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Music Reviews

Block, Rory – “a Woman’s Soul” – [Stony Plain Records]

Naysayer   9/10/2018   Blues, CD

Rory Block needs no introduction to those in the know of blues singers and musicians. Winner of numerous blues awards, Block has established a catalogue of respected recordings. “A Woman’s Soul”, which is a tribute to Bessie Smith, is the first in her”Power Women of the Blues” series which will honor a variety of distinguished female blues singers. Tribute albums can be a dangerous thing, a slippery slope. They often fall flat because the interpretation is to try and sound exactly like the original or to change the artist’s work so much that it just sounds ridiculous. Neither is the case in this wonderful 2018 collection of the familiar and the obscure and rare of Bessie Smith’s own catalogue of tunes. Smith’s voice was powerful, her interpretation unique within the confines of the blues musical pattern. Black takes these songs and makes them her own, in a great way. First, the instrumentation: Block plays all instruments – acoustic guitars, bass and percussion which is things like blocks, sticks, and boxes including oatmeal boxes. She puts this together in a manner that sometimes falls toward old country, and that is a good thing. Then her vocals: she has this vibrato that accentuates key words and phrases. Top that with her holding out specific notes and the meaning gets layered and put in your head. Her pitch rises and falls with the story she is telling, sometimes working out a guttural vocalization which hits the spot. This is a double thumbs up. Pure joy.

Carr, Leroy – “Volume 2 (1929-1930)” – [Document Records]

humana   9/9/2018   Blues, CD


The staticky quality of these recordings are perfect for the blues, and Carr proves that misery loves company with these songs. Recorded circa the years of the Great Depression, we get a true feel for how tough things can be. “Rainy Day Blues” is awesome, as are many of the other tracks. Looking to commiserate? Try any of these to keep those lonesome feelings at bay.

Dane, Barbara – “Hot Jazz, Cool Blues & Hard-Hitting Songs” – [Smithsonian Folkways]

humana   9/8/2018   Blues, CD


When I first looked at the cover of this 2-CD package, I was reminded of Julie Andrews in “The Sound of Music.” But as soon as I started listening to the music and reading the liner notes, I knew it was so much more. Not that I don’t like Julie, but this Smithsonian retrospective of 60 years of Barbara’s music runs the gamut from folk to blues to jazz, and her amazing voice adapts to each style as though she was born to it. Plus, she opted out of the fame route and chose to sing where her passions lay–in civil right and songs of the people. Memphis Slim, Lightnin’ Hopkins, the Chambers Brothers, Pete Seeger, and many others appear on here. Be sure to listen to Disc 2, which contains the unreleased recordings. See for yourself why Louis Armstrong referred to Dane thus: “Did you get that chick? She’s a gasser!”

Scott-Adams, Peggy – “Best of Peggy Scott-Adams: 16 Hits!” – [Mardi Gras Records, Inc]

Naysayer   8/26/2018   Blues, CD

Peggy Scott-Adams does not play. When she wants a man, she gets him, no matter whose man he belonged to. And you better not touch her unless she says go. Peggy is serious and it’s great to hear her sing about it. These 16 hits from 1996, when Peggy started her solo career, to 2006, cover a lot of territory and are renowned within the blues and r&b community for pushing the boundaries of topics to discuss. Spousal abuse, losing your man to another man, ageism, talking to women about how they need to keep themselves up and not become a man’s pawn: it’s all here. The lyrics may not always be PC but they are honest. Her vocal style is sultry with some diva, southern gospel trills and holding out notes with great skill. She can belt it out like the best of them when needed. And she talks to her audience: ladies, and gentlemen, listen up. The instrumentation falls into that late ’90’s electric piano, drum machine sound but her voice takes over and you kind of forget about it. She might play Biscuits & Blues in San Francisco but I’d rather see her in Hayward at Shirlene’s Iron Horse or the Why Not. Get my drift?

Birchwood, Selwyn – “Pick Your Poison” – [Alligator Records]

Naysayer   8/26/2018   Blues, CD

When a flute fades in to start off track 1, “Trial By Fire”, on Selwyn Birchwood’s excellent, newest CD, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Within seconds the lap steel guitar pulls in and we are off. Birchwood’s approach is to play off old blues’ styles but to make them his own. Tone is a bit swampy at times, gritty and rough, which is the best. His guttural baritone takes to the forefront of an exceptionally tight four piece outfit: Birchwood on guitar, lap steel and vocals, Regi Oliver on all things sax plus flute, Huff Wright holding it down on bass and Courtney “Big Love” Girlie on drums and percussion. Lyrics are about men loosing their women and drinking through their pain, dealing with alcohol, relationship troubles, with contemporary references like intervention, texting, cell phones. But there is more: songs about the police state and workers in the corporate machine make us remember we are in the end of the second decade of the 21st Century. Through all of this, though, there is a southern church feel, a religious tone that is not overbearing but is apparent. It’s not bludgeoning the listener, just part of Birchwood’s personality. Blues isn’t just old tyme and reissues. This new stuff is kicking some butt. Enjoy.

