Elvin Bishop and Charlie Musselwhite celebrate “100 Years of Blues”

And it’s quite a celebration.

Two revered elder statesmen of the blues — guitarist Elvin Bishop, 77, and harpmaster Charlie Musselwhite, 76 — have joined their skills, experience and talents to celebrate a huge amount of blues. probably even more than 100 years worth.

Each one, on his own, could easily have contributed enough great blues to create an exceptional album. In fact, they already have. So once they realized a few years back that they needed to join musical forces, they were destined to produce an album worthy of their prodigious talents.

“100 Years of Blues” is that album.

Both Bishop and Musselwhite took similar routes out of their Southern roots to travel deep into the heart of Chicago blues in the early 1960s. Bishop made his early mark as a cofounder of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Musselwhite sat in with Muddy Waters, according to Charlie, because Muddy insisted.

These two young white musicians were encouraged by the veterans of the Chicago blues scene — “Elvin and I were not only welcomed but encouraged by the blues giants of the day,” Musselwhite says.

They then took their considerable young chops to California, where they became part of a new scene, turning rock audiences onto the history of their own music.

Their busy and productive careers flowed from those years into a body of work — nearly 40 albums from Musselwhite and 30 from Bishop — that sits atop the blues stage with that of the giants at whose feet they learned.

This set is filled with tough cuts loaded with the spirit of Chicago blues, swapping vocals and instrumental leads. They have a relaxed, front-porch or back-room vibe (take your pick; they both work) , but still come out sounding like they’ve been driven hard and put away wet.

They add a contemporary lyrical feel to ’60s Chicago with “What The Hell?” a sharp nod to 2020 politics. But in the main, they move through a sturdy blues set, from the furiously harp-laced “West Helena Blues,” stinging guitar-based “Old School,” the elegantly plaintiff “Midnight Hour Blues,” the shuffling “Blues, Why Do You Worry Me?” and concluding with a fitting “100 Years of Blues.” And there’s a lot more great music in between.

Musically, it’s an outstanding production by Christoffer “Kid” Andersen, featuring Bob Welsh on guitar and piano, and Andersen on upright bass. It all sounds like it’s fresh from a South Side basement. And not incidentally, it’s all available on Alligator Records.

Here’s a video interview with Charlie and Elvin, conducted by Andersen. It’s almost as much fun as the music.

Libation (and stogie) notes: In addition to the fine music, this post has been partially inspired by a smooth Cragganmore single malt Scotch, accompanied by a hearty Ave Maria Reconquista cigar.

Here’s the set list. There’s nothing here to disappoint.

  1. Birds Of A Feather
  2. West Helena Blues
  3. What The Hell?
  4. Good Times
  5. Old School
  6. If I Should Have Bad Luck
  7. Midnight Hour Blues
  8. Blues, Why Do You Worry Me?
  9. South Side Slide
  10. Blues For Yesterday
  11. Help Me
  12. 100 Years Of Blues

And just in case you missed them, the links in the first paragraph provide biographies of Bishop and Musselwhite.

A bunch of new blues (and near-blues) albums you should probably hear

When I started the Blues Roadhouse blog about a month ago, I figured that one of the topics I would write about would be new blues music, in the form of new album releases. Or streaming. Or the Vulcan mind meld. However you find your music.

And then, I thought, I would add my own ramblings on whatever crossed my mind, or caught my fancy, and hope that somebody besides me would like to read along.

What I didn’t expect was to be quickly overwhelmed with new music. This virus thing seems to have been a petri dish for new albums, and I’m not complaining. That’s a good thing. For fans. But the artists won’t have enough gigs to promote and sell their music.

I’ve already written about a few fine new releases (See below. Far below. Please), and there are more on the way. But I’d like to catch up a little with some releases overlooked in the excitement as the Roadhouse opened for business. Time and a generally slothful attitude prevent me from going back much further, so my apologies to anyone overlooked.

So here are a few mini-reviews of some recommended music, based on what I’ve found by wandering around the interwebs. But it’s probably not complete, because sometimes the tubes get clogged, or there’s a dead cat on the line.

