Still teaming: Harp ace Bob Corritore, pianist Henry Gray chronicle two decades of collaborating with Blues Won’t Let Me Take My Rest

We’ve heard him on joint projects with the likes of John Primer and Tail Dragger, and also as a guest on recordings from Diunna Greenleaf, Mud Morganfield, Louisiana Red, The Mannish Boys, and Dave Specter, to name just a few, not to mention his role in Project Blues’ superb Muddy Waters Tribute that took place in Ohio a year ago this month or his own pretty terrific instrumental blues album Taboo. Now harmonica ace Bob Corritore is back with another spectacular collaboration with one of blues music’s greats – longtime Howlin’ Wolf keyboardist Henry Gray – in The Henry Gray/Bob Corritore Sessions, Vol. 1: Blues Won’t Let Me Take My Rest (Delta Groove Music).

Henry_Gray_Bob_Corritore_Vol1 (260x235)Featuring 14 songs from a dozen sessions over a nearly 20-year period, Blues Won’t Let Me Take My Rest is a splendid look at the shared work of these two icons through the past two decades, often joined by such special guests as Robert Lockwood Jr., Bob Margolin, Kid Ramos, Nappy Brown, Tail Dragger, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, Bob Stroger, Kirk Fletcher, Dave Riley, and others. We had the pleasure of witnessing firsthand the magic of Corritore and Gray playing together (along with Tail Dragger) during a show at Corritore’s Phoenix blues club The Rhythm Room a few years back, but for those looking either to get their own first taste or re-live the specialness of a similar live collaboration between the two, Blues Won’t Let Me Take My Rest is a great place to turn.

The album opens on a frisky, boogie woogie-styled “Let’s Get High” that features Chicago blues veterans Bob Stroger and Willie “Big Eyes” Smith on bass and drums, respectively, with both also helping on background vocals. That’s followed by the deep, slow blues of the title track, one of several tunes to include longtime Muddy Waters band guitarist Bob Margolin, whose unmistakable, stinging guitar tones can also be heard on the similar “Trouble Blues” (Lowell Fulson) as well as the creeping closer, B.B. King’s “She Don’t Move Me No More”.


Henry Gray, The Rhythm Room 2012

But don’t be fooled into thinking that soft and smooth is the extent of what Gray (now 90 years young) can deliver; there’s a terrific diversity of tracks here, as much because of Gray’s own vocals on nine of the songs – often just as gritty as they can be tender, as demonstrated on such tracks as the breezy, swinging “I’m In Love Again” with its lyrics of “I need your lovin’, I need it bad/ just like a dog when he’s goin’ mad/ ooh wee baby, ooh ooh wee/ baby, don’t you let your dog bite me” and Doug James accompanying on saxophone, and the shuffling, hoarse-vocaled “They Raided the Joint” with Kid Ramos on guitar – as for the impressive rotation of guest vocalists that includes the late, great Robert Lockwood Jr. on both guitar and vocals for Robert Johnson’s “Ramblin’ on My Mind”, Nappy Brown on the classic “Worried Life Blues” (Maceo Merriweather) with Ramos again on guitar, Dave Riley on guitar and vocals for the uptempo “Ride With Your Daddy Tonight”, John Brim on guitar and vocals for “That Ain’t Right”, and Tail Dragger on the blast that is “Boogie Woogie Ball”, where they’re joined by Kirk Fletcher on guitar.

That’s all rounded out by a steady-rolling “I’m Gonna Miss You”, the lively “Can’t Afford to Do It”, and a grooving take on Jimmy Reed ‘s “Honey Don’t Let Me Go”.

Bob Corritore, The Rhythm Room 2012

Bob Corritore, The Rhythm Room 2012

Both Gray and Corritore are masters of their instruments, and together, they share a cohesiveness that many even full-time duos would be hard-pressed to match. Add to this the fact that all but four of the songs here were previously unreleased, and you start to get a sense for just how much of a treasure Blues Won’t Let Me Take My Rest is.

The Vol. 1 in the title suggests there may be a good deal more to be heard from Gray and Corritore’s two decades of collaboration, but for now, we’re pretty content simply to enjoy all there is to appreciate about this one, easily among the year’s finest.

Related links:
Harping on the Taboo: Bob Corritore offers up album of blues harmonica instrumentals
Guitarist John Primer, harmonica ace Bob Corritore team for Knockin’ Around These Blues
Longtime friends in the blues reunite for Tail Dragger, Bob Corritore CD release party

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Once Lost in a Crowd, Fantastic Negrito now well on his way to being found

Here’s a tune we thought might help get your weekend off to the right kind of start, from a contemporary West Coast blues artist who goes by the name of Fantastic Negrito. Fans of NPR’s All Songs Considered might recognize Negrito as the winner of the program’s inaugural Tiny Desk Concert Contest earlier this year, where he and his band beat out nearly 7,000 other entrants with this song, one of seven tracks you can hear on Negrito’s latest EP.

