Blues pianist Anthony Geraci displays Fifty Shades of Blue on latest masterpiece

Those who may not recognize New England pianist Anthony Geraci simply by name will no doubt be familiar with him through his longtime “day job” – or perhaps more accurately in this instance, being that he’s a musician, “night job” (or should we just say “primary gig”?) – as keyboardist with the internationally known Sugar Ray & the Bluetones. A founding member, in fact, of both Ronnie Earl & the Broadcasters and the Bluetones, with whom he’s spent the past three and a half decades, Geraci has, both alone and with those bands, played and recorded with some of the world’s greatest blues musicians.

While Geraci’s debut recording on Delta Groove Music may initially appear little more than another terrific Bluetones record, featuring as it does fellow band members “Monster” Mike Welch on guitar, Michael “Mudcat” Ward on bass, Neil Gouvin on drums, and Sugar Ray Norcia on vocals and harmonica, a closer inspection reveals that Fifty Shades of Blue truly is more about Geraci than his band: in addition to his fellow Bluetones, the album includes appearances by several other artists with whom Geraci has worked throughout the past five decades, among them, vocalist and harmonica player Darrell Nulisch (Anson Funderburgh & the Rockets, Ronnie Earl & the Broadcasters, James Cotton Band) and female vocalists Toni Lynn Washington and Michelle “Evil Gal” Willson (collectively dubbed “the Boston Blues All-Stars” for purposes of this project), with Geraci also having penned each of the baker’s dozen of songs that appear here, along with producing the record.

We’ve never met or talked with Geraci, but we have been fortunate enough to hear him play as part of the Bluetones (and to speak with his colleague and fellow Bluetones founder Michael “Mudcat” Ward a while back about the band and their Living Tear to Tear album) and would have to guess from this recording that he’s a bit of a modest guy: he doesn’t sing, so he’s brought in a few guys and gals he knows can, and the contributions from his bandmates and other guests help make Fifty Shades of Blue a lot more than just another album of blues piano numbers. While Geraci’s playing is of course prominent throughout the project, it’s never overdone, with the frequency and length of Geraci’s solos nicely balanced by those from the other musicians, resulting in a diverse and delightful mix of well-written tunes that span the spectrum from straight blues to country and jazz to boogie-woogie and more.

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Historic recording offers essential listen to Genuine Blues Legends Pinetop Perkins, Jimmy Rogers

It’s hard to believe that this coming March will already mark five long years since the death of blues piano great Joe Willie “Pinetop” Perkins. And it’s been nearly four times that long since we lost Chicago blues guitarist Jimmy Rogers. But a new CD from Little Mike & the Tornadoes provides a terrific glimpse at these two blues masters together during what may well have been their prime, from a May 1988 show recorded in Ellsworth, Maine.

Although both Perkins and Rogers both at one point served as members of Muddy Waters’ band, the two never really played and toured together until the mid-1980s following Pinetop’s departure from the Waters band spin-off The Legendary Blues Band. It was at about the same time that Perkins also began playing frequently with a New York blues outfit fronted by harmonica player Michael “Little Mike” Markowitz, with all three acts coming together in the spring of 1988 for the historic performance captured here on Genuine Blues Legends (ELROB Records), the same year Markowitz produced and played on Perkins’ solo debut After Hours.

Pinetop_JimmyRogers_Genuine_BluesThe album starts off good with a lightly swinging “Kidney Stew” (Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson) and a shuffling “High Heel Sneakers” (Tommy Tucker) that allow both Perkins and the Tornadoes to nicely show their chops, and then turns great with a superb 10-minute creeping cover of St. Louis Jimmy Oden’s “Had My Fun” (a.k.a. “Going Down Slow”) that features some stinging guitar from the Tornadoes’ Tony O Melio along with gritty harmonica from Markowitz and particularly fine tinkling of the ivories – with occasional glissando – from Perkins, who also provides vocals on the first four numbers, finishing out with Pinetop’s own lively “For You My Love” before Rogers joins in on both vocals and guitar for a trio of songs, beginning with Jimmy Reed’s “Big Boss Man”.

