John’s Blues Picks
I usually think of Ronnie Hawkins & The Hawks as the Ground Zero of Toronto’s & indeed Southern Ontario’s music scene. Looking back, everything seems to build from that enormously influential band. We know though that there were performers who came before and who should be recognized: Curly Bridges, Frank Motley and Bobby Dean Blackburn come to mind, among many others. One of those others is Big John “T-Bone” Little. Born near Niagara Falls in 1929, Big John was performing country music on a local radio station in 1950 and when Elvis became popular, he joined the rock ‘n roll bandwagon. He had a band called The Hot Toddies and in 1959 recorded a song at a Buffalo radio station called “Rockin’ Crickets”. It was enough of a hit that it was stolen from him. He toured continuously, throughout the States and Eastern Canada, spending a lot of time in Quebec, writing songs & recording frequently but always on obscure labels. Steve Burnside started a few years later with a band based in the Falls called The Marquis. They recorded mostly for the Arc label (remember that one?) and recorded their own version of “Rockin’ Crickets” in 1966. They also toured constantly. Some fifty years on, the latest version of this band still works regularly in the Peninsula. Latterly, Big John has lived near St. John, New Brunswick but returns to The Falls in the summers. Last summer, these two old friends got together at The Crystal Chandelier in Crystal Beach and Steve arranged to record the proceedings. Aside from “The Ballad Of Big John (Hand Jive)”, the songs are well known to club audiences and get sterling performances from these seasoned veterans. Some highlights are “Bring It On Home”, “Johnny B. Goode” and especially “Everyday I Have The Blues”, a lengthy showcase for the two guitarists. The band is spot on this evening, with Paul Mikoski on piano, Carl Slick on bass & Mikey Major on drums providing all the support they need. The ensemble is well recorded too, by former Marquis Mike Addario, not an easy task in a club. The camaraderie between the two veterans is palpable and I’m glad to have such a fine document. You can enquire about this CD at Steve Burnside’s web site, www.burnsidebluesband.com. I am also indebted to Brian Lee, a California radio host and researcher/compiler of www.colorradio.com/rockinrebels.htm for much information on Big John and the Niagara border scene in the fifties & sixties. He also did a very informative interview with Big John in 2008. I’m sure archivist Bill Munson has most, if not all, of Big John’s recordings as well as those of The Marquis, maybe they’ll see the light of day once more.
The First Nations guitarist/singer/actor has a new album that deserves rather more notice than it’s getting. He describes it on his web site as: ‘12 songs weaving a story of a man who has a blind moment of insanity and the events that led him down a dark murderous path.’ As the songwriting progressed the idea of using Double Trouble, Stevie Ray Vaughan’s rhythm section (& Johnny Winter’s before that) came up and was finalized. Willie Nelson was sufficiently impressed with the songs that he agreed to duet on the first single, “Damned If You Do”. Musically he describes his new effort as ‘Hillbilly Soul with some Mohawk/Onondaga swagger.’ To that end he has largely forsaken the power trio sound of Dirty Looks and added horns, keys & backup singers. The songs do indeed carry everything along, with Miller’s vocals & guitars front and centre. This is very much his album and Double Trouble and Reese Wynans on keyboards help enormously in carrying out his concept. “Damned If You Do” is not particularly country sounding and it’ll be interesting to see how it does as a single. “Beautiful Girl”, “Trouble” & a heavily amplified version of Blind Willie Johnson’s “God Don’t Ever Change” are also among the highlights of this ambitious effort. A video for “Stoned For Days” uses San Francisco as a backdrop and is heavily influenced by the movie Bullitt. He has already garnered a Juno nomination in the Aboriginal category. The album seems only to be available through itunes so far with a link through his informative web site, www.derekmiller.ca.
The Kat Kings is actually the man on the cover, Kevin McQuade, the leader, songwriter and singer/guitarist. You might also surmise from the cover that McQuade’s background is rockabilly and that sound does pervade the disc, although we could perhaps call it bluesabilly here. The rest of The Kat Kings are John Dymond on bass, Al Cross on drums and Martin Alex Aucoin on keys. Aucoin also produced and he has done a fine job. McQuade’s songs are very good indeed and Aucoin’s production puts them in their best light. “Tuffer Than Me” is a rocking set opener and should be released as a single. It has all the hallmarks of classic rockabilly without sounding in any way retro. Al Cross’s drumming is a delight, as it is throughout. “Let’s Get Greasy” rides on guitars and prominent organ, not much rockabilly here, just straight ahead rock. “Born In The Back Of A Cadillac” has a JJ Cale feel, with Aucoin switching to Wurlitzer and with a fine McQuade guitar solo. “Lucky Streak” is back to bluesabilly and back to the gambling motif of the cover. The band sets up a fine second line for “Queen of The Mardi Gras”. “She’s No Good (She’s Just Good Lookin’)” starts off with an acoustic slide guitar before Cross’ drums come pounding in for this grinder, with excellent piano & guitar. In Kevin McQuade’s hands, this time-tested style has a new life. You can join him at the CD release party at the Dominion on Queen on March 19th.
Kamloops is the home base for this new quintet of veterans. Sabrina Weeks is a powerful vocalist with lots of stage presence. She and the band work in the west coast jump blues style pioneered by Powder Blues and hiring founding member Jack Lavin as producer guarantees they’ve got it right. They call their version ‘bouncing boogie blues’ and the disc starts off with “Boogie Downtown”, a rousing story of an outdoor gig that features horns, back up singers and piano. All but one of the songs were written by Sabrina & lead guitarist Mike Hilliard and song number two is a memorable one with Sabrina stating that if she had money for every poorly chosen relationship, she’d be rich. She doesn’t, of course, and all she has is “Fingers In My Pocket”. Etta James’ “Something’s Got A Hold of Me” is the only non-original and it gets a solid workout. There are a couple more songs about no good men, “Bad Boys” & “Detour” before a very good big band composition, “Ain’t My Time To Sing The Blues”. A first in blues songwriting in my experience is “Wrath Of Mom”, about a housewife who’s ready to explode. It’s a good song too. Bill White is the other guitarist, Ed Hilliard is on drums and Ken Sell on bass to round out the Swing Cat Bounce and special mention should go to Dave Webb for his keyboard work throughout. I hope they have the opportunity of leaving the Okanagan Valley & traveling to the East. The web site is www.swingcatbounce.com.
The company’s motto is “Genuine Houserockin’ Music” and that’s what you get here: two generous disc’s worth, and for the price of one. It’s worth noting that there has been a celebration set every five years since the company’s 20th and that there is no duplication in these sets – even with five new years of material to choose from, not a bad indicator of the quality of the music Alligator releases. It’s also worth pointing out another aspect of this quality control that’s apparent to those of us who listen to many blues recordings, these songs are all carefully chosen, well thought out, fully rehearsed & well recorded, something not always considered important by other companies. The breadth of music is also apparent – the bulk of the catalogue, Koko Taylor, Albert Collins, Hound Dog Taylor, Son Seals are mainstream blues, and indeed have come to define mainstream blues, but artists like JJ Grey & Mofro and Anders Osborne are, in label president Bruce Iglauer’s words, ‘visionary roots artists’. Coming from a man steeped in the blues since his college days, this is a boast not to be taken lightly. As the delegates at the Blues Summit heard, if they didn’t know already, this label is not run by number crunchers. The sequencing is also a treat, where else can you hear Koko, Albert, Michael Burks, Tommy Castro and Lil’ Ed & The Blues Imperials, just to name the first six on disc one. Head to your CD store right away and get a first class ticket on your journey of the blues of today. Find out more, much more at www.alligator.com.