With its driving, trancelike rhythms and haunting moans, “Lost in a Crowd” is something of a modern-day equivalent of a work song, with Negrito’s initially hard, coarse vocals giving way to a much smoother, soulful voice and falsetto chorus by song’s end.

Want to hear more? Check out Negrito’s Tiny Desk Concert performance with NPR, which also provides some nice background on the musician, including his real name, a bit about his previous recording contract with Interscope Records, and the impact a near-fatal car crash had on Negrito’s life and career. And then be sure to listen to the rest of Negrito’s deluxe edition EP, where you’ll also hear a dark but equally powerful “An Honest Man”, the hypnotic “Night Has Turned to Day”, the soft, soulful ballad “The Time Has Come”, and the infectious, hitting-the-road grooves of “A New Beginning” among the additional tracks.

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Baby You Got It: new single from funky ol’ soulman Ironing Board Sam

Last fall, we told you about a 20th anniversary multimedia collection from the Music Maker Relief Foundation, a North Carolina-based non-profit record label focused on supporting struggling traditional southern musicians by providing everything from instruments to performing and recording opportunities to day-to-day essentials like medications and heating oil. Among the many artists Music Maker has assisted over the years is a colorful character from the Carolinas by the name of Ironing Board Sam, who earned his nickname in the early 1960s by strapping his keyboard to an ironing board so he could carry it around the stage.

Ironing_Board_Sam (2) (260x163)

Courtesy Music Maker Relief Foundation

Born Sammie Moore, the 75-year-old musician/inventor became famous for his stunts throughout New Orleans, which included performing underwater in a giant homemade aquarium or accompanied by a toy monkey playing a drum machine, as well as floating over the city in a hot air balloon, operating a party boat, and riding around in a Cadillac fitted with crystal chandeliers. Recently, Sam signed with Big Legal Mess records, where he’s slated to release his debut album Super Spirit in early October, co-produced by Bruce Watson and Jimbo Mathus.

Here’s the album’s energetic lead track – “Baby You Got It” – to help get your weekend off to a grooving, soulful start, with horns and background vocals adding an old-time sound to Sam’s frenetic keyboard melodies. As Sam himself advises in the song: “don’t keep it to yourself”!

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You’ll swear Buddy Guy has blues running through his veins on Born to Play Guitar

We didn’t get the chance to see Buddy Guy when he was in town recently for the latest offering of the Pittsburgh Blues Festival, but we did read about the controversy that ensued, with the festival organizer ending up offering a public apology for Guy’s foul language – which, in turn, prompted Buddy’s team to apologize on the six-time Grammy Award winner’s Facebook page just yesterday. There are of course many sides to this debate, with some arguing that the festival is a family event, while others tend to agree with Guy that most kids have probably already heard it all before. We’re not sure how anyone can book Buddy Guy nowadays without being aware of his penchant for dropping f-bombs, or maybe it’s just that we’ve seen him more times than most in recent years to realize that the question seems to be not so much if, but rather how much, Guy might cuss during any given performance. But the good news for parents and others concerned about the dirty four-letter words is that Guy’s new album Born to Play Guitar (Silvertone/RCA Records) provides no real worries in that regard (save for a “damn” here or there), although we should perhaps warn you that it does contain a $#!%load of our favorite five-letter word: blues.

Buddy_Guy_Born_to_Play_GuitarKicking off on the slow smoking blues of the title track, an instant classic in the vein of “Hoochie Coochie Man” that features some nice tinkling of the ivories from Kevin McKendree in addition to Guy’s passionate guitar and lyrics such as “I got a repa-tation, and everybody knows my name/ I was born to play the guitar/ people, I got blues runnin’ through my veins” and “I got six strings loaded on my bad machine/ show me the money, and I’ll make this damn thing scream/ I’m gonna’ keep on playin’/ and on my dyin’ day, a polka dot guitar will be restin’ on my grave”, the album consists of one veritable hit after another, moving, for example, to the gritty, quick-shuffling “Wear You Out” featuring ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons on both vocals and guitar, and then slowing back down with the cool, calculating “Back Up Mama”.

The Fabulous Thunderbirds’ Kim Wilson guests on harmonica for two numbers: a swinging cover of Little Walter’s “Too Late” that you can really dance to (including the rather ironic line “Tired of all your fussin’ and I can’t stand your cussin’, I’m gone”) as well as the clever “Kiss Me Quick” on which Guy demonstrates the high range of his vocals each chorus. The album also features duets with sensuous soul singer Joss Stone on the strings-laced, uptempo jazz of “(Baby) You Got What It Takes” and Van Morrison on a soft, reflective “Flesh & Bone” dedicated to the late B.B. King that features Reese Wynans (Double Trouble) on B3 and grand piano and the McCrary Sisters on background vocals.

