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

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)

Blood MoonToo Slim and The Taildraggers CD cover
Underworld Records

Over the length of his career, Tim “Too Slim” Langford has delivered us with a multitude of directions he’s pursued on the guitar. Whether it’s slide, swampy, rockin’, psychedelic, acoustic, or back porch country blues, he delivers all in the same splendid fashion that keeps our ears in tune. Now I have heard over the years that he sounds just like this guitarist or that guitarist. Pointing to one person sounding like another is a bit easy at times to do. But perhaps that is because Langford can be so chameleon-like and possesses the skills of his craft to come across exactly in any direction he wishes. They say that imitation is a form of flattery. But just wait a minute, maybe it’s those other guitarists who are trying to sound like Langford.

Case in point, just take a look at the most recent recordings of the Too Slim and The Taildraggers discography. This past decade has seen great releases, from Fortune Teller, Free Your Mind, Shiver, Broken Halo, and Blue Heart, with the band jumping across many musical pathways. Each of them are awesomely fantastic with directions showing so clearly and true. It’s as if they keep reinventing themselves and get better every time out. If that’s possible for a band that has brought home the goodies every time already.

Underworld Records has just released Blood Moon. It is the band’s nineteenth recording. And guess what? It is another exemplary collection of enchanting tales with descriptive lyrics that set you on the edge of your seat. And these stories truly do capture your mind. The onset of death is prevalent on “My Body”(“don’t want no wood box wrapped around my bones”). There’s the “Gypsy” who cast her spell causing our hero to fall in love with her. And the traits of the most despicable of people noted in “Evil Mind” who just want you to fail or to be looked down upon for their own pleasure. The humor behind the man waiting for his baby to get ready to go out on the town, but she keeps him waiting and waiting in “Get Your Goin’ Out On.” But in the end he thanks his friends for being there in a “Letter” and after years of traveling and playing around the globe it just does work out sometimes that “Good Guys Win.”

Blood Moon is another masterful recording for Too Slim & The Taildraggers. Musically and lyrically this disc has it happening. So “come on giddy up giddy up giddy up” and get out and pick up your copy of Blood Moon right away. It’s going to make want to you play a little air guitar along with a smile on your face all day long! Fun indeed!

Total Time: 48:43

Evil Mind / Blood Moon / Twisted Rails / Get Your Goin’ Out On / Gypsy / My Body / Dream / Letter / Good Guys Win / Twisted Rails (Slight Return)

Moreland and Arbuckle CD cover

Promised Land Or Bust
Alligator Records

Band co-founder and guitarist Aaron Moreland describes Moreland & Arbuckle as “gritty blues and roots rock from the Heartland.” Hailing from Wichita, Kansas, they couldn’t be more centrally located in America’s Heartland and they’ve developed their own unique sound that could also be viewed as Kansas Hill Country (with apologies to Mississippi for the term). Influenced by artists stemming from Mississippi like Junior Kimbrough and RL Burnside, alongside Chicago legend Hound Dog Taylor, a hint of The Black Keys and even a slight dose of punk, the trio takes raw energy and blends it with clever lyrics inserted with their own reflections and perhaps an occasional touch of humor. And as the years roll forward, this band consistently gets better.

Moreland & Arbuckle’s latest release, Promised Land Or Bust, is their seventh recording and their debut on the Alligator label. They’re the perfect mix for the label who have been at the forefront of exposing new acts and sounds as well as developing established artists to an even higher plateau. The band brought back renowned producer Matt Bayles who helmed their previous release 7 Cities. Bayles also contributed his own playing on a couple tracks on guitar and keyboards. Alongside Aaron Moreland’s exceptional guitar work on electric, acoustic and cigar box, Dustin Arbuckle’s harmonica, and Kendall Newby’s drums, the album also features guests Scott Williams on keys and Mark Foley on bass.

Promised Land Or Bust is filled with tunes that tell the tales of a variety of unsavory characters. The lowest of society (“Mean And Evil”), the cheaters and betrayers (Long Way Home”), jealous lovers who take things to the extreme (“Hannah”), and other people that should be avoided at all costs. It’s greasy and often filled with sexual tension and strutting (“When The Lights Are Burning Low”). And the music delivers in spades! Listen to the intensity of the guitar and harmonica pairing on Slim Harpo’s “I’m A King Bee” and the cover of fellow Kansas native Lee McBee’s “Woman Down In Arkansas” is exemplary or spot on target.

