Purple Rain" (and his reign) is over and Prince is now just another legacy pop artist putting out whatever music he wants to put out. There's no single as brilliant as "Little Red Corvette", "When Doves Cry", "Sign O' The Times" or "Kiss" but there's some darn good tracks. Interestingly, the current single and video is an obvious tip of the hat to "Kiss'. The Spartan synth funk/pop "Black Sweat" is a kissing cousin, albeit without as strong a hook, to that minimalistic dance funk gem. This deserves chart action. The wacky title track "3121" hearkens back to his one-man band "Sign O' The Times" heyday replete with that tweaked vocal effect ("Camille"). It's not much of a song just a fun jam before leaping into the retro-80s synthesizer pop of "Lolita", which may remind the young folk of Andre 3000. But that's a chicken and egg thing, no? The rocker "Fury" is what Jimi Hendrix might have sounded like in the 80s and "Love" strangely reminds me of a Janet Jackson song circa "Rhythm Nation". Oh yeah, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis produced that Jackson record and who were they influenced by again? Yep. The purple one. Perhaps the best track is "Word", with that clever beat, acoustic guitar, sax hook and guitar solo. So, while it doesn't stand a chance if compared to his paisley peak this is definitely his best record since 1995's "The Gold Experience". While I don't care much for pop music and though I'd like to hear him drop the mainstream and do a straight blues or classic Soul record it'd sure be nice to hear Prince on the radio again. This album should do the trick.

That last sentence...well the album didn't put Prince back on the radio again and sadly he never really did get much radio play outside Urban Adult Contemporary stations up until his death. I remember being a bit annoyed "Black Sweat" didn't become a hit (It debuted at #60 on Billboard almost entirely on sales and was off the chart by week two).

P.S. As a footnote I want to air a minor gripe I have that is sorta Prince-related. Ever notice that when someone brings up either Prince or Michael Jackson someone feels compelled to compare them? Why? Yes they are two Pop/R&B geniuses of basically the same era but I've always found it a bit suspect. I mean people have no problem mentioning Bruce Springsteen and Bob Seger without conflating the two into some silly duel. I've always felt it had to do with Prince and Michael being black, as if there really could only be the one token black pop star or something. Anyway, mini-rant over. Good news it's okay to dig them both. I like Prince very much but I love Michael. See? I just did it. They must have hated it while living to be part of a rivalry they didn't start.

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 Willie Walker & The Butanes "Memphisapolis" (Haute 2006)

****1/2 For all the fans and critics bemoaning Soul music’s reliance on machines these days I present you with a pacifier. 100% organic, natural Deep Soul music (and original songs to boot!). We’re talking Hammond organ, a horn section, rhythm section with a pulse and an authentic O.V. Wright-styled Soul shouter. Actually, Soul aficionados already know about Willie Walker & The Butanes. Their 2004 LP “Right Where I Belong” made waves on both sides of the Atlantic. Blues Critic Online placed it in the Top 10 Soul Blues CDs of said year. Well, nothing’s changed as Willie, songwriter Curtis Obeda and the Butanes (John Lindberg, Virgil Nelson, Robb Stupka) are back with an equally gritty slab of raw, sweaty aural pleasure.

It must be noted first that all 13 tunes are originals- so there’s no godzillionth cover of “Respect Yourself” or “Mustang Sally” here- just some new relatives penned by Obeda. Wasting no time “Memphisapolis” commences with a vintage Stax-kissed groove on “What’s It Take”, which even quotes “In The Midnight Hour” (musically) following the chorus. You wonder who’s the star here- Walker’s throaty rasp or the tidal wave of horns (Jim Greenwell-sax, Michael B. Nelson-trombone, Brad Shermock-trumpet). Like a lot of Obeda’s compositions the song is more groove than melody. Many of the songs aren’t immediate but slyly burrow their way into your heart on repeated listens. Not so for “My Baby Drives Me Crazy”, “Opposites Attract” and “Thanks For Being There”; a trio of easily accessible Memphis movers replete with female backups and riffing horns. Some of the cuts here were originally intended for others: “Real Love” for Al Green; “I’ll Get To You” for Bettye LaVette; “Thanks For Being There” for Tyrone Davis but those shoes are now filled by Walker just fine thank you.

