Been There Done That
McKenna Records

Barbara Healy CD coverBarbara Healy has long been one of the finest vocalists in the lower Willamette Valley whose talent is reflected in her amazing, passionate songwriting and performances. Since the 1980s she has been delivering smoking hot music filled with heartfelt soul in bands such as The Allnighterz, The I-5 Nine and her current outfit Groove Too. Her latest release, Been There Done That, is her sixth recording overall, the second with Groove Too, and it is filled with her own personal experiences.

All of the material on Been There Done That is original with the exception of the closing take on Big Jay McNeely’s classic “There Is Something On Your Mind.” Healy shares songwriting duties throughout with bandmates guitarist Gerry Rempel and keyboardist Gus Russell, and the band consists of bass player Scoop McGuire, drummers Brian West and Alex Huber, and “The Treacherous Horns” featuring Dave Bender on trumpet and flugelhorn, and Tony Johnson on sax. All musicians provide over the top performances and very tasteful solos throughout the entire recording.

The album opens up with a moody, slow burning number, “Struck By The Blues,” with all of the members taking nice showcase runs behind Healy’s precise vocal delivery. Rempel especially puts forth some sizzle on his guitar strings on this one. That is followed up with a bit of humor as Healy tells her pursuer to “Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is,” because buddy if you’re not going to deliver on what you claim to make her feel good, just stay out of her neighborhood. On “I Close My Eyes” there is so much going on in today’s world that she would like to close it all out of her mind. “Rumba Of The Heart” has a Latin percussive flow with a little New Orleans piano flavor, and another burning guitar solo. “Shake It Up” has a terrific Memphis R&B feel and may show Healy’s magnificent voice at its very best making it a stand out track among a disc full of winners. The final original “Four Alarm Fire” is introduced with some seriously punchy horn work that brings the song on strongly and the pace is fitting of its title and makes you want to snap your fingers right in time.

Been There Done That is a very pleasing collection of bluesy-soulful fun. There is a reason why Barbara Healy has stood tall within the Eugene and Oregon, blues scenes for four decades. When you have talent like this, material like the songs gathered here, plus an assembly of fantastic musicians, you have the formula for not only longevity, but for first-class releases as seen here.

Total Time: 37:04

Struck By The Blues / Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is / I Close My Eyes / Rumba Of The Heart / Shake It Up / Four Alarm Fire / There Is Something On Your Mind

 

Taylor Made Blues
Swing Suit Records

Mick Kolassa CD coverMississippi-based bluesman Mick Kolassa is back with his third recording in as many years, and as with those previous two he has hit another winning formula with Taylor Made Blues. Kolassa is an exceptional musician, working his acoustic guitar around his gravelly voiced singing. As a songwriter he is quite sincere. These are honest songs, often humorous, then at times telling emotionally from experiences filled with heartbreak and loss. Exactly the base that any strong songwriter and blues musician should draw upon. It is life and it is real. You have to live it to bring it across right. And Kolassa has done just that.

His heart is reflected in a multiple manner of expressions throughout Taylor Made Blues. He mourns the loss of his closest friend and brother-in-law Ted Todd in “Left Too Soon,” and pays tribute to the Brazilian fishing guide he shared friendship with in “Raul Was My Friend.” But he is not only filled with sadness on the album and he shouts out his happiness for those he still has in “With Friends Like Mine” and his love for his wife Molli in “Baby Faced Louise.”

Eight of the dozen tracks are Kolassa originals, with a ninth, the number “Keep A Goin’,” he has reworked from the Frank Stanton poem written nearly a hundred years ago. The three other selections are covers of Graham Nash’s “Prison Song,” Townes Van Zandt’s “Lungs” and The Temptations’ “I Can’t Get Next to You.” All are done tastefully in Kolassa’s own approach.

