Friday, October 30, 2015

Deb Callahan Shows Plenty of Sweet Soul

A couple of days ago one of my students drove up to the mountain for a visit. It’s always nice to see a familiar face, and even though I’m on Sabbatical this semester, I’m still on a couple of Thesis Committees so I’ve stayed in touch, albeit mostly via email. She had gone into my office back at school to get one of my books and noticed a big pile of mail on my desk that she thought I might want to have.
Mostly it was the kind of academic junk mail you would expect, postcards for new text books, subscription forms for journals, that sort of thing. But there was also a pile of what was obviously CDs, and I could really use them. After all, Henry and I are still cranking out shows and those new CDs are what drive us forward each and every week.
When my student pulled up outside the Juke Joint, she carried was trying to balance all this mail in her hand while holding onto a cup of coffee in the other and knee the car door shut. It was a ballet move that so many have perfected and how we do it without falling on our collective faces I’ll never know.
She handed me the mail (I waited until she had left to throw out the detritus) and one package was opened.
“Sorry about this one Professor,” she said. “I needed something to listen to on the way up here. I hope you don’t mind.”
It’s a long trip from there to here so she must have listened to it at least four times. That’s a lot for a kid with a short attention span. It must have been good.
And let me tell you, it was. I listened to it while we talked about her thesis and I went over her notes and made a few suggestions. I filled up her coffee cup with real coffee, not the stuff she would have gotten at the bottom of the mountain, and hit repeat once again to listen to Deb Callahan’s SWEET SOUL.
Wow! What an album. Her voice is pure sweet soul, the kind of voice that just gets inside your head and lulls you into a happier place. I was not familiar with this Philadelphia singer before, but after listening to this album, I am a big fan.
Callahan wrote or co-wrote eight of the 13 songs on the album. Her co-writers include Allen James and Chris Arms and she covered songs written by Tom Waits, Dr. John, W. Williamson and the tandem of Candi Staton, Clarence Carter, Marcus Daniel, and Rick Hall as well as the duo of David Egan and Buddy Flett.
Her band consists of Callahan on vocals, Allen James on guitar, Reggie McBride on bass, Tony Braunagel on drums and percussion, Mike Finnigan plays organ and piano, and Jimmy Powers on the harmonica.
Johnny Lee Schell plays slide guitar on one song and adds backing vocals as does Teresa James, Mike Finnigan, Leslie Smith, Lydia Hillard, and Callahan herself.
Callahan starts out with an up-tempo number Big Love that has a nice swinging feel and gives you a sample of her smoky voice. It’s just the promise of some sweet sounds to come. James has a nice guitar run to add a little sparkle to the break. There’s no feeling quite like that of a new love.
Then she gets into some strong blues territory, I Keep Things Running, which assures us that she is the woman in charge and we better not forget it. Great song.
Callahan then shifts gears with the fun rocking song, Shakin Up. This is one where the music is bouncy but the lyrics reveal the truth about the situation. I love this song.
She slows things down nicely with I Am Family. It has a sweet soulful country feel, but with an edge to the lyrics. Very sweet and a good and truthful story to tell.
By now you should get the feeling that there is no way to pigeonhole Deb Callahan. She transcends genres and that’s going to make it difficult for some people to discover her. Let me assure you, her voice is stellar and her lyrics are poignant. Don’t worry if I use labels on her songs that you may not like – just listen and I think you’ll agree that she’s the real deal.
She keeps things slow with Sweet Feeling, but it is more pronounced, a little stronger beat. Her voice plays off the keyboards and drums for a small combo sound. James saves his guitar for a bit using it for a later counterpoint.
She picks up the next song with a funky opening riff. Born To Love You is an anthem of love to that special one person that we should all be so lucky to find. She adds a gospel flavor shortly after getting going and it adds nicely to the song.
Then we’re back to bouncy fun number of driving home to be with that person. Seven States Away is a travelogue to love as she works her way north to get home. I’ve definitely known that feeling crisscrossing the world to get back. This would have been my jam for those days.
After that, Callahan serves up Tom Waits’ gospel tinged Way Down In The Hole. It has a funky kind of samba rhythm in the background and James’ guitar work is very strong as are Mike Finnigan’s keyboards. She then slows things way down with Step Back. This is a sloe gin fizz of a song that builds as Finnigan and James take over the music and Callahan’s low notes bring it to life.
The pace stays slower and deliberate with You Don’t Know Your Mind, when love hits a patch of trouble. It’s the kind of song where the crossroads are staring you in the face and it’s time to make a decision. The strong woman who is in control needs to find her own way, and if you can’t come along, well Jack, so sorry. Tony Braunagel’s drums take on the staccato beat of someone walking away.
Callahan is back to rocking it with Crazy ‘Bout You Baby, a sweet driving song with a solid beat. This one is probably a big hit to see live.
She finishes up with a couple of fine songs, Slow As Molasses, Sweet As Honey, which is now one of my favorites and Dr. John’s I Been Hoodood. You better be careful while listening to Slow As Molasses, Sweet As Honey because you just might fall in love with whoever is sitting next to you. This is my favorite song on the album and will be playing it a lot at closing time.
She finishes up with a swampy version of I Been Hoodood that adds just the right touch of funk to the CD.
You can’t go wrong with this CD, the only negative I have is the cover art with the red headed Callahan dressed in colors that blend into the wall behind her. She shouldn’t blend in – she stands out. And if she ever appears in my area, I’ll be the first one standing out in line to see her.

