John’s Blues Picks
Montreal’s Steve Hill is the latest bandleader to go the solo route, simply by dispensing with a band – at his impromptu live segment at the Blues Summit, he played his electric guitar as he always would with only some drums played with his feet. The result obviously leaves the glaring spotlight on him but he has some very good songs on his sixth disc to help carry the load. The opener, “Ever Changing World” is especially noteworthy, that love is the solution to pessimism – it looks trite on this page, not in his song. “Love Got Us Blind” evokes John Lee Hooker’s early recordings, as “Honey Bee” does with Muddy – updating the effect their early electric guitar recordings must have had on an audience used to acoustic guitars. “Out of Phase” switches to acoustic for a lovely ballad. He turns down the volume a little bit for the slide-based “King of the World”, humming along with the solo that again evokes tradition. “The Ballad of Johnny Wabo” is the tale of a recent homeless musician in Toronto and his subsequent successful return (as a solo electric guitar player) as the tempo increases dramatically. ”Politician” is the song by Cream and a good example of how his new style can accommodate power trio songs. “Preachin’ Blues” is credited to Robert Johnson is played well enough but doesn’t really add as much to the disc as his original songs do. “Coming Back To You” and “Granted” do that in spades with the return of his amped-up slide guitar and personal lyrics. The solo guitar style is only one aspect of a fully realized achievement; his vocals, songs and arrangements together make for a very important package. This CD has been out for a while now in Quebec but a couple of recent events might give it much more prominence: he won the coveted prize for best self-produced album at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis last month and he’s one of the five finalists for the Blues JUNO Award. That award will be handed out in Regina on April 20. Steve’s web site is www.stevehillmusic.com.
Chris Antonik’s self-titled and ambitious first album was so successful that he’s decided to raise the stakes again. Most importantly, he handles more of the vocals – Josh Williams pretty much did that before. His gruff singing style is a pleasant surprise, not unlike that of Coco Montoya – he’s done some serious work in that department. But there’s more: a horn section, ten of these eleven very good songs are his or are co-writes, there are guest stars and he co-produced. Those waiting to see what he would do next are going to be impressed. He calls “Long Way To Go” a ‘rough & tumble blues’ and he trades licks with harmonica ace Steve Marriner – the Richard Underhill-arranged horns are a treat. His tribute to his wife is the uptempo, soul-inflected “(Your) Turn To Shine” – a lovely lyric that he asks Josh Williams to sing. Shakura S’Aida takes the think-positive vocal on “Come From A Good Place”. He does, however, give himself a prominent guitar part. He says this is radio-friendly and if radio doesn’t touch it, there is something seriously wrong. Mike Mattison, who was the lead vocalist in the Derek Trucks Band, takes on “Broken Man”, a heartbreak story that requires a complex song structure. A delightful acoustic break is Big Walter’s famous “Have A Good Time” giving Josh Williams a vocal & harp feature over Chris’ Robert Nighthawk-guitar. “Shake Me Down” turns out to be a vehicle for his wah-wah pedal. “Better For You”, he says, is a ‘3am conversation’ set as a moving blues ballad. The horns lead off “Nothing I Can Do” but Josh Williams takes over on vocals & keyboards for a ‘blues-funk freight train’. On “Tell Me What You Need”, Chris sings and plays guitar over co-producer Ted Onyszczak’s bass & programming. The song is about putting a partner first, perhaps after spending so much time on this disc. The band & the horns come back for a road song, “So Tired”. That theme continues with the gospel-tinged “I’ll Help You Through”, about leaving his new son for the first time. Julian Fauth adds some sterling piano. The band, by the way, consists of Chris Chiarelli on drums, Andrew Taylor on bass and Williams on keyboards. They provide solid support for Chris’ exceptional guitar work. Suzie Vinnick & Gavin Hope provide harmony vocals. There may be a number of guest vocalists here but there is stylistic unity, and it lies in the strength of the songs – one does not lose sight of the fact that it’s Chris’ name on the cover. www.chrisantonik.com says the album will be released on March 26 but he’s doing the CD release at the Gladstone on May 2 in the TBS Thursday Series. It also says he’s currently on tour in BC.
