–UNDER THE RADAR RECOMMENDATION –
Has singer/songwriter/guitarist Jackie Venson been flying under the radar, or am I simply late to the party? The Austin native has been releasing material on both EP and LP since 2013 and is coming off a triumphant appearance at the Austin City Limits Festival this fall. Transcends is an EP of five one-word titles (“Flying,” “Fast,” “Mysterious,” “Fight” and “Transcends”) released in 2017. It’s an attention-grabber for sure. It opens with the blues-funk-pop hybrid “Flying,” where snappy rhythms underscore Venson’s luminous voice. “Fast” leans more toward indie-rock, like something Spin Doctors might have done in their heyday. Venson chooses softer tones on “Mysterious” and spreads some serious good vibes on “Fight” (“To change the world you first must change yourself”) and the title track (“Love transcends death, destruction, exploitation…”). Ultimately, the EP is a celebration of peace, love and good intentions; after it’s over, you’re certain Jackie Venson is someone you’d like to spend a few hours with. She has continued releasing singles in 2018 and is definitely worth checking out. – VA
SONG PICK: “Fast”
Can U Cook?
Rough around the edges. That’s how Steven Gene Wold aka Seasick Steve refers to himself on the tune “Last Rodeo.” And that’s how his innumerable his fans like him. The Oakland-born musician, now in his late sixties or late seventies depending on the source, has achieved gold and platinum status in the United Kingdom despite being largely overlooked in the United States. He boasts of a past that includes long stints of manual labor, hoboing and flat-out living on the streets. Those experiences continue to inform his music, often played on a battered guitar he calls the Three-String Trance Wonder. He’s been doing pretty much the same shtick since his breakthrough as a solo artist with 2006’s Doghouse Music, offering a gritty, lowdown, sometimes tongue-in-cheek outlaw blues with occasional forays into Americana and classic rock. So with every new Seasick Steve album, you kind of know what to expect. The crazy thing is – it works! On Can U Cook?, his tenth album overall, even more so than usual. Wold has come up with an exceptionally strong batch of songs this time, from the swampy, CCR-esque “Down de Road” to the Howlin’ Wolf-inspired “Shady Tree” to the wistful “Last Rodeo,” on which he decries the slickness of modern culture. As always, his playing is effective without being flashy and is propelled by the infectious and intricate grooves of drummer Dan Magnusson. A must for fans. – VA
SONG PICK: The darker-than-dark “Chewin’ on da Blues.”
Spoonful Of Gold – Blues For Willie
Ian Parker stumbled upon the inspiration for Spoonful Of Gold – Blues For Willie three summers ago at a Parisian bookshop. The Willie Dixon biography I Am The Blues led him to look beyond “Hoochie Coochie Man” and “Little Red Rooster” and dive deeper into the canon of the blues’ most prolific and celebrated songwriter. Parker, a native of Birmingham, England, has often been rather singer-songwriterly himself, known as much for his incisive lyrics and sensitive vocal delivery as for blasting out riffs on his Stratocaster. Spoonful Of Gold allows him to reassert himself as a bluesman. The potent opening salvo on “Evil” announces an album with plenty of punch, drenched in blues, that nevertheless refuses to imitate. Rather than adhere slavishly to the original “Back Door Man” or “I Just Want To Make Love To You” – songs every blues fan has heard dozens of times – Parker and band apply their unique gifts to create contemporary versions that stand on their own. He also includes lesser-known Dixon gems like “Mighty Earthquake and Hurricane” and “Weak Brain, Narrow Mind” that will inevitably lead listeners to seek out the originals. A worthy tribute. – VA
SONG PICK: “My Love Will Never Die”
Babylon is Falling
Babylon Is Falling finds Atlanta-based stalwarts Delta Moon serving up a solid-as-always selection of straightforward, no-frills electric blues. It’s already the ninth studio album by the four-piece, who debuted in 2002, with Georgia transplants Tom Gray and Mark Johnson driving the sound on lap steel and bottleneck slide guitar, respectively. The interplay between Gray and Johnson continues to be the band’s trademark and shines out strong on “Skinny Woman,” with bassist Franher Joseph and drummer Vic Stafford pumping out a Burnside-esque, North Mississippi groove. “Little Pink Pistol” is equally groovy, whereas “Somebody In My Home” offers classic Chicago Blues dipped in Southern Gothic. Delta Moon knows how to keep a song compact and to the point; those looking for guitar histrionics are advised to look elsewhere. In fact, there is no whipped cream and sprinkles on Babylon Is Falling. You won’t find this album anywhere near the dessert tray. Rather it’s a satisfying helping of meat-and-potatoes blues. – VA
SONG PICK: “Skinny Woman”
. . . is now called CD ROUNDUP.