The gem of the set is “Exactly Like You”, a midpaced 50s-styled ballad about brotherhood that bear hugs your soul. “What’s it Gonna take for you to see/You’re exactly like me...we’re both men but we’re living different lives”. It’s a stunner. The Deep Soul “Cry Cry Cry” (not the Bobby Bland song) isn’t far behind. The liners say this song was the first Walker and Obeda demoed together. “Real Love” has a definite Al Green/Willie Mitchell/Hi Records thang going for it with Walker delivering a more mellifluous vocal than usual. The man’s a rarity these days- singing Soul with a pitch and pain the greats like Pickett, Redding, Clay, Cooke & Wright used to do. Walker’s career does stretch back to those same 1960s with the famed Goldwax and Checker labels. Only a handful of 45s were issued and there hasn’t been much since. His profile was augmented a tad when his “There Goes My Used To Be” appeared on the excellent compilation, “The Goldwax Story”. Surely there were many who found it hard to believe a voice like his would be under-recorded (although I hear there’s mucho unreleased Walker out there somewhere). Fortunately Obeda and his Butanes had the wisdom to back Walker and he couldn’t ask for a more dedicated bunch. Take a listen to the Butanes get down, get funky and get loose on the last half of “The Last Time” to know what I mean. They may live in Minneapolis but their hearts reside in Memphis and there you have “Memphisapolis”."

P.S. Walker now goes by Wee Willie Walker and his 2017 album with the Anthony Paule Soul Orchestra entitled "After A While" has been nominated for 5 Blues Music Awards!


2-12-18

Album Review

Frank Mendenhall "Hard Times" (Wurst Act 2004)

***** Gone way too soon. Frank Mendenhall passed away in 2007 at age 59 but not before he released three albums including "Hard Times" - simply one of the greatest Southern Soul/R&B albums ever created. Mendenhall possessed a weary, doleful voice that oozed n' ached Soul. On his first two albums ("Time" & "Sweet Love") Mendenhall displayed his eclectic roots of Soul, Blues, Reggae, somewhat pedestrian adult contemporary balladry but outside of "Time" and first hit "Shont Dont Dont" he hadn't yet perfected his trademark sound. When "Hard Times" dropped six long years later it was clear Mendenhall has created a masterpiece. Gone was the faux-Reggae conceits and the wimpy beat ballads. In it's place was song after song of hard hitting Southern Soul, rhythm and a little Blues with a propulsive groove bumping on top of an organ/bass foundation. To my ears Clarence Carter's "Slip Away" is a template Mendenhall uses time and time again to great effect. Just about every song on "Hard Times" has at some point gotten it's share of airplay. I recall when it first dropped. Many of you will remember the late great Funky Larry Jones of the Soul And Blues Report- best known for the Top 25 Southern Soul Chart. The week after "Hard Times" had dropped both the title track and "Jealous" made their Top 25 chart debuts. As months passed "Party With Me Tonight" and "All Blues Saturday" had also begun to spread.

"Hard Times" covers familiar ground lyrically. The blues are a condition. From matters mundane to the personal to even the spiritual the Blues can give you a catharsis.  After all if "you don't dig the Blues you got a hole in your soul" as Albert King said. Well, Mendenhall's got the blues thanks to money problems on the title track: "Sitting here wondering what went wrong/I got nothing to lose/Everything I had I lost/Got raindrops falling on my window pane/Got teardrops falling in my heart and it causes my pain/Tell me tomorrow will be a brighter day/But I can't worry about tomorrow when I'm worried about today". This tag teams "Gone On Away From Here" where he's been "Walking this long road/Seem like I'm getting nowhere/Been waiting on my ship y'all/Seem like it just won't come in/Done lost my woman after losing my job". But the album isn't all downers. The galloping groove of "All Blues Saturday" is one of the things Southern Soul aka "grown folks" look forward to. "I've been waiting all week long y'all/For the all Blues Saturday y'all/I just wanna listen to the Blues/Then I wanna dance all day". Maybe later the same day he's inviting you to "Party With Me Tonight", which has aged as the most famous track from the record. We also have sagacious relationship advice and admonitions. On "What She Can't Get At Home" he, in a nutshell, echoes what Johnnie Taylor said about a man "doing his homework" because "She's out there getting what she can't get at home". The shoe is on the other foot with "Locked Doors". This time he's the victim as he channels Atlantic Records/Otis Redding on this Deep Soul slowie. Here he's fed up with her leaving him at home while she's out all night. He tells her he'll "find somebody else who wants it" if she doesn't want "it".