Named after the town he lives in, Taylor Made Blues was recorded in Memphis’ Ardent Studios with guitarist Jeff Jensen once again serving as engineer. Alongside Jensen, the core behind the album’s band is bassist Bill Ruffino, drummer James Cunningham and keyboardist Chris Stephenson. Kolassa also draws upon his wealth of friends to assist, including some of the finest in the region with Victor Wainwright, Castro “Mr. Sipp” Coleman, Eric Hughes, Reba Russell and Tullie Brae, plus Long Tall Deb Landolt, and Colin James also flew into Memphis to lend a hand.

As he has done with his other recordings, Mick Kolassa will donate all proceeds from the sale of Taylor Made Blues to The Blues Foundation to benefit their Generation Blues and The Hart Foundation programs. So the purchase of the album benefits you twicefold as you not only receive some terrific material to listen to, you also help young artists and musicians in need at the same time.

Taylor Made Blues is a very personal recording by Mick Kolassa. Filled with life’s ups and downs, he has once again delivered an exceptional album that stands out in every sense as genuine and bona fide as it comes.

Total Time: 48:34

Baby Faced Louise / Taylor Made Blues / Prison Song / I’m Getting Late / In The Way / With Friends Like Mine / Lungs / Keep A Goin’ / Left Too Soon / Can’t Get Next To You / My Hurry Done Broke / Raul Was My friend

Devestatin’ Rhythm
Ark-O-Matic

David Vest CD coverEven if David Vest were not the articulate songwriter that he is, his piano playing would still be able to tell stories that’d capture your attention. His expressive boogie style just has a way of its own to speak of the greatest tall tales you may have ever heard, but everything he offers on those keys ring true and deliberate. And it makes you envision images of everyday life or perhaps images you really don’t want to see in reality, but they’re out there.

Vest is a three-time Maple Award (Canada’s own Blues Music Awards) winner for piano player of the year. He is joined once again by The Willing Victims, and a couple of “Special Victims,” too. They have worked with Vest on his previous two recordings since the pianist relocated from Portland to British Columbia, and they are among some of the most highly-regarded blues artists in Canada: Teddy Leonard on guitar from the band Fathead, and Maple Award-winning bass player Gary Kendall and drummer Mike Fitzpatrick, both who have worked countless years with Downchild Blues Band. The Special Victims Unit are Pete Carey on sax and Howard Moore on trumpet. Their horns add an extra spunk to many of the tracks on this album.

“West Coast Saturday Night,” written by the band as a whole, opens the disc with a nice New Orleans approach featuring sharp guitar work by Leonard. That flows into the shuffle of “Stop This Madness” as Vest reflects on current world situations. The boogie is laid all out on “Kingsnake” as he states that music has been said to be a young man’s game, but that’s all right with him as he’s not playing a game. And he’s not joking! He takes a moment to remember a number of blues greats who have moved on to the afterlife, but despite their absence “The Blues Live On.” The only non-original track on Devestatin’ Rhythm is the cover of Leon Payne’s “Lost Highway,” best known as sung by Hank Williams. The country feel is delivered perfectly on this track between Vest’s piano and Leonard’s slide guitar.

Devestatin’ Rhythm continues the remarkable work that David Vest has been enchanting audiences with for nearly six decades. Without doubt he’s going to keep that piano’s keys primed and pumping with the best boogie delivery of its kind anywhere as long as he’s got breath to breathe. He’s no throw-back, he’s bona fide pianist who’s lived the life and still carries the tradition on. And his lyrics are going to make you smile, or maybe just make you think a little deeper on some subjects that we may experience today.

Total time: 40:08

West Coast Saturday Night / Stop This Madness / Staring Down The Barrel Of The Blues / Kingsnake / We’re All Sharecroppers Now / The Blues Live On / Biscuit Rollin’ Baby / Lost Highway / Come Back To Bed / Red Dirt Remedy

I Surrender
Self Produced

When I reviewed Gabriel Cox’s debut album a couple years ago, the first thing I said that you’re going to notice is that this man can sing. Does that bear repeating? Cox is a natural singer whose voice is filled with so much soul and emotion that it can make you feel it coming directly from his heart. And it only is one part of this amazing young performer’s musical vocabulary as you have to note his guitar playing and the incredible songwriting talent he also posseses.

