Wednesday, February 27, 2019

JD Simo Lights Up The Tin Pan

It was a mild February night, the kind of day when you know the whispers of spring are not old man winter’s lies any longer. Robins gather in groups and do their best to scrounge food and one starts to notice that the grass is starting to look green. Even with the knowledge that there’s still one more snowstorm that’s lurking around the corner, this day is so good you want to get out and listen to some great music with a roomful of strangers and friends.
For this night, I took in a wild performance at the Tin Pan by JD Simo, a large animated guitarist and vocalist joined by a rhythm section of drummer Adam Abrashoff and bass player Andraleia Bush. Abrashoff has long been associated with Simo, and despite the fact that Bush has only been with the group for about 20 shows, her bass playing was stellar and provided a great backdrop that allowed Simo’s guitar to soar.
The show started when Abrashoff walked onto the stage in camo pants and t-shirt looking like a punk rock Jesus, and immediately began creating a driving rhythm moving in and out of riffs, utilizing his kick drum, hi hat, cowbell (yes, more cowbell), his drums, cymbals, maracas, and whatever else he could hit that makes noise. While he was playing, Bush stepped up on the stage and began to add her bass. Bush was dressed in coverall shorts under a beautiful red jacket, and a black hat that matched her black choker. The choker had a crescent moon that was only slightly smaller than the real moon.
Did I mention that she plays bass like a demon? She’s got a strong grasp of the rhythm and supplied a bass line that was funky, soulful, and rocked for 90 straight minutes.
They were then joined by Simo himself wearing a long coat over an all black outfit and the trio launched into a 20-plus minute jam intro that electrified the small but appreciative audience. They received several ovations to celebrate some outstanding lead work by Simo and Abrashoff.
Both Simo and Abrashoff were very animated in their playing, each moving as the music moved them. Bush was still, the calming member of the group, conserving her energy and letting her bass take her share of the spotlight. In a discussion later with Bush, she did tell me that she is usually “all over the place” while playing, but tonight she was afraid that the jack to her amp would break if she moved too much.
Once the intro played out, Simo started calling songs and led off with a great version of Slim Harpo’s Got Love If You Want It complete with some sweet slide work. He followed up with a Magic Sam cover and right away the audience was under the band’s spell. At this point, it was obvious that Simo and Company appreciated the classic blues performers, but they were adding their own rock or even jazz touches to the songs.
They followed up with a couple of mellow songs in order to add contrast to their performance and that included an extended bass lead for Bush and drum solo for Abrashoff. After that, Simo stepped to the front and began to perform Sweet Little Angel without a microphone. He even broke a string at one point and had to spend a little time talking with the audience while he changed it to play the last song, With A Little Help From My Friends. Simo channeled Joe Cocker to deliver an outstanding version that caused several people to rise to their feet in a long ovation.
Weekday concerts are always a roll of the dice. Many people will hold off simply because they need to get up early for work or school. The audience at the Tin Pan this evening was small but mighty. Any people who were there who were not already fans of JD Simo became one that night. The group is a strong addition for blues rock fans, and an even stronger addition for those who like some psychedelic pyrotechnics in their music.
I will definitely keep them on my radar, and I think you should as well.

 (All photos by Anita Schlank. Used by permission.)

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Conversing With The Blues ~~ Ellen Foster and American Music Educators

Any blues lover in the state of Virginia has long known Ellen Foster. She was the driving force behind the River City Blues Society, the blues society that serves the Richmond city and surrounding areas. She’s also been a staple at nearly every blues show and festival in the state, and even beyond.
Foster is a true lover of music, not just the blues, although that occupies much of her time and talent. Recently she stepped away from her role as President of the RCBS to pursue her passion even further. Below is an interview we conducted about that new direction.
Porter: Welcome to Conversing With The Blues. I’m John Porter, the co-host of Time For The Blues, heard on WCVE-Music in Richmond, VA and the internet on htttp:// My guest at this time is Ellen Foster, and she is here to discuss the work of American Music Educators. Thank you for joining us.
