John’s Blues Picks
At the Awards show, Matt Andersen was being accompanied to the podium by one of those wonderful stings by the band – this time Al Lerman was playing guitar & harp. Matt quipped ‘we got to take some instruments away from Al’. That delightful compliment is a good way to introduce Al’s new solo album on which he gets to play all his instruments plus he gets to sing, something that with FATHEAD is confined to harmony vocals. We’re used to seeing Al play harp or tenor sax but the band doesn’t play all the time. Increasing opportunities for solo shows and requests for CDs to purchase led eventually to this delightful disc. The cover shows Al standing beside the Crowe River, in the country, where he’s lived for a couple of years now, and country life permeates the program. He does have some assistance in having Alec Fraser on bass, Lance Anderson on keys and Bucky Berger on drums in a program of originals and covers that gives us a rather different sound than what you’d expect from listening to FATHEAD. His choice of covers holds a few surprises: “Suitcase Blues” is not the hit by Sippie Wallace, but by the legendary Hollywood Fats and the full band does a nice job. “Chugging The Blues” has Al layering multiple harps, the various lines meshing to achieve quite an unusual effect – a tour de force. “Gypsy Feet” is a rather attractive song about a wandering musician that must be a highlight of his solo acoustic shows, augmented here by acoustic bass and a spot-on harmony vocal from Fraser. Not for the only time here, there’s the distinct influence of The Band. A solo version of Snooky Pryor’s “Judgement Day” is up next. A fellow Electro-Fi recording artist, the late Snooky Pryor isn’t acknowledged nearly often enough – this is a fine tribute. “Nobody But Myself To Blame” is perhaps the closest he comes to a FATHEAD song, with his tenor sax appearing for the only time but the players take this R&B number to a different place. How about “Blues So Bad I Could Write A Country Song” for a title – he does just that with lovely piano from Lance. “You’re The One” is a lively solo, Piedmont style romp for guitar & harp. “Harmonica Romp” uses the “Iko Iko” tune for a first rate showcase. “I’m Gone” is another ballad with a lovely tune – a specialty of his, it seems. The band returns to help on “Indifference”, a clever song about a common problem. “She Calls Me River” invokes The Band even more strongly. Lerman seems to have found a voice that is reflected these songs. He writes for FATHEAD as well but it’s hard to imagine him as the singer of those urban songs. His more rural-centred material here is a better match. The next time you see that Al is playing a solo show, be sure to take it in and be sure to get one of the these, you won’t be disappointed. Al & the band will re-assemble with Denis Keldie sitting in for Lance at Monarch’s Pub in the Delta Chelsea Hotel on Saturday, February 25th. See you there.
Donna Grantis is the guitarist and co-songwriter for Shakura S’Aida and the Musical Director for the Women’s Blues Revue Band. She plays lead guitar on Saidah Baba Talibah’s recent album, (S)Cream. She is also a serious student of the electric guitar and the proof is here: her debut all-instrumental album, available as a CD or as a download. It’s organized into two parts: Elektra Suite and Starla Suite. Each is divided into five distinct sections. As she describes it on her web site: it took 13 months to complete, using 4 studios, 7 guitars, 30+ guitar pedals and one blown amplifier. Roger Travassos plays drums and Steve Zsirai, bass but they don’t seem to have any overdubbed parts. The layering is all Grantis. “Elektra”, from the first Suite is available as a free download for you to check out and it’s intended as a tribute to Jimmy Page. Jeff Beck’s work also comes to mind while listening but Ms. Grantis is among equals on guitar, production and creativity here. “My Purple Heart” from the second suite is a highlight as well. The web site is www.donnagrantis.com.
Lou Pomanti is one of the behind-the-scenes people that make events happen. Since being invited by David Clayton-Thomas to join Blood, Sweat & Tears in 1980, he’s been a Gemini award-winning TV show arranger, film scorer and producer. There’s much more in the bio at his web site. He was out in public for a while, however, as the B3 player for The Dexters, who had a regular gig at the Orbit Room. He’s found time to record a tribute to those days, putting the band back together for Welcome To The Boogaloo Lounge, his pet name for the Room. His ‘day job’ has had an impact here, though: he’s developed a concept album, using similar chord structures throughout. Bernie LaBarge returns on guitar, Peter Cardinali on bass and Larnell Lewis took Mike Sloski’s place on drums. Art Avalos adds percussion and Jake Langley sits in on guitar for three songs. Pomanti adds synths and programming to his B3 and piano for a fully contemporary edge but the full sound is still primarily organ-based. After a couple of instrumentals that set the scene, “The Boogaloo Lounge” and “In Orbit”, LaBarge takes a vocal on “Give It Up”. Pomanti then inserts a lovely ballad, “Loving You”, a duet sung by Dione Taylor & Duane Blackburn. After these, it’s back to the hot, funky organ band nights at the Orbit, updated, of course, with great variety and played wonderfully. The web site is www.loupomanti.com.
