John’s Blues Picks
Chuck Jackson’s day job since 1990 has been as lead singer for Downchild and many of you know that he’s also the artistic director for one of our largest blues festivals, the Southside Shuffle in Port Credit. To occupy any remaining hours, he leads his own band, with a regular Sunday gig at Roc ‘n’ Doc’s there. To record a tribute to his main man, Big Joe Turner, must have been a dream come true. Every facet of Big Joe’s career is represented and Chuck literally inhabits these songs, aided and abetted by producer Pat Carey’s classic arrangements, true to each song’s style & sound, making these performances anything but slavish copies – they are living, breathing versions of those classic songs. And, no, “Flip, Flop & Fly” is not here. The early days with Pete Johnson on piano are represented last, with Curley Bridges wonderfully accompanying on “Goin’ Away Blues” from 1939. Big Joe straddled the era of the big bands and the following era of the smaller R&B combos, and Pat Carey’s arrangements not only reflect that, they feature some remarkable soloing. Pat plays alto & baritone sax, Brigham Phillips, trumpet, trombone & piano; Gene Hardy, tenor sax; Mitch Lewis, guitar; Terry Wilkins, acoustic bass & Jeff Halishchuk, drums. Terra Hazelton, Sophia Perlman & Drew Jurecka add background vocals. The full band is on hand for “Lipstick, Powder & Paint”, from 1956, followed by “Teenage Letter”, from 1957. It features the smaller band and the singers as Atlantic Records aimed a 50-ish Big Joe at the new rock ‘n’ roll audience. “Sweet Sixteen”, from 1952, brings back the full band for a lovely slow blues. The oft-recorded “Cherry Red” goes back to 1939 and this version is for the small band. Big Joe’s version of “Honeydripper” is from 1973, and Chuck’s lovely slow blues is backed by just a quartet of piano, guitar, bass & brushes. There are lesser-known Big Joe songs here and perhaps your favourite is missing but there are no lesser performances. A more heartfelt and enjoyable tribute would be hard to imagine. The first stop of Chuck Jackson’s Big Bad Blues Band’s A Cup of Joe Tour 2012 will be at the Orillia Spring Blues Festival, Sunday, June 10 at 3pm. The Toronto CD Release will be at the Rex Hotel on Friday, June 15. More tour dates are at www.chuckjackson.com.
Al Spx is what she calls herself and that isn’t her real name either. She went to England to make this recording and stayed but came back to make an enormous impact during Canadian Music Week. This young woman, now 24 and from Etobicoke, has taken her wonderful, haunting voice and her blues/gospel training to some remarkable places. One of those remarkable places is a spot where blues & gospel becomes the cutting edge of the alternative music scene. Her producers, Jim Anderson & Rob Ellis, deserve full marks for allowing that voice to shine through – many of the songs feature just her strummed guitar. A full complement of rock band, percussion, strings & choirs join in occasionally, giving the album a much greater sense of variety than what I’ve picked up from many alternative rock albums. The songs are all original, although some seem to be fragments, the lyrics obscure but filled with dark imagery – the album’s title is a line from “Elephant Head”. She says she wrote them to describe her life as a teenager in the suburbs, which may be sufficient explanation. Nothing here resembles a traditional blues or gospel tune or lyric but there is no mistaking the blues inflections. The best example is actually not on this disc but on the B-side of a single released last fall: “Old Stepstone” sounds ancient, a simple a capella song about leaving home to take on the wide world alone. And she certainly is taking on the wide world, with gigs at CMJ in New York, SXSW in Austin and more plus album reviews in MOJO & the New York Times. A swing through western Canada takes a break for a show opening for the Great Lake Swimmers on June 2 at the Music Hall on the Danforth and then summer festivals. It’s all there at www.coldspecks.com. Whatever you do, you owe it to yourself to check out this voice.
