Sunday, January 28, 2018

Gaelic Storm Rolls Through The Tin Pan

Blues fans, this one might not be for you. Even my Americana fans might not be overly enthusiastic, but for those of you who love all forms of music will certainly enjoy my look at the great Celtic Band, Gaelic Storm. I’ve been a fan of Celtic Music most of my life, growing up on a steady diet of bagpipes, penny whistles, bodhráns, accordions, fiddles, and the occasional ceilidh.
Gaelic Storm has been one of the most visible Celtic groups over much of their 20-year journey, perhaps being most famous to the general public for their appearance in the 1997 blockbuster film, Titanic. While they have gone through a number of incarnations with different players, the current line-up features two founding members, Patrick Murphy on vocals, accordion, and harmonica and Steve Twigger on guitar and vocals. The other members of the quintet include Peter Purvis on bagpipes, Uillean pipes, and pennywhistle; Ryan Lacey on drums and percussion; and Katie Grennen on fiddle and vocals.
For their performance at Richmond’s Tin Pan, the overflowing audience showed off a lot of green jumpers and the occasional rugby shirt. Shamrocks and Irish harps adorned more than one shirt, and the venue, which normally doesn’t stock Guiness, brought in a large amount for the show and sold all of it within a half hour of opening.
You could say that everybody was ready for a night of raucous partying with these wild eyed Celts.
Funny story about the show, seems that the band was in Delaware the night before and while driving down 95 towards Richmond, their van shot a piston through their engine, catching it on fire and crippling their travel plans. Murphy told a hilarious story about their travails and how they made it to the venue only a few minutes before show time.
Oh yeah, Murphy had a lot of stories that night, most of which were hysterical even in the face of adversity. We’re a story telling culture and Murphy is one of the best.
Opening up with a great story song, Piña Colada In A Pint Glass, the audience really got into the performance right away. By the time they finished that song, there were already people calling for Johnny Tarr, which caused Murphy to laugh and remind folks that Johnny Tarr was their version of Freebird, and they were tired of playing it…
Of course, he said that with a smile and a sip from a pint. Next up, they went back to their first album for Johnny Jump Up, and another story. If anyone was expecting a quick concert, they were quickly dissuaded. The stories came pretty much after every song as Murphy is a master at entertaining an audience with every weapon in his arsenal.
After that came a bagpipe and fiddle duel between Purvis and Grennen in an instrumental that the band calls Samurai Set, perhaps because of the kicking that Purvis and Grennen unleashed on each other whilst playing. This lead into our first history lesson about Jimmy Kelly and his part in keeping sailors in servitude in a song from their most recent album, Go Climb A Tree. The song, Shanghai Kelly, is very cool, and it was fun to hear it performed live.
Twigger took over the vocals for the next song, Slim Jim, and he proved that he could carry the lead as well, and Murphy took a well-deserved break. Murphy then launched into a great story of meeting Russell Crowe while he was filming LA Confidential, and getting into a fight when the volatile actor refused to put out a cigarette in the bar where Murphy was bartending. This was the lead in to the song The Night I Punched Russell Crowe In The Head.
From there the band segued into another instrumental that they call Floating The Flanbeury. The audience got a new history lesson as a lead in to the song The Green White And Orange And The Red White And Blue, reflecting the joint patriotism between the Irish and the Americans. Beautiful number.
After teasing the audience a couple of time about how they weren’t going to play Johnny Tarr, they exploded into the song and the audience went wild. I love this song, and it’s been on my playlist for several years, longer than most of the material on it. They followed up with another high energy song, Beggerman, complete with three lovely Irish dancers who did some fancy stepping to accompany the number.
After the audience calmed down a bit, thanks to Murphy’s fantastic story of a man bringing escargot home to his shrewish wife, the band played The One, and then moved to another song from the most recent album, Monday Morning Girl which featured Twigger on vocals.
Then, for a piece of comedy, the band gave percussionist Ryan Lacey an opportunity to offer his words of wisdom.
Next up was their version of Whiskey-O Johnny-O before going into one more instrumental. They closed out the set with a rousing version of Rumpus. After the audience cheered, whistled, stomped, applauded, and generally showed their appreciation of the band, they came back for a two-song encore starting with Me And The Moon with harmonies so tight that my wife referred to them as the Gaelic Beach Boys. They closed the show with Tell Me Ma and audience got crazy for several minutes.
I knew that it was going to be a wild night as I drove to the venue and saw many out of state cars. If anyone travels that far for a band, you know that they are primed for a good time. After a hot night of hard driving Celtic Music, I am definitely ready for more, and it doesn’t have to be on Burns Night or St. Patrick’s Day, let’s get together, listen to music, tell some stories, and raise a pint to each other’s health!

(All photos used for this article are by Jeff Scott, the official photographer of Professor Johnny P's Juke Joint. Used by permission. Copies from this show and many others are available at JeffScottShots.com and you shoud check them out ~ he's damn good!)