Gabriel Cox CD coverGabriel Cox has now released his sophomore recording, I Surrender. He opens the disc with perhaps his most renowned tune in a updated take with “Willie Brown II.” This is a mostly an a cappella number that finds Cox not only using a stomp-box to bring out the rhythms, but in fact a whole box, upon which he stands and stomps. It is a highlight to witness at his performances and this time he brings in a huge supporting cast behind him. If there’s any way possible to surpass the original take of this song, he has done just that.

Did I mention the supporting cast behind him? Well, most of them hail from the Salem base area that Cox calls home, but he has brought in some heavy hitters, too, including Eugene’s Hank Shreve on harmonica and Portland’s Rae Gordon adding her instantly recognizable voice. Other artists include Jarred Venti, Brandon Logan, Derek Jones, Nathan Olsen, Jason Carter and vocalists Miranda Vettrus, John Pulvers, and his father Mark Cox. All shine highly throughout the album.

The songwriting once again excels with immediate noticeable standouts like “Best That I Can,” “Your Touch,” his duet with Miranda Vettrus on “This Love,” the frenetic pace of “Fever,” and the heartfelt passion emoting from the closing number “I Surrender.”  Even though Robert Johnson’s masterpiece “Come On In My Kitchen” is not an original, it has been given the Cox treatment, totally making the song his own.

I Surrender is a roots album of extraordinary merit. Gabriel Cox has a lot of himself inside his music and it reflects his blues in his own manner. I said it before, and I am saying it again, Gabriel Cox has the magic. He is pure alchemy. There’s gold dripping from his fingers when it comes to talent and songwriting. His time is now. He is an artist that deserves to rise to the very top. Another outstanding release from somebody that we’re sure to be seeing a lot of for a long time to come.

Total Time: 58:38

Willie Brown II / Best that I Can / Fever / Pretty Little Lady / The Railman / Still The Man / I Can’t Take This / I’m Gone / Your Touch / Come On In My Kitchen / This Love / Boy In Blue / I Surrender

Blame Me
Self Produced

Ty Curtis CD coverTy Curtis makes authentic music from his heart. His songwriting skills are amoung some of the very best I have heard as of late with lyrics and instrumentation finely melded together to appeal far more than to just one defined genre of listeners. Like his previous recordings, his newest release Blame Me explores new realms in the sound of the blues. It may not be the traditional blues that we’ve been exposed to since the beginning of the twentieth century, but it is an exciting track that he is taking us on and it is undeniably blues for this modern world.  And like the very best in music, Blame Me is a collection of songs that you want to listen to repeatedly.

It’s easy to see that Curtis has the feel for blues rock in his blood. He is a master at over the top, exceptional, and burning guitar work as seen in the rocking title track “Blame Me.” But he also knows how to write some of the most heart-endearing ballads imaginable, as he proves in the number “Heaven Save Me.” There is emotion that runs deep in the song that speaks with complete honesty. Then he can trip into a reggae piece without missing a beat with “Urge And Temptation” and can also bring out complete funky soulfulness on “I Can Say.” There are a lot of melodies, harmonies and groove in Ty Curtis’ music and it’s clear that he is game to take on every angle in his craft. His efforts and commitment make it all come out with exceptional results.

Blame Me was recorded in Austin, where Curtis now calls home while still splitting time with trips back and forth to his native Oregon. It was engineered by Grammy winner Anton Pukshansky with mixing from Chris Athens. Both have worked with some major artists in a variety of genres, from hip hop to R&B, country to rock. The musicianship at hand for this recording is absolutely impressive, with regular bandmates Jerry Jacques on drums and Tony Valdez on bass, with additional help from some of Austin’s best: Nick Jay, Dane Farnsworth, Carmelo Torres, and Jeff Bryant.

