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Bluesology: Mary Lane, Vegas Strip Kings, Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith and more!

In the latest Bluesology, author Mike Greenblatt jams on the new releases of Mary Lane, Vegas Strip Kings, Ally Venable, Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith and others.

By Mike Greenblatt

The Vegas Strip Kings have hit the Jackpot (Gutbukit Records/Select O Hits) on their 13-song burner. When you’re a band from Las Vegas, you gotta know how to keep ‘em satisfied and coming back for more. To that end, these Kings—guitarist Al Ek, keyboardist/accordionist Billy Truitt, upright bassist Rob Edwards, drummer/percussionist Justin Truitt and saxophonist Jimmy Carpenter—keep the energy high (three of five sing). Starting with a song they did in 2012, “Rotgut Run,” when they were called Contino, and ending with Chicago legend Willie Dixon’s “Sharp As A Razor,” they keep it blues-based but venture into rockabilly and zydeco just to shake things up. Highly Recommended. Hint: if they sliced two minutes off “Rotgut Run,” they’d have themselves a 2019 radio smash hit single that would sound great blaring from car radios cruising down the highway.

This is the bomb! It goes off with spectacular flair. From back at a time when it was the sax (not the guitar) that was the primary instrument in rock’n’roll, the various artists on This Is The Night: Lessons In Wild Saxophonology (Koko Mojo) run the gamut from Rosco Gordon’s “Tummer Tee,” Jimmy Tolliver’s “Hoochie Kootchie Koo” and Kansas City Jimmy’s “Cheating Woman” to Screaming Joe Neal’s “She’s My Baby,” Johnny Wright’s “Look At That Chick” and Otis Riley’s “Little Miss Bibbitty Bobbitty Boom” (highlights all). But wait, there’s more. From “Hot Tamales” by Noble Watts, “Way Out” by The Vibrators and “I’m Gonna Whale On You” by the politically incorrect Little Arthur Mathews to “Huchia Cuthia Lovin’ Man” by King Alex & The Untouchables,” these unbelievably great jump-blues and rockin’ rhythm rides will have you heaving and twitching. Scouring the depths of ‘50s and ‘60s sides (with some ‘40s thrown in too), it never fails to amaze how many poppin’ pulsating slabs of wax were made by little-known artists from long-ago and far-away. Well, here they are!

Firmly ensconced in the protective arms of producer Mike Zito (the Missouri Maestro who’s carved out quite a career for himself barnstorming the blues into total submission), 20-year old upstart Ally Venable hits home hard on her third albumTexas Honey (Ruf Records) which she, indeed, is. Having learned her lessons well in the delicate art of all-out shredding, Aly takes from such Texas guitar heroes as Stevie Ray Vaughan (she covers his “Love Struck Baby” with a smirk and a wink, not to mention a barrage of electricity), Johnny Winter and ZZ Top’s Billy F. Gibbons, yet adds an almost Lita Ford-styled metal framework to her blues. It’s Power Trio Supreme (except when Memphis shredder Eric Gales joins the fray on “Come And Take It.”) Her originals bite. Her voice smolders. And she has enough smarts to trip on into New Orleans when she dips back to the days of Buddy Bolden around the turn of the century to end it all with “Careless Love.”

When drummer/composer/producer/singer Kenny Smith was growing up, he heard a lot about Muddy Waters. In fact, he lived in Muddy’s old Chicago house. His father, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, was Muddy’s drummer for 18 years. Yet listen to Drop The Hammer (Big Eye Records) by Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith & The House Bumpers and you wouldn’t know it. The son plays a different kind of blues than his dad, one, for instance, that utilizes the mystical sound of a sitar on the “Head Pounder” opener. His cast is sterling. Stones collaborator Sugar Blue blows harp. Greg Guy, son of Buddy Guy, stings his electric ax. Felton Crews is a poppin’ bassist who used to play with Miles Davis. The 12 songs run the gamut from all-out frenzy to slow grooves, all based in the blues, yet alternately rockin’, boppin’, swayin’ and reelin’ with the feelin’. He’s learned his lessons well.

Mary Lane is a Travelin’ Woman (Women Of The Blues). The 83-year old Chicago Blues Hall of Famer has only had one other album and it was 20 years ago. Yet she played with the legendary Elmore James, counts Buddy Guy and Bobby Rush as fans, and co-wrote all 10 here, many with producer Jim Tullio, who won Grammys for his work with the late Steve Goodman. Travelin’ Woman comes on the heels of a documentary film on her life (I Can Only Be Mary Lane). Tullio got some major league players to back up Lane’s expressive guttural vocals. Eddie Shaw used to blow harp for Howlin’ Wolf. Colin Linden (whose acoustic slide dobro is Lane’s only backing on their song “Make Up Your Mind”) is a heavyweight string-bender who is one of producer T-Bone Burnett’s go-to guys and who played in Bob Dylan’s touring band. Daddy G Barge is a Chicago sax legend.
Born in Arkansas, she sang for chump change in the street before joining the band of blues pioneer Robert Nighthawk and jammed with James Cotton when he played her uncle’s club. In ’57, she lit out for Chicago and was billed as Little Mary who shared stages with Junior Wells and other greats. Numerous record deals with nefarious labels made her no money so it wasn’t until 1999 that her Appointment With The Blues debut made her a Midwestern star. Almost. When her husband bassist Jeffrey Labon suffered a debilitating stroke, it practically derailed her career. But not quite.
These are real songs with real emotion about real happenings in her life. She wrote the lyrics, feels ‘em, and sings ‘em with the kind of passionate phlegm one would expect from such a pioneer. From “Ain’t Gonna Cry No More” and the wise “Leave That Wine Alone” to the truthful “People Say I’m Crazy” and the anthemic “Bad Luck And Trouble,” Mary Lane’s time is now. Let’s just hope she’s around long enough to enjoy it.

Is Tommy Castro and the Painkillers the best damn blues-rockin’ touring band in the land? Good question. If not, they’re certainly up there. It’s been 15 albums in 30 years for Castro. Now, after two studio albums—2015’s Method To My Madness and 2017’s Stompin’ Ground—with his new stripped down devoid-of-horns quartet, he’s Killin’ It Live (Alligator Records). Filled with barn-burning rockers, dramatically building slow blues that bubble over with intensity both in Castro’s searing lead guitar and roughhouse vocals, these 10 hand-picked tracks from last year’s tour are certainly going to sound even better on their non-stop 2019 trek. They do the best version of the 1930 Sleepy John Estes classic “Leaving Trunk” since Taj Mahal popularized it in 1968 plus the best cover version of the 1970 Buddy Miles classic “Them Changes” EVER. Castro’s originals are all instant classics. I could envision bands covering his opener, “Make It Back To Memphis,” for generations to come. Highlight? “She Wanted To Give It To Me” could’ve been my theme song when I was a teenager.