Chesapeake Bay Blues Festival, May 2015

Chesapeake Bay Blues Festival, May 2015

Fellow guitarist Doyle Bramhall II adds another layer of nice licks to songs like the greasy, libation-soaked “Whiskey, Beer & Wine”, a closing remembrance of Muddy Waters in “Come Back Muddy” (on which Bramhall plays 12-string acoustic guitar), and the creeping “Crying Out of One Eye”, perhaps the bluest of the songs here, combining lyrics like “When you tried to cry, to make me feel better/ I wish your little hanky could have been a little wetter/ You were staring at your shoes, you were looking awful sad / but I could see right through you, you wasn’t takin’ it that bad/ cuz’ when you said goodbye, you were only crying outta’ one eye” with horns from the Muscle Shoals Horns and Wurlitzer and B3 organ from Wynans, who also appears on the two other songs featuring Bramhall as well as the aforementioned “(Baby) You Got What It Takes” and a slow, insightful “Crazy World”.

In addition, you can hear Wynans on Wurlitzer, as well as Jimi Hendrix sideman Billy Cox on bass, on “Turn Me Wild”, with Guy delivering both some stinging guitar and terrific lyrics about how “the blues done turn me wild, it got deep inside my soul”, including such gems as “my mama had a broomstick beside the bed, let me tell ya’ it wasn’t for sweeping” and “you can’t pick how they remember you, you just hope someday they do/ but I still got more to say, people I ain’t, I ain’t, never through”. Songs like this one, the driving “Smarter Than I Was” with its distorted vocals, and a biting “Thick Like Mississippi Mud” that again features the Muscle Shoals Horns all serve as great reminders of how the now 79-year-old Rock & Roll Hall of Famer can still ignite the same kind of fire as bluesmen several decades his junior like Tommy Castro and Tab Benoit. In fact, while there may be many guys and gals who can be said to have been born to play guitar, there’s still no one who can put on a performance quite like this Guy.

Like Buddy’s other recent albums, Born to Play Guitar is again produced by Tom Hambridge – who also played drums throughout the project and wrote or co-wrote most of the songs – and may very well be the best we’ve heard from Guy in at least a decade, making this one that blues fans will, well, swear by.

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Former Muddy Waters guitarists John Primer, Bob Margolin lead all-star centennial birthday tribute to the master on Muddy Waters 100

A 100th birthday tribute album to Muddy Waters that features former Waters band members and collaborators John Primer, Bob Margolin, James Cotton, and Johnny Winter as well as such other guests as Shemekia Copeland, Billy Branch, Keb’ Mo’, Gary Clark Jr., and Derek Trucks sounds like a perfect idea. And, for the most part, it is, on Raisin’ Music’s Muddy Waters 100, with Primer taking the lead on vocals and guitar for an array of songs spanning Waters’ career, from his early 1940s Library of Congress field recordings by Alan Lomax to the title track off Muddy’s 1978 Grammy Award-winning I’m Ready.

Muddy 100 lo-res jpegAs a featured vocalist and guitarist with Waters’ band for the last three years of the blues legend’s life, there are few living blues performers today more qualified to lead this project than Primer, save perhaps for one of Muddy’s own flesh and blood in Larry “Mud” Morganfield or Big Bill Morganfield, neither of whom are included here in any way, somewhat surprisingly – especially considering the uncanny resemblance of Mud’s vocals to his father’s. That said, Primer himself sounds pretty darn close to Muddy on a few songs, such as, for example, a “Forty Days and Forty Nights” that features hot-shot guitarist Gary Clark Jr. as well as Vincent Bucher on both harmonica and guitar, and a patient, scaled-back “She Moves Me” that includes Matthew Skoller on harmonica, Billy Flynn on guitar, and Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith (son of Waters band drummer Willie “Big Eyes” Smith) on drums – the latter two of whom make up half of the session’s backing band (The Living History Band), along with Johnny Iguana on keyboards and Felton Crews on bass – in addition to Primer’s superb vocals and guitar.

Fellow Waters band alumni Bob Margolin (who played guitar with Muddy for seven years prior to Primer) and harmonica ace James Cotton add further authenticity to the project, with Margolin featured on a dozen of the 15 newly recorded tracks and Cotton on a pair: “Good News” and “I Feel So Good”, both songs on which Cotton played on the original Waters versions. Though never part of Muddy’s band, the late guitarist Johnny Winter was a frequent collaborator, having produced and played on four albums (including three Grammy Award winners) for Waters during the late-1970s and into the early 1980s. One of those was of course the Grammy Award-winning I’m Ready, the title track of which Winter helped re-create for this project just weeks before his death last summer, offering one of the very last glimpses of Winter’s masterful work on slide guitar.