Ty Curtis once again convinces us that he is a triple threat, singer, guitarist and songwriter that we have to watch with anticipation that greatness is directly at hand. Blame Me shows us once again that his development is racing faster than we can keep up and it’s time for the rest of the world to catch up and take note.

Total Time: 44:18

That Good / Blame Me / Back Again / I Can Say / Heaven Save Me / Shake It Up / Urge And Temptation / Blow Me Away / Who Are You / Never Get My Love

A Love So Strong
Self Produced

Rose City Kings CD coverA Love So Strong represents the return of the Rose City Kings after a hiatus of several years after band leader Dan Berkery decided to step away from music for a little while.  Always an exceptional songwriter with a knack for catchy, sing-along, and danceable tunes, Berkery steps right back into the fold with a new collection of material every bit as fun and exciting as before.

The revised band includes some old friends and newer members, but they’re all right in line with Berkery’s mindset. Well-known local players like keyboardist Steve Kerin, harmonica ace David Lipkind, bass man Tim Shaughnessy, Blues Music Award winner Jimi Bott, trumpet player Joe McCarthy, conga player Heidi Shuler, and vocalist Katy Oberg are amongst this star-studded cast behind the music here. This diverse grouping brings a lot of history and different approaches to the format. The recording were laid down at Jimi Bott’s Roseleaf Studios, with all but three tracks penned by Berkery.

There’s a lot of kick behind these numbers and right off the bat you’re going to hear the strong impact that Lipkind provides with his harp. Also front and center is the voice of Oberg, whether teaming alongside Berkery on a piece like “All Your Love” or taking the lead on her own as she does in “Working Girl Blues” where Steve Kerin and Berkery offer some exceptional accompaniment.

The title track “A Love So Strong” is classic Berkery at his best. With his soaring vocals and lyrics that invite you to join in on the chorus. The group throws down a funky little jazz instrumental on “Superbee” where several musicians get a bit of spotlight. “A Sight To See” brings a little flavor of Louisiana to the mix, with Steve Kerin working the accordion and harmonies from the band. There is a bit of humor as Berkery sings about being knocked out by the girl with the “Love Karate Chop” who grabbed his full attention with such ease and gained his attraction beyond his own belief. The album closes out with another fun number titeld “Nah Nah Nah” where the storyteller speaks about the women he has known, lounge-like backing from Kerin, Shaughnessy and Bott stand out nicely.

This is a welcome return from the Rose City Kings, one of Portland’s favorite bands from the past who should step right back into place from where they left off. With a recording like “A Love So Strong” it should be an easy step. Very much recommended.

Total Time: 54:14

One Lonely Morning / A Love So Strong / Just Like I Treat You / Working Girl Blues / My People / Superbee / All Your Love / Love Karate Chop / Rumba All Night / Sight To See / No Justice / Nah Nah Nah

Sugar Me
Underworld Records

Sammy Eubanks CD coverSugar Me, Sammy Eubanks new album, kicks off with a little swampy and gritty guitar riff as he describes that what ever he’s listening to it’s “It’s All Blues to Me.” And it’s hard to argue as he explains how he was touched from first hearing BB King through his father and that led to further discoveries of artists that all rang true to him in a bluesy vein. It is an opening to a well-conceived collection of songs that shows Eubanks knows a little bit about the blues himself. A little bit? Hell, this man can bring it on home every time and with Sugar Me, his fifth release, he has it nailed down perfectly.

Eubanks has long been renowned throughout the Northwest and beyond for his tasty guitar work, clever songwriting, and a voice that has few equals. All three are expressive and impassioned. Sugar Me was recorded in Nashville and is his debut on the Underworld label. The disc offers three original tracks, including the opening “All Blues To Me,” along with the title number “Sugar Me” and the closing piece “I’m Gonna Leave You.” Along the way he covers a wide variety of songwriters, including well-known people such as Willie Dixon and Don Robey alongside others like Los Lobos’ Cesar Rosas, Indigenious’ guitarist Mato Nanji, and Portland-based DK Stewart.

