By Mike Greenblatt
In the 1990s, The Phantom Blues Band backed up Taj Mahal both onstage and in the studio. Two Grammy Awards later, they left Taj’s employ to strike out on their own in 2006 with the aptly-named Out Of The Shadows.
Keyboardist/Vocalist Mike Finnigan was a natural. Drummer Tony Braunagel, bassist Larry Fulcher, guitarist Johnny Lee Schell, sax man Joe Sublett and trumpeter Darrell Leonard are skin-tight. They headlined yet answered the calls to back up Etta James, Joe Cocker, Robert Cray and Eric Burdon. In 2020, Mike Finnigan was diagnosed with cancer. It was a cruel blow to the man who lent his talents to everyone from Janis and Jimi to CSNY. He passed just last year. Blues For Breakfast (Little Village) has his last contributions. Guests include Ruthie Foster, Bonnie Raitt and Curtis Salgado. Proceeds from sales benefit The Mike Finnigan School of Music in Salina, Kansas.
The bitch is back on Bitches Blues (Stony Plain Records). Her last all-blues album—Rebel Moon Blues in 2020—was such a barn-burner that now, the England-born, Montreal-raised powerhouse is again busting out her blues moves like Joplin on steroids. Fitting, as Sass Jordan portrayed the tragic icon in Off-Broadway’s Love, Janis. Besides dueting with Joe Cocker on the Bodyguard soundtrack, she toured the world in “A Bowie Celebration.” Here, though, with her Champagne Hookers, she’s all ballsy blues.
Charlie Musselwhite is, first and foremost, a Mississippi Son. This living legend—born in Mississippi, raised in Memphis, schooled in the blues on the South Side of Chicago, became a star in San Francisco when he played in the 1960s with Michael Bloomfield and Paul Butterfield. He later became the go-to harmonica man for the likes of Tom Waits, Eddie Vedder and John Lee Hooker. His new Alligator Records album brings him full-circle. It’s a stripped-down affair with but Quicksand Martin on drums and Barry Bays on stand-up bass. He wrote half the songs but it’s his well-chosen covers that transcend time and genre. Cat can sing, play a mean guitar and blow some bad-ass blues harp. He does Guy Clark’s “The Dark,” Charley Patton’s “Pea Vine Blues,” Joe Lee Williams’ “Crawling Kingsnake” and even “Rank Stranger” by The Stanley Brothers. In other words, even bluegrass, country and folk come out blues when Musselwhite gets going.
Memphis Slim, Big Maybelle, Sonny Boy Williamson, Little Willie John and Aretha Franklin may be the big names on Volume #23 of Southern Bred: Tennessee & Arkansas R&B Rockers: Rough Lover (Koko Mojo Record Stack) but the highlights come from such long-ago and far-away names as Stick McGhee and His Spo-Dee-O-Dee Buddies bemoaning the fact that they “Drank Up All The Wine Last Night” and Rosco Gordon shouting out “Hey Fat Girl.” Charlie & Rosie say “Don’t Call The Wagon (‘Cause Nothin’s Wrong With Me).” All 28 tracks have been cleaned up, dusted off and sound great. It all ends with the “Backslide Boogie” of Joe Hill Louis.