Monday, December 29, 2008

Guitar Johnny--Hill Country Bluesman

Back a few posts, I mentioned the Bocce Boogie CD release on Topcat Records featuring Big Walter Horton w/Johnny Nicholas and others. I plugged Guitar Johnny as being an important, but under appreciated blues guitarist. Devout blues fans from the East Coast (he's from the Rhode Island) and from Texas (his adoptive home where he's played with everyone who's anyone--including stints with Asleep At The Wheel) are certainly familiar with his talent. Folks around the Hill Country mecca of Fredricksburg have had him to themselves for quite a period of time. He and his wife settled down there some time back, turned an abandoned gas station into an eclectic cafe and gave Johnny his own venue to pluck his blues (bet his New Year's Eve show with the Texas Allstars will get his joint hoppin').

Now, the reason for this post is due to the fact that my daughter, Megan called shortly after she and her husband, Brad, arrived in Fredricksburg and after spending Christmas with us. It seems that she was calling from the Hill Top Cafe and wanted to know if I knew who Johnny Nicholas was because they were perusing his CDs on display and needed to know if she could purchase one for me. They were visiting that fine city to meet Brad's mom, Melynn. I told her that, yes, I knew who Johnny was and that they were in his cafe and which CD she should buy me. Most of the Johnny Nicholas I have is in his sideman role backing up blues legends such as Johnny Shines, Snooky Pryor, and Big Walter. I have his Broke Again (which is excellent) and told her to grab Thrill on the Hill for me and to grab a chat with Johnny if she could and tell him that she was the daughter of one of his fans. She said that it looked like it might be him setting up to play on the stage of the cafe. So, they were treated to some great food and songs and he stopped by their table for a chat.

He was the nice guy that I had heard that he was and it seems that Brad and Megan have run across more fine musicians in recent times than I have in quite some time. What can you expect for a couple that sends out Christmas cards picturing them at Bonaroo 2008. Haven't heard the story, but I know they had plans to venture on over to Helotes and J.T. Flore Country Store for a performance by one of Brad's favorite groups, The Dedringers, before they left the Hill Country region. Anyway--

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Houston Loses Another Legend

Houston blues guitar legend, Pete Mayes, passed on December 16, 2008. The Houston Chronicle's Andrew Dansbury wrote a nice tribute article and can tell it better than myself, so here's the link: Pete Mayes. Pete was one of those Houston bluesmen that knew what the limelight was all about and chose to remain close to home to ply his trade. Blues guitar fans certainly know his work. After hearing him play for the first time, I felt that absolutely no one understood T-Bone Walker's style as well as Pete Mayes. He certainly had his own way of picking, but when he wanted to evoke the ghost of the master, he nailed it down pat.

One of the drawbacks to living in a smaller city, is that I have to depend on the Internet to get important blues news and sometimes, sad news such as this. The news came via Bob Corritore's newsletter which I receive by e-mail weekly and always is full of very timely blues news. With the passing of Joe 'Guitar' Hughes and Calvin Owens and now Pete Mayes, the represenatives of an very important Houston blues generation have left us, but they also have left us with an important legacy. They each kept their music vital up to the very end, without compromise. Anyway--

Monday, December 15, 2008

iPodner Rides Again

Had the hankering to add a few new blues to the 'ol iPod and thought that I would first check out Tomcat Courtney, who Bob Corritore touted in an e-mail to me after I praised the harp work that he laid down with Dave Riley. I think I've mentioned Bob before as one the movers and groovers attempting to keep the blues vital. I don't think I've mentioned how well I enjoyed Dave Riley's Travellin' Down The Dirt Road on Blue Witch, which is a fairly new label that is rounding up some blues cats that have never gotten their due. The Riley CD is a no frills, old time, good time blues with solid guitar work supporting a great blues voice and supported by Corritore's in the pocket harp work and not much else in the way of instrumentation. Tomcat Courtney's Blue Witch release Downsville Blues is in much the same vein, but has an even older old time blues vibe informed by the 78 year old's generation. Even though he's been in San Diego since the '70s, he was born in Marlin, Texas and there is no doubt that those rolling hills were alive with the sound of music--blues music from the likes of Lightning Hopkins, Frankie Lee Sims, and Lil' Son Jackson and Courtney seems to have deeply absorbed the style well, especially Ol' Sam Hopkin's school of blues.

I picked out tunes in which I felt Corritore's harp was really helping put the song into a deeper blues zone, not to say that the ol' Tomcat wasn't getting it done. These tunes remind me most of what Lightning was conjuring up with an electric guitar in his lap, but there is little of the boogie mode that he switched on frequently. Tomcat keeps these timepieces smoldering at low boil, just short of a lope. Most of Downsville Blues' cuts are his originals, but they lean on the traditional ideas that have floated in and out of blues songs since the genre took a name. Cook My Breakfast is informed by the drive that gave Lil' Son Jackson's version of Rock Me Baby its popularity. Tomcat takes the Wolf's Smokestack Lightning's main riff and makes it work well within his I Wonder and Corritore seems to know exactly what fat toned note choices will best enhance the song. His Railroad Avenue is about being railroaded by his woman who has parties with her friends drinking wine and smoking crack and he and Bob bounce off each other effectively. The lone cover that I downloaded is a unique take on Bottle Up and Go in which he throws out his own lyrical ideas--which seems to be traditional with this tune and other blues that one can imagine being jammed down at a juke with verses tacked on to keep the dancers sweating and stomping into the night.

So, what Tomcat Courtney has going on here is simply throwback blues played the way that he's always played them. I think he is a testament to the fact that not all Texas bluesmen who landed on the West Coast gravitated to the swinging, uptown, horn driven sounds we associate with the West Coast sound. Some stayed downhome and real--like the Tomcat. Neither he nor Corritore are out of the flash and dash school of play. When they solo, they get the gritty going and aren't afraid to get dirty. Corritore's gets some really nice amp tones honkin' in his support and it is in support where he stays, with no intentions of stealing the show--I think they call it sympathetic support. In this case, Tomcat needs no sympathy and puts on a heck of a show for any aged bluesman, much less a 78 year old. At some point I'll probably round up the rest of the tunes on this release.
When Blacktop Records folded a few years back and its catalogue entered a limbo phase, I wanted to kick myself for not buying some of their releases that I kept putting off for one reason or another. Rod Piazza's Alphabet Blues was one of those that I regretted not getting my hands on and while I was surfing around lining the Tomcat stuff up, I saw that iTunes had Blacktop stuff available and decided to add a few of Rod's tunes to this latest visit. I'm also a big fan of Lee McBee and pulled up Mike Morgan and the Crawl's first Blacktop effort with McBee on board as vocalist and harp blower and grabbed the songs that best featured his huffing and puffing.

Both of these releases have been around for quite some time (except when in the aforementioned limbo) and most of you that have been blues fans for awhile probably have heard tunes from these. Let's just say that they are fairly representative of what both of these blues aggregations are known for--solid musicianship and heartfelt blues.

Piazza's Blues In '92 needs to be in his set list right now because it sums up just how absolutely rotten economic conditions were in 1992. His slow blues message is that things just can't possibly get much worse and his fat smack harp tones accentuate the mood. He might consider updating this one. Hydramatic simply takes off on Rocket 88, Too Many Drivers, or any of the myriad of upbeat blues tunes comparing the female persuasion to automobiles. Alex Schulz drives the quick shuffled sounds on Somebody with some tasty, tasty guitar licks with just a harp lick or two thrown in by Piazza--a good example of the ensemble playing (especially with Honey's rolling piano notes) that the Mighty Flyers have always been known for producing and this is one of his best units. Not that Piazza has ever gathered together a lesser band, but this era was a fertile one for the Mighty Flyers. Just darned good Rod Piazza stuff.

Mike Morgan's slide and Lee McBee's harp open up the lowdown, slowdown blues I'm Worried (from the Rough and Ready release)until McBee's made for the blues vocals sing about just how long he is worried about what else?--his woman. Nothing fancy just down the river, straight up blues played right. Then apparently, it's McBee that's done the wrong and begs to be allowed to return in Take Me Back which showcases his fine harp playing. McBee has been in and out of Dallas' Mike Morgan's and the Crawl band over the years and being the harpcentrict guy that I am, those with him are the CDs that I prefer. I chose these two tunes because I could hear his harp in the snippets. One of the benefits (to me) of iTunes is that I can pick and choose which cuts I want from an album, but sometimes the snippets reveal too little about instrumentation that may still come along--such as an outstanding, hair-raising harp solo that occurs later in the song. Also, neither these snippets nor my few song choices are grounds for reviewing an entire CD, so that's not the purpose of this post. I'm just relaying what me and my iPodner are doing.

Let me say that contrary to the impression that I'm giving, I do listen to plenty of blues band without harp players. I have tons of recordings with nary a whiff of a harp note on them, but at some point, due to basic Economics 101, I had to narrow down what I was going to purchase, so at some point that meant that those purchases would have some meaty blues harp on the disc. So, with the advent of satellite radio, I can listen to a variety of styles, but when it come to buying, I have to tone it down a bit and bite the bullet and go with the harp.