Backed by a great rhythm section of bassist Darren Theriault and drummer Chris Kimmerer that enhances the openings for Eubanks’ guitar solos, the trio is also joined by former Double Trouble keyboardist Reese Wynans. Guitarists Bob Britt and Matt Hauer add their accompanying licks. Together this group of players is known at Underworld Records as “The Club Roar Players,” a spot-on collection of ace musicians.

His cover of “I Just Wanna Make Love To You” is presented in his own jumping method, but with his frenetic guitar it still maintains the flavor that Willie Dixon had in mind when it was composed. There’s a bit of country going on in the tune “Born To Love You” that showcases yet another side of music that Eubanks touches on occasionally with appreciation.  On “It’s My Life Baby” his voice roars on the Bobby Bland classic as Wynans lays out some of the best piano work on the album. And he closes everything out with “I’m Gonna Leave You,” a rockin’ number that may contain one of the best original lyrics in this whole package, “I’m gonna leave you, if you don’t come back.”

There’s so much to like about Sugar Me. It is Sammy Eubanks at his very best. This is one that has repeat play all over it … again and again!

Total time: 34:18

It’s All Blues To Me / Stop That Grinnin’ / Blues All Mornin’ / I Just Wanna Make Love To You / My Baby’s Gone / Sugar Me / No Excuse For The Blues / Born To Love You / It’s My Life Baby / I’m Gonna Leave You

Various ArtistsAlligator Records 45 Anniversary CD cover
Alligator Records

When you write anything about Alligator Records, you might as well be writing the history of the blues itself during the past four-and-a-half decades. Bruce Iglauer created the label to provide an outlet to record blues musician Hound Dog Taylor, one of many artists who worked in the venues and along Maxwell Street in Chicago who were not receiving the recognition that they deserved. Taylor was Iglauer’s sole client at the time, but it was from that point that one of the greatest and longest lasting blues labels began, and it still rules today.

Literally, I am not fooling when I say the history of the blues. Every five years, Alligator offers a collection of its music to celebrate its anniversary, and all you have to do is open the latest collection to hear that history. On Alligator Records forty-fifth Anniversary Collection you’ll find legendary names of artists long held in the highest revere such as Johnny Winter, Luther Allison, Koko Taylor, Charlie Musselwhite, Albert Collins, Bonnie Raitt, Big Walter Horton, Mavis Staples, James Cotton, and Billy Boy Arnold, many of whom are no longer with us. But they also display just how much the label continues to bring forth the best and the brightest of the industry today with the likes of Selwyn Birchwood, Curtis Salgado, Jarekus Singleton, Moreland & Arbuckle, Toranzo Cannon, Tommy Castro, and Shemekia Copeland. Each of these artists could fill hundreds of pages documenting their individual contributions to the genre and Alligator could probably fill a warehouse to store the awards that their recordings of these and many others have reaped over the years.

But by no means does this signify the end of the label. As long as there are creative musicians with their visions of the blues, Alligator will continue to provide an outlet for there music even as it expands into other musical realms like gospel, rockabilly, and Americana. The blues may not get a lot of notice from other labels that receive high media attention. But as long as Alligator Records keeps going there will always be an open door, and may that door remain open for many more decades to come.

Total Time:  2:37:55

37 Tracks

On The Shoulders Of GiantsShawn James CD cover
Self-Produced

Shawn James hails from Fayetteville, Arkansas and is the leader of the successful band The Shapeshifters whose music encompasses a unique mixture of heavy rock, bluegrass, and folk. The band tours seemingly endlessly across the country (recently playing Portland at Dante’s in May). But for his latest recording, “On The Shoulders Of Giants,” Shawn James went into Memphis’ famed Sun Studios and laid down a collection of intense and sometimes haunting original and live solo tracks.

