What I’ve Been Listening To: Toronzo Cannon/The Chicago Way

Fourth album was the bus-driving Chicago blues man’s recording breakthrough

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This is starting to feel a bit like Groundhog Day. Lately, I find myself spotting a listening recommendation from my music streaming service, and before too long blogging about it. But I just can’t help it, when music grabs me, I get excited!😀

Should I have heard of Toronzo Cannon before? Probably yes, based on the recognition this contemporary Chicago blues guitarist singer/songwriter has received. But just because I’m a music fan who likes to write about his passion doesn’t mean I’m a know-it-all expert – in fact, I’m far from that; and if anything, this only becomes more clear the deeper I get into music blogging. And that’s quite okay with me, since I like exploring stuff I don’t know.

According to the bio on his website, when Cannon isn’t touring, he’s driving a Chicago Transit Authority bus during the day and playing the blues at night, “using every vacation day and day off and working four ten-hour shifts a week.” I know it sounds a bit cliche, but where other than in America do you hear about such stories?

I suppose if Cannon continues to work as a bus driver, this means one of two things or possibly both: Driving the bus helps him write his lyrics. Notes Cannon’s bio: His songwriting is inspired by his deep, homegrown Chicago roots, his years observing the public while working as a city bus driver on the West Side, and his own battles and triumphs. And/or Cannon still depends on his additional income as a bus driver, since he isn’t making enough money with his music. If it’s the latter, maybe Cannon isn’t that well known after all beyond Chicago blues circles, which would make me feel a bit better that I had not heard of him before. Regardless, he sure as heck plays a groovy blues guitar and has a great soulful voice.

Toronzo Cannon

Cannon is a native Chicagoan. He was born there on February 14, 1968 and grew up on the South Side of the city. He bought his first guitar as a 22-year-old and apparently was a quick study. Interestingly, he focused on reggae in the beginning, but soon found the blues was his real calling.  “It was dormant in me,” he says in his bio. “But when I started playing the blues, I found my voice and the blues came pouring out.” The bio also reveals he was influenced by the likes of Buddy Guy, Albert Collins, Hound Dog Taylor, B.B. King, Albert King, Freddie King, Al Green, Jimi Hendrix, J.B. Hutto, Lil’ Ed and others – surely a list of fine artists!

The Chicago Way, which appeared in 2016, is Cannon’s breakthrough album and the fourth album in his recording career that started in 2007. It’s his first release on Alligator and was co-produced by Cannon and the independent Chicago blues label’s president Bruce Iglauer. Cannon first had gained broader attention when he performed as one of the headliners at the Chicago Blues Festival in June 2015.

BTW, at the time The Chicago Way appeared, Cannon was 48 years old, in other words not exactly a young kid. Once again, this proves that age doesn’t have to be a hurdle when you got great talent like Cannon, though being younger in the brutal music business probably isn’t a disadvantage either! The record earned Cannon a nomination for a Blues Music Award in 2017 by the Blues Foundation as Album of the Year. While Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’ ended up winning that award for their outstanding collaboration record TajMo, which I previously reviewed here, being nominated with these guys in the first place says a lot about Cannon. Time to get to some music!

The album opens with a great funky tune called The Pain Around Me. Like all of the other 10 tracks, the tune was written by Cannon. Except for one track, I couldn’t find any clips on YouTube of the studio recordings, so I’m relying on live footage. But in my opinion, that’s not a disadvantage – if there’s one music genre that’s made to be experienced live, it’s the blues!

Another great song is Walk It Off. It’s got some of that cool Muddy Waters Hoochie Coochie Man and Mannish Boy vibe. I also dig the classic blues lyrics. Here’s an excerpt: She didn’t mean it, that’s what she said/He was an old friend and she lost her head/I know my woman is nice and kind/but now we don’t know if the baby is his or mine/I got to walk it off/I got to walk it off/The feeling’s so strong I might do something wrong/So I’m gonna just walk it off. I just love the story-telling!

Fine Seasoned Woman has a cool driving jazzy groove. I also dig the Hammond-like organ sound.

Midlife Crisis is another great tune featuring some classic blues lyrics: Woke up this morning feeling kind of strange/Some of you men might feel the same/Looked in the mirror the other day/My chest hair was turning gray/My old friends are far too old/Don’t wanna hang with them no more/Went to the doctor say, “what’s wrong with me?”/He looked in my eyes, “There’s one thing I see”/You having a midlife crisis/You having a midlife crisis, Lord/Don’t know what to do because you ain’t 22/You having a midlife crisis.