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Downchild ~~ Something I’ve Done

There’s always excitement around my house when the Canadian band Downchild comes out with a new album. Aside from being a great influence on the great group The Blues Brothers, Downchild is one of the few bands that has been turning out hundreds of performances and many quality albums (18 to be exact) for 50 years.
Since their last album, Can You Hear The Music, came out in 2014, it’s been a long time since I was able to feel the tingle that comes with a new release. Their newest release, Something I’ve Done, features eight songs written by the band members themselves. The remaining two songs feature one cover and a song written by a former band member, that they had held off on recording.
This incarnation of Downchild features Walsh on guitar and harp; Chuck Jackson on lead vocals and harp; Pat Carey on tenor and bari sax; Michael Fonfara on piano, organ, and dobro; Gary Kendall on bass; and Mike Fitzpatrick on drums. Guest performers include Peter Jeffrey on trumpet; and backing vocals from Walsh, Carey, Fonfara, and Kendall.  
The album starts off in fourth gear with the swinging, high-energy Albany, Albany, written by Jackson. Oh yeah, that woman has treated him mean, but you know he can’t stay away. Love the horn and organ interplay, and the song is so good, it made the three year wait in between albums a little more tolerable.
Next up is the one cover on the album, David Vests’ Worried About The World. It’s a little more serious song than the previous and Fonfara and Kendall add their vocals. Jackson’s harp is high and piercing and really adds to the number. Like this one a lot and the darkness is kind of nice.
There’s more swinging on Can’t Get Mad At You, and they manage to keep the edge on the vocals. The horns pound their way through the song and Jackson keeps his vocals sharp, you can feel his pain and resignation.
Speaking of Jackson, he wrote the next song, Mississippi Woman, Mississauga Man. He also adds harp and the lyrics are so much fun you can’t help but want to get up and start moving around. This one is definitely going on Time For The Blues as well as my personal driving playlist. Such a great tune!
After that raucous number, Downchild slows things down on Kendall’s Take A Piece Of My Heart. It’s a beautiful, emotional ballad and Jackson pulls out all the stops on his vocals. It’s a lovely slow number and it’s placed perfectly at the mid-point of the album to show that while they definitely swing, they can reach deep and deliver a real torcher of a song.
Kendall also wrote the next song, Mailbox Money. They pick the pace up and there’s some sweet barrelhouse piano and a great turn by the horn section. It’s a rousing number that I’m sure will be played on my show and many others as well. Those of us who go out every day looking for those “checks in the mail” letters, this one really hits home!
The late band member, vocalist John Witmer, wrote She Thinks I Do. Downchild never recorded the song, and for some reason never featured it in any of their live shows. They have included it on this album as a tribute to Witmer, and I like the song very much. The lyrics are clever and Jackson’s delivery is spot on. I’ve scheduled this for an upcoming Time For The Blues, and I’m sure it will be appearing on other blues shows.
They follow up with the title track, Something I’ve Done, and its great piano and harp interchange. This is a full on assault of high energy swing blues that would be at home at any Chicago or West Coast club. I love this song and can’t wait to share it!
After that up tempo number, they slow things down just a bit with the dark Into The Fire. Jackson’s vocals are strong and Fonfara’s keys get quite a workout. He chords the organ and holds notes to create that almost noir feeling. The horns and Jackson’s voice do the rest. Sweet number.
They close the album with an instrumental written by Walsh. Evelyn is a great way to cap off a well constructed album, and it gives the entire band a chance to take one more turn in the spotlight. The melody is simple, but it’s deceptive as it sets the pace and the guys trade off much like a jazz combo.
Something I’ve Done is a fun, quick (under 40 minutes) album that doesn’t have a bad song on it. I could put this on my player and never once hit the skip button. That’s a fairly rare occurrence.

If you have not yet jumped on the bandwagon that is Downchild, there’s always room for one more. After all, Canadians are polite people, they’ll make a space for you. Check them out for yourself at http://www.downchild.com/, and discover their 50-year legacy as well as all of their albums. You won’t be disappointed!