Many of the songs here are presented in close to their traditional forms, though often incorporating subtle modern effects such as electronic drums and drum loop programming. On a couple of tracks, these additions tend to be a good deal more prominent, and may strike some as a bit over-the-top, including, for example, with the drum looping that helps to drive both a funky, rapping “Mannish Boy” that’s further accented by handclapping and Skoller’s harmonica and the dance electronica of “Trouble No More”, one of several tracks featuring Chicago harmonica player Billy Branch, with Tim Gant (clavichord) and Blaise Barton (synth bass, Farfisa, tambourine) providing additional textures. While these updated takes on Muddy’s classics may not appeal to everyone, they do help to demonstrate two-time Grammy-nominated producer Larry Skoller‘s (Heritage Blues Orchestra, Chicago Blues: A Living History) belief that “in one way or another, these sounds all lead back to Muddy Waters”.

Bob Margolin & John Primer, Project Blues 2014

Bob Margolin & John Primer, Project Blues 2014

What likely will appeal to everyone, though, is just about every other song on here, from the powerful opening “Got My Mojo Working” featuring Shemekia Copeland on vocals with Primer, to the fiddle- and mandolin-laced “Rosalie” with Margolin on acoustic guitar (originally recorded by Alan Lomax and John Work III on the Stovall plantation 73 years to the day of this album’s July 24 release, where Muddy joined Son Sims on fiddle, Louis Ford on mandolin, and Percy Thomas on guitar to make up the Son Sims Four), to the creeping, closing “Feel Like Going Home” made up of just Primer on vocals and guitar, Crews on bass, and Smith on bass drum. Primer is joined by a rotating cadre of talented guests on slide guitar throughout the album, including Derek Trucks on “Still a Fool” and Keb’ Mo’ on “Last Time I Fool Around with You” – which also includes some terrific tickling of the ivories from Iguana and interesting percussion from Barton – in addition to Winter on “I’m Ready” and Margolin on “I Be’s Troubled”, while Leanne Faine adds some Mavis Staples-like vocals on “Why Don’t You Live So God Can Use You”.

The officially authorized album is packaged as part of a 48-page, CD-sized hardcover book that also includes an original essay by Waters biographer Robert Gordon and a nice collection of photos of Waters both on his own and with friends and family including James Cotton, Eric Clapton, John Primer, Johnny Winter, Son Sims, the Rolling Stones, Louisiana Red, and Waters’ wife Geneva, among others. In addition to having helped Primer fulfill his dream of one day recording a tribute to Muddy Waters, there’s a good chance Skoller – who also produced the Chicago Blues: A Living History project of which Primer, Branch, and the backing band here were all also a part – may have helped the blues guitarist to earn his next Grammy Award nomination as well.

Muddy Waters Tribute caps off stellar night of blues focused on fighting cancer

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Ronnie Earl & The Broadcasters strengthen family ties on Father’s Day

Despite its rich, more than 25-year history, we have to admit to being only a fairly recent fan of Ronnie Earl & The Broadcasters, with the band really first having caught our ear with 2013’s Just for Today, a mostly instrumental affair save for its cover of Etta James’ “I’d Rather Go Blind” that featured Diane Blue on vocals.

That’s almost the polar opposite of the band’s latest CD, Father’s Day (Stony Plain Records), where Blue is one of two guest vocalists (along with Nick Moss Band singer/guitarist Michael Ledbetter) to be featured on a total of 12 of the album’s baker’s dozen of tracks – including classics from Magic Sam, Otis Rush, B.B. King, Fats Domino, and the Rev. Thomas Dorsey – with the sole instrumental this time out being a bluesy cover of Bobby Timmons’ “Moanin'”. It’s also the first time the band includes a horn section in quite a while, making this Father’s Day a rather memorable one.

image001 (2) (250x224)The album opens on the midtempo shuffle of Otis Rush’s “It Takes Time”, one of many tunes on which we get to hear Earl’s stinging guitar combining with the gruff, soulful vocals of Ledbetter (who happens to be the descendent of a famous bluesman in Huddie Ledbetter, a.k.a. Lead Belly). Keyboardist Dave Limina also makes himself heard on this first track, and then frequently throughout the album, with Lorne Entress and Jim Mouradian holding down the rhythm nicely on drums and bass, respectively.

The jazzy “Higher Love” that comes next is a lovely duet between Blue and Ledbetter, as is also the case with the uptempo “Follow Your Heart” (revisiting a tune that first appeared on Earl’s 1984 They Call Me Mr. Earl) that comes a bit later in the program and ranks among the album’s best tracks.

