By Mike Greenblatt
John Clifton is In The Middle Of Nowhere (Rip Cat Records) but that’s ok because that’s where this staunch singer/songwriter/blues harp player/guitarist usually is. The California dude tours a lot. His blues is a mélange of styles from hard-ass electrified Chicago urbanity to the West Coast tradition of T-Bone Walker (who left Texas in the 1930s to pioneer a swinging jazz-influenced sub-genre of Cali Blues). Sprinkled liberally amongst the 12 tracks are some 1950s rock’n’roll and Memphis rhythm’n’blues. He can’t sit still. He’s got the shakes. As fans of his terrific 2018 Nightlife know, this cat burns. He even improves upon Merle Haggard’s “Honky Tonk Night Time Man.” You’ll feel the love frustration in his “Junkie Woman Blues.” You’ll revel in his “Cool Spot In Hell.” Dare I say he equals Howling Wolf’s 1965 “Poor Boy”? He resurrects Charley Jordan’s 1930 “Keep It Clean” and he jams out for over seven minutes on the 1968 Junior Wells classic “So Tired I Could Cry.” The band has no horns but does boast a terrific piano player, Bartek Szopinski, to its primal power trio lineup.
There are no covers on the It’s About Time self-released debut of Susan Williams & The Wright Groove, the band with the unusual instrumentation that she shares with bassist Darryl Wright. It’s a funky album that uses the blues for its all-original jam-infested soul party. Her voice—somewhere between Bonnie Raitt and Susan Tedeschi—carries it off with raucous aplomb. She plays bass. So does Wright. This rare two-bass hit also provides searing lead guitar, a wash of colorful keyboards that spill over the mix and solid bar-band drums that should get you shaking in places you might not shake anymore. It all amounts to a rockin’ good time and, as such, is heartily recommended. As Taj Mahal once said, “the blues make my body feel good!”
He's a giant of the blues in his native Canada. Harpdog Brown’s For Love & Money (Dog House Records) meanders through the Memphis, Chicago and New Orleans blues schools on 13 tracks that hit upon ‘30s rural blues, ‘40s West Coast jump-blues, ‘50s Sonny Boy Williamson II blues (yeah, Brown plays harmonica), ‘60s British blues and ‘70s funky big-city blues. Straddling gospel (he’s known as “The Blues Evangelist”), he’s been at it for four decades but has forsaken his guitar-dominated sound this time for a Crescent City French Quarter magic of clarinet, saxophone and trombone, offset by that delicious Hammond B-3. His vocal is a scary growl like Howlin’ Wolf. His presence is otherworldly like Dr. John The Night Tripper or Screamin’ Jay Hawkins who used to enter stages from inside of a coffin. American blues legends like Duke Robillard and Charlie Musselwhite sing his praises. Just one listen to his own “Reefer Loving Woman,” or his covers of Wynonie Harris’s “Buzzard Luck” and Jessie Mae Robinson’s “Blue Light Boogie” and you’ll be singing his praises too. Blues fans in Seattle are lucky because they’ll get to see him on July 6 at The Triple Door.
Could the Kingfish be the next big blues superstar? Only 20, with a superlative self-titled Alligator Records debut, singer/songwriter/guitarist Christone Ingram, known as Kingfish, performed at The White House for Michelle Obama when he was 15. He’s from that rather mystical crossroads in Clarksdale, Mississippi, where Robert Johnson is said to have sold his soul to the devil for stardom. Buddy Guy is his mentor. Keb Mo is his friend who has added vocals and guitar to what has to be the blues debut of the year. Did Kingfish sell his soul to the devil too? “I just practice all the time,” he says. “The only deal I made is with myself.” As produced and co-written by Susan Tedeschi’s Tom Hambridge, the sound is crystal-clear with the hard metallic edge of the kid’s blaring electric guitar solos that bring to mind not only Jimi Hendrix but BB King and Prince.
Jimmie Vaughan, 68, is a Texas blues legend and an American treasure. While still in his teens, he was playing six nights a week at The Hob Knob Lounge in Dallas. He left The Fabulous Thunderbirds the year his younger brother, Stevie Ray Vaughan, died a tragic death at 35 in 1990. Baby, Please Come Home (The Last Music Company) is filled to the brim with the signature sting of his electric guitar as he howls the blues through 11 masterful tracks. Vocally, he’s never sounded better. The fact that he’s also something of a musical anthropologist, an archeologist, who ferrets out solid gold amongst the rocks and dust, adds immeasurably to the satisfying batch of material he has so carefully handpicked. Songs by Lloyd Price, Lefty Frizzell, Chuck Willis, T-Bone Walker, Fats Domino, Gatemouth Brown and Jimmy Reed get their due. See this man live at all costs! His tour runs through August 14.
Trumpet Records out of Mississippi put out all sorts of jump blues goodies. The good folks at Koko Mojo have gathered 28 of ‘em and it’s a hoot to hear Robert Johnson, Sonny Boy Williamson, Ike Turner, Little Milton, Jimmy Reed, Elmore James, Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, BB King, Bo Diddley and Big Boy Crudup who all passed through Trumpet’s hallowed halls. Southern Bred: Mississippi R&B Rockers is one damn great collection and the cool thing about it is that these legends did their most popular work on other labels (Howlin’ Wolf for Chess out of Chicago, for instance) so you get to hear them in the various stages of their careers, either on the way up or on the way down. The label closed its doors in 1956 so these rare sides are like manna from heaven for blues enthusiasts.
Sometimes it takes a shocking event to make an artist turn in an album like Masterpiece (Gulf Coast Records). Miami singer/songwriter/guitarist Albert Castiglia only recently learned he had a daughter and two grandchildren. He was so overflowing with emotion that he wrote this record and recorded it with producer/honkytonk Texas hero Mike Zito, with whom he played all instruments. Besides the profundities relating to his new family, he covers Johnny Winter’s “Too Much Seconal” and the 1970 Muddy Waters classic, “I Wanna Go Home.” Highly Recommended!