Tune into the Weekend: Taj Mahal nails Spike Driver Blues on upcoming Music Maker Relief Foundation anniversary compilation

We’ve talked here before about the Music Maker Relief Foundation (MMRF) and its good works in helping Southern musicians in need. 2019 is shaping up to be a particularly exciting year for the organization, which will celebrate its 25th anniversary with several new projects, including a graphic novel; a book and museum exhibit of tintype photography by MMRF president Tim Duffy; and a companion compilation CD all scheduled for release during the first half of the year.

Here’s a little preview from the CD, a cover by longtime MMRF supporter Taj Mahal of a Mississippi John Hurt tune called “Spike Driver Blues” that can also be heard on Mahal’s 2016 Labor of Love album:


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Jawbone gives lots to jaw about with self-titled debut

Sticking with the UK flavor of our last review (Ian Parker’s album paying tribute to blues great Willie Dixon), today we’re discussing the eponymous debut album from a new four-man band called Jawbone (who take their name from a song by The Band). Formed by guitarist Marcus Bonfanti and keyboardist Paddy Milner, both of whom have had some nice success on their own, Jawbone also includes bassist Rex Horan and drummer/percussionist Evan Jenkins.

Bonfanti and Milner share primary vocals, with Milner’s smooth, often jazzy delivery nicely balancing Bonfanti’s gruff voice to create the aural equivalent of the chocolate and peanut butter combination of a Reese’s peanut butter cup.

You get a good taste of that vocal exchange on the strong, opening “Leave No Traces”, on which the pair move from trading verses to harmonizing on the chorus to an intensifying call-and-response exchange that has Milner declaring “heaven doesn’t want me” as Bonfanti finishes the statement with “the devil doesn’t know who I am”, accompanied along the way by some punchy horns and a slick guitar solo from Bonfanti.
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My Heart Belongs to the Blues

It’s voting day today, and that probably makes it a pretty good one to “elect” to listen to some blues, at least for voters in some races (as if anyone here needs an excuse!) Here’s the latest edition of our BluesPowR Radio Hour to help get you started, featuring music from one-time Pittsburgh, PA, voter, now Reigning Queen of Beale Street, Barbara Blue; John Mayall; Albert Castiglia; Doyle Bramhall II; Blind Lemon Pledge and more, proving once again that, no matter your political leanings, the blues is a party we can all rally around!

Playlist
Hoodoo On Me – Albert Castiglia (Up All Night)
The Sum of Something – John Mayall (Three For the Road)
My Heart Belongs to the Blues – Barbara Blue (Fish in Dirty H2O)
Dr Jesus – Barbara Blue (Fish in Dirty H2O)
All Mine – Dan McKinnon (The Cleaner)
Buley’s Farm – Blind Lemon Pledge (Evangeline)
One More Glass of Wine – Eight O’Five Jive (Swing Set)
Live Forever – Doyle Bramhall II w/ the Greyhounds (Shades)
Devil in Me – Jim Suhler & Monkey Beat (Live at the Kessler)
Just Lucky I Guess – Delta Moon (Cabbagetown)

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Ian Parker dishes Spoonful of Gold on album paying tribute to blues great Willie Dixon

We hadn’t heard much about British blues-rocker Ian Parker before we caught a track from his new album on BBC recently, but that — plus learning that said album was a tribute to Chicago blues musician/writer/producer and “Poet Laureate of the Blues” Willie Dixon — was enough to pique our interest in the project. Parker isn’t, of course, the only blues singer/guitarist to pay tribute to individual blues legends in recent years, with a few earlier examples including Joe Bonamassa’s tributes to first Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf and then B.B., Freddie and Albert King through his Muddy Wolf and Three Kings of the Blues concerts, respectively; Big Head Todd and the Monsters joining forces with B.B. King, Hubert Sumlin, Charlie Musselwhite, Ruthie Foster and others as the Big Head Blues Club to honor Robert Johnson and then, more recently, with Billy Branch, Ronnie Baker Brooks and Mud Morganfield to also pay tribute to Willie Dixon; and Walter Trout helping to remember Luther Allison through his Luther’s Blues: A Tribute to Luther Allison recording.

Even though a few of the songs on Parker’s Spoonful of Gold are ones also covered on the earlier tributes from Bonamassa or the Big Head Blues Club (including, for example, “Evil”, “Spoonful”, “My Love Will Never Die”, and “The Seventh Son”), with Parker’s vocals at times even sounding pretty close to those of Big Head’s Todd Park Mohr while at other points evoking Davy Knowles (Back Door Slam), Parker delivers it all in an ambitious, engaging fashion. While the Big Head Blues Club relied in part on its guest performers to help provide some diversity in sound, you really have to give Parker credit for undertaking the effort alone with his band, who very much rise to the occasion and help create an impressive and memorable offering. Even if a few of these interpretations sound somewhat like stuff we’ve heard before, everything here is solid, with Parker & co. delivering perfectly commendable renditions of more familiar Dixon tracks like the opening gritty, rocking “Evil”; a “I Just Want to Make Love to You” that starts on some muted Led Zeppelin-ish licks and is then filled with subdued wah riffs; a creeping, eight-and-a-half minute “My Love Will Never Die” that includes pleading falsetto vocals from Parker; and the closing “Spoonful”.

