First listen: Shortnin’ Bread from Taj Mahal’s Labor of Love

With blues master Taj Mahal‘s new vinyl-only release Labor of Love (Acoustic Sounds) hitting stores next week, we thought you might enjoy a little taste of “Shortnin’ Bread” that pairs some plucky banjo from Mahal with crisp, whooping vocals and some terrific blowing from harmonica player Neal Pattman. Mahal’s 47th album, Labor of Love is a collection of songs actually recorded back in 1998 around a 42-date tour with Music Maker Relief Foundation artists; none of these songs have ever been previously released (although a similar version of this one can also be heard on Music Maker’s 2014 20th anniversary collection), with four of the tracks also never having been recorded by Mahal in any other form.

We’ll have a review of the full album soon, but in the meantime, you’re going to want to spend some time enjoying this classy country blues take on a traditional favorite that’s accurately described by Music Maker founder Tim Duffy in the album’s liner notes as “just amazing” and “as good as anything that was on wax in the 20s and 30s”.

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Guitarist Harvey Mandel slithers back onto scene with Snake Pit

Back in October, we gave you a preview of Chicago blues guitarist Harvey Mandel‘s new album Snake Pit (Tompkins Square) in the form of the tasty title track. Now, we’re happy to report that the rest of the album is just as delightful, featuring eight mostly original instrumental tracks that will both astonish and inspire when listeners hear the greatness of which “The Snake” is still capable, especially considering his age of more than 70 years and returning health coming off a nasty battle with cancer.

tsq-5302-harvey-mandel_snake-pit-300x300While a number of the songs here are of a blues-rocking variety that could easily be compared to the work of such masters as Jeff Beck, Steve Vai, or Joe Satriani, including the galactically funky opening title track with its frenetic keyboards and the free, open-road vibe of the “Space Monkeys” that follows, the set also includes several tracks that are pretty straight up the blues alley, such as the slow, stinging guitar of “Buckaroo” and swinging grooves of the closing tribute to the late King of the Blues in “Ode to B.B.”

In addition to “Space Monkeys” (which originally appeared on Mandel’s 1997 Planetary Warrior album), the guitarist revisits two more of his previously recorded tunes in the somewhat tamer “Baby Batter” and greasy, throbbing “Before Six” – both featuring some nice strings – with the slow, quiet ballad “NightinGail” and a “JackHammer” that combines strong, Whitesnake-like guitar with some jazzy keys helping to round out the project.

Mandel’s playing is layered with just the right amount of distortion and other effects, backed with remarkable improvisation by a band of fellow Chicago-based musicians whom Mandel had never met nor rehearsed prior to stepping into the studio. After hearing “snippets of song ideas…on [Mandel’s] iPhone”, the band was able to record each of the tracks in one or two takes, dubbing in strings and percussion later.

A terrific album coming from anyone, Snake Pit is all the more impressive knowing everything Mandel’s been through in recent years. Perhaps this is what it sounds like when one just lets life flow…

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Sugar Ray and the Bluetones offer reason to believe with Seeing is Believing

They say that “seeing is believing”, and far be it for us to argue that seeing Sugar Ray and the Bluetones perform live when you have the chance is the smartest way to go. But the good news for blues fans is that, in the meantime, just hearing this veteran blues band makes for a pretty darn good time of its own, as demonstrated by the band’s latest album Seeing is Believing (Severn Records).

bluetones_seeing_is_believing-350x350Back in 2014, we had the pleasure of talking with longtime Sugar Ray and the Bluetones bassist Michael Mudcat Ward about the band’s three-and-a-half decade history, their new (and subsequently highly acclaimed) release Living Tear to Tear, and the magic of their interaction and sound, which Mudcat attributed in part to their collective improvisational skills and the ability to carry their live playing style into the studio. Seeing is Believing finds the band again very much, literally, in the swing of things, providing another rich and thoroughly entertaining offering that’s likely to earn the Bluetones at least as many accolades as the previous.

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Let the Good Times Roll

This latest edition of our BluesPowR Radio Hour features three tracks from Joe Bonamassa’s tribute to the Three Kings, plus other great music from Mighty Sam McClain, John Mayall, the Nick Schnebelen Band, Supersonic Blues Machine, and more!