For more information, check out her website at http://www.debcallahanband.com/

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Brad Wilson Brings the Blues Thunder

I know that I write a lot about the seasons. Jordan’s Branch is nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia and when you live on a mountain, the seasons are spectacular. Our winters may be colder, but our springs and autumns are amazing, and summer is nice and warm without being too hot.
It’s the transitions that excite me. It’s the moving of one area into another that are so interesting. In music, it’s moving from soft to loud or vice versa – you never want to stay the same.
In the Blues, sometimes there is a sameness to a particular artist. I’m not talking about just playing in one style – not that many artists leave their genre. How many Chicago style electric blues bands slow it down to play a Piedmont style ballad? If you’re comfortable in the Delta, you don’t have to play West Coast Jump Boogie.
But some artists like to combine styles in order to create their own unique sound. Jimmy Buffet successfully melded Country with the Caribbean and created his own distinct brand of music. And that is what Brad Wilson is trying to do with his sound.
This young artist has taken California surf-rock and mashed it up with the blues and is developing a fresh approach. He’s not all the way there yet, but for me, watching those transitions is a lot of fun.
His fifteenth album (and yet he's so young) BLUES THUNDER which is released on the Cali Bee Music Label has got a lot of hits and a few near misses (at least for me) but it is definitely worth listening to, and you might even find a couple you’ll want to keep around to jam to while driving.
All of the 12 songs on the disc were written by Wilson and he shows a versatility in his approach to writing. He covers different subjects and allows the members of his five-piece band to take a turn in the spotlight.
Wilson opens with a nice guitar riff as they launch into Is It Any Wonder, a slower paced number that smolders. His smoky low key vocals underscores his lyrics but that soaring guitar is what brings us in to the story.
He then increases the energy and pace for Change It Up. Here he’s commenting on the hits he’s taken and how he’s got to “keep on knocking” in order to survive and thrive. It’s a pretty cool number and again, he’s got some solid licks that run throughout the song.
Next up is one I love, Blue Shadows, a slow slow torch song that grabs you by the heart and holds on tight. For the first time his vocals are more powerful, more mature and Kirk Nelson’s keyboards provide the canvas for Wilson’s guitar. This could be played at closing time in just about any bar anywhere.
Then we get a little rocking number that nicely mixes in Tumbleweed Mooney’s (gotta love that name) harp. Step By Step moves nicely and sounds like it would be a great number to hear live. The title track lives up to its name. Blues Thunder rumbles down from on high and Wilson runs up and down his guitar with some fast flying fingers. This one is sort of Anthem Rock themed but would sure be a crowd pleaser at any festival.
Let’s Go Barefootin’ It is an unusual one. Here Wilson has mixed a great blues music background with some beach music lyrics. I have to be honest, the two didn’t mix as well as I would have liked – for me anyway. I’ve never been a beach music guy – but his music for this one is solid. When you listen to it, I would appreciate you dropping me a line and letting me know what you thought of it.
Before you start thinking badly about the Professor, I would like to go on record to say that I have always felt it is the job of the young generation to challenge everything that has gone before them in order to find their own way. Not everything is going to work, and some of us older critics may throw up a roadblock, but that is no reason NOT to push that envelope. Run with it if it’s what you want to do. The audience will either find you or won’t – but that’s up to them.
Then we’re back with a more traditional approach with My Faith Has Been Broken. Now that’s a blues title and it’s one you’ll be hearing on the show from time to time. We’ve all been there, when the blues pile up so high you feel like there’s no way to go and everything you hold dear crumbles away. Wilson shows a lot of promise with this song.
After that is Cool Runnin’, more of a soft rock driving song than a blues tune, but it’s kind of catchy and I’ll be putting it on my driving list. Wilson’s guitar has a nice almost Santana feel. Next time I head to California to see my friends Casino Kevin and Left Coast Tracy, I’ll be listening to this tune.
Home is another one that has more soft rock in it than blues, but when music is written from the heart it has plenty of appeal. The sentiment is nice, the sound is good – kind of a ‘90’s college rock vibe, but that’s all part of Wilson’s pedigree. Then comes a swinging number that will be playing on Time For The Blues very soon, Black Coffee At Sunrise. Man this song is fun, and Amrik Sandhu’s drums rock. You’ll hit repeat on this one several times. Kind of rockabilly, early Sun feel and you’ll dig this one a lot.
Sugar Sweet has some nice guitar work but falls into that rock category. It has an interesting late night feel to it, and Wilson saves some of his best pyrotechnics for the song. He finishes the album with Never Again, a number that combines some hard guitar with soft lyrics that underscores the unique feel to the CD.
You can’t deny Wilson or his band have a good sound and strong talent. They push envelopes and create their own space. Not everyone is going to like their sound for whatever reason, but I found a lot to recommend in the album. Plus, I think it’s exciting to see a talent explore their world and find new ways to express their ideas.
I would  check out this CD, and catch him live if you can. You can find out all sorts of things about Wilson and Blues Thunder at http://bradwilsonlive.com/main.html. Don’t let the California surf look fool you, this guy has got some serious chops.
Now Mrs. Professor is standing at the door tapping her foot and holding a rake. Something tells me I’m out the door doing yardwork for a while. Time to put fresh batteries in my Discman (yes, I still use one) and get to work.