Maybe this is a good time to remind you that there’s a comment section at the bottom (or the side, depending on your device) of this page, and that your comments are very welcome. Have a new album you like? Or artist? Or show? Let us know.

But I digress, once again.

Here are a few albums released in the past couple of months that I have enjoyed, and recommend for your listening pleasure.

Sugar Ray and the Bluetones — “Too Far From the Bar” (Severn)

A very lively blues session featuring the swinging harp of Sugar Ray Norcia and scorching guitar from Charlie Baty (including some interplay with producer Duke Robillard). There are some creative originals and some great covers. My favorite among the covers has got to be “Don’t Give No More Than You Can Take,” a swinging jump blues track first done by one of my all-time favorite R&B/doo-wop groups, The “5” Royales.

Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters — “Rise Up” (Stony Plain)

It’s hard to write about Ronnie Earl’s music — his composing skills , his guitar artistry, the oneness of the Broadcasters — without running out of superlatives early on. Elegant and eloquent quickly come to mind. Soulful, smart and sensual also work. But after a few sentences, it sounds like no player could be this good. But he is. On “Rise Up,” his 27th album, Earl continues a long string of music that brings new meaning to the John Lee Hooker album title, “Blues is a Healer.” There are live cuts here, and some vocal tracks (Diane Blue is vivaciously torchy), but nothing interferes with the life force that is the timeless music of Ronnie Earl. “Blues for Lucky Peterson” is simply primal blues guitar at its most passionate. There’s not a note wasted on the entire album.

New Moon Jelly Roll Freedom Rockers — Vol. 1 (Stony Plain)

This is an unique little gem of an album that’s been gathering dust since it was recorded as a sort of jam session in 2008 by Luther Dickinson, Cody Dickinson, Jimbo Mathus, Charlie Musselwhite, Alvin Youngblood Hart and Jim Dickinson at the Zebra Ranch Recording Studio in Coldwater, Mississippi. They gave themselves that name, and this is Volume 1 from that session with Volume 2 planned for the spring of 2021. Musselwhite kicks it all off with a smooth, bluesy “Blues Why You Worry Me,” a reminder that you don’t need much more than a a man and a harp to make fine music. The whole thing sounds relaxed and spontaneous, but intensely fine blues music from a truly mixed bag of musicians.

Bettye LaVette — “Blackbirds” (Verve)

Bettye LaVette’s sensuously soulful music is among that most marvelous of musical creations that flows into a life force all its own. Here she speaks through songs inspired by icons such as Billie Holiday, Nina Simone and Dinah Washington. The title, though, is the seemingly unlikely choice of Paul McCartney’s “Blackbird,” which LaVette turns into a stunning and personal piece of musical art. Don’t ignore this one. This is music — of any kind — at its best, where the artist inhabits her work and bares her soul for us.

Vanessa Collier — “Heart On the Line” (Phoenix Fire Records”

Extremely versatile singer/songwriter/sax player Vanessa Collier doesn’t really seem like she’s been alive long enough to have collected all the well-deserved praise and awards she’s received. This latest album shows off her versatility with style, substance and exquisite musical chops. She flows through blues, funk, soul and delicate ballads, always sounding at home in her choice. She and her sax seemed to be everywhere, pleasing everyone on the February, 2019, Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise that I enjoyed. If you haven’t, check her out. If you have, you should love this album.

Johnny Iguana — “Johnny Iguana’s Chicago Spectacular” (Delmark)

Johnny Iguana plays all kinds of piano music. For example, check his work as part of his “garage cabaret” band, the Claudettes. But this is a stone cold blues album, with a lot of extremely capable help from friends like John Primer, Lil’ Ed and Billy Boy Arnold (and a bunch more). There’s some original music that sounds like it’s been dragged kicking and shouting from dusty blues vaults, and a great batch of covers from everyone from Roosevelt Sykes to Big Bill Broonzy. Much too often, the term “rollicking” is overused to describe heavy-duty piano-driven music. Not so here. This rollicking is tough and tenaciously blues that just happens to keep your body and soul rocking.

Ray Charles: Remembering the Genius

Ray Charles has always been one of my all-time favorite performers. And one of the all-time musical greats. Full stop.

