Woke Up This Morning, With the Blues in My Head (Ahhh)…

Woke up this morning, with the blues in my head…

I don’t even want to pretend I know how to write lyrics, so let’s better stop it right here. But the content of these words largely reflects the truth, if you allow that “the blues in my head” actually was a set of headphones and that I was listening to a Buddy Guy tune, followed by a Walter Trout song this morning.

While I never need an excuse to blog about music I dig, the aforementioned little episode gave me the idea to put together a post about blues and blues rock tunes, so I wanted to acknowledge it. In fact, I would say the majority of my blogging is triggered by spontaneous music encounters. With that explanation out of the way, let’s get to some music!

Buddy Guy/I Suffer With the Blues

Given the intro, it makes sense to kick things off with Buddy Guy. This is a tune from his 1967 debut album Left My Blues in San Francisco. I Suffer With the Blues was written by Guy who today, more than 50 years years later at age 84, still plays his energetic brand of electric guitar blues. I guess he wasn’t kidding when he titled his 17th studio album from July 2015 Born to Play Guitar, an amazing album, btw.

Janis Joplin/Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)

Boy, would I have loved to see Janis Joplin in concert! Her incredibly powerful voice and her energy were just off the charts. Try (Just a Little Bit Harder) is the incredible opener of what sadly was Joplin’s only solo album that appeared during her short lifetime, I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama!, released in September 1969. The tune was co-written by Jerry Ragovoy and Chip Taylor.

Walter Trout/All Out Of Tears

Since I listened to Survivor Blues, Walter Trout’s aptly titled studio album from Jan 2019, I’ve really come to dig this bluesman who originally is from New Jersey. After overcoming alcohol and drug addiction in the ’80s and making it through a liver transplant necessitated by liver failure, Trout perhaps is the ultimate blues rock survivor. All Out Of Tears is a tune from is most recent album Ordinary Madness that came out in August 2020. The great slow blues, which has a bit of a Gary Moore vibe, was co-written by him, his wife and manager Marie Trout and blues fellow artist Teeny Tucker.

Bonnie Raitt/Mighty Tight Woman

While Bonnie Raitt crosses genres, I simply couldn’t do this post without including her. She’s one of my all-time favorite artists, not only because of her extraordinary slide guitar playing, but also because of her sincerity. Raitt covered Mighty Tight Woman, a Sippie Wallace tune, on her eponymous debut album from November 1971.

B.B. King/What Happened

B.B. King needs no further introduction. I pretty much could have picked any tune. What Happened is from Completely Well, King’s 17th studio album released in December 1969, which is best known for his cover of The Thrill Is Gone. What Happened holds the distinction of being the only tune on the album, which was written by King.

Dani Wilde/Bring Your Loving Home

The blues is a genre that has a number of great young female guitarists. One is 35-year-old Dani Wilde from South West England. At age 22, she was signed to Ruf Records, an independent German blues label, a force in blues with an impressive roster of artists. A significant portion of them are women. Bring Your Loving Home, written by Wilde, is the opener of her debut album Heal My Blues from 2008.

Stevie Ray Vaughan/Pride and Joy

A post about blues tunes really would be incomplete without Stevie Ray Vaughan. Sadly, this amazing guitarist from Texas lost his life already at age 35 in a helicopter crash, one of so many talented musicians who died in air travel accidents. Pride and Joy, written by Vaughan, appeared on his debut album Texas Floods released in June 1983. He’s also an artist I would have loved to see live.

Ana Popović/Fearless

Serbian blues singer and guitarist Ana Popović, who currently resides in Los Angeles, is another talented female artist who started her solo career at Ruf Records with the album Hush! from January 2001. Written by Popović, Fearless is the opener of her fifth studio album Unconditional that came out in August 2011.

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

One of the coolest collaboration albums I know is TajMo from May 2017, which brought together two blues greats from different generations: Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’. I was fortunate to catch them during a tour they did that year to support the album – one of the best shows I’ve seen. Here’s the fantastic opener Don’t Leave Me Here cowritten by Gary Nicholson, Mo’ and Mahal.

Eliana Cargnelutti/Just For Me

Time to wrap up this post. How many female blues guitarists from Italy do you know? Had you asked me that question a few years ago, I would have come up completely empty. I “discovered” Eliana Cargnelutti in January 2019, when I did a feature on female blues artists. The 31-year-old from Udine, Italy, who is yet another artist on Ruf Records’ roster, has released two albums to date. Here is Just For Me, a track from Cargnelutti’s sophomore album Electric Woman  released in January 2015.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

The Year that was 2020 – Part 1 of 2

A look back on my music journey over the past 12 months

At first, the thought of writing a year in review type post didn’t look very appealing. After all, it’s safe to assume most of us can’t wait to kiss 2020 goodbye and erase it from our memories. This certainly describes my sentiments in many ways. But while the past 12 months brought unprecedented challenges, including for the music business, I think not all was doom and gloom. Initially, this was supposed to be one post. Then, it got longer and longer, so I decided to break it up in two parts. Here’s part 1

The good and the bad…

On the positive side, the music industry recorded rising revenue fueled by streaming. As Music Business Worldwide noted in September, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) reported a 5.6% year-over-over increase in total U.S. recorded music retail revenue to $5.6 billion for the first half of 2020. This included a 12% surge in streaming music revenue to $4.8 billion. If streaming kept that pace in the second half of the year, it would be up one billion year-over-year. However, according to this Billboard story from earlier this week, growth in streaming volume has stalled since the end of June.

At the same time, the concert business, the main source of income for most artists, is in the toilet. The Los Angeles Times recently reported America’s largest concert promoter Live Nation experienced a nosedive in revenue of 98% and 95% during the summer and fall, respectively. The same article also stated 90% of independent performance venues will close for good without government aid, while long-established venues like the Troubador in L.A. are hanging on but face an uncertain future. This doesn’t only put the livelihoods of many artists at risk but also of all the folks working at performance venues or whose job are otherwise tied to live entertainment.

New music kept coming out

Despite COVID-19, new music continued to be released throughout the year – lots of it. In fact, at least some of this activity can be explained by the pandemic. Artists who weren’t able to tour found themselves with more time on their hands to work on new material. New albums by Bruce Springsteen, Taylor Swift and Paul McCartney are just some of the examples that come to my mind in this context.

I’m happy new music was a major theme for my blog in 2020, more than ever before. As frequent visitors know, I’m not talking about music you can find in the present mainstream charts. As of this blog post, I reviewed more than 20 new albums. That’s only counting new original music, not other releases, such as new installments from Springsteen’s great live bootleg series or James Taylor’s cover album of the American songbook. Yes, while I know next to nothing about American standards, I did review that album and enjoyed listening to it!

Frankly, I could have reviewed more new albums. I didn’t. In addition to lack of time, part of the reason was because of Best of What’s New. This weekly recurring feature on newly released music, which I launched in March, focuses on songs rather than entire albums.

It’s gratifying to me that except for one time due to a death in my close family, I posted new installments each week, meaning I’ve been able to discover new music week after week I found decent enough to write about. Keep in mind this is the same guy who as recently as last year kept complaining how “terrible” contemporary music is! I forgot one important qualifier: Music that’s in the mainstream charts. Let’s take a look at some of the new music I wrote about over the past 12 months.