Mendenhall is not limited to cliché's evidenced by confessional songs like "Dish It All Out" where you may have guessed it: He can "dish it all out" when it comes to cheating but "sure couldn't take it" when he found out his woman "was doing the same thing too".  On "Jealous" he admits to being insecure and protective because of "how good (her) lovin' is".

The overall arrangement and playing is cohesive throughout. Further making this the one must own Mendenhall album is the inclusion of his aforementioned two best pre-2004 songs ("Time" & "Shont Dont Dont"). Every song is a gem. Absolutely essential.


2-6-18

Album Review

Uvee Hayes "Nobody But You" (Mission Park)

***1/2 Uvee Hayes has straddled the lines between Blues, Soul, Jazz and later Southern Soul throughout her career. She is one of precious few artists that have been able to make a mark in mainstream Blues as well as the Southern Soul markets. Hayes was born in Mississippi but relocated to Missouri after marrying St. Louis Radio Hall Of Famer Bernie Hayes, who started his independent record label Mission Park in order to issue Uvee's recordings.

Uvee's first LP was released in 1984. The 7-track album was entitled "I.C.U.U.V." and introduced the world to a smooth, sometimes sultry singer with a unique, identifiable timbre. In 1986 an obscure imprint Bunky 7 Records released one of the tracks from the LP on a 12 inch single ("He's My Man") followed by another 12 incher entitled "B.Y.O.M (Bring Your Own Man)" coupled with "He's My Man". It would be several more years for new music to appear. Mission Park released Uvee's first CD, "On My Own" in the mid 90s. More notable was the 1998 release "Sweet & Gentle", a 14-track collection of both old and new recordings. It was at this point people started to take notice. This pattern of recycling older tracks with fresh material continued in 2001 on the 15-track "There'll Come A Time". All these early releases were aimed at the Blues and Jazz markets.

In 2009 Uvee signed with the fledgling CDS Records label, which issued a 17 collection of (yet again) both new and previously-released tracks. The label chose her duet with Otis Clay, a cover of Johnnie Taylor's "Play Something Pretty" (also the album's name), as the first single but it was the follow up, "Maintenance Man", that put Uvee on the map in Southern Soul. Boosted by WDIA out of Memphis in late 2010 the song has gone on to receive extensive and consistent airplay and sales over the past seven years.

Mission Park issued a new collection, "True Confessions" in 2011, which featured another duet with Otis Clay ("Steal Away (From The Hideaway)"), but it was the next album that produced her next successful song. Taken from 2014's "In The Mood", the track "Handy Man" was a sequel to "Maintenance Man" and followed a similar shuffle-bump arrangement. You'd think Uvee would ditch the Blues and Jazzy elements to her music but fortunately she has not. So that brings us to 2017 when another sequel to "Maintenance Man" makes it's appearance on "Nobody But You"

The groove-heavy "Mr. Fix-It-Upper" has Uvee singing: "Met this man/Said 'I was watching you'/'I was wondering whether I can talk to you'/'I see you had a maintenance man then you had a handy man'/'I understand they were doing the best they can....'/'...allow me to introduce myself to you'/'I'm the man that's gonna give you what you need'/'I'm Mr. fix-it-upper...you tried the rest now try the best'".

It remains to be seen if this is the one that gets the job done or another mechanically-inclined, jack-of-all-trades steps up. Even better is "Your Love's Gotta Hold On Me", a Tyrone-Davis-like headbobber with an especially pretty and emotive vocal from our heroine. It's wonderfully retro but doesn't sound out of place on a typical Southern Soul playlist. In fact it's a contender for the best track she's cut so far.