Ellen Foster: Absolutely, I’m excited to talk with you.
Porter: I’m thrilled to have you here. Would you start off by telling us, what is American Music Educators?
Ellen Foster: American Music Educators is an opportunity for artists to share themselves. It’s a curated group that we chose because we know that they have the ability to educate and already have experience in that. The idea behind it is to share themselves – their knowledge, their experience, even their abilities – everything they’ve learned throughout their lives and not just in blues, but in the world of music. We’re trying to broaden it beyond blues.
Porter: What direction are you taking it beyond the blues? Americana?
Ellen Foster: Americana. Jazz. The idea that we have artists that can talk about the world of civil rights. We have artists that talk about African music and Creole music. So it’s not just blues, but it’s a broader sense of American music, even broader than Americana.
Porter: So you’re looking at it then as a social construct where you’re exploring the music that shapes our culture?
Ellen Foster: Absolutely. That’s a huge part of it because we believe that our music in any particular decade, sometimes the history comes first and sometimes the music comes first.
Porter: Who is involved? You mentioned you have a number of other people helping you.
Ellen Foster: Well, the most important person is my business partner and the person who really came up the idea, Tina Terry, who has been in this business for 25-some years as an agent and a manager before that. We wanted to find a way to broaden the opportunities for our artists, but also teach the world.
Porter: I like that idea. Tell me about your artists. Who’s involved?
Ellen Foster: One you know very well, Gaye Todd Adegbalola, everybody knows her from -
Porter: Saffire.  
Ellen Foster: Saffire The Uppity Blues Women. She lives in Fredericksburg in the Central Virginia Area. Recently she was honored by the Library of Virginia as a Woman of Letters for 2018, so we’re thrilled that that happened for her. We may have to talk more about her a little later, she’s a whole couple of hours on her own. Guy Davis – musician, playwright, and educator. Phil Wiggins – all of these people are award winners. Phil Wiggins, of course, worked with John Cephas for many years, and he now travels the world to teach people about Piedmont Blues.  
Porter: That’s an explanation in itself.
Ellen Foster: And we’re thrilled to have Bob Margolin now.
Porter: I love Bob Margolin. He was Muddy Waters’ guitar player for a number of years.
Ellen Foster: Yes. Yes. We are very happy to have him with us. He’s been an educator for many years as well. And he wanted to be a part of American Music Educators as well. Corey Harris -
Porter: Corey Harris is involved?
Ellen Foster: Corey Harris is involved and I think this takes us in another direction as I think he gives us a wonderful combination of contemporary and old school music. He’s played with Robert Jr. Lockwood, Honeyboy Edwards, and he studies the music of Africa. He’s over in Europe right now studying and I can’t wait to see what he brings back with him. Even beyond that Alvin Youngblood Hart who was part of the film Rumble, which was released in 2017, we’ve got a jazz artist that’s waiting to jump in, Joe Krown -
Porter: Oh, Joe Krown will be a great addition.
Ellen Foster: - And I can talk about Eden Brent.
Porter: Oh, I love Eden Brent, she’s so delightful.
Ellen Foster: Yes, and you know she’s always been involved in the teaching of the history of the music.
Porter: Yes.
Ellen Foster: But I have to leave one out there dangling. I’ll save that for next time.
Porter: That’s alright, you always want to leave your audience wanting a little more. What do you accomplish when you do one of your shows? Take me through what it is you do, where you do it, and what’s the outcome.
Ellen Foster: Well, first of all, we want it to be known that we can produce a show for a particular audience. It doesn’t have to be the same thing. Like even if it is Gaye [Adegbalola], she can focus in a different direction. She can talk about the history of the blues, she can also talk about civil rights. I was thinking that when she finishes her autobiography, it will be a history of the last 70 years.
Porter: I’ve seen some of it and it’s amazing what she’s already put down on paper.
