By Mike Greenblatt
Fifty years and 20 albums after their Rhode Island inception, Roomful Of Blues rocks on with In A Roomful of Blues (Alligator Records), with nine new originals led by lead guitarist/producer/composer Chris Vachon and honking sax man Rich Lataille (who joined the band as a teenager in 1970). Lead singer (since 2010) Phil Pemberton hits all the right notes, and despite a myriad of lineup changes, they sound better than ever hitting balladry, zydeco, funk, jump-blues, swing-blues, Latin grooves and two sterling covers from deep in the vaults of American obscurities: “What Can I Do” (1961) by Houston’s Buddy “Silver Fox” Ace [1936-1994] and “Too Much Boogie” (1984) by New York City’s Doc Pomus [1925-1991].
Talk about rockin’ the blues! Canadian wild-woman vocalist Sass Jordan gets down with seven classics from Willie Dixon, Keb Mo, Sleepy John Estes, Elmore James, Leon Russell, JB Hutto and Gary Moore while chipping in with an original on Rebel Moon Blues (Stony Plain Records) with her band, the Champagne Hookers. It’s a keeper.
The third album, Sleeper, by Chickenbone Slim, is one hell of a solid blues record. As recorded at the hip go-to California blues palace (Greaseland Studios) of Kid Andersen (the hotshot Norwegian guitarist/producer) in San Jose, singer/songwriter/guitarist Slim starts off strong with “Vampire Baby” and doesn’t let up one iota through all 10 originals (highlight: “The Ballad Of Dick”). Slim’s blues are timeless but with a twist. He writes clever lyrics, and sings ‘em in a protracted kind of phrasing that adds soul and arrogance (he’s from San Diego). His West Coast swing-blues mixes beautifully with his penchant for Chicago- and Gulf Coast-blues. Then there’s his Muddy moments when he takes that Mississippi mud and smears it all over himself.
Traveling Man (NorthernBlues Music) by Watermelon Slim, the follow-up to his terrific Church of the Blues, is a double-live effort of 12 originals and five roots-reverent covers (including Mississippi Fred McDowell’s “61 Highway Blues,” Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lighting” and Muddy Waters’ “Two Trains Running) that has the 72-year old North Carolinian fastidiously fingerpicking, playing the electric slide, blowing some righteous blues-harp, vocalizing with his patented lowball swoon and writing the kind of personal/political diatribes that make one sit up and take notice. No band. Just him and his wicked sense of humor. Fourteen albums in, he’s a military veteran who’s lived life to the fullest as a forklift driver, funeral officiator, farmer, petty criminal, journalist, trucker and saw mill worker with two college degrees.
Rory Block is the greatest living female American blues artist. Period. Since she’s been so dedicated to preserving, exemplifying and furthering real country-blues from decades past, she has become that which she first only emulated. Her latest album, Prove It On Me (Stony Plain Records), is the second volume of her “Power Women Of The Blues” series which started in 2018 with the release of her tribute to Bessie Smith [1894-1937], A Woman’s Soul.
Reportedly, she’s been thinking about the concept for Prove It On Me for 54 years. Now the Jersey Girl has made the ultimate solo album, producing, singing lead, singing back-up harmony, playing rhythm guitar, playing lead guitar, slide guitar, bass, and percussion (on bongos and oatmeal box). The 10 gems from Helen Humes, Rosetta Howard, Madlyn Davis, Ma Rainey, Arizona Dranes, Lottie Kimbrough, Memphis Minnie, Merline “Yas Yas Girl” Johnson and Elvie Thomas plus originals represent a cross-section of great female blues singers in an effort to maybe inspire the listener to go deeper into the wellspring of great blues by these particular artists. I know it has with me, especially after hearing the marijuana song “If You’re A Viper,” recorded in 1937 on Shellac Records by Rosetta Howard & The Harlem Hamfats.
Sounds like Mississippi singer/songwriter/guitarist Ryan Perry has taken the words of Allen Toussaint to heart on his High Risk Low Reward debut (Ruf Records). The late New Orleans legend Toussaint wrote “Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky From Now On” and Perry is, indeed, one funky cat. Album highlights “Ain’t Afraid To Eat Alone” and “Homesick” features the funk and Perry’s stinging electric guitar is heard throughout. You can tell his originals are personal, from the heart, and on his well-chosen covers, he transcends the original intent of songs like BB King’s 1983 “Why I Sing The Blues” and Howling Wolf’s 1954 “Evil Is Going On” into another dimension. Ryan Perry may not yet be 30 but he is one Major League blues dude to watch out for.
Bill Blue used to play guitar in the band of Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup who originally wrote and recorded “That’s All Right Mama” and “My Baby Left Me.” Both songs should have netted him a ton of dough in royalties when Elvis Presley recorded them but didn’t so he quit the music business in disgust and became a bootlegger. Back in action in the late ‘60s, he hired Bill Blue (they opened shows for Bonnie Raitt on her first national tour) and the two of them became close until Crudup’s 1974 death. Blue then toured with his own band but tired of life on the road so he settled on a houseboat in the Florida Keys. Gave up music for 25 years. Then, in 2013, British producer Ian Shaw pushed him into his Mojolation comeback album.
Seven years later, his The King Of Crazy Town follow-up (Conch Town Music) features 26 musicians on 10 originals and a steam-heat cover of soul singer Eddie Hinton’s “I Want It All.” Highlights include tributes to BB King (“Indianola”) and his home state (“Carolina Time”) as well as originals “Hunker Down,” “You Ain’t Fun Anymore” and “Enough Blues To Give You The Blues.” The horns punch, the guitars kick and his vocals growl.
Play with Liz Mandeville and you’re Playing With Fire (Blue Kitty Music) as the title of this Chicago singer/songwriter/guitarist/bandleader/producer attests. Recorded in five sessions over three years with musicians from France, Italy, Japan, Holland and the United States, her bigtime blues veers from Bessie Smith and Ragtime to Modern Urban and Rock’n’Roll. She even lets leak a dribble of swing, hip-hop and trance. Highlights include the humor of “Just Give Her Chocolate” and “He Loves My Biscuits” to the myth of “Poor Robert Johnson.” The song about the late Mississippi legend makes me think he might not have been the only one to bargain with the devil at the crossroads for such super-human talent. Did Liz?