A primer for the discriminating listener: Tommy
Castro (above), John Nemeth, Nick Moss, Watermelon Slim, Janiva Magness, Duke Robillard
KEITH A. GORDON
years of wandering in the commercial wilderness, blues music is beginning to
creep back into respectability. Cyndi Lauper, often just unfairly remembered
for “Girls Just Want To Have Fun,” recently released a collection of
blues standards called Memphis Blues. Steve Miller, rather than returning
to the “Take The Money And Run” era of pop-rock chart-toppers, has
instead returned to his 1960s blues roots for a new recording. Hugh Laurie,
star of the Fox television drama House and an accomplished musician in his native England,
is said to be preparing an album of blues music, while on cable TV you can find
Jason Lee starring as a homicide detective that solves crime by day and sings
blues tunes in Memphis
clubs at night. Even a pop music lifer like Sir Elton John has announced that
he’s only fit to sing the blues from now on.
blues music may be finding new fans among those music lovers disenchanted with
the cookie-cutter sounds of modern rock music, or the increasingly pop-oriented
strains of country music being sold to bored housewives by Taylor Swift and her
ilk, you couldn’t tell it by the mainstream music media. Seldom will you see a
review of a blues album in Rolling Stone or Spin,
leading music magazines, while to Pitchfork and its many web clones, blues may as well be invisible. Blues artists have all
but disappeared from the rosters of the major record labels, and their reissues
of classic blues albums has slowed to a mere trickle.
since guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan first spun his Texas blues/roadhouse rock sound into gold
during the mid-to-late-1980s, blues music has survived and thrived as an
alternative subculture apart from the mainstream music world. Blues music has
its own record labels (Delmark, Alligator, Blind Pig, Red House and many
others), magazines (Blues Revue, Living Blues), websites, festivals, writers
and historians (Paul Oliver, Bill Dahl, et al), artistic awards (The Blues
Foundation’s Blues Music Awards), and the same sort of hats, t-shirts, and
ephemera that you’d find in the closet of any punk or heavy metal fan. Blues
music also has the widest range of artistic voices that you’ll find in any style
of music, ranging from 12 year old Taya Perry of Homemade Jamz Blues Band to 97
year old Pinetop Perkins. Male or female, black or white, American or
Australian, blues music doesn’t discriminate by race, creed, gender, or
nationality, and everybody is invited to the party. The only artistic
requirements are sincerity and dedication, ’cause nobody – and I mean nobody –
starts singing and playing blues to get rich. You’re either all in or you drift
off and become an investment banker or something.
A lot of
newbie blues fans may have heard a B.B. King song, or even have a passing
familiarity with names from blues music’s storied past like Muddy Waters or
Howlin’ Wolf. Artists like the aforementioned giants of the music, or fellow legends
like Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker, or Sonny Boy Williamson, to name but
three, created the music that would inspire a bunch of pasty white British
teens to pick up instruments, resulting in the likes of Eric Clapton, the
Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin, who would in turn sell American blues and
R&B music back to American teenagers in the form of rock ‘n’ roll. The
purview of this primer, however, is not to rehash the triumphs of those
touchstone artists of the blues, but rather to introduce the discriminating
listener to those contemporary talents that have picked up the torch and are
working to adapt and evolve blues music for the new century.
These are the talented, but relative newcomers
that are reinterpreting the blues with youthful vitality and a unique vision.
The next generation of the blues is in good hands with these freshmen artists.
Cedric Burnside & Lightnin’ Malcolm
the “Two Man Wrecking Crew” to their fans, drummer Cedric Burnside –
grandson of Mississippi blues legend R.L. Burnside – and guitarist Lightnin’
Malcolm take the primal, century-old, rhythm-based Mississippi Hill Country
blues sound and throw it in the blender along with Memphis soul, 1970s-era
funk, and vintage 1980s hip-hop to create a sound that is equally menacing and
mesmerizing. This is the muddy Delta sound that a generation of garage-blues
bands like the White Stripes or the Black Keys sought to capture in the early-2000s,
but Cedric Burnside and Lightnin’ Malcolm got there honestly, by banging the
gong night after night in some greasy Southern juke-joint until they’d honed
their houserockin’ performances to a dangerous edge.
album: the duo’s second album, 2 Man
Wrecking Crew (Delta Groove, 2008) is also their big-league debut and a
red-hot scorcher that has made them a hot property on the festival circuit.
