What I’ve Been Listening To: Larkin Poe/Venom & Faith

A few weeks ago, Facebook served me up a video of two young women rocking out: One with an electric guitar, the other one with a pedal steel. Apart from compelling musicianship, the clip featured great harmony vocals, but what really stood out to me was their infectious raw energy. More recently, I watched another clip of 28-year-old Rebecca Lovell and her two-year older sister Megan Lovell, who since January 2010 have performed as Larkin Poe. This prompted me to listen to Venom & Faith, an intriguing album with a stripped back sound blending a strong dose of traditional blues and roots with more modern elements, such as electronic drum loops and handclaps.

Rebecca and Megan, who originally hail from Georgia and now live in Nashville, Tenn. started out as teenagers in 2005 with their eldest sister Jessica Lovell in a bluegrass/Americana formation called The Lovell Sisters. They released two studio records and one live album before disbanding in January 2010. Rebecca and Megan regrouped as Larkin Poe immediately thereafter. They got the name from their great-great-great-grandfather who according to this review in Glide Magazine was a distant cousin to Edgar Allan Poe.

Released in November 2018, Venom & Faith is Larkin Poe’s fourth and most recent studio album. Wikipedia also lists Tarka Layman (bass) and Kevin McGowan (drums) as band members, though I assume the two session musicians are part of the touring lineup. All Venom & Faith reviews I’ve seen only mention Rebecca and Megan, along with slide guitarist Tyler Bryant and recording engineer Roger Alan Nichols with whom the sisters co-produced the album.

Larkin Poe
Rebecca (l) and Megan Lovell

The stripped-back approach Larkin Poe used on this album largely mirrors their YouTube “Tip o’ The Hat” video series, where they take mostly well-known tunes, such as Aerosmith’s Pink, Steelers Wheel’s Stuck in the Middle With You and Thin Lizzy’s The Boys Are Back in Town, and create their own bare-bones versions. Check it out, these clips are fun to watch!

Let’s get to some music from Venom & Faith. The opener Sometimes is one of only two covers on the record. Co-written by Alan Lomax and folk and gospel singer Bessie Jones, the tune was first released by Jones in 1960.

Beach Blonde Bottle Blues is one of the album’s eight original tunes.

Next up: Mississippi. It features the above mentioned Tylor Bryant on resonator slide guitar.

Here’s Blue Ridge Mountains, another nice bluesy track.

The last tune I’d like to highlight is Hard Times Killing Floor Blues, the only other cover on the record. The song was written by delta blues artist Skip James in 1932.

I think Venom & Faith is a pretty cool album overall by two highly talented musicians. Perhaps my only point of criticism is the lack of real drums. The reliance on handclaps and drum loops does get a bit monotonous after a while. “For our previous records, we wanted to put our best foot forward, so there was a lot more production,” Megan told Guitar Player. You want to take out your mistakes, layer the guitars and double the vocals, and before you know it, you’ve covered up all the humanity in your performances…[For Venom & Faith] we didn’t want to smooth over the imperfections or the raw emotion, because often those are the very things listeners wind up loving.” Fair point!

Added Rebecca, “The production process was about how modern sounds could work with roots music to create a hybrid. We very much wanted to show that we are a female-fronted blues band in the 21st century.”

Venom & Faith has been nominated for the 2020 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Blues Album. I see great potential in Larkin Poe and look forward to more great music from these highly skilled and dynamic ladies.

Sources: Wikipedia; Glide Magazine; Guitar Player; YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening To: Lil’ Ed And The Blues Imperials/Full Tilt

Lil’ Ed And The Blues Imperialsgood golly, Miss Molly, sure like to ball, to borrow a famous line from Richard Wayne Penniman, the dynamite rock & roll artist known as Little Richard! I don’t believe I had heard from Chicago blues slide guitarist Lil’ Ed Williams and his backing band until this morning, when my music streaming provider served up their eighth studio album Full Tilt as a listening suggestion. Released in August 2008, this record is nothing short but an invitation to party, and I couldn’t help to start grooving behind the wheel of my car. Did I mention I’m a passionate dashboard drummer? 🙂

Here are some excerpts from the band’s official bio: In Chicago, a city overflowing with unrivaled blues talent, world-renowned Lil’ Ed & The Blues Imperials have been standing tall for over 30 years. The band’s big sound, fueled by Lil’ Ed’s gloriously rollicking slide work and deep blues string bending, along with his rough-edged, soulful vocals, is as real and hard-hitting as Chicago blues gets…

