By Mike Greenblatt
I’m starting to think that anything recorded at the now-legendary Zebra Ranch Studio in North Mississippi near the town of Coldwater is must-listening. Sometimes it’s a problem when the studio is more famous than the artist, but not this time. JD Taylor is a big deal in Tennessee where he sang lead and blew some mighty blues-harp for over 25 years and five albums for Little Boys Blue. He’s the real deal and when you start to grouse over that generation of pioneer bluesmen who done up and gone, you have to realize that ol’ JD is here and making the best music of his career.
The Coldwater Sessions (VizzTone Label Group) is up amongst the best of the batch of this year’s blues albums. It’s JD’s first solo album. He sings up a storm. Vocally, he’s right up there with the greats. Harmonica-wise, I’d even put him right there with James Cotton and Little Walter. These 11 originals feature his particular brand of Americana Soul (or blues, if you want to get technical) and they rock, stomp, weep and wail with a fervor usually reserved for church. The man roams the landscape from Stax to New Orleans, all sprinkled with a Bill Withers kind of class and compositional prowess.
It takes a lot of perseverance to maintain a good blues band for a half-century. They call themselves The Downchild Blues Band. Their self-released performance Live At The Toronto Jazz Festival is a reunion of members past and present with some very special guests on hand like Dan Aykroyd of Saturday Night Live fame who, by the way, says in no uncertain terms, “There would be no Blues Brothers if it weren’t for Downchild.” Indeed, the band was the inspiration for that classic 1980 movie with Aykroyd and the late John Belushi, and featured two Downchild songs in its soundtrack.
Now, after 18 albums, they put it all together again for this night, complete with guest appearances from Aykroyd himself on the seminal Sam & Dave anthem “Soul Man” and “I Got Everything I Need (Almost)” which also boasts LateNight With David Lettterman’s Paul Schaffer and Downchild alumni Kenny Neal. Big Joe Turner’s 1955 “Flip Flop and Fly” has Finland’s queen of the slide guitar, Erja Lyytinen. But it’s founder Donnie Walsh’s night. When he started this thing with his late brother Hock, they were Canadian locals jamming at Grossman’s Tavern in Toronto on some Muddy tunes. Then they got serious, naming their little blues band after a Sonny Boy Williamson song, “Mr. Downchild.” Now Donnie is known as Mr. Downchild. They ain’t little no more. May they play another 50 years.
Renaissance Man Al Basile goes full throttle on a self-produced concept album called Last Hand (Sweetspot Records), the story of an older man meeting a younger woman. The songs segue via plot lines and a theatrical musical is already in the works. Al sings so sweet and soulful that his blues—once front and center—has to take a back seat here. His cornet playing, once a staple, is downsized to but two short solos. His compositions and that stirring, evocative voice of his carry the project throughout all 12 tracks. The midnight-at-the-oasis feel, with but keyboards, bass and drums, accentuates the profundity of this man’s yearning for the object of his passion.
Basile is a longtime horn man from Roomful Of Blues and has always been produced by his good friend and musical partner, the legendary Duke Robillard, with whom he can be heard on all 13 of Duke’s solo albums. He’s also an oft-published poet and an educator for 25 years from the south shore of Boston before he gave up English and Physics for Blues and Poetry.
Mississippi Suitcase (Lightnin Records), by guitarist/singer/songwriter Peter Parcek, his third, is a swampy, bluesy, soulful, funky, rockin’ gem with an A-List of incredible musicians like guitarist Luther Dickinson, Willie Nelson’s longtime harmonica man Mickey Raphael and keyboardist Spooner Oldham amongst the 11-man cast on his searing originals plus transcendent covers of Bob Dylan, Peter Green, Sonny Boy Williamson, Paul McCartney and Lou Reed. The follow-up to his 2017 Everybody Wants To Go To Heaven, Mississippi Suitcase is a real-life reaction to today with thought-provoking odes like the opening “The World Is Upside Down” and the closing “A Head Full Of Ghosts” yet there’s always time for a song in-between the profundities like “She Likes To Boogie Real Low.” This one’s a keeper, one of the best of the year.
We all owe a big thank-you to Stony Plain Records head Holger Petersen for rescuing the long-lost 2007 tapes that make up this incredible, informal, organic super-session. Volume #1 by the New Moon Jelly Roll Freedom Rockers has 10 tracks of earthy bluesy roots-rock as played by masters at the hallowed halls of the Zebra Ranch Recording Studio with no less than Charlie Musselwhite on harmonica, Alvin Youngblood Hart on guitar/mandolin, Squirrel Nut Zipper Jimbo Mathus on guitar, Jim Dickinson on piano plus his two sons Luther and Cody Dickinson from the North Mississippi All Stars as the main components of an octet wherein the participants sit in a circle trading lead vocals and jamming fit to swoon over on the Memphis Jug Band’s 1927 “KC Moan,” Charlie Patton’s 1929 “Pony Blues,” Jimi Hendrix’s 1966 “Stone Free,” Wilbert Harrison’s 1970 “Let’s Work Together” and some of their own. When the elder Dickinson died in 2009, the tapes sat in a closet collecting dust balls and were only talked about in hushed tones of reverence. Post-production and a new mix came way later. In listening to these tracks, one feels like you’re inside the inner sanctum of when working musicians let their hair down and trade licks for but the supreme enjoyment of each other.
In 2007, Blues Hall of Famer Bobby Rush made his Raw album. Now, 13 years later, the 86-year old has made Rawer Than Raw (Deep Rush/Thirty Tigers), spotlighting Mississippi artists like Skip James [1902-1969], Robert Johnson [1911-1938], Howlin’ Wolf [1910-1976], Sonny Boy Williamson II [1912-1965] and Muddy Waters [1913-1983], all from the Magnolia State, as well as five originals. (Rush has lived there since the ‘80s.) It’s a stripped-down affair with just his voice, his guitar, his harmonica and his leg pounding out the percussion on the floor. Rush, the living link between the aforementioned artists, and today, is a born entertainer: funny, outrageous, folksy and charming. He’s thinking of doing for the other two states he’s lived in—Louisiana and Arkansas—what he’s now done for Mississippi. This has to be considered in any blues fan’s 2020 Top 10.