That’s followed by two Rogers originals in the slow, bluesy, nearly nine-and-a-half minute “All in My Sleep” and the catchy, more uptempo “The Last Time”, then returning to Pinetop on vocals for the quiet piano blues of “When I Lost My Baby” featuring some wailing harp from Little Mike and T-Bone Walker-style guitar from Tony O. Things close on a much livelier – and fun – note, first with a spunky “Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie” full of “stop”, “hold yourself”, and “get it” transitions, with even a few “shake it but don’t break it”s thrown in, and next with the groove-filled instrumental “Pine and Jimmy’s Jump”.

Mike and his Tornadoes do an excellent job backing – and, in return, earn lots of props from – the masters throughout the program. Recorded almost 30 years ago now, Genuine Blues Legends truly is music from another era, the type of blues they just don’t make any more. And way too great a treasure to be passed up.

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Tommy Castro reveals Method to Madness on latest release

Following a powerful 2014 debut (The Devil You Know) that featured guest appearances from the likes of Tab Benoit, Marcia Ball, Joe Bonamassa, Samantha Fish, the Holmes Brothers, and Magic Dick, among others, hard-working bluesman Tommy Castro and his trimmed-down band The Painkillers are very much holding their own on their sophomore release Method to My Madness (Alligator Records).

Tommy_Castro_MethodWith the 60-year-old Castro having written or co-written all but two of the album’s dozen tracks and also producing for the first time, The Painkillers prove here that they don’t need big name guests to sound good, something to which anyone who has witnessed the band live during these first four years of its existence can also attest, with The Painkillers already ranking as one of the tightest bands in the blues today despite both its short history and a few changes in personnel that now find Bowen Brown on drums and percussion and Michael Emerson on keyboards (the latter having replaced younger player James Pace just since we saw the band in May at the 2015 Chesapeake Bay Blues Festival).

But with Castro and longtime friend and bassist (and Harrisburg, PA native) Randy McDonald continuing to lay down the riffs on guitar, this band hasn’t missed a beat – and indeed is sounding better every time around – once again delivering a solid, satisfying blend of blues, soul, funk, R&B, and rock filled with plenty of greasy, West Coast grooves on Method to My Madness, about which Castro commented: “With the new album, I was trying to get back to my basic ingredients: blues and soul. I went for the energy of connecting with my band. We kept everything raw, capturing the feeling of playing live.”

Chesapeake Bay Blues Festival 2015

Chesapeake Bay Blues Festival 2015

That energy and rawness is evident from even the album’s catchy opening track, “Common Ground”, with its unifying cry of “We got to stand together, on common ground/ we got to band together, or we all fall down” and other upbeat messages such as “left, right, black or white, we all dream about the same things at night/ let’s wake up people, it’s time to build a brand new day” and “everybody lookin’ for someone to blame/ we’re not as different as we are the same”. You’ll also hear it on songs like the rocking title track, the grungy, shuffling “Shine a Light”, the full-tilt bayou boogie of “Got A Lot”, and the gritty, modern-day hard-luck story “No Such Luck” that features some Santana-like licks along with its lyrics about one man’s problems in even obtaining the woman or job that other bluesmen can only sing about losing.

There’s also a slick work-up of Clarence Carter’s funky “I’m Qualified”, the greasy “All About the Cash” co-written by harmonica player Rick Estrin, and a haunting, hypnotic “Ride” on which you can easily picture the bluesman cruising the strip, while the slow, passionate ballad “Died and Gone to Heaven” and the swaying soul of a Delbert McClinton-like “Two Hearts” allow the San Jose, California, native to show off his more sensitive side, the former even including some nice harmony vocals from the rest of the band.

SONY DSCIt’s all good of course, but The Painkillers may be at their very best on the bluesier numbers, which here include the slow but steady, Joe Louis Walker co-written “Lose Lose” and the terrific heartfelt cover of B.B. King’s “Bad Luck” that closes the album. Castro’s vocals and playing are, as always, superb, but the real treat is hearing just how far this small band has come in such short time, with even the newest member Emerson making some strong contributions, all helping to make Method to My Madness easily one of the best releases of 2015.