…Lil’ Ed Williams comes to the blues naturally. His uncle, Chicago slide guitar king and master songwriter J.B. Hutto, taught him how to feel, not just play the blues. Nine albums and thousands of performances later, Lil’ Ed is now universally hailed as a giant of the genre. Lil’ Ed and The Blues Imperials —bassist (and Ed’s half-brother) James “Pookie” Young, guitarist Mike Garrett and drummer Kelly Littleton— have remained together for over 30 years —an extraordinary feat for any group—, the band fueling Ed’s songs with their rock-solid, road-tested, telepathic musicianship…

Lil' Ed And The Blues Imperials
The band’s current lineup (from left): James “Pookie” Young (bass, backing vocals), Mike Garrett (guitar, backing vocals), Lil’ Ed Williams (guitar, lead vocals) and Kelly Littleton (drums)

…Born in Chicago on April 8, 1955, in the heart of Chicago’s tough West Side, Ed grew up surrounded by music. He was playing guitar, then drums and bass, by the time he was 12. Ed and Pookie received lessons and support from their famous uncle. “J.B. taught me everything I know,” says Ed. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without him.” Ed and Pookie spent their teen years making music together, and in 1975 formed the first incarnation of The Blues Imperials…

…Lil’ Ed & The Blues Imperials released eight Alligator albums between 1986 and 2012. With each one, the band’s national and international stature grew as their fan base —known internationally as “Ed Heads”— continued to expand. With 2006’s Rattleshake, Ed and company reached a whole new audience. Die-hard “Ed Head” Conan O’Brien brought the band before millions of television viewers on two separate occasions. Success and accolades never stop pouring in…The group took home the Living Blues Award for Best Live Performer in 2011, 2012 and 2013. They won the prestigious Blues Music Award for Band Of The Year in both 2007 and 2009…

‘Okay, enough of the hype,’ you might think, ‘show me the goods!’ Ask and you shall receive. Why don’t we just start with opener Hold That Train. Written by Williams, the tune got my immediate attention. If you’re into electric blues slide guitar, how can you not love it?

Are you ready for the next tune? Here’s Housekeeping Job, another fun track penned by Williams. Love that funky and soulful vibe. In addition to great electric slide guitar action, check out the tasty saxophone work by Eddie McKinley (tenor sax) and David Basinger (baritone sax). Damn, if this doesn’t make you move, I’m afraid you might be deaf or dead!

Okay, let’s slow things down to catch our breath with Check My Baby’s Oil. This track was co-written by Lil’ Ed and his wife Pam Williams. What I’m wondering is why would somebody want to hang out with a car. 🙂

First I Look At The Purse is speeding things back up. Co-written by Smokey Robinson and Bobby Rogers, the classic tune was first recorded by Motown act The Contours in 1965. Probably the best version I’ve heard of this tune is by The J. Geils Band and their fantastic “Live” Full House album from September 1972. But Lil’ Ed and his guys, whose dynamic playing style reminds me a bit of the ultimate party band, aren’t far behind.

Okay, all parties have to come to an end. Here’s one more, and yes, it’s sweet: Candy Sweet, another co-write by Lil’ Ed and his wife Pam.

After having listened to this album, boy, do I feel like seeing these guys live. And they are indeed on the road. The only problem is, none of the currently scheduled gigs is within reasonable distance from my house. The closest I can see is New Year’s Eve in Moon, Pa. While entering the 2020s with that kind of music sounds like a lot of fun, it would be a six-hour drive. Even for a music nut like me, that’s a dealbreaker. Perhaps instead, I’ll write a blues about it: Oh, Lil’ Ed, can’t you no see/Oh, Lil’ Ed, can’t you no see/Why can’t you play a lil’ closer to me

Sources: Wikipedia; Lil’ Ed & The Blues Imperials website; YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening To: Booker T./Note By Note

I guess I really should consider subscribing to a music magazine. The thing is, based on what I’ve seen, these publications mostly write about contemporary stuff that rarely interests me. If anyone has a great recommendation, please let me know. Why am I bringing it up? Because here’s another recently released album I completely missed. And while it only includes two new songs, I was immediately hooked when I started listening to the music a couple of days ago: Note By Note by Booker T. Yep, I’m talking about the man from Stax house band Booker T. & the M.G.’s.

