Jazz-Rock Fusion, Hillbilly Boogie, Alligator Blues, Canadian Craziness, Louisiana History and a Living Legend

The jazz of the Hristo Vitchev Quartet is Of Light and Shadows (First Orbit Sounds Music). This Bulgarian-born, San Francisco-raised guitarist-composer, 37, is already on his 14th CD, a star of international proportions whose music has been written about in China as well as the States. It’s an undeniable, impossible-to-categorize pastiche of fused elements that dazzles, sometimes confounds, but ultimately satisfies those with adventurous ears. The 11:34 “Pentachromatic Butterflies” rambles on with pianist Weber Iago, bassist Dan Robbins and drummer Mike Shannon, equal parts of guitarist Hristo’s ever-challenging electricity. There’s no corner that this music doesn’t explore, no crevice too small for the notes to hide in. Hristo, besides soloing madly, wildly, provides rhythmic punch when his mates take to the foreground. He wrote, arranged and produced all nine stunning tracks which ends with the CD’s masterpiece highlight, “Partial Darkness,” an almost scary 12:02 descent into cinematic complexity. Highly Recommended!

Say the word “boogie” and I immediately think of John Lee Hooker. The various artists on the invaluable Play The Music Louder: Four-Star Boogies & Jumpin’ Hillbilly (RWA) are white redneck Southerners and just as soulful. Bill McCall’s legendary Four Star Records started in Los Angeles in 1945. McCall might have been a shady character who added his name as a co-writer on every song he ever released, thus cheating hundreds of artists out of their rightful full royalties, but these tracks—from ’47 to ’55—represent the zenith of the label’s history-making noise. From major stars like The Wilburn Brothers to regional semi-stars to total unknowns, these tracks jump, wail and jive. From pre-rock’n’roll madness and country-boogie to raging honky-tonk and western swing, these 25 gems in 65:35 come complete with a fascinating booklet about the long-ago and far-away artists who briefly had their moment in the sun…even if they didn’t make any money.

Has Chicago’s Alligator Records ever put out a bad album in its 47-year existence? Maybe but I’ve never heard one. Tinsley Ellis, 61, a label mainstay for 30 of those 47 years (with sojourns at Capricorn and Telarc), plays a Winning Hand on his latest blues-rock platter. This exceptionally talented guitarist/singer/songwriter/producer has performed in all 50 states. Recorded in Nashville, spearheaded by Delbert McClinton’s main man Kevin McKendree, this Winning Hand is unbeatable. It’s like having two aces in the hole when playing Texas Hold ‘Em poker. Tinsley wrote nine of 10, the sole cover being Leon Russell’s “Dixie Lullabye.” This thing rocks!

Never Die! Is the eclectic eccentric debut from Toronto’s \\livingfossil//, self-released, self-produced, self-written and self-arranged, leader and tenor saxist Gordon Hyland’s unique personnel—two tenors, two electric guitars, drums, electric bass and stand-up acoustic bass—gives the sound room to move with both extemporaneous composition and complex charts. What a kick! You never know what’s coming on this adventure. Like riding a raft down raging rapids and encountering a monster octopus, these boyz take from different genres and explode! You could be floating on a lazy river of sax sweetness and—wham!—get hit by the kind of Zappa-esque lunacy that might startle you. Nine tracks. Highlight is tough to choose but the 10:59 “meta mix” befuddles and challenges one into submission.

Take Nashville and Muscle Shoals players from the bands of Levon Helm, Van Morrison, Bonnie Raitt, Delbert McClinton, Etta James, Taj Mahal and Bobby Blue Bland, stick ‘em in a studio, tell ‘em to write their own damn songs, and not only to perform them in a balls-to-the-wall honky-tonk boogie’n’blues rock’n’roll soulful style, but to really Step On It! (Biglittle Records) and you have the second CD from Big Shoes. From their “Duplex Blues” shuffle and “There You Go” swing to their “Last One To Leave” R’n’B ballad and the New Orleans joyousness of “Don’t You Do Me That Way,” guitarists Will McFarlane and Kenne Cramer, keyboardist Mark T. Jordan, singer Rick Huckaby, bassist Tom Szell and drummer Andy Peake take it to the limit on this keeper.


The Godfather of British Blues, John Mayall, may be 84, but he’s not only still touring and recording but pioneering as well. The man who brought such guitarists as Eric Clapton (Cream), Peter Green (Fleetwood Mac) and Mick Taylor (Rolling Stones) to the fore now has a band (for a little over a year) with no guitarist at all! Three For The Road (Forty Below Records) is a nine-track jam-fest taken from two dates in Germany featuring bassist Greg Rzab and drummer Jay Davenport in perfect sync with the vocals (sounding like a man half his age), keyboards, production, compositions and harmonica by the man himself (who gets to stretch out and actually play more jazz-inspired solos). It’s a heady cocktail of his originals plus his “favorite” tunes by Lightning Hopkins, Curtis Salgado, Lionel Hampton and Sonny Landreth. Word has it, for his next studio album, he’s gathering a super-session of well-known guitarists.


Wading neck-deep in the alternative universe of the historic 20-CD boxed set from Germany’s Bear Family Records, At The Louisiana Hayride Tonight, is like time travel where you’re magically transported back to the 1950s in the Deep South listening to the radio and thrilling to the live performances. The biggest competitor to that other radio show, The Grand Ole Opry, from Nashville, Tennessee, the Hayride was always more progressive and let the rock’n’roll seep through the cracks. Artists took chances on the Hayride stage and the booking policies, for instance, allowed a very young, green Elvis Presley his first national exposure (15 songs worth!) after he was turned down by the Opry. It’s all here, complete with the host cracking wise, asking questions, doing commercials, and making announcements. Plus, where else are you going to hear a young George Jones rocking out on Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally”?
Johnny Cash, June Carter, Kitty Wells, Webb Pierce, Hank Williams, Roy Acuff, Faron Young, Ernest Tubb, Roger Miller, Jim Reeves, Johnny Horton and even Johnny Mathis may be among the stars but it’s the regional favorites and total unknowns that give this box added oomph (167 artists in over 25 hours of programming). Rockabilly (Warren Smith) and bluegrass (The Louvin Brothers) brighten things up (as do a batch of unknowns), and the hard-cover book is filled with voluminous stats, rare photos and the kind of prose that you’ll remember long after the music is over. Best thing is, you can cue it all up again…which is what I’ve been doing non-stop ever since this monster box arrived.

About Mike Greenblatt

A longtime music journalist, Mike Greenblatt is a contributing editor with Goldmine magazine.

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