My favorite new albums

While it’s hard to narrow things down, from the 20-plus new albums I reviewed the four ones I feel most excited about are AC/DC/Power Up (released November 18), Walter Trout/Ordinary Madness (August 28), Norah Jones/Pick Me Up Off the Floor (June 12) and Ruby Turner/Love Was Here (January 24). Following is a tune from each:

AC/DC: Shot in the Dark (Power Up)

Shot in the Dark, the album’s great lead single, is classic AC/DC and makes you feel you just time-travelled back to 1980. Like all other tracks on Power Up, it was co-written by Angus Young and his older brother Malcolm Young during the period between the Stiff Upper Lip (February 2000) and Black Ice (October 2008) albums. You can read more about Power Up here, a must listen to for AC/DC fans.

Walter Trout: Wanna Dance (Ordinary Madness)

I love Walter Trout, a no BS artist and decent guitarist who has lived through dramatic ups and downs. Perhaps, he’s the ultimate blues rock survivor! Here’s Wanna Dance. “I had Neil Young and Crazy Horse in mind when I wrote the tune,” Trout told American Songwriter. Dancing is a metaphor for enjoying and celebrating every moment in life, since We ain’t gonna live forever, as Trout sings. He knows all too well. This is one hell of a blues rocker! See here for more about Ordinary Madness.

Norah Jones: Flame Twin (Pick Me Up Off the Floor)

I had been aware and always liked Norah Jones and her piano-driven lounge style jazz for ,any years, but had never explored any of her albums. I’m glad Flame Twin from her seventh studio album Pick Me Up Off the Floor finally changed this. Written by Jones, the tune injects a dose of blues, which rarely if ever is a bad thing in my book. I also dig the Hammond B3 accents from Pete Remm who plays electric guitar as well. And, of course, there are Jones’ great soothing vocals and piano playing. Like other songs on Pick Me Up Off the Floor, the tune was inspired by poetry. My review of this great album is here.

Ruby Turner: Don’t Cry Over Yesterday (Love Was Here)

Don’t Cry Over Yesterday was the track that made me listen to Love Was Here, a beautiful classic soul album by British soul, gospel and R&B vocalist Ruby Turner. I hadn’t heard of Turner before, even though she’s performed since 1983 and worked with other artists like Bryan FerrySteve WinwoodMick Jagger and UB40. “Discovering” great artists like her is part of the reason why I love music blogging. If you’re into ’70s style soul, I’d encourage you to check out this album, a true gem! You can read more about it here.

Other new 2020 studio releases I’d like to call out include McCartney III (Paul McCartney), Letter to You (Bruce Springsteen), Bless Your Heart (The Allman Betts Band), Hate for Sale (Pretenders), Rough and Rowdy Ways (Bob Dylan), Homegrown (Neil Young), Self-Made Man (Larkin Poe), Blues with Friends (Dion), Early Morning Rain (Steve Forbert) and El Dorado (Marcus King).

In part 2 of this post, I’m revisiting the Best of What’s New feature and concerts before wrapping things up with final thoughts.

Sources: Music Business Worldwide; Billboard; Los Angeles Times; Christian’s Music Musings; YouTube

Where the Blues Crosses Over

For more than 25 years, the independent German label Ruf Records has been a remarkable force for blues music

When blogging about music, it’s about the artists and their work first and foremost- seems obvious! Sometimes, I also like to get a bit nerdy and write about gear. What I rarely do is paying attention to music labels with a few exceptions like Stax or Motown. In fact, oftentimes, I don’t even bother to mention on which label an album was released.

One name that has kept popping up for contemporary blues is Ruf Records (pronounced “roof”). I noticed it again just yesterday while compiling my latest Best of What’s New installment that included blues rock artist Jeremiah Johnson whose latest album Unemployed Highly Annoyed appeared on Ruf Records.

Like the majority of Ruf’s roster of current artists, Johnson is an American musician. Yet Ruf isn’t located say in Chicago or anywhere else in the U.S. for that matter. London? Nope. Ruf is based in Lindewerra, a picturesque German village with a whopping 256 inhabitants (as of 2019) in the region of Thuringia, which used to be part of the former German Democratic Republic. I had to look that geographic location.

Lindewerra, location of Ruf Records

Germany and the blues? Not to mention a tiny village? That’s not the most obvious association, in my opinion. Or how about the fact the founding of this independent label in 1994 was connected to Luther Allison? Finally, Ruf got my attention.

This is how the label’s website describes how Ruf came about, from the perspective of founder Thomas Ruf. While they may have embellished it a bit, it’s just a wonderful story that would be perfect for a movie: It all started in the Black Forest, late at night, when it seems all great things begin. There in a small village bar, with the doors locked, window shades rolled down, an after- hours party was happening inside. Blues great, Luther Allison was jamming with a bunch of eighty-year old Black Forest folklore musicians.

I was young, lucky and overwhelmed by the communicating power of music. I left the farm to pay my dues as a concert promoter, agent and manager. Soon I collaborated with Allison, eventually becoming his representative on the European side of the world.

I was a student learning from a man who traveled the rocky blues road for more than thirty years. It became apparent that relationships between artists and record companies can be frustrating for the artists, with companies lacking enthusiasm and understanding of the music. So management had a baby and it was named Ruf Records. Born of the need and love to promote what we believe in… the communicating power of music.

Ruf Records founder Thomas Ruf with Cyril Neville

Based on this March 2012 post from the Blues.Gr, the above events happened in the late 1980s when Thomas Ruf started working in the music business as a European tour promoter. Ruf and Allison became friends and, eventually, Ruf started to represent the blues artist in Europe. In 1994, Allison who lived in Paris, France at the time, found himself without a label and a publisher. Apparently, that’s what triggered the formation of Ruf Records.

Fast-forward some 26 years and you’re looking at an independent label with an impressive roster of artists. Apart from Luther Allison and Jeremiah Johnson, the current and former line-up includes Canned Heat, Spooky Tooth, Walter Trout, Ana Popovic, Samantha Fish, Joanne Shaw Taylor and Jane Lee Hooker. Following, I’d like to highlight some music by some of the label’s current artists. Occasionally, the label ventures beyond the blues.

Ally Venable/White Flag

Ally Marie Venable is a 21-year-old blues rock guitarist and singer-songwriter from Kilgore, Texas. She released her debut EP Wise Man in 2013 at the age of 14. White Flag is from her third and most recent full-length album Texas Honey, which according to this Rock & Blues Muse review appeared in March 2019 and features Mike Zito and Eric Gales, among other guests.

Bette Smith/Fistful of Dollars

According to her website, Bette Smith is a rock and soul singer who grew up in Brooklyn, New York. Her 2017 debut Jetlagger received rave reviews from the likes of NPR, American Songwriter, MOJO and The New York Times. Fistful of Dollars is the tasteful, funky opener of Smith’s new album The Good, The Bad and the Bette released on September 25.

Ghalia/Release Me

Ghalia Volt, who hails from Brussels, Belgium, is a natural-born rock star with the leather jacket and wicked grin, leaning from her album sleeve to offer you a hit on her hip flask, her website confidently states. Six years ago, Ghalia was a best-kept secret, her days spent busking on the streets of the Belgium capital, her nights shaking the city’s blues clubs. But as a die-hard R&B and blues fan, the singer-songwriter found the siren call of America too strong to resist. Visiting Chicago, Memphis and Nashville, Ghalia’s livewire talent saw her embraced by the musical motherland and elevated to headliner status. Release Me is a track written by Ghalia, which appears on her sophomore album Mississippi Blend from September 2019. And, yes, that lady is a rock star!