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Mojo Risin’: Billy the Kid & The Regulators

We haven’t yet had the chance to catch either of the first two artists featured in our new Mojo Risin’ series – Scottish singer and guitarist Lewis Hamilton and New England vocalist Julie Rhodes – live, but the next act we’re spotlighting is one that can be found much closer to home for us in the Pittsburgh-based Billy the Kid & The Regulators, who we’ve had the pleasure of seeing now on several occasions, including at the 2014 Heritage Music BluesFest in Wheeling, where we shot these photos.

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A two-time finalist in the annual International Blues Challenge (IBC) – first for best self-produced CD in the 2013 competition for their She Got a Hold on Me, and then again the following year in the band category – Billy the Kid & The Regulators every bit live up to the spirit of the historical moniker they’ve chosen: a high-energy, modern-day musical equivalent of the Wild West posse of which the famous gunslinger was a member. Fronted by lead singer and guitarist Billy Evanochko, these Regulators are a soulful, guitar-driven R&B outfit with a gritty, vibrant Americana sound similar to that of roots rockers JJ Grey & Mofro.

BTK_I_Cant_ChangeThose looking to acquaint themselves with these outlaws of soul will find the band’s latest album I Can’t Change a great place to start. Produced by fellow 2014 Heritage Music BluesFest artist Damon Fowler, I Can’t Change captures the band delivering a groove-filled mix of originals and covers, from the opening title track to the catchy, uptempo “Saturday Night”, patient takes on blues numbers like Jimmy Reed’s “Can’t Stand to See You Go” and Dave MacKenzie’s “Slender Man Blues”, and a tough, romping version of Little Walter’s “Who”, one of several songs to feature Jason Ricci on harmonica.

SONY DSCIn addition to producing, Fowler also contributes guitar on “Saturday Night”, alongside other guests Ricci, Ohio guitarist and 2007 IBC winner Sean Carney, and local singer Yolanda Barber – whose sometimes smooth, sometimes gravelly, Ursula Ricks-style vocals can also be heard on a handful of other tunes including the simmering title track and other notable originals like the passionate “What Are We Fighting For” (on which Billy reflects “what the hell are we fightin’ for? right or wrong, I’m not sure/ better days are comin’, good things in store/ all I know is I can’t fight no more”) and “Story of the Blues” – with another Ohio guitarist and IBC Youth Showcase winner Micah Kesselring also joining on vocals for the swaying, horn-soaked R&B “What Are We Fighting For” and Piedmont guitar on the closing “Me and the Devil Blues” (Robert Johnson).

A gritty, tough “Ain’t Gotta Prove Nothing” and funky, playful “That Darn Cat” (again featuring Barber) round out the set, which is filled with some impressive lead vocals and guitar from Evanochko as well as tight playing from The Regulators and their various guests (including a mighty fine horn section), with special kudos to keyboardist Ublai Bey, who particularly shines on songs like “Who”, “Slender Man Blues”, “Ain’t Gotta Prove Nothing” and “Saturday Night”.

Needless to say, I Can’t Change is one well worth checking out. With music like this, it’s just a matter of time before this Billy the Kid & The Regulators end up among America’s “most wanted”.

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Blues Lyrics of the Week: Another Year Come and Gone

Here’s a final nod to the year behind us with a song we first mentioned as part of our review of the Blue Élan Christmas CD a few weeks back, courtesy of guitarist and producer Dave Darling‘s musical collective the Soul Sparrows. With its upbeat message and soulful grooves, we can’t think of a better note on which to close out the old and bring in the new.

“Here on the eve of a brand new year,
one idea becomes so clear:
every day should be a holiday, yeah.
It’s nice to be nice on New Year’s Eve,
but cooler to be cool on June 15th.

And all these holidays get me dreamin’ again…

Another year come and gone again,
let’s lift a glass with all our friends.
We lived and loved and laughed last year,
let’s do it all again.
Another year come and gone again,
we look around at where we’ve been,
and try to make a better place
that we can all live in.

Hold that door open,
free up those favors,
do something cool
and smile at your neighbor.
Everyday could be a holiday, yeah….
Let’s make it just because we say
Christmas cheer is every day.”
– “Another Year Come and Gone”, The Soul Sparrows

Thanks to all the friends who helped to make the past year such a good one. May 2016 be filled with all the things you most enjoy, including, of course, plenty of blues!