Okay, now that that's out of the way. Another set of recordings that I discovered on iTunes that I wished I'd gotten before they went out of print for awhile were by The Legendary Blues Band. The tunes that I downloaded were chosen for two reasons: Jerry__Portnoy. He and Pinetop Perkins, Willie "Big Eyes" Smith, Louis Myers and Calvin Jones were Muddy Waters alumni who recorded the Rounder album called Life of Ease, from which I pulled good examples of Portnoy getting down on it. Over the years the personnel changed, but the first couple of Rounder issues normally get the highest kudos. This was Muddy's band, so they were a rock solid unit, but the dynamics of Muddy's vocals left them needy in that category. Think I left Portnoy off my harp player's list and that is a major oversight. No one short of Kim Wilson gets that Chicago sound down pat better than JP does, plus I learned a ton from his instructional CDs.

He gets the after hours Little Walter's Sad Hours type of stuff happening on Blues for Big Nate, recalls George Harmonica Smith's style on Woke Up With The Blues, deep warbles going on the stop time Love You To The Bone and jumps and swings the boogie on Snakeskin Strut. He proves that he can hang with a horn section on the title cut Life of Ease as he blasts through the song with his fat runs. Boy, do I love his stuff on this release. There just ain't enough Jerry Pornoy out there, so I'm glad this is available as a testament to his skills.

I haven't seen Cadillac Records yet, for one reason. It hasn't made it to my small Texas burg and it may not. Might have to leave town to catch it. There's a lot of hoopla and dissing and slamming going on the discussion boards around the world wide web, but I know this--Kim Wilson is playing the Little Walter harp parts, so I'm gonna see it. Sure, Hollywood has a way of botching biopics frequently and why we'd expect a story about Chess records and their recording artists to be an exception is wishful thinking. One of the major craw sticking scenarios portrays Little Walter as someone who shot and killed a man for performing with his name. Never happened according to LW biographers and most harp fans are a little peeved that the general public will come away with the impression that he was a murderer. Pretty audacious fact to play around with I'd say, but what the hey--it's only a movie.

When I got around to downloading from the Cadillac Records companion CD, I was weary of the process and simply grabbed Kim Wilson blowing Little Walter's masterpiece Juke and I just had to have the live version of Elvis Presley singing My Babe. Of course, KW slays his tune and kicks booty and Elvis does the same. I'm not a huge Elvis fan, but you know the man could sing the blues. I may re-visit this release and pull a few more of the harp tunes off at some point.

Way back in the day, an transplanted Okie from Oklahoma was making a name for himself in Paul Butterfield's Blues Band in Chicago, which was the first integrated blues band to be recorded by a major label in the early '60s. The guitar tandem of he and Mike Bloomfield were a formidable pair that were as much a reason for the band's success as Butterfield's scorching harp skills were. All have passed on, but Elvin Bishop still soldiers on and keeps doing what he's been doing and doing it better than ever and more prolific than ever.

His latest recording, The Blues Rolls On, enticed B.B. King, George Thorogood, Derek Trucks, James Cotton, Warren Hayes, Kim Wilson, Ronnie Baker Brooks, Angela Strehli, John Nemeth, The Homemade Jamz Band and R.C. Carrier into the studio to help him sling the hash. A slate of artists like these on one CD could prove to be more of a train wreck than anything resembling a cohesive recording, but Bishop pulls it off and more importantly is never overshadowed on his own disc. Well, I'm judging by the iTunes snippets and the few tunes that I stuck on my podner, but he appears to shift gears with each of the strengths of his guests and proves just how versatile he can be.

My decision was based on not being able to pass up Angela Strehli's contribution and she just happened to share Night Time Is The Right Time with the superb John Nemeth. Bishop kicks it off with what he is best known for--scorching slide guitar. They absolutely take ownership of this classic tune and wail its heart out with Nemeth taking on the opening verses and Strehli taking it home. Nemeth whips his harp out to get some nasty licks in and around Bishop's slip sliding around. Wow! It does cook with gas. I decided to hang with two other tunes featuring Nemeth; Who's The Fool with Kid Andersen and Bishop swapping licks and getting down and an instrumental version of Jimmy Reed's Honest I Do that Bishop slays with his slide copping the melody and Nemeth nailing the harp tone. So, don't let the plethora of guest artist sway you away from this one because they play to his strengths and strenthen his weaknesses. Elvin Bishop fans owe this one to themselves. Anyway--'Nuff for Now.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Blues Harp Folks

Thought that I would drop a list of blues harp players that have had a bit of an impact on my own self. Of course, the Giants of the Genre have all had lots of influence on my development as a player and most all on the list got what they've got from the likes of Sonny Terry, Sonny Boy Williamson I&II, Little Walter, Big Walter and even Howlin' Wolf. There would be none of us, if they hadn't been laying it down back in the day.

The guys listed here are those that just have something that I don't have and would like to have in the way of deep, deep tone and in some cases, harp guys that I have come to know and have witnessed just what they can get going on the harp up close and personal and in some cases have helped me along my journey. No particular order of importance here, because they have all perked my ears and tweaked what I do.

1. Sonny Boy Terry--Anyone that reads my blog has read bits and pieces about Sonny Boy Terry. I've seen him step up in a room filled with great harmonica players and rise above them all with one, fat harp note. He is as good as anybody out there.

2. Gary Primich--One of the most versatile harp players in terms of moving from one style to another, but when he chose to do the deep, heavy toned stuff, he could be untouchable. I was sitting next to Sonny Boy Terry one night when Primich hit the stage and Terry had one thing to say about the first lick hit, "Whoa, FAT!" Listen to Mark Hummel's Bluesharp Meltdown with Primich featured and it is clear that he melts them all down. He passed away way too soon.

3. Kim Wilson--He is simply the King of the Hill.

4. Rick Estrin--He and Kim were pulling from the Source back in the late '60s and now they are the Source. May the Source be with you.

5. Rod Piazza--Ditto to #3. Has to be something special about guys like these who keep it real and have been at it for 40 some-odd years. I actually understood Little Walter a little more after listening to my first Piazza recording.

6. James Harman--I just like the tone he gets going once he plugs in and he's right with #3,#4 as far as tenure on the circuit goes and hangs with them all.

7. Gary Smith--Took me a little longer to catch on to Smith, but if the rest of the guys above defer to him as THE Westcoast Guru, then he is. It is tone that matters most with him and he produces it in spades.

8. Lester Butler--My favorite live recording is his Red Devils Live at King King. A classic. Another one that left the planet too early.

9. Ian Collard--The Aussie has tone to the bone and can do the overblow/draw thang while he is at it and does it with a great trio from down under.

10.Stephen Schneider--Professor Schneider has straighten me out more times than I can remember as far as what I should be doing to become a more toneful harp dude. In fact, he frequently straightened a whole roomful of HOOT (Harmonica Organization Of Texas) members and got us flying on a better path. We listened because we couldn't get close to the tones that he was producing before our very ears, but some of us tried. Many years later and I'm still not there, but I'm much, much better because of his insistence that I get better.

11. Charlie Musselwhite--I was going to stop at 10, but I can't overlook the Granddaddy of them all. He was the first blues harp player that I heard that really used a lot more of the harp than most bluesmen. Instead of working out just on the first 6 holes, he ran up and down the thing more frequently. He's also the only one with a seminal '60s recording to his fame. He just keeps on keeping on.

Oh, I guess I could go on and on with the likes of RJ Mischo, Mitch Kashmar, Tad Robinson, John Nemeth, Jason Ricci, James Cotton, Mojo Buford, Junior Wells, and on and on...and I love them all. This list is made up of those that made a difference in my quest for tone. So be it. Anyway--


I made it back from China safe and sound on Nov. 24th and it took a bit of time to get over jet lag. I had always heard about the effects flying halfway around the world had on the mind, body and spirit and it took a good part of a week to get it all back on track.

I had a great time traveling with my brother-in-law, George, and his brother-in-law, Russell and a tour group from all over the place, but mainly Nevada and Texas. It would take a whole 'nother blog site to detail the trip with over 400 photos (wanna see my slide show?), so I won't stick all that here. Now if I had run into a Chinese bluesman or any of the harmonica making Huang family, then ya'll would be in for it, but I didn't. I will leave my photo taken from the top of the Great Wall outside of Beijing, for posterity's sake. Anyway--

Friday, November 14, 2008

The Real and The Retro

Johnny Young
The Complete
Blue Horizon

Blue Horizon

Here's a quickie before I head off to China for a amazing and amazingly cheap trip. More 'bout that later.

I spied the release of Johnny Young's The Complete Blue Horizon Sessions on Blue Beat's website and since I knew that Paul Oscher was aboard and that it would be chock full of deep Chicago blues, I decided that I should add it to what I've got. I have some of Johnny Young's stuff on compilations and his Testament records release, so I figured that I could expect some excellent singing and mandolin blues and that's exactly what I got.

Let me say here, that historical reissues such as these HAVE to be purchased in CD form for the extensive liner notes that offer so much more value to the recording than just downloading the music from iTunes or such. This reissue comes from Mike Vernon's Blue Horizon vaults and basically recaptures the magic from Johnny Young's originally titled Fat Mandolin. It is replete with false starts, alternate takes and previously unissued releases. The notes include a fascinating history of the mandolin in blues and popular music. Great reading, and the history of this session is just as interesting. Not gonna re-cap it right now.