Brant Parker is a Thorold-based, Florida-born singer/songwriter guitarist who’s been a fixture in the bourgeoning Niagara Peninsula blues scene. His first CD shows him to be more than ready for a permanent record. His straight-ahead playing (and singing) style makes Jack de Keyzer a natural choice for the role of his producer and additional guitarist. David McMorrow adds his magic keyboard touch to many of the tracks and Jack’s full band is on hand for two. Jack has produced albums for other artists in the past but I believe Parker is the first one on Jack’s own Blue Star label. Parker’s fine regular band consists of Brad Krauss on guitar, David Leprich on bass and Steve Barnes on drums. The slide-driven title song opens the CD and Parker’s dramatic vocals tell the tale of a suddenly ended relationship. Richard Thornton adds his sax to the excellent slow blues, “High Class Woman”. It’s not the first song about an expensive friend and it most certainly won’t be the last – more than a few in the audience will be nodding in agreement. “Be Careful With A Fool” and “Just Don’t Leave’ feature Jack and his band giving the proceedings a slightly different sound, with some signature Jack guitar licks. But Parker’s songs and effective vocals carry the day, both of these being well-written highlights. Songs by BB King, Don Nix & Taj Mahal round out the program. If you have a chance to go to Donnelly’s Tavern in Thorold, you’ll have yourself a fine evening indeed. It’s in clubs like these with bands like these where the blues is best heard.
Kevin Breit’s latest project is an unusual collaboration: with the Upper York Mandolin Orchestra playing his songs. As you’ve come to expect, there is no classifying any of them but on Field Recording but you’ll especially like “Big Bill Broonzy”, which deals with the news of Broonzy’s European family, first revealed in Bob Reisman’s book. “Johnny Dollar”, however, is not about the late Chicago bluesman but the story of a rather enterprising fellow. I’ve not heard of the Upper York Mandolin Orchestra and it would not surprise me in the least if Kevin played all those mandolins, mandolas & mandocellos himself. In any event, it makes for fascinating listening. Get it, and any others of his you don’t already have, at www.kevinbreit.com.
Blues Summit 6
Of the many fine CDs I received at the Summit, these are the first three I want to write about, however briefly
Cécile Doo-Kingué is a Montreal resident and an excellent guitarist/singer/songwriter. Her family is from Cameroon in Africa and she was born in New York. Blues plays a prominent role in this multicultural blend, particularly on Freedom Calling, her English language disc where she plays all the instruments, not just guitar. “Not Around” and “Ma’s Kitchen” are especially good examples.
Kirby Sewell’s was a new name to me, from the Calgary blues scene it turns out. His Bought Myself A Hammer (Smelly Cat) is a very good rocking blues outing from 2011, especially its title song. He has assembled a stellar band and you can keep tabs on his rising star through www.kirbysewellband.com.
Veteran Ottawa bluesman Terry Gillespie was a fixture yet again at the Summit and his newest recording is the result of a recent trip to Clarksdale MS and the Jimbo Malthus studio there. There aren’t any new songs but the trip to the ground zero of the blues resulted in some absolutely stellar performances. This may be just a promotional sampler but I’ll be going back to it regularly.
The Big Damn Band is his wife Breezy on washboard & vocals and a ‘distant cousin’, Aaron “Cuz” Persinger on drums & things. The Reverend Peyton is a burly man from southern Indiana and they rocked the Folk Alliance Conference. He plays electric fingerstyle slide guitar, Cigar Box guitar, mandolin & harmonica. Their sound is a mash up of blues, Americana & hillbilly and veers between those styles like the pickup truck on the cover staying between the ditches, just. “Big Blue Chevy ‘72” channels Tony Joe White in a paean to that pickup. “We’ll Get Through” has some lovely dobro on a gospel-tinged melody that might’ve come straight from the Great Depression. He really gives the slide a work out on “(Open the door) Shut The Screen (the bugs are too dang mean)”, a booklet supplies the lyrics, honest. He has a political bent as well, calling for the people to rise up and go after the corporate bigwigs who control Congress and “Shake Them Off Like Fleas”. In fact, the spirit of Woody Guthrie is never far away with this band, it’s just played out a little faster. “Don’t Grind It Down”, for example, is a plea to stop strip mining. Another highlight touring musicians would appreciate is “Brokedown Everywhere’, a list of all the places his van has broken down in. “Keep It Between The Ditches” is a masterful piece of advice about the code of the road and the way to survive out there. The web site is www.bigdamnband.com.