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Eric Bibb & JJ Milteau help rediscover Lead Belly’s Gold

Earlier this year, we told you about a terrific new five-disc set featuring the music of blues-folk singer and player Lead Belly, a project that has since received a nomination in the Best Liner Notes category of the 58th annual Grammy Awards.

While the Smithsonian collection of course provides an interesting and comprehensive chronicling of Lead Belly’s (whose real name was Huddie Ledbetter) own musical career, it’s also nice to hear so many artists continuing to cover Ledbetter’s songs, as evidenced, for example, by young UK guitarist Laurence Jones‘ rocking take on “Good Morning Blues” on Jones’ recent What’s It Gonna Be album and this hauntingly soulful rendition of “In the Pines” (a.k.a. “Black Girl”, a.k.a. “Where Did You Sleep Last Night”) performed by rising indie blues act Fantastic Negrito (joined by acclaimed roots guitarist Colin Linden) in October at San Francisco’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, just to name a few.

And that’s not even mentioning the Lead Belly Fest tribute concert that took place this past summer at London’s Royal Albert Hall featuring such artists as Van Morrison, Jools Holland, Paul Jones, Walter Trout (in his first on-stage appearance since his successful liver transplant), Eric Burdon, Dana Fuchs, and the aforementioned Jones, with the line-up announced just last week for a follow-up event to take place this side of the pond in February at New York City’s Carnegie Hall. In addition to including many of the same artists who participated in the UK show (Trout, Fuchs, Burdon, Josh White Jr., and Jones, among them), the US debut of the festival will also feature a few new but familiar faces in Buddy Guy, guitarist Nick Moss and his band’s vocalist Michael Ledbetter (a Lead Belly descendant), and young acoustic multi-instrumentalist Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton.

As talented and entertaining as he is, Paxton finds himself with some proverbial big shoes to fill, having inherited the role of modern-day troubadour played on the June UK bill by the slightly more seasoned acoustic bluesman Eric Bibb. While it would actually be a delight to hear both Paxton and Bibb on the same ticket, we’d say Bibb has more than earned himself an excused absence from this latest program with his work on another Lead Belly-related project, a full album featuring Bibb’s and French harmonica player Jean-Jacques (JJ) Milteau‘s interpretations of songs from – along with a few originals inspired by – Ledbetter in the shining Lead Belly’s Gold (Stony Plain Records).

Bibb_Milteau_Lead_Bellys_Gold (250x250)Featuring almost a dozen live tracks recorded in the small Paris jazz club The Sunset plus five new studio recordings, the album captures Bibb and Milteau taking on some of Lead Belly’s most popular tunes including “Goodnight, Irene”, “Grey Goose”, “Midnight Special”, “Bring a Little Water, Sylvie”, “Pick a Bale of Cotton”, “Bourgeois Blues”, and “The House of the Rising Sun”. From the soft, tender strains of songs such as “Goodnight, Irene” and a “When That Train Comes Along” that serves as the opening half of a spiritual medley which then picks up the pace with a “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” that also includes Big Daddy Wilson on vocals, and creeping numbers like the dark, deep-vocaled “The House of the Rising Sun” and a funked-up “Where Did You Sleep Last Night”, to the plucky “Titanic” and other uptempo songs like “Midnight Special” and “Rock Island Line”, Bibb and Milteau bring the listener as close to the real Lead Belly as one can get today.

Big Daddy Wilson returns to help out on vocals for “Pick a Bale of Cotton”, with Michael Robinson also joining in for the breezy “On a Monday”, one of the album’s best offerings, on which Milteau provides a neat little surprise by inserting some licks from another popular Lead Belly tune “John Hardy”, while songs like “Bourgeois Blues” and “Bring a Little Water, Sylvie” – two numbers that Bibb performed at the Royal Albert Hall concert – help remind us of the smoothness of Bibb’s own voice.

The three original tracks are each written and performed in the tradition – and indeed from the perspective – of Lead Belly, as they might very well have been played by the man himself, with lyrics of “buy[ing] a big ol’ Stella, sing[ing] a song for you” (“When I Get to Dallas”), swapping roles with his former boss (“Next time aroun’, I’m gonna turn it upside-down/ next time, you’ll be drivin’ me”) on “Chauffeur Blues”, and relating the story of his life and musical career in the uplifting “Swimmin’ in a River of Songs”, the title and chorus of which refer to the hundreds of tunes that Lead Belly claimed to have known.