The down home "I Wanna Hear Some Blues" should satisfy her Blues contingent. "Hold On" and "Oh Baby" are lovely, electric piano and synth-led slow jams that gives us that "smooth and gentle" Uvee we crave. "That's How You Make Me Feel" is a midtempo number fueled by programmed horns and a sing-along-worthy refrain.

And finally the title track incorporates subtle guitar noodling and vocoder-ized backing vocals into a slinky, breezy slow song. And then it's over. Too soon. The seven songs on "Nobody But You" are some of the best of her career and with the addition of a couple tracks this could have been her best album to date. It's still highly recommended. BUY CD


2-2-18

Album Review

Mo' B "Toast It Up" (self released) 

***1/2 His name is pronounced "mo bee" not "mob". You'd be surprised how many goof on that one. Legal name Marrisee Boyd. He's also gone by "Mo B The Prince Of Urban Soul". I've known about Mo' B for some time. He was always bubbling over and under the radar for years but I wasn't aware of a full CD until we reached out to him on Facebook. Glad we did. "Toast It Up" is a tour-de-force 14-song set full of club bangers and sweet, buttery goodness. Get it? "toast" and "buttery". Aw, never mind. Wrong kind of toast. Annnnnnyway, the derivative current single "Here Kitty Kitty Stomp" is a head-bobbin', shuffle-bumper in double-time that nicks KC & The Sunshine Band's famous keyboard riff from "Boogie Shoes" (as did Nellie Tiger Travis' "If I Back It Up" and many others) and lyrics from "Atomic Dog" ("Why must I feel like that/Why must I chase the cat?"). It's a delirious, loose bit of fun that's truly contagious (in a good way). If ever there was a track tailor-made for chitlin' circuit dance floors this "B" it.

The galloping title track is a great contender for a follow up single. "Toast it up/Hold up your cups/Get your drink on". This is straight party music that manages to reference many welcome cliche's in Southern Soul life ("BYOB", "BBQ", "DJs playin' Southern Soul", "All the ladies lookin' beautiful"). After all everybody knows grown folks like to get down and have a good time. The midtempo "Beautiful" has a retro-mid 80s R&B arrangement and style. Underrated decade for Soul music. There's a brand new chapter to the infamous long standing "Jody" saga (that lowdown so-and-so sexing up your woman while you're working). Well, "Jody Got His Ass Whooped"! Finally! See, Johnnie Taylor may have said "Ain't no use in going home/Jody's got your girl and gone." Well, Mo' has different ideas. Seems, Jody was out bragging about hooking up with Mo's gal so Mo decided to come home early one afternoon "on his ass". And the lyrics explain what happened: "While Jody was swingin' his d***/I was beating on him with this stick". That says it all, doesn't it? Jody finally got what's coming to him. This is one of two tracks only found on the CD version of this album. The other is a rolling downhome Blueser, "Hitting On Me". Harmonica on a Southern Soul album? Yep! Mo' is informing you (and Pokey?) "Your side piece is all over me". Well you know what they say? If he/she is cheating with you he/she probably will cheat on you too.

Mo' gets romantic on "U My Lady", a slinky slow number, as is "Baby Come Home" and "8 Dayz". Meanwhile "Old And Gray" ups the ante on lovey-dovey. What woman doesn't want to hear "Even when when I'm old and gray/I'll have a kiss for you/Even when you're old and gray/I'll still be your boo". I'm betting not a one. In a nutshell "Toast It Up" feels like an album full of pent up ambition and inspiration, years of songwriting and planning, just waiting for the right time to cut a full-length album. There's no duds. Mo' may as well have titled the LP "Greatest Hits". This one definitely deserves attention and should produce plenty of hits. BUY CD


1-30-18

Album Review

Albert King Red HouseAlbert King "Red House" (Castle/Essential 1991)

*** This is the very last studio album recorded by the late Blues titan. One of my motivations for writing this short review is my annoyance over how woefully inaccurate most info out there is on exactly what this actually is. If it's even listed at all it's usually listed as another live album or a compilation of previously-released tracks rather than the final album from the master. My research suggests it was only officially released in the United Kingdom in 1991 months before his fatal heart attack. It received almost no attention and quickly fell into obscurity. I'm the one that added it to his Albums Discography on Wikipedia but then some nitwit edited the page and moved it over to the "Compilations" section (as of today it's still listed incorrectly). Insert angry emoji here.

