Some blues notes: Bob Dylan, Jimmy Reed, Sam Chatmon, defining the blues, and, who else, Capt. Kirk

A few blues notes that keep floating around my troubled mind:

Goodbye Jimmy Reed
The new Bob Dylan album, “Rough and Rowdy Ways,” is not really a blues album, but a lot of Dylan’s work has been inspired by and infused with the blues. I think it’s an excellent album, a showcase for Dylan’s still-sharp word and image play. But I have to confess that my favorite cut on the album is the pounding, bluesy, “Goodbye Jimmy Reed.” I also think it’s one of the best on the album, as Dylan releases his playful inner wordsmith, full of crisp imagery and snarling musicality. Alas, there seems to be no video version, but here’s the song in its finest audio, the way music was meant to be heard! And Jimmy Reed is still one of the best.

Do Klingons get the blues?
I’m a little late with this one, but you’ve probably already added this new release to your collection, since it goes where where not much blues has gone before. I’m talking, of course, about William Shatner’s latest album (yes, he’s recorded a bunch), of blues songs. It’s called “The Blues,” and it’s another of Shatner’s spoken word albums. Well, Shatner is 89, and it’s about time he got around to America’s classical music, but it’s not exactly out of this world. He did get himself a good backing band and guest artists, though. But somebody, please, just beam him up.

Defining the blues
Every once in a while, over the years, someone would ask me to define the blues. I always stumbled around for an answer, and then I stumbled upon a definition that finally satisfied me. It’s by author Giles Oakley, and from the foreword of the second edition of his book, “The Devil’s Music: A History of the Blues.” It reads: “To some extent the blues negotiate the tensions between opposition to the status quo, accommodation to it, and transcendence of it through the joy of sensual release.” Yes, what he said.

Sam Chatmon
Speaking of the history of the blues (I hope you paid attention to the last item), I’m a big fan of blues history, and historical blues figures. That’s why I was happy to find recently a video from 1978 of one of the earliest Delta blues players (although in those days they often played from a wide and varied repertoire). It’s Sam Chatmon, born Vivian Chatmon in 1897, a solo performer, and then well known as a member of the Mississippi Sheiks. He outlived many of his contemporaries, and recorded again in the folk-blues era of the 1960s and ‘70s. Here’s a sample.

An animated version of the Robert Johnson legend

Whilst cruising the world wide webs recently, I checked out a site that I occasionally use to find unusual things — it’s called Open Culture.

It’s a fun site, with lots of free stuff. Books, movies, music and much more. I highly recommend it for your amusement and enlightenment — and if you’re anything like me, you can use some of each right now.

I plugged in a search for “blues,” and was rewarded with many interesting results, but one in particular caught my eye.

Robert Johnson

I’ve always been a fan of the old blues masters, and of course that includes the legendary figure of Robert Johnson. And here was an article from 2015, titled The Story of Bluesman Robert Johnson’s Famous Deal With the Devil Retold in Three Animations. The combination of another article about Johnson plus some cartoons was too much to resist.

I’ll link to each of the animations below, but the article provides lots of interesting context. Ignore it at your peril!

Also, as part of that article, I found mention of author Elijah Wald, who, among other books, wrote a fascinating account of Johnson’s life and his place in the musical world that surrounded him — Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues — in 2004.

That was a book that I just happened to have reviewed in 2004. I can recommend the book much more highly than the review, but both are here for your indulgence.

Here are the three animations:

The Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise, a virtual landlubber version


If many of you are sort of like me, and find yourselves hooked on the marvelous musical adventure that is the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise, you’re probably beginning to miss them even more now that it’s about time for the cancelled October cruise.

If you’re a cruiser, you have probably already seen the following information on the cruise Facebook page. But, as a public service, the Blues Roadhouse is happy to repeat the plans for a landlocked cruise, starting Sunday, Oct. 25. If you’ve never been a cruiser, check out this modified lineup and get a taste of what you’re missing.

Here’s the LRBC announcement:

The musicians of the world, along with the live venues, the service and travel & tourism industries, and so many millions of others have had their lives turned upside down since March 13, 2020. Originally scheduled to sail out of Port Everglades this Sunday on the Holland America Eurodam, we have now reset LRBC #35 for October 24-31, 2021 and can’t wait to be back at sea together!

