WIB Interview: Jon Amor

In and Out of the Blues

An interview with Jon Amor

Words: Vincent Abbate

(Author’s note: Exactly one year ago tomorrow, on November 28th 2018, British musician Jon Amor released the brilliant and eclectic Colour In The Sky – an essential album that is perhaps his finest collection of songs to date. In the interview we conducted a few weeks later, Jon provided deep insight into his songwriting. He also opened up about the personal challenges he was facing while making the record. But a bout of procrastination and the unforeseen circumstances of a tumultuous winter caused me to shelve the article. Colour In The Sky deserves better than that! And perhaps some of you missed it. So today, with my apologies to Jon, I give you our interview.)

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Since this blog and its companion book series are called Who Is Blues, I’ll pose the dreaded question: Is Jon Amor blues?

Sure he is. As guitarist and singer, he’s been in some of the best blues bands to come out of Great Britain during the past three decades. Amor is a founding member of The Hoax, who enjoyed a run of critically acclaimed albums in the 1990s and whose raw, edgy sound was last heard in 2014 on their full-length B.B. King tribute Recession Blues. He also tours off-and-on with a pair of blues “supergroup” projects, DVL and The Boom Band. Moreover, with two excellent (and highly recommended) releases from his own Jon Amor Blues Group between 2011 and 2012, he demonstrated – like few others have – that electric blues can be rooted in decades-old traditions without carrying the stench of mothballs.

By constrast, on his occasional solo releases he works comfortably both alongside and well outside the blues genre. Those records are where this talented gent tests the limits of his songwriting muscle. As a lifelong devotee of the blues, Amor bemoans the lack of well-rounded artists on today’s scene, and rightfully so. “Too often, lyric and melody are treated as if they are just filling time between guitar solos,” he observes in the Q&A that follows.

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WIB Interview: Six Questions on Rock ‘N’ Roll: A Tribute To Chuck Berry

Mike Zito

Six Questions on Rock ‘N’ Roll: A Tribute To Chuck Berry

Words: Vincent Abbate

When introducing Chuck Berry on the Mike Douglas Show in 1972, former Beatle John Lennon stated, “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry.” Though it appears the line was written for him, there’s no denying Berry’s influence on Lennon, Paul McCartney, Keith Richards and just about anyone else who has picked up an electric guitar during the past 70 years.

With his newest album Rock ‘N’ Roll: A Tribute to Chuck Berry, bluesman Mike Zito – like Berry a native of St. Louis, Missouri – reveals his profound love and admiration for Berry’s musical legacy. The 20-track collection of classic rock’n’roll songs was two years in the making, as the singer and guitarist sought to celebrate the late musical legend in grand style by inviting A-list guitarists to re-interpret Berry’s songs. Credited to “Mike Zito & Friends,” the album’s roster of guest artists includes Joe Bonamassa, Walter Trout, Eric Gales, Tommy Castro, Robben Ford, Sonny Landreth, Luther Dickinson, Joanna Connor, Albert Castiglia, Anders Osborne and even Chuck’s grandson, Charles Berry III.

It’s good to have friends.

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WIB Interview: Dudley Taft (Pt. 2)

Keep It Weird

An interview with Dudley Taft (Pt. 2)

Words: Vincent Abbate

After Part 1 of our interview went live on Who Is Blues in mid-September, bluesrocker Dudley Taft closed out a successful European run with his trio before returning to his home base in Cincinnati, Ohio. There, he’s performed at the Blink Festival, appeared on local television and been nominated for a Cincinnati Entertainment Award as Best Blues Artist. Simple Life, the album he released on September 6th, has been hovering in the upper reaches of various roots music charts and getting favorable reviews in the press. All in all, the positives outweigh the challenges he encountered while touring around Europe, which included a blown amp, shoddy foot pedals and a touring van that came to a hair-raising halt on a busy stretch of Autobahn.

Bassist Kasey Williams, an Ohioan, and British drummer Darby Todd, both of whom were sharing that ride with Taft, play a more active role in the second and final part of our interview. As the evening wore on, tongues got looser and our conversation became somewhat more scattered. There was less talk about the new album, more about the blues, playing live and making music in general. When the smoke cleared, the opinions expressed by this trio of seasoned musicians underscored my overriding impression of Dudley Taft: He puts the song first and doesn’t give a tinker’s dam about categories.

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WIB Live: Paul Thorn

Everything’s Gonna Be Alright

Paul Thorn live @ Pitcher

Düsseldorf, Germany

Words & photos: Vincent Abbate

So much truth. Soooo much truth.

If you leave a show with that phrase resonating in your head, you know something very good has just gone down.

Turnout for this club show on a drizzly Wednesday night in Germany was light – surely nothing any musician or concert promoter wants. Yet as far as vibe goes, the people attending the performance by Tupelo, Mississippi’s Paul Thorn were perfect, making the event more of a homey gathering of friends than some “us” versus “them” spectacle. Over the course of a glorious set that spanned roughly two decades of material, Thorn managed to make a personal connection with just about every one of the few dozen individuals in the room.

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WIB Interview: Dudley Taft (Pt. 1)

Keep It Weird

An interview with Dudley Taft

Words: Vincent Abbate

Last time I checked, Dudley Taft was still waiting to be invited on one of those fancy schmancy blues cruises. You know – those overblown guitar orgies at sea that seem to be popping up all over the place.* Six albums into his solo career, the singer/guitarist still hasn’t become part of that exclusive back-patting mutual admiration society. And perhaps his “outside the box” approach means he never will. For now at least, he’s a lone wolf – an outsider who may or may not be looking in.

(*Note to Joe: I’d be happy to accept your invitation to the next cruise. Anything from the “mid-ship balcony” category upward will do.)

