Marcia Ball’s new release, Shine Bright, produced by Los Lobos’ Berlin, who also adds baritone sax to several tracks, is a fine effort from the Austin, TX-based singer/songwriter/pianist. Although some of the lyrics carry a serious message, the music is so bright and upbeat you don’t get a feeling of preachiness. The musicianship is uniformly first-rate, and Marcia’s vocals are spot-on.
The album is a nice collection of nine originals and three well-chosen covers. Eight of the songs were recorded in Austin and four in Maurice, LA, with support from a group of crack musicians, including the aforementioned Berlin, Red Young on Hammond organ, Carolyn Wonderland and Shelley King on background vocals, and of course, Ball herself on barrelhouse piano and vocals. The result is a set of rollicking good-timey blues rockers and a couple of fine ballads. There is nice horn work throughout, excellent lead and backing vocals, and a strong, danceable beat that helps “make the medicine go down.”
The title track, “Shine Bright”, an original, kick-starts the album with a rocking gospel-blues homage to heroes and achievers, punctuated by Ball’s rousing piano and vocals. Mike Schermer contributes a short, sweet guitar solo. It’s one of the highlights of the album. Ernie K-Doe’s “I Got to Find Somebody” is another upbeat NOLA-influenced blues with a rousing call-and-response treatment with the background vocalists. Another original, “They Don’t Make ‘Em Like That”, follows. Although it’s a song decrying the decline of American manufacturing and the drop in quality of modern music (don’t we all agree?), it’s a positive way to deliver the message. Another highlight.
“Life of the Party”, another original, is a rocking ditty, with a strong Latin influence, set off nicely by a mariachi-inflected trumpet solo and backing by Enrique Che on tres, a Cuban guitar-like six-string instrument with three courses of two strings each. Very upbeat. “What Would I Do”, a Ray Charles soul-blues ballad with a bit of country influence, is delivered by Ball in an authentic way Mr. Charles surely would have approved of. “When the Mardi Gras is Over”, an original collaboration, follows. The upbeat, NOLA-influenced song features nice piano work by Ball.
Up next is another original, “Once in a Lifetime Thing”, an upbeat soul-influenced blues. “Pots and Pans”, with fine background vocals from Wonderland and King, follows. It delivers a serious lyrical message in a real good-timey manner that’s hard to ignore. I like the next song, “World Full of Love”, an acoustic ballad, a lot. It reminds me of the Beatles’ “Let It Be” without being derivative. It features strong work from Ball on piano, Red Young on Hammond, and Mike Schermer on acoustic guitar. It’s hard not to love this one; it’s probably my favorite song on the album.
“I’m Glad I Did What I Did”, another original collaboration, is upbeat and inspiring, featuring nice piano work and showcasing fine horn backing, arranged by Young. Another highly enjoyable song. It’s followed by “Too Much for Me”, a rollicking, rocky ditty that’ll get your foot tapping. The last track, Jessie Winchester’s “Take a Little Louisiana”, finishes off this fine set. It features a strong New Orleans influence and nice accordion work by Roddie Romero.
All in all, this album isn’t what I consider traditional blues or blues-rock. What it is is a very listenable collection of Americana songs with a noticeable blues tinge and other influences. Highy recommended!
Curtis Salgado & Alan Hager ROUGH CUT Alligator Records
“Rough Cut” by Curtis Salgado and Alan Hager is a refreshing blast of acoustic Delta style blues courtesy of the Pacific Northwest duo who has a long and storied music history together and solo.
This album feels like middle aged blues, good middle aged blues. It is comfortable and worn in like a favorite hat. It can wrap your mind in imagery reminiscent of scenes painted by Delta blues artists twice their age. This collection of tunes makes me want to take off on a fishing trip or head up to my mountain cabin and smoke a cigar and drink some good bourbon. Originals like the haunting “I WIll Not Surrender” and “One Night Only” do not disappoint as well as seven covers / arrangements that are very tastefully done. “I Want My Dog To Live Longer” stood out to this listener as a favorite. It is a song that can span across different genres and age demographics because of its playful lyricism and subject matter. Heck, even rappers wouldn't mind their dog living longer. “Rough Cut” is a must listen for any blues fan for sure.
on Alligator Records.
Tinsley Ellis "Winning Hand"
Alligator Records, 4.5 of 5 Stars
Tinsley Ellis’ new release, Winning Hand, brings him back to Alligator Records, for whom he used to record back in the day, and a welcome return it is. It’s a strong, well-produced compilation of 9 originals and a nicely executed cover of a Leon Russell/ Chris Stainton song, “Dixie Lullaby”.
The lead-off track, “Sound of a Broken Man”, is a straight-ahead rock blues, with a catchy riff and a couple of fiery solos, the second one tastefully Wah-inflected. Good way to start off! The next track, “Nothing but Fine”, is a soul blues, somewhat laid back, with a couple of solos, for my money the least exciting song on the album. “Gamblin’ Man”, a BB King-influenced slow blues, follows, with tasty fills and solos reminiscent of blues-era Gary Moore. A nice combination, indeed!