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

International Blues Challenge #33

As the 34th Annual International Blues Challenge just wrapped up in Memphis, I would like to extend my congratulations to the 2018 winners: Band 1st Place - Keeshea Pratt Band representing the Houston Blues Society, Band 2nd Place - Fuzzy Jeffries and the Kings of Memphis representing the Memphis Blues Society, and Band 3rd Place - Artur Menezes representing the Santa Clarita Valley Blues Society as well as the Solo/Duo 1st Place - Artur Menezes representing the Santa Clarita Valley Blues Society, and Solo/Duo 2nd Place - Daniel Eriksen representing the Oslo Bluesklubb.
Hey, it is an International challenge, remember?
One thing to remember though, is that everybody who competed at the challenge was a winner by virtue of actually participating. Every band or solo/duo act had to win the opportunity to be there, and every band that strives to keep the blues alive and thriving deserves our applause and respect.
To celebrate this year's Challenge, The Blues Foundation has released a CD of some of the best from last year’s band and solo/duo participants. The album features 14 tracks from a variety of artists that represent the full spectrum of the blues.
The album kicks off with 2017’s winner in the band category Dawn Tyler Watson from the Montreal Blues Society with Shine On. It’s a gospel flavored number with some soaring vocals and beautiful organ chords. It’s a song that could convert the most unrepentant sinner. Or the person who doesn’t normally listen to the blues. Great song and a perfect way to kick off the album.
Johnny Fink & The Intrusion follows with another great song, Let’s Hear Some Blues, which will be appearing soon on an episode of Time For The Blues. It has a great analog sound to it, just some players blowing the harp and laying down a great bass and drum rhythm and getting the audience to join in on the main line. If there is such a thing as Stadium Blues or Arena Blues, this is it! Solid song and a lot of fun.
After that rousing number is Randy McQuay with a stripped down to the bare essentials song, Till I Get To Memphis. His deep resonant voice is beautiful to listen to and he carries the song. I can’t wait to find more from this talented performer to share on the show. 
I was fortunate enough to get a chance to write about Brody Buster’s One Man Band earlier and 2029 is my favorite song that he does. It’s got a punk rock energy but some amazing blues. This guy plays harp as well as anyone, in fact he won the award for best harp player, and it never ceases to amaze me to hear someone playing everything at once. You know this one is showing up on Time For The Blues.
The Nashville Blues Society’s Al Hill beat out Brody Buster to take the solo/duo crown. Here, he is represented by Don’t Dig Today. Hill, who also won for best guitarist in the solo category, turns in a great number complete with honkytonk piano. It’s about as old school as you can get and I really want to hear more.
It’s time to get a little funky with the Sobo Blues Band and their number Catfish Boogie. I like this number a lot and can’t wait to share it with our listeners, and I’ll be looking them up to see what I can get for the collection. They’ve got style, and for those that like a little punch to their blues, this provides all the punch they need!
Ruth Wyand & The Tribe Of One hails from the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and in 2018 she represented Tidewater Virginia as their solo/duo performer. She’s another amazing one person band and here she cuts loose on I Don’t Have Proof. Her plaintive guitar opens the song before her sweet vocals and percussion join the song. I may be biased as I’ve had the chance to see Wyand perform a few times, but she’s one of my favorites, and I had already planned on sharing this song even before I received this compilation.
The Souliz Band Featuring Sugar & Spice took second place in the band competition with their blend of soul and blues. They are represented here with Good Lovin (Hot & Fresh from the Oven), and I guaranteed they will make you want to move. Sweet and sassy with a real edge to the vocals. Love their sound.
Up next is Felix Slim with his country flavored blues, I Hate You Cause I Love You. This is definitely old school and by putting it next to The Souliz Band, it just underlines the fact that this album is a collection of a group of diverse artists, and that the blues speak to the soul in different ways.
Wes Lee steps up to the microphone next with Chains That Bind. He’s a good technician and has a lot of swamp in his soul. I mean that in a good way as he touches on some of the best blues around. It must have been a tough task for the judges to winnow down so many great players to find the best blues talent around. So far, there is not one performer on this album that I wouldn’t gladly listen to an entire album (or several) of their work.
The soulful sound of STAX is alive and well in Sam Joyner, and his Onions Ain’t The Only Thing brought to my mind Booker T And The MGs. He’s got the sound down pat and the keyboards add a rich lush layer of sound to the mix. Definitely want to hear more from him. Very sweet song.
The Third Place Band Category winners were Rae Gordon & The Backstreet Drivers, and their song Elbow Grease is a great addition to the album. Gordon has a sweet voice that has an edge as sharp as an obsidian knife. Men, do not mess with this woman! Love the sax interplay, this has got to be a great band to catch live.
We get down to some hard rocking blues with King Bee and their song Dangerous. A fair number of blues performers are taking their blues to the extreme, giving it more of a metal sound. We’ve featured several on the show over the past few months, and no doubt will get around to more in the future. This is a band that would definitely make the list of those I want to play.
The last song on the album, Meet Me In The Country, is performed by Sugar Brown. It’s a sweet sounding number with definite country blues roots. The traditionalists will love this one and anyone who just loves a good voice and good music will enjoy it as well. Sweet as a cold glass of shine in the moonlight.
Fourteen songs, each by a different artist, and all of those artists were the crème of the crop at an International Challenge. The IBC has launched the careers of many performers and I firmly believe that the artists on this album have all the talent and drive necessary to take their careers to the highest levels.
The record was produced by The Blues Foundation, who sponsor the IBC every year, and Frank Roszak, world famous promotion and publicist. If you’re not a member of the Blues Foundation, what are you waiting for? Take a second and point your browser to https://blues.org/ and join. You’ll be supporting the music you love and help to make it available for generations to come.
As far as Roszak is concerned, I have rarely given him the praise he deserves. While Time For The Blues and this humble blog now have connections coming to us from around the world, Roszak was the first one to discover us and he has been immensely helpful in supplying us with great music. So, thank you Frank, for all you’ve done for us, and all of the other producers and reviewers out there.
Thanks to Frank, and so many other publicists, we are able to raise our voice to join the chorus of those who love the Blues!



Monday, January 22, 2018

The Reverend Shawn Amos Breaks It Down

Before you raise the question, Shawn Amos is a real Reverend, having been ordained by the Universal Life Church, the same group that bestowed me with my ordination papers. Over the years, he has served music in a variety of ways: a performer, songwriter, an A&R man, and I suspect in many other capacities.
His latest album, The Reverend Shawn Amos Breaks It Down, takes him in a couple of different musical directions, from reinterpretations of glam rock and new wave anthems to rhythm and blues, to gospel, and always with his heart firmly rooted in the blues. After he hooks you with some fun funk, he delivers a moving three-song collection that he calls Freedom Suite, and the combination of the three makes for a powerful event.
Amos supplies vocals and harmonica on the songs and he is joined by Chris “Doctor” Roberts, Michael Toles, James Saez on guitar; Leroy Hodges Jr, Hannah Dexter, Alex Al, Larry Taylor on bass; Steve Potts, Mike Smirnoff, Rod Bland, Steve Jordan on drums; Charles Hodges, Peter Adams on keys; Vikram Devasthali on trombone; and Joe Santa-Maria on baritone sax. Additional vocalists are Sharlotte Gibson, Kenya Hathaway, Harold Thomas, Robert “Tex” Wrightsil, Lester Lands, Bill Pitman, Philemon Young,   
The album starts off with the languid down home front porch sounding Moved. The spare music is provided by guitar and harp and the sweet vocals of Amos and backup singers Gibson and Hathaway. The song is full of emotion and the power of a person searching for meaning. It’s a beautiful song and raises the bar on expectations for a great album.
The next song, 2017, is more up tempo and the lyrics are pointed as it looks at what humanity is facing in the present time. Can we be better, the song asks, or is this all we can do? With Amos’ general optimism and hope for the future, there is little doubt that he feels we can find a way out of the darkness and into the light.
Amos follows up with Hold Hands, an R&B flavored morsel that again showcases his belief that we can reach across barriers and make a better world. This is a fun song, and it helps to show that Amos can cover a lot of musical ground with ease.
In a very unusual choice, Amos and company next tackle David Bowie’s The Jean Genie, originally released on his Aladdin Sane album. With its thumping bass and modulated vocals, it really stands out as a different style of song. Even with its glam rock pedigree, Amos still finds ways to infuse the song with some ass kicking funk. Blues purists might not gravitate to the song, but I loved this version, and somehow think Bowie would have as well.
The next three songs comprise a connected trilogy that Amos called Freedom Suite. The first song is the traditional number Uncle Tom’s Prayer, that sets up the full suite. Amos’ harp only blows a few notes before his powerful acapella vocals ring out. Such a beautiful number and with a message that still rings true.
The second song, Amos’ Does My Life Matter, asks a question that just about everyone has pondered at one time or another. The sound moves away from the presentation of the previous song, but keeps the spirit of it moving forward. It’s a song with a lot of punch. This is a great song.
The suite concludes with (We’ve Got To) Come Together, a song that holds out the chance that we can overcome what was before and move forward in a way that unites us as a human race and never diminishes any group. We’re all one, and we need to enhance those connections. And here, we get to do with a funky dance groove.
After that is Ain’t Gonna Name Names, a fun song with more than a little kick to it. It’s got a bit of a big band feel with the horns adding some potent ingredients to the mix. It’s one of those songs that just makes you feel good and you just might want to get up and shake a little bit.
The album closes with one of the all time great New Wave anthems, (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, And Understanding that was written by Nick Lowe and made into an international hit by Elvis Costello. What Amos has done here is not to just cover the song, but remake it into the most soulful and powerful number possible. The first time I listened to his version, I wept at its beauty. I played it for family members who were similarly moved. This one song takes this album onto a higher level and completes its beautiful message.
The Good Reverend has a unique approach to his music. He writes upbeat songs that offer a little hope in troubling times. His approach gives us songs that remind us that salvation is possible, but it comes with a responsibility to work to improve ourselves and hold out our hands to help those who need it. I, for one, find this message uplifting, and it helps me make it through those dark nights when I feel like giving up.