You don’t need to be a fan of Lead Belly himself to enjoy this one (but there’s a good chance it will help make you one): with its fine musicianship, superb vocals, and entertaining presentation, Lead Belly’s Gold is a true musical treasure trove.

[Those in The BluesPowR Blog’s home base of Pittsburgh will have a chance to catch Bibb live when he performs next month as part of the Calliope Concerts Series in Oakland. For more information on that show, please visit the Calliope: The Pittsburgh Folk Music Society website.]

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Blues Won’t Let Me Take My Rest

What could be better than another edition of our BluesPowR Radio Hour to help keep your holiday season grooving? How about another edition that’s actually two more shows jammed into one?!

Here for your listening pleasure is another two hours of some of the music that’s been helping to keep us entertained at BluesPowR headquarters, including tracks from recent GRAMMY Award nominees for Best Blues Album Buddy Guy (Born to Play Guitar) and John Primer (Muddy Waters 100), joined here by harmonica ace James Cotton; even-more-recent Blues Music Award nominees such as Bob Corritore & Henry Gray, Guy Davis, Tad Robinson, Jimmy Burns, and Royal Southern Brotherhood; and a host of other fine artists like Debbie Davies, Robert Cray, Zakiya Hooker, MonkeyJunk, Rick Vito, Mitch Woods with Lucky Peterson, Omar Coleman, King King, and more.

Enjoy!

Playlist
King King – Rush Hour (Reaching for the Light)
Arlen Roth w/ Johnny Winter – Rocket 88 (Slide Guitar Summit)
Sugar Brown – Blue Lights Hooker (Poor Lazarus)
Robin McKelle & The Flytones – What You Want (Heart of Memphis)
Guy Davis – Have You Ever Loved Two Women (But Couldn’t Make Up Your Mind?) (Kokomo Kidd)
Buddy Guy – Thick Like Mississippi Mud (Born To Play Guitar)
Debbie Davies – I Get the Blues So Easy (Love Spin)
MonkeyJunk – Light It Up (Moon Turn Red)
Rick Vito – Easy Baby (Mojo on My Side)
Tad Robinson – While You Were Gone (Day into Night)
Jimmy Burns – Hard Hearted Woman (It Ain’t Right)
Zakiya Hooker – Hang On For Awhile (In The Mood)
Mitch Woods w/ Lucky Peterson & Roomful of Blues – Bright Lights Big City (Jammin’ on the High Cs)
The Hurt Project – Morning Meditation (After the Storms)
Robert Cray Band – These Things (4 Nights of 40 Years Live)
Omar Coleman – You Got a Hold on Me (Born & Raised)
Long Tall Deb w/ Colin John – Shine That Song Like Gold (Streets Of Mumbai)
John Primer & James Cotton – I Feel So Good (Muddy Waters 100)
John Earl Walker – The Devil Follows Me (Mustang Blues)
Gaye Adegbalola & The Wild Rutz – Eye Candy (Is It Still Good to Ya?)
Murali Coryell – Everyday Is A Struggle (Restless Mind)
David Gogo w/ Kim Simmonds – Fooling Myself (Vicksburg Call)
Deb Callahan – Sweet Feeling (Sweet Soul)
Royal Southern Brotherhood – I Wanna Be Free (Don’t Look Back)
Nancy Wright – Sanctity in Blue (Putting Down Roots)
Bob Corritore & Henry Gray – Blues Won’t Let Me Take My Rest (The Henry Gray/Bob Corritore Sessions, Vol. 1: Blues Won’t Let Me Take My Rest)
Sam Butler – Heaven’s Wall (Raise Your Hands!)

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James Harman, Anthony Geraci, and Sugaray Rayford top nominees for 37th annual Blues Music Awards

BMAThe Blues Foundation has announced the nominations for the next edition of its Blues Music Awards, set to again take place in Memphis in early May. Harmonica player and singer James Harman leads this year’s nominations with five, for instrumentalist-harmonica, song (“Bad Feet/Bad Hair”), traditional male artist, and both traditional album and best overall album for his Bonetime. Harman is squaring off in three of those categories (album and traditional album for Fifty Shades of Blue, and song for the album’s title track) against pianist Anthony Geraci, one of two artists – along with vocal powerhouse Sugaray Rayford – to receive four nominations, with Geraci’s final nod coming in the piano category, while Rayford is up for awards in the contemporary male, song (“Southside of Town”), contemporary album (Southside), and B.B. King Entertainer of the Year categories.