Since Sept. 23 will the 90th anniversary of his birth, I was thinking about a little Roadhouse tribute to The Genius. But then I found an excellent article in this morning’s Wall Street Journal doing exactly that. It’s too long to insert here in the middle of all of my own fine posts, so I’ve put it on its own page, with a link below.

But first, I just can’t resist a few of my own pithy thoughts — this is my blog, after all.

I don’t really remember when I first heard Ray Charles’ music. It was probably sometime in the mid 1950s, when I was busy discovering that listening to music was a lot more fun if it was recorded by Ray or Elvis or Fats, and not Snooky or Gisele or Patti.

Ray’s music, that hypnotic and mesmerizing union of the scared and the secular, easily established itself as part of the soundtrack of my life.

I saw him a couple of times, the first time, if my fading memory is right, at the Holy Cross field house in Worcester, Mass., where I wrote a review for the Worcester Telegram, in the late ‘60s. I wish I could remember what I said. I’m sure it was awesome. I do remember that he got a standing ovation just for walking to the piano.

The next time was in Pittsburgh, at a now long-defunct nightclub. I did an interview with Ray in advance, a phone interview, but that sort of counts. I was pretty nervous, especially after his agent told he didn’t understand why the paper (The Pittsburgh Press) was letting its blues writer interview Mr. Charles. But it was great.. he was kind and talkative and funny. And I wish I hadn’t lost the tape I made of the conversation.

Ray died on June 10, 2004. President Ronald Reagan had died on June 5, just a few days earlier. On June 11, there was a state funeral for Reagan in Washington, D.C., where I just happened to be spending a few days.

I was sitting in a bar one afternoon, as large black vehicles raced around, shuttling dignitaries for the funeral, I watched a TV tribute to Ray upon his death.

I didn’t have much trouble deciding who I would miss the most

Here’s that link I promised you up above.

Ron Thompson – The best blues guitarist you may never have heard

Ron Thompson was a fierce and exciting blues guitarist whose talents always seemed to extend beyond his fame.

But he had been around for years, honing his slide skills in West Coast clubs and shows, touring as John Lee Hooker’s guitarist, working with artists like Lowell Fulton, James Cotton, B.B. King, Elvin Bishop and Mick Fleetwood, and leading his band, the Resistors, through years of clubs and concerts and multiple album releases.

And in a fine tribute to Thompson, the San Jose Mercury News quotes San Francisco Blues Festival producer Tom Mazzolini as saying, “When I heard him play slide (guitar), I thought he was the reincarnation of Elmore James.”

All of this is written in the past tense, because, sadly, Thompson died in February at the age of 66.

Fortunately for us, including those who may not have had the chance to hear his music, he recorded a number of albums, including on the Takoma and Blind Pig labels. Since his death, another album has been released, featuring live performances at the Poor House Bistro in San Jose, where Thompson had been a Wednesday night feature for 14 years.

It is “From the Patio – Live at Poor House Bistro Vol. 1 (Vol 2 is promised early next year) on the Little Village Foundation label.

It is also, simply put, a fantastic album of powerfully raw music, sucked from the painful primordial soup of the blues just for your pleasure.

There are three Thompson originals on the live set, and a handful of covers from the minds of some blues greats. From the tough opening track of Willie Dixon’s “Meet Me in the Bottom,” Thompson’s guitar, harp and vocals fuel a set that’s down-home and gritty.

“Bring Me My Shotgun” turns the Lightnin’ Hopkins song into a steamy, slide-driven dirge. There’s the original “Marci Gras Boogie,” dredging up some NOLA mojo, a Gary Smith-harp-toned version of Little Walter’s “One More Chance With You,” and a mournful “Sinner’s Prayer” from Lowell Fulson and Lloyd Glenn.

Little Village label founder and keyboard man Jim Pugh takes soulful organ solos on “Sinner’s Prayer” and “Done Got Over It.”

Album producer, Greaseland studio honcho and Norwegian guitar wizard Christoffer “Kid” Andersen plays on the final cuts, “Doctor Brown” and When You Walk That Walk,”

There are other tracks, of course, all soaked in Thompson’s wickedly bent strings. And it would be a shame if I didn’t mention his vocals, which, sandpapered and seasoned with age, lend a world-weary touch of their own. Thompson, basically, just sounds like the blues. And that’s not easy.

