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 By the time they entered the studio to record Damn Good Time!, Zukowski and Ragusa had been replaced by Johnny Castle and Mark Stutso, and Paul Bell had taken over as guitarist.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.


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.”