Southern Avenue – “Southern Avenue” – [Stax Records]

Naysayer   8/24/2018   Blues, CD

This one caught me off guard and kind of blew me away. Southern Avenue have only been around for a few years but sound like they have been together forever. This blues and soul blues quintet are creating a sound rooted in traditional blues but sounding contemporary, of this century. Not falling into that scary overproduced or not dirty enough sound of many modern blues recordings, Southern Avenue have successfully blended blues and dirty Memphis soul without sounding retro. This is new stuff, listeners, and it will get you moving. Started by guitarist Ori Naftaly who left Israel to come to the US to play the blues, he met up with vocalist Tierini Jackson who introduced him to her drum playing sister, Tikyra Jackson. The band is rounded out with Daniel McKee on bass and Jeremy Powell on all things keyboard. Ten songs take you through seering musicianship that’ll turn your head, as will Tierini’s outrageously strong vocals which sound slightly reminiscent of Beyonce. It must be a Memphis thing. Just dive in. It’s such a great surprise.

Big Chief Ellis – “Big Chief Ellis” – [Trix Records]

humana   8/9/2018   Blues, CD


This is a slice of blues history (first released in 1976) that is a great addition to our library. All compositions created, played on piano, and sung by Big Chief Ellis, with Tarheel Slim, Brownie McGhee, and John Cephas on guitar. Be sure to read the liner notes that describe how Wilbert Ellis, despite his religious parents’ mandate that forbade music in the house, got his aunt to let him play her piano by mowing her lawn. His clear, strong voice, and his sure-fingered piano work make this a must-play for any blues show.

Anderson, Marisa – “Traditional & Public Domain Songs” – [Mississippi Records]

Thurston Hunger   5/5/2018   12-inch, Blues


No stranger to KFJC’s airwaves, Marisa Anderson
unites with Portland powerhouse Mississippi Records
to reissue her 2013 release of an homage not just
to the Traditional Songs of the title, but to the
guitar. It’s all instrumental, and all electric,
and weaves between reference and reverence. She
can pluck gentle and clean as on “Farther Along”
or tiptoe near the third wire that Junior Kimbrough
use to ride with “Pretty Polly.” Songs that are
pulled deep from the heartland, if not the heart
of this country appear : “May The Circle Be Unbroken”
and “Amazing Grace.” But Marisa’s domain extends
beyond natural and sonic borders, “Bella Ciao”
is indeed beautiful, and builds up a nice storm set
of chords. Dig the super reverb recoil on “Johnny
I Hardly Knew Ye.” A lot of the album has a solemn
and introspective vibe, often soothing but not without
a bout of bitterness. That being said, she concludes
with a downright jouncy “When the Roll Is Called Up
Yonder.” Perhaps that is the arc of the blues, to
struggle humbly and with grace, but carry a heavy
weight till we hit our run-out groove and the
needle rises with us to the skies.
-Thurston Hunger

Louisiana Red – “Driftin'” – [Earwig]

Hemroid The Leader   5/4/2018   Blues, CD

His feet are walking on hard ground and his head is in the blue ethers. Always a story-teller, Red tells about BB King and Lightnin’ Hopkins. The band tracks are Chicago blues. The solo tracks can be strange, childlike (see #5, 8). Very addictive.

Brooks, Hadda – “That’s My Desire” [Virgin Records]

humana   3/17/2018   Blues

This is a gem of a selection of Hadda Brooks’s repertoire, from her amazing piano boogies (she’s not called “Queen of the Boogie” for nothin’) to her lovely sung ballads. The liner notes describe how she didn’t think she could sing; we can all be glad that she gave it a try. In fact, she gave both herself and her audience a great gift when she decided to sing her torch songs. She may not have been as well-listened to as she deserved, but we can remedy that now by paying her homage.

I’ve Got The Blues But I’m Too Damn Mean to Cry [coll] – [JSP Records]

Naysayer   4/14/2017   Blues, CD

WOW. 4 CD’s. 103 tracks of protest in early American blues and gospel. Time period: 1910’s to the late 1930’s. We know the sound. No need to restate. So many artists, some well known and others obscure. Solos, choirs, groups, bands. But this is music of protest, some stated blatantly, others sung with humor, many layered with symbols and meaning to hide the target. These are songs, angry songs, desperate songs about abusive and oppressive conditions created and maintained by the white population relentlessly directed toward the black population. Despicable working conditions, police brutality, forced labor, prison horror. Continuous abuse and exploitation of one group of people by another. The variety of reactions to this oppression are as varied as the artists performing the songs. From thoughts of suicide to attacking and killing “Mr. Charlie”, from looking for the fabled promised land to all out revolution. The conditions and situations today of mistreatment and persecution are frighteningly and disgustingly no different then they were 100 years ago. These are essential tracks to play. Utilize this superb collection.