The Reverend Shawn Amos Breaks It Down is a beautiful album, and one I feel that I can say without fear of contradiction, one that will end up on my Best of 2018 list at the end of the year. If any of my words has piqued your interest, be sure to check him out at http://www.shawnamos.com/, and go ahead and preorder the album. 

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Mick Kolassa And Friends ~~ Double Standards

I’ve always enjoyed albums in which one artist explores music with several other artists in order to see what direction that collaboration takes. In my collection are albums of duets featuring Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennet, among others, and now I’m delighted to add the latest from Mick Kolassa who has teamed up with different friends on a new album of duets, Double Standards.
You might remember that on Kolassa’s previous album, You Can’t Do That, featured a team up with Mark Telesca, turning Beatles classics into acoustic blues numbers. He’s shown that he has no problem taking chances with his music and he’s gathered some very talented musicians and singers to make this a very enjoyable album.  
Double Standards is produced by longtime collaborator and all-around guitar wizard Jeff Jensen, who also plays guitar and even adds vocals to one song. Vocalists include Sugaray Rayford, Heather Crosse, Victor Wainwright, Annika Chambers, Tas Cru, Tullie Brae, Eric Hughes, Erica Brown, Patti Parks, David Dunavent, and Gracie Curran.
Aside from Kolassa and Jensen on guitar, musicians include Bill Ruffino on bass; James Cunningham on drums; Chris Stephenson on organ; Eric Hughes adds his harmonica to three songs; Jeremy Powell plays piano on two tracks, Alice Hasen on violin; and Colin John and David Dunavent play guitar on one track each.   
The album starts off with a fun Willie Dixon number, 600 Pounds Of Heavenly Joy, which features Sugaray Rayford with Kolassa. The two have great gruff voices and this is a lot of fun to listen to and a great invitation to what must surely be an interesting journey. Jensen’s guitar adds a sweet element to the song.
A second Willie Dixon classic, I Just Want To Make Love To You gives Kolassa a chance to team up with Heather Crosse. Crosse is a strong vocalist, and the way her voice has an edgy low growl makes this song one that catches you right away and won’t let go. Definitely going to be receiving airplay on Time For The Blues, and I suspect many other shows! I don’t have any of Crosse’s other recordings, but you better believe I’m ordering the others right now. Meow…
Victor Wainwright joins Kolassa for a great version of It’s Tight Like That. Originally written and performed by Hudson Whittaker, better known as Tampa Red, this is one of those great songs that features Red’s fun wordplay. This is a great example of Hokum Blues, and I, for one, hope that we will hear more of this style. Wainwright, who has just announced he’s joining the Ruf Records family, is one of the best keyboardists alive, and his vocals rock. Eric Hughes blows a great harp on the number.
One of the most alluring and sensual songs ever recorded, Fever, showcases Annika Chambers’ great voice. This jazzy number is deeply rooted in the blues, and Stephenson’s organ adds a deeper dimension to the song. This is a great late night song to unwind to after a long day, or to hold that certain someone a little closer for an even longer night…
Tas Cru steps up to the microphone for the next song, the powerful Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out. Hasan’s violin gives the song a sweet melancholy introduction before Kolassa’s vocals come in. This version of the song pulls out all the stops and Kolassa and Cru wring every drop of emotion out of the lyrics.
BB King’s Rock Me Baby features a great collaboration between Kolassa and Tullie Brae. Stephenson’s keyboards set up the song and while Kolassa’s vocals are good, Brae takes things higher. This is another song that will be appearing on a number of shows. It’s just plain fun and while it doesn’t try to capture King’s signature guitar sound, it takes on its own soul and remains very true to the spirit of the original.
The iconic Key To The Highway has been covered by just about every blues artist over the years. Now we can add Kolassa and Eric Hughes to that list. Hughes has already added his sweet harp to a couple of previous numbers, and here he brings both his harp and vocals to the song. It’s a good interpretation of a classic tune.
One more Willie Dixon number, Spoonful, features Kolassa and Erica Brown. They turn the song jazzy with Stephenson’s keys taking the lead. Kolassa has chosen his songs wisely, mixing some of the better known works by Dixon and Tampa Red with others that are great, but perhaps not as well known. Listen for Jensen’s guitar break and they way he trades off with Stephenson. Very nice interpretation.
Patti Parks joins Kolassa on a great cover of Hudson Whittaker’s It Hurts Me Too. This is one of Tampa Red’s most covered songs and one that resonates deeply with most audiences. It’s one of those songs where the singer just bares his or her heart and pours out the emotion. A truly wonderful gem of a song, and a great interpretation.
Early In The Morning features David Dunavent on guitar and vocals. This is a rocking blues number that will be showing up on my show, and I suspect many others as well. For those who like their blues with a bit of an edge, this is the one for you!
Another number from Hudson Whittaker, aka Tampa Red, Don’t You Lie To Me (Evil), brings Gracie Curran and Kolassa together. More great keys work from Stephenson overlaid with some funky guitar and Curran’s vocals are sweet and soulful at the same time.
Jensen teams up with his old friend on their version of Outside Woman Blues. Whenever they team up there are bound to be a few surprises, in this case a more rocking number than most of the previous tracks. Jensen is one of those guitar slingers who always turns in a great performance, and once you hear him, you’re always looking for his next release.
All of the previous vocalists join Kolassa on a fun, seven-minute version of Ain’t Nobody’s Business to close out the album. Everyone seems to be having a great time and it sounds like the recording of the album was a great party and a wonderful excuse for friends to get together. Wish I could have been a fly on the wall for this one!
Mick Kolassa may not be a household name, but within the blues world he is a well respected musician. He keeps that old school sound alive and isn’t shy about sharing the spotlight with his friends and colleagues. Since discovering his talents a few albums back, I have become a big fan of his work, and Double Standards will have a welcome place in my collection.