To start with, I think Booker T.’s love of music isn’t only obvious but also truly infectious. That’s why I dig the man! Witnessing him in action playing the keys of his Hammond B3 frequently gives me goosebumps. In case you haven’t watched it yet, check out Booker T.’s demo of the iconic organ I previously covered here. If you’re a music lover and curious about exploring instruments, tell me how you can not feel like wanting to have a friggin’ Hammond and, in case you don’t know how to play keyboards, figuring out yourself how to create these magic sounds or take lessons after watching this – heck, if I could afford it, I would even put a B3 in my living room as a beautiful piece of furniture!

Booker T

By the way, Booker T. has something else I admire: The man is a multi-instrumentalist. Two instruments (guitar, electric bass) was all I could handle to learn many moons ago and, frankly, while I guess I was on okay player when I was at my best, I was far away from mastery! According to Wikipedia, apart from his signature Hammond B3, Booker T. also knows how to play the oboe, saxophone, trombone and double bass. And let’s not forget about the piano, though one could say that’s perhaps less of a surprise, considering the organ, despite the significant differences between those two instruments. In fact, as you can learn from the above noted clip, it was the piano and lessons Booker T. took as a child with his teacher in Memphis, Tenn., which led him to discover the mighty Hammond. Great story, by the way, and one of various anecdotes he tells during the demo. Have I whetted your appetite to watch? 🙂

Released on November 1, Note By Note is a companion album to Booker T.’s memoir Time Is Tight, which was published by Little, Brown and Company and appeared on October 29. According to a press release, Note By Note celebrates and revisits a number of integral musical moments throughout Jones’ life – from playing with Mahalia Jackson at age 12, to his pivotal role as bandleader, performer and songwriter at Stax, to his focus on production through his work with Willie Nelson and Carlos Santana. The tracks largely mirror the chapter titles of the book. The memoir certainly sounds intriguing, and you can check out a review in The New York Times here. In this post, I’d like to focus on the music, so let’s get to it!

Booker T. 2

While I didn’t see any clips on YouTube, luckily, the album is available on Soundcloud. Here’s the excellent opener Cause I Love You, the first single released by Carla Thomas in 1960, a duet with her father Rufus Thomas, who also wrote the lyrics of the song. It also featured her brother Marvell Thomas on keyboards and, yes, you perhaps guessed it, Booker T. A 16-year-old high school student at the time, he played the tune’s opening notes on a borrowed barritone saxophone – his very first studio recording! The single was released by Satellite Records, which eventually became the legendary Stax Records. The cover on this album features Evvie McKinney and Joshua Ledet, two young talented vocalists who sound smoking hot!

While it’s very well known, I simply could not leave out Born Under A Bad Sign, the blues classic first recorded by Albert King at Stax in May 1967, and co-written by Booker T. and William Bell. It’s the only track on the album, featuring Booker T. on lead vocals. That’s a bit of a pity, in my opinion, since he has a quite soulful voice. Check it out! By the way, that nice guitar work comes from Booker T.’s son Ted Jones.

Another tune I have to call out is Precious Lord. Written by the Reverend Thomas A. Dorsey, the gospel tune was recorded by Mahalia Jackson in March 1956 and became her signature song. The original complete title was Take My Hand, Precious Lord. As noted above, Booker T. got to perform with the famous gospel singer as a child – it’s not hard to see how that must have made a lasting impression on a 12-year-old! Check out the album’s powerful version featuring vocalist Sharlotte Gibson. Her voice together with the sparing instrumentation led by Booker T.’s Hammond is just beautiful! It makes me want to do a post to gospel music – so many powerful tunes in that genre!

So how about some Otis Redding? Ask and you shall receive! These Arms of Mine was written by Redding and initially released as his first single for Stax in October 1962. The song was also included on his debut album Pain In My Heat that appeared in March 1964. Redding, of course, was one of many Stax recording artists who were backed by Booker T. and the M.G.’s. This cover of the slow-tempo soul tune, which includes a piano part that reminds me a bit of Fats Domino, features Ty Taylor, another great vocalist who hails from New Jersey and is the leader of a soul rock band called Vintage Trouble. 