Rush’s “Right Place Wrong Time” – with its downright growling vocals at points – is one of several slow, soulful numbers from Ledbetter, along with a simmering, quietly powerful “Giving Up” that really allows Ledbetter to demonstrate the range of his voice; the New Orleans flavor of Fats Domino’s “Every Night About This Time”; a creeping title track that’s as drenched in emotion musically as it is vocally as Ledbetter delivers its lyrics about making peace, forgiving, and moving on from fear and anger; and Magic Sam’s “All Your Love”, picking up the pace just a bit for an organ-filled cover of B.B. King’s “I Need You So Bad”.

Blue adds some sassy R&B vocals to the band’s groove-filled take on Magic Sam’s “What Have I Done Wrong”, and then moves to slow and smoky on “I’ll Take Care of You” (Brook Benton) before helping to close the album with the beautiful soothing gospel of Rev. Thomas Dorsey’s “(Take My Hand) Precious Lord”.

Earl’s playing is, as always, superb, as is the band’s cohesiveness after performing with this same line-up for a dozen years now. The album and title song are dedicated to Ronnie’s late father, with whom the 2014 Blues Music Award Guitarist of the Year reconciled after many years of strained relations just last Father’s Day, so part of the lesson here may be that it’s never too late to make a change for the better, including to start appreciating the music of Earl and his band The Broadcasters.

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After years of collaborating, soul/R&B crooners Billy Price & Otis Clay come together This Time for Real

When it comes to soul vocals, there may be no one more well-regarded than Mr. Otis Clay, while Pittsburgh rhythm & blues/soul singer Billy Price still at times seems like one of the region’s best-kept musical secrets, despite having served as vocalist for the Roy Buchanan band for three years back in the 1970s (you can hear Price on both Buchanan’s That’s What I Am Here For and Live Stock albums) in addition to fronting his own band here in southwestern PA for the past few decades.

Billy_Price_Otis_Clay_This_Time_for_Real (250x250)Still, it sometimes takes a pretty die-hard soul music fan to really be able to enjoy a full album from even the most masterful of the soul performers, with the songs often starting to sound a lot alike at some point. Which is what really makes this collaboration from Clay and Price – the pair’s first full album together even though they’ve been performing and recording songs with one another off and on since the early 1980s – such a gem; not only does This Time for Real (Bonedog Records/Vizztone Label Group) bring together two very fine voices, but it offers a remarkably rich diversity of tracks and grooves, making for one of the most entertaining soul-blues albums we’ve heard in quite some time.

While the tender, R&B sounds of songs like “I’m Afraid of Losing You” (Betty Everett), “Tears of God” (Los Lobos), “Love Don’t Love Nobody” (The Spinners), and “Don’t Leave Me Starving for Your Love” (Holland/Dozier/Holland) are all pretty superb, it’s the more upbeat numbers on which these two stars really shine, including the opening, horn-laced “Somebody’s Changing My Sweet Baby’s Mind” (Little Walter), which starts off delightful enough with Price on vocals and then just continues to get better with the switch to Clay for the next verse before the two join together on the chorus; perhaps our favorite track of the bunch in the smooth, soulful “All Because of Your Love” (Tyrone Davis); a funky, strutting “Broadway Walk” (Bobby Womack) that brings the party to you; and the old-time soul tones of “Too Many Hands” (one of two songs previously recorded by Clay on which the duo offers a new version here) and the closing “You Got Me Hummin'” (Sam & Dave).

Produced by guitarist and Roomful of Blues founder/former frontman Duke Robillard, who – along with his current band and a few members of Roomful’s horn section – also can be heard backing Price and Clay on the album, This Time for Real is what Clay calls “the culmination of what we started in 1982” (the first time the two performed together). But with any luck, what we have here will really just be volume one.

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Boasting new line-up, Royal Southern Brotherhood Don’t Look Back on latest release

There’s some good news for Royal Southern Brotherhood fans on the band’s third studio album Don’t Look Back (Ruf Records), and that’s that the grooves here are just what we’ve come to expect from the band, despite the rather drastic change in the line-up over the past year with the departures of mid-west guitarists Mike Zito and Gregg Allman offspring Devon Allman.

Royal_southern_brother_dont_look_back (250x248)Replacing them are rising star Bart Walker and another next-generation bluesman in Tyrone Vaughan, son of original The Fabulous Thunderbirds guitarist Jimmie Vaughan (which also makes Tyrone the nephew of the late Stevie Ray Vaughan), both solid additions to the band even though not featured to quite the same degree vocally as their predecessors, putting percussionist Cyril Neville at the mic a bit more this time around than on past projects. That of course isn’t a bad thing, as there are few in the business as smooth on vocals as Neville, but perhaps the only thing that might have made Don’t Look Back any stronger would have been to diversify the sound just a tad more by putting Walker and/or Vaughan on lead vocals for another number or two, especially hearing the richness of tunes such as the powerful opening “I Wanna Be Free” – on which the two newcomers trade vocals (along with Neville) as well as licks on guitar; the gritty, banjo-laced title track featuring Walker upfront; and the greasy, Vaughan-led “Poor Boy”.

