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

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Keb’ Mo’ Releases Roots-Oriented Album Oklahoma

Keb’ Mo’ fully entered my radar screen only two years ago with TajMo, a collaboration album with Taj Mahal and one of my favorite new records from 2017. My fondness for Mo’ grew further when I saw him together with Mahal during the TajMo supporting tour, one of the greatest shows I’ve been to in recent years. Perhaps not surprisingly, I was full of anticipation about Mo’s new album Oklahoma, which appeared yesterday. Let me say this right upfront: It’s very different from TajMo, but after having listened to the 10 tracks for a few times, I like it and with every additional run-through, I like it even better.

Typically, the Nashville-based guitarist and singer-songwriter whose real name is Kevin Roosevelt Moore, is characterized as a blues artist. But based on my understanding, Mo’ has frequently ventured beyond the blues into other styles like R&B, Americana and roots music. While Oklahoma has some bluesy moments, it primarily falls into the Americana/roots genre.

Keb' Mo' & Dara Tucker
Dara Tucker & Keb’ Mo’

According to Mo’s website, the inspiration for the album’s title track came to Mo’ after he had visited the state for a benefit show in the aftermath of a tornado and seen all the destruction. But it wasn’t until he met American vocalist and Oklahoma native Dara Tucker that the idea of making an album focused on The Sooner State was born. As Mo’s website puts its, Together, they set about to portray the complicated depth of American history played out in her home state. Native American connection and tragedy, natural and man made disasters, incredible musicians and the Tulsa Sound, and western ruggedness and fortitude are all themes.

Initially, Mo’ had set out to make an acoustic solo album, and it wasn’t supposed to be called Oklahoma. “I just wanted some good songs, like I always do—I wanted 10 really good, authentic songs,” Mo told Blues Rock Review. “I had this idea about Oklahoma, and I was like, ‘Oh god, Oklahoma—that’s just crazy. That has nothing to do with me.’ I had a writing session with a writer I’d never written with, Dara Tucker. I said, ‘Where are you from?’ She says, “Oklahoma.” I go, ‘Okay—there might be something with this Oklahoma idea. Let’s just write this idea; I don’t know what’s going to come of it.'”

Well, let’s find out! Here’s the title track co-written by Mo’ and Tucker. The tune features great lap steel guitar playing by Robert Randolph.

Put A Woman In Charge features singer-songwriter Rosanne Cash, the eldest daughter of Johnny Cash and his first wife Vivian Liberto Cash. The track was co-written by Mo’, John Lewis Parker and Beth Nielsen Chapman. “That was supposed to be a stand-alone single, but I loved the way it turned out, so I had to put it on the album,” Mo’ noted on his website. “I’d never worked with Rosanne before, but somebody suggested that she might like it. She said yes, and she put down her part, and it was just so badass.” The message of the groovy tune is pretty clear. Here’s an excerpt of the lyrics.

Way back when/In the beginning of time/Man made the fire then the wheel/Went from a horse to an automobile

He said “the world is mine”/He took the oceans and the sky/He set the borders – build the walls/He won’t stop till he owns it all

And here we are/Standing on the brink of disaster/Enough is enough is enough is enough/I know the answer

Put a woman in charge/Put a woman in charge/Put a woman in charge/Put a woman in charge…

Since I previously wrote about This Is My Home, one of my favorite tunes on Oklahoma, I’m skipping it here and jump right to Don’t Throw It Away. Co-written by Mo, Charles Esten and Colin Linden, Mo’s friend and the album’s primary producer, with Mo’ co-producing, the bluesy tune about the virtues of recycling features Taj Mahal and is the closest it gets to TajMo.

The last track I’d like to highlight is Ridin’ On A Train, another bluesy tune co-written by Mo’ and Jenny Yates. The song only features Mo’ on vocals and resonator guitar and drummer Marcus Finnie.

Commenting on the album overall on his website, Mo’ said, “I’m more interested in pleasing myself, and making records that make me feel proud and make me feel like I’ve done my best. And if other people like it, that’s gravy.” He further pointed out, “When you are in a certain part of your life, the concept of an album is woven into the process. All of these songs stemmed from important issues and topics worldwide that really resonated with me during the time we were recording the project.”

