Monday Morning Video: Johnny Winter (1944-2014)

We lost Johnny Winter last week.  Johnny, known for his blistering fast guitar playing, burst onto the national scene as a solo act in the late 1960s.  A guitar prodigy, Johnny and younger brother Edgar – both albino – had formed a band as they were growing up in Beaumont, Texas, and had a single released when Johnny was just 15 and Edgar 12 or 13.  Over the years, Johnny often shared the stage or studio with his brother, but their careers were distinct.  Johnny stayed faithful to blues throughout his career, with occasional forays into rock, while Edgar has been more of a rocker.  Johnny’s guitar playing ability was astounding, but he also built his legacy by producing several of Muddy Waters’ late-career masterpieces, including Hard Again and King Bee.

The years and the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle took their toll on Johnny.  When I saw him three years ago, he needed to be helped onto the stage and performed his entire show seated, but the music was still there as he played effortlessly.  Below are some memories.

Johnny in his prime:

In 1987, starting to show the years, but still in great playing shape:

This past year on Letterman, very decrepit with apparent vision issues, but the music was still there:

 

 

John Hiatt – Terms of My Surrender

John Hiatt has long been one of the mainstays of Americana music.  Throughout his long career, Hiatt has been known for great songwriting and musicianship, but of all his earthy Americana releases, Terms of My Surrender is certainly his grittiest and arguably his most enjoyable work to date.

John Hiatt_

Despite some early success as a songwriter, Hiatt was a late bloomer as a performer.  Among his early songwriting credentials was “Sure As I’m Sittin’ Here,” which Three Dog Night took to number 16 in 1974, while Hiatt was still banging around Nashville trying to get his start.  But his reputation as a solo artist and stage performer was built one day at a time over many years.   His first two solo albums, Hangin’ Around the Observatory and Overcoats, were commercial failures.  After moving to California, Hiatt did a stint in Ry Cooder’s backing band, establishing a musical relationship with Cooder that would would last through several future projects.

Throughout the 1980s, however, Hiatt continued to struggle with personal demons, which included alcoholism, the suicide of his wife and his languishing career.  It was on Bring the Family that Hiatt put it all together, both musically and personally.  For that reason, Bring the Family will likely always be considered the most important Hiatt album.  With participation by Cooder, bassist Nick Lowe, and drummer Jim Keltner, the core group behind of Bring the Family would later reunite to become the short-lived 1990s supergroup Little Village.  Since then, Hiatt has continued to produce outstanding work and interesting collaborations with the likes of the Jayhawks, Bonnie Raitt and Luther and Cody Dickinson of North Mississippi Allstars.

But with Terms of My Surrender, Hiatt has taken his usual straight-forward Americana recipe and reduced it to its barest elements, producing a great album that will likely be on the short list for my favorite Americana album of the year.  He has certainly taken a page from Cooder’s recent playbook (e.g., Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down, 2011), producing a really simple collection of fantastic songs.  From the first notes of “Long Time Comin’,” Hiatt’s crusty vocals highlight a rootsy, bluesy collection of tasty takes that sound unadorned and informal, as though they could have been recorded in Hiatt’s living room.  “Face of God” sounds as though it could have come from the lips and fingers of the oldest Mississippi bluesman.  “Marlene” sounds like a throwback 1950s rock-n-roll anthem.  “The Wind Don’t Have to Hurry” is an instant classic.  Other great songs include “Nobody Knew His Name,” the title tune and the satirical “Old People.”  Joining Hiatt on the album were members of his touring band, the Combo, featuring lead guitarist (and the album’s producer) Doug Lancio, Nathan Gehri on bass and Kenneth Blevins on drums.

The Nighthawks – 444

DC-based blues-rockers the Nighthawks seem to be undergoing a late-career resurgence, winning their first Blues Music Award with Last Train to Bluesville (acoustic album of the year, 2011), and following that up with a solid effort on Damn Good Time! in 2012.  With 444, front man Mark Wenner and the boys continue to crank out high-energy, high quality blues and throw-back rock ‘n’ roll.