When people speak of how music must evolve to bring in newer audiences then Moreland & Arbuckle just may be the group to best display exactly that. They began following the patterns of those who influenced them, but they’ve expanded into their own sound that reflects Americana and roots music’s new directions, but still maintain their true base in the blues. Powerful and magnificent, Promised Land Or Bust is another winning disc from Moreland & Arbuckle.

Total Time: 39:01

Take Me With You (When You Go) / Mean And Evil / Hannah / When The Lights Are Burning Low / Woman Down In Arkansas / Mount Comfort / Long Did I Hide It / Waco Avenue / I’m A King Bee / Long Way Home / Why’d She Have To Go (And Let Me Down)?

Love Wins Again
Fathead Records

Janiva Magness CD coverJaniva Magness continues with her tales of love and its power and pain on her latest disc Love Wins Again. Her songwriting is personal and full of imagery that can only be reflected through experience. Happy or sad, Janiva draws us into her lyrics and as we have seen in the past she can show us the skeletons in the closet or the over-abundance of happiness she has found through true love. For Love Wins Again she is joyfully taking us on the latter of those two directions.

It is clearly evident in tracks like “When You Hold Me” or “Say You Will” that her new-found love fills her life. She bares her soul to everybody to see that she has discovered the feeling that she felt may never come her way again.

But there is often pain through love, too, and she has not forgotten how that emotion can still hold true from the past, as she lets us in within “Just Another Lesson” or “Moth To A Flame.” The attraction may have been there, but was it only one-sided? Was it really that easy to push away?

Funkified “Your House Is Burnin’” has an upbeat flare starting out that is quite James Brown-like, right down to the opening “Get up!” But even here she speaks of coming to terms and starting again, ”You have to rise on up if you care.”

The lone cover on the album is John Fogerty’s “Long As I Can See The Light.” In Janiva’s hands it is beautifully rendered and flows evenly with the theme of the entire album.

“Who Will Come For Me” closes the disc and allows us to enter Janiva’s thoughts about what is ahead of us. When all may be lost, when we’ve aged and we’re no longer as young as we once were, who is it that will be there for us?

Love Wins Again follows suit with Janiva’s previous outing, Original. This is solid material, an exceptionally crafted collection that is meaningful, touching emotional and honest. Janiva Magness and Dave Darling have become one of the foremost songwriting teams working today. Love Wins Again easily ranks amongst the best recordings of the decade, in the blues or any other genre hands down.

Total Time: 43:04

Love Wins Again / Real Slow / When You Hold Me / Say You Will / Doorway / Moth To A Flame / Your House Is Burnin’ / Just Another Lesson / Rain Down / Long As I Can See The Light / Who Will Come For Me

Lost Cause Records

Clint Morgan CD coverClint Morgan’s sophomore disc, Scofflaw, follows a theme that portrays the lives of society’s downtrodden, outcast, and outright bad guys. These are people with often very little remorse, living on the edge, and given the option would probably do things the same way all over again. How else would you explain titles such as “I Love Robbing Banks” or “Bad Man Blues”?

Morgan is a prolific piano player as well as a songwriter. He has been an instructor and performer at the Pinetop Perkins Foundation Workshops in Clarksdale, Mississippi and he plays a blues and boogie-styled piano. Yet his stories on Scofflaw take a route through blues, alt-country, and even a little gospel. His vocal delivery is sometimes reminiscent of Johnny Cash or Tom Waits — almost deadpan, but often with humorous and sometimes vivid descriptions.

The cast on Scofflaw is also an astonishing group. Guest vocalists include both Grammy winner Maria Muldaur and Blues Music Award winner Diunna Greenleaf. The musicians backing Morgan on the album is superb. The session players’ credentials read like a who’s who of some of the biggest names going that they’ve worked with, from Lucinda Williams, Emmylou Harris, Dwight Yoakum, Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash, kd Lang, Vince Gill, and more.