That said, there isn’t a bad track in the bunch, with other highlights here including the stinging “Hard Blues” (co-written by album producer Tom Hambridge); an upbeat “Reach My Goal” that offers such encouraging words as “take life as it comes, just don’t sell your soul/ keep your eye on the doughnut, not on the hole” and “time is something you can’t buy, steal or borrow/ I’m livin’ every day like there’s no tomorrow”; a funky, wah-filled, New Orleans-flavored “The Big Greasy”; the swampy “Bayou Baby” that features Jimmy Hall (Wet Willie) on harmonica and background vocals; a horn-infused “They Don’t Make ‘Em Like You No More” with its superb guitar interplay; and even a few much more tender numbers like the soft R&B strains of “Better Half” penned by Neville for his wife and the closing, acoustic “Anchor Me” (co-written with Anders Osborne).

In addition to Neville, original band members Charlie Wooton (bass) and Yonrico Scott (drums, percussion) also return, joined by special guests that include Hall, a horn section, and the son of an actual brother from one of the same mothers in nephew Ivan Neville (Hammond B3, piano, and clavinet).

While it may not ever be possible for the band to top its stellar self-titled debut, Don’t Look Back certainly ranks a close second, with Walker and Vaughan serving as impressive replacements for the band’s original guitarists. Anyone who may have doubted the future of the band upon the departures of two of its founding members will be glad to hear – literally – that RSB is still one of the best bands in the contemporary blues arena.

Here’s a look at them doing a few of the songs (“I Wanna Be Free” and “Don’t Look Back”) from the new album at New Orleans’ Louisiana Music Factory this spring.

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Keep your Belly full of blues with satisfying new releases from a traditional blues favorite as well as a rising UK contemporary blues outfit

One need look no further than the likes of Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Nirvana, Pete Seeger, Lonnie Donegan, and Ram Jam to be reminded of the influence of blues/folk multi-instrumentalist and singer Huddie Ledbetter – better known to most as Lead Belly – on classic rock, pop, and alternative music over the decades, having either served as the source of or helped popularize such songs as “Goodnight Irene”, “Gallows Pole”, “The Midnight Special”, “Where Did You Sleep Last Night”, and “Black Betty”, among others. There are, of course, already plenty of best-of collections dedicated to the Louisiana-born songster, but for those looking to take a bit of a deeper dive into Lead Belly’s music, you won’t find anything quite as comprehensive or entertaining as this offering from Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, a career-spanning five-disc, 108-track set entitled Lead Belly: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection.

Lead_Belly_Smithsonian_Collection (250x250)A campanion to Smithsonian’s earlier Grammy Award-winning Woody at 100: The Woody Guthrie Centennial Collection, the set contains 16 previously unreleased recordings, including four original songs and two radio programs recorded for WNYC that haven’t been heard since their original airing nearly seven and a half decades ago, several of the tunes from which are available only through the programs. In addition to the more popular songs noted above, you’ll also hear such gems as the mid-tempo “Bourgeois Blues”, the lively “Fannin Street (Mister Tom Hughes Town)” that’s as good a reminder of Ledbetter’s skill on the 12-string guitar as any; chugging, harmonica-laced tunes like “John Henry” and “Lead Belly’s favorite blues” according to one of the radio programs: “Good Morning Blues”, both featuring Sonny Terry on harmonica; the previously unreleased “I’m So Glad, I Done Got Over”; upbeat rags such as “It’s Tight Like That” and “Diggin’ My Potatoes”; an early version of “House of the Rising Sun”; and a terrific “Dekalb Blues” that ranks as one of the set’s best tracks despite its placement just a few songs shy of disc five’s close.

And that’s really just the tip of the musical iceberg, with an impressive array of other original and traditional folk (“Pick a Bale of Cotton”, “Cotton Fields”, “Bring Me a Little Water, Silvy”); country dance/”sukey jump” (“Yellow Gal”, “Chicken Crowing for Midnight”); spiritual (“We Shall Be Free”, “There’s a Man Going Around Taking Names”, “They Hung Him on the Cross”); work/prison & field hollers (“Grey Goose”, “Boll Weevil”, “Rock Island Line”, “On a Monday”, and a “Ham and Eggs” that isn’t about eating but rather a tune men on the chain gang sang while hammering away on the small rock piles); children’s play (“Ha-Ha This A Way”, “Sally Walker”); protest/political (“Jim Crow,” “Scottsboro Boys”, “Governor Pat Neff”); topical (“Blind Lemon”, “The Titanic”, “T.B. Blues”, “Hitler Song”, “The Hindenburg Disaster”, “Queen Mary”, “National Defense Blues”); Irish (“If It Wasn’t for Dicky”); and even a sing-a-long song or two (with Ledbetter accompanying, for example, a Bessie Smith recording of “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out”), a surprising variety even for a man who estimated that he could sing “500 songs and never go back to the first one”.