Whitney Shay/Stand Up!

According to Apple Music’s artist profile, Whitney Shay is a blues, soul and jump R&B singer-songwriter from San Diego, Calif. Her debut album Soul Tonic came out in 2012. She has since released two additional albums and received four San Diego Music Awards including Artist of the Year for her sophomore release A Woman Rules the World from 2018. Stand Up!, co-written by Shay and Adam J. Eros, is the soulful funky title track of Shay’s third studio album released in February this year.

Bernard Allison/Crusin for a Bluesin

Bernard Allison, who is based in Paris, France, is a blues guitarist and the son of Luther Allison. Though you’d perhaps think otherwise, Bernard taught himself how to play guitar as a child while his father was touring all over the world. While his old man wisely demanded that Bernard remain in school, he supported his music ambitions. Eventually, Bernard became part of Luther’s band and a musical collaborator. His European solo debut The Next Generation appeared in 1990. His first U.S. album Keepin’ the Blues Alive was released in 1997. Cruisin for a Bluesin is the groovy opener of Allison’s most recent studio album Let It Go from February 2018.

Jeremiah Johnson/Burn Down the Garden

Since it was Johnson and his new album that triggered this post, it felt appropriate to include the St. Louis-based guitarist and singer-songwriter, who according to his website merged Texas style with STL blues to create the unique sound you hear today.  Here’s another great tune from his new album Unemployed Highly Annoyed: Opener Burn Down the Garden, written by Johnson, which sounds more like southern flavored country rock than blues.

Michael Lee/Praying for Rain

Michael Lee is a blues guitarist from Fort Worth, Texas. Here’s more from his his website: Raised around blues music his entire life, Michael spent the majority of his young life in blues clubs receiving an ivy league education from watching and playing with blues legends such as Andrew “Jr Boy” Jones (Freddie King), Buddy Whittington (John Mayall), Lucky Peterson (Willie Dixon). On nights he was not in the blues clubs he was down in the stockyards soaking in the Country sounds which emanated from those honky tonks. Like Delbert McClinton and many Fort Worth musicians before him, Michael’s style of music has the perfect blend of Blues and Country. Praying for Rain, written by Lee, is from his eponymous sophomore album released in June 2019.

Ryan Perry/Ain’t Afraid to Eat Alone

Let’s do one more. Ryan Perry, who hails from Mississippi, has established himself as leader of the award-winning Homemade Jamz Blues Band since 2007. According to his profile on Ruf, Although still in his twenties, Perry has the soul, scars and war stories to rival the most hard-bitten road dog. In March this year, Perry released his solo debut album High Risk, Low Reward. Here’s the tasty opener Ain’t Afraid to Eat Alone, which like most other tracks on the album was penned by Perry.

Ruf Records’ story looks impressive. Apart from its artist roster, some 300 albums have appeared on this independent label to date. In 2007, Ruf Records received the Keeping the Blues Alive Award from the Blues Foundation of Memphis, Tenn. According to Wikipedia, they also got nominations for two Grammy Awards and 10 Blues Music Awards, and that’s as of 2008.

In an undated interview on Ruf’s website, Thomas Ruf explained the label’s philosophy as follows: “It’s right there in our motto: ‘Where The Blues Crosses Over’. We want to produce the blues of tomorrow, not just re-record the blues of yesterday, and that’s why we work with some of the bravest and most visionary artists around. People often ask me why Ruf has such a devoted following, but really it’s our artists – the Ruf Records family – who create that. Our role is to help them. To succeed in this business, it’s about working hard and being honest all the time. Speak the truth. Strive for quality in everything you do.”

Sources: Wikipedia; Ruf Records website; Blues.Gr; Rock & Blues Muse; Bette Smith website; Apple Music; Michael Lee website; YouTube

Walter Trout Releases Powerful New Album

Ordinary Madness reflects on blues rock veteran’s eventful life and himself

When I saw Walter Trout at The Iridium in New York City last April, I was struck how openly he talked about the challenges life has thrown at him. One sentence stayed with me in particular: “Personally, I’m happy to be anywhere.” Overcoming drug and alcohol addiction in the ’80s, surviving liver failure and recovering from a liver transplant in 1994, and dealing with dishonest management people are some of the chapters in Trout’s long career. Now, the 69-old blues rock veteran is out with his 29th album Ordinary Madness, on which he reflects about his life and himself.

“There’s a lot of extraordinary madness going on right now,” said Trout in a statement issued by Mascot Label Group, which includes his label Provogue. “This album started because I was dealing with the flaws and weakness inside me. But it ended up being about everyone.” Ordinary Madness may also well be one of Trout’s most compelling albums he has released in his 50-year-plus music career.

When Trout’s previous blues cover collection Survivor Blues came out in January 2019, it was supposed to be packaged with a second album of original songs, he told American Blues Scene. But the second album wasn’t ready and Trout didn’t have the time to finish it, since he went on the road to support Survivor Blues, the tour during which I caught him. After he returned home and listened to the previously recorded material, he decided to scrap most of it and start over.

Photo credit: Bob Steshetz

“When you are in a blues band you are either in a bus or a van driving for five to six hours at a time,” Trout said, reflecting on his last tour. “I was doing a lot of looking out the window and watching cities, cornfields, and forests go by. I found myself doing a lot of self-reflection about my life and myself. I started writing little notes to myself and I didn’t expect them to be lyrics.” Well, they did, and together with Trout’s great guitar playing, they make for a compelling listening experience. Time for some music!

I’d like to kick it off with the album’s opener and title track. The song starts with what Trout called “a little electronic psychedelia thing,” before launching into a powerful mid-tempo blues. That intro was created by Jon Trout, one of Walter’s three sons who are all musicians. “Jon is getting ready to start at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Denmark as an Electronic Music Major,” Trout proudly noted. “As great of a guitar player as he is, since he has been twelve, he has also done electronic music.” The tune’s lyrics set the tone for the album. It’s ordinary madness/It’s the everyday kind/It ain’t nothing special/It’s just there in your mind/It’s the sadness and the fear/And the anger that you feel every day/It just lays there in your gut/And it won’t go away/It’s just ordinary madness/And it’s here inside of me/Yes, it’s here inside of me…

While I highlighted Wanna Dance in a previous Best of What’s New installment, I just couldn’t could skip this tune, which to me is one of the standouts on the album. “I had Neil Young and Crazy Horse in mind when I wrote the tune,” Trout told American Songwriter. “The way the two guitars play off each other. I recorded the song and brought it home and was playing it for my kids and my 18-year old said it sounds more like Neil Van Halen and walked out of the room!” Dancing is a metaphor for enjoying and celebrating every moment in live, since We ain’t gonna live forever, as Trout sings. This tune just grabs me with what I feel is an epic vibe.