But, this collection of stories reflects those from the wrong side of the tracks. And Morgan’s sense of phrasing in his lyrics depict the characters into believable figures. In “I Got A Gun,” a man feels he’s become so empowered that when somebody calls him scrawny butt, he reacts by shooting him in the gut. Or the fast-paced run in “A Sackful of Cash” where he states that Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so, but I bet that Jesus is pretty mad seeing how I turned out this bad. Of course he has this running through his mind since he’s running from the law with a sackful of cash and a body in the trunk. Or the judge giving a sentence of five years so that maybe he’ll learn the lessons he’s been taught in “Eastham Farm.” Even the cover songs Morgan includes are based on reckless abandon such as Bessie Smith’s “Send To the ‘Lecrtic Chair” or Johnny O’Keefe’s “Wild One.”

Well, maybe there is a bit of remorse in the thoughts of the protagonists by the time Scofflaw reaches towards the end, as the songs begin to speak directly to the Lord seeking redemption in numbers like “Softly And Tenderly, Jesus Is Calling,” “I Remembered You “ and Muldaur’s “I Done Made It Up In My Mind.” And the inclusion of “This Little Light Of Mine” opening and closing the album also may show that there is a hope of salvation that these bad men may be wishing for after all is said and done.

Scofflaw is truly a prime example of Americana at its best. Deeply rooted in folklore and legend, bringing images from the old west and the depression years up into modern times. The characters are timeless and this is an album that will continue to grow on you with each subsequent listen. Each number is like watching its own movie. Spectacular story-telling done right.

Total Time: 1:15:42

This Little Light Of Mine (Intro) / Waco / Wild One / I Got A Gun / I Don’t Know Where To Turn / Eastham Farm / DB Cooper Blues / I Love Robbing Banks / Bad Man Blues / Thief In the Night / Wanted Man / The Face In The Mirror / A Sackful Of Cash / Send Me To The ‘Lectric Chair / Softly And Tenderly, Jesus Is Calling / I Remembered You / I Done Made It Up In My Mind / This Little Light Of Mine (Outro) / I Got A Gun (Alternate Take)

Good Days A Comin/
Right Side Up Records

Ivas John CD coverWhen you start to listen to Ivas John’s Good Days A Comin’, it’s like a warm summer day sitting on your back porch with a pitcher of fresh-made lemonade and slabs of meat slowly grilling on the barbecue. You’re transported to a day meant for lazing in the sun with good friends, as Ivas provides feel good music on his guitar played just for you. That’s exactly how it feels.

Ivas John grew up in Chicago and fell in love with the blues as he was exposed to some of the city’s best. Over time he put together his own band, building a reputation with his high-powered electric blues throughout Illinois and SE Missouri. He released four albums under that style, and has also worked in band led by regional heroes Rip Lee Pryor and Martin Albritton (formerly with Big Twist & The Mellow Fellows). But his latest release, Good Days A Comin’, is a departure from that electric band direction, and delves deep into acoustic folk, bluegrass and country blues arrangements. It is rich in Americana roots music. Sharp and clean, with extraordinary story-telling, mostly original compositions of his own, a few co-written with his father and a cover here and there from people like Merle Travis, Tom Paxton.

Aside from John’s adept solo guitar picking and soothing vocals that highlight the album throughout, he also employs side musicians in a totally acoustic format, using fiddle, mandolin, upright bass, drums and dobro.

The album opens with the sprightly pace of “Goin’ Back to Arkansas” which encompasses a nice jug band old-timey feel. “Things Ain’t Been The Same” is a mournful tune about lost love and heartbreak. Tom Paxton’s “Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound” takes a personal reflection of just where life may be taking him as he travels down the road and the people he meets. John retells Merle Travis’ “Dark As a Dungeon,” filled with emotion befitting the tale of coal miners seeking better working conditions. There’s a nice ragtime flair to “Payday Boogie.” And the album closes with John’s spectacularly beautiful solo instrumental of “Sunday Morning Blues.”

If you like the blend of the early works of Ry Cooder and JJ Cale, the joyfulness of Keb’ Mo’ or the impact behind Doug MacLeod’s story songs, then Ivas John will fall right into your idea of guitar playing songwriters. He may have cut his teeth with the electrified sound of the city’s blues, but John has found a true niche with his acoustic delivery. Rootsy and full of heart.

Total Time: 42:19

Goin’ Back To Arkansas / Here I Am / Roll Mississippi / Dark As A Dungeon / Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound / Greenville Trestle High / All Along / Things Ain’t Been The Same / Keep Your Train Movin’ / Payday Boogie / Wrong Road Again / Sunday Morning Blues