Give this one a listen. If you’ve never heard Thompson’s string-slinging, you’re in for a blues treat. If you have, enjoy the ride again.

I couldn’t find a video of any of the album tracks, but this one should provide a fine sample of Thompson at work:

Track List

1 Meet Me in the Bottom (Live)
2 Bring Me My Shotgun (Live)
3 Mardis Gras Boogie (Live)
4 Tin Pan Alley (Live)
5 One More Chance with You (Live)
6 I Done Got Over (Live)
7 Sinner’s Prayer (Live)
8 The River Is Rising (Live)
9 That’s How I Feel (Live)
10 Doctor Brown (Live)
11 When You Walk That Walk (Live)

The Blues Blast Magazine Award winners

The Blues Blast Magazine Awards are in after more than 10,000 readers voted in the 2020 awards.

Here are the winners of the 13th annual awards.

Contemporary Blues Album

Traditional Blues Album

Soul Blues Album

Rock Blues Album

Acoustic Blues Album

Live Blues Album

Historical Or Vintage Recording

New Artist Debut Album

Blues Band

Male Blues Artist

Female Blues Artist

Sean Costello Rising Star Award

RIP Mr. Satan, aka Sterling Magee

Satan is dead.

Sterling Magee, the singer, songwriter, guitar player who recorded with legends, busked for change in New York City where he was known as Mr. Satan, and saw a revival of his musical fortunes in the little town of Gulfport, Fla. in the past decade, died Sept. 6 at the age of 84 in Gulfport.

Sterling Magee at the Peninsula Inn & Spa,
Gulfport, Fla., in 2009. (Jim White photo)

However you classify him, Magee was a guitar player out of Mississippi, raised in St. Pete, Fla., and was an Army paratrooper, songwriter, guitar-player with James Brown, King Curtis and Big Maybelle, among others.

He came to the attention of more contemporary blues fans in the 1990s, when a young white dude named Adam Gussow, who played blues harp, fell in with Magee (then called “Satan”) and they busked together on New York street corners as Satan and Adam.

The two went on to real concerts, record albums, and Gussow wrote a book in 1998, “Mr. Satan’s Apprentice,” which told the story of their life together.

Then Magee kind of dropped out of sight for a few years with health issues, but turned up later performing in the St. Pete area. He and Gussow reunited occasionally, performed nationally, and a documentary film — “Satan and Adam” — was made and is now available on Netflix. It’s worth a look.

I found him by accident on a winter’s vacation in St. Pete when I saw his name come up on the weekly list of blues shows published by the Tampa Bay, Fla., area blues society — the Suncoast Blues Society He was playing Tuesday nights at the Peninsula Inn & Spa in funky little Gulfport, not too far south of St. Pete, at the edge of the Gulf of Mexico.

It turned out that Magee had been showing up and playing his blues history on the inn’s fine little tree-shaded deck every Tuesday for a couple of years. And that’s where the photo above was taken.

Sterling Magee had a fascinating musical career. I’ve included a few links to more information, and there’s a lot more out there.

I’m going to have to go back to the Peninsula Inn one of these evenings, sit on the patio with the appropriate libation, and remember my nights with Satan.

In case you missed the link above, here is a fine summary of his life in the Tampa Bay Times.

Bobby Rush steps deep into the blues with “Rawer Than Raw”

Trying to write about the life and music of Bobby Rush is a little bit like trying to explain the blues itself.

It’s a long and complicated story, and it’s not over yet.

In fact, at the age of 86, the Bobby Rush story seems like it’s just getting started.

He worked his music for decades, including on the legendary Chitlin Circuit, and his stage and club shows, which I’ve seen a few times, have been wildly successful, even as broader recognition eluded him. But that’s no longer the case.

I don’t know exactly when a shift in Rush’s career perceptions began. Maybe it was when he won a Grammy in 2017 for his album “Porcupine Meat.” Maybe it was the abundance of other blues nominations and awards that he began to accumulate at about that time. Or maybe it was just his turn.