Joining Harman, Geraci, and Rayford among the nominees in the song category are guitarist Walter Trout (also nominated for rock blues album for Battle Scars) with “Gonna Live Again” and Doug MacLeod, whose “You Got It Good (and That Ain’t Bad)” is but one of three nominations for the acoustic artist, a distinction shared by a handful of other performers this year, including recent GRAMMY Award Blues Album nominees Shemekia Copeland (contemporary female artist, contemporary album for Outskirts of Love, and B.B. King Entertainer) and Cedric Burnside (drums, traditional album for Descendants of Hill Country, and traditional male artist), as well as The Cash Box Kings (band, album and traditional album for Holding Court), Wee Willie Walker (soul male artist, album and soul album for If Nothing Ever Changes), and Victor Wainwright (piano, B.B. King Entertainer, and band).

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It’s beginning to sound a lot like Christmas: Blue Élan charity holiday collection features songs from Janiva Magness, Gary Hoey, and more

“What do you get somebody who has everything?”, asks blues/pop singer Janey Street on her jazzy original track “Christmas in Your Eyes”, and one good answer to that question is the new holiday album on which Street’s song appears: a bright, refreshing collection of seasonal favorites and originals entitled A Blue Élan Christmas (Blue Élan Records). In addition to including some great new music such as Street’s smoky, Dee Dee Bridgewater-sounding tune (which fits in rather nicely with the theme of our blog, with the following line to that above being “you can’t wrap up love, to try and hide the blues”), the album also benefits an important cause, with 100% of the label’s profits from the set being sent to the Alliance for Children’s Rights, an organization that provides children with free legal services and advocacy, permanency through adoption and legal guardianship, and access to healthcare and an equitable education.

While much of what you’ll hear on this collection falls into a broader American roots, pop, or R&B style rather than straight blues, there are several songs beyond Street’s that are sure to interest blues lovers, including the rootsy opening “Every Day Will Be Like a Holiday” (which you can hear below) from multiple Blues Music Award-winner and celebrity foster care advocate Janiva Magness that features frequent Magness collaborator Dave Darling on guitar and background vocals in addition to producing, as well as a terrific song from Darling’s own band the Soul Sparrows in the catchy, Fantastic Negrito-like, hip hop grooves of the soulful “Another Year Come and Gone” – with its uplifting lyrics such as “Another year come and gone again/ Let’s lift a glass with all our friends/ We lived and loved and laughed last year; let’s do it all again” and “Hold that door open/ free up those favors/ do something cool and smile at your neighbors” – that elicits a “Tha-a-at’s funky!” from one of its members and ends on a beautiful a cappella verse of “Silent Night” courtesy of Brie Darling.

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Buddy Guy, Shemekia Copeland, John Primer among blues nominees for 58th Annual Grammy Awards

As usual, there weren’t nearly as many blues names as we would have liked when the nominations for the 58th annual GRAMMY Awards were announced yesterday, but here’s a look at the few lucky blues men, women, and projects that did make the list, with winners to be announced Feb. 15.

Buddy Guy‘s Born to Play Guitar received two nominations, for both Best Blues Album as well as Best American Roots Performance for its title track. In the former category, six-time Grammy winner Guy faces Cedric Burnside Project‘s Descendants of Hill Country, Shemekia Copeland‘s Outskirts of Love, Bettye LaVette‘s Worthy, and John Primer and others’ Muddy Waters 100, while Mavis Staples‘ “See That My Grave is Kept Clean” from her Your Good Fortune release is among Buddy’s competition in the latter category, along with tracks from Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn, The Milk Carton Kids, and the Punch Brothers.

Other somewhat bluesy nominees include Jon Cleary‘s Go Go Juice for Best Regional Roots Music Album and Jeff Place for Best Album Notes for his work on Lead Belly: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection.

Congratulations to each of these nominees!

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