Next up: Havana Moon, a song written by Chuck Berry and first released in November 1956 as the B-side to his single You Can’t Catch Me. The tune also became the title track of a 1983 studio album by Carlos Santana, who appropriately gave it more of a Latin feel. That recording featured Booker T. The take on Note By Note is much closer to the Santana version than Berry’s original. In fact, Ted Jones’ guitar work is reminiscent of Santana – nicely done!

The last track I’d like to highlight is Maybe I Need Saving, one of the album’s two new tracks; the second one is called Paralyzed. Both were co-written by Ted Jones and feature him on vocals. I could not find information on who else was involved in writing these songs. At first, I was a little surprised about their inclusion on the album. Sure, Ted is Booker’s T.’s son, which is an obvious connection. But initially, I felt the more contemporary sound of these tracks created a bit of a disconnect to the other, older tunes. Yet, after fter having listened a few times, I actually think they are worthy tunes. Maybe I Need Saving has a nice bluesy touch, which once again features great guitar work by Ted, who has impressive guitar chops, and yet another illustration of Booker T.’s beautiful Hammond.

In addition to Ted Jones, Booker T.’s backing musicians on Note By Note include Steve Ferrone on drums (Average White Band, Tom Petty) and his longtime bandmate Melvin Brannon on bass. Booker T. is currently on the road to support the book and the record. Had I known about all of this a week earlier, perhaps I could have seen him at Le Poisson Rouge, a live music venue in New York City’s Greenwich Village – definitely a missed opportunity! Unfortunately, any of his remaining gigs are nowhere close to my location and include Salt Lake City (tonight), Phoenix (Jan. 8 & 9), Tucson (Jan. 10) and Nashville (Jan. 16). The schedule of all outstanding currently scheduled shows is here.

But not all may be lost. Booker T., who less than two weeks ago turned 75, is aging admirably and seems to be in decent health. So there still could be an opportunity for me to see the man – I would definitely love to, and preferably so at a small venue. Maybe he’ll read this and add some dates to his current tour that are within reasonable geographic reach! 🙂

Sources: Wikipedia; Shoe Fire Media press release; New York Times; Booker T. website; Soundcloud

What I’ve Been Listening To: David Crosby/Sky Trails

As somebody who considers Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young to be one of the best vocal harmony bands, you’d think I’d pay more attention to their individual members. With the exception of Neil Young, I guess I simply accepted that the sum is more than the parts. Even if that’s oftentimes true when it comes to top-notch bands, ignoring the parts can mean missing out on great music. Case in point: David Crosby and his album Sky Trails from September 2017, which is only his sixth solo record – pretty remarkable for an artist who released his solo debut in Feb 1971.

David Crosby

With David Crosby having been a founding member of The Byrds and Crosby, Still & Nash (CSN), and CSN having been active on and off between 1968 and 2015 – sometimes with, most of the time without Neil Young – I think it’s fair to say most people associate Crosby with the aforementioned bands. But, as noted above, he has released various solo albums. Sky Trails recently popped up as a listening suggestion in my streaming music platform. I’ve since listened a few times to the album and have to say I really dig it. I was also surprised how jazzy it is. I guess I had expected something more folk rock-oriented.

Let’s get to some music and kick it off with the opener She’s Got To Be Somewhere. This Steely Dan style tune is my favorite on the album. It was written by James Raymond, who produced the record, played keyboards, and, it turns out, is Crosby’s son – one of his four kids, not counting the two children born to Melissa Etheridge via artificial insemination.  Commenting on the tune, Crosby says on his website, “We didn’t consciously do that. We just naturally go to a place where Donald [Fagen] goes. I loved Steely Dan right from the first notes I heard.” Well, the man has good taste!

The album’s dreamy title track was co-written by Crosby with American singer-songwriter and guitarist Becca Stevens. The tune reminds me a bit of music I’ve heard by Clannad. Admittedly, it’s been a long time I’ve listened to the Irish folk band, and it would probably be worthwhile revisiting them. The saxophone fill-ins add a dose of jazz to the tune. “She’s a stunning, amazing singer and a great writer,” Crosby says of Stevens. “I’d rather be in a band with her than almost anybody.”

Here It’s Almost Sunset is a track co-written by Crosby and Mai Agan, an Estonian bass player and composer. It’s another tune on the quieter side. Most tracks on the album are. Again, there are nice saxophone accents. Wikipedia lists three saxophonists who supported the recording, Chris Bullock, Jeff Coffin and Steve Tavaglione, but unfortunately does not reveal who played on which song. Neither do the YouTube clips, which only list the aforementioned core musicians.