Okay, how can you go wrong with Johnny Young leading a band that consists of Otis Spann (piano), Sammy Lawhorn (bass guitar/second guitar), S.P. Leary (drums) and Paul Oscher (harmonica)? Hard to do, if Chicago blues is your thang. Spann's playing is particularly inspired (I believe that he was tapped to record his own Blue Horizon stuff very shortly afterwards). Young's singing is powerful and if you haven't heard how efffective he can stick a mandolin into the blues, then you owe it to yourself to get it just for that reason. This is Chicago style ensemble blues playing, much the same as Muddy and his bands created (most of these cats were in his band). Oscher weaves his harp in and out of the grooves and leans on it when his number is called. He comes up with some good sideman ideas. Not really showcase stuff, but just following the leader. I love this release. That's it--(said it'd be short).

Morry Sochat
& The Special 20s

Self Production

When I was looking around for the Young disc, I ran across a release by the Special 20s. I think I mentioned in an earlier post that I had checked it out based on the fact that Special 20 is the name of a Hohner harmonica and figured that someone played the blues harp in the band. That someone is Morry Sochat and it seems that he moved from Texas to Chicago in the 1990s and took lessons with the modern master Joe Filisko. It also seems that he has been on the Chicago scene since then and has played with most of the blues movers and shakers in that town. He certainly has gathered together some fine musicians on this release with Shoji Naito (guitar), Jim St. Marie (guitar), Ted Beranis (bass), Dave Ross (piano), Kenny Smith (Willie's boy on drums)and Nick Krebs who adds harmonica touches to five of the tunes. Both he and Sochat are fairly efficient blues harp guys and get some good tonal variety pumping, especially on classic covers such as Standing Around Crying (Krebs), Young Fashioned Ways (Krebs), Train Kept A-Rollin' (Sochat), Can't Hold Out Much Longer (Sochat) or George Smith's Rocking (Sochat). Sochat's originals don't stray far from the tree and in some cases gives direct credit to his mentors, such as on the opener 1955, which is a Chicago blues name dropper of a tune recalling those of yesteryear.

These guys are good, but there's not much that separates them from the crowded field of retro-active blues bands out there. That's okay with me because I like what they are doing and after checking out their website, it seems that they ply their trade mostly around Chicago. To me, that's great to know that anyone that drops into the city can see the younger set carrying on the tradition. Anyway--I'm gone.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

My Take--Today

I've been asked in the past who my favorites are in the world of blues and I always say that it depends. The genre encompasses way more styles that a lot of folks realize. Are we talking pre-war? Post war? Mississippi Delta? Chicago electric? Acoustic? Solo? Ensemble? Big Band? Piedmont finger picking? West Coast? East Coast? It is the ol' apples and oranges in some cases or Granny Smith's to Red Delicious in other cases, but it is always tied into the taste of the consumer and my appetite changes from time to time. There are some folks, though, that will always be on my list of favorites--regardless. No over analyzing here, just off the top of my head and off the finger tips. Here's a few:

1. Charley Patton--He could go from playing some of the deepest blues ever recorded to being a total clown, to singing a hymn book and he was a master at getting it all across. I think he influenced everyone who followed him out of the Mississippi Delta. He transformed the guitar into a percussive instrument that elicited a power that was definitive to the region's style. His recordings are an acquired taste, but once he settles into the soul, he stays awhile.

2. Robert Johnson--Arguably the most influential bluesman from the mid to late 1920s and I won't argue that he's not. His re-issued recordings went Gold 60 years after his death. The list of those that fell under his spell and the music is long. He was influenced by all who preceded him, but took what they gave him and created a window into the dark passages of man's existence and made it all his own. The man could play. His recordings sparked an interest in me to search out his influences and his contemporaries.

3. Blind Lemon Jefferson--He pretty much had everyone in the blues world beat out in terms of records on the market back in those days and he was from Texas and even T-Bone Walker cut his teeth by hanging with Lemon. Like Patton, his recordings suffer from needing a bit of a little modern techniques to clean up the sound, but also like Patton, once his message is grasped, it's hard to argue the genius of the man. Guitarists will tell you just how intricate his picking was and how difficult it is to master his stuff. Everybody who was anybody in 20th century blues owes a debt to Blind Lemon Jefferson. Many, many artists recorded his songs or stole lyrical lines from his songs that became famous down the line. Lightnin' Hopkins, who in his youth crossed paths with the blind man, covered a wealth of his songs and took his musical style and created in own methods and went of to influence succeeding generations. BB King goes back to his roots on his latest CD and knocks out a great version of See That My Grave Is Kept Clean. Roaring "20s" blues that remains important in the 21st century. Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley both did versions of his Matchbox Blues in the '50s.

4. Skip James--He was one of those "Re-discovered Bluesmen" uncovered by the folky musicologist in the '60s and they got him lined up with gigs and recording contracts, but the first time I heard his 1931 recordings and that eerie, falsetto voice of his, I was quite sure that he was summoning up spirits from the netherworld--Cypress Grove was particularly moving. The old recordings are a difficult listen with the snap, crackles and pops, but they are all so rewarding. Vanguard's '60s recording, Skip James Today, of course has the pristine sound of modern (for the time) equipment laying the tracks down. Although a Mississippian, his style of playing represents a recognizable difference from the Delta blues of Patton and has been tagged the Bentonia style, which is the hill country region of the state that James hailed from.

I'll just leave it at the big four here. This music does not represent a passive activity--ya' got to really listen to it to get it. There are oodles of others that I have listened to, but I always go back to these guys.

Blues Singers:
Blues music is as much about the human voice as any of the instruments used to get the emotion across and most time more effectively.

1. Otis Rush--His Cobra Records recordings are unequalled as an example as to just how much the voice can be a instrument in the blues. The hair on back of my neck stood up the first time I heard him sing Double Trouble (which by the way is where Stevie Ray came up with the name for his band).

2. Muddy Waters--He took what Robert Johnson and Son House were doing in the Delta into the city and sang it like his life depended on it, which was the only way the blues is supposed to be sung. No great octave leaps like Rush, but Muddy was the real deal deep blues dude.

3. Howlin' Wolf--I've had friends ask, "How can you listen to that?", in response to the Wolf's growling the blues. If you have to ask, then you just don't get it. He took his cue from Patton and like Patton, once he sinks in, he sticks. That's just it. Go ahead and listen to I'll Be Around and tell me that his message ain't gettin' to you.

4. Magic Sam--Died waayy to young, like Otis Redding, but Sam was a bluesman. I really believe that he could have ridden the wave of interest in the blues of the late '60s & early '70s to great success and I believe he could have sparked a great deal more interest had he lived longer. He threw in just enough R&B to excite the soul crowd and then he passed. He could wail.

5. Lightnin' Hopkins--To me, Ol' Lightnin' represents everything that people think of when they think of blues music--he's the prototype or stereotype or whatever you want to refer to him as, but the man could sing the blues in that deep East Texas drawl of his. He could read the contents off a cereal box and it would sound like the deepest blues ever recorded. HE WAS THE BLUES.

6. Bobby 'Blue' Bland--I'm not a big fan of soul/blues, but when Bobby sings the blues, he just can't be beat. His recording of Further On Up The Road grabbed me back in the day and never let go.

7. BB King--He hasn't been the King of the Blues for near 50 years for nothing. Don't know who the king will be after he passes, but he's still got it going on and his latest release, One Kind Favor (a lyric from the Blind Lemon song) proves that he is not about to abdicate.

8. Little Walter--I know, I know, but I think that part of being an effective blues singer is being about getting the song's emotional message across and no one could do Blues With A Feeling like Walter. Try singing that one sometime.

9. Kim Wilson--I know, I know that I'm sticking some of my favorite harp guys in here, but he fits the same mold as LW--he can just get a song across and proves that white boys can sing the blues.

10. Tad Robinson--Another white boy singer and like Bland, when he lays off the blue eyed soul music and sings the blues, it really sounds like it comes from the heart--if not then he gets my vote as being an excellent actor also.

You do know that this is difficult to do, don't you, and that this just scratches the surface of the wonder of the blues? Let's just say that these blues folks are at the surface of my psyche at this moment.

Blues Writers--
There is a lot of fluff out there and derivative lyrical sludge, but a great blues song last forever and a day.

1. Blind Lemon Jefferson--He could actually write fluff and give it a spin that made it sound so important and deep. When you listen to his songs, it dawns on you that you've heard it before and you have. Maybe as a credited cover or a disguised version or as a complete rip-off or in a lyrical snippet or two over the decades that followed him.

2. Robert Johnson--Like Jefferson, his influential songs had such a decades long reach that still hasn't relented. He had few recording opportunities before his death, but what he did write prevailed and has stood the test of time.

3. Howlin' Wolf--Chester Burnett wrote some of the most hair raising blues music put to wax. There's not many songs of despair that can beat examples such as, How Many More Years, Smokestack Lighting, Killing Floor, or Moanin' At Midnight.

4. Muddy Waters--I'm not going to reel off the number of blues classic written by McKinnley Morganfield because I'd get tired of typing and you'd get tired of reading.

5. Sonny Boy Williamson I-Hey I'd take a dollar every time I heard a cover of Good Morning Little Schoolgirl or Sugar Mama Blues or Sloppy Drunk Blues or ideas stolen from John Lee Williamson. He took the country blues to the city before Muddy or the Wolf and his recordings were numerous, accessible, and influential throughout the African American communities, both urban and rural.

6.. Sonny Boy Williamson II--Alex Rice Miller, or whatever his real name was, wrote with a sense of humor that belied the nature of the genre. He showed that blues didn't have to be all downhearted with a hung down head and even when it was, it might just be funny. I mean, just think about having two fine chicks to romance, but just what the repercussions might be if they lived on the same street as in his classic Too Close Together or being put out in the cold in Nine Below Zero or looking for a way out of the house when the husband comes home in One Way Out (famously covered by the Allman Brothers Band). His songs had great twists of fate associated with the story.