Playlist
Let The Good Times Roll – Joe Bonamassa (Live at the Greek Theatre)
Blues Came To Chicago – Danny Marks (Cities in Blue)
Break of Day – Nick Schnebelen Band (Live at Knuckleheads Vol. 1)
Here I Come Again – Mighty Sam McClain (Time and Change: Last Recordings)
Going Down – Joe Bonamassa (Live at the Greek Theatre)
Greeny – John Mayall (John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers Live in 1967 – Volume Two)
Born Under A Bad Sign – Joe Bonamassa (Live at the Greek Theatre)
I Got the Honey – Tracy K (What’s the Rush?)
Ain’t No Love (in the Heart of the City) – Supersonic Blues Machine (West of Flushing South of Frisco)

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Lurrie Bell just Can’t Shake This Feeling on latest release

If the title of this post were a Jeopardy! clue, the question would of course be “What is the blues?”, not only because Lurrie Bell is one of the best-known of those second-generation blues players about whom we frequently talk here, but because his new album is about as immersed in and true to the genre as any we’ve heard lately, as just one listen to Can’t Shake This Feeling (Delmark Records) reveals.

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Chesapeake Bay Blues Festival, Annapolis, MD, 2012

As the guitar-playing son of the late Chicago blues harmonica man Carey Bell, whose career included serving as a member of both Muddy Waters’ and Willie Dixon’s bands, blues is all (along with perhaps a little gospel) that Lurrie has ever known, and this new album nicely reflects his lifetime in the genre. From the staggering shuffle of the title track and the slow, deep grooves of T-Bone Walker’s “I Get So Weary” to the swaying, keys-soaked “Hold Me Tight” (Little Milton) and the jiving “Drifting” (Eddie Boyd), Bell delivers this baker’s dozen of tracks with style and authenticity, backed by a terrific band that includes fellow Chicago Blues: A Living History project collaborator Matthew Skoller on harmonica, as well as Roosevelt “Mad Hatter” Purifoy on piano and organ, Willie “The Touch” Hayes on drums, and Melvin Smith on bass, the same band that joined Bell on his 2013 Blues in My Soul.

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My Feelings Won’t Be Hurt

With All Hallows’ Eve already upon us, here’s another frighteningly good, talk-free episode of our BluesPowR Radio Hour to help get you through the witching (or any other) hour, this time featuring music from Sugar Blue, the Nick Moss Band, Honeyboy Edwards and Jeff Dale, Vaneese Thomas, Big Jon Atkinson & Bob Corritore, and more!

Playlist
Here I Am – Ivas John (Good Days a Comin)
Roll The Dice Again – Stevie Nimmo (Sky Won’t Fall)
Sweet Talk Me – Vaneese Thomas (The Long Journey Home)
Lost & Found – Nick Moss Band (From the Root to the Fruit)
Mary Ann – Sugar Blue (Voyage)
Sugar Blue Boogie – Sugar Blue (Voyage)
Country Boy – David Honeyboy Edwards & Jeff Dale & the South Woodlawners (I’m Gonna Tell You Somethin’ That I Know)
Heavy Days – Katy Guillen & the Girls (Heavy Days)
My Feelings Won’t Be Hurt – Big Jon Atkinson & Bob Corritore (House Party at Big Jon’s)
Good Good Lovin – Bill Durst (Good Good Lovin)

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Ronnie Earl and The Broadcasters take sentimental stroll down Maxwell Street

Guitarist Ronnie Earl and his band The Broadcasters deliver another superb offering in this latest release, dedicated to the memory of their longtime friend and former Broadcaster, keyboardist David Maxwell, who died in February 2015. Like previous albums from The Broadcasters, Maxwell Street (Stony Plain Records) – the title of which also pays homage to Chicago’s famed open-air market that blues musicians helped make popular – is a delightful mix of blues instrumentals and songs featuring the strong vocals of Diane Blue.

ronnie_earl_maxwell_stIt all starts on the vibrant, ethereal grooves of a jazzy, refreshing “Mother Earth” that helps cleanse the palate before the band takes a much bluesier turn on the soft, keys-soaked “Elegy for a Bluesman” written by current Broadcasters pianist Dave Limina that, according to Earl, “captures the feeling of the album” and that is as expressive as any song you’ll ever hear without words, as is also the case with the “In Memory of T-Bone” that follows, with its slow, deliciously patient licks from Earl. If it’s “blues with a feeling” that you’re seeking, then it’s evident early on that Maxwell Street is the right place to head.

Things only get more powerful when the band adds Diane Blue’s sassy vocals to the equation on the slow blues of “Kismet”, with its chorus of “It’s a God thing, it’s a good thing/ and we oughta’ keep it goin’ as best as we can” and Ronnie’s guitar seeming to push even harder, if that’s possible. Then comes a creeping, almost 12-minute take on Otis Rush’s “Double Trouble” that again features Blue on vocals along with a few Frampton-like riffs on guitar and that’ll lull you into the kind of blues coma you can usually only experience from sitting in a blues club all night.

The album also includes a grooving cover of Gladys Knight’s “(I’ve Got to Use My) Imagination”, with lyrics such as “I’m too strong not to keep on keeping on” seeming just as apropos to the band nearly 30 years into its history as the lost love about which Blue sings. That’s followed by another terrific instrumental in the slow, passionate “Blues for David Maxwell”, of which keys of course play a prominent role, and a jazzy take on the Eddy Arnold classic “You Don’t Know Me”, where Blue’s vocal talents are right on par with the likes of Dee Dee Bridgewater.