Recorded both in Memphis, TN (produced by King and Gary Belz) and Los Angeles, CA (produced by Bruce Gary and Alan Douglas) this rare 9 song set includes songs new to the King canon ("Red House", "Bluesman", "If You Got It", "Stop", "When You Walk Out The Door", "Problems", 'Our Love Is Going To Win", "Trouble", "Don't Let Me Be Lonely"). The project was spear-headed by none other than the drummer for the New Wave band The Knack ("My Sharona") Bruce Gary! Finally something good to come out of that musical abomination. Following the disbandment of that (irksome) band Gary became an in demand session drummer and turned his attention to the Blues. In addition to King he (died in 2006) recorded with John Lee Hooker and along with Alan Douglas produced a series of archival releases on Jimi Hendrix, most notably Jimi Hendrix's "Blues" album (highly recommended).

"Red House" suffers overall from shrill synthesizer parts throughout that try and fail to be a proxy for horns. Adding insult to injury there is, in fact, live horns on "Our Love Is Going To Win" and "Trouble". Only budgeted for two tracks?  In addition there's a sterile and distant studio sound to these recordings that dull King's normally razor-sharp, piercing guitar licks. Nevertheless this is Albert King and his talent overshadows the misgivings. The highlight by far is the title track, a Hendrix original, a rolling midtempo shuffle with a confident King vocal and his trademark bag of tricks courtesy of his "guit-fiddle" named Lucy. Pity the lame keyboard fills couldn't have been excised. And, unfortunately, the rhythm section is stiff and lazy while the mix is muddy. It also sounds like King's mic was too "hot" and clipping, resulting in some distortion. Ever since I've owned this album I've fantasized of someone taking these sessions, stripping away all accompaniment and re-recording new backing tracks behind King's vocals and guitar.

King gets his croon on for James Taylor's "Don't Let Me Be Lonely". Those familiar with King know he possessed a husky, soulful voice that shined on slow numbers like "The Very Thought Of You" from years passed. He nails this one. The track also features an uncredited sax solo.

Another highlight is "Bluesman", which no doubt draws it's lyrical inspiration from Willie Dixon/Muddy Waters. "On the night I was born my poor mother cried/She said Lord have mercy on this manchild/The devil screamed and threw up both his hands/And said this boy was born to be a Bluesman". And "When You Walk Out That Door" benefits from one of the better arrangements (and mixes) on the album (unfortunately the liner notes don't tell us which cuts were recorded in Memphis vs. Los Angeles). But elsewhere the rocking rhythm guitars ruin an otherwise effective performance of "Stop" and the mix almost buries the stomping "Trouble", which features King's most powerful and best recorded leads.

Overall you have an album absolutely necessary for King fanatics but perhaps one the casual fan can do without. Like I said earlier I'm still hoping for a re-release with a brand new mix or newly recorded backing tracks. Sadly, as it's been 25+ years without a single reissue I reckon that's just a dream of mine. Nevertheless this is part of the Albert King story and it should be properly credited wherever his discography appears.

(If you want your own copy of this CD email bluescritic@yahoo.com and we'll try to find you one for sale).

