Remembering music legends James “Mr. Superharp” Cotton and Chuck Berry

The blues world lost another legend Thursday with the passing of harmonica great James Cotton. Here’s a good obituary on Cotton from Alligator Records, with whom the harmonica player first recorded in the mid-80s and then returned for the final stretch of his career. It was from this Alligator post that we first learned of this sad news, with the piece nicely detailing Cotton’s career, including learning his craft from Sonny Boy Williamson II and playing in the bands of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf before moving on to a long and successful career fronting his own band.

The first time we saw Cotton was a 2008 show at Pittsburgh’s Rex Theater; we didn’t take pictures and hadn’t yet founded this blog, so the only memories we have of that show is that it was a terrific one.

Fortunately, we did get to see Cotton perform again a half dozen years later at the 2014 Lancaster Roots & Blues Festival, when he shared the stage with another since-departed bluesman in guitarist Johnny Winter.

Here’s a video we thought you might enjoy of Cotton and his old pal Muddy performing the slow blues of “You Can’t Lose What You Ain’t Never Had”:

Our condolences also to the family, friends and fans of rock n’ roll pioneer and Muddy Waters protégé Chuck Berry, who died Saturday, decades after helping to define the genre with classics like “Johnny B. Goode” and “Roll Over Beethoven”, and whom we had the pleasure of seeing perform a few years back at the 2010 Chesapeake Bay Blues Festival.

Rest in peace, old friends, but know that your influence and music will long live on.

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Canadian bluesman Matt Andersen impresses mightily at Pittsburgh’s Club Cafe

A little over five years back now, we introduced you to Canadian guitarist and singer Matt Andersen, about whom we said at the time: “Combined with Andersen’s recent wins at the IBC and 2011 Maple Blues awards (where he took top prize in both the entertainer and acoustic act of the year categories), [his ability to accomplish such a diverse range of styles – and do it all so damn well – …] is bound to lead to a whole new world of possibilities for Andersen, and we look forward to hearing him play our part of it sometime soon.” It might have taken another half-decade to be able to see him here in our part of the world, but we’re pleased to report that Andersen played his heart out during his first visit to Pittsburgh as a headliner (having managed to sneak quietly in and out of town in September 2014 as the opening act for Nicki Bluhm & the Gramblers) last Monday night at the South Side’s Club Cafe.

Following an entertaining solo opening set from local bluesman Jimbo Jackson of Jimbo & the Soupbones fame, Andersen delivered a delightful program of his own that ranged from the soft, tender sounds of songs like “Quiet Company”, a “So Gone Now” on which Andersen stopped playing for several lines to sing a cappella, and the quiet, swaying “Coal Mining Blues”, to the deep, booming vocals of the soulful “I Lost My Way” and gruff, hard-shuffling “Devil’s Bride”, with the breezy opening “The Gift” nicely foreshadowing the rest of the set by incorporating a little bit of each, along with its uplifting message of “believe that you are special/ believe you’ve got a gift/ the gift of life is all you’ll need.”

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Mojo Risin’: UK pianist Tom Bell blends boogie woogie blues, classical on debut album Face to Face

Here at The BluesPowR Blog, we frequently receive albums that either incorporate elements of or cross more fully into such other genres as rock, jazz, soul, or country. But it’s not often that we encounter an artist who attempts to interweave the blues with classical music, aside perhaps from legendary Chicago harmonica player Corky Siegel (The Siegel-Schwall Band), who’s been doing it now for several decades with his Chamber Blues Band, due to release their fourth album Different Voices in April.

While Siegel employs very much of a team approach to his music, surrounding himself with a classical string quartet and numerous other musicians and vocalists, young UK pianist Tom Bell takes on the blues-classical challenge a bit more single- (well, actually, double-) handedly on his solo debut album Face to Face, an instrumental project that, although we don’t purport to be either the biggest fan of or expert on classical music, all sounds pretty great to us.

After starting on the bright, bubbly “Bell’s Boogie”, the twenty-something Bell moves into the more cultured stylings of Chopin, testing the waters on the serene, light tinkling of “Etude Op. 10 No. 1 ‘Waterfall'” and then venturing a bit deeper in with “Etude Op. 25 No. 12 ‘Ocean'”, with Bell never sounding the least bit in over his head.

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The Same Thing That Can Make You Laugh (Can Make You Cry)

With February already largely in the rear-view mirror, it’s time to dig into another talk-free edition of our BluesPowR Radio Hour, this month featuring the wisdom and talents of artists such as Guy King, Walter Trout, Sugar Ray Norcia & the Bluetones, Tom Waits, Davy Knowles, Trudy Lynn, Tas Cru and more. We hope you enjoy!