Peace from Jordan’s Branch.

(Photo of Brad Wilson by Alex Centrella was lovingly "borrowed" from Wilson's website. If you want it removed, you'll have to come to my house and rake the leaves.)

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Crooked Eye Tommy Delivers a Straight Ahead CD

The wind is always the way you can tell when the seasons are changing. Around here, Fall and Winter come early and Spring takes its own damn time getting here. When the wind starts biting with a little of that colder Canadian air, what few tourists are left take their snapshots of the leaves changing on the mountain and get the hell out of here.
Can’t really blame ‘em. Winters here are not for the faint of heart. We lose power a lot and sometimes we get snow that nobody else sees. It gets cold too – not the kind of city cold they get in Richmond or points east, but the kind of cold that bites you and makes every step torture, every puff of wind a stinging pain.
But if you can live with the sound of generators firing up all over town, the solitude is kind of nice. Fall still has some beautiful days and nights before giving away to the punishing winter months – and when I have quiet evenings, I get to open up packages of CDs and even answer a few emails.
I got a very nice email from a West Coast PR Guy who usually turns me on to some decent acts. A lot of these bands would fly under my radar because I so seldom get out to the Left Coast these days and some of my friends that help me out – West Coast Tracy and her husband Casino Kevin have been out of  touch following the Dodgers woes, while Director Bekah and Dangerous Dave are sprucing up the house waiting for the new baby so have been a little too busy to check out new acts for me.
So Downright Doug sent me a note asking if I would check out a group he’s liking and wants to get the word out. He tells me they’ve only been together a few years but have a good sound. He hasn’t steered me wrong yet and since I’ve got some down time, sure why not.
I’m glad I opened that email – Crooked Eye Tommy has got a tight old school sound that is brand new but somehow seems so familiar. The music is tight and the vocals are solid – this is great listening music and still can make you groove the night away.
The name of the album is BUTTERFLIES & SNAKES and just like the opposite images that conjures up, the band plays off its musical yin and yang to produce an album that is strong and yet soft at the same time. It’s not exclusively blues – there’s touches of rock and a certain California sound that show up, but it’s a good mix and the kind of CD just about everyone will enjoy.
The band consists of eleven songs penned by Crooked Eye Tommy front-person and band namesake Tommy Marsh and Tommy's brother, guitarist-vocalist, Paddy Marsh. Other members include Glade Rasmussen on bass, Tony Cicero on drums, and Jimmy Calire handling the saxophone, piano, and Hammond B3.
The opening track is an autobiographical number Crooked Eye Tommy, and it is a down-home swampy number that kicks things off nicely. Apparently Tommy Marsh was born with a couple of lazy eyes and he’s used this vision of the world to craft his blues.
The next track Come On In features some nice lead guitar and some wicked lyrics. This is one I definitely could see playing on Time For The Blues. The rhythms section of Rasmussen and Cicero give a nice dark beat to this song. Check it out.
Then there’s I Stole The Blues, which namedrops many great acts and takes over where The Blues Had A Baby (And They Called It Rock ‘N’ Roll) left off. A simple driving beat with little bits pulled from several artists – homages to their sound, with more than a little raucous saxophone from Calire.