Kolassa doesn’t tour much, staying in the Mississippi to Memphis areas for the most part, but if he does come anywhere near you, make sure to catch the performance. To find this Swing Suit Release, be sure to check out his website http://www.mimsmick.com/ and if you like what you hear, make sure to give his other releases a listen.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

The Bush League ~~ James RiVAh

Around here, the title of The Bush League’s latest album, James RiVAh, makes perfect sense. The city of Richmond is built along the James River, we refer to our fair city as RVA as in “Richmond, VA,” and most people pronounce the word “river” as “riv-AH” like some sort of non-adenoidal Thurston Howell the Third.
If you are not familiar with The Bush League, they are one of the hardest working bands in the Central Virginia area, a semi-finalist at the 2012 and 2017 IBC, and one of those groups that have all the talent and drive to make a deep mark on the world of the blues.  
The Bush League is a tight four-man group and consists of vocalist JohnJason "JohnJay" Cecil, bassist Royce Folks, guitarist Brad Moss and drummer Wynton Davis. For this album, their third, they have brought in some great guest players including Trenton Ayers of the Cedric Burnside Project, Jeremy Powell from Southern Avenue on trumpet and keyboards, Suavo Jones from the Ghost Town Blues Band on trombone, Paul Biasca on sax, and Vince Johnson on harp.
Of the twelve songs on the album, ten were group written by TBL and they’ve chosen one from Fred McDowell and Muddy Waters to cover. They blend together well and help to create a sweet overall mood.
The album starts off with River's Edge, an appropriate title and a funky blues groove that showcases Cecil’s powerful vocals. This one would be right at home with those that like their blues with an edge so sharp it can cut through just about anything in its way…
The Mississippi Fred McDowell classic, Kokomo Me Baby, follows. Trenton Ayers from the Cedric Burnside Project provides the smoking lead guitar and this updated cover may take a few liberties with a song made famous by the man who said, “I do not play no rock and roll,” but the spirit of the song remains.    
The next song, Say Yes, slows thins down beautifully and Cecil’s delivery of this sweet ballad features some great horn work from Powell, Jones, and Biasca. Sometimes when watching Cecil work a room, it’s easy to pigeonhole him as a blue-collar performer and one might forget that he possesses a powerful soulful voice that can wring so much emotion from a line. This is a lovely number and adds a deeper dimension to The Bush League.
TBL follows up with Show You Off, with Powell adding his keyboards to the mix. This is more of the soulful funky blues that started off the album and it has a groove that’s deep and tempting for even the most reluctant audience member to get up and boogie on that dance floor. If you ever get the chance to catch these guys live, you won’t be disappointed. I’ve had the pleasure of sharing the stage with them on a few occasions and they work a crowd like nobody’s business and you can’t help but have a great time when The Bush League is playing.   
Muddy Waters’ Catfish Blues follows with its darker, almost ominous opening. Moss’ guitar cuts through the opening and Cecil’s voice punches its way through. It’s a very cool interpretation that allows the band to show some of its depth as no guests are present on this one. A great showcase.  
After that is Kick Up Yo Heels, which features Jones on trombone as well as Ari Morris on synthesizer. The song is an up-tempo dance number that features a great turn from Davis on drums.
Long Gone follows that with some old school pleading blues. It’s pure emotion from a man who knows he’s saying goodbye. Cecil’s vocals are processed some and it adds a different feel to the track. The next song, Hearse, has Ayers returning to play lead guitar and as you can imagine from the title, it’s a very dark song and pairs beautifully with the previous track. I’ll be curious to see if they marry the two songs the next time I see them play live. 
Tuxedo Blues follows with Vince Johnson playing harp, and Jones, Powell, and Biasca adding their tight horns to the mix. It’s a sweet throwback song and Johnson’s harp takes the group into a slightly different direction. There’s a plaintive sadness in his playing that emphasizes the pain in the lyrics. Really like this song a lot.   
TBL gets funky on Moonshine which adds Jeremy Powell’s delicious honkytonk keyboards and the result is a tight dance number that also has some cool lyrics. I like this song a lot and can’t wait to see what the guys do with it live.    
Not many things are more sobering than a Cold Shower, and here the guys use this one as a dark reminder of reality. Folks and Davis create a deep pocket and Cecil punches his vocals like he’s fighting for his life. Moss’ guitar attacks and when he drops out, the silence is almost deafening.
The album closes with the raucous What's Wrong With You, which not only features Powell’s keyboards, but the entire band and most of the people who were recording the album adding stomps, handclaps, and hollers to the number. It’s a great way to bring this fine album to an end, and still leave you wanting more.