Feel I’m Falling – Tas Cru (Simmered & Stewed)
Tomorrow Seems So Far Away – Walter Trout (ALIVE in Amsterdam)
The Same Thing That Can Make You Laugh (Can Make You Cry) – Guy King (Truth)
King Thing – Guy King (Truth)
Thru Chasin’ You – Trudy Lynn (I’ll Sing the Blues for You)
Never Gonna Be The Same – Davy Knowles (Three Miles From Avalon)
Blind Date – Sugar Ray & the Bluetones (Seeing is Believing)
The Soul of a Man – Tom Waits (God Don’t Never Change: The Songs of Blind Willie Johnson)
If Id’a Known – Little Boys Blue (Tennissippi)
Used to Be – Beth Garner (Snake Farm)

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New recording offers glimpse of what you’ve been missing at annual International Blues Challenge

You may have seen that the 2017 International Blues Challenge (IBC) took place in Memphis recently, with the Dawn Tyler Watson Band (Montreal Blues Society) and Al Hill (Nashville Blues Society) taking top honors in the band and solo categories, respectively, both of whom who you can check out in the videos at the end of this post. For those not familiar with it, the IBC draws its hundreds of competitors through contests hosted by The Blues Foundation’s regional affiliates around the world, including, for example, the Pittsburgh area’s Blues Society of Western Pennsylvania, who this year sent Charlie Barath, the Jimmy Adler Band, and Pierce Dipner as its representatives in the solo/duo, band, and youth categories.

For a bigger taste of what you’re missing at this annual blues blowout, there’s a great new collection of songs from the 32nd edition of the competition that took place in 2016. Compiled by The Blues Foundation and 2014 Keeping the Blues Alive award-winning publicist Frank Roszak, International Blues Challenge #32 features nine mostly original tracks from among the 16 finalists (out of more than 250 acts) in last year’s challenge, ranging from such rockers as the shuffling, guitar-driven opener “I’m Your Man” from the Paul Deslauriers Band (Montreal Blues Society) and the Chuck Berry-ish riffs of the “Hound Dog” (not the one you know from Elvis or Big Mama Thornton, but a spunky original with a chorus of “The day you left the door, my hound dog cried all night” and other lyrics that include “He howl, he bark, he moan, he wail/ he don’t eat his food, he don’t wag his tail/ he fuss, he fume, he weep, he sigh/I e’en saw a tear fall from his eye”) that immediately follows from blind duo InnerVision (Columbus Blues Alliance) to the creeping, acoustic “You Make All My Blues Come True” featuring the gritty vocals and biting slide guitar of the Cincy Blues Society’s Sonny Moorman and slow, haunting “Black Sheep Moan” that closes the album from solo/duo winners Ben Hunter and Joe Seamons (Washington Blues Society), with its Chris Thomas King/Alvin Youngblood Hart-like pleading vocals and wailing harp.

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Gary Clark Jr. and first-time GRAMMY winner William Bell deliver soulful primetime performance of “Born Under a Bad Sign”

Okay, we’ll be honest: we spent a lot more time watching Sunday’s GRAMMY Awards pre-telecast ceremony online (waiting for the blues categories to be announced) than we did the network televised portion of the awards. Which means we missed this terrific primetime performance of Albert King’s blues classic “Born Under a Bad Sign” from guitarist Gary Clark Jr. and the song’s co-writer (along with Booker T. Jones) William Bell (who, during the pre-telecast ceremony, received his first GRAMMY Award in the Best Americana Album category for his latest album This is Where I Live, which also happens to include this track).

Fortunately, you can still see this performance – which Relix magazine called “(m)aybe the broadcast’s brightest spot” and noted as having “the most soul and honesty of any note of music played throughout the four-hour broadcast” – on the GRAMMY site.

Do yourself a favor and check it out!

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Bobby Rush, Fantastic Negrito each land first Grammy award

In case you missed it, the annual Grammy Awards took place last night, with the blues awards again among the 75 or so doled out during a live-streamed ceremony before the bright lights of the network TV cameras came on.

After 60 plus years performing and more than 370 recordings, Bobby Rush received his first Grammy, taking honors in the traditional blues album category for Porcupine Meat.

Inaugural NPR Tiny Desk Concert Contest winner Fantastic Negrito hasn’t been on the scene anywhere near as long, but his full-length debut Last Days of Oakland was all it took for him to bring home the coveted prize in the contemporary blues album category.

Congratulations to Rush, Fantastic Negrito, and all of the other nominees in the blues categories of this year’s awards, who also included Lurrie Bell, Joe Bonamassa, Luther Dickinson, Vasti Jackson, Janiva Magness, Kenny Neal, The Record Company, and Joe Louis Walker!