Capitol is a protest song co-written by Crosby and Raymond, expressing their less than flattering opinion about legislators: …And you think to yourself/This is where it happens/They run the whole damn thing from here/Money just burns, filling up their pockets/Where no one can see/And no can hear… Sadly, these words seem to ring true more than ever in this country these days.

The last tune I’d like to highlight is called Curved Air. It’s another co-write by Crosby and Raymond. The flamenco guitar sounded was created by Raymond using keyboards. “Hell no, I can’t play like that,” Crosby comments on the track that examines life’s contradictions.  “It’s James on keyboard. So is the bass. It’s the only time I’ve ever heard anybody write singer/songwriter music with flamenco playing.”

In addition to Raymond, Agan and Tavaglione, the core musicians on the album include Jeff Pevar (guitar), British-born, Canadian-raised singer-songwriter Michelle Willis (keyboards, vocals) and Steve DiStanislao (drums). “All the people in the Sky Trails band are much younger than me, so I have to paddle faster to keep up,” Crosby says with a laugh. This was not the first time he had played with them. Between 1996 and 2004, Crosby performed with Raymond and Prevar in the jazz rock band CPR, or Crosby, Prevar & Raymond. DiStanislao and Tavaglione played on CPR albums as well.

David Crosby, who turned 78 years in August, is still going strong. His most recent studio album Here If You Listen appeared in October last year. With four of his seven solo albums having been released since 2014, it appears Crosby is on some sort of late-career surge. He also continues to tour. In fact, he’s currently on the road in the U.S., with confirmed dates until September 17. The tour schedule is here.

There is also a new documentary, David Crosby: Remember My Name. Released on July 19, the film was directed by A.J. Eaton and produced by Cameron Crowe, who has known Crosby for many years. Based on the trailer, the film looks intriguing, and I’m going to watch it on Sunday evening at a movie theater in my area.

Sources: Wikipedia, David Crosby website, YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening To: Paul Simon/Still Crazy After All These Years

My introduction to Paul Simon happened many moons ago with Simon & Garfunkel and their second compilation Greatest Hits from 1972, which my sister owned on vinyl. I loved that record from the very beginning and still do to this day. Not long after I had heard it for the first time, I started taking guitar lessons and eventually got a songbook for that collection. I practiced hard to learn the tunes and soon found out what a formidable acoustic guitarist Paul Simon is. Eventually, I managed to figure out the finger-picking for The Boxer – haven’t tried playing that tune in 20-plus years. Anyway…

While there’s an obvious connection to Simon & Garfunkel, this post is about Paul Simon’s fourth studio album Still Crazy After All These Years, which appeared in October 1975. I would say I know a good deal of Simon’s tunes he recorded as a solo artist, but other than the fantastic Graceland from August 1986, I cannot really make the same claim for his albums. As oftentimes happens, the idea for this post was triggered when my streaming music provider served up the record as a listening suggestion. It didn’t take me long to realize this is a great album with a smooth jazz, blues and soul-influenced sound – my kind of music!

Let’s kick things off with the excellent opener and title track. Like all songs on the record, it was written by Simon, one of my favorite American singer-songwriters. It nicely sets the mood for the album. BTW, the recording features the Muscle Shoals Rhythm SectionBarry Beckett (Fender Rhodes piano), David Hood (bass) and Roger Hawkins (drums). Also, check out that beautiful saxophone solo by Michael Brecker, which starts at around 2:12 minutes.

My Little Town reunited Simon with Art Garfunkel. The tune, which also appeared on Garfunkel’s second solo album Breakaway that was released about 10 days prior to Still Crazy, became the first single credited to the duo since America, a single off their above Greatest Hits compilation. Simon and Garfunkel may have had a complicated relationship, but they surely recorded some great music together and their voices blended perfectly with each other. While perhaps a little bit lush in the second part (hey, it’s the ’70s!), the song has a nice build.

The big hit from the album of course is 50 Ways To Leave Your Lover. Yes, I realize it’s perhaps an obvious choice everybody knows, but I just dig that tune way too much to skip it. I love that cool drum part played by Steve Gadd, as well as the song’s bluesy feel and clever lyrics. It became the record’s third single and Simon’s only solo song to top the Billboard Hot 100.