Whatever, it’s not because Bobby Rush has changed much, or changed what he does. He’s always been Bobby Rush. And his wider exposure is only a good thing for him, and for the blues, and for us.

This all a very long and rambling way to introduce some words about his very latest and very fine album, “Rawer Than Raw” (Deep Rush Records). It’s elemental, essential blues, stripped of everything but guitar, harp and some very raw vocals. It’s also a sequel of sorts to his first acoustic album, the 2007 “Raw.”

He’s written some of the songs, and taken a handful from some other great old bluesmen and given them all the Bobby Rush treatment. Which means they tough and good, old-fashioned down-home blues. And quite raw.

The thing is, all the songs sound like they’re cut from the same old blues cloth — Rush is channeling the greats and then creating his own work to fit right alongside theirs.

He kicks it all off with his own “Down In Mississippi,” credited under his given name, Emmett Ellis Jr., which he changed out of respect for his pastor father.  It’s one of four originals, fiercely rough,that scrape you raw with their power and passion. And don’t forget, this is all just a man and his guitar (Okay, plus his harp and foot-tapping.).

He turns Skip James’ “Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues” into “Hard Times,” tackles Elmore James’ “Dust My Broom,” and adds on some Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy II and Muddy Waters’ version of “Honey Bee, Sail On” for good measure.

“Rawer Than Raw” is a throwback to an earlier time, and if you like your blues pure and powerful, this is a good place to start. Or to continue your journey. This kind of music doesn’t just appear out of nowhere. Mr. Rush has traveled a long and winding blues highway to be able to sound this good.

Here’s a video of Rush performing “Dust My Broom” from “Rawer Than Raw.”

Tracklist & credits

Down In Mississippi – Bobby Rush
Hard Times – Skip James
Let Me In Your House – Bobby Rush
Smokestack Lightning – Chester Burnett
Shake It For Me — Willie Dixon
Sometimes I Wonder – Bobby Rush
Don’t Start Me Talkin’ — Sonny Boy Williamson II (Alex Miller)
Let’s Make Love Again – Bobby Rush
Honey Bee, Sail On – Traditional (Public Domain)
Garbage Man – Bobby Rush
Dust My Broom – Robert Johnson

The 2020 Living Blues Awards

The current issue of the very excellent Living Blues magazine features the results of its 27th annual Living Blues Awards polling for the best in blues music. They run two polls — one for critics and one for readers.

And I should also note that the magazine is celebrating its 50th year of celebrating the blues this year, having been established in 1970. Give them a look, if you never have.

Here are the poll results. It’s always fun to see if you agree.

Critics’ Poll

Blues Artist of the Year (Male)
Bobby Rush

Blues Artist of the Year (Female)
Shemekia Copeland

Most Outstanding Blues Singer
Mavis Staples

Most Outstanding Musician (Guitar)
Jimmy Johnson

Most Outstanding Musician (Harmonica)
Billy Branch

Most Outstanding Musician (Keyboard)
Marcia Ball

Most Outstanding Musician (Bass)
Benny Turner

Most Outstanding Musician (Drums)
Cedric Burnside

Most Outstanding Musician (Horns)
The Texas Horns: Kaz Kazanoff, John Mills, and Al Gomez

Most Outstanding Musician (Other)
Rhiannon Giddens – Banjo

Best Live Performer
Bobby Rush

Comeback Artist of the Year
Mary Lane

Artist Deserving More Attention
Crystal Thomas

Best Blues Albums of 2019

Album of the Year
Christone “Kingfish” Ingram

New Recordings / Contemporary Blues
Billy Branch & The Sons of Blues
Roots and Branches: The Songs of Little Walter

New Recordings / Southern Soul
Annika Chambers
Kiss My Sass

New Recordings / Best Debut
Christone “Kingfish” Ingram

New Recordings / Traditional & Acoustic
Jontavious Willis
Spectacular Class
(Kind of Blue Music)

Historical / Pre-war
Various Artists
“It’s the Best Stuff Yet!”
(Frog Records)

