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.

Old Settler’s Music Fest – 2014 Edition

Every spring, a couple of weeks after the madhouse of SXSW, the music festival season kicks off with Old Settler’s Music Festival, about a half hour outside of Austin.  Started as a bluegrass festival, Old Settler’s now embraces a broad spectrum of Americana.  Organizer Jean Spivey has a magic touch for consistently mixing old with new, and traditional with what everyone will rave about next year.  Like all festivals of any size, there’s always more to see than you can get to, but with that in mind here are my highlights of the show.

Can I Get An Amen

OK, they don’t exactly have the old-time religion background that many bluegrass bands do, but European group Red Wine sounds like they come straight from the hills of Appalachia–until leader Silvio Ferretti speaks in his native Italian accent.  As Friday’s opening act on the bluegrass stage, they set a great tone for rest of the evening.  Rising star Parker Millsap lit up the campground stage Thursday night with his mix of blues, folk, and soul-wrenching vocal delivery.  Leaning on his Pentecostal upbringing, he delivered a fear-of-god performance.  For sheer spirituality, though, no one topped St. Paul & the Broken Bones.  They put on an electrifying performance Thursday evening, and then outdid themselves on Friday.  Singer Paul Janeway had the Austin crowd, who can be a little jaded about good music, pressing against the stage barriers like a bunch of teenage girls at a Beatles concert.  Speaking of which, the band delivered a cover of Hey Jude that was inspired, and followed it up with a cover of A Change Is Gonna Come that would have made Sam Cooke weep with joy.


Music Legends

As I mentioned earlier, Old Settler’s is usually a good place to catch some of the legends of Americana music playing for a crowd that’s appreciative of their life’s contribution.  Peter Rowan, a mere 71 years old, gave a heart-warming performance of many of his classics with the Twang an’ Groove instantiation of his backing band early Saturday afternoon, and then played a solo, unamplified set at the Discovery Stage later in the day.  Del McCoury, 75, with his multi-generational band, gave performances on both Friday and Saturday that were as energetic as the first time I saw him almost 30 years ago.  The coup de grace, though, was Ralph Stanley.  Also featuring family, his grandson, in his Clinch Mountain Boys band, Ralph pretty much just stayed in front of his microphone.  But when the band cleared the stage and Ralph, now 87, let loose with his a capella O Death, an unearthly silence enveloped a crowd of several thousand people.  Even the normal backstage chatter stopped cold to listen to the master.

The Road Goes On Forever

At the other end of the scale are new artists with tons of talent who have many decades of performing to look forward to.  Clearly local favorite Sarah Jarosz falls in that camp, having first performed at Old Settler’s in the youth talent competition, which she won at age 12.  That was literally half her lifetime ago, and she’s now perhaps the princess of OSMF having not missed performing at many of the festivals in between.  Elephant Revival first broke on the scene just a couple of years ago, but they’ve been gathering fans and momentum since, and their performance Saturday afternoon, including guests from peer bands like Wood & Wire and Della Mae, did nothing to slow that momentum down.  I think the highlight in this category, though, was the Saturday evening set from Lake Street Dive.  The entire band is so solid and singer Rachael Price grasps the subtlety of singing to the size and energy of the crowd, with a euphoric result.

And the Party Never Ends

Unlike many moderately sized festivals, the headliners at Old Settler’s are not the last act of the evening.  That honor is reserved for a party/jam band.  While the main bulk of the audience is finding their way to the parking lot, the last group of the night at Old Settlers is essentially in charge of priming the diehard music fans for the upcoming several hours of campfire jams.  Thursday night that charge was led by Donna the Buffalo.  With their style of Deadhead meets zydeco music, there was no doubt who was in control of the crowd when their supposed 75 minute set cracked the 2 hour mark.  Friday night’s final official festivities belonged to the Dickinson brothers and their incarnation as the North Mississippi All Stars.  With fiery lead guitar and a driving, sometime congo line, drum beat, the All Stars were just about the only people on the planet that could have transitioned the crowd from St. Paul’s Muscle Shoal’s soul to anything resembling normalcy.  And then there’s Kevin Russell.  With his previous band, The Gourds, Kevin owned Austin late night for several years.  Shinyribs is giving him a different outlet for his talent, but he knows when to let go of the rules and lash the crowd into a frenzy.  With Saturday night the last night of music for many OSMF attendees, Russell made sure things ended on an exclamation point.


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.


Nick Moss Band – Time Ain’t Free

Nick Moss paid his dues, working as a side man for veteran Chicago bluesmen, including Buddy Scott, Jimmy Dawkins, Jimmy Rogers and former Muddy Waters drummer Willie “Big Eyes” Smith. Those blues chops, hard earned, provided the backbone for Moss to lead his own formidable blues outfit for more than a decade.

A student of Chicago-style blues, Moss was recruited as a bass player by Scott when he was barely out of high school.  From there, there was a short stint in Dawkins’ band before he joined Smith’s Legendary Blues Band, receiving his first songwriting credit on the band’s 1993 album, Money Talks.  With Smith’s encouragement, Moss gradually moved from bass to lead guitar.  After a stint with Rogers, he forged out with his own band, Nick Moss and the Flip Tops, recording Got a New Plan in 2001 and First Offense in 2003.  Amont Moss’s following seven albums, check out 2005′s Sadie Mae.

Rhythm guitarist Michael Ledbetter joined Moss in 2011 and shares songwriting and vocal duties on Time Ain’t Free, a soul-inflected blues-rock treat.  Ledbetter’s soulful vocals on such songs as “I Want The World To Know” provide an excellent counterpoint for Moss’s beefy guitar solos and rocking vocals.  Other highlights include “Fare Thee Well” and “Tell You Somethin’ ‘Bout Yourself.”   “EZ Bree Zee” provides a light R&B respite, and “Walkin’ on a Ledge” povides a bit of Afro-beat soul.  “Bad ‘n Ruin” has an infectious rock vibe and “(Big Mike’s) Sweet Potato Pie” closes the album with some funk.  Along with Moss and Ledbetter, Patrick Seals plays drums, Matthew Wilson plays bass, and Bryan Rogers plays keyboards, with Tina J. Crawley and Lara Jenkins providing background vocals on half the songs.


Audio Stream: Nick Moss Band, “Fare Thee Well”

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