Next up: Gone At Last, another gem on the album with a great soul and gospel vibe. Phoebe Snow and The Jessy Dixon Singers provided dynamite guest vocals. The track also became the album’s lead single in August 1975. According to Wikipedia, Phoebe received a credit on the single. The song charted in the top 25 on the Billboard Hot 100.

The last track I’d like to highlight is Have A Good Time, which nicely sums up what I feel when listening to this record. This is another great song with a nice bluesy feel. Musically, it’s the slide guitar, as well the alto saxophone played by Phil Woods, which speak to me in particular. Check it out!

Still Crazy After All These Years was co-produced by Simon and South African born recording engineer and producer Philip Ramone. The record won Grammy Awards for Album Of The Year and Best Male Pop Vocal Performance in 1976. It hit no. 1 on the Billboard 200 and received Gold certification from the Recording Industry Association of America, making it one of Simon’s most successful solo albums.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening To: Katrina And The Waves/Katrina And The Waves

Now here’s a blast from the past! The other day while driving in the car with my wife who likes ’80s music big time, we listened to some sampler of tunes from that decade. One of the songs was Walking On Sunshine, which became a huge hit for Katrina and The Waves in 1985. Unlike some of that sampler’s other tunes I dug at the time but now not so much, I thought Walking On Sunshine still sounds like a perfect summer song. This made me revisit the band’s album on which the tune appeared and realize I also still like most of the other tracks.

According to Wikipedia, Katrina and the Waves were a British-American band that emerged from a pop cover group called Mama’s Cookin’. Founded in 1978, that band from Feltwell, England featured American guitarist and vocalist Katrina Leskanich and Vince de la Cruz (vocals, lead guitar). In late 1980, Alex Cooper joined on drums. He brought in guitarist Kimberley Rew. Rounding out the five-piece was Bob Jaskins on bass. Subsequently, the band renamed themselves The Waves before finally becoming  Katrina and The Waves in August 1982.

Katrina and The Waves Poster
Katrina and The Waves in the ’80s (from left): Alex Cooper, Katrina Leskanich, Vince de la Cruz and Kimberley Rew

In early 1983, the band recorded their self-financed debut album Walking On Sunshine. Eventually, they got a deal with Canadian label Attic Records, which released the record in Canada only. The sophomore Katrina and The Waves 2 appeared in 1984, also in Canada only. The following year, the band signed an international deal with Capitol Records and recorded their third album. Titled Katrina and The Waves, it became their breakthrough, fueled by the single Walking On Sunshine. Interestingly, all tracks on that album were re-recorded, remixed or overdubbed tunes from the band’s two previous Canadian albums. Time for some music!

Let’s kick it off with the nice opener Red Wine And Whisky. Like all except two of the 10 tracks, the tune was written by Rew.

Here’s the excellent Cry For Me. I dig the nice soulful vibe and Leskanich’s strong lead vocals.

Next up, the above noted Walking On Sunshine. You could not switch on the radio in Germany at the time and not hear that tune. Though according to Wikipedia, it was more successful in other countries, especially in Ireland, Canada, U.K. and the U.S. where it reached no. 2, 3, 8 and 9, respectively on the corresponding singles charts. In Germany, it peaked at no. 28.

The last track I’d like to call out is the closer The Game Of Love. The tune features some nice Chuck Berry style guitar, as well as great brass work by Irish saxophonist John Earle.

While Katrina and The Waves continued to release six additional records through the remainder of the ’80s and most of the ’90s, they couldn’t repeat the success of the above album. In 1997, the band scored another hit single with Love Shine A Light, after they won the Eurovision Song Contest with it the same year. Let’s just say it’s quite different from the previously featured tunes. After the band broke up in 1999, Leskanich launched a solo career and has released various albums since then. Apparently, Rew also continued to write, record and release music.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening To: Jontavious Willis/Spectacular Class

I’ve said it before and I say it again. While the likes of B.B. King, Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon are gone and Buddy Guy is one of a handful of last men standing from the old guard, the blues is alive and well. It’s particularly encouraging to see young artists embrace it. Perhaps the most compelling example I know is 22-year-old Jontavious Willis. None other than Taj Mahal has called him “Wunderkind.” Recently, he executive-produced the young bluesman’s sophomore album Spectacular Class, which appeared in April this year.