Time Will Tell is a cool sound that isn’t quite blues and not really rock. It’s somewhere near that sweet soul sound that I love. This is where the title Butterflies & Snakes comes from – used as a description for women. It’s a very cool song and one I’ve been listening to for a while and enjoying the groove.
After that is Tide Pool, a ballad that again slides out of the blues genre to create its own sound. I could see this as a slow torch singer number. The guitar build is nice and somewhat reminiscent of Carlos Santana’s bridges in numbers.
After The Burn is perhaps my favorite on the CD. It builds on the spooky lyrics of Come On In with a more sophisticated approach that combines guitars and Hammond B3. The Santana reference is again very applicable. I’ll be playing this one for some time to come.
Before you start to thinking of Crooked Eye Tommy as some Johnny Come Lately One-shot band, they represented Southern California in a recent ICBM and from what I hear, they pretty much tore Memphis apart. They were semi-finalists (no easy task) and have made fans from all over the world. This is their first album and definitely won’t be their last.
We’re back to the down-home sounds with Somebody’s Got To Pay, good bouncy number with an upbeat sax solo that belies its darker lyrics. That’s the joy of the blues – the music might get you, but the lyrics tell the truth.
Love Divine starts out with a nice guitar hook and pulls you into the song nicely. It’s a good mix with a solid guitar solo that lifts it up and out. I bet this is a good song to see live. If they ever get east, or I head west, trust me, I intend to find out.
Then it’s time for Mad & Disgusted, a faster paced fun number with deep blues roots with more than a touch of barrelhouse blues. Once again we look at the modern world to see just what’s going wrong with things. Another great dance tune – we should all take advantage and dance while the Titanic hits the iceberg!
The band slows things down considerably for Over And Over, a very strong blues song that just tears at your soul listening to this man spill his guts. It’s evocative and emotional and the kind of despair we all know too well. An exceptional song.
We’re back home for Southern Heart, a tune that straddles the country and blues world. When you look at it, the two have more similarities than differences, so just kick back and relax. It’s well played and the vocals are sweet – a good way to end a fine CD.
Check out their CD and the band at http://crookedeyetommy.com/. And if you happen to be out in Southern California, check ‘em out live and tell the Professor how you liked the show. I’ll be here on the mountain making chili and waiting for the winds to change.



Saturday, October 3, 2015

Dave Ellis' is STRAIGHT UP!

Today was a day of firsts for the Professor. You may not know that I am on sabbatical this semester – taking a little time to work on my book and do some blues research. Mainly I’m taking a little time to get my ticker checked out again.

I’ve never really talked about it although I’ve never hidden the fact that my heart is not in the best shape. I’ve had one very nasty heart attack and two smaller ones, so every so often I visit my cardiologist for a little tune up.

That’s what I did the other day and while everything looked okay on the surface, he wanted his surgeon pal to go in and take a look at some scarring issues and clean them up. So, he made an appointment in the near future and told me to take it easy.

Of course, he failed to emphasize that to Mrs. Professor who thought to herself, “Hmmm, I can finally get some work out of this lazy bum…”

I’m not sure if that’s actually what Mrs. Professor thought to herself, but I’m pretty sure it was something close to that.

