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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The Mini Moon Story

The Mini-Moon Story

Words: Vincent Abbate

Sometimes it’s the little things that count the most.

When Doug MacLeod came to Cologne in October to perform at our book launch event, he stayed over at the apartment I share with my wife and two kids. For one night, we cleared away the Hot Wheels and Lego and turned my son’s room back into the guest room it used to be. And while it wasn’t the Ritz Carlton, Doug appeared happy enough with the accommodations. Maybe it was the four-foot-high Spiderman poster towering over his bed.

Now, Doug is also a serious baseball fan. Specifically, a St. Louis Cardinals fan. My two children happen to play little league baseball for a club called the Cologne Cardinals. So I thought it would be nice to surprise him with a piece of Cologne Cardinals merchandise during his visit. My kids were in on the secret.

Doug was flying out to Zurich the morning after our book launch, but hung around long enough to sit down to breakfast with me and the kids. My five-year-old son, Ben, was antsy, tugging at my sleeve the whole time. When are we going to give him his present, daddy? When are we gonna give it to him?

When Doug had finished off his corn flakes and coffee, I popped into the next room with Ben and my ten-year-old daughter Mia. We came back out with our gift for Doug: a Cologne Cardinals t-shirt in bright red. Cardinal red. Our guest was touched.

“The Cologne Cardinals,” he read aloud. “Is that your baseball team?” He was looking at my son.

“Mine, too!” declared Mia, quick to point out that she also plays baseball.

“Well,” smiled Doug in his gentle way. “I am going to go put this in my suitcase. And when I get back home, I’m going to show it to my wife and to my son.”

Doug disappeared for a moment, while we remained in the kitchen, happy that the t-shirt had been a hit. When he returned, he was holding a flat, slender box. It was maybe a foot long and two inches high. He turned to my children.

“I only brought along one of these on this trip. And I didn’t know where it was gonna end up. But now I know. I want the two of you to have this.”

By now, I knew what it was. My kids had no idea. So Doug carefully opened the box for them and took out the autographed miniature replica of his National M-1 guitar. The one he calls Moon. (The real Moon was sitting in the room across the hallway, stowed safely inside its hardshell case.) He set up the little guitar stand that comes with it and made sure Mini Moon was secured inside the bottom yoke and neck cradle.

“That’s Doug’s guitar,” I explained. I must have been smiling ear to ear. “Oh, and it’s not a toy!”

“It’s a collectors’ item, right?”

That was my daughter. She’s old enough to understand the difference. When I later informed her that Doug had been selling the limited edition replica guitars through his online store, and that they’re sold out, she was even more impressed.

But my son, too, understood that Doug’s gift of Mini Moon was something extraordinary. It was both a spontaneous expression of gratitude and something that would help us forever remember the time he came to stay.

A few days later, before our next book launch event, Ben got to play the real thing.

WIB Live: Modern Earl / Vdelli

WIB Live Twin-Pack:

Modern Earl live @ Torburg, Cologne, Germany

Vdelli live @ Okiedokie, Neuss, Germany

Words & photos: Vincent Abbate

Hi folks! I’m going to bang this one out while the good vibes of the past weekend are still resonating. Two live shows by two bands who, on the surface, have little in common. One’s a blues power trio, the other a rootsy southern rock’n’roll combo. But there is a distinct similarity: Both outfits are based in Germany without being – in the strict sense – German bands. Vdelli’s frontman is a native Australian and Modern Earl has its roots in Nashville.

Let’s start with them, since they were the ones who gave this fun-packed weekend a rip-roaring kickstart on Saturday night.

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WIB Interview: Black Market III

Outside The Box

An interview with Scottie Blinn

of Black Market III

Words: Vincent Abbate / Photos: Josh Rose, Nick Abadilla

Honest, gritty and effective. Those are some of the words that leap to mind listening to Dashboard Jesus, the latest musical offering from Black Market III. The album reflects the sensibilities of these San Diego stalwarts, who trust in the value of hard work and choose blue-collar edginess over Hollywood flash.

The trio revolves around singer/guitarist Scottie Blinn and singer/bassist Roxy Coverdale – partners in life and in music. Blinn was bit by the blues bug at age 16, after catching a performance by Stevie Ray Vaughan at a local open air festival. But rather than become one of a hundred thousand SRV copycats, Blinn latched on as a sideman with another native of Texas, Tomcat Courtney, who grew up on the music of Lightnin’ Hopkins and T-Bone Walker. This elder statesman of the San Diego blues scene, now 89 years old, led him deep into the heart of the traditional, down-home blues.

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