Nighthawks 444With origins in the 1970s, the Nighthawks gathered a loyal cult following, especially in the East. They toured relentlessly throughout the early decades. Of the band’s early offerings, Open All Nite in 1976 and Jacks & Kings in 1977 (with studio work by Muddy Waters sidemen Pinetop Perkins and Bob Margolin) represented their best work. The departure of gifted lead guitarist Jimmy Thackery in 1987 threw the band into a period of constant change, but harpist Mark Wenner held the band together through the years. Although the rhythm section remained relatively stable (until recently Jan Zukowski on bass and Pete Ragusa on drums), the Nighthawks had a succession of lead guitarists, including a brief stint by Warren Haynes, until Pete Kanaras’ nine-year stay in the early 2000s. By the time they entered the studio to record Damn Good Time!, Zukowski and Ragusa had been replaced by Johnny Castle and Mark Stutso, and Paul Bell had taken over as guitarist.  The same lineup, and its positive chemistry, was on hand for 444.

The Nighthawks have always featured a raw, unvarnished Chicago-blues style, but their latest albums, especially 444, feature as much throw-back rock and roll as blues, which, when paired with Wenner’s animated vocals, is a good fit for this talented outfit.  And with other capable singers in the lineup, the band can mix up their sound.   As usual with the Nighthawks’ recent albums, there is a mix of originals and covers on 444.  Among the originals, rock-a-billy tinged title tune “444 a.m.” was written by Castle.  “Honky Tonk Queen” was written by Wenner with contributions from the original Nighthawks.  The catchy “High Snakes” was written by Castle and DC guitar legend Bill Kirchen (formerly of Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen),  “No Secrets” is a Wenner original, and the closing country ballad, “Roadside Cross,” is another gem by Castle.  But some of the covers, like the Du Droppers’ “Talk that Talk” (called “Walk that Walk” on 444), the Everly Brothers’ “The Price of Love” and Elvis tunes “Got a Lot of Livin’” and “Crawfish” inject the album with a throw-back flavor.  There are also a couple of blues covers, such as the Nighthawks’ excellent rendition of Gary Nicholson’s “Nothin’ But The Blues” and their gritty take on Muddy Waters’ “Louisiana Blues’ with a rollin’ and tumblin’ vibe.  The album should please the Nighthawks’ followers and newcomers alike.

 

Audio Stream: The Nighthawks, “Got a Lot of Livin’”

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Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters – Good News

Ronnie Earl is a preacher, and the gospel that he preaches is “the healing power of blues.” A multiple Blues Music Award winner for best blues guitarist, Earl once again took home the honor this Spring at the 2014 Awards. He is a virtuoso who plays a brand of music that is largely his own invention that lies somewhere between blues and jazz.

Ronnie Earl Good News_Normally, Earl and the Broadcasters’ strength is expressive instrumental music. But Good News, being released this month (made available recently at the Western Maryland Blues Festival), makes a slight deviation in that almost half the songs include soulful vocals by Diane Blue, including “Runnin’ in Peace,” which you can stream below, Earl’s memorial for the Boston Marathon bombing last year.  The lyrics were written by Ilana Katz Katz, who was near the finish line on April 15, 2013.

Born Ronald Horvath in Queens, New York, Earl has made his home in the Boston area since finishing college at BU in the 1970s. In 1979, he replaced Duke Robillard as lead guitar in the jump blues band Roomful of Blues. He took his stage name to honor Earl Hooker, an important influence. He stayed with Roomful of Blues for most of a decade before forming the Broadcasters, named after the original name of the earliest telecasters guitar (though Earl generally plays a strat).

Over the years, Earl created a rich body of great music. Check out 1996′s Grateful Heart: Blues and Ballads to hear the Broadcasters’ jazzier side, or 1994′s Still River, The Colour of Love from 1997, Now My Soul from 2004, Hope Radio from 2007 to hear the jazz-blues blend mix more typical of Earl and the Broadcasters. If you want to get an idea of Earl’s mastery in a single track, check out “Beautiful Child” from Hope Radio. For a bit of twang, check out “Harvard Square Stomp” from 1994′s Language of the Soul. Earl has also collaborated on a couple excellent projects, including Eye to Eye in 1996, on which he worked with blues legends Pinetop Perkins (piano), Willie “Big Eyes” Smith (drums), and Calvin Jones (bass); and The Duke Meets the Earl in 2005, the ultimate collaboration between the two great Roomful of Blues guitarist alumni – Earl and Duke Robillard.

