New releases: Billy Branch delivers Blues Shock; Damon Fowler shares Sounds of Home

They say we’re in the Year of the Horse, but so far 2014 is looking a lot more like the year of a whole different kind of animal to us, like maybe an Alligator – with the recent release of Tommy Castro’s The Devil You Know – or perhaps even a pig, with Blind Pig Records offering a pair of hot new releases of its own recently with the latest projects from harmonica ace Billy Branch and his band the Sons of Blues as well as guitarist Damon Fowler.

Billy_Branch_Blues_Shock (220x220)Their debut on the Blind Pig label, Blues Shock is the first recording from Branch and his Sons of Blues (S.O.B.s) in a decade, following 2004’s As the Years Go Passing By. Originally formed in 1977 as a band of rising young Chicago bluesmen, including second-generation blues players Freddie Dixon (son of blues great Willie Dixon) on bass and Lurrie Bell (son of harmonica player Carey Bell) on guitar, the Sons of Blues may have changed out personnel over the years as the actual sons moved on, but still have one terrific sound, rolling here through nearly a dozen tracks in a way that only a genuine Chicago blues band can.

That ranges from such swinging tunes as the Willie Dixon-penned “Crazy Mixed Up World”, the keyboard- and harp-driven instrumental “Back Alley Cat” that features Justin Jon Kopp on upright bass, the Holland/Dozier/Holland classic “Function at the Junction” – complete with congas, tambourine, and bongos, along with some snappy piano and rich background vocals – and the delightful, double-entendred boogie “Baby Let Me Butter Your Corn”, one of several songs to also include some impressive horns, to the slow blues of the Branch original “Slow Moe” belted out by drummer Moses Rutues, to the soft, serene instrumental “Song for My Mother” that closes out the album. Along the way come shout-outs to Chicago blues institutions both past and present, including Branch’s mentor Willie Dixon, Elmore James, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson, Howling Wolf, Buddy Guy’s Legends, Kingston Mines, and of course Bronzeville’s Palm Tavern, the inspiration for Branch’s beautiful, sentimental salute to the tavern’s longtime proprietor on “Going to See Miss Gerri One More Time”, which Branch has said may be “the best song I’ve ever written” and that features Johnny Iguana on Hammond B3 in addition to incorporating some nice cello, violin, and background vocals.

The album starts on the funky, Dr. John-meets-“Back Door Man”-sounding “Sons of Blues”, followed a few songs later by a driving title track that offers some particularly impressive guitar riffs from Dan Carelli. Fellow Chicagoan Ronnie Baker Brooks joins the band on vocals and guitar, while keyboardist Sumito Ariyoshi switches to organ, for a cover of Bobby Bryant’s “Dog House” featuring some soulful interaction between Branch and Brooks both musically and vocally. Also included is a damn fine cover – one of the best we’ve heard – of John Lee Hooker’s “Boom Boom” with the blasts from Branch’s harp nicely complementing the song’s customary killer guitar riffs to help lift it to a whole new level of greatness.

Combining a great variety of Chicago sounds with Branch’s always-reliable work on both harp and vocals, we think you’ll agree that Blues Shock is one highly entertaining offering from this talented group of S.O.B.s.

We haven’t had the chance to write much here about the rising star that is Damon Fowler, but the Florida singer and guitarist’s new album Sounds of Home gives us the perfect excuse. Already his third solo album for Blind Pig, Sounds of Home catches Fowler taking a break from a successful collaboration with fellow guitarist JP Soars and keyboardist Victor Wainwright in the form of the much-acclaimed Southern Hospitality. Recorded and produced by guitarist Tab Benoit at Tab’s Whiskey Bayou Studio in Louisiana, the album includes 11 roots-soaked tracks, all but three written at least in part by Fowler, several with Benoit.

Damon_Fowler_Sounds_of_Home (220x220)If you’re looking to compare Fowler to some more established blues names, Benoit is of course a good place to start, along with the likes of Mike Zito, Eric Lindell, and the bluesy side of Gary Clark Jr. A downright superb collection of tracks, Sounds of Home stretches from such upbeat numbers as the breezy, open-road grooves of “Spark” and similar Gulf Coast-style romp “Where I Belong” – one of three songs with Benoit on acoustic guitar – to slow countrified ballads like the lap steeled grunge of “Old Fools, Bar Stools, and Me” and the sweet “Do It for the Love” featuring Benoit on pedal steel, to all-out blues-rockers as Johnny Winter’s “TV Mama” and the driving Fowler/Benoit masterpiece “Grit My Teeth”.

Fowler’s work on guitar, Dobro and lap steel is exquisite, and his vocals versatile and strong, also displaying the ability to present lyrics that resonate with the common man, offering such sentiments as “I don’t read my mail, and I sure don’t answer the phone/ I’m not good with people, but I can’t stand being alone” on “Old Fools, Bar Stools, and Me” and “my blood is like a freight train, my ears are like a bell/ I don’t hear what you’re sayin’, but I know it all too well/ many times I have stood here, while you are throwing stones/ this time I’ve had enough dear/ I grit my teeth and I’m gone” on “Grit My Teeth”, while lyrics like “more at home in a room full of strangers, than I am at a table full of friends/ my mother warned me of the dangers, living the life I’m livin’/ thought I had it all/ all had me” only help add to the gritty intensity of the opening “Thought I Had It All”.

The groovy title track is something of a mix of Gary Clark Jr. and Steve Miller, with Big Chief Monk Boudreaux joining on vocals as well as on tambourine, while Benoit also assists on background vocals for a trio of songs, including a sensitive, fairly true take on the Elvis Costello hit “Alison”, before Fowler closes with a plucky, Taj Mahal-style version of the traditional gospel song “I Shall Not Be Moved”, again featuring Benoit on both acoustic guitar and background vocals.

With a future in the blues as bright as the sun that shines in his native state, Fowler provides a whole lot to write home about on Sounds of Home.

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