To stay connected with our cruiser family, we’ve teamed up with our fantastic musicians to present: Dry Docked & Landlocked – a Virtual Cruise for the coming week, October 25-31, starting @ 5:00pm CST Daily via LRBC Facebook Live and LRBC Youtube. We have also partnered with Can’t Stop the Blues, who will re-broadcast our virtual cruise daily at @ 9:00pm EST.

We have reached out to the musicians and staff across the globe who will be sharing greetings and well wishes from their homes. We will be featuring videos throughout the week of their living room performances, previous LRBC performances, and various activities onboard the cruises.

Day 1, Sunday 10/25
Theme: Hometown Blues
Sail Away Delay Party w/ Danielle Nicole Band
Virgin Party w/ RUF Records Blues Caravan w/ Jeremiah Johnson, Ryan Perry & Whitney Shay
Returnee Party w/ Surprise Guests
Elvin Bishop w/ Mickey Thomas & Charlie Musselwhite
Mitch Woods

Day 2, Monday 10/26
Theme: Soul Blues & Give Me Back My Wig!!
Gospel Brunch w/ Mr. Sipp
Johnny Rawls
Shemekia Copeland w/ Ronnie Baker Brooks
Keb’ Mo’
Kelley Hunt

Day 3, Tuesday 10/27
Theme: Carnival
Dom Flemons
Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band
Taj Mahal & Phantom Blues Band
Rev. Billy. C. Wirtz w/ Barry Cuda & Mick Kilgos
Cherry Sea Breeze Drink Demo w/ Tom Burns

Day 4, Wednesday 10/28
Theme: Pirates
Hadden Sayers
Surprise Guest Terrance Simien Culinary
Kenny Neal
Walter Trout
Eden Brent

Day 5, Thursday 10/29
Theme: Legendary Gear
Driftin’ & Driftin’ w/ G. Love & Rev. Billy C. Wirtz
Vanessa Collier
Charlie Musselwhite
Lola
Sunrise Party

Day 6, Friday 10/30
Theme: Legendary Sea Creatures
Shakura S’Aida
Doug MacLeod
Phantom Blues Band
Ruthie Foster
Mitch Woods Club 88 Highlights

Day 7, Saturday 10/31
Theme: Halloween
Marquise Knox
Tommy Castro
Tab Benoit
Rev. Billy C. Wirtz
Monster Mash Martini Drink Demo w/ Tom Burns

Shemekia Copeland brings plea for hope with “Uncivil War”

When Shemekia Copeland recorded her first album, “Turn the Heat Up” in 1998, she was just 18, and it was clear that her powerful vocals would make her a force to be reckoned with in the blues world.

Since then, she has established herself firmly atop the ranks of contemporary blues singers, and she has indeed become that force across multiple genres.

Now, with “Uncivil War,” her tenth album, due out Oct. 23, Copeland has taken a step beyond her blues boundaries, to make her music sing of social and political upheaval.

The album’s centerpoint and opening track is “Clotilda’s On Fire,’ a fierce and historic blues, telling the story of the slave ship Clotilda, the last one to come to America, delivering its human cargo in 1859. It was 50 years after the slave trade was banned, but illegally continued. The ship was burned and sunk in Mobile Bay, Ala., and the wreck discovered in May, 2019.

Copeland’s telling of the story in song is passionate and powerful. Intense guitar work by Jason Isbell adds its own stinging dimension. It’s a moving experience.

That song is quickly followed by “Walk Until I Ride,” a gospel-like anthem of social protest, and then the title track, asking “why can’t we all just get along”?

The rest of the songs unfold in a variety of styles and contexts, all fueled by Copeland’s blues roots, and may with a point to make. The uptempo “Money Makes You Ugly” is one of those, with the point right there in the title.

“Apple Pie and a .45” shoots out its own anti-gun message, and “She Don’t Wear Pink” rocks with gender equality.

And there are a few just-plain-musical messages, including “Dirty Saint, a tribute to her friend and “Talking to Strangers” album producer Dr. John (Mac Rebennack). Her take on the Rolling Stones’ “Under My Thumb” is a tough musical role reversal, with the guy under her thumb. “No Heart At All” tackles a more traditional blues theme seen through Copeland’s eyes.

