By Mike Greenblatt
Barreling out of Madison Wisconsin like a runaway freight train, The Jimmys Gotta Have It on their new self-released party. Twelve years in, this blues-busting hard-charging roof-raising octet—with New Orleans legend guest Marcia Ball—ups the ante with their mix of rampaging horns, blistering electric guitar, soul-man vocals and honeyed background singers. They’re a live band first and foremost but these 13 tracks get as close as they’ve ever come to their stageside magic, maybe because Tony Braunagel—a veteran of the bands of Taj Mahal, Bonnie Raitt, Robert Cray and the late Paul Kossoff—is behind the big board.
Get ready for a trip in Mark Hummel’s Wayback Machine (Electro-Fi Records) where the award-winning harmonica maestro/bandleader/singer/songwriter/author/impresario trains his eagle eye on the amazing blues output of Bluebird Records of the ‘30s and ‘40s. This is no small feat so the Californian hired hotshot Chicago blues guitarist Billy Flynn as well as the West Coast Shakers—pianist Aaron Hammerman and percussionist Dave Eagle (who uses everything from washboards and spoons to train whistles and animal calls)—plus 82-year old Mississippi bluesman Joe Beard. Another bigtime hotshot, producer Kid Andersen, the Norwegian guitarist who’s been producing some of the best blues on the planet at his Greaseland Studios in San Jose, CA, twiddles the studio knobs.
Back in its day, Bluebird put out records by Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Boy Williamson, Jazz Gillum, Robert Nighthawk, St. Louis Jimmy, Big Maceo and Memphis Slim. Without them, the next generation (Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, Freddie King, Junior Wells) would not have had that door opened so wide.
The 16 tracks are a real treat. It all ends with Big Boy Crudup’s “Mean Old Frisco” but not before Hummel’s own “Road Dog” approximates that era to a T. Of course, he also revisits the extinct art of double-entendre “hokum” with Tampa Red’s 1942 “Play With Your Poodle.” “Reefer Head Woman,” “Flim Flam,” “Pepper Mama” and the angry “Cut that Out” make this the first great traditional blues album of 2020.
Angel Forest is Hell Bent With Grace on her ballsy new self-released blues-bomb. She’s way past caring if she’ll offend anybody. As a true brazen wild woman, she’s won the Toronto Blues Society “Female Vocalist Of The Year” six years in a row. Her voice is scratchy like Janis Joplin, whom she paid tribute to in 1997 on the follow-up to her 1996 Secondhand Blues debut. It was called Angel Sings Janis Live and it documented her blistering tour of the same name. Fast-forward 23 years and nine albums later, and the Montreal native, now in her 50s, sings of menopause (“Menie The Monster”), mental illness (“The Blame Game”) and, of course, all-out partying (“Get It On”).
Peace in Pieces, the new self-released album by The Betty Fox Band, has 13 originals and one scintillating gospel cover where she shakes and shimmies for her Lord instead of her man. It’s her third album, the follow-up to her promising Slow Burn in 2015, recorded in Muscle Shoals Alabama at FAME Studios featuring legendary session keyboardist Spooner Oldham, 76, on Wurlitzer electric piano, as well as the famous FAME horn section. Fox wrote, produced, played guitar, sang her heart out and led her tight two-guitar/bass/drums/keyboards quintet while obviously feeling the ghosts of those who preceded her within these hallowed halls. From the emotional “Sweet Goodnight” about the death of her dad to her fiercely independent “Let Go Or Be Dragged” and “Shattered Dreams and Broken Toes,” Fox is a cross between Etta James and Beth Hart.
Somewhere deep in Denmark, a child fell asleep to Fats Domino and Muddy Waters on the radio. That kid became a teenager who hung out at the Mojo Blues Club in Copenhagen. That teen became an adult who studied Ray Charles and Joe Cocker and now leads his Euro-blues band called Thorbjorn Risager & The Black Tornado. A thousand concerts in 21 countries and nine albums later, he invites you to Come On In (Ruf Records). Call it alt.blues. Who saw the children drown in the Mediterranean River? Who heard their screams? The answer is the title: “Nobody But The Moon.” It’s positively chilling. “Never Giving In” encapsulates his mindset and in his world “Sin City” doesn’t have to be Las Vegas. It’s wherever he hangs his hat. The band is a beaut: piano, organ, Wurlitzer, four synthesizers, guitar, alto sax, two tenor saxophones, bari sax, trumpet, flugelhorn, trombone, tuba, bass and percussion. But it’s his haunting voice that carries the day. That, and his haunting compositional prowess.
Here’s a curious little album of blues instrumentals called Small Blues and Grooves (VizzTone Label Group) by the 11 Guys Quartet, recorded 12 years ago and just now being released. Paul (guitar), Chuck (drums), Rich (harmonica) and The Coach (bass) started jamming in the ‘80s off-and-on in the Boston area. From the opening “Road Trippin’” and the closing “Swamp Ride” to highlights like “”Jackrabbit,” “East Cambridge Cannonball” and “Rhumba Boogaloo,” the chemistry is such that this has to be the hippest and most unobtrusive blues-fest to infuse your party with that your friends are ever likely to hear. Crank it up and start receiving the compliments. It’s the lack of vocals that makes this so special.
Any new release by one of today’s tried’n’true bluesmen, Mick Kolassa, is reason to celebrate. This guy’s the real deal. Musicologist, anthropologist of rare and arcane blues forms, singer/songwriter of humorous proportions (“Text me Baby” and “Recycle Me”), string master (six- and 12-string guitar, baritone guitar, baritone ukulele and banjolele) and sextet bandleader, Kolassa is so cool that in his hands even a Beatle song is blues (“Help”). When he gets his hands on Lonnie Johnson’s 1955 “Jelly Roll Baker,” Jace Everett’s 2005 “Bad Things” theme song to HBO’s True Blood, Taj Mahal’s 1972 “Cakewalk Into Town” or Louis Armstrong’s 1928 “St. James Infirmary,” he inhabits the material with flair, soul, verve and style.
Ice Cream In Hell (Alligator Records), the 18 album by longtime road warrior Tinsley Ellis, almost approximates his blistering live show. Three decades in, this firebrand Atlanta guitarist/singer/songwriter is at the top of his game. Ably assisted by studio superman Kevin McKendree (John Hiatt/Delbert McClinton), this satisfying sweet concoction melts into your brain with smarts, soul and the kind of stinging ax work that Ellis has provided on stages for over 100 shows a year for years. He wrote every song with “Your Love’s Like Heroin” and “Sit Down Mama” (heavily influenced by Alligator’s very first band, Hound Dog Taylor & The Houserockers) the two highlights.