7. Slim Harpo--James Moore was one of the first blues artists (Jimmy Reed was another)to cross over and appeal to teenage boppers back in the '60s. The Rolling Stones grabbed and covered a number of his tunes back in the day along with the Kinks and Van Morrison and numerous others that were nowhere near being African American or considered blues men. His songs such as, Raining In My Heart, Scratch My Back, and Shake You Hips became Top 40 hit singles on Anglo radio stations from coast to coast. He made the Louisiana Swamp blues sound cool.

8. Jimmy Reed--Ditto. He's got to be included for the same reason as Slim Harpo. We could hear him on OUR radios. Teen bands had to cover Baby, What You Want Me To Do, You Don't Have To Go or Ain't That Loving You Baby or some other of Reed's hits or be run off the stage.

9. James Harman--Another one of my triple threat guys. He plays harp and sings as well as anyone, but his written word captures stories and tales that are just so real. Sometimes they are comic, sometimes tragic and sometimes in between or both, but his songs are short novels that I can relate to, so they are relative--right?

10. Rick Estrin--Took me awhile to get Estrin, because I really dismissed songs that had a hokum quality to them. Once I really listening to what he was saying, I realized that he was singing the blues with a humor spin that wasn't a whole lot different than the take that Sonny Williamson II gave us. The more I listened, the more I understood that Rick had the ability to understand this side of the human condition and his method of getting across works well in the blues. Blues with a touch of irony from the soul.

So, that's it for now. Just a few blues guys that I thought about today. I'll come back around at some point with those I like best at the guitar or harmonica and maybe throw a few girls in the mix. Anyway--

Friday, October 31, 2008

Blues For Food Fest 2008

Oh, Yeah!!!

The 17th Annual Blues For Food Fest is due to hit Shakespeare's Pub on November 16th. Trust me on this--if you are anywhere within driving range of 14129 Memorial Drive in Houston, Texas, you must not miss some of the finest music that the city has to offer in a non-stop, kick booty, blues and roots rockin' show that'll satisfy and saturate your soul. You will have some kind of fine time and the entry fee is to show up with non-perishable food items and/or cash donations that will help the Houston Food Bank replenish their supplies and feed those in need and while you're there you can feed yourself on the free BBQ that'll be on the house.

My good friend Sonny Boy Terry has been involved in promoting this fine event, in one way or another, since its inception and the quality of talent donating their time over the years has been amazing. I first met the likes of Jimmy 'T-99' Nelson, Joe 'Guitar' Hughes, Texas Johnny Brown, Grady Gaines, Calvin Owens and Pete Mayes through the years at these gatherings. The stars have always shone for this event. Ya never know who will turn up, but I do know that all these cats will be there, according to this press release:

1:30pm-Steve the Chief, 2:30pm-Mojofromopolis, 3:30pm-TC and the Cannonballs, 4:15pm-Don Kesee and the Bluesmasters, 5pm-John McVey and the Stumble w/Marie English, 5:45pm-Texas Johnny Brown and the Quality Blues Band, 6:30pm-Sonny Boy Terry w/Little Ray, 7:15pm-Trudy Lynn, 8pm-The Mighty Org, 8:45pm-Snit's Dog and Pony Show, 9:30pm-1:30am-Spare Time Murray and the Honeymakers' World Famous Blues Jam and Open Mic featuring Little Screamin' Kenny.


Hey, this will be a walloping good show. If you've never seen Trudy Lynn, then you've never seen anyone upset the house in the way that she will. There is going to be some kind of cranking great music coming off Memorial Drive on the 16th. Anyway--

Friday, October 24, 2008

Texas Blues

Texas Blues
The Rise of a
Contemporary Sound

Alan Govenar
Texas A&M University Press
College Station

John & Robin Dickson
Series In Texas Music
Center for Texas Music History
Texas State University
Greg Hartman & Gregg Andrews
General Editors

I was about to sit down and add a bit or two to the ol' blog here, when my wife came in the front door with a UPS delivery from that trumps anything that I was about to write and that everyone reading this blog needs to go out and buy (or push a few keystrokes and buy). Now, having had my copy for less than a couple of hours, this won't be much of a review--I just know how great of a book that it is going to be for anyone that relishes the blues.

At my side is a copy of Alan Govenar's Texas Blues-The Rise of a Contemporary Sound. It is sort of his continuing saga that began with his Living Texas Blues and Meeting the Blues: The Rise of the Texas Sound. With over 400 photographs and at 599 pages, it offers us a marvelous culmination of his research that began over 25 years ago. There ain't much that he hasn't managed to uncover as far a tracking down the blues from its beginnings in the state up to interviews with blues artists that are taking the stage tonight. The key word here is interviews. These are stories told by the artists themselves, either in interviews conducted by the author or collected from others and reproduced for our enjoyment and education.

He travels from the early blues of East Texas and the Deep Ellum of Dallas, through the progression of electric blues, the importance that the saxmen played on the creation of the sound, the influence of the state's musicians on the West Coast, and along the way we find out oodles about musicians from San Antonio, Austin, DFW, Houston and the Golden Triangle of Beaumont, Port Arthur and Orange.

I'm ecstatic that a couple of darned fine musicians (both of whom I consider friends) are getting their due. It's about time that a major publication is giving a bow to Sonny Boy Terry's importance to the Houston blues scene for the last 20 some-odd years. As much as I know about Sonny Boy (because I've written about he and his music back in the day), his interview gave me a slice of his history with the city and the bluesmen that he hung with that I didn't know. Sonny Boy's current guitarist and one of this state's finest, Little Ray Ybarra, gets to tell his tale also and it's a fascinating read. Didn't know that his given name was Alphonso. Next time I see him, I'll have to call him Little Alphonso. I reviewed his band's CDs back in the day and they're somewhere, in the meantime go to his myspace site under my links and check out what real blues guitar playing is all about.

It's good to also see Frank Robinson's story in print. Blues musicologist, record company owner, musician, etc.., Tary Owens pulled him from obscurity in Crockett, Texas (my birthplace) and got him featured at the first couple of Navasota Blues Festivals in honor of Mance Lipscomb and also provided Frank with his first recording opportunity. Since Lightnin' grew up just down the road in Centerville and played Crockett jukes frequently back in the day, the younger Robinson often sat and picked with him and picked up his style, his and Frankie Lee Sims, who also frequented the area. Listening to him play was like witnessing a blues time warp kind of thing. His inclusion at that first 'fest was a real treat and got him back into the game. His inclusion in this book shows just how deep Govenar got into the outback of Texas blues.

I'll come clean and admit that I knew that Sonny Boy and Little Ray would be included in Govenar's book, but it was just an added carrot to entice me into getting my hands on it. I did read their interviews before I sat down today and I may not get back to the blog for awhile because I plan on spending some time reading the words of the legends (and those not so legendary, but just as vital) presented within this massive example of Texas blues history. So, I'm gonna stop and read a bit and quit hitting these keys for a spell.

I'm not sure who John & Robin Dickson are, but hats off to them and the Center for Texas Music History at my Alma Mater, Texas State University (I might have to forgive the regents for changing the schools name now.)


P.S.--Update (10/27/08) Quibbles: Now that I read a few more pages of the book, I think I should pass along what irritates me about it. The value of the contents of this volume outweigh my peeves by a long shot, but I think there are some things that could have made the book even better:
1. Better editing--In the table of contents, Doyle Bramhall II is listed as the entry on page 521. Turn to page 521 and it is titled Doyle Bramhall III with a very nice photo of Doyle Bramhall II and Charlie Sexton from their Arc Angels days. There are three additional pictures of he and Charlie together (one of which is erroneously mis-labeled). Is the interview about Doyle Bramhall III or II? No, it is about his dad, Doyle Bramhall, there is no III. Well, the table of contents had it right as far as photos go and there is one photo of Doyle Sr. from back in the day in Dallas. And speaking of photos, I realize that with over 400 photos that the real work comes with writing the captions. There are a few that could have identified the subjects a bit better or a bit more correctly.

2. A little more introduction to some of the artist to let the reader know why they count and maybe why they are included. I know enough about a good number of the musicians highlighted in this book, that the interview suffices, but the novice blues fans could benefit with a bit more about the who, what, when, and where. I'm clueless about a few of the folks here, so a bit more info, please.

3. A little updated information on some of the artists that are still with us would have been nice, especially if the interview was from the '80s. This again would be of great benefit to the novice blues reader who just might get the idea that Jimmy Vaughn and Kim Wilson's contributions of any importance to the genre ended in 1987.

I'll stop now, because I don't want to give anyone the idea that I don't and won't treasure this book as being an important addition to the world of blues music. It is well worth the price and adding to your collection of blues literature. Anyway--

Friday, October 10, 2008

Happy Birthday....To Me

I'm going to keep this short because I'm pretending that today is my birthday. Yesterday was actually my birthday, but it turned out to be less than enjoyable. I had to go under the knife for what has become a frequent routine for me in recent years--the removal of a basal cell carcinoma. My skin doesn't like the sun, but I spent a good deal of my time as a teenager on the beach and a great deal of my time as an adult working summers on a workover oil rig--so, my skin is in full retaliation and this one was on the left side of my nose, which will match the scar on the right side of my nose from the same procedure. Not gonna go into a lot of detail, but yesterday was not fun and was a great deal more painful than my past trips to the derm doc. So, forget yesterday. My mom did bring out a great chocolate cake and gave me money and my wife did hold my hand for the bad trip and feel sorry for me and gave me an Adirondack chair for the front porch (which I'm enjoying today).