Ellen Foster: So you’ve got Bob Margolin and the history of electric blues, and also where electric blues came from. He could do a presentation for 12-year old children, or he could do one for adults. He can talk about stage presence or about where the blues came from in Mississippi and this would be at home in a university classroom. One of the things Gaye [Adegbalola] has done lately is a presentation for the Martin Agency and they wanted to hear her talk about diversity, and of course, that is a huge topic right now.
Porter: Absolutely.
Ellen Foster: Corey [Harris] wants to bring the idea of the artists of Mali and combine that with the banjo and show everybody how that was southeastern music that became part of the blues and Americana, and its part of bluegrass. There’s that crooked path.
Porter: Yes.
Ellen Foster: It can be in a classroom, it can be in an auditorium, it can be in a living room with a select group of people, performing arts centers – we’re not going to dictate where our audience wants to learn.
Porter: This program differs from Blues In The School, because, as their name says, it’s in the schools, in the classroom. You’re saying you would go into a museum for example. I know that Gaye [Adegbalola] recently did a lecture and performance in Richmond at the Black History Museum And Culture Center of Virginia and really put together a great presentation. I wonder if the students who saw it had ever appreciated how the music dovetailed into the social fabric of the country?
Ellen Foster: There was a whole classroom of students from across the street that was lucky enough to come see her. So many of them were asking her questions after the presentation and that’s exactly what we were hoping for. But then she turned around and did a presentation for an all adult audience at the Martin Agency. The topics may be broad but they all boil down to the music and society and how it all comes together.  
Porter: How can people help? I imagine interested musicians can contact you or Tina Terry to offer their time, but how can community leaders take part in the program?
Ellen Foster: One of the things we’re looking for is connections. Connections with universities, with programming a foot in the door at the Mannes School Of Music or the Monk Institute for example. As you well know, sometimes it’s very difficult to get your foot in the door. I hope this interview will help me get the word out that we are here. And we want it to be a positive experience for the artists and a positive event for the institution. Maybe somebody reading this is in government and knows of a grant that could help us develop the program because we want the money that comes in to go to the artists. Part of our point aside from the teaching of the music is to give these artists a chance to make a living by not constantly being on the road, so if we can add one of these programs when the artists are touring, then it makes it easier. We hope that eventually, the artists will be able to do a short residency; maybe four days, somewhere like Howard University. Or Julliard.
Porter: That would be nice, wouldn’t it? How can people find out more information about American Music Educators?
Ellen Foster: Well, they can go on and that gives the basics about our artists and the program. People can email me at and they can also call me at (336) 255-7109.
Porter: Hopefully, someone who reads this has a great venue and are looking for a special event and will reach out to you and you’ll be able to get one of your artists out in front of their audience. Thank you, Ellen Foster with American Music Educators, for joining us here today.
Update: Since this interview was taped, American Music Educators has added Rory Block and steel pan player Jonathan Scales to their roster. In addition, all artists on the Tina Terry Agency are available as American Music Educators.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Head Honchos ~~ Bring It On Home

Getting this blog up and running again has taken more than a few twists and turns lately. Fortunately, there are a number of good people who remind me regularly that I need to get back to it. All I can say is, I hear you, and I will make a concentrated effort to post more reviews and interviews here and migrate everything to my website when it is up and running.
One of those good people is a transplanted Philadelphian who reps a variety of good artists. Thanks to this person, whom I’ll call Double-D, I’ve been turned on to some great music and more than a few great artists. Double-D checks in with me frequently and has become a good friend above and beyond the siren song of the music.
Recently Double-D sent me a new group, The Head Honchos, out of Indiana and their first album, Bring It On Home. Trouble is, it came in as an electronic file, and as many of you know, my ability with computers lies more in the psychology of the human-machine paradigm that actually knowing how to run one of the damn things.
Fortunately, I was able to figure out how to listen to the album, and it’s a good thing I did, because it is a hard rocking blues album – and while that’s not usually my strong suit, I found that the group, which is comprised of the father and son guitar team of Rocco Calipari Sr. and Jr.; Roberto Agosto and C.C. Copeland split time on bass; and Scott Schultz on drums.