On My Foolish Pride Trout shows he can write more than just blistering blues rockers. The acoustic ballad’s theme came from a phrase he had written down during his last tour on one of the above long bus rides, he told American Blues Scene. “I had my little notebook that I write in on the road and I went through it and found, “Sometimes I do my best, but I fail and I know that happens to everyone. Then I try to hide away my shame, but I get all wrapped up in myself.”…I had not written it to be lyrical. I started strumming my guitar at home and that became the first verse of my song “Foolish Pride.” That is why the first verse of the song does not rhyme because it wasn’t written to be lyrical. I had to write the rest of the song, but I already had the theme to the song which was examining my own limitations, flaws, and weaknesses. Dealing with your humanity, aging, and relationships are all themes examined on this record.” I just love the warm sound of this tune and the Hammond organ’s beautiful contribution in this context.

The slow blues All Out Of Tears is another highlight on the album. I also have to say while Trout undoubtedly is a better guitarist and songwriter than a vocalist, I feel his singing on this and other tracks works very well. I woke up thinking/ That you might be coming home/Then I realized I was dreamin’/That I just laid there all alone/Everyday without you/You know it feel just like a hundred years/My heart is crying/But my eyes are dry/And I’v run out of tears to cry/I’m all out of tears… It’s a classic blues that reminds me a bit of Gary Moore.

I’d like to feature one more song Trout called out when American Blues Scene asked whether he had a favorite tune on the album: Heaven In Your Eyes. “It has sentimental value to me because I was sitting around the living room when I was putting it together,” Trout explained. “I was strumming my acoustic guitar and I came up with this very melodic kind of tune. The melody was very much like a McCartney song. It needed a lot of words and the only line I had was heaven in your eyes. I didn’t know what to do with it. I played it for Marie [Trout’s wife Marie Braendgaard]. She walked out of the room and came back half an hour later with the lyrics. Lyrically the song is all her. She is also the lyricist on three other songs on the record. We have become the songwriting team.”

On Ordinary Madness Trout is backed by his touring band featuring Teddy ‘Zig Zag’ Andreadis (keyboards), Johnny Griparic (bass) and Michael Leasure  (drums). There is also his long-time producer Eric Corne and special guests including Skip Edwards (keyboards), Drake ‘Munkihaid’ Shining (keyboards) and Anthony Grisham (guitar). The album was recorded at former Doors guitarist Robby Krieger’s private studio in Los Angeles and completed just days before the U.S. shutdown due to COVID-19.

“It is my favorite studio in the world,” Trout said to American Blues Scene. “The guy who runs the studio and is Robby’s partner is Michael Dumas. Michael is the nicest guy and he is there to help you however he can. Robby has a huge collection of gear. There are all sorts of guitars, amps, drums, and keyboards. Everything you can imagine is there…One day, on my song “Wanna Dance” Robby came in and listened to my solo. He stood there and at the end of the solo he looked over at me and he had a great big smile on his face. That felt great.”

I’d like to wrap things up with something Trout told American Songwriter, which I think perfectly sums up what he’s all about. “The word authentic with the blues can get you into trouble. People say, ‘you’re a white kid from the suburbs, how can you be authentic?’ I’m not from Clarksdale, Mississippi and I didn’t pick cotton. To me, the only way for me to be authentic is to play from my heart and my soul with all the honesty and meaning I can put into the music. If I can play a gig and then get to the hotel and look in the mirror and say I gave them everything I have tonight and played from my heart with all the emotion and feeling I can convey to them, then that’s how I can be authentic. I have to be authentic to who I am.”

Sources: Wikipedia; Mascot Label Group; American Blues Scene; American Songwriter; YouTube

Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

I could have called this latest installment of the recurring feature best of what’s new in blues. If you’re a more frequent visitor of the blog, you may have read this sentiment before: In my opinion, unlike classic rock, the blues remains as vibrant as ever. And this, my friends, makes me a very happy camper!

Are you ready for some good ole’ blues, featuring three veterans and three younger female artists? Ready or not, here we go! Coz, to creatively borrow from the American blues artist who was known as Little Milton, hey, hey, the blues is alright, alright (alright), alright (alright) every day and night.

Joe Louis Walker/Blues Comin’ On

How can you go wrong with a guy named Joe Louis Walker and a tune called Blues Comin’ On? From his web bio: Joe Louis Walker, a Blues Hall of Fame inductee and four-time Blues Music Award winner celebrates a career that exceeds a half a century…A true powerhouse guitar virtuoso, unique singer and prolific songwriter, he has toured extensively throughout his career, performed at the world’s most renowned music festivals, and earned a legion of dedicated fans…Born on December 25, 1949 in San Francisco, at age 14, he took up the guitar. Just two years later, he was a known quantity on the Bay Area music scene, playing blues with an occasional foray into psychedelic rock. For a while, he roomed with Mike Bloomfield, who introduced him to Jimi Hendrix and the Grateful Dead. Okay, I have to say I feel a bit ignorant that I don’t recall having heard of this blues veteran before who released his debut Cold Is the Night in 1986. Blues Comin’ On, which features Eric Gales and Dion DiMucci, is the title track of his most recent 26th album that was released on June 5. Dion co-wrote the tune with Mike Aquilina and included his own version on his Blues With Friends album, which interestingly also came out on June 5.

Dion/Bam Bang Boom

Obviously, I couldn’t ignore the above noted Blues With Friends by “The Wanderer” Dion, who after a 63-year career is still marching strong. With those friends including the likes of Jeff Beck, Billy Gibbons, Sonny Landreth, Brian Setzer, Joe Louis Walker and Bruce Springsteen, this surely looks like a killer album! Dion has been active since 1957 and is turning 81 years on July 18 – holy cow, how many other artists can you name with such a long career! And, boy, does he still sound great! “Great songs, great guitarists. What more do you need?” is how Dion confidently summed up the record in a statement. Here’s Bam Bang Boom featuring Billy Gibbons. “Billy Gibbons was a joy to work with on this,” noted Dion in the same statement. “There’s nobody like him.” This surely sounds sweet – damn!

Gina Sicilia/Love Me Madly

Gina Sicilia is a 35-year-old singer-songwriter hailing from Newtown, Pa. Characterizing her music as blues, roots, Americana, soul and R&B, Wikipedia notes Sicilia began singing at 6 years old performing at local talent shows and by the age of 12 she began writing songs. At 14 years old she became interested in blues and classic soul music and decided to pursue singing in that genre. Sicilia’s debut album Allow Me to Confess came out in 2007. She has since released eight additional albums. Love Me Madly is her most recent, which appeared on May 29. Here’s the soulful title track, co-written by her and the album’s producer Cody Dickinson. He is also a member of North Mississippi Allstars, a Southern blues rock band he formed together with his brother Luther Dickinson. I really dig Sicilia’s vocals. Gosh, I can hear some Anita Baker in here!

Dani Wilde/Brave

Here’s another female performer with a compelling voice: 34-year-old Dani Wilde from the village of Hullavington, England. Well, whatever they may have in their water there, it doesn’t seem to damage the vocal chords! According to her website, Over the past 10 years Blues and Country singer-songwriter Dani Wilde has performed at thousands of venues and festivals across Europe, America, Canada and Africa; from the main stage at London’s Royal Albert Hall, to the slum communities of Kenya, to Times Square – New York City…In September 2015, Wilde was awarded ‘Best Female Vocalist” at the British Blues Awards. Wilde has released four studio solo albums to date, starting with Heal My Blues in 2008. Written by Wilde and released on May 6, Brave his her latest single. The tune is dedicated to healthcare professionals and other essential workers around the globe. “I wanted to maintain the organic raw emotion of the blues whilst also taking inspiration from traditional popular song arrangements,” Wilde told Blues Matters. “I love how artists like Patty GriffinPaul Simon and John Mayer take the blues but fuse it with Americana and popular song to create something beautiful.”

