Eden Brent – Jigsaw Heart

After performing continuously since 1985, Eden Brent has really come into her own as one of the shining lights of blues piano during the past five years.   Her accolades have included Blues Music Awards for acoustic artist of the year in 2009, for acoustic album of the year for Mississippi Number One that same year, and the Pinetop Perkins Piano Player of the year in 2010.   A lightning fast piano player, she plays a boogie woogie piano style akin to Marcia Ball and Deanna Bogart, but when she slows it down on Jigsaw Heart and demonstrates her songwriting chops she really shines.

Eden Brent A native of Greenville, Mississippi, Brent followed the likes of Roy Orbison and Don Henley into the music program at the University of North Texas.  After graduating, her real education began when she started working with bluesman Boogaloo Ames and stayed with him for 16 years.   She paid her dues with Ames and ventured out on her own in 2001 with her first solo album, Something Cool, appearing in 2003.  After her award-winning Mississippi Number One appeared in 2008, she released Ain’t Got No Troubles in 2010.

Her latest album, Jigsaw Heart, will likely build on her growing reputation.   Always a great piano player, her songwriting really shines on Jigsaw Heart.  The slower title tune, “Better This Way” and the album’s best song, “The Last Time,” really demonstrate her songwriting ability.  Those songs not only evoke images of Brent’s native Mississippi but also spark thoughts of common experiences in people’s lives.  Covers “Panther Burn,” by Jimmy Phillips, and Tom Hambridge and Colin Linden’s “Valentine” further demonstrate Brent’s ability to carry off a slower, reflective tune.  But there are also characteristic boogie woogie piano rides like Eden’s original “Everybody Already Knows” to provide some variety and keep the album bounding along.

Brent was joined on the album by Dan Dugmore on pedal steel guitar, John Dymond and Stephen Mackey on bass, Gary Craig on bass, Chris Carmichael on strings, Kenzie Wetz on fiddle, Bryan Owings on drums and Ann and Regina McCrary with background vocals.

Keb’ Mo’ – BLUESAmericana

Over the past 20 years, Keb’ Mo’ has been among a small group of African American next generation musicians widely considered to be the future of blues music. Along with contemporaries like Corey Harris, Eric Bibb, Guy Davis, Otis Taylor and Alvin Youngblood Hart, Keb’ Mo’ has carried the torch of blues music passed on by great Post-War artists such as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon, John Lee Hooker and Sonny Boy Williamson.  Each of them has experimented and modernized the music while moving it forward as an art form.

Keb MoBorn Kevin Moore in Los Angeles, it is said he got his unique stage name from his original drummer, Quentin Dennard, and embraced it as a “street talk” shortening of his full name.  An accomplished musician at a young age, Moore was a side man to Papa John Creach (of Jefferson Airplane, Jefferson Starship and Hot Tuna) in the 1970s.  He played in various R&B bands in the 1980s until he landed a job as a bluesman in a stage play called Rabbit Foot in 1990 and later appeared as Robert Johnson in another play, Can’t You Hear The Wind Howl? 

But Moore didn’t really receive wide acclaim until he was in his forties.  In 1994, Keb’ Mo’s self-titled first album, which included two Robert Johnson covers and 11 of his own songs, was released.  That first album was a masterpiece that echoed with the rustic roots of Delta blues.  Since then he has branched out and incorporated various soul, rock and pop music strains into his work.  He won Grammy awards in contemporary blues in 1996 for his second album, Just Like You, and again in 1998 for Slow Down.  In addition to his recorded work, Moore has also appeared in a number of films, including his role as Possum in John Sayles’ blues-themed Honeydripper in 2007 (which also featured Gary Clark Jr., who is now hailed as the new future of blues).  One of the best renditions of “Sweet Home Chicago” you may ever see is the Keb’ Mo’-Corey Harris duet that can be viewed as a special feature to the DVD of Feel Like Going Home, the Martin Scorsese-directed first installment in The Blues film series that aired on PBS in 2003.

Keb’ Mo’s work is always well done, and he is an engaging entertainer, but he has sometimes strayed far from the roots music for which he was so well recognized.  His 2011 release The Reflection, for instance, is a soul album that might best be described as jazzy pop music.  Moore’s voice pulled it off, but it was a huge stylistic stretch from what many fans might have expected.