Because my desk looks like this:
First installment coming soon.
The Jellyman’s Daughter – “Cry, Cry Darling”
Words: Vincent Abbate
Looking back in pop music history, you’ll find certain voices that were made for one another. Think about it: What would “Cathy’s Clown” have sounded like if it had only been Phil and not Phil and Don Everly on vocals? Would “The Sound of Silence” have been as powerful if Paul Simon or Art Garfunkel had sung it alone?
Like the aforementioned musical giants, songbird Emily Kelly has a voice that is lovely in its own right. Fellow Scot Graham Coe can more than carry a tune. Put them together and magic happens. In fact, Coe and Kelly possess an extremely rare ability to make their two voices move as one. That dynamic, more than anything else, is what makes Edinburgh-based acoustic duo The Jellyman’s Daughter such a captivating listen.
The Walter Davis Project
A few days ago I was preparing to interview Christian Rannenberg, one of the world’s finest blues piano players, for the Talkin’ Blues show in Cologne. Chris lives in Berlin and I hadn’t seen him for a number of years. So I did some digging to find out what he’d been up to. My most pleasant discovery was The Walter Davis Project.
Chris had told me about his intention to do a Walter Davis tribute album as far back as 2006. He’s been an admirer of Davis – the Mississippi-born pianist who recorded roughly 150 sides for the Victor and Bluebird labels in the 30s, 40s and 50s – ever since first sitting down to play the blues on a piano keyboard. As the initiator and driving force behind the project, he wound up investing a good deal of his own money on sessions with Billy Boy Arnold, Charlie Musselwhite and several others. But the recordings lay around gathering dust until Rannenberg and harmonica player Bob Corritore crossed paths at a memorial celebration for mutual friend Louisiana Red in 2012.
Terry Evans –
“I’ll Be Your Shelter (In The Time Of Storm)”
Terry Evans, who passed away on January 20th at the age of 80, had one of those phone book voices. You know: Open to any page in the phone book, hand it to Terry, have him sing it and wait for the goose bumps to come.
He was almost 70 years old when we spoke in 2005, coinciding with the release of his Fire In The Feeling album. At the time, he felt the voice he considered to be God-given growing gradually weaker.
“It’s not as strong now as it was 20 years ago,” said the man who’s first success came in the 1960s, backing singer Jewel Akens as a member of The Turnarounds. “Through experience, I know how to use my voice. But there are notes I can’t hit anymore that I used to hit effortlessly. Now it’s an effort.”
Popa Chubby – “Back To New York City”
Time to kickstart a new year at Who Is Blues and to do some looking back forward.
Picture me craning my neck from my birthplace on the south shore of Long Island to catch a glimpse of big city life in Manhattan. I didn’t much like the blandness of the suburbs growing up, so I made the move at 18, getting to know the heart of The Beast intimately during the drab, depressed, rodent-infested 1980s.
At the same time, Bronx native Ted Horowitz (aka Popa Chubby) was making a name for himself as a singer and guitarist at gloriously rowdy places like Dan Lynch’s Blues Bar on Second Avenue and 14th Street and Manny’s Car Wash up on Third Avenue and 88th Street. Chubby hosted a blues jam there before launching into a recording career that has seen him release roughly two dozen albums since the early 90s.