Sena Ehrhardt – Live My Life

Sena Ehrhardt is a big voice from a smal town. Ehrhardt’s third album, Live My Life, is a polished musical offering that is sure to cement her reputation as a rising star in blues music.

Originally from a southern Minnesota town known more for lunch meat than blues music, the dynamic singer inherited her passion for blues from her father, who worked in regional blues bands for 40 years.  She attributes her ambition to growing up in a musical household and credits opportunities to see touring acts, including a performance by Luther Allison shortly before his death that took her breath away.  After graduating from college, she paid her early dues in her father’s band, Plan B, which gradually became the Sena Ehrhardt Band when her reputation took hold.  On her first two albums, Leave the Light On in 2011 and All In last year, her band continued to be a family affair, with her father anchoring as lead guitarist.

Sena Ehrhardt

But on Live My Life, Cole Allen replaced father Ed on guitar and also became her songwriting partner.  The album, like the glossy cover, is slicker than her earlier albums and may have some crossover appeal among rock audiences.  But at its heart it is still a blues album, and Ehrhardt’s talent is in the blues.

Live My Life is a mix of originals and covers.  Ehrhardt and Allen’s “Things You Should Know” and “Everybody is You” are solid tunes.  The title tune, written by Allen, is a fine blues-rocker.  She also does a good job on covers such as Leon Russell’s “Help Me Through the Day” and Albert Collins’ “If Trouble Was Money.”

Along with Ehrhardt and Allen, the album features St. Paul Peterson and Rick Roussell on bass, Michael Bland and Paul Peterson on drums, and Bruce McCabe on piano, with guest appearances by rhythm guitarist Jimi “Primetime” Smith and slide guitarist Smokin’ Joe Kubek.  The album was produced by prolific Minneapolis sound master David Z.

Audio Stream: Sena Ehrhardt, “Everybody Is You”

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Sugar Ray & the Bluetones – Living Tear to Tear

Sugar Ray & the Bluetones have added an entertaining gem to their long list of album releases with Living Tear to Tear.   From the first notes blown through Sugar Ray Norcia’s harmonica on “Rat Trap,” the album is a pleasure to hear.

Sugar RayIt’s not surprising that harpist Sugar Ray Norcia, a former member of Roomful of Blues, is a master at his craft. Roomful of Blues, a fine outfit in its own right, has become a stamp of quality for its alumni. The lexicon of blues masters who, along with Norcia, have been affiliated with Roomful of Blues include guitarists Duke Robillard and Ronnie Earl, trumpeter/cornetist Al Basile, and pianists Al Copley and Ron Levy – all musical standouts.

Norcia, who founded the first version of the Bluetones in the late 1970s, formally became a member of Roomful of Blues in the early 1990s.  But he had been playing with those guys for years.  Ronnie Earl, who took over from Duke Robillard as lead guitar, had been one of the original Bluetones.  Norcia’s decades of experience playing with great musicians ala Roomful of Blues shows on Living Tear to Tear.  The album includes a collection of original tunes written not only by Norcia but also by Bluetones Monster Mike Welch, Michael “Mudcat” Ward, and Anthony Geraci, with a couple of standards added in.  “Here We Go,” which you can stream below, was written by Welch.

On Living Tear to Tear, the Bluetones’ tight lineup includes  Welch on guitar, Ward on bass,  Geraci on piano, and Neil Garouvin on drums.

Audio Stream: Sugar Ray & the Bluetones, “Here We Go”

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Mud Morganfield & Kim Wilson – For Pops: A Tribute to Muddy Waters

Larry “Mud” Morganfield and Kim Wilson have put together a collaboration that features 1950s Chicago Blues akin to Morganfield’s famous father, McKinley Morganfield – Muddy Waters. And the surprisingly good tribute album by Waters’ eldest son and the frontman from the Fabulous Thunderbirds, For Pops: A Tribute to Muddy Waters, captures that Muddy Waters feel without knocking off any obvious hits like “Hoochie Coochie Man,” “I’ve Got My Mojo Working” or “Mannish Boy.”

MudMud Morganfield is one of two of Waters’ sons – the other is Big Bill Morganfield – who are making a name for themselves in their father’s business.   He didn’t consider a music career until after his father’s death in 1983, becoming a professional truck driver for a time instead.  But since 2000, Mud has been building a solid reputation.  releasing his first album, Fall Waters Fall, in 2008.  His second album, Son of  the Seventh Son, released in 2012, included a number of original songs and received some positive critical notice.   Wilson, of course, has held the Fabulous Thunderbirds together since Jimmie Vaughan left the band in in the late eighties.  The band managed to hang together through some ups and downs and, with the release of On the Verge in 2012,  received critical notice as glowing as during their heyday of the seventies and eighties.

On For Pops, Mud’s round baritone vocals and Wilson’s harmonica establish a a great core for the project, but the veteran crew including guitarists Billy Flynn, who played with Chicago blues standout Jimmy Dawkins and the Legendary Blues Band (with Waters’ sidemen Willie “Big Eyes” Smith and Pinetop Perkins) and Rusty Zinn, Barrelhouse Chuck on piano, former Ronnie Earl sideman Steve Gomes on bass and drummer Robb Stupka, who frequently backed the legendary Luther Allison.

For Pops is a tour de force that covers a range of offerings written by Muddy Waters, such as “Gone to Main Street,”Still a Fool,” and “Blow Wind Blow.”  It also includes songs written by others for Muddy, such as Willie Dixon’s  “I Don’t Know Why” and “I Love the Life I Live, I Live the Life I Love” and Bernard Roth’s “Just to Be With You.”  None of the songs were huge hits for Muddy, but they all have that signature Muddy Waters sound, especially when played by this group of veteran musicians. 

Audio Stream: Mud Morganfield and Kim Wilson, “Still a Fool”

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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.