Oklahoma appears on Concord Records. Mo’ dedicated the album to his late mother, Lauvella Cole, who passed away in September 2018 at the age of 91. Mo’ is currently on the road to support the record. After finishing a U.S. leg, he is headed overseas at the end of the month for a series of dates in Europe, lasting well into the second half July, before returning to the U.S. in late August after taking a break. The full schedule is on his website.

Sources: Wikipedia, Keb’ Mo’ website, Blues Rock Review, Glide Magazine, YouTube

 

Pix and Clips: Keb’ Mo’/This Is My Home

I just spotted this beautiful tune and clip by Keb’ Mo’. Since his fantastic collaboration album with Taj Mahal TajMo and seeing the two artists in August 2017 during the tour that supported the record, I’ve come to dig Mo’.

Co-written by Mo’ and John Lewis Parker, This Is My Home is from Mo’s upcoming new album Oklahoma, which is set for release on June 14. “This Is My Home is a love story about people making their way in a changing world,” Mo’ commented. “Immigrant, enslaved or native, we all have a story and a history.”

To me, the lyrics go to the heart and soul of what America has traditionally stood for. Nowadays, unfortunately, this philosophy seems to be in danger. But in countries that have free elections, it’s up to the people to decide what kind of leaders and country they want to have.

Lupe came here from Mexico
About 3 or 4 years go
And the journey, the journey, the journey was long
She got a job at a local factory
Sent money back home to her family
She said, “This is where I belong
This is my home
This is where I belong”

A man arrives from Pakistan
A stranger in the promised land
Mohammed, Mohammed was finally free
He drove day and night in a taxi cab
When people got mean
He didn’t get mad
He knew, this is where I belong
This is my home
This is where I belong

La la la la la la…

Lupe had school on Monday night
When a man walked in who looked just right
Mohammed and Lupe were falling in love
Well they raised a beautiful family
Taught them all their history
They know, this is where they belong
This is their home
This is where they belong

My people came over from Africa
To North and South America
And the journey, the journey, the journey was long
They sacrificed and they paid the price
So I could live this wonderful life
And I know, this is where I belong
This is my home
This is where I belong

La la la la la la…

This is where I belong
This is my home
This is where I belong

Sources: Facebook, YouTube

Clips & Pix: Keb’ Mo’/The Worst Is Yet To Come

Here’s a pretty cool tune from somebody I admire as an excellent musician and songwriter, who also seems to be a pretty regular person – not necessarily something you can say about other well-known music artists: The Worst Is Yet To Come by Kevin Roosevelt Moore, artistically known as Keb’ Mo’. Co-written by him, Heather Donovan and Pete Sallis, the song is the opening track of Mo’s 12th studio album BLUESAmericana from April 2014.

The fact I’m highlighting this tune at this time probably isn’t a coincidence. The lyrics seem to ring true in my life lately. I spare you the details other than saying it’s to the point where I’m waiting for the next “mini disaster” to happen and laughing out loud once it does. I don’t mean to trivialize and wish my recent misfortunes were comparable, but just before starting to write this post, I flipped a light switch and guess what happened: The last working bulb of my ceiling fan burst!

But you know what? There are so many people out there who are truly hurting. These days, some are forced to work without even getting a paycheck since the so-called leader of this country is having a tantrum. That’s bad! My recent challenges don’t even register by comparison. I’m glad to be alive, have a job for which I actually get paid, and be able to provide a safe home to my family. That’s all that matters. As for my “mini-catastrophes”? Fuck them!

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

Ladies Singing The Blues And Killing It – An Encore

Last October, I wrote about five outstanding female blues artists who may not be top of mind when thinking about the genre. I was reminded of this recently when fellow blogger Music Enthusiast included British blues rock guitarist Joanne Shaw Taylor in one of his “New Music Revues” and during a discussion noted an increasing number of female guitarists nowadays, especially blues. This inspired me to do some more digging on female blues artists to see who else is out there. Here are three additional dynamite ladies singing the blues. They are also great guitarists. And none of them is from the U.S.

