Spring/early summer can really hang you up the most; Quick Takes: new(ish) music from Johnny Rawls, Albert Castiglia, Liz Mandeville, and The Nighthawks

Anyone who says the blues is dying probably ought to take a look at the stack of new blues releases we’ve managed to accumulate over the recent months, many of which we may never be able to even begin thinking about writing about.

That said, here are a few recent releases we’d be remiss in not mentioning:

Albert CastigliaLiving the Dream (Blues Leaf Records)
Castiglia_LTD (200x200)As tempted as we were to limit our review of Albert Castiglia‘s latest album Living the Dream to just three words – “Walk the Backstreets,” which is the only track you’ll need to hear to realize this is yet another good one from the all-too-underrecognized Castiglia, we knew that wouldn’t do justice to the many other fine tracks  on this project, from the catchy opening title track and rollicking instrumentals “Freddie’s Boogie” (Freddie King) and Castiglia’s own “Fat Cat” to the swaying, keyboard-infused ballad “Directly from My Heart to You” (Little Richard) to the rocking closer in Mose Allison’s “Parchman Farm.”

A former band leader, guitarist and singer for the great Junior Wells, Castiglia has long had a knack of combining soulful, often country-tinged, vocals reminiscent of Van Morrison and Jimmy Buffett with fiery blues guitar riffs and solos, not to mention the clever lyrics you’ll hear on such songs as “The Man” (“Oil man came from across the sea, spilling pain and misery/ One year later, without a word, five dollars a gallon and giving me the bird”), one of five songs on the album penned by Castiglia.

In addition to the nine-minute, simmering, down-the-alley blues of Little Milton’s “Walk the Backstreets” (Sandy Jones) – which probably should come with some kind of warning that it could lead listeners to hit the replay button time and again, you’ll also want to be sure to check out “Sometimes You Win” with its quieter, Led Zeppelin-sounding guitar solo and Castiglia’s take on Paul Butterfield’s “Lovin Cup,” featuring some blistering guitar work from Castiglia as well as harmonica from Sandy Mack.

Liz MandevilleClarksdale (Blue Kitty Music)
Liz Mandeville is no newcomer to the blues, having already recorded four albums on Chicago’s Earwig Records. The first on her own Blue Kitty label, Mandeville’s latest album Clarksdale, however, serves as a remarkable new beginning for the Chicago singer and guitarist – one likely to receive a good deal of attention when the next round of Blues Music Awards nominees is announced.

Mandeville_Clarksdale (200x200)Dedicated to the late Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, who not only encouraged Mandeville to start her own label, but also played both drums and harmonica on several of the album’s best tracks – including the fun, swinging opener “Roadside Produce Stand” and instant classic “Walking & Talking with You,” which also adds some nice piano from Leandro Lopez-Varady to complement Mandeville’s smoky vocals and nifty guitar playing, Clarksdale offers a little bit of everything you could hope for in a blues album, from the acappella gospel-blues “No Fear/Everything” accompanied only by Mandeville’s snapping, to the boogeying “Sweet Potatoe Pie” featuring Howlin’ Wolf horn man Eddie Shaw on tenor sax, to the rocking “My Mama Wears Combat Boots” with Nick Moss on guitar and Mandeville playing washboard.

With vocals that range from the sweet and tender tones of “Mama & Daddy Blues” and “A Soldiers Wife” to the powerful growl of “Clarksdale/Riverside Hotel Blues” with its piano and Robert Johnson-style guitar intro, Mandeville proves she can do it all, with many of the songs also serving as statements on such topics as the war on drugs (the solo acoustic “4:20 Blues”), relationships (“Bye Bye Blues”), and flooding (“Sand Baggin”).

Johnny RawlsSoul Survivor (Catfood Records)
If it’s a little soul you’re seeking, there’s perhaps no one more dependable than Johnny Rawls, who follows up last year’s acclaimed Memphis Still Got Soul with another scorcher in the form of Soul Survivor. Produced by Rawls and bassist Bob Trenchard, Soul Survivor includes nine original tunes, all written or co-written by Rawls and/or Trenchard, as well as one from Rawls’ mentor O.V. Wright in “Eight Men, Four Women,” which makes particularly nice use of background singers Jessica and Jillian Ivey.

Rawls_SS (200x200)When it comes to Rawls, there’s little need for much detail: everything here is soulful, from the catchy opening title track to the slow, swaying “Drowning” and swinging “King of Hearts,” one of many songs further buoyed by some fine horns, keyboards, and background vocals. A bit smoother and more tempered in his vocal delivery than say a Curtis Salgado, Rawls is at his very best on songs like the funky “Bad Little Girl” and more uptempo “Hand Me Downs,” also contributing musically on the instrumental “J.R.’s Groove” and the country-tinged closer “Yes,” on which Rawls provides bass and guitar tracks, respectively.

The NighthawksDamn Good Time! (Severn Records)
Where The Nighthawks go, a good time is almost sure to follow. So when the band stepped into its new record label’s state-of-the-art shiny new studio in Annapolis last fall, fresh off its Acoustic Album of the Year win (Last Train to Bluesville) at last year’s Blues Music Awards, you could pretty much bet that the finished product would be something special. Indeed, in both title and content, it’s a Damn Good Time!

Nighthawks_DGT (200x200)Starting on a harmonica-accented version of Elvis’ “Too Much,” the band breezes through a terrific variety of tunes, including a gritty “Who You’re Working For” (written by Pittsburgh’s Billy Price and the late Glenn Pavone), the groovy title track featuring drummer Mark Stutso on lead vocals – with the rest of the band providing some damn good harmony vocals, and such rockers as “Bring Your Sister,” Jimmy McCracklin’s “Georgia Slop” – both sung by bassist Johnny Castle – and the closing “Heartbreak Shake,” one of several songs co-penned by Stutso with Pittsburgh guitarist Norman Nardini, along with “Minimum Wage” and the extremely soulful “Down to My Last Million Tears.”

His first recording with the band since joining two years ago, Stutso’s contributions to the project are many: in addition to singing and/or having written a number of the songs, his drumwork is a nice complement to the consistently strong instrumentation of bandleader Mark Wenner’s harmonica, Paul Bell’s guitar, and Castle’s bass, with other particularly notable numbers here including the band’s takes on Charles Calhoun’s classic “Smack Dab in the Middle” (previously recorded on their 1990 Hot Spot album) and Wilbert Harrison’s “Let’s Work Together,” also a great one to hear these guys do live.

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