The originality behind his music is showcased by how well his vocals and instrumentation matches one another. Both come across quite mournful at times and the selections are raw. James provides all the accompaniment to his singing with resonator guitars, kick drum and tambourine. And in the case of the closing number, “Preacher Foretold,” it is a cappella, just his voice and clapping hands.

But as dark as the music may seem, it still filled with bluesy overtones that just may bring to mind early artists of the genre like Robert Johnson, Son House, and especially Blind Willie Johnson. The latter Johnson’s best-known song “The Soul Of A Man” seems almost to be a theme to several of the pieces on the album. And there is often religious inspiration (“Delilah”) and tales of personal demons and tribulations (“Belly Of The Beast” or “When It Rains, It Pours”).

The music is spell-binding, somber and maybe a little foreboding. But there is something about its hypnotic trance and haunting presentation that continually mesmerizes and draws you back into its fold.

Total Time: 32:33

Hellhound / Belly Of The Beast / When It Rains, It Pours / Snake Eyes / Delilah / Back Down / Lift Us Up / Captain Stormalong / Preacher Foretold

Live At The Brick Cottage 1972-1973Mr. Stress Blues Band
Smog Veil Records

Take note — sound-wise, Live At The Brick Cottage 1972-1973 may not come across as the best recording that you’re going to hear of a live performance. After all, it was recorded using an old reel-to-reel tape recorder in a crowded bar in Cleveland during a couple of shows back in 1972 & 1973. It also was never meant for official release when these shows were taped. But what you get here is a showcase of stellar proportions featuring one of the legends of the Cleveland blues scene, Bill “Mr. Stress” Miller. He may not be a familiar name outside of Ohio, but he was one of the first white performers in the city playing the blues and drawing crowds.

These dates were recorded at The Brick Cottage in Cleveland where the Mr. Stress Blues Band held regular weekly stints. The music offered on this album are all covers, mostly of the Chicago blues brand and are familiar to any blues fan. Numbers like “Sweet Little Angel,” “Crosscut Saw,” “Big Boss Man,” “Rock Me Baby,” “Help Me” — you know, the standards. Miller was an avid fan of Paul Butterfield, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Little Walter, and his own playing reflects that to a tee. Among the musicians who passed through the band over the years were many of the city’s biggest artists, such as Peter Laughner (Pere Ubu), Anton Fier (The Golden Palominos), and Vito San Filippo (Tower of Power). The band on these recordings features the fiery guitar playing of Chuck “Pontiac Slim” Drazdik, Tom Rinda on bass, Mike “The Professor” Sands on piano, and the drum duties are split between Dr. Pete Sinks on the 1972 dates and Kenny Ruscitto on the 1973 sessions.

Mr. Stress passed away this last year after blowing his harp for more than five decades as one of Cleveland’s best blues artists. Sadly, his prominence never really traveled beyond the city and he was unfortunately under-recorded. Gotta say though, this is some downright, greasy, deep-in-the-alley harmonica work backed by a heavy blues band that understandably brought in devoted followers to their shows for many years. I know I would’ve been right there to listen to these guys myself had I lived in Ohio. Also, glad to see quite an extensive history about the musicians and the band included in this release obviously painstakingly compiled by Nick Blaky. Bill “Mr. Stress” Miller may be gone now, but hopefully this posthumous release brings some attention to a very deserving musician who laid groundwork to make Cleveland’s blues scene shape and grow.

Total Time: 1:15:30

How Many More Years / Walkin’ Through The Park / Good Time Charlie / Scratch My Back / Chicken Shack (Break Song #1) / Get Out Of My Life Woman / Big Boss Man / I Feel So Sad / Sweet Little Angel / Rock Me Baby / Crosscut Saw / Help Me / Black Night / Chicken Shack (Break Song #2)