By Mike Greenblatt
If a serious bout of pneumonia last year couldn’t stop “The Godfather Of British Blues,” nothing will stop John Mayall, 85, from touring this year in support of his spectacular new album, Nobody Told Me (Forty Below Records). He wrote three of ten. He covers Jeff Healey, Joe Bonamassa (who’s on the album) and Gary Moore. He has the horn section from The Late Show with Conan O’Brien. He also has an A-List of guests like Todd Rundgren, Steven Van Zandt of The E Street Band, Alex Lifeson of Rush and Billy Watts of Lucinda Williams’s band fulfilling his rockin’ vision of the blues. Mayall has morphed into that which he first began emulating over a half-century ago: a real died-in-the-wool legendary bluesman. But someone should tell him to stop carrying his own gear to gigs.
The lyrics of singer-songwriter Big Jon Atkinson are dark. He explores the crevices where the blues fester. When he’s not stinging his bottleneck slide guitar behind Fab T-Bird Kim Wilson’s solo projects, he’s writing songs like “Clean Up The Blood,” which is the title tune of the new album by his Atomic Road Kings, a band he shares with another dynamo, Jailhouse Von Herzen, who co-writes and who blows his soul out of his blues harp like a cross between Little Walter and James Cotton. Recorded on vintage ‘50s analog gear, these 12 gems—highlight: the warning of “You Got To Change”—will move you and groove you.
It’s always time for a good strong loud Rockhouse Party, right? Big Joe & The Dynaflows are up on the bandstand. Everybody’s rockin’ so don’t bother knockin’. Come on in. Severn Records is hosting and singer/drummer/composer/producer Big Joe Maher starts it all off with “Driving Wheel,” the 1936 song by The Honey Dripper (and covered by Al Green in 1971). It’s a doozy. 12 songs later it all ends with the 1947 Percy Mayfield classic “Two Years Of Torture.” In-between are all sorts of jump blues and rhythm’n’boogie, fit to lose your head over. No time to tour, though, since Big Joe is now behind the drum set for Delbert McClinton so you best get down with this action, one of the more fun blues CDs of the year so far.
I have had the distinct pleasure of witnessing the 6’5, 300-pounder Sugaray Rayford on a stage. Dude sings like Otis Redding and Muddy Waters yet can dance like James Brown. He pleads Somebody Save Me (Forty Below Records) here where on the opening track, “The Revelator,” he swaggers in with the lines “I’m a freak of nature/I ain’t no honey bee/I’m an unknown creature/The like you’ve never seen.” When I saw his performance at the MusikFest Café in Bethlehem PA, I just had to go up to him afterwards and the cigar-chomping ex-marine was as nice as they come. With an all-star cast of musicians from the bands of Dwight Yoakam, Jakob Dylan and Mavis Staples, plus the horn section from Latenight With Conan O’Brien, on songs written and produced by label head Eric Corne, the soulful blues, gospel and R’n’B coalesce into a 10-track rave-up that should satisfy fans of all three genres.
In Sugar Jump: Dance ‘Til The Break Of Dawn(Koko Mojo) 28 dance tracks dizzyingly fly by in a whirlwind of long-ago and far-away bluesy rhythm and soul jumpers, criers, movers and groovers (most from the ‘50s but with a smattering of ‘40s and ‘60s). Starting with the very first great Ray Charles rock’n’roll single, “Mess Around,” and ending with Randy Thomas & The Twisters, this set had me up and acting totally inappropriate in front of my grandchildren but they loved how I was dancing around like a monkey. You will too when you hear the “Jelly Jam” of Wild Child Butler, Fox Hall’s “Do The Rock And Roll,” Wilber Steinberg’s “Mop Top Boogie” and Joe Louis Johnson’s “Dance The Boomerang.” These gems, excavated from the dustbin of time, are highlighted by “The Whip” by Doug Powell & The Valients and “The Wiggle Waggle Woo” by Sticks McGee (a few words about McGee: he authored the timeless “Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee,” was the younger brother of legendary bluesman Brownie McGhee, his handful of early raw rock’n’roll sides are all stand-outs, and he died in 1961 New York City from cancer at 43). Little Ernest Tucker may be “Too Small To Dance” and The Dusters may be off to the “Teenage Jamboree” but when Laurel Aitken talks ‘bout that “Boogie In My Bones” and King Coleman’s “Alley Rat” bites your ankle, you just know that this gem CD is the one you might want to live with if you were stranded on a desert island forever. There’s even a swing number when the Freeman Twins & The Henry Hayes Orchestra rock out with their “Two Big Feet.” It’s almost hard-to-believe how good this compilation is.
The geographical locales of Take A Trip: From The Countryside To Big City(Koko Mojo) are far and wide from “Louisville, KY” by Tasso Zachary, “Highway 60” by Johnny Guitar Watson and “Short Squashed Texan” by The Pacers to Big Walter’s “San Antonio,” Bill Doggett’s “Quaker City” and Bobby Long’s “Jersey City.” I dig the “Bayou Bounce” of Ramp Davis but you may love Sonny Boy Williamson, Joe Liggins or Little Freddie & The Ripcords. It’s all good, as they say. These mining expeditions by Koko Mojo are not only crystal clear with great revitalized sound, they’re unique, outstanding and must be owned by anyone even remotely interested in early rock’n’roll/rhythm’n’blues when it was still considered “race music.” And where the hell did they dig up most of these long-forgotten artists? The rare legend or two always appears but half the delight within is discovering acts like Louis & Frosty or Bobby Davis & The Rhythm Rockers.
One More: Tore Up! Hot Harps Come Together(Koko Mojo) collects some of the meanest, daring, tough-guy blues-harp performances of all-time with the likes of the “Harmonica Jam” by Hot Shot Love, “Shake Your Boogie” by Model T Slim and “Eating Dry Onions” by Willie Cobbs. Certified Legends include Lightnin’ Slim, Elmore James, Papa Lightfoot, Louisiana Red (who I once saw at an empty bar in New York’s dangerous Alphabet City neighborhood in the ‘70s), Lazy Lester, JB Lenoir and Eddie Kirkland but just wait until you hear the better-than-awesome Polka Dot Slim!