The Bush League is one of those groups that always seems to have its head down and working. They aren’t flashy, but they are steady, dependable, and make some of the best music I’ve heard on a continuous basis. In Central Virginia, they are almost always in demand as an opening act when a well-known group comes to town, and trust me, in front of an audience there are precious few that do it any better.
James RiVAh is their fifth release, although only the second they've recorded in the studio, and I think it’s some of the best work they’ve ever done. While they continue to set the bar higher and higher for performance, they’ve just raised it for an album as well. There are several good groups that I am fortunate to see on a regular basis, and there are a smaller group that I fully believe are only an eyelash away from making it to the next level and going national, and believe me when I tell you that The Bush League is in that elite company.
Take a couple of minutes and check them out at their website: http://thebushleague.com/, where you can find out more information about getting this great release and learning more about their appearances throughout the south, and hopefully soon, the rest of the country.  

   

Thursday, January 4, 2018

The Straw Family ~~ Family Matters

I’ve learned never to anticipate what you might hear from a new group. If it’s someone you’ve been following for years, okay, you might be able to figure out what they might do next. Someone new? Forget it.
When one of my publicist friends sent me an e-copy of The Straw Family and as I read up on them I discovered they were from Denmark, a country noted for several musical traditions ranging from folk and classical all the way up to jazz and even metal. After all Lars Ulrich, the drummer for Metallica, hails from Denmark.
Even though I thought I was prepared for whatever I might hear from The Straw Family on their new album, Family Matters, I can truly say that I did not expect to hear some sweet country pop with some of the tightest harmonies I’ve heard for a long time. The Straw Family consists of family members Sally, Carsten, Henriette and Denise Fabricius and they are backed by a solid rhythm group made up of bassist Helge Solberg, drummer Carsten Milner, and guitarist Frederik Nordvang.
I don’t have further information regarding songwriters or any guest musicians, but will update if I find something out.
There is a lovely lilting nature to most of the songs on the album. The two sisters plus mom Henriette all have beautiful voices and they weave together to form a beautiful tapestry. I wish I could tell you who sings lead on which song, perhaps I can find out and pass that on as well.
The Straw Family would have been right at home in the folk-rock era that fused primarily Anglo-Celtic beats with modern lyrics and melodies. It’s a genre that unfortunately no longer commands the airwaves as it once did. That does not make the music any less enjoyable, and this album is one that anyone who enjoys sweet ballads and familial harmonies will enjoy.
The album starts off with Alive, a nice tight little rocker that slides easily into the more country flavored 1965. 1965 makes good use of what sounds like a lap steel guitar, but without verification I can’t be sure.
Speaking of guitars, the next song, Hot Sunny Day, has a wicked guitar intro and a couple of nice leads. The song itself takes on a slightly darker tone than most on the album. The follow up song, It’s Cold Outside, is a lovely melancholy ballad and I like the way they pair these two songs together to create an interesting juxtaposition.
Then to show the band has a funky side, they drop Bang Bang before performing two gorgeous ballads, Spider Making New Web and I Hope.
After that is Family And Friends, a song that is obviously very important to the group. I might say that it is the driving force of their personal and artistic philosophy.
The last two songs bring the album to a close, first a nice rocking number, To A Higher Place, which more or less brings them back to the style that started the album, and finally Dreaming, with its ethereal folk-style guitar and haunting vocals that truly showcase their music at its finest.
The Straw Family is just starting to make inroads on the airwaves in Europe and the UK, and I’m not sure if they have had much if any play in the USA. However, great music is not defined by airplay, and I hope that by spreading the word, they can begin to find success here.