“I Got Mine” is a modern take of a more traditional blues, a bit derivative, but with good singing and playing throughout. I enjoyed the nice Strat tones, as a contrast from the earlier Gibson-humbucker tones which dominate (not in a bad way!) the previous songs. “Kiss This World” follows, displaying Tinsley’s admitted Brit-blues influences. The nice overdriven Strat tones set off the song well. Nicely played! I also enjoyed the chordal intro work of “Autumn Run”. It reminded me a bit of Hendrix’s Curtis Mayfield-influenced songs, without sounding like a rifpoff, and is set off by a pair of tastefully executed solos. Another strong effort!
“Satisfied” is a fine rockabilly-inflected straight-ahead rocker; think Chuck Berry in the current millenium. “Don’t Turn off the Light”, another slow blues, shows a bit of blues-era Clapton in the solos - not a bad thing - but still original. Tinsley makes “Dixie Lullaby”, the only cover, his own. More Brit-style blues (although it’s a Leon Russell song) with some good soloing throughout. “Saving Grace” closes this fine effort. It’s a long, live-sounding, blues ballad, played with a thick, Robin Trowerish Roto-Vibe guitar tone. The song features nice organ backing and a couple of strong solos. Great way to punctuate the album!
All in all, a fine effort from a deservedly well-respected blues rocker. I’m hoping his upcoming tour takes him to Charlotte.
~ Ray Otstott
Tinsley Ellis WINNING HAND Alligator Records
The Nick Moss Band featuring Dennis Gruenling: The High Cost of Low Living Alligator Records Rating: 4.0 of 5
The Nick Moss Band’s new release, The High Cost of Low Living, on Alligator Records, is another fine effort from Nick and his crack band (Taylor Streiff on piano, Nick Fane on bass, and Patrick Seals on drums), on this outing featuring Dennis Gruenling on harmonica, with support from Jim Pugh on organ and piano on two tracks, Kid Andersen on guitar on two tracks, and sax from Eric Spaulding (tenor) and Jack Sanford (baritone). I was lucky enough to catch them live (with Dennis) last year. This album captures the stellar interplay Nick and the band and Dennis exhibited live.
High Cost includes 13 tracks, 10 originals - 8 written by Nick, 2 by Dennis - and 3 covers. Every track is listenable and well-executed. Kid Andersen co-produced the album as well as contributing the guitar solo on “No Sense.” Dennis’ harmonica playing is prominent throughout the album without being overbearing and complements Nick and the band’s fine playing.
The album kicks off with “Crazy Mixed Up Baby,” a straight-ahead Chicago-style electric blues with a bit of an Albert King influence. It’s brash and in your face with some killer guitar and harp solos. “Get Right Before You Get Left” follows. It’s a traditional shuffle with big-band feel hearkening back to the 50‘s, with a nice harp solo from Dennis and some clean-toned guitar solos from Nick. Well-played, with clever lyrics. The aforementioned “No Sense” is up next. It’s another straight-ahead shuffle, and features Kid Andersen’s guitar solo, a departure from Nick’s style. The title track, “High Cost of Low Living,” follows, featuring nice slide work from Nick.
The first of Dennis’ originals, “Count on Me,” a 50’s-style blues rocker, features Dennis on load vocals. Nick contributes another strong guitar solo, and Dennis acquits himself well on both lead vocal as well as harp duties. A traditional boozy blues, “Note on the Door” lamenting a lost love, is next on the docket. Once again, Dennis’ harp is prominent, with fine interplay between him and Nick. A shuffle blues, “Get Your Hand Out of My Pockets,” written by Otis Spann, follows This track features a honky-tonk piano solo from Taylor and some nice harp soloing from Dennis.
Next to come is “Tight Grip on Your Leash.” Another straight-ahead blues, it starts off with some nice harp work from Dennis and features good playing overall from the band, including another clean-toned solo from Nick, who cautions the listener that maybe his girl is a little too controlling. “He Walked with Giants (Ode to Barrelhouse Chuck)” is a bit derivative, but still good listening, a tribute to Barrelhouse Chuck (Harvey Charles Goering), who passed away late in 2016. It features, fittingly, a barrelhouse-style piano solo from Taylor.
“A Pledge to You” features tasty, melodic solos from Dennis and Nick. Nothing groundbreaking, but enjoyable. Dennis’ 2nd writing contribution, “Lesson to Learn,” follows. Dennis’ lead vocals are more understated than Nick’s style but still definitely competent. Nice solos from Dennis and Nick. Another cover, “All Night Diner,” an instrumental, follows. It’s a somewhat obscure song written by the Farina brothers, better known as Santo and Johnny. It rocks nicely, with Nick and the band giving it a nice blues-rock treatment. (Fun fact: It was the B-side of Santo and Johnny’s smash hit, “Sleepwalk.”)
The set closes with “Rambling on My Mind,” to my ears, a take-off on Robert Johnson’s classic song, but attributed to Boyd Gilmore, likely due to Gilmore’s extensive re-arrangement of the Johnson original. It’s a well-played traditional blues song. I like it a lot. It features good playing and tasteful solos from Taylor, Dennis, and Nick. A fitting way to close a very likable album.
To be sure, there are no pioneering efforts here, but it’s a well-crafted collection of songs that are traditional enough to appeal to die-hard blues listeners and also be enjoyable to most blues-rock fans (a label that applies to me) as well. Highly recommended. And they’re currently touring - catch them if you can! I’ve already got my ticket! ~ Ray Otstott
The Charlotte Blues Society P.O. Box 32752 Charlotte, NC 28232 Copyright 2017