Historical / Postwar
Various Artists
Cadillac Baby’s Bea & Baby Records—The Definitive Collection
(Earwig Records)

Blues Book of the Year
Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson
By Bruce Conforth and Gayle Dean Wardlow
Chicago Review Press

Producer of the Year: New Recording
Rhiannon Giddens and Dirk Powell
Songs of Our Native Daughters
(Smithsonian Folkways)

Producer of the Year: Historical Recording
Michael Frank
Cadillac Baby’s Bea & Baby Records—The Definitive Collection
(Earwig Records)

Readers’ Poll

Blues Artist of the Year (Male)
Christone “Kingfish” Ingram

Blues Artist of the Year (Female)
Mavis Staples

Most Outstanding Musician (Guitar)
Keb’ Mo’

Most Outstanding Musician (Harmonica)
Charlie Musselwhite

Most Outstanding Musician (Keyboard)
Marcia Ball

Best Live Performer
Buddy Guy

Most Outstanding Blues Singer
Buddy Guy

Best Blues Album of 2019 (New Release)
Christone “Kingfish” Ingram

Best Blues Album of 2019 (Historical Recording)
Muddy Waters
The Complete Plantation Recordings: The Historic 1941–42 Library of Congress Field Recordings
(Analogue Productions)

Best Blues Book of 2019
Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson
By Bruce Conforth and Gayle Dean Wardlow
Chicago Review Press

The perfect blues performance?

I’m sure there are many fine blues performances. We’ve all seen some that stick with us as mind-bending or earth-shaking or goose-bump inducing.

Maybe there’s one or two that stand out. Someone you were with. Or a favorite artist. Something that lit you up (not something that you lit up!).

Well, since this is my blog, I thought I’d share one of mine. I’ve seen a lot of great live shows and heard a lot more recorded music.

But one of the performances that I find most moving, that catches the essence of the music, that pushes all my buttons, is a 1957 film clip from CBS’s The Sound of Jazz TV show, featuring the uniquely superb Billie Holiday, surrounded by some of the greatest jazz musician of the day. Or any day.

Holiday, born Eleanora Fagan, was a supremely talented singer, whose range encompassed pop, jazz and of course, the blues. And you could easily argue that it was the spirit of the blues that imbued her music with its essential power and elegance.

But it was her magical voice that always made me stop and listen. Her vocals were often filled with a kind of dangerous sensuality, threatening to reveal the depth and strength of her emotions.

Holiday recorded a wide range of music over the years, even as her voice, tragically reduced by drug and alcohol addiction, eventually couldn’t quite meet the musical demands placed on it.

But her performance of “Fine and Mellow” on CBS’s The Sound of Jazz program in 1957 still speaks to me, even though her voice was showing its age, even though she was only 42.

It’s probably the most memorable blues performance I’ve ever seen. It has everything: a singer in complete command, expressing herself not only with her voice, but with her eyes, her sly smile, and body language that suggests total immersion in and enjoyment of the moment. Plus a cadre of musicians who all know exactly what they’re doing: providing a musical pedestal to elevate Holiday’s intimate vocals.

The splendid musical group in the film includes: Roy Eldridge and Doc Cheatham, trumpet; Vic Dickenson, trombone; Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, tenor sax; Gerry Mulligan, baritone sax; Mal Waldron, piano; Danny Barker, guitar; Milt Hinton, acoustic double bass; Osie Johnson, drums. 

Young, it should be noted, had a long personal and musical friendship with Holiday. He gave her the nickname “Lady Day,” but they reportedly had been estranged during this period. If you watch closely, though, you can see them make contact during his emotional blues solo. Both would die within two years.

And then there’s the song itself. “Fine and Mellow,” a lament about her man, was written by Holiday, who recorded it in 1939. It never became as popular as the B side of the record, “Strange Fruit,” a powerful, eloquent statement about lynchings.

But it’s one of my all-time favorites, overflowing with all the essential ingredients that make the blues the eloquent music that it is.

Please note:

There is a comment field for this blog, if you’d like to take part, which would be very welcome. And you can also sign up to get an email letting you know just how creative I’ve been once again.

And it’s all free.

And now, the musical genius of “Fine and Mellow”: