By Mike Greenblatt
The blues knows no geographical boundaries. Meet Arsen Shomakhov. He’s a Russian based in Canada. His self-released Rain City Blues is a terrific showcase for the exactitude of his fiery electric guitar, 10 of his own compositions, and, most importantly, his expressive, soulful voice. He couldn’t have done it, though, without the multi-talented Kid Andersen who produced, recorded, mixed, mastered, played electric and upright bass, Hammond B-3 organ, vibraphone and sang back-up on these sterling tracks recorded at his own Greaseland Studios in San Jose, California. Call it a blues variety-show. Rock’n’roll, boogaloo, shuffles, R’n’B, ska, reggae and—best of all—a particularly virulent form of bad-ass jump-blues accosts the ear like a Russian nuclear bomb. And, in this case, that’s a good thing!
Sparky Parker is a guitar-slinger like fellow Texan Stevie Ray Vaughan. His blues-rock credentials were honed night after night gigging right out of high school in the tough neighborhoods of Houston. His new In The Dark—self-released and self-produced—has seven originals sung in a soulful twang amidst covers of the Rolling Stones (“Dead Flowers”), Slim Harpo (“Shake Your Hips”) and the Bobby Blue Bland Blues Band (“I Wouldn’t Treat A Dog The Way You Treated Me”). His band rocks. Bassist Phillip Lock and drummer Kevin Berry fit him like a second skin. Add some studio keyboards and you’ve got a Texas chow-down so burn up some barbecue and hit the dancefloor!
Tad Robinson is an eight-time Blues Music Award nominee. The Indiana vocalist/blues harpist/composer/producer is a veritable whirlwind of soul and on these days resides on Real Street (Severn Records). Heading down to Memphis to record with the legendary Hi Rhythm Section (who famously backed up O.V. Wright, Syl Johnson and, of course, Al Green), he’s written six of his own songs and picked four terrific covers. Out of his originals, highlight opener “Changes” is an irresistible shuffle, “Full Grown Woman” is an adult look at love in all the wrong places and “Love In The Neighborhood” has that gospel feel. Choosing Roy Orbison’s 1989 “You Got It” was a stroke-of-genius. The beloved tune was ripe for a new version. Even more impressive is what he does with the rather white-Bread “Make It With You” by David Gates. Plus, he’s got some pumpin’ horns, Wurlitzer electric piano and Hammond B-3 to smooth out his rough edges. Consider this a soul-blues classic!
Leave it to Chicago bus driver/singer/songwriter/guitarist Toronzo Cannon to perfectly encapsulate the times we live in on his semi-brilliant The Preacher, The Politician Or The Pimp (Alligator Records). If his landmark The Chicago Way was one of the best of the 2016 blues releases, you can say the same here where his compositional prowess takes center stage. “It’s not about the solos,” he says. “It’s about the songs.” But make no mistake about it, his highly electric guitar solos are dizzying spins of total delight, spiraling almost out-of-control but not quite like two of his major influences Buddy Guy and Albert King. Still, it’s his stance against the craziness of today (just turn on the news) that has resulted in his most poignant, soulful, makes-you-think kind of statements that resonate long after the music stops. Highlights “Get Together Or Get Apart,” “Insurance,” “The Silence Of My Friends” and “I’m Not Scared” all point to a dystopian future if we don’t collectively stop the madness. Cannon has officially put America on notice.
Troy Gonyea has paid his blues dues. As a sideman, over the last 25 years, he’s recorded and toured in the bands of Kim Wilson, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, The Muddy Waters Blues Band, Sugar Ray and the BlueTones plus Anthony Geraci & The Boston Blues All-Stars. A longtime Massachusetts favorite, he also performed with his own band in Chicago at Buddy Guy’s Legends club. With the release of Click Click Spark (Lotus Eater Records), the singer/songwriter/guitarist/harmonicat takes that next step to stardom. It’s filled with the kind of delicious in-your-face jump blues, balladry, blues-rock, jazzy blues, soul-blues and boogie that will leave the listener breathless. With drums, bass and keyboards, Gonyea flowers mightily into a force-of-nature. You want a dance song? Dig his “Do The Curl-Up-And-Die.” (Did I mention his sense of humor?) His originals are witty, biting and filled with his signature guitar bursts but the highlights here have to be when he reaches into his deep bag of tricks for such priceless nuggets as Jimmy McCracklin’s 1959 “Georgia Slop,” Willie Dixon’s 1963 “Bring It On Home,” Koko Taylor’s 1975 “That’s Why I’m Crying” and even the old folkloric gospel song “Tell Heaven” that The Staples Singers popularized in 1984. Also, you must check out his version of the 1967 Duster Bennett song (“Jumping At Shadows”) that Peter Green staked his reputation on in Fleetwood Mac back when that British band had no girls and did nothin’ but the blues.
Anything—and I mean anything—is capable of giving you the blues, like if your hot dog has too much mustard. Too Much Mustard (Rama Sound) by the Wentus Blues Band with Duke Robillard is the result of a chance 1987 meeting between the legendary Rhode Island bluesman and a tight blues band named Wentus in Finland. They opened for him on one of his Euro tours, got close, kept in touch and wound up touring Sweden together for their 30th anniversary. They always wanted Duke to record them and now he has, producing, playing steamy electric guitar, composing and even painting the cover artwork. Front man Juho Kinaret sings up a storm on songs by Leonard Cohen (“First We Take Manhattan”), Tom Waits (“2:19”), Robert Johnson (“Judgement Day”) and Chuck Willis (“Feels So Bad”) as well as band originals. It’s a dancing good time.
Blues from Down Under! Holla & Moan (Bahool Records), by The McNaMarr Project from Australia, is a Chess Records update by singer-songwriters Andrea Marr and John McNamara (who also provides some blistering lead guitar). No covers, just 10 slices of pure Chicago-styled blues backed by a hot horn section of trumpet/tenor sax/baritone sax with keyboards and a smokin’ rhythm section. Their two voices crawl on top of each other, slither underneath each other and, throughout, playfully tease each other with humor, grit and soul. They’ve obviously learned their lessons well.