Back in 1978 Joe Fried asked the late Hock Walsh to put together a band to play the Cameo Lounge at the Hotel Isabella. The Cameo Lounge is long gone but the band name would live on. The lineup varied enormously, and many well-known members of the community joined at one time or another, Hock soon rejoined Downchild, but Ray Harrison carried on at the keyboards, with Tommy Griffiths very often on bass and John Bride on guitar. I remember John Dickie singing with the band on occasion but he wasn’t the lead vocalist until later. Ten years ago, they recorded their first album for Make It Real Records, All Play and No Work, that brought back several former members but the performing unit, then and now, has John on lead vocals and Mike Sloski on drums. This history is not intended to say that they’re an oldies band, just to point out that these veterans can play. John Dickie has written seven of the songs here and they are new, fresh and exciting. Just check out “10,000 Hours” for his diatribe on how long you have to pay your dues. Or “21st Century Rocket 88” with Sloski’s trademark drum pattern. “Gasoline” tackles our dependency on the stuff and the price planet Earth pays. Musically, the closest album to these new songs is his collaboration with Kevin Breit, John & The Sisters, with that adventurousness in songwriting carrying through. Howlin’ Wolf’s catalogue supplied two songs, “Howlin’” and “Sittin’ On Top of the World”, as imaginatively arranged as you might expect. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait as long for the next one. The CD release is at Monarch’s Pub in the Delta Chelsea on June 16 at 4pm.
When he joined Jeff Healey on stage at age 11, Jimmy Bowskill was already an accomplished guitarist. Now 21 and preparing to join the Three J’s Tour with Joe Bonamassa and Jeff Beck, he has a new disc that shows he belongs in this company. He performs as a power trio, with Ian McKeown on bass and Dan Reiff on drums.
The stop time-filled “Take A Ride” is a good choice as an opener and it has some nice changes too. “Linger On The Sweet Time” should be released as a single, a catchy tune, good lyrics and great guitar. “Salty Dog” is a straight-ahead power blues, an original song on a traditional theme with more great guitar playing. I should think the solo would be much longer live and just as interesting. “Little Bird” is a co-write with Ron Sexsmith, who knows something about songwriting. His “Least of My Worries” is also covered here. With its acoustic guitars and honkytonk piano (by Bowskill), it sounds a little out of place and perhaps that’s why it was placed last – a very worthwhile choice nonetheless. “Spirit of the Town” is a most ambitious effort, a lament for a place that has changed.
It‘s a vocal tour de force as well. Aaron Hoffman is on keyboards here to tremendous effect. “Broke Down Engine” tackles another traditional blues theme and further evidence of how much care Bowskill took with the sound of the guitars and the layering of the parts. Www.jimmybowskill.com shows dates in July for Kincardine, London & Windsor before he heads off to Europe for that Three J’s Tour.
Sugar Brown is Ken Kawashima, a relative newcomer to our scene, coming from the Chicago one, where he was the guitarist for Tail Dragger & Rockin’ Johnny. He impressed as the vocalist/guitarist for Snake Oil Johnson, the Bob Vespaziani-led duo that was the first runner-up in 2010’s Talent Search and he impresses here too, having met up with Montreal’s harmonica wizard Bharath Rajakumar. Bharath was a standout at Raoul & The Big Time’s Little Walter tributes recently and his devotion to the Little Walter style now extends to the re-creation of an early 50’s era recording studio. Sugar Brown, Bharath and drummer Ben Caissie thoroughly enjoyed themselves there and the results are yours to enjoy as well.
Sugar Brown supplies new lyrics for tunes from that era and they are well worth listening to. “Grim Reaper”, based on a JB Lenoir theme is a highlight, as is “Sad Day”, based on a familiar Muddy riff, written for the passing of his father. It is less of a trio album than it sounds as Sugar Brown does many of the 15 songs solo, with Bharath playing harp or guitar on some and Caissie on drums or bass on some. The disc ends with two excellent trio outings: Elmore’s “It Hurts Me Too”, with two guitars & bass and “Boogie For Fuji”, a lengthy instrumental. Sugar Brown has several shows this month starting June 9 at the Rex. Check his ad in this issue.
The upward trajectory continues for this quartet of Humber College grads. Since their Talent Search win, they’ve impressed at festivals, including Blues sur Seine in France, they’ve journeyed to Memphis for the IBC this past February and will be opening for Jimmy Vaughan this month before heading out on a two-month cross-country tour. They will have some fine new songs to play, songs that carry on their raw, gritty style of blues most effectively. The lineup is unchanged: Lindsay Beaver on drums & vocals, Michael Archer on bass, Emily Burgess on guitar and Jonathan Wong on saxophone. Unshakeable was recorded in Lindsay’s hometown of Halifax and a couple of guests dropped by: Carter Chaplin & Marc Doucet supply a twin guitar attack for the instrumental “Love Triangle”. “I’m Not Free” is a standout soul tune, written by Lindsay that features Barry Cooke, from Joe Murphy’s Waterstreet Band on organ. “Jack, Jim, Johnny And Me” is a jump blues with Gary Potts, also of the Waterstreet Band taking over the drum chair. Guests aside, though, these are perfect vehicles for Lindsay’s spirited vocals and Jonathon Wong’s audience-walking sax solos. Catch them live if you can – the web site is www.the24thstreetwailers.com.