Anyway, I didn't go through my usual routine of ordering some kind of blues so that it would arrive by the 9th. The pending operation just sidetracked me a bit, so yesterday I decided to download a bit from iTunes--since posting about such kinda got me looking around again and since it would appear on my harddrive in an instant, then it made it sorta birthdayish.

I'd had my eye on the Texas Northside Kings for some time now, mainly because Johnny Moeller and Mike Keller were both a piece of the fabric for another Dialtone Records revue that follows their Texas Southside Kings and Texas Eastside Kings. Where the latter two showcased unsung veterans of the music, this one here focuses on some of the young bucks (and buckette) of the genre. Joining Moeller and Keller are Nick Curran, Seth Walker, Shawn Pittman and Eve Monsees with Houston keyboard veteran Earl Gilliam thrown into the mix (Dialtone dialed up a winner with a Gilliam CD a couple of years ago). All those present have been adding there touches with their own releases and on a multitude of other artist's recordings. Moeller and Keller stepped in to the role of Fabulous T-Bird guitarists when Curran stepped out. Walker and Pittman both have garnered the respect of most everyone around the Lone Star state with both their guitar and vocal skills. Monsees has gained a reputation around Austin with her band the Exiles (formed with ex-T-Bird drummer Mike Buck) and as being quite a butt rockin' guitarist and a heck of a singer.

So, there's a bunch of guitaring going on here, but it is not at the expense of the songs that they cover. This is OLD SCHOOL stuff. They show their reverence for the R&B, Blues and Rock 'n' Roll from four and five decades ago as they offer up covers from Lazy Lester, Elmore James, Howlin' Wolf, Little Richard, etc...and it sounds oh, so authentic and sweet. Keller gets the Red Hot Mama going with a wicked slide tone, Curran gets down, way down and dirty with the Wolf's I'll Be Around with some wicked distortion and gruffed up vocals, Monsees belts out some Magic Sam, Seth Walker nails down sweet ballad vocals on Since I Fell For You, Gilliam and Moeller (he sings one too) bounce off each other on the Junior Walker sounding Radio Groove with a exquisite sax from the mighty Spot Barnett. Oh, did I say there were some guitarist on this release? Yep, and they do be slinging it in a tasty sort of way. If you like it done the way it was once done, then get this.

I didn't know much about San Pedro Slim when I downloaded his release, Barhoppin', but I had read favorable reviews and I knew he was a harmonica man and that Rick Holmstrom was on board as guitarist and producer, so I clicked on it and sucked it into my machine. This is pretty much traditional West Coast/Chicago style blues and is a fairly enjoyable ride. Anyone who is a fan of Holmstrom's blusiest guitar work (such as from his Johnny Dyer and Rod Piazza days) will certainly enjoy what he gets going here. He is quite intent on keeping the tonal variety quotient up by summoning some of the heaviest reverb ladened plucking on one tune and then the deepest distortion possible on another and then swinging to and fro the rest of the way. If you know Rick, then you know the trick. I think he keeps the purist in us and him in mind and doesn't flip out into left field, as he's wont to do on some of his solo stuff.

Well, what about Slim? He has a lot in common with James Harman, both vocally, harmonically and lyrically. Maybe a little too much in common. He sounds like he is trying to sound like Harman. It's tough to do that without coming off sounding like a second rate version. He writes with the same hell bent for humor lyrics and comes up with some really nice ideas. Even his amplified harp tone has a Harman quality on a couple of the cuts, but Slim's chops are not quite equal. If I wasn't such a Harman fan and didn't know his music well, then I'd really enjoy Slim's singing and writing a lot more and it may grow on me, heck, I've only listened to the songs once. Back in the day a bit, before I realized what separated the men from the boys on blues harp, I would really enjoy his playing also. It's not a bad release of trad blues music, but I would get it for Holmstrom's playing. I may be over-analyzing and he may not be influenced by Harman in the least, but I think that San Pedro Slim will progress once he develops more of a style of his own.

Since I had new birthday money, I did order up a couple of CDs the traditional way through Bluebeat Music. They had a copy of Johnny Young's Complete Blue Horizon recordings. Young is one of those few blues artist that could be considered an original, since he took the mandolin and applied it to the format. Of course, he wasn't the first and not the only one to do so, but in the context of a Chicago blues band it was indeed unique. I'm not a huge fan of Englishman Mike Vernon's Blue Horizon label, but a number of his releases are valuable snippets of blues history as it was being made--this being a prime example and I also wanted to hear what harpman Paul Oscher was putting down with Johnny Young's band. I also ran across a band called The Special 20s and since that is also the name of a Hohner harmonica, I figured that the band is led by a harp player and it is. I ordered a copy of their second album called Morry Sochat and The Special 20s just to hear what some new bloods are doing with Chicago blues. Anyway--'Nuff for Now.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008


I got into the ipod thang relatively late in the game. When I finally got around to getting my hands on a nano version, very shortly afterwards they dropped the price by half because they upgraded the gizmos and doubled the capacity and added video capabilities and such. I have a tendency to drag my feet when it comes to jumping into new technology. It took me forever to buy a cd player, but my hand was forced on that account because records and tapes faded away.

I do enjoy visiting the iTunes site and seeing what's available as far a blues goes and adding a tune here and there to my library. For the most part, I've kept it aimed at blues harp tunes because I've found the ipod great for wood shedding the harp skills and for taking my mind off mindless exercise (two activities I'd like to stick to and increase throughout retirement). I'm not about to give up buying CDs. There is just something about holding the product from the artist in my hands and reading the liner notes and such that has a satisfaction quotient that searching for the same and downloading it on a computer can't meet for me(this is where I miss the ol' LP version the most). I want to know which musicians are adding what to each cut and who's playing the cowbell. I really don't trust this ipod stuff. I'm thinking POOF! and it all disappears. I've downloaded very few full albums, unless it is something that I don't have and can't find. I have transferred a few of my CDs over to the ipod in order to steal a lick or two, but for the most part I look around for some songs that really have strong, toneful harp from the heart and that I don't have a copy of in another format.

Okay, I'm just going to occasionally throw out and comment on some of the artists or tunes that I have in captivity on my little friend and share it with those that care to read it.

1. Jimmy Rogers--I grabbed some songs off of his Gold Tailed Bird album that is woefully underrated. Leon Russell's Shelter Records was doing us all a favor signing up and recording bluesmen in early '70s such as Rogers and Freddie King back in the day. In fact, this was Rogers return to recording after getting out of the scene for quite some time. Sure, these albums suffer in comparison to the their classic recordings of the '50s and '60s and sure some rock icons had their fingers on the product, but I think, that in retrospect, Shelter put out some good stuff. The Aces (Little Walter's old bandmates Fred Below, Dave and Louis Myers) and Freddie King are on board for this release, so how can you go wrong? The real reason that I downloaded tunes from this album was due to the harp blowing of Bill Lupkin (whose CD I mentioned in an earlier post). I wanted to hear what he was doing back in the day with one of the masters which helped define his reputation. He was just a young pup in '72, but had his chops down. If you don't any Jimmy Rogers, get his Chess stuff first or Ludella (with Kim Wilson) on the Antones label.

2. Little Walter--I listen to something by Little Walter every day, because he's just the greatest blues harp player that ever walked the planet. I downloaded the entire Confessin' The Blues. I mentioned in one of my blues history posts that this was the first LP that I ever had of Little Walter's stuff and that the liner notes were in Italian. I was just going to download Rocker and Rock Bottom, because I had listened to this record many, many, many times, but I wanted those couple of instrumentals on the pod for a little practice. I did that, but then went back and bought the whole enchilada. Great balls of fire, here!

3. Tad Robinson--This guy was made for my ipod--as far as cherry picking the songs that I like the best (namely those with his harp in his mouth). See, Robinson is one of those fantastic harp guys, with tone to die for, that puts out albums that highlight their vocal chops more than their harp and that's great if that's what they feel like doing. Darrell Nulisch, John Nemeth and Curtis Salgado fit into this same category. These cats can ALL sing their butts off--and pull some serious stuff from the harmonica. A lot of what they like to get across vocally is more in the soul/blues bag and well, that just ain't my cup of tea. I don't care who keeps saying that it is all blues to them; it ain't, but if that's what smokes their shorts, okie dokie. What I like, though, is when they get down and dirty with the blues--harmonically and vocally. So, the ipod does its duty for me here--as I pull up Robinson's work with Dave Specter and the Bluebirds Live In Europe. Whoa! The boy do get down with the harp business on chestnuts like Eddie Taylor's Bad Boy and Little Walter's It's Too Late Brother. Dave Specter can really swing the axe on this fine set of live stuff. From there, I just took a swing through Tad's catalog of work available on iTunes and snatched off his harp blowing numbers--all of it very good.