 


1-29-18

Album Review

Stan Butler "The Blues In Me" (self released)

*** Nowadays there is a staggering amount of new music being produced in the Southern Soul Blues genre. New artists crop up seemingly weekly. The DIY (do-it-yourself) spirit is thriving and for most a bona fide record label and distributor is no longer necessary. Anybody can buy a keyboard, pro-tools, program a track, lay down vocals and blast an MP3 to a network of radio and club djs, while putting the music up for sale digitally and hoping for a hit. A hit can mean gigs and gigs are the only true way to make decent money in this business. Streaming and piracy has left the business of selling music in a coma. An encouraging trend has been the increasing appearance of little Quincy Joneses, record producers with their own independent labels. Your Beat Flippas, TK Souls, Jerry Floods, Bigg Robbs, etc. have dominated the game for years now. I consider this a very positive thing as there is an inexhaustible supply of talented people who wouldn't stand a chance without the current system. The days of trying to sign with an established label are long gone. In Southern Soul that is. Of all genres this one is the easiest to break into. The competition is fierce though and while this current situation results in excess mediocrity there's always something special that breaks out.

Stan Butler is one of the special results of this new paradigm. Like Jody Sticker or Luther Lackey, Butler is not necessarily a knock-u-flat Soul singer ala Wendell B or Willie Clayton but he became an expert at using his voice and lyrical wit for the greatest effect. Prime example is the absolutely brilliant shuffle bumper "I Took My Grandma To The Club", one of the most clever and humorous tracks to come along since Sir Jonathan Burton's "Too Much Booty Shakin'". A refreshing respite from all the "side piece" clones. As the title suggests the song tells a (tall?) tale of Mr. Butler acquiescing to bringing his grandma to the club. She asks and he agrees as long as: "You promise me when we get to the club you'll sit down in your seat". Now you see Butler tipped his hand here. Was it necessary to remind her to stay in her seat or did he suspect she just may cut some rug? Perhaps not the first time? As anticipated when they get to the club grandma is enjoying herself so much she decides to teach these young whippersnappers how to do the damn thang, in this case the "Tootie Boot", a reference to one of Butler's first songs to appear on the radar (found of his first full-length "Back To Basics"). "I'm eighty years old as y'all can see/I bet not one of y'all can out dance me". Though funny it really isn't insulting or unbelievable like certain television commercials that, say, show old people suddenly acting like young idiots after drinking Mountain Dew or sneaking away from their retirement home to party hardy before stopping at Taco Bell for late night fuel. Those are obnoxious and exploitive but Butler's "Grandma" isn't for what he reports does actually happen! I've witnessed it myself. My grandmother being challenged in the skin color department did this and certainly did not, er, "out dance" anyone! Alas, I won't be writing a song about this unfortunate experience.

Butler's vocals on the verses are basically rapped and remind me of Young MC of "Bust A Move" fame. He sings the bridge and refrain: "I took my grandma to the club and told her to take her seat/But uh she got up and out danced me". This is a feel good song that is extremely catchy and, well, fun. Elsewhere on "The Blues In Me" Butler gets serious on the (Luther Lackey-inspired?) "Preacher Was A Homewrecker". On this story-telling slow jam Butler informs us that a friend from work invited him and his wife to his church and the wife soon falls prey to the seduction of the not so man of God. "All the time I was changing my life/And the preacher was having my wife". Butler didn't re-invent the wheel here. Luther Lackey has a whole series of songs describing similar exploits. Nevertheless Butler's delivery sounds earnest. Another bumper "Third Of The Month" has our working class hero promising his woman he will "Pay your rent and your car note too" but not until the "third of the month". Who can't relate to that? The percolating dancer "Take Me To The Bootlegger" is not about music bootlegs but old school hooch. Butler cheats on "Who Said The Grass Is Not Greener On The Other Side" and is cheated on in "I Lost My Woman To A Woman". Meanwhile "Juke Joint Shack" checks the box for the requisite "Hole In The Wall" jam.

While "The Blues In Me" is a bit uneven overall and is occasionally generic production-wise (endemic of the genre) it is more than enough to announce that Butler has a bright future in this ever (hopefully) expanding market. BUY CD


1-24-18

DVD Review/Commentary

"Go Back To Africa!"

B.B. King "Live In Africa '74" (Shout Factory)

****1/2 Here we have captured on video the undisputed "King Of the Blues" playing to a crowd of more than 80,000 people in Kinshasa, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) during an historic week leading up to the "Rumble In The Jungle", a championship boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Forman. Notably, this concert was filmed by Leon Gast, the director of "When We Were Kings", an Academy Award-winning documentary on this legendary match and cultural event. Quite the setting indeed.