Wickens-Knight was a duo that won the Talent Search back in 2003. Dylan Wickens & The Grand Naturals released Black Tattoo last year while Jonathan Knight has performed under the Soulstack banner. The current lineup behind the vocalist/guitarist is: Tom Bona on drums and vocals, Mark Wessenger on keyboards & vocals and Josh Knight on bass & vocals. Wickens guests on lead guitar on one song. Now based in the Kitchener/Waterloo area, they tour widely through Southern Ontario. They call their sound ‘a blend of gritty swamp blues, danceable soul and good old-fashioned roots’, i.e., mostly rock, but they’ve come up with a very good set of original, tuneful songs. Knight & Wessenger wrote all but one and arranged to record them live off the floor last October. Given the tight vocal harmonies here, they are one well-rehearsed band. You’ll love the twin guitars of “Stone Cold Man” (with Wickens) and their arrangement of “In My Time of Dying” will get you to hit the repeat button. “In Your Mind” & “Holy Roller” show their blues roots as well, with some fine slide from Knight. Wessenger takes two vocals on the CD. This band is doing very well on the blues radio charts south of the border and they’ll be celebrating the CD’s Toronto debut at Monarch’s Pub on Saturday, June 2 at 4pm. There are more dates at www.soulstack.com. Soulstack is also represented on the Grand River Blues Society’s new compilation, Got Mojo 2. “Desperate Times” was chosen as well as the title song from Dylan Wickens’ CD. Check that disc out at www.grandriverblues.org.
Continuing her sequence of tributes to the masters, Rev. Gary Davis is the subject this time and he presented a bit of a problem. Her initial interest was with the country blues players like Fred McDowell & Son House. The highly complex finger picking style of someone like Davis meant that much learning and re-learning had to happen before she was ready to record something that was up to her high standards. She had been a witness to Stefan Grossman’s lessons with Davis as a 14-year-old player and those memories came flooding back to her. She describes this process in the notes, which are taken from her book, When A Woman Gets The Blues. When a guitarist as accomplished as Ms. Block goes to this much trouble, I think we can begin to understand why Rev. Davis is held in such high regard. With the guitar parts finally taken care of, we come to the vocals and here we find some of Block’s most impassioned singing on record. In fact, you may find it quite hard to listen to the guitars as her vocals dominate the listening experience. She sings all the gospel group parts herself (there are no blues here, blues was not allowed in the Davis household). There are some expected songs and some lesser-known ones but the strong performances make any question of comparisons irrelevant. My favourites are “I Belong To The Band” (with some lovely slide parts), “Lo, I’ll Be With You Always”, “Pure Religion”, “Twelve Gates To The City” and, of course, “Death Don’t Have No Mercy”. Rory Block is amassing an incredible body of work with this series and this is only the third one.
With no less than five Blues Music Awards on May 10th to add to their Blues Grammy win in February, with guest appearances at President Obama’s White House blues party and on BB King’s new album, this duo and their large band are rapidly becoming THE blues supergroup. To catch the wave, they’ve now released this live double CD, partially recorded here at the Danforth Music Hall last fall. Susan Tedeschi has become one of our best vocalists and husband Derek Trucks, the possessor of a truly distinctive guitar style. The band they’ve assembled is made up of equals on their respective instruments and the live performances captured here give them all a chance to shine. Four of Revelator’s songs are here along with one of the songs possibly left off that one (“Nobody’s Free”). There are top-flight, lengthy workouts of Fred Neil’s famous song, Stevie Wonder’s “Uptight” and Sam Cooke’s “Wade in the Water”. Many songs run for ten to fifteen minutes – a feast spread over two discs. Revelator’s “Midnight In Harlem” gets a “Swamp Raga” intro from Trucks and the segues into “Little Martha” by the Allman Brothers, one of Trucks’ side projects, for just over 11 minutes of fun. Get this one and you’ll know what to expect on June 29 at the Toronto Jazz Festival’s Nathan Phillips Square Stage.