Earl and the Broadcasters’ excellent 2013 release, Just for Today, included just one song with vocals.  Good News will be good news indeed for blues enthusiasts who enjoy soulful vocals, with vocalist Blue joining the Broadcasters (Dave Limina on keyboards, Jim Mouradian on bass and Lorne Entress on drums) on several tracks, a worthy counterpoint to Earl’s soaring guitar and Limina’s rocking keyboards.  Always a student of blues and soul history, the album title is an homage to Sam Cooke’s Ain’t That Good News, which was released 50 years ago.  Cooke’s “Change Is Gonna Come,” which became a rallying cry for the civil rights movement after Cooke’s murder in 1964, is among the highlights of the album.  But the entire collection is a solid contribution to the Broadcasters’ already rich body of work.  Also joining the Broadcasters on several tracks are guitarists Nicholas Tabarias and Zach Zunis.

Audio Steam: Ronnie Earl, “Runnin’ in Peace”

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John Mayall – A Special Life

A Special Life, indeed.  John Mayall is often called the “Godfather of British Blues,” but his legacy may include more than just pioneering the British blues; he arguably had a hand in saving the blues as an active music form by introducing the music to a new audiance at a time in the 1960s when elderly bluesmen were being trotted out at folk festivals like anthropoligical novelties.

MayallOne of the first albums I got as a kid was Mayall’s Memories, a peculiar collection of autobiographical songs released in 1971 that is now out of print.  It was a gift.  It wasn’t Mayall’s most acclaimed work, but I liked it enough to start collecting other Mayall albums: The Turning Point,  Mayall’s magnificent mostly acoustic effort from 1969; and Jazz Blues Fusion, with its sleek horn arrangements.  Eventually, my collection would include the classic Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton, known as the “Beano album” because Clapton was reading the comic book in the cover photo; A Hard Road, which featured the guitar work of Peter Green; and Crusade and Blues From Laurel Canyon, which featured Mick Taylor.  But more importantly, I liked the style of music, which led me to seek out original blues artists like B.B. King, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf; and then Lightnin’ Hopkins, Mississippi John Hurt, Sonny Boy Williamson II, Little Walter, John Lee Hooker and Willie Dixon; then the next generation of Buddy Guy, James Cotton and Taj Mahal.

Almost every biography of Mayall includes the litany of rock stars who played with him, including Clapton, who left the successful Yardbirds to join Mayall’s Bluesbreakers before moving on to Cream, Derek and the Dominos, Blind Faith and a solo career; Peter Green, John McVie and Mick Fleetwood, who formed Fleetwood Mac; and Mick Taylor, who went on to join the Rolling Stones.  Mayall was so well regarded as a band leader that Harvey Mandel, Larry Taylor and Walter Trout all left a successful Canned Heat to join Mayall’s Bluesbreakers.  Later on, Coco Montoya played with the Bluesbreakers, and on 1990′s A Sense of Place, Sonny Landreth was virtually a member of the band though credited as a guest artist.  But Mayall’s reputation as a band leader and mentor ignores his own musical talents.  A multi-instrumentalist, Mayall played all the parts except drums on The Blues Alone in 1967.  And he is among the most exciting blues harp players in the world – one listen to “Room to Move” on Turning Point should convince any skeptics of that.

Originally from Macclesfield, Cheshire, England, Mayall attended art college in Manchester after serving in Korea.  He famously lived in a treehouse while at art school (which he sang about in “Home in a Tree” on Memories).  While working as an artist, Mayall continued to pursue his passion for the blues, eventually moving to London in 1963.  (His artistic training would come into play throughout his career, as he designed most of his album covers.)  Mayall’s 1960s albums with Clapton, Green and Taylor are blues-rock classics, but over the years he has continued to produce high quality music, conquered an alcohol dependency, and matured as a showman (he’ll play “Room to Move” on request – unlike on Jazz Blues Fusion, where he can be heard refusing, saying “What, did you come here to hear an old record or something?”).  He has released several late-career gems, such as A Sense of Place in 1990, Stories in 2002 and Tough in 2009.

Now at 80, 50 years after recording his first single, Mayall has once again demonstrated he can rock the house.  With A Special Life, Mayall’s gajillionth studio album, Mayall brought zydeco master C.J. Chenier into the mix, along with his regular crew of Rocky Athas on guitar, Greg Rzab on bass and Jay Davenport on drums.  Chenier’s influence is immediately heard on “Why Did You Go Last Night?” with its zydeco vibe.  Other highlights include Mayall originals “World Gone Crazy,” “A Special Life,” and “Heartache,” along with Rzab’s “Like A Fool” and a cover of Albert King’s “Floodin’ in California.”  Throughout, there is some great musicianship, with crisp harp solos and Mayall’s characteristic tenor vocals.