By Mike Greenblatt
She’s so cute. How could she play such ball-busting guitar? Obviously, her two attributes are not diametrically opposed. Ally Venable sings up a storm, writes her own material, and is said to be an onstage blockbuster. At 21, this Texas Tornado is on her fourth album. Heart Of Fire (Ruf Records) picks up where 2019’s Texas Honey left off. Produced by Jim Gaines (Stevie Ray Vaughan, Huey Lewis & The News, Santana, Steve Miller Band), it’s filled with blistering riffs and hot guest shots by Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Devon Allman. The highlight has to be her “Hateful Blues,” spit-sung with a clenched fist. And how cool is her pick of the Bill Withers classic “Use Me”? She not only nails it but adds her style of sass. As Little Willie John and Peggy Lee once sang in Otis Blackwell’s “Fever,” “what a lovely way to burn.”
One of the—if not the—best blues albums of last year is Blues Bash with Duke Robillard & Friends (Stony Plains Records). The horns! The boogie-woogie piano! Michelle “Evil Gal” Willson nails Helen Humes’s “You Played On My Piano.” Singer Chris Cote is a monster. Piano-pounder Mark “Mr. B” Braun burns on Smiley Lewis’s “Ain’t Gonna Do It.” Duke’s been at it since ’67 when he formed Roomful of Blues and most of that legendary outfit’s horn section returns. His lead guitar stings. His production is crystal-clear. This is one of the best of his 30 albums.
The interplay between the guitars of Alabama Slim and his cousin, Little Freddie King, is one reason The Parlor rocks (Cornelius Chapel Records/Music Maker Relief Foundation). Then there’s the over-all sound, as post-produced by Matt Patton of Drive-By Truckers. Now add perfecto sequencing—and touches of bass, organ and piano—by Jimbo Mathis of Squirrel Nut Zippers, and you’ve got one righteous humdinger of a blues bash.
Alabama Slim—born Milton Frazier in 1939—is a giant of a man. Dude’s seven feet tall. From playing roadside dives in the 1950s, he left his home state in the ‘60s, landed in New Orleans, met up with his hard-drinking cousin King (just over five feet tall) and the two barrel-housed their way through local gigs where their height disparity gave a striking visual component to their band. But alcohol claimed their career and the ‘70s were a blur. So were the ‘80s. But, by the ‘90s, they got their act together and took it on the road. When Hurricane Katrina hit in ’05, they vamoosed to Dallas and recorded The Mighty Flood. Now they’ve got The Parlor to hang their hats on. It’s named after the New Orleans studio where this was recorded in under four hours. It’s a doozy.
Let’s give a big round of applause for The Hitman Blues Band! Not My Circus Not My Monkey (Nerus Records) updates the blues with excitement, smarts, humor, chops and a vaccine of rock’n’roll. These 12 musicians put out the most joyous noise imaginable, taking time to get sad and spiritual when the song calls for it. You’ve never heard Blind Willie Johnson’s 1927 “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” or Bob Dylan’s 1964 “The Times They Are A’Changin’ the way Russell “Hitman” Alexander on lead guitar and lead vocals does ‘em. Plus, there’s some testifyin’ goin’ on with the ancient spiritual “John The Revelator,” which even ups Taj Mahal’s 1999 version! Bob Stander’s kitchen-sink production includes keybs, bass, drums, extra percussion, alto and tenor sax, trumpet, baritone sax and back-up vocals for an in-your-face experience of party proportions.