Eliza Neals/Black Crow Moan

From her website: Eliza Neals is a prolific songwriter, confident producer, arranger, bandleader, pianist, and one-of-a-kind live performer…Eliza’s history of performing/opening for legendary musicians goes back many years from Detroit’s songwriting godfather Barrett Strong to George Clinton, The Four TopsKenny OlsonMike ZitoTommy CastroWalter TroutPoppa ChubbyAlbert CastigliaMicki Free, Victor Wainwright and recently Blues Foundation HOF man Joe Louis Walker. Kind of ironical – until today, I had not been aware of Walker, and now he seems to be everywhere. I suppose this only confirms my prior ignorance! Black Crow Moan is the title track of Neals’ most recent studio album that was released on April 6; if I interpret it correctly, it’s her seventh. And, yes, you guessed it correctly, the tune features Walker – okay, keep rubbing it in my face!

Mick Clarke/Snappin’ at Your Heel

Let’s wrap things up with another blues veteran: British blues guitarist Mick Clarke, who began his career in 1968 as co-founder of blues rock band Killing Floor. They recorded two albums until their break-up in mid-1972. In 2002, the original line-up reunited. The band remains active with Clarke and Bill Thorndycraft (vocals, harmonica) as original members. During the ’70s, Clarke was also involved in two other bands, Salt and Ramrod, before forming The Mick Clarke Band in the early ’80s. His first solo album Looking For Trouble came out in 1986. Snappin’ at Your Heel is from Clarke’s most recent album Big Wheel released on April 17.

Sources: Wikipedia; Joe Louis Walker website; Dion DiMucci website; Gina Sicilia website; Blues Matters; Eliza Neals website; Mick Clarke website; YouTube

The Year That Was 2019

Highlights of my rock & roll journey during the past 12 months

It feels unreal to me Christmas and New Year’s are upon us again – not to mention a new decade! I still recall a conversation with a school friend when we were 12 years old. He and I imagined where we might be when the year 2000 comes. At the time, the turn of the century was still more than two decades out. It seemed so far away. Now, not only has 2000 come and go, but we’re 20 years down the road, baby – crazy how time flies!

Well, this post doesn’t span decades. The idea is much more moderate: Looking back at my personal music journey over the past 12 months, as documented by this blog. While to some extent it reflects what happened in music this year, it’s not a broad review piece. Since I mostly listen to ’60s and ’70s artists or new music they release, I couldn’t do a legitimate comprehensive look-back on 2019 in music.

In the past, I’ve said more than once most new music nowadays lacks true craftsmanship and sounds generic and soulless to me. And while I still largely ignore what dominates today’s charts, I’ve finally come to accept contemporary music isn’t inherently bad. It’s just different and I generally don’t like it. Here’s the good news: I don’t have to. There’s so much “old” music out there I’ve yet to discover, and while artists may retire or pass away, their music will stay. Forever. That’s the beauty of music. It means for those of us who dig it, rock & roll will never die! Okay, enough with the wise-cracking and on to some highlights of my music journey this year.

Concerts

As a retired band-turned-closet musician, live music remains the ultimate thrill to me. Yes, ticket prices continue to be outrageous for most top acts, and that’s not going to change. But this hasn’t deterred me yet from seeing artists I dig. However, it did require being more selective (for example, I skipped Steely Dan and The Doobie Brothers, since I had seen both in 2018) and oftentimes settling for cheaper seats.

My two concert highlights this year were The Rolling Stones at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. in early August and The Who at New York’s Madison Square Garden in May. I had seen both before, but since they are among my longtime favorite bands and in the twilight of their careers, I simply did not want to miss the opportunity. I’m glad I was able to catch both, especially The Who. At the time I bought my ticket, I had not realized this wasn’t a “regular” gig but The Who backed by a symphonic orchestra. Had I understood this, it may have deterred me. But the concept worked pretty well, so I’m happy I didn’t read the fine print! Here’s a clip from each show: Jumpin’ Jack Flash and the Love Reign O’er Me, two tunes that will never go out of style in my book!

I also saw various other great shows: Walter Trout (The Iridium, New York, April 9), Joe Jackson (State Theatre, New Jersey, New Brunswick, May 18), Govt’ Mule (The Stone Pony, Asbury Park, N.J., June 28), Southern Avenue (The Wonder Bar, Asbury Park, N.J., July 11) and Hall & Oates (Fairgrounds, Allentown, Pa.). I wouldn’t have gone to that last concert, had it not been for my wife. While I wouldn’t call myself a Hall & Oates fan, it was a great show.

As King/Emperor of Tribute Bands (blame Music Enthusiast for the title! 🙂 ), this concert section wouldn’t be complete without acknowledging the many tribute shows that continued to attract me. I know some folks roll their eyes when they hear the word tribute band. I find nothing wrong listening to music I dig, especially when it’s faithfully captured. Among the many tribute concerts I saw, two stood out: Pink Floyd tribute Brit Floyd (Sands Bethlehem Event Center, Bethlehem, Pa., March 30) and the annual Rock The Farm Tribute Festival (Seaside Heights, N.J., September 28). Here’s a clip from the Brit Floyd gig: Comfortably Numb – epic!

And then there’s of course Woodstock’s 50th anniversary. I finally got to see the director’s cut of the documentary on the big screen. While I can’t deny 224 minutes is pretty massive, I enjoyed every minute of it. Here’s the main post I did to commemorate the festival. And here’s a clip of one of the most iconic rock performances of all time: Joe Cocker and With A Little Help From My Friends.

New Music

As stated above, for the most part, new music means new albums released by “old” artists I dig. As I looked back through my previous posts, I was surprised to find that I reviewed 22 new albums. Granted this number includes three live albums (The Doobie Brothers/Live From The Beacon Theatre, The Rolling Stones/Bridges To Bremen and Paul McCartney/Amoeba Gig) and an excellent posthumous compilation by Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers (The Best Of Everything), which do not feature new music. Even if you exclude these, it still leaves you with 18 albums. This makes me wonder what I would do if I also paid more attention to contemporary artists. It pretty much would be impossible to review their new music as well, given I have a family and a full-time job – another good reason to focus on what I truly dig! 🙂

Albums by “old hands” I’d like to call out are The Who (WHO), Booker T. (Note By Note), Neil Young (Colorado), Ringo Starr (What’s My Name), Santana (Africa Speaks),  Little Steven And The Disciples of Soul (Summer of Sorcery), Joe Jackson Fool and Sheryl Crow (Threads). One artist who seems to be missing here is Bruce Springsteen and Western Stars. While I dig Springsteen and don’t think it’s a bad record, it just doesn’t speak to me the way other music by The Boss does, so I ended up skipping a review. Crow said Threads is her final full-fledged release, explaining in the age of streaming music, most people make playlists and no longer listen to entire albums. Boy, this statement really reflects how much listening habits and the music business have changed! Here’s Live Wire, a nice bluesy tune co-written by Crow and Jeff Trott and featuring Bonnie Raitt and Mavis Staples.

