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”

DANY FRANCHI

Problem Child

Station House Records

If his busy tour schedule is any indication, Italy’s Dany Franchi looks to be carving out a nice little niche for himself on the international scene. On Problem Child – recorded last year in Austin under the guidance of veteran guitar slinger Anson Funderburgh and Don Ritter of Category 5 Amps – the young singer/guitarist shows off the full range of his potential. An A-list studio band including bassist Nate Rowe, drummer Wes Starr, keyboard player Jim Pugh and the always reliable Texas Horns provides ideal backing for Franchi’s concise, tasty fretwork and sweet, soulful singing voice. The Genoa native sounds equally at home on straight-up Texas shuffles and in Memphis-flavored R&B, does some Claptonesque riffing on “Wanna Know” and hits the Freddy King lick-fest “Sen-Sa-Shun” out of the park. What sets him apart from many contemporary players – besides his ability to sing! – is the restraint in his playing. Franchi never lays it on too thick and thus sounds right at home amidst this gathering of seasoned pros.  – VA

SONG PICK: “Back To The River”

SHAKEDOWN TIM & THE RHYTHM REVUE

Shakedown’s Th’owdown

Rhythm Bomb Records

This 2018 release on Germany’s Rhythm Bomb Records is another fine example of transatlantic cross-pollination. It pairs Tim Ielegems – a skilled old-school guitarist and bandleader from Belgium who names Pee Wee Crayton and Junior Watson as key influences – with Alabama-born harp veteran “Icepick” James Harman. Ielegems invited Harman to produce the record after a stint in his band. Once Harman had signed on to the project, they called in piano stalwart Gene Taylor (Blasters, Fabulous Thunderbirds) to play on six of the album’s even dozen cuts. So what you’ve got here is a pair of seasoned American pros joining forces with a much younger group of Belgian players. The result is a high-spirited mix of mostly up-tempo Westcoast-flavored blues and rock’n’roll. The instrumental “Icepick’s Shakedown Th’owdown,” featuring solos by Harman, Ielegems and baritone sax player Bart Stone, embodies the album’s freewheeling  energy. The band excels on the swaying rhythm of “Junior’s Mambo” while “Rollin’ On” is highlighted by Ielegems’ tight, angular guitar figures, some glorious sax from Stone and the heavy hitting of drummer Dennis de Gier. The moody, late-night blues of “No More Fightin'” and a faithful interpretation of Crayton’s signature tune “Blues After Hours” round out a strong disc showing that Shakedown Tim and his buddies can hang with the best of them. – VA

SONG PICK: “Junior’s Mambo”

WIB Interview: Mike Zito

The Man from MARZ

An interview with Mike Zito

Words: Vincent Abbate / Photos: Marcella auf der Heide

Meet producer Mike Zito. Oh, I know: We all love to watch Mike get onstage and tear down the house with one of his reliably staggering performances. A charming dude who is only underrated as a guitarist and singer because his songwriting is so good – what’s not to like?

But for the past decade or so, the St. Louis native and 2018 BMA-winner as Rock Blues Artist of the Year has been moonlighting at the mixing desk. When the head of the Germany-based Ruf Records label, Thomas Ruf, asked him to come to Berlin and supervise a trio of young, fairly inexperienced female artists during the making of an album called Girls With Guitars, Zito jumped at the chance. He followed that up by producing one of those three axe-toting ladies, Samantha Fish, on her first two solo records for the same label. Fish has since become one of the blues’ hottest properties. Knowing that he had a hand in getting that particular ball rolling, Zito can look back with a certain fatherly pride.

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