To find out more about the group, be sure to check out their website: http://www.straw.de/. You’ll be glad you did. 
(For our Danish speaking readers, I have attempted to translate the page through the help of Google Translate. If I have said anything egregious, please be sure to let me know so I may correct it.)
Jeg har lært aldrig at foregribe hvad du måske hører fra en ny gruppe. Hvis det er nogen du har fulgt i årevis, okay, kan du måske finde ud af, hvad de måske gør næste. Nogen ny? Glem det.
Da en af mine publicist-venner sendte mig en e-kopi af The Straw Family, og da jeg læste op på dem, opdagede jeg, at de var fra Danmark, et land kendt for flere musikalske traditioner lige fra folkemusik og klassisk hele vejen op til jazz og endda metal. Efter alt kommer Lars Ulrich, trommeslager for Metallica, fra Danmark.
Selv om jeg troede, at jeg var forberedt på det, jeg måske ville høre fra The Straw Family på deres nye album, Family Matters, kan jeg virkelig sige, at jeg ikke havde forventet at høre noget sødt pop med nogle af de strengeste harmonier, jeg har hørt for lang tid. Straw Family består af familiemedlemmer Sally, Carsten, Henriette og Denise Fabricius, og de er støttet af en solid rytmegruppe bestående af bassist Helge Solberg, trommeslager Carsten Milner og guitarist Frederik Nordvang.
Jeg har ikke yderligere oplysninger om sangskrivere eller gæstemusikere, men vil opdatere, hvis jeg finder noget ud.
Der er en dejlig lilting natur til de fleste sange på albummet. De to søstre plus mor Henriette har alle smukke stemmer og de væver sammen for at danne et smukt tæppe. Jeg ville ønske jeg kunne fortælle dig, hvem der synger bly på hvilken sang, måske kan jeg også finde ud af det og give det videre.
Stråfamilien ville have været rigtig hjemme i folkestenens æra, der primært smeltede anglo-keltiske beats med moderne tekster og melodier. Det er en genre, der desværre ikke længere kommandoerer luftbølgerne, som det engang gjorde. Det gør ikke musikken noget mindre fornøjelig, og dette album er et, som alle, der nyder sød ballader og familiære harmonier, vil nyde.
Albumet starter med Alive, en dejlig stram lille rocker, der glider let ind i det mere landsmagede 1965. 1965 gør god brug af det, der ligner en lap steel guitar, men uden verifikation kan jeg ikke være sikker.
Taler om guitarer, den næste sang, Hot Sunny Day, har en ond guitar intro og et par gode leads. Sangen selv tager en lidt mørkere tone end de fleste på albummet. Opfølgningssangen, Det er kold udenfor, er en dejlig melankoli ballad, og jeg kan godt lide den måde, de parrer disse to sange sammen for at skabe en interessant sidestilling.
Så for at vise bandet har en funky side, slipper de Bang Bang, før de udfører to smukke ballader, Spider Making New Web, og jeg håber.
Herefter er Family And Friends, en sang, der selvfølgelig er meget vigtig for gruppen. Jeg kan måske sige, at det er drivkraften i deres personlige og kunstneriske filosofi.
De sidste to sange bringer albummet til et luk, først et dejligt rockingnummer, Til et højere sted, som mere eller mindre bringer dem tilbage til den stil, der startede albummet, og endelig Dreaming med sin æteriske folkestil guitar og haunting vokaler, der virkelig udstiller deres musik på sit bedste.
Straw Family er lige begyndt at sætte ind på luftbølgerne i Europa og Storbritannien, og jeg er ikke sikker på, om de har haft meget, hvis nogen spiller i USA. Men stor musik er ikke defineret af airplay, og jeg håber, at ved at sprede ordet, kan de begynde at finde succes her.
For at finde ud af mere om gruppen, skal du sørge for at tjekke deres hjemmeside: http://www.straw.de/. Du vil være glad for at du gjorde det.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Tinsley Ellis ~~ Winning Hand

I’m not so sure I would want to play poker with Tinsley Ellis. Why, do you ask? Ellis is unpredictable, he rarely does what you expect him to do, and he always has an ace up his sleeve somewhere. That ace tends to be his amazing ability with a guitar, and his talents are all over his recent return to Alligator release, Winning Hand.
Ellis is one of those seemingly tireless performers who is constantly on the road. In fact, I saw him live long before I owned any of his albums, and have made more than a couple of pilgrimages to catch him live as that is where he truly shines. As good as his albums are, and make no mistake – they are genuinely excellent works, they can’t seem to capture the intensity of one of his live performances.
Fortunately for his fans, he is back on the road in support of Winning Hand, and he’ll be bringing his performance to Richmond’s Capital Ale House Downtown on Tuesday, January 16 at 8:00 pm. If you have never seen him live, make sure you get your tickets early to see just what he can do.
For this album, his first on Alligator in several years, Ellis has assembled a tight group of musicians that aside from Ellis playing guitars and handling the vocals, includes Kevin McKendree on organs and pianos as well as a baritone guitar on one song; Steve Mackey on bass’ and Lynn Williams on drums and percussion.
Ellis wrote all but one of the songs on Winning Hand, the lone exception being Dixie Lullaby which was written by Leon Russell and Chris Stainton. Guitar fans can check the song list as well to see which one of his many guitars Ellis played on each song.
The album starts out with a tight groove on Sound Of A Broken Man. It’s a solid song with good vocals and occasional guitar pyrotechnics. Williams’ drums tie everything together and the song gets the album off to a good start. Look for this one to get some airplay.
Ellis and company keep the beat going with the follow up song, Nothing But Fine. Williams does a good job of setting up the song before the rest of the band jumps on board. When Ellis finally takes a break he delivers a strong southern roots rock lead. Good song.
They slow things down of the next song, Gamblin’ Man, and the effect is very strong. Ellis increases the intensity in his vocals and McKendree does some nice work on both piano and organ. This song is pure blues and is one of those songs that lingers for a long time after you hear it.
He gets a little funkier on I Got Mine upping Mackey’s bass and McKendree plays some STAX sounding keyboards to set up Ellis soaring guitar runs and his soulful voice. Kiss This World starts off with a nice blend of percussion and guitar. The guitar runs are exciting and keeps the song moving.
The next song, Autumn Run, starts off gently and shows a different, softer style for Ellis. I appreciate his vulnerability on the song and can’t wait to see how he approaches this when he’s in front of an audience.
Ellis and company then turn the boogie dial up to 11 for Satisfied. This is one of the best rocking numbers to come down the roadhouse path in a long time. McKendree’s keys really do a number on this song and Ellis’ gravelly vocals make this song rock. Oh yeah, count on hearing this one very soon on Time For The Blues!
He steps back a couple of notches for Don’t Turn Off The Light, taking a slower more intense approach to the song. This is a darker blues tune that exposes Ellis’ raw emotion. It’s a beautiful, thoughtful song that gets deep into your soul and stays there for a while. Love this one a lot.
The one song on the album not written by Ellis is Dixie Lullaby by Leon Russell and Chris Stainton. It’s a sweet homage to the South and works perfectly with Ellis who is a true son of the South and well steeped in our musical traditions. Love this number and I’m so glad he chose to cover it.
The almost nine-minute Saving Grace closes out the album. It’s a great song full of fire and intensity and a strong way to end the album. The length may keep airplay down, and that’s a shame. Just listening to Ellis rain down the blues in a stripped-down manner moves this album’s overall effect up several notches. I can’t wait to see him take his time with this song live and explore all of its musical nuances.
Tinsley Ellis is an amazing musician and performer and he’s put together an impressive album to mark his return to Alligator and to kick off the new year. Winning Hand fires on all cylinders and is the kind of album that should appeal to most electric blues lovers.