The last song I’d like to call out is When Will You Tell Him About Me? I think Cannon’s soulful voice comes out particularly nice out on this slow blues. Here’s a clip of the studio version for a change.

So what did some of the music reviews have to say about the album? Usually, I don’t care much about the critics, but if they agree with me, hey, I don’t mind!

“Deep, contemporary Chicago blues…razor-sharp guitar and compelling, forceful singing” – The Chicago Tribune

“One of Chicago’s new greats”  — The Chicago Sun-Times

“Progressive as he is rootsy…Slow, simmering riffs and smoldering licks” – Chicago Reader

“Among the cream of the next generation of Chicago blues musicians” — Blues & Rhythm

Yep, I can support all of the above!

Looking at Cannon’s remaining 2018 schedule, his next gigs are in Poland and the Czech Republic in mid-October, followed by U.S. shows in San Diego (Oct 28), Cleveland (Nov 9) and Auburn Hills, Mich. (Nov 10 & 11). If any of these places would be closer to Central New Jersey, I’d seriously consider seeing him. But I suppose there’s always hope for 2019!

Sources: Wikipedia, Toronzo Cannon website, YouTube

“The Blues Is Alive And Well,” Sings Buddy Guy On New Release

After listening to the blues legend’s smoking hot 18h studio album, you actually believe the title

“Is your album wishful thinking or reality,” Billboard asked Buddy Guy about his new record. “Both,” replied Guy. “Truth is, I’m worried about the blues. When B.B. King was still alive, we had long talks about why, outside of satellite, the radio don’t play no blues. On the other hand, I got me some youngsters. My protégé Quinn Sullivan is 19, but I discovered him when he was 8. Cat named Kingfish Ingram from the [Mississippi] Delta, just out of high school, is also playing serious blues.” Frankly, the way Guy sings and plays guitar on his new album doesn’t make you feel he needs any young dude to keep the blues alive, since he won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.

The Blues Is Alive And Well, which appeared yesterday about three years after his last Grammy-awarded release Born To Play The Guitar, is nothing less but breathtaking. On his 18th studio album, the 81-year-old blues maestro sounds as great as ever. And with Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Jeff Beck, he has some pretty cool guests. There is also 27-year-old English singer-songwriter and guitarist James Bay.

Buddy Guy, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards & Jeff Beck

Why the “Glimmer Twins” and Beck when Guy could have invited anyone to join him, asked Billboard. D’uh, why not? But Guy actually had answer that reflects his longtime sentiments. “Feel like I owed the British the respect they gave Muddy. In the ’60s, when our music was dying, the Stones and their English buddies woke up the world to the blues. They wouldn’t play if Muddy wasn’t on their show. They were shocked America was ignorant of the geniuses living right here in our own backyard. They saw where the gold was buried and they dug it up.”  Well, enough said for the upfront and time to get to some of that blues!

Frankly, I could highlight pretty much any of the record’s 15 tracks, since they are all terrific. Let’s kick if off with one called Guilty As Charged, which shuffles along nicely. According to Blues Blast Magazine, on this tune Guy is joined by producer and longtime collaborator Tom Hambridge (drums), Rob McNelley (rhythm guitar), Kevin MdKendree (keyboards) and Willie Weeks (bass). As also was the case on Guy’s more recent albums, Hambridge was also instrumental in the writing.

Cognac is one of the three tracks that had come out prior to the album. Featuring Richards and Beck, it’s definitely one of the album’s highlights. And even though I already wrote about it in my previous post, with these three dynamite guitarists trading solos, I just couldn’t resist including the song here as well – it’s just priceless!

Here’s the dynamite title track, which was co-written by Hambridge and Gary Nicholson. When I walked through the front door/I swear I heard the back door slam/I got a sneaky suspicion/You got another man/you’re doin’ me wrong, our love is dead and gone/But as far as I can tell/The blues is alive and well. One of tune’s distinct features are the great accents set by The Muscle Shoals Horns, including Charles Rose (trombone & horn arrangements), Steve Herrman (trumpet), Doug Moffet (tenor sax) and Jim Hoke (baritone sax) – gives me goose bumps!

Bad Day is another terrific mid-tempo blues shuffle that makes you want to grab a guitar and groove right along – not that I’m trying to imply that I could contribute anything meaningful here – just daydreaming a little! Blues Blast Magazine notes that the great blues harp fills are provided by Emil Justian, who once was the frontman for Matt “Guitar” Murphy’s band – good company!