BLUESAmericana represents a return to the varied formula that made Keb’ Mo’s early albums so welcoming.  He is a master of pure Delta acoustic blues, but he can also pick up the pace some with relaxed, soul-inflected pieces.  The album features a large  collection of musicians and background singers, including a full horn section on several songs.  The opening, “The Worst Is Yet to Come,” mixes some juicy banjo picking into an uptempo jaunt.  Other great selections include the lively “Do It Right,” the sentimental “For Better or Worse,” the dark Jimmy Rogers cover “That’s All Right,” and the playful “The Old Me Better.”  Those looking for the quieter, more reflective acoustic side of Keb’ Mo’ will enjoy “More For Your Money.”

The Holmes Brothers – Brotherhood

The Holmes Brothers have spread their special brand of joy for years. Brothers Sherman and Wendell, along with drummer Popsy Dixon, have established a special kind of soul-blues that is part gospel, part soul.

Holmes Brothers

Although the Holmes Brothers had performed together throughout the 1980s, it wasn’t until the 1990s that they started getting widespread recognition for their magical sound.  The Holmes Brothers’ music is most often described as a variation of “soul-blues,” a form of blues that was pioneered by African-American musicians in the post-war South.  Many of the music form’s early champions, such as the late Bobby “Blue” Bland and Z.Z. Hill, have passed on, making soul-blues a somewhat endangered art form.  Though soul-blues influences can be heard in the work of many artists, only a few artists such as the Holmes Brothers fully embrace the style.

The Holmes Brothers since 1990 have released a stream of excellent recordings.  A sense of elation frequently pervades their albums, which are a joy to listen to.  Early album highlights included 1990′s In The Spirit and 1993′s Soul Street.  Noteworthy recent releases include the superb Simple Truths in 2004 and 2010′s Feed My Soul.  They are at their best when the gospel influence creeps into their music, such as on “Fair Weather Friend” on Feed My Soul.

Brotherhood is true to form for the Holmes Brothers.  It is yet another example of great artists at the top of their game.  What always comes through is their joy in singing, and a sense that they want to convey that joy to their listeners.  Once again, the gospel influence is there.  “I Gave Up All I Had” is entrancing, as is the closer, “Amazing Grace.”  But there’s also some funky soul with tunes like “Likety Split” and smooth soul on “Soldier of Love,” along with good ole rock ‘n’ roll on “My Word is My Bond” and straight-up blues like “Drivin’ in the Drivin’ Rain.”

The Holmes Brothers have been popular at blues, folk and gospel festivals for so many years they have become almost legendary.  Their live shows are a celebration, and their recordings are consistently entertaining.  Brotherhood is one more example of a musical phenomenon at its best.

Mikey Junior – Traveling South

Philadelphia, known more for its rhytm & blues than traditional blues, is nevertheless the home to some outstanding blues musicians including harmonica virtuoso Steve Guyger, the sultry young singer Gina Sicilia, and the up-and-coming, hardworking blues harp standout Mikey Junior.

Mikey Junior, who often homesteads at the Twisted Tail in Philly’s South Street area, has embraced a musical style reminiscent of the great post-war Chicago electric blues legends.  A full-time musician by the time he finished high school, Mikey Junior has been playing blues harmonica professionally for about a dozen years.  With a style reminiscent of the late great William Clarke, he has the passion and dedication to become an elite harmonica player.  With an engaging personality, he is also an energetic supporter for other upstart blues musicians in Philly, regularly hosting open jams at the ‘Tail.

PrintTraveling South, Mikey Junior’s eighth album since 2003, is a solid, inspired effort.  He provides straight-forward electric blues from the train-like title tune through to the end.  Other album highlights include the bumping, thumping “Morning On My Way,” the rocking “Katie Lynn,” the tortured “You,” and the gritty closer, “Trying To Do The Best I Can.”  All the songs were written by Mikey Junior except the title tune, which was written by British blues impresario Mike Vernon, and “Bad Time Blues,” written by the late Danny DeGennaro, who had been a Philly area musical fixture before being murdered in a robbery attempt in late 2011.

Traveling South was produced by Dave Gross.  Playing with Mikey Junior on the album are guitarists Gross and Dean Shot, with Jeremy Baum on keyboards, Matt Raymond on bass, and Michael Bram on drums.

