MUSIC: Lightnin’ Malcolm, Foot Soldier
BEVERAGE: BrewDog Punk IPA
Words & photos: Vincent Abbate
Foot Soldier is one of roughly a half dozen solo albums authored by contemporary Hill Country bluesman Lightnin’ Malcolm. It was released in 2016 on Mississippi-based indie label Shakedown Records and I’m not sure many people noticed. Which is a shame. It’s a raunchy, no-frills, mud-spattered one-man band record, a fun ride down a dirty back road. It’s got attitude and it grooves and will whoop you upside the head if you dare turn your back on it.
Let’s crack open a bottle of BrewDog Punk IPA and give this sucker a spin …
MUSIC: The Chess Story Volume 1
BEVERAGE: Wolfscraft Frisch-Pils
Words & photos: Vincent Abbate
The Chess Story Volume 1, a Chess Records anthology covering the period from 1948 to 1956, is one of the albums that did it for me. A big bang that sent the blues hurtling into my universe.
Growing up in the States, the blues was familiar to me, but no more so than it was to your average American rock’n’roll fan. That means my concept of what the blues is and where it came from or even what real blues sounded like was vague and limited. I knew of John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters. I’d seen B.B. King on Sanford and Son and Bo Diddley’s cameo in the George Thorogood video. I didn’t think of Jimi Hendrix or Eric Clapton as blues because they were all over FM radio.
Then I found this Chess sampler from 1993 in the bargain bin at a local bookstore. Those were ten Deutschmark well spent. (I’d been living in Germany for maybe two years at that point.) Some of the music I knew – Waters, Chuck Berry – but it was the guys I’d never heard before – Robert Nighthawk, Jimmy Rogers, Lowell Fulson – that made me realize just how many blues treasures were out there waiting to be discovered.
Let’s crack open a bottle of Wolfscraft Frisch-Pils and give this little record a spin…
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
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”
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
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”
Time to catch up on some reviews. Our first CD Roundup covers recent releases by Delta Moon, Ian Parker, Seasick Steve and Jackie Venson.
–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”