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The King Brothers get on up with Get Up and Shake It

You can almost tell by listening to them that brothers Sam and Lee King have blues royalty in their blood. While Lee’s guitar licks might at times sound like those from Albert King – coming, as some of them do, from Albert’s own prized Flying V guitar, a gift the famous blues guitarist and singer presented Lee in the early 1990s – it’s actually another King of the blues – the great Freddie King – to whom the brothers happen to be second cousins, a point easily recognized upon hearing such songs as Get Up and Shake It‘s opening “Rock Me Baby”, on which Lee’s soulful vocals are remarkably similar not so much to Freddie’s but to Freddie’s younger brother Benny Turner, who we wrote about here less than a year ago.

Having played together now for some six decades, including stints with both Albert’s and Freddie’s bands, The King Brothers return with only their third studio album – their first in 15 years – on Get Up and Shake It (Club Savoy Records), a solid, impressively funky outing filled with tight, addictive grooves from the brothers and their able, outgoing backing band of Al Threats on bass, Ellis Hall on keyboards, and Michael Fell on harmonica.

Driven by some fine playing on drums from Sam and tough, clean vocals and accomplished guitar work from Lee, the band delivers their own funky takes on other classics that include “Hound Dog”, “Hootchie Cootchie Man”, “Close to You” and “Tore Down”. On “Hootchie Cootchie Man”, the brothers seem to be following Lee’s own advice of “Take your time, baby”, toning the song down in both tempo and swagger with a patient, more R&B-style approach that’s less gruff vocally than most versions you’ll have heard but nicely demonstrates – along with, for example, Lee’s repeated “I feel like this” on the closing “Tore Down” – their ability to stretch out a song, developed through decades of experience performing live.

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Ain’t Gonna Be Easy

With all the political and social divisions we’ve seen lately, who’s ready to escape through another talk-free edition of our BluesPowR Radio Hour? Go ahead and inaugurate yourself to the blues with new music from the likes of Omar Coleman, Robin Trower, Harvey Mandel, and a doubleshot of the Big Head Blues Club, featuring son of the blues Mud Morganfield.

If blues like this doesn’t trump hate, we’re not sure what will!

I’m Ready – Omar Coleman (Live!)
Lil’ Black Dress – Adam Karch (Moving Forward)
I Want To Be Loved – Big Head Blues Club (Way Down Inside)
The Same Thing – Big Head Blues Club (Way Down Inside)
I Can’t Get Enough – AG Weinberger (Mighty Business)
Where You Are Going To – Robin Trower (Where You Are Going To)
Cherry Red – The Mighty Mojo Prophets (Record Store)
Ain’t Gonna Be Easy – Deb Ryder (Grit Grease & Tears)
Ode to B.B. – Harvey Mandel (Snake Pit)
Like You or Despise You – Al Basile (Mid Century Modern)
Celebrate – Paul Reddick (Ride the One)

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Blues-rocker Devon Allman rides on with Ride or Die

Rock legend Gregg Allman had some good things to say about his son Devon Allman‘s musical abilities in the Allman Brothers Band co-founder’s biography My Cross to Bear a few years back, perhaps none more to the point than that Devon “can play the f***ing blues”. Of course, many dads whose kids can play half-decent blues might tend to believe that statement could equally apply to their offspring, but we have to figure that Gregg’s rock star status and own experiences with the blues and bluesmen throughout the decades likely give him a bit more credibility than most other proud papas out there.

While we’ve gotten to see some evidence of Gregg’s comments through Devon’s previous work both solo and as an original member of the Royal Southern Brotherhood, the younger Allman’s latest album Ride or Die (Ruf Records) captures him at his most effective yet, musically as well as vocally.

In addition to songs like the soulful, horn-infused rocker “Find Ourselves” and breezy, acoustic “Live from the Heart” that show the more laid-back southern rock influence of his father, Devon also proves capable of delivering an impressive range of other sounds, from swaying ballads like the regret-laden “Vancouver” and the beautiful, strings-laced “Butterfly Girl” that reminds us of a band we heard a lot in college by the name of The Badlees to hard-rocking numbers like the opening “Say Your Prayers” – with its gritty, almost spitting vocals that come right out on “a bad storm’s comin’, better say your prayers/ you can tell right away, there’s trouble in the air”, and subsequent foreshadowing of the lighter, airier sounds and positive messages you’ll hear later in the album with a chorus that starts on “the sunshine’ll be comin’ back/ well, don’t you go and worry ’bout that” – and the tough, groove-filled “Galaxies” from which the album’s title derives, with its crushing guitar and screaming vocals building to a wild cacophony of sound.

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