Of course, much of the set focuses on the blues, ranging from the tender strains of such tracks as “Outskirts of Town”, a variation on “See See Rider” in “Easy Rider”, takes on the Leroy Carr classics “In the Evening (When the Sun Goes Down)” and “How Long, How Long” (the latter featuring some nice falsetto refrains from Lead Belly in addition to the terrific rhythm of his guitar), a slow-tempoed “Alberta”, a “Sail On, Little Girl” derived from various other blues songs from Tommy McClennan (“You Can’t Mistreat Me”), Bumble Bee Slim (“Sail On, Little Girl”), and Blind Boy Fuller (“Pistol Slapper Blues”), and what a WNYC announcer described as “one of the wailingest, lonesomest blues you’ve ever heard” in “Leaving Blues”, to mid-tempo numbers like “Sweet Jenny Lee”, “Packin’ Trunk Blues”, “Baby, Don’t You Love Me No More”, “Jail-house Blues”, and Bessie Smith’s “Backwater Blues”, to lively pieces like “Blues in My Kitchen, Blues in My Dining Room”, “4, 5, & 9”, the bouncy “Keep Your Hands Off Her” (Big Bill Broonzy), a smooth, jazzy “Silver City Bound” about Ledbetter’s travels with Blind Lemon Jefferson, “When a Man’s a Long Way from Home”, “One Dime Blues”, and the “high jive” of “How Come You Do Me Like You Do?”.

Often, Lead Belly can be heard discussing the meaning or origin of the song before he begins to sing, as on “Noted Rider” – which we learn refers to a “drunk woman been drinkin’ all night long and ain’t had no sleep. She been disturbin’ peace ’round in the neighborhood” – and the breezy, smooth-vocaled “Relax Your Mind” warning against distracted driving.

While most of the songs feature Ledbetter by himself on vocals and guitar, the set occasionally finds Lead Belly trading in his signature Stella guitar for an accordion (the first instrument he learned) – as is the case, for example, on “Sukey Jump”, “John Hardy”, and “Laura” – or being joined by such guests as Sonny Terry on harmonica and Brownie McGhee on guitar (including for “John Henry”, a rollicking “Diggin’ My Potatoes” on which McGhee also joins on vocals, “4, 5, & 9”, “Easy Rider”, and “National Defense Blues”, with Terry alone also accompanying Ledbetter on “How Long, How Long”, “On a Monday”, “Outskirts of Town”, and the opening “Irene” ), Woody Guthrie (vocals and mandolin on “Alabama Bound” and “Fiddler’s Dram” along with vocals on “We Shall Be Free”, where they’re also joined by Terry on harmonica), and Anne Graham (“Bring Me a Little Water, Silvy”, “What’s You Gonna’ Do When the World’s on Fire”, and “Rock Me (Hide Me in Thy Bosom)”). Lead Belly even plays piano on one tune (the barrelhouse-style “Big Fat Woman”), one of two songs – along with the catchy rhythm and nonsense “bang-a-lang, bang-a-lang, ba-da-da-dee-do-day” lyrics of “Jean Harlow” – to include some impressive scat singing from the songster.

As one might expect with such an extensive collection from this period, the sound quality varies greatly across the set, with some tracks being rather noisy while others are surprisingly clear. The discs come as part of a 140-page coffee table-sized hardbound book that also includes some nice essays, rare photos, and detailed track notes.

It’s not exactly clear when or how Ledbetter came to be known by the nickname of Lead Belly: some speculate it might have been in his youth when a friend or family member altered the sound of his surname by substituting the “t”s with “l”s, others say he earned it years later either on his way to or in prison. But regardless, his is a name that’s destined to live on for a long time, thanks to artists such as those mentioned at the start of this post and sets like this from Smithsonian Folkways.

TBelly_cover (249x250)We’re really no more certain of how UK contemporary blues band TBelly came up with their name than we are of Lead Belly’s, but we have to admit that we like what we’ve heard from them so far in their debut album Dead Men Don’t Pray (Cabin Music/ECR Music Group). While some blues fans might be tempted to dismiss the band upon learning that three of its five members formerly played in Les McKeown’s Scottish bubblegum pop group The Bay City Rollers (“Saturday Night”, “Be My Baby”, “I Only Want to Be With You”, “Bye Bye Baby”), we can assure you that the band’s sound is much deeper and more contemporary than you might at first imagine, with songs like “Mr TBelly Blues” and “I Want to Be With You” venturing well into heavy blues territory. Indeed, these guys are a whole lot closer to the likes of Moreland & Arbuckle, Johnny Sansone, or the Stephen Stills/Kenny Wayne Shepherd/Barry Goldberg supergroup The Rides – although perhaps slightly more polished and diverse even than any of these – than they are the band some of its members formerly called home.