Anyway, while lounging around on the computer instead of transcribing my notes, I started reaching out to blues musicians and fans on Facebook. I hunted them down from my friends’ lists and then invited them to join up on Time For The Blues.

If I haven’t gotten around to you yet, I apologize. I had to take a break partially through in order to clean the gutters. That’s taking it easy…

If you haven’t seen the Time For The Blues page, hustle on over to https://www.facebook.com/timefortheblues?ref=aymt_homepage_panel and sign up. It’s quick, easy, painless, and you just might find enlightenment. I really doubt you’ll find that last one, but hey, anything can happen.

One of the people I friended reached out to me and asked about submitting some music to me and of course I readily agreed. You know I love to hear new things and he sent me a code for CD Baby to check out his newest release and I actually downloaded the album by myself.

Mrs. Professor usually does that for me, but I had sneaked away to avoid picking up the sticks in the back yard.

So that’s how I met Dave Ellis, a U.K. based blues musician who’s got a lot of Swamp Dog in his blood.

By that, I mean his band not only rocks a good blues tune, they are able to dig deep down into their sound and pull out a tune dripping with Spanish Moss or another that would be at home in just about any Texas honky-tonk.

I will admit that the Professor did not know these guys before, but I definitely got educated with their CD STRAIGHT UP!

The ten track CD features all original songs done by Ellis and his rhythm section comprised of Jerzy Janik on bass and Sławny Puszkin on drums. The album just dropped in June, 2015, so you may not have had a chance to check it out, but it is well worth the effort.

If you’re old enough to remember the original British Blues Invasion, those guys had a deep reverence for the sound and did everything they could to replicate it note for note. It wasn’t until Clapton took things a little further that it gave everyone permission to explore the blues and thus changed the sound.

Ellis and company have the advantage of having gone through the punk movement and learned the blues first hand. This is not the genteel British Invasion, this is the Invasion With Attitude.

They open the CD with two up-tempo tracks: Travelin' Man and Nothing to Lose which firmly establish the attitude. Ellis’ guitar licks soar and his lyrics are strong. Next up is Set Me Free which slows down the pace with some chilling lyrics which are perfectly underscored by Ellis menacing sparse guitar.

They go back to a happy pace with Sky Blues Today, but really show their chops on Rattlesnake Hide. Ellis changes guitars and evokes a slower pace. This one could get some significant air play.

After that, it’s back to the Power Trio sound (hey, it really works and it just goes to show you that you can strip down the sound and still make a powerful statement). Sun Goes Down and Stop Sign are straight ahead driving songs.

Then Ellis brings everything down to a crawl with Prayer For A Friend. This is the kind of song you have to listen deeply to, the guitar is subtle, nuanced and his vocals are evocative. This is the kind of music I love and don’t get to hear enough.

The last two songs are solid. Peace Of Mind has a delightful interplay between Ellis’ guitar and Puszkin’s drums. It’s very cool and I would love to see them do this live. The last song Honey Pot is another straight ahead driving number. Start strong, finish strong and take us on a great journey, that’s all I ever ask from a band and the Dave Ellis Blues Band delivers.

It’s a fun album, do yourself a favor and grab it.

And hey, if any of you happen to schedule festivals, Ellis has only played one date in America but has many tours throughout Europe. They would be fun to see live and while they may not be as well known in the States as I would like, they will put on a great show. Think about it.

Here’s the information from CD Baby:

DAVE ELLIS BLUES BAND: Straight Up
http://cdbaby.com/cd/daveellisbluesband2


1 -        Travelin' Man
2 -        Nothing to Lose
3 -        Set Me Free
4 -        Sky Blues Today
5 -        Rattlesnake Hide
6 -        Sun Goes Down
7 -        Stop Sign
8 -        Prayer for a Friend
9 -        Peace of Mind
10 -      Honey Pot

14th Album release of all original tracks written by Dave Ellis from new line up of the Dave Ellis Blues Band... featuring Jerzy Janik on bass and Sławny Puszkin on drums.  Recorded and mixed by Krzysztof Pajak at Meksyk Studio - Skawina Poland 25/06/15
Officially sponsored by Diamond Bottlenecks Glass Bottleneck Guitar Slides.