Special guests on this album include Steve Bell on keys; Phil Smith on additional percussion; Jo Jo Dotlich on harp; Joe J. Brown on sax; and Mitch Goldman on trumpet.
The album starts off at a blistering pace with the pounding high energy of Not For Me. This song is one for the heavy rock blues fans with some solid guitar runs and heavy percussion taking over the breaks. It’s doubtful that the classic blues lovers will embrace but for those that love over the top rock mixed with their blues, buckle in, it’s going to be a wild ride.
The Honchos get funky with the next number. Old And Tired has got a solid rock beat that reminds me of late ‘70’s works that dropped in a little dance beat to go with the rock. While hard rock blues is generally not my cup of tea, the younger listeners that I shared this with were breaking into spontaneous air-guitar demonstrations.
Next up is a quick, almost punk rock energetic son titled Work. Few truer words than “Everybody’s got to work for a living” have been spoken. Or in this case, sung. By now the traditional blues fans may have moved on leaving the rest of the album for those who love the harder edged material. Good song and impressive in its attitude.
The band brings the tempo down to 11 with Come Strong. It’s a powerful song, almost a ballad in comparison to the first few numbers. One thing that is truly impressive is  Schultz’ percussion and Calipari père et fils‘ guitar. Both are tightly controlled but give the impression that they could veer off into the stratosphere without notice. Nice trick.
Next To You brings out a little funk along with some solid guitar licks. It’s easy to see why The Head Honchos have invited comparisons to the likes of Johnny Winter and Stevie Ray Vaughan. While that’s mighty lofty company to hang with, they deserve the praise. This is another good time dance inducing number that has got to be a crowd pleaser live.
They follow up with a smoking track. Mean Old World showcases some sweet guitar runs and this is the kind of song that blues rock fans grab onto and play over and over. I admit that this is my favorite song off the album so far. It’s blues enough to make you happy with a rock edge that’s reminiscent of some of Gary Moore’s work and I’ve always enjoyed his approach.
There’s some nice keyboard work on Fire On The Bayou, another song with the intensity turned up way past 11. It has a ton of energy and attitude and this one, along with the previous track should be getting some serious airplay. I would love to catch this one live, just to see the interplay between the band members. They trade licks like the best jazz bands and that’s pretty high praise.
The opening of Lucky’s Train is one that sucks you into the song quickly and appeases my blues loving heart. Unfortunately for producers of blues terrestrial radio shows, there’s a phrase (“shit-eating grin”) that might limit air play. Shame, because the song rocks, and features some nice harp work by Jo Jo Dotlich.
The drive keeps going with the next number, Whiskey Devil. I’ve met that devil on a few occasions and this song brings back memories of many a lost night. I like this song a lot and it truly packs a punch. They follow up with the aptly named That Driving Beat. The beat does drive and it drives hard. It would be hard to pass on getting out of your seat and hitting the dance floor on this one.
The Honchos slow things down a little for 99 1/2 Won’t Do. It’s a ballad but on their own terms, nothing too slow and sentimental and with some killer guitar licks. Listening to this group, you might have to go way back to find two such accomplished guitarists in the same band. For six string fans, this album has been a treat.
Things don’t slow down for long as the Honchos kick into overdrive on Going Down. This is vintage Allman Brothers sounding and they nail it from the first lick through the entire song. Very good song and one that should also get airplay.
The album closes with a seven-minute jam on Soul Free. Coupled with the previous track cements my opinion that they favorably compare with the Allmans. This is a lovely anthem that is a great closer and showcases the bands prodigious talents.
If you don’t get out to The Head Honchos’ home in Indiana very much, you might have to make a trip to the Hoosier State in order to catch them live. Probably not for long however as news of this strong album moves out to the rest of the world. I can easily see them playing major festivals and converting new fans the way that Bring It On Home converted me.