Firstly, before I continue, I must confess ever since I can remember I've been an Albert King man. Always loved B.B. but Albert was the "king" with me when it comes to the Blues- a perfect combination of smoky Soul vocals and icy Blues guitar. That said, B.B., truly is the king live (and co-fave) and he leaves no doubt during this performance in front of an enthusiastic crowd, which included Ali, Don King (and very likely Forman and James Brown). There's barely any introduction before B.B. confidently strolls to center stage picking a few guitar licks and then leading into a song from his most recent album, "To Know You Is To Love You". B.B. was at one of his commercial peaks at this point. The song ("To Love You") had hit #12 R&B and #38 Pop on the charts while another single from the LP, "I Like To Live The Love", did even better at #6 R&B and #28 Pop. Soon as he opens his mouth it's exceedingly apparent he's in fine voice this evening. He really lets those raspy vocals roar on the next number, "I Got Some Outside Help I Don't Really Need" (annoyingly mis-titled on the DVD case as "I Believe To My Soul"), a slow, humorous Blues . It isn't said often enough but King possessed one of the greatest male voices of the modern era, a razor-sharp, Soulful wail that could be tempered with a softer, melodic croon. He uses both tonight all the while interjecting his tasty, economical, laconic guitar fills. Part of the fun is watching King's face, famously full of expression. He doesn't disappoint here. He unequivocally FEELS it. Joy, pain, the groove, the Blues. When King is on stage he gives his all and leaves it all out there when he's done, not a second devoid of energy and passion.

It's a riveting show. Just the hits ("The Thrill Is Gone", "Sweet Sixteen", more). My only complaint? It's not long enough! The performance is just shy of 43 minutes but, fortunately, each and all minutes are stellar. So when I first purchased this DVD I played it three times in a row giddy, grinning like a moron throughout at how great it is to watch the master in all his glory. See, there's plenty of B.B. King DVDs on the market but precious few from younger days. B.B. was a mere 49 at the time. It's the first time I've seen him pre-1990. While he was great until the very end it's a thrill seeing him lean, mean and in his prime.

Something else I want to mention about this viewing experience. Something happened in the middle of my third viewing. I was suddenly struck by just how monumental this night was. Sure, it was a series of music performances (occasionally dubbed the "black Woodstock") including B.B. and James Brown leading up to a mega-hyped title bout, but what shook me was something more seismic. Here we have the greatest Blues musician in front of 80,000 people (including the strikingly handsome Ali at his prime whom the camera showcases at least once) playing the Blues...in Africa. It's hard not to recall the horrible truth that B.B.'s ancestors were once unlawfully taken hostage and enslaved not that terribly long ago from this very continent. I posit it's without debate the Blues got it's start on American cotton fields by African slaves. History has since proven so-called "African Americans" went on to create the most popular and most lucrative music forms of modern times from the Blues, Soul to Rock & Roll, Jazz and Hip Hop. It's "black music". It's "African American music". It was the children of slaves that went on to change America and the world. And on this evening we have three black men, "African Americans" (B.B., Ali, Forman), all descendants of African slaves, returning to Africa as kings ("When We Were Kings"). Most remarkable we have the King of the Blues himself playing this creation, the Blues, for free men and women in Africa. In one of the songs, the classic "Why I Sing The Blues", B.B. sings:

"Everybody wanna know why I sing the Blues/I've been around a long time/I've really paid my dues/When I first got the Blues they brought me over on a ship/There were men standing over me and a lot more with a whip".

I paused the DVD in awe for a moment....before reality came crashing down. While B.B. didn't sing those lines with any particular emphasis it's still a powerful moment and a timely one. Earlier this month it was widely reported a sitting American president allegedly made "racist" remarks that left little doubt we still have so far to go when it comes to race. But I cheered up again when I remembered he'll one day be gone and "African Americans", black persons in general, and their (and now all of our by adoption) culture and their gift, the Blues, will continue on until time indefinite. Mr. Gast please re-title your documentary to "When We Were, Are And Will Continue To Be Kings".

Here's a clip from the DVD:


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