Homemade Jamz Blues Band
youngest bunch on this list, Mississippi’s
Homemade Jamz Blues Band is comprised of three siblings – guitarist Ryan Perry
(18 years old), bassist Kyle Perry (16 years old), and sister Taya Perry (12
years old) – guided and managed by their father Renaud. Despite their tender
ages, the Homemade Jamz kids are remarkably seasoned, with half-a-decade of
performing and recording under their collective belts. Pursuing a sound that is
pure rotgut electrified Delta blues with a rock ‘n’ roll aesthetic, the young
‘uns create the music while dad writes the words. It’s a style that’s tailor-made
for live performances, the brothers wielding homemade guitars constructed from
Ford car parts while Taya proves to be one of the most instinctual beat-keepers
you’ll ever hear. The band’s acclaimed 2008 debut Pay Me No Mind earned them a coveted Blues Music Award nomination
as “Best New Artist Debut” (which they lost to Burnside and Malcolm),
but they’ve since released two more acclaimed albums.
Album: Homemade Jamz’ sophomore effort I
Got Blues For You (Northern Blues, 2009) shows growth and maturity to go
with the enthusiasm and energy of their debut.
Joanne Shaw Taylor
music has often been a refuge for any flash guitarist who can play a twelve-bar
shuffle. This type of artistic scoundrel, who prizes style over substance,
generally doesn’t last an album or two before blues fans show them the door.
England’s Joanne Shaw Taylor, however, is the real deal, a talented fretburner
capable of launching sparks from her fingertips as well as picking out an
elegant line worthy of, say, B.B. King. Unlike many of her axe-wielding peers,
is also a soulful vocalist who brings passion and emotion to her singing, a
trait that won her a British Blues Award as “Best Female Vocalist” in
2010. With two albums in the can – 2009’s entrancing White Sugar and 2010’s Diamonds
In The Dirt – Taylor
is primed for big league success, and could easily find mainstream acceptance
in a manner similar to Bonnie Raitt.
Album: Diamonds In The Dirt (Ruf)
features Taylor’s considerable vocal and guitar
skills as well as an impressive and still-maturing songwriting style influenced
in no little part by the artist’s recent relocation to Detroit.
These are those artists that, while more
seasoned, perhaps, than their freshmen peers, are nonetheless still making
inroads into the blues world with their individual take on the music.
singer Gina Sicilia was exposed at an early age to the city’s rich heritage of
soul, doo-wop, and R&B music. She began singing at the ridiculously young
age of 3 years old, and started writing her own songs at the age of 12. It was
when she heard Bobby “Blue” Bland sing at the age of 14 that,
inspired by the raw emotion and passion of the blues, Sicilia knew she had found
her true calling. Sicilia continued to write throughout her teens, and many of those
early songs were used for her 2007 debut, Allow
Me To Confess. Sicilia began singing professionally while in college and
would earn a degree in journalism from Temple University.
Reminding the listener of a cross between Etta James and Aretha James, Sicilia
layers her performances with fiery emotion. With a new album scheduled for
early 2011 release, she is poised for a major breakthrough on the worldwide
Album: Sicilia’s second effort, Hey
Sugar (Swing Nation, 2008), features her powerful vocals and a songwriting
voice that is growing in confidence.
flamboyant Jason Ricci sports multi-colored hair, dresses like some sort of
Goth-punk, and is openly gay…just the sort of stuff that is supposed to be the
antithesis of allegedly tradition-bound blues music. On the contrary, the
hard-performing Ricci has been embraced by blues fans for his gruff, soulful
vocals, raging harmonica play, and unpredictable songwriting. While he channels
the raw blues spirit of legendary harp players like Sonny Boy Williamson or
Little Walter Jacobs, Ricci blends his blues roots with elements of free jazz
(think Sun Ra), hard rock, funk, and even Arab and Asian sounds, all delivered
with uncompromising, punkish intensity. Ricci has found the perfect musical
foil in guitarist Shawn Starski, whose metal-edged guitar adds another
dimension to Ricci’s sound. Not for nothing was Ricci named “Harmonica Player
of the Year” in the 2010 Blues Music Awards as the old school recognized
the young turk’s undeniable talents.