Led by Russell Keefe on vocals and keyboards, along with fellow former Rollers Ross Lardner on lead guitar and Kevin Magill on drums, TBelly also includes bass player Riad Abji and backing singer Debs Bonomini, joined by guest harmonica player Al Richardson on several of the 11 original songs.

With deep, gritty – often croaking – vocals that range from the likes of Tom Waits to Joe Cocker and Eric Burdon to Louis Armstrong, Keefe has every bit the voice to match his strong playing on keyboards, displaying an impressive versatility in delivering tracks like the rocking numbers noted above to the jazzy, horn-accented “Night at the Ritz” and such soulful ballads as the sensitive acoustic closer “Broken” and soft, bluesy “I’ll Get You Home”.

Along the way, you’ll also hear the catchy, driving “Tie It on My Face”, with its “Wild, Wild West” (The Escape Club)-like rhythm and some ripping guitar from Lardner; the creeping, New Orleans-flavored “Lie in the Desert”, and a pleading, powerful “Best Out of You” that adds some subtle yet effective strings – particularly when they’re leading into another fine solo from Lardner. “Respectable Man” sounds like something Eric Burdon could easily have recorded, with hard-rocking grooves and some especially gritty harmonica from Richardson, who also contributes on the swaggering title track, while Bonomini’s background vocals go a long way in helping to balance Lardner’s stinging guitar and Keefe’s scratchy vocals on the simmering “Where’s the Doctor”.

Dead Men Don’t Pray makes for a solid debut from a surprisingly tight and well-rounded band, with Keefe’s lyrics representing yet another area of excellence, including such lines as “this is the way to combat social disease/ the lack of contact comes to me with such ease/ I miss the times you really pushed me around/ I want to lie in the desert with you”; “I have an automobile, it has an expensive feel/ I eat in all the right places, but I don’t get fulfilled/ but all I want from you is a night at the Ritz”; “well you made a fool of me, and you did it very well/ you took my heart and you crushed it like a very, very small eggshell/ your mind is a sewer and it runs very deep/ well you cut me up, and dumped me in a trunk, and you threw away the key” (“Where’s the Doctor”); and “I’ve been by the wayside/ I’ve been in despair/ I need a drink in the morning/ just to get me through the day/ I once was a proud man/ and I think I still am/ but the streets have a habit/ and the habit won’t go away” (“Broken”).

Once you’ve heard TBelly, chances are they too will be a habit that won’t go away; fortunately those in the U.S. will have the chance to hear more of them when the band tours the states starting in July, with appearances scheduled for New York City, D.C./Maryland/Virginia, Philadelphia, Chicago, Louisville, and hopefully more. If their live show is anything like that of this stellar debut, TBelly just may be the “must-see” blues act of the year.

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Ain’t Doing Too Bad

Here’s a little something to help get your summer off to the right start: another scorching edition of our BluesPowR Radio Hour featuring recent music from Joe Bonamassa’s Muddy Wolf Tribute, Joanne Shaw Taylor, Billy Boy Arnold, Benny Turner, Duke Robillard, Devon Allman, Mississippi Heat, Coco Montoya, Steve Earle, Tinsley Ellis, Junior Wells, MonkeyJunk, Sena Ehrhardt, and more!

Whether you’re stuck in an office, hanging by the pool, or on the road to Walley World or some other exotic destination, this latest episode makes for a perfect soundtrack for your summer. Check it out today!

Ain’t Doing Too Bad – D.A. Foster
Nowhere To Go – Mississippi Heat
Ten Million Slaves – Devon Allman
I Got a Mind To Travel – Coco Montoya
Down in Mexico – Duke Robillard Band
I Knew She Was a Liar (But I Never Would Have Called Her a Thief) – Davy Knowles
Ladies Shoes – Missy Anderson
What’s On The Menu Mama – Billy Boy Arnold
Lucky One – MonkeyJunk
Blues Is A Woman – Chris O’Leary Band
King of the Blues – Steve Earle & the Dukes
Midnight Ride – Tinsley Ellis
I Wanna Give It to You Baby – Benny Turner
If Trouble Was Money – Sena Ehrhardt
Meet My Maker – John Campbelljohn Trio
Love My Baby – Junior Wells w/ Buddy Guy
The Day After Yesterday – Moondog Medicine Show
I’m Not Downhearted – Colin Cooper Project
Outlaw Angel – Joanne Shaw Taylor
All Night Boogie (All Night Long) – Joe Bonamassa

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