Yet with each new release, a few more people do seem to be picking up on what the persevering, axe-wielding longbeard from Cincinnati is putting down. Among today’s blues-rockers, Dudley Taft has a fairly unique skillset.

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WIB Live: Rockin The Blues 2019

Big Boys Do Cry

Rockin The Blues 2019 live @ Carlswerk Victoria

Cologne, Germany

Words & photos: Vincent Abbate

Since its inception in 1989, and especially over the past decade, the Netherlands-based Mascot Label Group has become home to many of today’s most popular rock-oriented blues acts. Its Provogue imprint currently boasts an artist roster that includes Beth Hart, Robert Cray, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Eric Gales and Joe Bonamassa. Last year, the label decided to send three of its top guitar slingers on the road under the banner Rockin The Blues. That tour – with Gales, Gary Hoey and Quinn Sullivan – proved successful enough to merit a second go-round in 2019.

Eight dates in four European countries are on the agenda. Show #2 on the tour transpired inside the massive Carlswerk Victoria venue in Cologne and gave the local German audience a chance to witness a guitar-heavy blues extravaganza in Cinemascope. Combine any ten blues shows you’ve seen in the past year and you’ll get an idea of how big, broad and loud this spectacle was.

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WIB Live: The Blues Giants

Land Of The Giants

The Blues Giants live @ Harmonie

Bonn, Germany

Words & photos: Vincent Abbate

They call themselves the Blues Giants – a group of five musicians from different corners of the USA, all of whom have paid their dues and earned their keep in a variety of band situations. Two years ago, when they toured Europe, Mike Zito was one of the Giants. This time, a slight lineup change allowed us to enjoy the chops and vocals of Nick Schnebelen. The vibe didn’t change much, though. This is a high-spirited, guitar-heavy and thoroughly soulful troupe in search of a good time.

As this is Blues Music Awards week (I still think of it as Handys week) and the indvidual members of the Blues Giants are up for a total of five awards, I thought I’d share a visual impression of each of them as they appeared onstage in Bonn, Germany last Thursday night, along with a few random thoughts. (Disclaimer: I am a bad photographer with a cheap cell phone.)

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WIB CD Roundup – April 2019

Time to catch up on some reviews. This CD Roundup is a “European Special” devoted to recent releases by Italy’s Dany Franchi, Belgium’s Shakedown Tim & The Rhythm Revue and a pair of Finnish acts: Dr. Helander & Third Ward and Jarkka Rissanen Tonal Box. American blues vets Charlie Musselwhite, Anson Funderburgh, James Harman and Gene Taylor make important contributions to these albums. Cheers to transatlantic friendships!

DR. HELANDER & THIRD WARD

Meat Grindin’ Business

Bluelight Records

Is a Finnish blues “supergroup” even possible? If so, Dr. Helander & Third Ward fits the bill. Members Ilkka Helander, Esa Kuloniemi und Leevi Leppänen comprise a trio of blues vets who have appeared on dozens of albums and played thousands of concerts over the past several decades. Helander’s the front man here, handling guitar and the bulk of the vocals, with Kuloniemi (bass/guitar/vocals) and Leppänen (drums) making strong contributions to an album that boasts added star power in the form of harmonica legend Charlie Musselwhite. They all come together on a raucous electric affair built on deep grooves, twin guitar fireworks and a big, booming, floor-rattling bass. Opening cut “Hawaiian Boogie” is an Elmore James number that sees them playing in a raw, chunky style reminiscent of Hound Dog Taylor & The Houserockers. Musselwhite spices up the similarly hard-driving “Third Ward Boogie,” then gives way to the skills of his Finnish harp counterpart Little Willie Mehto on “Money Makin’ Machine.” Helander does a solid job vocally on Lightnin’ Hopkins “Death Bells,” which also features some fine playing by Musselwhite, though it might have been nice to also hear Charlie singing on this one. The back half of the album is highlighted by the swampy CCR-style “It’s Not For Me But For My Friend” and the John Lee Hooker-esque “Woman’s Trust.” The greasy shuffle “Don’t Be Messin’ With My Bread” closes out Meat Grindin’ Business – a lean, tasty, thoroughly satisfying album with very little fat. – VA

SONG PICK: “Third Ward Boogie”

UNDER THE RADAR RECOMMENDATION –

JARKKA RISSANEN TONAL BOX

Trimmed And Burning

Blue North Records

To get an idea of where Finnish roots veteran Jarkka Rissanen is going on the bold and distinctive Trimmed And Burning, start with the dedication. With gratitude to Son House and Blind Willie Johnson. With a cosmopolitan approach not unlike that of Ry Cooder, multi-instrumentalist Rissanen, drummer/percussionist Jussi Kettunen and tuba player/bassist Jorma Välimäki mine the deep well of American blues and folk music traditions. That includes songs associated with House (“Grinnin’ In Your Face”), Johnson (“Keep Your Lamp Trimmed And Burning”) or both (“John The Revelator”). Pair that with “Why Don’t You Live So God Can Use You?” (famously recorded by Muddy Waters) and the Sister Rosetta Tharpe gem “Up Above My Head” and it’s plain to see there’s something spiritual going on here. Props must go to the Finnish trio for freely adapting these traditionals to suit their own eclectic style. That can include the heavy, almost psychedelic thump we hear on the album opener “Keep Your Hand On The Plow,” the pleasingly laid-back New Orleans-style interpretation of “Up Above My Head” or the octavized guitars that echo the two voices – one male, one female – heard on the original recording of “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed And Burning.” Meanwhile, their version of “Why Don’t You Live So God Can Use You?” chugs along with the clackety-clack of a freight train cutting through Louisiana farmland. Refreshingly unconventional. – VA

SONG PICK: “Lord I Just Can’t Keep From Crying”