In some regards, the story of Willis, who is from Greenville, Ga., mirrors that of other great blues artists. The church and a key event determined his path. According to his website, Willis grew up singing gospel music with his grandfather at a local Baptist house of worship. Then, as a 14-year-old, he saw Muddy Waters on the tube. In the old times, it would have been television, but this is the 21 Century, so it was actually YouTube. Apparently, Willis was instantly hooked and knew that’s the music he wanted to play – I just love these types of stories!

Jontavious Willis and Taj Mahal
Taj Mahal with his Wonderboy, the Wunderkind

I’m not sure how Willis and Taj Mahal found each other. Apparently, Mahal asked Willis to play on stage with him in 2015. Then I guess he became a mentor. “I had an opportunity to have him grace my stage when I came to Atlanta,” said Mahal. “He had a thunderous response from the audience. It was just so great. I’m very, very particular and very private about my stage so – and if somebody is on it giving the full run to go, you know that they must be able do whatever it is that they say they can do, and I say that he can do it and more.”

In 2016, Willis released his debut album Blues Metamorphosis. The following year, he opened up select gigs for Mahal and Keb’ Mo’ during their TajMo tour. That’s were I first heard about Willis and actually saw him.  As you can read here, I was really impressed what this young man who performed solo got out of his acoustic guitar. Fast-forward to the presence and Spectacular Class, which by the way is not some overly confident statement by the artist about his music, though it actually is outstanding, in my humble opinion. Instead it refers to a line in one of the songs called Take Me To The Country: …The folks in the country don’t live too fast got good mannerism and spectacular class

Time to get to some of that spectacular music! Here’s the opener Low Down Ways. Don’t you agree this sounds awesome and certainly not like some 22-year-old kid? It does remind me a little bit of Keb’ Mo’, who served as the record’s producer and also plays guitar on several tracks including this one. By the way, all songs on the album were written by Willis.

In the second track Willis asks the question The Blues Is Dead? But he doesn’t waste much time to offer his perspective: …The blues ain’t going nowhere, gonna be here for a great long time/As long as folks got situations and problems on their mind… According to this upbeat review from Rock and Blues Muse, the tune in addition to Willis on lead vocals and slide guitar features Phil Madera on piano and Andrew Alli on harp. Apart from Mo’ (electric guitar), other musicians on the album include Martin Lynds and Thaddeus Witherspoon on drums, as well as bassist Eric Ramey – clearly, all top-notch craftsmen!

Daddy’s Dough is a delta blues type of tune that nicely showcases Willis’ abilities on acoustic guitar, with nice harp fill-ins by Alli. Dig the groove on this one!

Next up, the above mentioned Take Me To The Country. This is the type of country blues Willis is oftentimes associated with and another nice example of his acoustic guitar chops – just great! Here’s a nice video showing Willis in action. Check out the great fingerpicking!

The last track I’d like to highlight is the album’s closer The World Is In A Tangle. Here’s the official video – some killer guitar, banjo and mandolin work on this tune! Sadly, the lyrics capture how I sometimes feel about present day America: The world’s in a tangle it’s time to make a change/I’m gonna move away and change my name/I said the world’s in a tangle what’s going on/I’m going to a foreign land and make it my home

Here’s how Willis describes his sound and approach to the blues: “My instrument sound is simple; my voice is what I put on the forefront. I feel that’s what the blues is about. When you start focusing on your instrument more than vocals you are forgetting the purpose of the blues, which is to tell a story.”

Given Taj Mahal’s important role in Willis’ career thus far, it feels appropriate to quote him again: “Jontavious Willis. That’s my Wonderboy, the Wunderkind. He’s a great new voice of the 21st Century in the acoustic blues. I just love the way he plays. He has really just delightful timing and a real voice for the music because he was raised in the tradition and the culture. It’s just wonderful to hear him sing. The way he tunes his guitar is just amazing. There’s not a bluesman alive that could pick his instrument up and play it. You’d have to sit there for a good while to figure those tunings out.” High but well-deserved praise from a living blues legend!

Willis is currently on the road in the U.S., with a few gigs overseas in Switzerland, Denmark and Norway scheduled between August 29 and September 7. On some of his dates later this year, he is playing with Keb’ Mo’, e.g., Charlotte, N.C. (Sep 18), Oklahoma City (Sep 22) and Fort Collins, Colo. (Sep 26) – should be an awesome show! The full schedule is here.

Sources: Jontavious Willis website, Rock and Blues Muse, YouTube