There were also some new blues releases I enjoyed by both older and younger artists, including Walter Trout (Blues Survivor), Jimmie Vaughan (Baby, Please Come Home), Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band (The Traveler) and “wunderkind” Jontavious Willis (Spectacular Class), as Taj Mahal has called him. How about some music from Willis’ sophomore album? By the way, it was executive-produced by Mahal. Here’s opener Low Down Ways.

I also would like to call out albums from three other contemporary artists: Rick Barth (Fade), SUSTO (Ever Since I Lost My Mind) and Southern Avenue (Keep On). If you’re a more frequent visitor of the blog, you may recall Southern Avenue is one of the very few young bands I truly dig. I just love how these guys blend blues, soul and R&B, and the vocals are just killer! Here’s the title track from the above album, which is their second one. The tune was co-written by guitarist Ori Naftaly, lead vocalist Tierini Jackson and producer Johnny Black. There’s just something about Southern Avenue’s sound I find really seductive.

Coolest Clip

I think I came across a number of great clips I posted throughout the year. One of the best has to be this footage of The Who performing Won’t Get Fooled Again. That’s the raw power of rock & roll! It was filmed on May 25, 1978 at England’s Shepperton Studios, about 20 miles southwest of London, for the closing sequence of the band’s rockumentary The Kids Are Alright. And then, there’s this very different but equally mesmerizing clip: a live demonstration of the Hammond B3 by the amazing Booker T. Jones. To really get excited about it, I realize maybe you need to be a musician.

And Finally…

2019 marks the third full year I’m doing this blog. While I really wanted to start writing about my passion, I wasn’t sure whether I could keep it going when I set out in June 2016. Due to personal reasons, I had to slow down a bit during the past couple of months. But music and writing about artists I dig is therapy to me, so I have every intention to continue and hopefully pick up the pace again. When starting the blog, I also felt I’m doing this for myself first and foremost, not to become some “Internet sensation.” While that is still the case, I can’t deny it’s great to see visitors and that traffic has trended up nicely. Of course, growing from tiny numbers is relatively easy, and there is realistically no way I can keep up the current momentum.

Blog Stats

I’m leaving you with a clip from my most popular post this year (measured by total views): The above mentioned Rock The Farm Tribute Festival. The positive reception made me really happy, since it’s great music for a great cause. Here’s It’s Late by Canadian Queen tribute Simply Queen.

I’d like to thank all visitors for reading and especially those who go through the trouble of leaving comments. I always love getting feedback, even if I may not agree with everything folks say. But that’s cool.

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas Emoji

Sources: Christian’s Music Musings; YouTube

Walter Trout At Iridium: Blistering Blues Rock And Tales Of Survival

“Personally, I’m happy to be anywhere,” stated Walter Trout, as he was introducing the second tune of his set on Tuesday night at The Iridium in New York City. The 68-year-old blues veteran wasn’t referring to the storied music club in Manhattan’s Theater District, which has seen such luminaries like Les Paul, Jeff Beck, Buddy Guy, Joe Walsh, Joe Satriani and Mick Taylor. Trout was talking about being on planet earth. It was the first of repeated references to survival he made throughout the show.

Five years ago, Trout found himself near death in a hospital with liver failure. “I was in Canned Heat,” he sarcastically remarked, referring to his four-year stint in the blues rock band from 1981 to 1985, adding he is the only survivor of their lineup at the time. Trout is alive thanks to a liver transplant he received in 1994. When he was released from the hospital, he had to learn again how to talk and how to walk – and, yes, how to play the guitar!

Noting that playing guitar was the only thing he had ever known and that he had been a guitarist since 1969, Trout said he practiced six to seven hours every day. Eventually, his skills came back. Trout’s agonizing recovery took one year. In 2015, he documented his ordeal in what he described as a very dark album: Battle Scars. And in January this year, he released what’s aptly called Survivor Blues, a covers album with tunes Trout feels are forgotten gems. I wrote about this excellent record here. In fact, it was that album that brought Trout on my radar screen, which culminated in Tuesday night’s show. And boy, what a great gig it was to watch!

Walter Trout & Band Collage
Clockwise: Walter Trout, Teddy Zig Zag, Michael Leasure, Johnny Griparic, Paul Schaffer and Anthony Grisham

For the most part, Trout played tunes from Survivor Blues, as well as his two preceding studio albums We’re All In This Together (2017) and the aforementioned Battle Scars. His great backing band included Teddy Zig Zag (keyboards, harmonica, vocals), Michael Leasure (drums) and Johnny Griparic (bass). There were also appearances by two guests: Tour manager Anthony Grisham (guitar) and Paul Schaffer (keyboards).

Let’s get to some music. With a pole right in front of me, taking video was a bit tricky. The first song I’d like to highlight is Me, My Guitar And The Blues from Survivor Blues. The powerful cover of Jimmy Dawkins’ title track from his 1997 solo album was the above mentioned second tune of the set. At about 1:42 minutes into the song, Trout explains the idea behind the covers album.

Almost Gone is the opener to Battle Scars, the first album Trout recorded after his long recovery from his liver disease and transplant. Now I get the feelin’ that somethin’s goin’ wrong/Can’t help believin’ I won’t last too long/Won’t last too long, too long/Hey, I can see the writing on the wall/Hey, I believe I’m about to lose it all/I look around, I look around and everything I see/Reminds me of the way, reminds me of the way I used to be

Another track from Survivor Blues is a song written by Sunnyland Slim called Be Careful How You Vote. The title track to his 1989 studio album couldn’t be more timely, but the true highlight is the music. In addition to Trout’s guitar, the tune features great  Hammond and harmonica work by Paul Schaffer and Teddy Zig Zag, respectively – and all of it over a nice shuffling groove. If you watch one clip only, I’d recommend this one – it’s worth all of its 12 minutes and 14 seconds!

I’d like to conclude with the title track of Trout’s 2017 studio album We’re All In This Together. This tune features a guest appearance by Anthony Grisham who does a nice job on guitar, taking solo turns with Trout.

Toward the end of the show Trout, spoke passionately about organ donation. He noted in the U.S. there are currently 120,000 people waiting for an organ. Each month, time is running out for about 2,000 of them – a true national emergency, as he called it. Trout also reminded the audience that humans have eight vital organs that could potentially save eight lives, pointing to himself as living proof what organ donation can do. Since November 2015, Trout has been a patron of the British Liver Trust. He certainly is a compelling ambassador.

Tuesday’s gig at The Iridium was Trout’s third date during his ongoing U.S. tour. The next upcoming shows include Bay Shore, N.Y. (tonight), Pawtucket, R.I. (Friday) and Plymouth, N.H. (Saturday). Altogether, the U.S. leg includes 17 gigs and concludes on April 27 in Pelham, Tenn. The current schedule also shows dates in Europe in May, June, August and October.

Sources: Wikipedia, Walter Trout website, YouTube

Blues Veteran Walter Trout Releases Blistering New Covers Album

Survivor Blues features “obscure songs that have hardly been covered”

There’s nothing fishy about Walter Trout. For five decades, the guitarist has played and lived the blues, initially as sideman for the likes of John Lee Hooker, Joe Tax and John Mayall during the ’70s and 80s, and starting from 1989, as a solo artist. Now, Trout has released a covers album aptly titled Survivor Blues, featuring tunes he feels have been underappreciated. Since there are only so many ways you can play the blues, I think it’s all about execution. If you dig electric blues, you’re in for a trout, I mean treat!