Album: Ricci’s second for the Eclecto Groove Records label, Done With The Devil (Eclecto Groove,
2009), ranges from the eerie acoustic country blues of the title track to a
loud-n-fast cover of Glenn Danzig’s “I Turned Into A Martian.”
singer John Nemeth is a throwback to the golden years of the 1950s and ’60s,
his deep-throated crooning reminiscent of Otis Redding and Solomon Burke.
Nemeth paid his blues throughout the 1990s, fronting an Idaho bar band that would bring him to the
attention of former Canned Heat guitarist Junior Watson. Nemeth made his bones
touring with Watson, and later with Texas
blues legend Anson Funderburgh, before launching his solo career in 2008 with
the Blues Music Award nominated Magic
Touch. Nemeth has since released two more albums, recorded with R&B
great Nappy Brown, and lent his voice and underrated harmonica skills to albums
by guitarist Elvin Bishop. It’s Nemeth’s dynamic stage show that has made his
reputation, however, combined with relentless touring that has earned the
artist a growing legion of fans.
Album: With 2010’s Name The Day! (Blind Pig) Nemeth achieved a
near-perfect fusion of soul and blues, with a great balance of smoky vocals and
red-hot blasts of harmonica.
of the Chicago
blues scene, Dave Specter continues to surprise, working to improve his already
considerable skills as a guitarist and bandleader. Although he didn’t pick up a
guitar until he was 18 years old, Specter began performing professionally a
couple of years later. The Chicago native grew
up on the blues of giants like Otis Rush, Junior Wells, and Magic Slim,
sneaking into Windy
City blues clubs with a
fake I.D. He took lessons from guitarist Steve Freund while working at the Jazz
Record Mart and in the shipping department of Delmark Records, both Chicago musical
institutions founded by Bob Koester, and Specter made valuable contacts while
working as a bouncer at the city’s B.L.U.E.S. club. Specter would apprentice
with artists like Jimmy Johnson, Son Seals, and former Howlin’ Wolf guitarist
Hubert Sumlin and has since recorded with singers like Tad Robinson and Barkin’
Bill Smith. Specter is a skilled instrumentalist, mixing a little Kenny
Burrell-styled jazz influence in with his B.B. King/T-Bone Walker influenced blues licks.
Album: Specter’s 2010 album Spectified (Fret 12), released on his own newly-created indie label, showcases the
guitarist’s immense skills, elegant tone, and diverse sound on nine originals
and three inspired covers that firmly place Specter in the rarified top tier of
Nick Moss is an unabashed Chicago
blues traditionalist, leading his band the Flip Tops in creating a sound that
is familiar as it is unique. With plenty of blistering fretwork and wild blasts
of harp, Moss and his crew deliver a joyous brand of pure houserockin’ blues. Moss
came up through the blues in the time-honored manner, first playing bass with
Buddy Scott and Chicago blues legend Jimmy Dawkins. He moved from bass to
guitar while playing with the Legendary Blues Band, and finished his blues
apprenticeship as second guitarist in the great Jimmy Rogers’ band. Moss lit
out on his own in the late-1990s, and has won great acclaim for albums like
2005’s Sadie Mae and 2007’s Play It Til Tomorrow, which also feature
multi-instrumentalist and harmonica wizard Gerry Hundt as a vital part of the
Flip Tops sound. Moss, with his wife Kate, also runs Blue Bella Records,
releasing albums by talents like Hundt and the Kilborn Alley Blues Band, as
well as his own material.
Album: Moss worked without the Flip Tops for 2010’s Privileged (Blue Bella), mixing his traditional Chicago blues sound
with his blues-rock influences (think Cream or Jimi Hendrix) to great effect.
Slim (nee Bill Homans) is a true blues music curiosity. Coming to the music
somewhat late in life (he released his bone fide blues debut, Big Shoes To Fill, in 2003), Homans is a
Vietnam vet who dabbled in music in the early-1970s, but has spent much of his
life as a truck driver. Homans holds a degree in journalism from the University of Oregon,
and a master’s degree in history from Oklahoma State
University, his pursuit
of knowledge lending an intellectual heft to his blue collar lyrics. Although
he performed with various bands throughout the 1990s, it wasn’t until the early
years of the new century that he took on the Watermelon Slim persona to chase
music full-time. The formation of his band the Workers provided a solid
foundation for Slim’s erudite lyrics, comfortably drawled vocals, bluesy
harmonica, and skill on the National Steel guitar, resulting in acclaimed
albums like 2007’s The Wheel Man and
2008’s No Paid Holidays, which
re-imagined country blues with scraps of early rock and country music.