3. James Harman--James is one of my main men. There ain't too many dudes that can write a blues song as well as Harman does and then sing it and then add one hell of a tonally righteous harmonica to it. He doesn't blow harp on every song on his albums either, but when he doesn't, it's because he's letting someone like Hollywood Fats or Kid Ramos kick butt on guitar to carry the song--and it's all blues, so all is forgiven. I've got most of everything that the man has recorded and some of his finest is some of his first, such as, Extra Napkins, Mo' Napkins and Strickly Live in '85 (one of his finest of the fine). I let some of his Blacktop recordings get by me and then the label went out of business, so I snagged a few of those that I'd missed back in the day and they're classics. I mean, how can you pass up a song that's narrated by a man who's left for dead by his lover on the hard floor and all he can feel is the freezing air conditioner and all he can see is the knob saying HI COOL--which also is the song's chorus. Cool.

4. Watermelon Slim--Now I have one of Slim's CDs and like it a lot. Some doubt just how legitimate his Hillbilly Bluesman persona can possibly be, given that he has a degree in literature and can quote Shakesphere off the cuff. He sounds darned authentic, so if his schtick ain't real, then he's a good actor. He's got a rough, gruff vocal style that promotes the Okie from Muskogee blues thang well. He does put his academic background to work in his songwriting skills. He's a bit of a countryfied Rick Estrin as he twists the humor threads of life experiences from driving trucks, dealing with check bouncing, juke joint women, and laboring the hard way. He works with a rock solid band of journeymen musicians and applies his skills both with the slide guitar and the Hohner diatonic. He is fairly formidable at both. I'll probably grab another of his CDs, but in the meantime, I went through his stuff on iTunes and pulled his harp playing tunes over to my ipod. Pretty hopped up ride.

5. Moreland and Arbuckle--These guys are a close second to Collard Greens and Gravy (mentioned back a bit) or maybe an American version of Collard Greens and Gravy as far as stripping down the music to its bare essentials. Anyway, what these young Kansas cats are doing is a Mississippi hill country/Delta stomping kinda blues thing with harmonica, guitar and sometimes drums. It is raw and it is real The first examples I downloaded was from Moreland, Arbuckle and Floyd (Floyd being the drummer) called Floyd's Market which was a mix of original stuff and covers of such artists as RL Burnsides, Mississippi Fred McDowell and even Little Walter. Aaron Moreland can get a nasty, distorted vibe going on with his slipping, slide guitar and its really nice to hear a young (or younger) dude like Dustin Arbuckle quote some of the masters of the blues harp. He has his chops down pretty good and even pulls off a nice rendition of Juke, which is far from being just a slavish copy of Little Walter's masterpiece. These guys are rawkus in their attitude towards the music and play it with wild abandon. They be stompin' on it! I also pulled some stuff from their latest, called 1861, which has some great cuts on it. Their sonic aura does wear on me after awhile, so an ipod shuffle mix is the right place for them for me.

Anyway--'Nuff for now. I'll share my snippets from time to time.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Harpin' Microphones

Anyone who plays amplified blues harmonica has been down some of the same roads that I've mentioned on this blog. I'd say that most of us went looking for THE amplifier to give us THE tone way before we were ready to uphold our end of the bargain by producing much of that with simply the sound that we made with the harmonica pressed to our lips. But, no, we knew we would sound much better by cupping up a microphone and sucking the notes through a tube amp. Fact is, I didn't sound much better, but just sounded like a louder me--which was a far cry from the gnarly bluesman I was attempting to sound like. Way down the road, I eventually found that matching my much improved acoustic tone, with the right amp and the right microphone came a lot closer to the sound that floated around in my head. I did say closer.

Back in the day, even though I knew MY tone wasn't there yet, I was hell bent to get my amplified act together. I mentioned that my first amplifier was far from being harp friendly, but little did I have a clue at the time. I just knew that I needed a microphone to go with it. I had been reading up on amps and mics and stuff, written by folks like Pete Sheridan and Tom Ellis. They were very knowledgeable and gave good descriptions of what to expect with various mic configurations and in Sheridan's case, which mics were used by our heroes such as James Cotton, Little Walter or Big Walter. I found that most of the examples discussed, and that were on the market, were out of my price range.

So, I experienced a bit of excitement when I stumbled across a box of microphones in a storeroom at the high school where I taught. My principal agreed with me when I told him that maybe they should go home with me, since no one had a use for them. The mics, pictured above, are from left to right: Shure 535, Shure 545SD, Turner 254, Shure 565SD and at the bottom, an Electro Voice 630. I was most excited by the presence of the 545, a type maybe used by Little Walter and similar to a model used by Paul Butterfield. I had also read that Turner and Electro Voice mics had their places in blues harp history. None of the microphones were useful out of the box (hah!). They had no cords, except for the Turner which was a desktop, push button model that certainly wouldn't plug into my amp. The 535 had a piece of a frayed cord attached, but that was that. So, I knew that I had a little work to do that I knew nothing about.

I began my butchery by attacking the Turner desktop and cutting the base off of it and attaching the leads of a mic cord to it and by golly it worked. I could blow some notes and hear it blast out through my amplifier. I knew enough at this point to know that the crystal element that the mic had in it was a type suited to harp playing. It still sounded like Ricky Bush and not Little Walter, but gosh it was loud and gave me my first exposure to FEEDBACK (which is another of those shared experiences that us amplified guys deal with controlling--another story, there). I packed it up with my amp and hauled it down to my first jam and blew the blues, dude. Jam leaders, Neil Kulhanek, Robert Zientek and Sam Murski encouraged me all night, but I knew that I had a ways to go.

After being successful with getting something out of the Turner, I turned my attention to the Electro Voice 630. Try as I might, though, I couldn't get it to reproduce a sound. I pretty much boogered it up fairly well in my quest to get it working and gave up and never got back to it. Might try to resurrect it someday.

I took the Shure 545SD and 535 to Tom's Sales and Service, which was operated at the time by Tom Brinkmeyer. He was from the old school and was one of the only techs in town who could work on tube type amplifiers and such. He ordered a Shure cord that would work on the 545 & 565 and he hard wired a cord to the 535. The 535 turned out to be a super hot, high impedance mic that proved to be way touchy for harp playing. Both the 545 and 535 were wired to low impedance, but I had bought an impedance matching transformer and cord to work around that. The 545 & 565 sonically blasted the Turner away. Only then did I really just how really weak the Turner crystal element was in comparison. I started using the 545 at jams and sit-ins, but it was a just not gritty sounding enough for me. It did become my main axe, though. Since these early days, I discovered how to change the impedance in both those microphones to high and the 545 will overdrive a tube amp very well. Not with the same tonal palette of an Astatic MC151 element or a Shure Controlled Reluctance/Magnetic cartridge, but with its own flavorful qualities. It is harder to seal off in a cup with a harp, but Stephen Schneider passed along the idea of using a bit of foamed pipe insulation around the mic and it does work. The 565 is okay, but does have quite the same magic as the 545 does.

Since I still didn't really have my tonal chops together and I hadn't discovered how to make the 545 better, I'll have to get around to the Crystal Balls story next time out. Anyway--

Tuesday, September 23, 2008


Sucking on a few blues notes, through my Kalamazoo 1 just now, reminded me that I jumped on another one of those Stephen Schneider suggested modifications about a month or so ago and figured I would go and post it up for those interested and while I was thinking about it. The Kalamazoo acquisition is detailed in one of my older posts, so I won't repeat just how much I love it as a small harp amp (that's way louder than it looks).

Stephen cannot keep his hands off his myriad of amplifiers and is continually tweaking them to see how much better he can make his already great harp amps sound. The majority of his mad science experiments work and his amps just become more beastly. When they don't work to his satisfaction, he just undoes what he did and no harm is done. When they do work, he shares his results and convinces me to try it out.

I've balked at his suggestions for the Kalamazoo 1 because it just didn't seem to need anything else--except maybe a bit more thump from the bass frequency, but I figured that just was the character of the small, low power amplifiers. I did notice that his Harmony amplifier from the same family size (single EL84 power tube) did produce better lows. His suggestion was to add a bit more filtering value to the first stage power filter capacitor.

So, reluctantly (and why, I don't know--because his mods always work for me), I added a Sprague 20mfd/500v capacitor to the two 10mfd that were already there--for a total of 40mfd first stage filtering. I knew when I ordered it that the Sprague was gonna be a fat dude (and it was as you can see in the pix), but I figured that I had plenty of room for its diameter (which there was). The amp had a cap job before I bought it, so I didn't replace any of the caps.

The results were immediately obvious. The Kalamazoo 1 sounded as sweet as before (or as nasty, depending on how you perceive such), but the bass blossomed and tightened and those low frequencies thumped out significantly better. It may be my imagination, but I'm thinking that the amp is putting out a smidge more volume than before. My ears seemed to ring a bit after a substantial test run and I can't remember the Kalamazoo generating such before.

So, another successful Schneider special. Of course, he said good, now you might as well try this next....Anyway.

P.S--I updated the mod info on 9/30/08. I erroneously wrote that I swapped the caps out for a 20mfd capacitor--which simply would have replaced two 10mfd caps with one 20mfd cap, resulting in the same cap values. Didn't proof read and Professor Schneider caught my error. Thanks again, my friend!

Friday, September 12, 2008

Rick Estrin

Rick Estrin
On The Harp Side

People have been asking me for years to do a more low-down, harmonica-focused it is.--Rick Estrin

Amen, Rick. I've been waiting for such myself. Don't get me wrong, I love what Little Charlie and the Nightcats have been putting down for the past many moons. The mix of Charlie Baty's swinging, stinging guitar slinging and Estrin's hepcat singing and wry, tongue-in-cheek songwriting cut a definitive path that set the band apart from every other blues band. When Estrin put his harp to mouth, though, magic happened (for me anyway) and I always wished for a bit more of it with each CD release. Of course the band was not called Rick Estrin and the Nightcats and some may argue that more variety was had by not including harp on each cut. This CD negates all that.