If you know his music, this is welcome news for you, and if you happen to be new to Ellis’ music, take this fool’s advice and check out his work pronto. You can find out more about this record as well as his previous releases and his touring schedule at http://www.tinsleyellis.com/ and if you happen to live near the Richmond Virginia area, I’ll expect to see you at the January 16th show at the Capital Ale House Downtown!  

Monday, January 1, 2018

Bobby BlackHat Walters And Friends Ring In The New Year At Williamsburg’s Kimball Theatre

If there is a better way to celebrate the end of one year and the beginning of a new one than with good friends, great music, and the warmth of laughter, I don’t want to know about it. Last night, Tidewater Bluesman extraordinaire Bobby “BlackHat” Walters put on his red jacket, donned his signature black chapeau, and wowed a crowd of 400-plus revelers like he was born to do it.
To be sure, Walters had a lot of help entertaining this very enthusiastic crowd. Prior to his appearance on stage at just past 9:00, the audience had already been treated to performances by Ruth Wyand, In Layman Terms, and the Tom Euler Band, all of whom will be representing Virginia in Memphis for the International Blues Challenge this year.
All three acts are veterans of the Challenge in recent years, Wyand even attained the finals of the solo/duo category in the 2017 edition, as did Euler’s band when they backed Walters in 2016. In Layman Terms has made three appearances in the adult category to go along with other appearances they made in the youth showcases.
The Kimball Theatre, located in Williamsburg’s chic Merchant Square shopping center, is a lovely classic movie theatre that has stopped showing movies and has been renovated into a live performance venue. Seating over 400 people, there were few seats open when the show started, and none left by the time the first artist, Wyand, finished her set. In fact, there were folding chairs brought out for the overflow people that made their way to the theatre during the coldest night of the season thus far.
Wyand, a one-person band who plays guitar, drums, and pretty much anything else she can get her hands on, used her roughly 30 minutes to set the mood for the show. Her charm was infectious as she connected with the audience, even joking at one point, “Let me introduce the band…”
After her well-received turn, the next performers were In Layman’s Terms. ILT is from Williamsburg and many in the audience were there to see them perform. The band’s nucleus is the brother and sister tandem of Cole and Logan Layman on guitar and bass and vocals respectively. They are joined by Hamed Barbarji on trumpet and Austin Pierce on drums for a tight sound that sometimes flies very close to jazz but is very deeply rooted in the blues.
In Layman Terms received the first standing ovation of the night at the end of their set. Always modest, the members of the band had to be reminded to take their bows from the audience.
If the show had ended there then everyone would have gone home satisfied, but we were less than halfway through the evening. The Tom Euler Band came on next and proceeded to raise the stakes with a high-energy set of blues and rock that further electrified the audience. Including blistering covers of Whipping Post and Led Zeppelin’s Rock And Roll, they mixed in originals that had the audience cheering. Euler played guitar and handled the vocals and was joined by Lucy Kilpatrick on keys and a rhythm section comprised of Von José Roberts on bass and Michael Behlmar on drums.
At this point, the emcee for the evening (your humble narrator) had to give the audience a small break to give the audience a chance to visit the facilities as well as pick up some music. All of the bands brought CDs for sale in order to raise capital for their respective trips to Memphis this year. Winning their local competitions is just the first step, they have to have the resources to get there and have a place to stay during the week-long run of the show.
With the break over, it was time for headliner Walters to take the stage. Walters has a large following, not only within Virginia, but all over the country thanks to his several CDs, appearances at the International Blues Challenge and various festivals, and his work on military bases in support of our nation’s service men and women. Walters is a veteran himself who, in the past, has served in the White House, and who has made giving back to his community a large part of his performing philosophy.
Since his motto is, “You never know what’s going to happen at a Bobby BlackHat Walters show,” Walters pulled out all the stops to make it come true. Two of his daughters, Shayna and Akeylah Walters, joined him for a song and at one point he stopped a big dance song, Red Shoes, that featured long-time friend and musician Lucius Bennett, short to remind the audience that there was plenty of room for them to get up and shake their stuff. 
They didn’t have to be told twice and many of them leapt to their feet to boogie down. In fact, Walters left the stage in order to join them in the celebration.  
There wasn’t much he could do to top that, so he brought out all of the musical performers plus guests for a show-stopping version of I’ve Got My Mojo Working before extolling those in attendance to go visit local tavern The Triangle to finish ringing in the New Year.  
That’s another of Walters’ philosophies, share the wealth and celebrate other’s talents. I don’t know if he ever gets jealous of another performer – I suspect he does not – but he encourages other performers to make themselves better, and he is not shy to tell audiences and friends about other great acts he’s seen.
His support was a great reason for the initial success of the New Year’s Extravaganza. Every act was delighted to join in the fun and did everything in their power to ensure that the audience had a great time. While the show was going on, the Kimball Theatre committed to Walters having another show their next New Year’s.
Plan on ordering your ticket now, you won’t want to miss that show!