Callier, Terry – “Live At Mother Blues 1964” – [Premonition Records]

Naysayer   4/13/2017   Blues, CD

An exceptional talent, frighteningly underrepresented in our library, Terry Callier was a prolific musician and singer, performing blues, soul and folk songs. This 1964 recording live at Chicago’s Mother Blues folk club, offers an intimate performance of Callier, singing eight quiet yet moving folk tunes accompanied by his guitar playing and two acoustic bass players. The moment he starts to sing the audience goes quiet, except for the random plate or cup being moved. His voice is rich and powerful with so much emotion. It kind of makes you melt. It’s like loneliness and sex and strength and pain and kindness and sadness all wrapped up into one. Folk singers were true story tellers and Callier is right up there with the best, weaving his tales with assuredness and power. Your knees will buckle.

Lester, Julius – “Julius Lester” – [Vanguard]

mickeyslim   8/5/2015   12-inch, Blues

Julius Lester accompanies himself on the 12-string, this is one of the two recordings he made in his lifetime. It’s some original and traditional folk blues music from 1966. The guitar and voice seem disconnected, I thought it was two different people at first. Lester’s voice is pretty sounding, unlike other southern blues crooners.

Lester went on to host a radio show at WBAI, teach Afro-American Studies at University of Massachusetts Amherst, but really made a name for himself writing books for children and young adults (which makes for interesting liner notes by Lester.)

Hollow front-porch blues. Slim approved.

PGM: DO NOT PLAY THE FIRST TWO TRACKS ON EITHER SIDE, THE RECORD IS BROKEN!

Smoky Babe – “Way Back In The Country Blues” – [Arhoolie Productions]

humana   7/4/2015   12-inch, Blues

You’ve gotta love Arhoolie for unearthing a diamond in the rough. Unsung blues gem Robert Brown (known as Smoky Babe) recorded these unreleased tracks with folklyricist Dr. Harry Oster. They are heartfelt, downhome treasures, as are the photos and liner notes on the album sleeve. Perfect for a Fourth of July day spent with sweat rolling down your face and cool lemonade sluicing down your parched throat.

Greatest Show On Mars, The – “Clothesline Revival” – [Paleo Music]

Naysayer   1/17/2015   Blues, CD

Conrad Praetzel’s latest rendition of the project “Clothesline Revival”, the third under this name, is western blues for the 21st century, and if contemporary blues sounded more like this it would be chart busting much more often. Which does not mean to say this is easy listening. No sir. But it is fun, creative and contagious. Using samples from the iconoclastic Alan Lomax collections as well as other found sound vocal oddities, Praetzel’s work, which is a one man band for this album, plays traditional western blues instrumentation mixed with electronic beats and samples. Riffs are repeated. Traditional vocal arrangements filter in and then take over. The twang of the stringed instrument propels the cuts forward. With elements of 20’s and 30’s blues and western twang, the rough and rich tone stylings of an R.L Burnside, and the use of electronics to fill out the sound, “The Greatest Show On Mars” is a successful addition to the world of blues musics.

Schooley, John & Daniels, Walter – “Dead Mall Blues” – [12XU (Austin, TX)]

mickeyslim   11/5/2014   12-inch, Blues

John Schooley and Walter Daniels, two ex-punksters/current noisefolkbluesters. Daniels played in Jack O’ Fun with Tim Kerr from Big Boys, and Schooley’s band, The Revelations toured with The Oblivians and Schooley also toured solo with R.L. Burnside (if that’s any testament to his blues abilities).

Here is their folk/blues album, chalked full of covers, this is also the first album where they both play exclusively acoustic instruments. Since they’re so used to making those awesomely strange distorted noises and electronics, they are kind of forced to bring that out in the acoustic sounds. Great collaboration!

Covers of Blind Willie McTell, John Fahey, Hank Williams, and a couple traditional pieces. My favorite is the original “Winston Churchill Cigar Blues.”

PunkFolkBlues

Lemon Nash – “Papa Lemon-New Orleans Ukulele Maestro & Tent Show Troubador” – [Arhoolie Productions]

selector   11/5/2014   12-inch, Blues

 

A different way to listen to the uke. This is definitely blues, both southern and folk, with a few World War I songs. Songs related to Lemon Nash’s time in the bars, halls, and the red-light district of 50’s New Orleans and in traveling throughout the south in medicine shows.

Far from common strumming, his right-hand action on the uke is quite nice with lots expert transitions to triplets and picking.

A number of songs are interspersed with cool old stories of his personal experiences. Sweet and fun.

–Selector

Mean Mothers: Independent Women Blues, Vol. 1 [coll] – [Rosetta Records]

mickeyslim   9/24/2014   Blues, CD

Ladies being ladies, and they ain’t taking shit from no one! Volume One in a collection of independent women’s blues music from 1926-1949, and it bakes. Tunes that assert females are just as strong as their male counterparts, if not stronger.

Since I have a not-so-secret soft spot for ladies blues music, I tend to agree. This album does a great job at exemplifying one of the many themes in blues, and one of the few that is strictly for women, especially at that time: personal independence and not putting up with peoples disrespect.

Maggie Jones, Ida Cox, Rosa Henderson, Billie Holiday, etc. Beautiful voices from beautiful ladies. Rosetta Records release with great liner notes.

3WR: Big Mama’s Blues