The Nightcats are Rick Estrin's band now that Charlie has opted for a sabbatical of some sort. Seems that they re-ignite for a few choice concert dates, but it is officially Rick Estrin and the Nightcats doing the do and this CD is documented proof that a harpcentric album can be way far from stale with a whale of a lot of variety. I'm guessing here, but since there is nothing in the way of a label name on this offering and very little in the way of liner notes, that this recording is sold at their gigs until Alligator (I'm guessing again) decides what to do with 'em.

Ain't no re-inventing the wheel here. What you get is what we've always gotten with Rick Estrin's mouth--singing and sucking and wearing his influences on his sleeve or mustache or whatever. I've only listened to the release a couple of times, but that's all it took me to say, "Yeah, man!" and just enjoy the hell out of it. He does kicking instrumentals like the opening track, Headin' Out, which is his nod to Little Walter's Juke, Off the Wall, etc...Like traditional Chicago blues harp tonal technique done right? He lays it all out on this one and then follows it with Walter's Tell Me Mama.

If you'd rather he get licking with something more original, then wait till you get to the instrumental Porn Bred, which has some of the NASTIEST, low end, dirty drawn bent note tones ever pulled from a 10 hole diatonic. He does some kind of low-down honking that just hits the spot.

Fans of the Nightcats know that Estrin pulls off some great Sonny Boy Williamson II tones that are so eerily close to the master that suggests a reincarnation could be a possibility. He covers several of SBW II's tunes, including one of my favorites--Fattening Frogs For Snakes. I don't know of anyone who comes as close to this harp sound as Estrin. SBW II proved that the blues can certainly stir a little humor into heartbreak, a style that had obvious effect on Estrin's lyrical commentaries.

He doesn't leave his other main man, Sonny Boy Williamson I (John Lee Williamson hanging by covering his Tell Me Baby and since it follows Fattening Frogs For Snakes, it offers up how different the two were in their tonal presentation and how proficient Estrin is at pulling off sounding so authentic.

If that's not enough variety, he breaks out the chromatic to crank one of his signature tunes, Big and Fat, into groove city while lauding the assets of the large and lovely. Nothing fancy here, just proving that he knows how to fit the instrument into a driving blues tune. He does get fancy with the chromatic on the jazz chestnut, Harlem Nocturne. I'd challenge anyone to point out a better played version than what the Nightcats get up on here.

With a generous helping of 17 cuts, that include the aforementioned, 6 originals and covers of Muddy Waters, Big Boy Spires and Eddie Burns and all with a heaping, helping dose of Rick Estrin's variety of harp skills on display, harp fans have a reason to rejoice. Estrin's Nightcats have Kid Andersen filling Little Charlie's esteemed shoes. He's been the go to guy out on the West Coast for awhile and was on Charlie Musselwhite's tour dates and recordings for the past year, put out one of his own critically acclaimed CDs and made numerous studio appearances for a number of artists. He knows his blues guitar and can also get a jazzy touch or two going on. On this release he has a partner in crime with Rusty Zinn (see an earlier blog post) and we know what he brings to the table. J Hansen (drums) and Lorenzo Farrell (bass) fill out the rest of the band, with Ronnie James Webber (past Nightcat) playing bass on about half the cuts on this album. Bob Welsh does the keyboarding here. Haven't listened to the CD critically enough to analyze the musical detail that everyone is putting down here and don't intend to--just think the Nightcats, without Little Charlie, but with lots of harp by one of the modern masters of the instrument.

Again, I don't know any label details. If all you care about is amped up, gritty Chicago harp, then this may disappoint you a bit--what there is of it, can't be beat, though. If you enjoy both SBWs along with your Little Walter, then you've gotta have this one. I got my copy from Charlie Lange over at Check out Estrin's myspace page. Anyway--

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Houston Blues

Down in Houston
Bayou City Blues
By Roger Wood
Photographs by
James Fraher
356 pp 122 Duotones

Even though I've offered my written opinion on a couple of books here on the blog and I'm about offer up another, I really have no intention of becoming some kind of book reviewer. Peggy Ehrhart sent me a copy of her book and since there aren't many fictional stories themed around the blues, then I thought whoever reads this blog stuff needed to hear about her. While reading the Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock and just how much of my 'back in the day' days were being captured, I just had to share my impressions with anyone whom might relate. So, I'm not really going to call this or those real reviews.

Where Jan Reid's book gave an account the musicians that were relative to Austin's rise as a music mecca, Roger Wood's Down In Houston Bayou City Blues documents a past that established the city as a blues haven as important as Chicago or Memphis with just as much vitality. More than that, his book is a document to those that are still soldiering on in the city. So, I have to share this just to give Houston equal time and importance, in particular to how it is relative to my experience. Where the scene developing in and around Austin was bending genres and was overwhelmingly inviting to college age students and I was a willing participant to the party-on atmosphere, the blues in Houston was sorta operating out of earshot of us Anglo types. It was there, but we weren't. I grew up in the marvelous little coastal town of Brazoria, which was 50 miles south of Houston. When we got our driver's licenses in the late '60s, it was the bright lights and big city that lured us away--BUT we dared not venture into neighborhoods known as the Third and Fifth Ward. There was a lot of unrest along the racial divide during that period of time and those areas were absolutely not our turf. That was, though, where Houston blues was born, bred and nurtured. We had to wait for the blues to ease out of these neighborhoods and find us and it did, but until then, we went to places like the Love Street Light Circus and the Cellar, bought grape juice and pretended it was wine and listened to psychedelic bands, who sometimes jammed the blues. Quite frequently Billy Gibbons (of ZZTop) would bring his Moving Sidewalks to our teen dances and blow us away and he'd venture off into blues riffed rock for us.

Soul and R&B music was feeding the hit factories of the day back then. Garage bands had to play Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding and Junior Walker or get run out of the building. Roy Head and the Traits and B.J. Thomas and the Triumphs were trumping everyone in the region. Our prom committees booked the TSU Toronadoes, who were quite the R&B showstoppers, for both my junior and senior years. There weren't many of us listening to the blues back in those days. So, even though I had grasp what it was I liked about the blues vs R&B/Soul about that time and we were crawling around Houston looking for things to do, we darned sure were not about to drive along Dowling Street or Lyons Avenue looking for anything. Then Liberty Hall opened and Lightnin' struck.

I had actually moved off to college, but was back visiting the folks when a friend of mine told me that Lightnin' Hopkins was playing Liberty Hall (a venue that opened in 1971 and was an answer to Austin's music swagger--the Armadillo had nothing on them with their roster such folks as Waylon Jennings, Bruce Springsteen, the Ramones, Bonnie Raitt, etc..). So, it took Lightnin' being enticed out of his neighborhood to expose me to my first real live bluesman. I didn't know what to think when he came out and had a seat in a folding chair and an assistant came out and strapped his guitar on him. I figured I'd missed him in his prime. I was wrong. He rawked the place. The Liberty Hall had two Lightnin' shows at 8&10pm and when my friend suggested that we hide in the restroom when they ran the first patrons out, I readily agreed to the risk. There aren't too many moments in life such that one, being able to witness greatness in two set. And this is actually where Roger Wood's book picks up--'bout time, huh?

Wood relates as to how he read a funeral notice for Lightnin' Hopkins shortly after he moved to the city in the early '80s to beginning teaching at Houston Community College. He was intrigued enough with the obit that he considered going to the funeral, but didn't and regretted it from that time forward. He quickly became aware of just how historically important the neighborhoods adjacent to his classroom were in nurturing some of the best blues musicians, and hence their music, that the genre had ever seen. He determined that it was his mission to find out what it was all about and share it with the rest of us. Like we all were, back in the day, he was a little leery about wandering around neighborhoods that may not be welcoming--even in this day and age. He sat his mind to it, though, and found that not being welcome was all in his mind as he began to frequent the modern day juke joints that were still hosting blues shows for the working class. He began to hang out in spots like Miss Ann's Playpen where bluesmen with national recognition, such as Sherman Robertson, would play when they were back in the 'hood.

As an aside here--my good friend Sonny Boy Terry decided to record a live album at Miss Ann's a few years ago and invited all to attend. As I said, even at this late date, some have a little trepidation about venturing over to such a place. Even though I was well into blues music by this time, most of the venues that I visited for my fix were own by white folks and inhabited by white fans. On the phone Sonny Boy told me, "Hey, their cool, if you're cool." That was enough for me. I invited my brother-in-law, who grew up in Houston, to come along and he wasn't sure at all if that was the part of town WE should be in, so he invited his bouncer size brother-in-law and before he was through, I had 6 grown men in my pickup truck with me. No one wanted to drive their vehicles down there. Bottom line is--it was all foolishness. EVERYONE was beyond cool and we had a fine time. I even discovered that I had left my truck doors unlocked with a cell phone or two left behind unmolested. So, there you go.

Wood enlisted esteemed photographer, James Fraher, to help him capture the Houston story as they hung with the locals at such spots as Miss Ann's Playpen, El Nedo Cafe, C.Davis Bar-B-Q, Shady's Playhouse, Etta's Lounge and the Silver Slipper. Fraher's photos have graced the covers, and illustrated articles for many publications, including the premier Living Blues magazine and his work here of blues artist captured at work and at home are of the highest quality. Together they reveal a slice of musical life that has existed for decades in one of the nation's largest cities, but has been virtually unrecognized and ignored by most of its population.