Born on March 6, 1951 in Ocean City, N.J., Trout started his career in the Garden State in the late 1960s. In a cool video about the making of Survivor Blues, which is published on his website, Trout recalls how as a 16- or 17-year-old he met B.B. King. After spotting King in a New Jersey record store, he asked him for an autograph, saying he loved the blues and was trying to figure it out on the guitar. King ended up talking to him for more than one hour. One thing’s for sure: That conversation did not discourage young Walter Trout to pursue the blues!

walter trout
Walter Trout in 2018

In 1974, Trout moved to Los Angeles and became a sideman for R&B singer and songwriter Percy Mayfield, who among others wrote Hit The Road Jack, which became a no. 1 hit for Ray Charles in 1961. Other artists Trout backed during the 70s included  John Lee Hooker, Big Mama Thornton and Joe Tex. In 1981, he joined blues rockers Canned Heat as a guitarist. From 1985 until 1989, Trout was part of John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers, following the trail of many other blues musicians. One night, he was spotted by a Danish concert promoter who offered him to pay for a solo tour.

Trout left the Bluesbreakers, and in 1989 his solo debut Life In The Jungle came out. He has since released more than 20 additional records, initially as Walter Trout Band, then as Walter Trout and the Free RadicalsWalter Trout and the Radicals and, starting with The Outsider in 2008, simply as Walter Trout. Survivor Blues is the 10th album appearing under his name and follows the award-winning We’re All In This Together. The 2017 album of original tunes features many other blues heavyweights like Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Sonny Landreth, Robben Ford and Charlie Musselwhite.

“I didn’t want to do ‘Stormy Monday’ or ‘Messin’ With The Kid.’ I didn’t want to do the Blues greatest hits,” Trout commented on the new album. I wanted to do old, obscure songs that have hardly been covered…My idea was to do these songs like me, to arrange them for my band and style – not to just copy the originals note-for-note.” Trout also sought active input from his band on how to render the songs, which were mostly recorded live in study, a smart approach, in my opinion.

walter trout 2

Trout’s wife and manager Marie came up with the record’s title. ‘You’re a group of survivors,’ she told him. ‘You’ve all been through hell and you’ve come back. These songs are survivors. This album needs to be called Survivor Blues.’ In 2014, Trout received a liver transplant after he had been diagnosed with liver failure – likely a result from alcohol and substance abuse he overcame in the ’80s. Reflecting on the members of his band, Trout said, “Mike [Michael Leasure, drums] is in recovery. Johnny [Johnny Griparic, bass] almost didn’t make it. Skip [Skip Edwards, keyboards] has had a triple bypass. And I almost didn’t make it after my liver disease in 2014.”

Time for some music. I’d like to kick it off with the excellent opener Me, My Guitar And The Blues. Written by Jimmy Dawkins, the tune was the title track of his 1997 solo album. Trout couldn’t get enough of the electric blues guitarist’s records during his early years as an up and comer in New Jersey. “The last line – ‘Since you left me, All I have left is Me, My Guitar and the Blues’ – is one of the greatest lyrics I’ve heard in my life and I start crying just saying it,” Trout stated. The lyrics are also a perfect way to set the tone for an album titled Survivor Blues.

Please Love Me, co-written by B.B. King and Jules Taub, was the opener of King’s 1956 debut album Singin’ The Blues. Trout calls King “the greatest blues man that ever lived.” Something tells me Trout’s sentiment may reflect the above noted long conversation with his hero.

One of my favorites on the album is Luther Johnson’s Woman Don’t Lie. The track appeared on a record titled Born In Georgia, released in March 2008. On his take Trout shares lead vocals with blues vocalist Sugaray Rayford. The result is just beautiful!

Appropriately, Trout also paid homage to John Mayall with Nature’s Disappearing, a tune from his 1970 album USA Union. “I was nervous about doing it because it’s by my mentor and surrogate father,” Trout noted. “John told me he’d read an article about ecology and pollution – he put the magazine down at the end and wrote that song in five minutes. It’s even more relevant today, with all the environmental regulations being thrown out and national parks being sold off to oil companies.” I dig the groove of this cover and think the Godfather of British Blues is smiling.

On Goin’ Down To The River Trout is joined by Robby Krieger, in whose Los Angeles studio the album was recorded. The tune was written by hill country blues singer and guitarist Mississippi Fred McDowell.  “There was something about the lyric,” noted Trout. “But the original is very different. I decided to take the verses that spoke to me, and then rearranged the song almost Muddy Waters-esque with that slide lick. Robby Krieger was coming in every day, listening and hanging out, so I said, ‘I’d love it if you played on this song’. So when I say ‘Play it, Robby’ – that’s Robby Krieger from The Doors. We just did that in the studio – boom, there you go.”

Survivor Blues has been produced by Trout’s long-time producer Eric Corne. It appears on Provogue Records/Mascot Label Group and is available in CD and vinyl formats, as well as on iTunes, Spotify and other digital music platforms.

Trout, who fortunately seems to be in good health, is supporting Survivor Blues with an extended tour that is set to kick off in Minneapolis on January 31st. Currently, the schedule lists around 50 dates, mostly in the U.S., and stretches all the way out to August. Not listed for some reason is a gig that shows up in Ticketmaster: April 8 at The Iridium in New York City. Blues is made to be experienced live, and this show is definitely on my radar screen.

Sources: Wikipedia, Walter Trout website, YouTube

 

 

John Mayall Has Turned 85 And No Plans For Retirement After More Than 50 Years

The Godfather of British Blues has announced a tour and a new album for 2019

What do Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce have in common? Together with Ginger Baker, they formed what perhaps was the ultimate blues rock power trio Cream. How about Peter Green, John McVie and Mick Fleetwood? Well, they became part of the first incarnation of Fleetwood Mac. Andy Fraser? He joined Free as a 15-year-old bass player. Last but not least, Mick Taylor? He of course became a member The Rolling Stones during what is widely considered their musical peak. What else do all these top-notch artists share? They all played with John Mayall, mostly before they became famous.

As a ’60s blues rock fan, it is pretty much impossible not to come across the name of John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers. That being said, I’m the first to admit that oftentimes my music knowledge is still pretty insular. While I was well aware of Eric Clapton’s connection with Mayall, I didn’t know about all of the other above mentioned artists. I also had not heard much of John Mayall’s music and had not appreciated that in addition to being a multi-instrumentalist, he’s a pretty good vocalist. What finally caught my attention was a great story about him for his recent 85th birthday in German national daily newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, which I spotted on Facebook the other day. It made me start listening to some of Mayall’s more recent solo albums I dug instantly, which in turn inspired this post.

John Mayall was born on November 29, 1933 in Macclesfield, England, and grew up in a village close to Manchester. He was first exposed to jazz and blues as a young teenager when he listened to the 78 record collection of his father Murray Mayall, a guitarist and jazz music fan. So it certainly was no coincidence that young John initially became attracted to the guitar and guitarists like Big Bill Broonzy, Brownie McGhee, Josh White and Leadbelly. As a 14-year-old, he began to learn the basics for playing the piano. A couple of years later, he also picked up the harmonica. Not only does this mean Mayall is a multi-instrumentalist, but he’s also self-taught – pretty cool!

Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton
John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers ca. 1966 (from left): John Mayall, Eric Clapton, Hughie Flint and John McVie

While Mayall had been playing music since his teenage years and during his twenties, it wasn’t until 1962 that he decided to make a living with music. He gave up his job as a graphic designer and moved from Manchester to London. Soon thereafter, he started The Bluesbreakers. In the spring of 1964, the band recorded their first two tracks: Crawling Up A Hill and Mr. James. Afterwards, they backed John Lee Hooker on his 1964 British tour. At the end of the year, Mayall signed with Decca and recorded his debut John Mayall Plays John Mayall, a live record that appeared in March 1965, but it was not successful.

Things started cooking for The Bluesbreakers when Eric Clapton joined the band in April 1965. While initially Clapton only stood until August and left for another venture called The Glands, he returned in November. A few months later, the band recorded Blues Breakers With Eric Clapton. But by the time the album was entering the charts, Clapton and then-Bluesbreakers bassist Jack Bruce had already left to form Cream. The next few years saw a succession of guitarists who came and left, including Peter Green, Mick Taylor, Jon Mark and Harvey Mandel. In fact, frequent line-up changes would become a constant for Mayall, yet I haven’t read anything that he was ever annoyed about it.

John Mayall 2018
John Mayall at 2018 Jazz Fest in New Orleans

In 1969, Mayall moved from England to Laurel Canyon, Los Angeles and began playing with American musicians. Over the next three decades, he recorded many albums featuring artists like Blue Mitchell, Red Holloway, Larry Taylor, Harvey Mandel, Buddy Guy, Mavis Staples, Albert Collins and Mick Taylor. In 2008, Mayall decided to retire The Bluesbreakers name. The following year, he started touring with Rocky Athas (guitar), Jay Davenport (drums) and Greg Rzab (bass). In 2016, after Athas had been unable to attend a festival gig due to airline cancellations, Mayall was left with Davenport and Rzab. He liked the trio format and decided to keep it until May of this year, when guitarist Caroyln Wonderland joined the band.

With a recording career of more than 50 years and 60-plus albums, it’s impossible to do Mayall and his music full justice, so the following selection can only scratch the surface. Let’s start with the above mentioned Blues Breakers With Eric Clapton. Here’s Double Crossin’ Time, a tune co-written by Mayall and Clapton. Apart from them, the core line-up of The Bluesbreakers at the time also included John McVie (bass) and Hughie Flint (drums).

In September 1967, John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers released their fourth album Crusade. It was the first record with then-18-year-old Mick Taylor. Check out this hot track called Snowy Wood, which is credited to Mayall and Taylor.

To A Princess is an unusual tune from Mayall’s 13th album Empty Rooms, which appeared in 1970. It includes a bass duet featuring band member Steven Thompson and former Canned Heat bassist Larry Taylor as a guest. In addition to Mayall (vocals, harmonica, guitars, keyboards), Thompson and Taylor, other musicians on the record were Jon Mark (guitar) and Johnny Almond (saxophone, flute). Mark and Almond left right after the album’s recording to form the duo Mark-Almond.

Next up: The title track of Mayall’s 19th album Ten Years Are Gone released in September 1973. I dig the brass work on this groovy tune, which gives it a cool jazzy and soulful vibe. The musicians on the record included Mayall (piano, guitar, harmonica, vocals), Freddy Robinson (guitar), Victor Gaskin (bass), Keef Hartley (drums), Sugarcane Harris (violin), Blue Mitchell (trumpet, flugelhorn) and Red Holloway (saxophone, flute).

In 1975, Mayall’s 22nd album Notice To Appear came out. For the most part, it featured covers, including the following hot funky take of The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night. The track features Mayall (vocals), Rick Vito (guitar), Larry Taylor (bass), Soko Richardson (drums), Jay Spell (keyboards), Don Harris (violin) and Dee McKinnie (backing vocals).

In 1988, Mayall recorded his 34th album called Archives To Eighties. It included revised versions of select tunes that originally had appeared on his 1971 release Back To The Roots. Just like the earlier record, Archives To Eighties featured Eric Clapton and Mick Taylor. Here’s Force Of Nature.

Wake Up Call was Mayall’s 39th album. The Grammy-nominated record from 1994 brought together many prominent musicians, including Buddy Guy, Mick Taylor, Albert Collins and Mavis Staples, among others. Here’s the smoking hot title track with Taylor on guitar and Staples on vocals.

In 2005, Mayall released his 53rd album called Road Dogs, one of the last under The Bluesbreakers name. The band’s line-up at the time included Buddy Whittington (guitars), Hank Van Sickle (bass) and Joe Yuele (drums), in addition to Mayall (vocals, keyboard, harmonica). Following is the record’s closer Scrambling.

Here’s the title track of Mayall’s 61st record A Special Life from May 2014. It featured his then-core backing band Rocky Athas (guitar), Greg Rzab (bass, percussions) and Jay Davenport (drums), as well as C. J. Chenier (accordion, vocals). As usually, Mayall provided vocals, guitar, harmonica and keyboards.

The last album I’d like to touch on is Mayall’s most recent, Three For The Road. Released in February 2018, it is his 66th record – unbelievable! It presents live recordings from two 2017 concerts in Germany, performed by the trio format of Mayall, Rzab and Davenport. Here’s Lonely Feelings.

Just before his 85th birthday on November 29, Mayall made two announcements. After completing a few shows in California, he is planning a 2019 tour and has started booking gigs in Europe. A look on the current schedule already reveals 22 dates starting February 26 in Tampere, Finland and stretching out to March 24 in Ancona, Italy. U.S. dates are supposed to be announced soon. Mayall also revealed a new studio album, Nobody Told Me, which is scheduled to be released on February 22, 2019. Apart from his new guitarist Carolyn Wonderland, it includes numerous prominent guest guitarists, including Todd Rundgren, Steven Van Zandt and Alex Lifeson.

I’d like to finish this post with a few quotes posted on Mayall’s website, which I think speak for themselves:

John Mayall has actually run an incredible school for musician. (Eric Clapton)

John Mayall, he was the master of it. If it wasn’t for the British musicians, a lot of us black musicians in America would still be catchin’ the hell that we caught long before. So thanks to all you guys, thank you very much! (B.B. King)

I had this friend in London, John Mayall of the Bluesbreakers, who used to play me a lot of records late at night. He was a kind of DJ-type guy. You’d go back to his place, and he’d sit you down, give you a drink, and say “Just check this out.” He’d go over to his deck, and for hours he’d blast you with B.B. King, Eric Clapton – he was sort of showing me where all of Eric’s stuff was from, you know. He gave me a little evening’s education in that. I was turned on after that, and I went and bought an Epiphone. So then I could wind up with the Vox amp and get some nice feedback. (Paul McCartney)

As far as being a blues-guitar sideman, the Bluesbreakers gig is the pinnacle. That’s Mount Everest. You could play with B.B. King or Buddy Guy, but you’re just gonna play chords all night. This guy features you. You get to play solos. He yells your name after every song, brings you to the front of the stage, and lets you sing. He creates a place for you in the world. (Walter Trout)

Sources: Wikipedia, John Mayall website, YouTube