On the next track I’d like to call out, Whiskey For Sale, things get funky – yeah, baby! I can hear a little bit of a Stevie Wonder groove in here. I can also picture James Brown shouting out a few ‘uh’s’ as you listen to the track. The beautiful backing vocals by Regina & Ann McCrary of the gospel music quartet The McCrary Sisters add a nice soul touch. I really dig that tune. Check it out!

The last track I’d like to highlight, You Did The Crime, is the song featuring Jagger. Intriguingly, you don’t hear him on vocals, but instead Jagger reminds us that he is a pretty decent blues harpist – something that was also vividly on display on Blue & Lonesome, the Stones’ all blues cover album from December 2016.

I’m really excited about this record – in fact, I predict it’s going to win Guy another Grammy in the blues category. I mean, seriously, how could you top this? In addition to being an ace guitarist, who still plays 150 shows a year, Guy once again shows us that music in order to be truly great needs one critical ingredient: the love to perform it!

Prompted by Billboard’s observation that throughout the album Guy’s joy seems to outweigh his worry about the future of the blues, he said: “Hell yes, the music is shot through with joy. Always has been. When I left the Louisiana farm on Sept. 27, 1957, for Chicago, I was looking for joy. And I found it. Joy went by the name of Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy [Williamson], Howlin’ Wolf. One thing those guys told me never left my mind: ‘Keep these blues, alive, Buddy. Don’t you ever let them die.'”

 

Sources: Wikipedia, Billboard, Blues Blast Magazine, YouTube

Buddy Guy To Release New Studio Album

“The Blues Is Alive And Well” features guest appearances from Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Jeff Beck and James Bay

A Facebook post from Buddy Guy’s page I spotted earlier made my day, or I should better say my evening. The 81-year-old blues legend will release The Blues Is Alive And Well, his 18th studio album this Friday. With his late fellow artists B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Junior Wells all having passed away, some may consider the title as optimistic, but when it comes to this record, the music surely is still cooking, based on the three tracks that are already out.

The album includes guest appearances by Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Jeff Beck and James Bay, a 27-year-old English singer-songwriter and guitarist. Guy has known and been friends with Jagger, Richards and Beck for decades. While other black blues artists at times have resented that white guys took their material and oftentimes became more successful than they did, Guy has a different view. He appreciates many of these white artists, especially British blues rockers, since they helped popularize the blues among white audiences, which he feels has also benefited black artists like him.

Here’s a clip of the most recently released track from the forthcoming  album.  Cognac features Richards and Beck. I just love how Guy calls them out. Plus the music and his singing are awesome. Guy still has a great soulful voice!

The album was produced by Guy’s longtime collaborator Tom Hambridge, who has worked with him since his 14th studio album Skin Deep from July 2008. Like on previous records, Hambridge was also involved in the writing.

“Every time I go into the studio my hope is that I give my best and come out with something good enough to try to keep the blues alive,” Guy told music journalist and Forbes contributor Derek Scancarelli. “But that’s not the case always. I don’t even think the Stones made a hit every time they went into the studio.”Added Hambridge: “It’s an important piece of music that’s coming out. He puts his blood and sweat in this stuff. This is a statement about his life. This is everything he has.”

I surely look forward to listen to the entire album this Friday.

Sources: Wikipedia, Forbes.com, YouTube

Damn Right, Buddy Guy Still Got The Blues

81-year-old Chicago blues legend shined at New York’s B.B. King Blues Club & Grill

Boy, had I been full of anticipation of this show, and Wednesday night it finally happened – Buddy Guy at B.B. King Blues Club & Grill in the heart of New York City. It was just as amazing if not even better as the first time I had seen the Chicago blues legend at New Jersey’s PNC Bank Arts Center in July 2016. Undoubtedly, one factor was the more intimate club setting where I was seated much closer to the stage. And then, of course, there was the man himself, who at age 81 still delivers the blues with a Jimi Hendrix-like intensity.

From the very beginning with the excellent opener Damn Right, I Got The Blues, Guy left no doubt why he had come to the Big Apple. As I usually do, I didn’t take any videos with my smart phone. Instead, I’m relying on YouTube clips to recreate some of the show’s highlights with the caveat that the footage was captured at different gigs. Written by Guy, Damn Right, I Got The Blues is the title track of his seventh studio album from 1991. Here’s a nice clip of the blues rocker from 2016.

Guy followed up his set’s fiery start with a 12-minute-plus version of the classic I’m A Hoochie Coochie Man combined with She’s Nineteen Years Old. Both tunes were recorded by Muddy Waters, who became a major influence on Guy after he had moved from his native Louisiana to the windy city of Chicago in 1957. The following clip from a concert earlier this month nicely illustrates the onstage persona of Guy who likes to tease his audience by cursing like a sailor. It also showcases his killer piano player Marty Sammon.