Wood spins tales from the mouths of those that witnessed the development of blues as it burst out of the Third and Fifth Wards of the city. Many of the musicians, that were still gigging around town while he was researching this book, played for and on recordings by such artists as Bobby Bland, BB King and Junior Parker. They relate tales of the road and in the studios of Duke-Peacock run by Don Robey, one of the few African-American owned recording companies in the 1950s. Of special importance is his interviews with the classy Evelyn Johnson, who ran Buffalo Booking Agency with Robey and managed artists such as BB. The stomping grounds of Albert Collins, Johnny 'Clyde' Copeland, Gatemouth Brown, Lightnin' Hopkins, Weldon 'Juke Boy' Bonner and Billy Bizor come to life within these pages and you can smell it.

The splendor and hey day of the Eldorado Ballroom is recounted by those that had the privilege to either play there or put on their finest threads and take a swing on the dance floor of one of the nation's finest musical venues booking the most popular African-American bands of the period. The club was the cultural centerpiece for a proud neighborhood and after years of neglect has been renovated for special events. It was the uptown to Shady Playhouse's lowdown, which also receives its due as a breeding ground for some of the best blues ever played. Sadly, many of the musicians that shared their history with Wood have passed in recent years, such as Joe 'Guitar' Hughes, Calvin Owens and Jimmy 'T-99' Nelson. That fact makes this document all that more important and valuable. These were all musicians whom recorded and toured the country back in the day when blues was boppin' and played for their people.

I mentioned how much I could relate to Reid's book because I lived around much of what he wrote he wrote about and actively participated as a fan. I also lived around much that is written here, but had no idea what was going on until they brought it to me. When us Anglos began attach ourselves to the attraction of the blues and the artists began to entertain in places such as club Hey Hey, the Bon Ton room, Fitzgerald's and Rockefeller's, we began to understand that the music was under our nose's the entire time. This is what Roger Wood brings to light and illuminates so brightly within the pages of his book. Once he ventured into the belly of the beast, he uncovered the remarkable sub-culture that had its roots in the beginnings of the music and he provides us with a greater understanding of the when's and where's of Texas blues. After reading through the pages, it is quite clear Houston absolutely has to be included when discussing, dissecting or analyzing cities that are important to the music or intertwined with its development.

I had the pleasure to meet and chat with quite a few of Wood's participants over the last couple of decades. Folks such as Texas Johnny Brown, Milton Hopkins (Lightnin's cousin), Jimmy 'T-99' Nelson, Big Roger Collins, Earl Gilliam,Joe Hughes, Calvin Owens, Big Walter Price and Jimmy Dotson were always willing to share their stories and insights. It is such a treat that their stories, tales and histories are so well documented. All Houstonians owe it to themselves to understand such a valuable piece of their city's cultural history and everyone else should grab a copy to grasp just why Houston should be mentioned in the same breath as Chicago, Memphis or even Mississippi. Anyway--

Check out for additional information. Roger Wood has also documented Texas Zydeco as well as he did the blues.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Collard Greens and Gravy

This is another one of those ancient reviews of mine that disappeared along with The Delta Snake website and I thought maybe had disappeared for good. Even though I had the foresight to print off my website submissions back in the day, it didn't mean that I was diligent as far as where I stuck those bits and pieces and it has taken me awhile to find this one back again.

I fell under the spell of Australian Ian Collard's harp tone as soon as I heard the first fat licks that he was slammin' down on his band's first CD called Collard Greens and Gravy. I had ordered both this 1999 release and the 2000 follow-up called More Gravy and was absolutely blown away by the talents of these Aussie blues guys. Even though I've bought literally hundreds of CDs since then, these two stay close to my stereo just to remind me of what Collard can get going with a harp in his mouth.

Soon after the release of these two gems, the trio ventured to Memphis and impressed the masses assembled for the International Blues Competition and claimed the 2nd place prize (I wasn't there, but I can't see anyone beating them). A few years later, they made their way back to the U.S. and flew into Houston and added to the substantial talent that gathered for one of Sonny Boy Terry's Harmonica Blowouts and I got a chance to hang with this harpmaster for a short time. My buddy, Stephen Schneider rounded up a few additional gigs for them, including an outstanding harmonica clinic conducted by Ian for our local HOOT (Harmonica Organization of Texas) chapter. He solidified my opinion of his skills during his stay and I found him to be a darned nice guy.
So, without further ado, here's the review from back in the day:

Collard Greens and Gravy
Collard Greens and Gravy
More Gravy
Black Market Music

Don't know for sure, but there must be a Delta somewhere in Australia that rivals the Mississippi to conjure up music with this level of conviction and emotion. This trio of musicians have the mojo in their souls and it literally oozes out of these two releases.

Collard Greens and Gravy get a pretty darn full sound and makes plenty of racket with just harmonica, guitar and drums laying out a pattern of music that is solidly built on the tradition of the Mississippi modal structure and Chicago blues blasting. They cover songs by R.L. Burnsides, Little Son Jackson, Skip James, Muddy Waters, Little Walter and add a heaping helping of original material. Led by frontman Ian Collard, they prove once more that blues is definitely a state of mind and not a state of geography. Collard is one of the most exciting harp blowers to come along in quite some time. He takes the harp and pulls just about all the tone that you can get out of every reed on the instrument before the songs on these two CDs are finished. He gives lessons in just how far the harp reeds can be bent up, down and maybe sideways, because he gets some sounds that elude most harpmen. Some of the tones will have the hair on back of the neck sit up. He has a way of keeping any amplified tone from getting boring and far from stale. It doesn't matter if he hits on licks that may have been applied a time or two throughout recorded blues harp history, because it is the way that he attacks the instrument that is so fascinating and tonally satisfying. Check out what he does to the original, The Wind Is Blowing, on the first disc, where he uses most of the entire harp to get his message across. Or where his resonant tone with tons of sustain plays the middle harp notes effectively on Circles Going Round (which contain some of his best lyrical ideas).

Well, I can go on forever about Collard's harp playing and it is the focus of CG&G's sound, but they are a band and guitarist James Bridges and drummer Anthony Shortte are just as much an important part of the sound machine. Bridges proves that he can pull out the blues grooves regardless of which way Collard wants to head. He attacks Little Walter's Hate To See You Go (1st CD) with some mighty fine bending that is sweet, helps propel Bo Diddley's Pretty Thing into the rhythmic grind called for (2nd CD) and gets some real, authentic, traditional slide worked up on quite a few numbers such as; She's Gonna To Take Sick And Die (1st CD), More Gravy (2nd Cd) and Out In The Desert (1st CD). Of course, without a bass carrying the bottom, he must use a pretty rhythmic style of playing to keep things kicking, which he does quite well with Shortte's able stick swinging, which is inventive and full of plenty of variety to drive this trio's sound. Many harpmen will profess to using the drummer's cadence to bounce their licks off of, hence a drummer many times is the blues harp's most important element in finding the right mojo. Shortte proves on every song that Collard has a well chosen man on the drum kit to propel the CG&G in the direction they aim and the target that they hit.

Collard has a fine voice chock full of emotional aspects needed to get the blues across with conviction. He gets a little affective on a song or two (such as emulating Skip James on Sick Bed Blues), but for the most part his vocals are as tonal as his harp playing is. He does the dark, brooding, pleading side of the human condition exceptionally well. (Back in the day, I was taken to task for my opinion of his Skip James affectation and the taskmaster was right. Collard does nail down the soul of the song with his vocal shift).

Hard to pick one CD over the other. They could have just as well been packaged as a double disc because they are so closely akin to each other and that tells me that this is what they are all about and plan to be about. Consider the latter release, More Gravy, as just a sequel that works was well as the first.

These guys do it up right and anyone that has pressed the Mississippi saxophone to their lips and tried to suck and blow tones from it must check out these two releases. They are keepers. Anyway--there it is as it was, but...

Since this was written the band has released a couple of additional CDs on the Black Magic Label. Silverbirdd (2004) builds on groove that the band established with the CDs reviewed here, but with tunes that are all Ian Collard originals except for three cuts. He also debuts his considerable skills as a guitarist and bounces ideas back and forth with Bridges. There are a few less harp driven numbers as a result, but as a result there is also a bit more variety thrown into the mix. A little Hill Country blues mixes and meshes with those Delta sounds that were highlighted before. It is tough today to get something original going with the blues, but Collard's writing, singing and blowing along with the CG&G groove certainly puts a nice spin on the genre.

Many harp fans are going to quibble with the release of Devil In The Woodpile, that Collard has forsaken that deep, fat toned amplified harp tone for its prequel in capturing what CG&G was hinting at on the previous release. They are stomping out the sounds of the hypnotic, groove driven, Mississippi Hill Country Blues which is not known for harp tones in general, but Collard is slapping the harp down and making it fit along with his rhythm and slide guitar. So, yeah, there is a bit less harp going on, but he does get the wild thang going when he does get going. This is just Hill Country Blues according to Collard Greens and Gravy and they get it right.

They put out Live At The Northcote Social Club, that took me a bit of tracking down to get it in my hands, that captures the band in all their glory last April. Great stuff, there. I finally found it at The band has a website at and pages at and Go there to listen to their music and view videos and you won't be disappointed. Tell 'em Ricky sent you. Anyway--