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

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