Blues artists offer up career-making albums you need to hear

There’s a ton of great music out there over and above what’s shoved down your throat every day by corporate interests. These five artists play the blues, keeping a great tradition alive and adding their own distinctive flavors.

Steve Dawson Hi-Res 1 by Leigh RightonWhen I crawled into the “Rattlesnake Cage” (Black Hen Music) of Steve Dawson, I didn’t know what to expect. He’s been called a Canadian T-Bone Burnett or Ry Cooder. As his stringed mastery of six and 12-string acoustic and Hawaiian guitar on blues, folk, ragtime and jazz won me over, I realized not since John Fahey or Bert Jansch in the 1960s have I been so mesmerized by one man playing one guitar with no rhythm section or even a voice in the mix.

Then I took a stroll down “Jericho Road” (Stony Plain) with singer/songwriter Eric Bibb and was rewarded with another multi-genre gem, this time of world, blues, gospel, folk and soul. I dare say Bibb is a male Mavis Staples! His songs reek of struggles won hard in the face of insurmountable odds.

EricBibb-Guitar(Credit-PatriciaDeGorostarzu)I kept thinking of the 2007 “We’ll Never Turn Back” Mavis classic with all those civil rights songs. “Jericho Road” invokes the memory of something the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King said the night before he died about being a “Good Samaritan.” All 15 original tracks are haunting reminders of the sanctity of life, with the final track composed, sung and played by a modern West African griot, Solo Cissokho, that brings it all back to where the music started. Bibb can sound like Taj Mahal at times, and like Brownie McGee at other times. He plays a mean guitar, sings like an old friend in your ear, and writes (with masterful musician/producer Glen Scott) the kind of songs you’ll remember for a long long time.  “Jericho Road” is so soothing, so sweetly soulful and satisfying, it should be taught in schools.

Mark T. SmallSometimes you only get one genre per CD but when it’s done as good as Mark T. Small does on his “Smokin’ Blues” (Lead Foot Music), you don’t mind. This is another case of one man, one guitar, but this time, one voice…and what a voice it is! Forty years into a career that started with him playing dobro and harmonica in progressive jazz-grass bands and gravitating towards electric-guitar blues, Small needs no band. This is an intimate journey through blues history, and he makes the music of Blind Boy Fuller [1907-1941], Tampa Red [1904-1981], John Lee Hooker [1917-2001], Rev. Gary Davis [1896-1972], Howling Wolf [1910-1976], Elmore James [1918-1963], Charlie Patton [1891-1934] with a time-out for some funky old soul (“Walkin’ The Dog”) from Rufus Thomas [1917-2001] come thrillingly alive here in 2014.

Sean Chambers 2013 - Hi-res Photo 1 by Karen ChambersSticking with the blues, “The Rock House Sessions” (Blue Heat) by singer/songwriter/guitarist Sean Chambers is a rockin’ tour-de-force of scorching blues originals and covers of Alvin Lee (“Choo Choo Mama”), Gary Moore (“Holding On”) and Bob Seger (“Come To Poppa,” a cover of a cover). The kitchen-sink production never gets cluttered despite three guitars, keyboards, bass, drums, harmonica, extra percussion, back-up vocals, trumpet and saxophone. That’s because Chambers knows his stuff having toured with the legendary Hubert Sumlin as his guitarist and band leader from 1998-2003. Plus, it was produced by Stevie Ray Vaughan’s piano man Reese Wynans and recorded in the Rock House Studio of Delbert McClinton’s keyboardist Kevin McKendree. That’s what you might call an A-List cast for a Grade A+ blues experience.

Little Mike #2We might as well stick with the blues to close things out. “Forgive Me” (Elrob) by Little Mike & The Tornadoes is another rockin’ dollop of blues power like a sucker-punch to the groin. Little Mike paid his blues dues by producing Pinetop Perkins in 1988 and he’s been touring ever since both stateside and abroad. This one’s about a year old but there’s no contesting Little Mike’s harmonica and four-piece band. He’s certainly listened to all his Little Walter albums, that’s for sure.


About Mike Greenblatt

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

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