Southern Soul Assembly at the Saenger Theatre, Mobile, Alabama

So I’m in Mobile, AL this week for my day job.  As I’m eating lunch Tuesday I look up and see a poster for the Southern Soul Assembly, featuring JJ Grey, Luther Dickinson, Anders Osborne and Marc Broussard.  And it’s that night at the Saenger Theatre about a block from my hotel. I rush out after work and grab a ticket at the box office, paying significantly less than I would in Philly or DC.  Having seen Anders Osborne and North Mississippi Allstars before, I run out and buy some earplugs.  Didn’t need them.  The whole show was acoustic, with four exceptional regional songwriters trading songs and swapping stories that ranged from poignant to hysterically funny.

Southern Soul AssemblyThe Assembly was the brainchild of Grey, the leader of swamp funk-blues band JJ Grey & Mofro.  Grey, a native of Florida, has brought together much of the vanguard of white southern blues and soul songwriters of a certain vintage.  These guys have all been around for awhile – long enough to produce some exciting work. Osborne and Grey are in their late 40s, Dickinson is barely 40, and Broussard is in his early 30s.

As leader and a part of Mofro, Grey’s reputation has grown steadily since his band recorded its first album, Blackwater, in 2001 after trying to secure a contract for a half dozen years.  Grey’s music often focuses on environmental issues he cares about in his native Florida, but he also injects a fair amount of humor into his songwriting.  His last couple studio albums with Mofro, Georgia Warhorse in 2010 and This River in 2013, have even climbed onto bestseller lists among independent albums.  To the audience in Mobile, Grey’s music was the most familiar among his Assembly cohorts, and I could hear the choruses of his songs, such as “Lochloosa” and “Brighter Days,” being sung all around me.

Luther Dickinson, co-founder with brother Cody of North Mississippi Allstars, rarely sits still.  Dickinson laid down his first guitar licks at age 14 on the the Replacements’ Pleased to Meet Me (produced by father Jim) in 1987.  Along with starting NMA, in the late 1990s, Dickinson played Alan Lomax for Otha Turner, producing two albums of the 90-something’s unique fife and drum blues that was once a common backwoods Mississippi music form.  Since then, his frenetic musical exploration has led him to take over for several years as lead guitarist for the Black Crowes, and, along with brother Cody, join forces with John Medeski and Robert Randolph to record as The Word in 2001, and to work and tour with John Hiatt.  In 2009 Luther got together with a few friends to record Onward and Upward in honor of his recently deceased father under the name of Luther Dickinson and the Sons of Mudboy, and in 2010, along with bluesman Alvin Youngblood Hart and Squirrel Nut Zipper Jimbo Mathus, he formed the South Memphis String Band to pursue a more organic jug-band blues sound. As if that wasn’t enough, in 2012 he recorded an inspired album of solo acoustic guitar, Hambone’s Meditations.  That year, he also worked on a collaboration with fellow guitar slingers David Hidalgo of Los Lobos and Mato Nanji of Indigenous, 3 Skulls and the Truth.  Last month, he released his second solo album, Rock ‘N Roll Blues, which has been well received.  His performance with the Assembly features songs from his two solo albums, including the humorous “Yard Man.”

Osborne’s journey into the vanguard of southern soul songwriters began in Sweden, where, as the son of a jazz musician, he became enamored of American roots music, eventually moving to New Orleans around 1990.  There, he has established himself among the Crescent City’s musicial elite, collaborating frequently with his close friend, the eminent swamp blues-rocker Tab Benoit, and releasing more than a dozen solo albums since 1995.  Among his career highlights are 2001′s Ash Wednesday Blues and 2012′s Black Eye Galaxy.  Osborne is an exceptional guitar slinger, capable, it seems, of masterful licks in almost any musical style.

Broussard hails from Lafayette, LA, where he came from a musical family.  Growing up, he developed an affinity for rhythm and blues in the tradition of Otis Redding.  He developed his own crusty vocal style that carries his songwriting along perfectly.  Barely 20 when he recorded his first album, Momentary Setback, in 2002, Broussard has released a half dozen more solo albums in the last dozen years and continues a busy touring schedule.

On the Southern Soul Assembly tour, the four songwriters showcase their talents in an intimate, informal style. Their songs and styles are distinctive. Some of the numbers are totally solo by one of the artists. On others, all four join in. The Southern Soul Assembly is no Traveling Wilburys – they haven’t secluded themselves at Dickinson’s barn to write original songs. Rather, they’re trading their own songs, enjoying one another’s company, and bringing the audience along for the ride. On their common musical journey there are some soaring moments, some heartfelt laughs and lots of toe tapping. The Assembly tour is a great way to get a taste of some great songwriters in their prime.