Recently, Slim has travelled to Nashville
sans the Workers to record a pair of well-received “country” albums
that add more twang to Slim’s trademark sound.
Album: The Blues Music Award-nominated No
Paid Holidays (Northern Blues) roars along like a runaway big rig on an
empty highway, the perfect mix of blues and roots-rock with country influences.
One of the
few true legends of contemporary blues music, guitarist Robillard first came to
prominence in the late-1960s when he formed Roomful of Blues with pianist Al
Copley. The band quickly evolved from a mundane blues-rock sound into a
jump-n-jive West Coast-styled blues band with guitar, piano, and horns in the
forefront. Robillard would leave Roomful of Blues, which is still a beloved
institution among blues fans, during the late-1970s; first to play a little rockabilly
guitar behind Robert Gordon, and later with the Chicago blues veterans in the Legendary Blues
Band. He picked a little Texas
roadhouse blues as the replacement for Jimmie Vaughan (Stevie Ray’s older
brother, and a great blues guitarist in his own right) in the Fabulous
Thunderbirds while working to launch his solo career during the early-1980s.
During the past 25 years, Robillard has become a bona fide renaissance man,
releasing better than two-dozen albums that explore every nook-and-cranny of
barrelhouse, swing, and jump-blues; modern jazz, and jazz standards from the
1920s and ’30s; even world music. Along the way, Robillard has earned numerous
Blues Music Awards and a handful of GrammyTM nominations.
Album: Robillard’s 2009 album, Stomp!
The Blues Tonight (Stony Plain), faithfully recreates the sound and fury of
1940s and ’50s-era blues and R&B.
great Koko Taylor passing on, Janiva Magness is the best person to fill the
Queen’s shoes…Magness is an incredible vocal talent, a powerhouse blues and
R&B singer capable of infusing her material with great emotional impact.
After a tumultuous childhood and struggles as a young adult, Magness found
solace in blues and soul music. While there have been several times that Magness
has turned away from her career – she once spent an entire year off the stage
and out of the spotlight – she always comes back to the blues she sings so
well, and to great effect. Magness has released seven acclaimed albums to date,
and has seeming found the perfect creative partner in her husband, guitarist
and songwriter Jeff Turmes. The collaboration has been productive, Magness
becoming one of the best-loved female vocalists in the blues, winning Blues
Music Awards as “Contemporary Blues Female Artist of the Year” in
2006, 2007, and 2009 before winning the reputation-building “B.B. King
Entertainer of the Year” award in 2009.
Album: Magness’s 2010 album The Devil
Is An Angel Too (Alligator) is an inspired collection of pop, blues,
R&B, and even a country song; somehow Magness managed to imbue each performance
with no little measure of heart and soul.
the most popular blues artist on the scene today, Castro has twice won the
coveted Blues Music Award as “B.B. King Entertainer of the Year”
while his veteran band earned a little love from The Blues Foundation
themselves as 2010’s “Band of the Year.” Castro played in local bands
around San Jose, California before taking the plunge and
turning pro in the 1980s. After spending a couple of years playing guitar with
popular San Francisco
bay area band the Dynatones, he formed his first Tommy Castro Band in 1991.
Since then, Castro and crew have released better than a dozen albums, the
guitarist’s unique West Coast blend of blues and rock creating a sound that
incorporates, but doesn’t mimic either the Chicago blues or British blues-rock bands. Castro
has found further favor with blues fans by acting as host of the Legendary
Rhythm & Blues Cruise, Castro and his band backing up other artists on the
nightly sea-bound blues jams that often run all night.
Album: Castro’s 2009 album Hard
Believer (Alligator) is a big-hearted celebration of American music and,
from blues and soul to R&B and rock, Castro and his band of merry fellow
travelers kick out the jams with a joy and affection that is downright
Rev. Keith A. Gordon writes the About.com Blues blog. Accept no substitute!