Nigel Mack (Mackenzie) has been living in Chicago since 2003 but still maintains his Vancouver connections. His latest CD was recorded in both locations and he bills it as a cross section of Americana. All the songs here are by Nigel or co-written by him and show a remarkable facility across the styles. He’s a strong singer and the guitar is his primary instrument, although he plays harmonica as well. “King For A Day” is a fine, catchy opener – a horn-led romp with a great guitar solo. “Devil’s Secret” has him switching to a dirty slide guitar over a solid organ – the Devil knows Nigel will always yield to temptation. This one’s a keeper. The horns are back for the soul ballad “Here’s To You” – some fine BB-styled guitar here. He can do some Zydeco too and invited CJ Chenier along – they tear up “Come Back Baby”. “Dead Presidents (Don’t Tell No Tales)” was done in Vancouver with James Rogers on guitar & David Webb on keys. Playing harp, Mack imparts some advice about the perils of leaving a paper trail, he was using a credit card and his wife saw the bill. “Chicago Bound” is not the Jimmy Rogers song, but a very good original composition recorded live at a club in Chicago, with Mack solo on National Steel. “Meet Her Funk” shows he can handle that too, another Vancouver recording. “Mid Life Crisis” is a bit of rock ‘n’ roll, another keeper. This album won the Windy City Blues Society’s award for best self-produced CD so he can add producer to his resume as well. His web site is www.nigelmack.com and maybe he can come and visit – Chicago is a little closer than Vancouver.
Toronto-born, Calgary residing Steve Pineo’s reputation as a songwriter preceded him to this column, a song of his, “Canadian Man”, is on Naturally by Harpdog Brown & Graham Guest, who described his songwriting in glowing terms. Not exclusively a blues artist, he does consider the blues as his foundation. He recently began a “Blue Monday” evening at Mikey’s Juke Joint in Calgary and that was so much fun, he’s gone back through his songs for a live album. In the event, only some of the disc is live at the club but I think you’ll find this to an eminently worthwhile acquisition. Many people already have, it’s doing very well on the current roots music radio charts. “Outside Looking In” concerns a man whose 15 minutes of fame are up. “Hardwired For The Blues” is an excellent song, written in the style of Paul Butterfield’s Better Days Band, for whom Amos Garrett played lead guitar. I’m sure they would have been pleased to record it. “Just The Way I Like It” is described in the booklet as ‘in the style of Dinah Washington & Brook Benton – lots of smouldering sexual energy’. “Hole In The Head” takes as its template the songs of Willie Dixon, it being a list of reasons why he shouldn’t love her, but he does. “Uneasy Rider” takes on the easy rider of blues parlance. Perhaps he shouldn’t have given away his songwriting secrets in the notes but they show an expert at work. He’s a very good singer and an even better guitarist. Kelly Kruse plays drums and Kit Johnson plays bass in the Blue Monday Trio and the forthcoming Volume Two will concentrate on other styles of music. I think Mikey’s Juke Joint should definitely be on your agenda for your next trip to Calgary.
Walker is no stranger to this column as many of his 23 previous albums have been reviewed here. And he continues to impress: New label Alligator has teamed him up with Tom Hambridge, who piloted the last two Buddy Guy discs to the stratosphere. That raises the bar mightily and a quick comment would be to say that this disc is superb. The songs here are almost all original, with Walker contributing seven and Hambridge helping out on two more and Hambridge contributing two of his own. Hank Snow’s “Moving On” closes out the program. “Hellfire” certainly is an apt title too: not only is it an autobiographical slice of his hellfire life – electric blues at it’s finest. He sings that hellfire is his church. Walker’s vocals have always been among the best in contemporary blues and his imaginative, Mike Bloomfield-influenced guitar playing has certainly kept him in the front ranks of players. The band suits him just fine with Hambridge on drums & Reese Wynans on keys. Together they maintain a relentless pace, an energy level and passion that should make Hellfire a major contender for next year’s awards lists. “I Won’t Do That” begins slowly, with Walker protesting that he won’t leave her despite evidence to the contrary. It builds in a mighty crescendo that I sure hope convinces her. “Ride All Night” seems like an attempt by Walker & Hambridge to outdo the Rolling Stones on their own turf. They do a good job incorporating “Brown Sugar” riffs, but one does wonder why. “I’m On To You”, about his two-timing woman, is the most traditional sounding blues here, with Walker on harp sounding a bit like Mick Jagger. “Soldier For Jesus” is originally from his New Direction CD from 2004 but this is a far more fully realized performance – more evidence of his hellfire, gospel/blues life. “Too Drunk To Drive Drunk” rocks out, a timely message well presented. The bartender has taken his keys but he’s not so drunk that he doesn’t understand why. “Black Girls” maintains that you have to use black girls as singers to put the soul in rock ‘n’ roll – perhaps another dig at the Stones. “I’m Movin’ On” is very well done, with the band chugging away and Walker providing a few re-writes to keep everything in a blues vein, and there are excellent solos. For all his accomplishments, Walker is not yet the headliner that Buddy Guy is. This album should change that.