Another highlight of the set was Five Long Years, which Guy also recorded for his Damn Right, I Got The Blues album. The tune was written and first recorded by blues pianist Eddie Boyd, who scored a no. 1 hit with it on the Billboard R&B Chart in 1952. Guy’s rendition featured more hilarious cursing and a crazy solo by his guitarist Ric Jaz Hall, who mostly played rhythm but proved he can shred as well, if given the opportunity. The following clip from July 2017 nicely illustrates all of that. Check out Hall’s solo starting at about 2:25 minutes into the tune.

Yet another great moment occurred when Guy performed Skin Deep, the title track of his 14th studio album from 2008. He was joined on stage by his long-time producer Tom Hambridge who co-wrote the beautiful ballad with Guy and Gary Nicholson. I just loved Guy’s soulful singing in that tune.

Apart from singing and playing great blues tracks like the above, Guy also credited white British blues artists, especially his friend Eric Clapton, with introducing black blues artists to broader, white audiences. He also threw in a bit of Hendrix. Here’s a cool clip of a medley including Voodoo Chile and Cream’s Sunshine Of Your Love.

A few words about Guy’s excellent backing musicians, The Damn Right Blues Band. In addition to Sammon and Hall, the members include Orlando Wright (bass) and Tim Awesome Austin (drums). All of these artists are veterans of the Chicago blues scene and have been touring with Guy for more than a decade.

Also, the show had an excellent opening act, The Ben Miller Band. I had never heard of these guys before, who have been around since 2005. They play a dynamite mix of blues, country and bluegrass, using homemade instruments and other unusual equipment. Among others, this includes a one-string washtub bass played by Scott Leeper who is also the band’s drummer. In addition to a standard microphone, lead vocalist and guitarist Ben Miller uses a microphone from an old telephone that creates a unique distorted sound. Rachel Ammons (violin, cello, guitar) and Bob Lewis (bass, guitar, percussion) are also part of the current line-up.

I was very intrigued by this band and plan to check them out more closely. One of the tunes they played last night was a cool cover of Black Betty. Probably the best known version of this traditional African-American work song was released in 1977 by American one-hit rock band Ram Jam.

Finally, this post wouldn’t be complete without acknowledging the sad fact that Wednesday night’s concert was one of the final shows at the B.B. King Blues Club & Grill. After 18 years, the place is closing down at the end of the month. Guy will return to headline the final show on April 29. A note “To Our Valued Patrons” stated, “As a result of escalating rent, we are being forced to close our doors at the end of April” – what a shame! It was added the club is in the process to select a new location in Manhattan, so at least there appears to be a silver lining here.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening To: Buddy Guy/Left My Blues in San Francisco

Guy’s fantastic debut could have been called ‘Left My Blues In Memphis’

When it comes to Buddy Guy, I’ve yet to hear a bad song, so I feel you pretty much can’t go wrong. After Apple Music served up Left My Blues In San Francisco as a suggestion, I said to myself, ‘sure, why not.’ Other than I Suffer With The Blues and Leave My Girl Alone, which I had previously included in my iTunes Guy playlist, I don’t recall having listened to his debut in its entirely. When I did so this morning, my first spontaneous thought was, ‘boy, not only do I dig his guitar playing, but I also like his soulful voice.’ In fact, this whole album has a Wilson Pickett/Stax feel to it. As it turns out, this wasn’t accidental.

Remarkably, by the time Guy released Left My Blues In San Francisco, he already had been a professional guitarist for more than 15 years. According to Wikipedia, Guy, who was born and raised in Louisiana, had been performing with different bands in Baton Rouge since the early 1950s. In 1957, he moved to Chicago and met Muddy Waters. Soon thereafter, he became a session guitarist for Waters and other local blues artists, such as Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson. They were all under contract with Chess or that label’s subsidiary Checker.

Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters & Buddy Guy
Willie Dixon (l), Muddy Water (m) and Buddy Guy (r) at Chess Records, 1964

Apparently, company founder Leonard Chess felt Guy’s blues guitar playing sounded like “noise.” So Chess told Guy to play R&B ballads, jazz instrumentals and soul tunes and recorded him, but none of this material was released. In fact, Left My Blues In San Francisco became the only Guy record that appeared on the Chess label. I suppose, Leonard’s attitude explains the soulful sound of the record. While it pains me to think the album probably wasn’t the one Guy would have cut had Chess given him full artistic freedom, it’s a true gem, in my opinion.