But the biggest highlights here may in fact be some of the less familiar Dixon numbers Parker tackles, such as the breezy, island-sounding “Mighty Earthquake and Hurricane” with its Spanish-style guitar, handclaps, and harmony vocals, a groovy “I Can’t Understand” (co-written with Los Lobos’ Cesar Rosas and recorded for the band’s 1990 album The Neighborhood) that has about as modern a sound as you can get for a Dixon song along with its yearning vocals, and the swaying, simmering rocker “Weak Brain, Narrow Mind”.
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Hold On tight because Kirk Fletcher’s latest album will blow you away

In introducing the band on his recent recording paying tribute to the Three Kings of the Blues, Joe Bonamassa called fellow guitar-slinger Kirk Fletcher “one of the greatest modern blues guitar players in the world”, and one listen to that album and Bonamassa’s earlier Muddy Wolf tribute provides all the proof you might need that Fletcher has the goods to back that kind of statement up.

Stepping back to the center of the stage for his fourth solo studio album Hold On, Fletcher is even more superb, delivering not only the magnificent playing you would expect but some tough, seriously impressive vocals that put Fletcher in the same league as the likes of Larry McCray and the late Michael Burks.

Joined by Jonny Henderson (Matt Schofield, Ian Siegal) on keyboards and Matt Brown on drums, Fletcher works his way through a set of eight terrific tracks that range from the slow, straight-ahead blues of “Gotta Right” (“to sing the blues”) loaded with stinging licks to the heavy, dragging rocker “Time’s Ticking” to such funky numbers as the soulful, Billy Preston-like, make ya’ feel good “You Need Me” and New Orleans-style instrumental “Dupree” with its cool, second line grooves.
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Pianist Anthony Geraci branches out on Why Did You Have to Go

If you’re looking for something from pianist Anthony Geraci that’s drastically different from what he does with his main gig with Sugar Ray and the Bluetones, then Geraci’s latest album Why Did You Have to Go (Shining Stone Records) isn’t going to be it, at times sounding very much like the music of the band Geraci helped found and of which he’s remained a part now for 40 years. And that’s really no surprise, considering that Geraci has again, just as on his 2016 Fifty Shades of Blue album, enlisted his Bluetones bandmates for much of this project, even bringing in guitarist Ronnie Earl and drummer Neil Gouvin for a reunion of the band’s original members on two tracks.

But a few things do help separate this album from that of a Bluetones recording: all 13 of the tracks here were written by Geraci, and, although prominently featured, his former and current Bluetones bandmates actually make up less than half of the guests on this project, with other appearances including singers Sugaray Rayford, Willie J. Laws and Michelle “Evil Gal” Willson, horn players “Sax” Gordon Beadle and Doug Woolverton, and drummer Marty Richards, as well as singer Brian Templeton, guitarist Kid Ramos, bass player Willie J. Campbell and drummer Jimi Bott, the four of whom Geraci recently teamed with under the name of The Proven Ones (the debut recording from whom may be a better place to look if you do want to hear Geraci doing something a little different, which would probably only be because you want to hear more of his great work, not because you don’t like what you’ve heard from him with the Bluetones!).
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Doyle Bramhall II continues to evolve with Shades

We first heard Doyle Bramhall II when he and his band Smokestack played opening act on Eric Clapton‘s 2001 Reptile tour. A little research revealed that Bramhall also had a bit of a role on the Reptile album, including serving as a guest on three-quarters of the tracks and co-writing “Superman Inside.”

From there, it didn’t take long for us to realize that Bramhall also wrote two of the tracks (“I Wanna Be” and “Marry You”) covered by Clapton and B.B. King on the previous year’s Grammy Award-winning collaboration Riding with the King, in addition to playing on most of that album as well. That project would, in fact, be the start of a long and productive relationship that would find Bramhall joining the legendary guitarist in the studio and/or on tour for much of the next decade and a half, with Bramhall even helping to produce the Clapton and Old Sock albums.

Along the way, Bramhall has also played with or written or produced for artists including the Tedeschi Trucks Band, Sheryl Crow, Roger Waters, Elton John, Gregg Allman, Allen Toussaint, and T-Bone Burnett, while his pre-Clapton years included stints with Jimmie Vaughan’s The Fabulous Thunderbirds and as a co-founder of the Arc Angels with Charlie Sexton and Double Trouble members Chris Layton and Tommy Shannon.
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Deva Mahal, Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton join Bettye LaVette and others at inaugural Highmark Blues & Heritage Festival

Mahal

We weren’t able to catch much of the inaugural edition of the Highmark Blues & Heritage Festival that took place at the August Wilson Center in downtown Pittsburgh this past weekend, but the few acts we did manage to see Saturday afternoon were certainly good ones, with Deva Mahal finishing up the outdoor portion of the day before the Rev. Shawn Amos and Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton helped get things started on the intimate indoor stage.

Here are a few pictures we snapped during those sets, any of whom would be well worth checking out, hopefully not if, but when they return to the ‘burgh to play slightly longer engagements or at least on their recordings. You can read more about the debut album from Mahal, whose father happens to be a pretty famous blues guy by the name of Taj Mahal, here, and about Paxton, who we last caught at the Lancaster Roots & Blues Fest a few years back, here.

Amos

Mahal & Ingram

 

 

 

 

 

 

Although we’ve heard one or two of his albums, this was our first time seeing the Rev. Amos live, and were definitely impressed by his energetic, entertaining set, with blues legend Bobby “Blue” Bland’s son Rodd Bland on drums.

Paxton

Among the acts we were disappointed to miss at the festival this weekend were headliners Bettye LaVette (Saturday) and John Scofield (Sunday) as well as earlier Saturday afternoon acts Billy Price, Teeny Tucker and Christione “Kingfish” Ingram, although we were fortunate to see the latter join Mahal for her set’s closing number, an always soulful take on Carole King’s “Take a Giant Step”. Not too shabby of a line-up for a first-time effort, one that we hope will have a long, rich history here in the Steel City!

Amos

Ingram

Amos w/ Bland

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Blues Been Mighty Good to Me

Things may finally be starting to cool down a bit on the outdoor thermometer but we’ve got another hot one for you here with this edition of our talk-free BluesPowR Radio Hour, featuring double-shots from both Jim Gustin & Truth Jones as well as Delmark Records’ 65th anniversary tribute album, with tracks from Demetria Taylor and Corey Dennison & Gerry Hundt. Plus, you’ll hear music from Bobby Messano, Erin Harpe & the Delta Swingers, Tom Hambridge & Allen Toussaint, Theotis Taylor, and more!

Playlist
Big Hearted Woman – Jim Gustin & Truth Jones (Memphis)
Half Past Ten – Jim Gustin & Truth Jones (Memphis)
Make It Work – Andy Frasco (Songs from the Road)
Lonely Leavin’ Town – Erin Harpe & the Delta Swingers (Big Road)
Never Too Late to Break a Bad Habit – Bobby Messano (Bad Movie)
Beautician Blues – Joe Goldmark (Blue Steel)
High Desert – Marie/Lepanto (Tenkiller)
Broke and Hungry (tribute to Sleepy John Estes) – Corey Dennison & Gerry Hundt (Tribute: Newly recorded blues celebration of Delmark’s 65th Anniversary)
Riverboat (tribute to Big Time Sarah) – Demetria Taylor (Tribute: Newly recorded blues celebration of Delmark’s 65th Anniversary)
Fly Away to Be At Rest – Theotis Taylor (Something Within Me)
Blues Been Mighty Good to Me – Tom Hambridge w/ Allen Toussaint (The NOLA Sessions)

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Reigning Queen of Beale Street Barbara Blue makes big splash with Fish in Dirty H20

It’s been a few years now since we’ve had a chance to talk about smoky-voiced Pittsburgh native Barbara Blue, who has been holding down a five-nights-a-week gig at Silky O’Sullivan’s on Memphis’ Beale Street for the past 21 years, a feat that long ago earned her the title of “The Reigning Queen of Beale Street”.

Having previously recorded albums with both Taj Mahal’s Phantom Blues Band and Willie “Pops” Mitchell’s house band, Blue is still giving us plenty to talk about with her 11th independent release Fish in Dirty H2O (Big Blue Records), which may just be one of Barbara’s finest albums yet.

Everything here is solid, although we probably would have appreciated more of a straight-up blues take on the title track, a cover of a Koko Taylor tune on which Blue is joined by rapper Al Kapone. While we have to give Blue props for taking such a creative approach to the song, and it certainly works, there’s a part of us that really would have loved to hear Blue belting this one out just as Koko did (and as Blue herself does on other tracks like the tough driving rocker “Accidental Theft” that features former Gregg Allman Band guitarist Scott Sharrard and a New Orleansy “Wild Women” with horns, piano and female backing vocals), especially with so much of the project tending toward the swaying side.
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