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Bluesology picks: Dinah Washington, Rusty Ends & Hillbilly Hoodoo, The Smoke Wagon Blues Band, Scott Ellison, Scott Weis, Federico Luiu, Tyler Morris and an Elmore James Tribute

The Queen of the Blues, Dinah Washington, heads a wild blues brew of Bluesology with an Elmore James Tribute amid blues from three continents.
Dinah Washington

     Dinah Washington was known as “The Queen Of The Blues.” In the latest edition of its “Juke Box Pearls” series, Bear Family Productions, once again, masterfully puts it all together with 29 tracks of pure bliss, complete with an absolutely delightful 36-page booklet written by noted Chicago historian Bill Dahl. Spanning 1947-1962, from her two delicious duets with Brook Benton to her rare ’58 “Honky Tonky” (made under the pseudonym “The Queen”), one comes away from listening to A Rockin’ Good Way realizing that she was, indeed, a vocal queen, one of the greatest American singers ever. Her seventh husband, NFL great Night Train Lane, found her dead in 1963 from an accidental overdose of barbiturates at the age of 39. She lives again within these grooves.


     The Last of the Boogiemen by Rusty Ends & Hillbilly Hoodoo is the self-released manifesto of musical libido wherein these 12 originals rock, stomp, shimmy, strut, swing, sway and do the nasty on rave-ups like “Cheap Wine,” “Unholy Roller,” “Stilletto Heels and Fishnet Hose” and “Sinner’s Strut.” Rusty’s a real pro whose guitar has backed up The Coasters and The Drifters but never like this! He positively shreds while vocally spewing out a stream of spit. It’s visceral, a gut-punch of pure adrenaline. Primal, earthy, it’s his guitar-bass-drums trio plus sax on rockabilly, blues, blues-rock and soul. This one never fails to satisfy.

SmokewagonCD Cover

     The Smoke Wagon Blues Band has been around for 24 years with its brand of R’n’B, funky soul, roots-rock, barrelhouse boogie, honking sax and the kind of tight rhythm section that holds the whole thing together on a dime. For its eighth album, this hotshot Canadian septet sings The Ballad of Albert Johnson, a 1920s criminal known as “The Mad Trapper of Rat River” who avoided capture by a series of daring escapes. The band’s last album, Cigar Store, was the most popular of its career. This one is wild and free, delving into swamp-rock, greasy Memphis grooves, folkloric Acadian swing, New Orleans joyousness, jump blues and those slow luxurious profound blues riffs. It’s a 13-song gem highlighted by the so-cool original “Mescaline,” a Fats Domino cover (“The Fat Man”) and the closing “Streaming Comrades Harp Boogie.”

The Smoke Wagon Blues Band courtesy Frank Roszak 

The Smoke Wagon Blues Band courtesy Frank Roszak 

Scott Ellison courtesy Frank Roszak

     Skyline Drive (Red Parlor Records), by Oklahoma singer-songwriter-guitarist-producer Scott Ellison, 66, has 12 of his originals played by a cast of 13. His blues-rock is a sharp blade primed to cut to the bone. Honed to perfection by his Tulsa upbringing, he’s soaked up the heartland vibe, and earned his stripes in the band of Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown. Active since in the ‘80s in Los Angeles, everyone from The Box Tops, The Shirelles and The Marvelettes have employed his stinging guitar before he took center-stage in the ‘90s. He’s back now living on Tulsa time since ’97 and once when he opened for BB King, the master was so impressed with him, he called him back onstage during his headlining set to jam. And BB wasn’t exactly known for sharing the stage with other guitarists!

Scott Weis Band

     Simmer Me Down by the Scott Weis Band is a damn good representation of what a blues-drenched power trio can achieve. Augmented by keyboards, percussion and back-up vocals, the primal immediacy of its guitar/bass/drums core reminds me of two things the legendary Taj Mahal used to say—“the blues makes my body feel good” and “ooh so good’n’blues.” There’s just something about how this sixth Weis CD in 15 years all comes together in a mad rush. They rock the blues good, thoroughly drain it of any remaining vestiges of melancholy whatsoever, to deliver an over-the-top rockin’ good time. I think I’ll spin this one again!

Federico Luiu

     Sardinia is the second largest island in the Mediterranean. Situated off the coast of Italy, it’s not exactly known as a blues mecca. Growing up there, Federico Luiu absorbed his father’s records and by 13 was practicing and practicing his I-IV-V blues progressions. When the family moved to Canada in 2012, his mastery of styles had him sharing stages with a wealth of like-minded musicians. That’s when he co-founded Sons Of Rhythm which played festivals in Montreal and Europe. He went solo last year. Walkin’ The Blues is the result. Although the legendary Otis Spann’s album of the same name came out in ’72 and pioneer Son House first “walked the blues” in 1930, Luiu had other things on his mind if the cover of his album is any indication. This is a sprightly, engaging seven-song debut. Maybe he should have covered the Rufus Thomas "Walkin' The Dog" classic Highlight: “Funky Bee.”

Wayne Nicholson John Campbelljohn

     Elmore James was born in 1918 Mississippi and suffered a fatal heart attack 45 years later in Chicago. He was known as “The King of the Slide Guitar” although he was also a distinctive singer and songwriter. Known for getting drunk at recording sessions, his constant boozing made his vocals slur yet gave him his distinctive sound. His riffs have been borrowed by rock stars for decades and, thus, he was inducted into the Rock’n’Roll Hall Of Fame in 1992. Tributes have poured in for years. Brian Jones always credited him as the main inspiration for starting the Stones. From John Mayall’s 1969 “Mr. James” to the Allman Brothers making his “One Way Out” a Southern Rock anthem, guitarists as wide-ranging as Stevie Ray Vaughan, Albert King, George Thorogood, Jimi Hendrix, George Harrison and Frank Zappa have listed him as an influence.
     Enter Wayne Nicholson and John Campbelljohn. Their terrific Elmore’s Blues (Grindstone Records) has 12 Elmore songs and two of their own. Wayne sings these songs as if he’s lived them, even adding some flute. John is one of Canada’s foremost slide guitarists. Add bass, drums, piano and organ and you’ve got an Elmore James party! Highly recommended.

Tyler Morris

     Tyler Morris is a kid. He’s still Living In The Shadows and learning. Yet his second album for the VizzTone Label Group is a blockbuster affair, filled with star turns and surprising performances from the likes of Joe Louis Walker (the 70-year old musicologist/producer/singer/songwriter/guitarist), Mike Zito (49, the hard-rocking St. Louis singer/producer/composer/guitarist), Ronnie Earl (67, the native New Yorker who can shred with the best of ‘em) and Amanda Fish (the Kansas City multi-instrumentalist torch singer, maybe the last of the red hot mamas.) Still, it’s the kid’s show. Blessed with an inordinate amount of talent for someone barely out of their teens, he’s a whiz on guitar, and, unlike his debut, sings lead on most tracks. He’s a natural.