As for Leonard Chess, according to an interview Guy gave to Rolling Stone in November 2015, he eventually realized how wrong he had been about Guy. “The first thing he said was, ‘I want you to kick me in my ass.’ And I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘Because you’ve been trying to show us this shit ever since you came here and we was too goddamn dumb to listen. So now this shit is selling and I want you to come in here — you can have your way in the studio.’ But by then I was gone.” Well, Chess had their chance and they blew it – tough luck! Time for some music.

The album kicks off with Keep It To Myself, a terrific opener that sets the soul mood for the record. The tune was written by Williamson who recorded it in 1956.

Next up: Crazy Love, another excellent song, which was written by Dixon. Guy’s take was the first recorded version of the track.

I Suffer With The Blues is one of three tunes on the album, which are credited to Guy.

Buddy’s Groove is another gem on the record. The song is credited to Gene Barge, who also produced the album and played the tenor saxophone on various songs, though not this one.

She Suits Me To A Tee is another original Guy tune. I really dig the groove and Guy’s vocal on this track.

The last song I’d like to call out is Every Girl I See, the album’s closer. The tune was co-written by Dixon and Michael M.P. Murphy.

To date, Guy has recorded sixteen additional solo albums. His most recent studio release is Born To Play Guitar, another fantastic record that appeared in July 2015. It won Guy the Grammy Award for Best Blues Album in 2016, his seventh. While Guy has been admired by many other guitar greats like Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Jeff Beck and Carlos Santana early on, it took until the early 1990s until those Grammy awards started coming.

Today, Guy can rightly be called the last man standing from the great Chicago blues artists. I’m thrilled I’m going to see him on April 18 at B.B. King Blues Club in New York City, which will be my second time after July 2016. Given ticket prices these days, there aren’t many artists I see more than once. When I learned Guy was coming to New York, it didn’t take long to convince me.

Sources: Wikipedia, Rolling Stone, YouTube

 

Clips & Pix: Buddy Guy & B.B. King/Stay Around A Little Longer

Earlier this week, I spotted this great clip on the website of the B.B. King Blues Club & Grill in New York City, where I will be in mid-April to see Buddy Guy. Sadly, his partner in the recording B.B. King passed away in May 2015 at the age of 89. While it will be my second time for Guy, unfortunately, I never saw King.

Written by Tom Hambridge and Gary Nicholson, Stay Around A Little Longer was recorded for Guy’s 15th studio album Living Proof from October 2010. In addition, the tune appeared separately as a single just prior to the release of the record, which was produced by Hambridge who also played drums and percussion.

The moving lyrics are a dialogue between King and Guy, who express their gratitude for the life each has had and mutual appreciation. Admittedly, when I watched this clip the other day, I found myself tearing up a bit, especially at King’s line, When I’m pushing up daisies, don’t forget/You’re still my buddy. The soul that comes across in this song and these words is just beautiful – this is music at its finest!

Sources: B.B. King Blues Club & Grill website, Wikipedia, YouTube

Clips & Pix: Buddy Guy/Whiskey, Beer & Wine

Earlier today, I listened to a blues playlist curated by Apple Music, which included the above killer tune by Buddy Guy. It’s almost like a Jimi Hendrix reincarnation played by a man who was 78 years old when he recorded the track – damn!

Whiskey, Beer & Wine appeared on Guy’s last studio album aptly titled Born To Play Guitar. That record was released on July 31, 2015, one day after his 79th birthday. The song was co-written by Richard Fleming (couldn’t find anything specific on him) and the record’s producer Tom Hambridge who also played drums and percussion. According to Wikipedia, Guy has called him “The White Willie Dixon.” Hambridge certainly has worked with an impressive array of blues artists, who in addition to Guy include Susan Tedeschi, George Thorogood and Johnny Winter, among others.

Born To Play Guitar climbed to no. 60 on the Billboard 200, not too shabby for a blues record these days, and topped the Billboard Blues Albums chart in late August 2015. It also won the 2016 Grammy for Best Blues Album.

According to his website, the now 81-year-old Guy continues to tour vigorously. In case you are wondering, he is scheduled to play Mystic Lake Casino Hotel in Prior Lake, Minn. tonight. The current temperature in that part of the country is -7F, so a dose of smoking hot blues sounds like a good proposition! Between January 4 and April 24, Guy has 39 additional scheduled gigs, if I counted it correctly! I saw him last July. If you’re into electric blues and like guitar shredders, I can highly recommend his show.

Sources: Wikipedia, Buddy Guy website, YouTube