Dani Wilde

Dani Wilde (left in above picture) is a 33-year-old blues and country singer-songwriter from Hullavington, a village in Southwest England. In 2007, she signed with German independent record label Ruf Records and released her debut album Heal My Blues in January 2008. Six additional records featuring Wilde have since appeared, the most recent being Live At Brighton Road from June 2017. According to her website, Blues Blast Magazine called Wilde “a modern day British blues phenomenon” and the album “a treat for the ear and the eyes.” Over the past 10 years, Wilde has performed across Europe, America, Canada and Africa and shared tickets with artists like Johnny Winter, Robben Ford, Bobby Womack and Taj Mahal. Here’s Don’t Quit Me Baby from the above live album, a tune written by Wilde.

Ana Popović

Ana Popović (middle in above picture) is a blues guitarist and singer from Serbia, who was born in Belgrade in May 1976 (then Yugoslavia). According to Popović’s website, her father, a guitar and bass player with an impressive blues and soul collection, always invited friends for nightly jam sessions. Popović started playing guitar as a 15-year-old and four years later formed the band Hush. In 1998, she recorded her first album with Hush, Hometown. Shortly thereafter, Popović went to The Netherlands and started to study jazz guitar. The following year, she formed the Ana Popović Band there and decided to terminate her studies after signing a deal with Ruf Records. BTW, that label seems to do a great job with signing new blues artists. In early 2001, Popović’s solo debut Hush! came out. She has since released 10 additional albums. Popović and her six-piece band have shared stages with B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Jeff Beck and Joe Bonamassa, among others. Here’s a great funky tune called Like It On Top, the title track from her latest album, which appeared last September and was co-produced by her and Keb’ Mo’. Co-written by the two, the track features Robben Ford on guitar.

Eliana Cargnelutti

Eliana Cargnelutti (right in above picture) is a 29-year-old guitarist and singer from Udine, Italy. According to her website, she graduated in jazz guitar at the conservatory “G. Frescobaldi” in Ferrara…is the new hope of Italian rock blues…and one of the rare real front women of the Italian scene.  She plays a flavor of rock blues with a bit of everything in between: electric funk, mixed with pop and jazzy instrumentals, raw rock, tight blues grooves, illuminated by her skills as an electric guitarist. In addition to various Italian blues artists, Cargnelutti has played with American artists like John Craig (guitarist of Ike & Tina Turner), Peter Stroud (guitarist of Sheryl Crow) and the Joe Pitts Band. To date she has released two solo albums: Love Affairs (November 2013) and Electric Woman (January 2015). She also appeared together with Sadie Johnson and Heather Crosse on Girls With Guitars, a record and tour project by yes, you guessed it right: Ruf Records. Here’s I’m A Woman, an original tune from Electric Woman – mamma mia!

With all this great music, I can’t help but think about Etta James’ line The blues is my business, and business is good. Still, when it comes to female blues artists, I feel they still don’t get the limelight they deserve. But with labels like Ruf Records and kick-ass artists such as the above, things seem to be changing.

Sources: Wikipedia, Dani Wilde website, Ana Popović website, Eliana Cargnelutti website, YouTube

 

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

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

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

Clips & Pix: Taj Mahal & Keb’ Mo’/Don’t Leave Me Here

I just learned that Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’ won the 2018 Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album for their excellent collaboration record TajMo. As long as great music that represents true craftsmanship and real soul is still being recognized, not all is lost!

It sounds like the two elder blues statesmen were up against formidable competition. The other nominees in the category included Sonny Landreth (Recorded Live In Lafayette)Robert Cray & Hi Rhythm (Robert Cray & Hi Rhythm) Robert Randolph & The Family Band (Got Soul) and Tedeschi Trucks Band (Live From The Fox Oakland).

The above is the official clip of TajMo’s opener Don’t Leave Me Here. Co-written by Mahal and Mo’, it is one of the gems on the record, which was released in May 2017.

Sources: Grammy.com, TajMo website, YouTube