The instrumental “Brojoe” offers a bit more kick before the band closes the album with one more cover, a patient, fulfilling take on Don Robey’s “As the Years Go Passing By” (Albert King, Fenton Robinson, Gary Moore, Jeff Healey, others), which is something you want to be sure you don’t let happen with Maxwell Street.

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Armed with arsenal of axes, Joe Bonamassa conquers monster tribute to “three Kings of the blues” on Live at the Greek Theatre

live-greek-vinyl-cover-300x300Although we’d of course heard of him by then, it wasn’t until quite a few years into blues-rocker Joe Bonamassa‘s career that he really caught our ear for the first time, when, in June 2010, we were fortunate enough to see him accompany Robert Randolph and his Family Band on a few songs during Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival, starting with “Further On Up the Road” before the group welcomed Italian guitarist Pino Daniele to the mix for a rousing take on Freddie King’s “Going Down”. Since then, we’ve covered much of what Joe has done, through varying degrees of bluesiness (including a revisiting of that latter tune as well as the instrumental “Hide Away” with fellow guitarists Derek Trucks and ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons and Dusty Hill during King’s 2012 induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame), but you can imagine our delight when we read that Joe would be following up his Muddy Wolf tribute at Red Rocks with a two-week tour and subsequent recording devoted entirely to the music of the “three Kings of the blues”: Albert King, Freddie King, and B.B. King.

We didn’t get to see any of the 2015 Three Kings tour shows live, but thankfully, Bonamassa and producer Kevin Shirley were shrewd enough to capture the last of these shows in full, with the end result being the exquisite double CD, double DVD/Blu-Ray, or 4-LP Live at the Greek Theatre (J&R Adventures).

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Mojo Risin’: Robert Finley evokes old soul on debut Age Don’t Mean a Thing

It doesn’t matter what other soul-blues albums you’ve heard this year; chances are, Robert Finley‘s debut Age Don’t Mean a Thing (Big Legal Mess Records) will have most, if not every single one of them, beat, with the 62-year-old Louisianan appearing well-suited to help fill the void left by the death of the great soul singer Otis Clay this past winter.

Never mind that music is a relatively recent full-time undertaking for Finley, following careers in the U.S. Army and as a carpenter. With his vision failing, Finley has enlisted the assistance of the Music Maker Relief Foundation in establishing a full-time musical career, which we can’t imagine being too much of a challenge, hearing the extraordinary vocal talent Finley possesses.

robertfinleyagedontmeanathing-300x300In addition, Finley manages to avoid a trap common to many modern soul albums, where tracks often seem to rely on the same formulas and tempos, resulting in a record that can make it difficult to maintain the average listener’s interest no matter how solid the vocals. Here, Finley presents a delightful variety of soul-based tracks, from the strong, Stax-like grooves of numbers such as the opening “I Just Want to Tell You” – a reworking of The Parliaments’ “I Wanna Testify” (George Clinton) – with its swinging horns, superb background singing, and Finley’s own strong, sturdy vocals (all of which you can hear for yourself below), and breezy, almost “Ya Ya”-ish “Let Me Be Your Everything”, to the funky James Brown-meets-Morris Day soul of “Come On”, to the powerful, swaying “It’s Too Late” that combines Finley’s coarse, passionate vocals with a theme of “It’s too late to tell you I love you, but it’s too soon to say good-bye” and the soulful, King Curtis-like closing dilemma of “Is It Possible to Love 2 People?”.

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Back into the Snake Pit with Chicago blues guitarist Harvey Mandel

A while back, we gave you this update on the great Chicago blues guitarist Harvey “The Snake” Mandel, who you may recall has played with and alongside such greats as John Mayall, Canned Heat, the Rolling Stones, Howlin’ Wolf, Michael Bloomfield, Muddy Waters, Charlie Musselwhite, Steve Miller, and Buddy Guy during his more than 50 year career, and was more recently a member of the blues supergroup Chicago Blues Reunion with fellow Windy City blues stalwarts Barry Goldberg, Nick Gravenites, and Corky Siegel.

Now, we’re pleased to report that Mandel will be back with a new studio album — his 15th — in November, featuring six new original songs plus two others (“Baby Batter” and “Before Six”) that Mandel previously recorded. Among the former is a swinging “Ode to B.B.” that’s currently available for listening on Spotify and iTunes, and the groove-filled title track “Snake Pit” that’s just as slithering and menacing as its title, in the vein of Jeff Beck, Steve Vai, and Joe Satriani, and that you can hear right here.

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