On “Give God the Blues,” the idea that “we all give God the blues” adds another look at how we just might be messing up our own lives.

And in a perfect final cut, Copeland sings the gorgeous blues ballad “Love Song,” written by her late father, bluesman Johnny Clyde Copeland. Producer Will Kimbrough aces the guitar solo.

The production values here help take this album to a new level. Kimbrough, plays guitar and wrote or co-wrote six of the twelve tracks. You can also listen for guests, the already mentioned Jason Isbell, legend Steve Cropper, the very up-and-coming guitarist Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, rocker Webb Wilder, the great Duane Eddy, Sam Bush on mandolin, dobro master Jerry Douglason dobro.and The Orphan Brigade providing background vocals.

This is a great album, filled with Copeland’s strong vocals, excellent musical craftsmanship, and a social conscience. Ultimately, it’s a plea for peace, love and hope.

Here’s a video of the title track, “Uncivil War.”

John Németh just gets “Stronger Than Strong” on excellent new album

The first time I had the privilege of watching John Németh perform was at a small club called the Thunderbird Cafe in Pittsburgh in July of 2008.

John was at the beginning of his young career, and touring on the release of his first album for Blind Pig Records, “Magic Touch.”

A beardless but fully hatted John Németh at the Thunderbird Cafe in 2008. (Jim White photo)

I had already been impressed by his recordings — here was a young guy out of Boise, Idaho, with incredible harp skills and a vocal range to match, who made music that sounded like it had been dredged from a Chicago blues cellar in the 1950s.

And his live show was all that and more. I was hooked.

But that was a dozen years ago. Németh has since become an accomplished, award-winning musician who is comfortable enough with his talents to move fluidly from sensual soul to greasy funk to big band singer to down-home blues. All with considerable style, wit and amazing skill.

Out of all of this has blossomed Németh’s 10th album, “Stronger Than Strong” (Nola Blue Records). It’s hard to say that this one tops all others, simply because they have all been so good. But his latest works hard at being that kind of creation that pulls together all that you have been up to this point, and says, this is who I am now.

All of which simply means that “Stronger Than Strong finds John at the top of his musical game.

The album is a mixed bag of styles and substance, flowing smoothly from Németh’s vocals and electrifying harp work, all wrapped up tightly by his crackling band, The Blue Dreamers — guitarist Jon Hay, drummer Danny Banks and Matt Wilson on bass.

The very first track, “Come and Take It,” is a burst of rhythmic and hypnotic energy, with the vocal and harp work sounding like it was recorded in the room next to Robert Johnson. It has a strong sense of Mississippi Hill Country blues.

From there, “Fountain of a Man” works in a similar vein, heavy with Hay’s guitar, filled with tough rhythms, and a fierce harp solo. Hay, by the way, is just 19, but an exciting and gifted guitar man.

“Sometimes,” an old Little Junior Parker song, is one of just two covers on the the album. The other is John’s romantic take on the Jesse Belvin slow-dancing-real-close-and-tight classic, “Guess Who.” That the remaining ten tunes come from Németh’s musically fertile imagination is a tribute to how well he creates new music that sounds as though it’s as vintage as a ’55 Chevy. His writing overflows with originality, wit and just the magic touch of feelings.

Part of this album’s unique down-and-dirty live sound has to be credited to producer Scott Bomar, who formed the Bo-Keys, and operates Electraphonic Recording in Memphis.

But it helps that Németh and his Dreamers crank out just the right attitude for every track.

“Throw Me in the Water” cruises along with a soulful vocal and Hay’s furious guitar, “Chain Breaker” is a funky shuffling little search for love, “Bars” is a slyly provocative and bluesy essay on life’s timeless contradictions, “I Can See Your Love Light Shine” sounds almost like big-band gospel, with sharp vocal work.

There are more tracks, of course, 12 in all (unless you buy the heavyweight vinyl, which has only ten), and they all add up to a masterful album. There’s not a false note anywhere — lyrically, musically, vocally, or instrumentally. If you’re a John Németh fan, you need this album. If you’ve never tasted this magic musical elixir, you need to.

I’ve often wondered if there was an easy answer as to why performers like Németh do what they do. What drives them. What makes them create — in this case, music to soothe our souls and ease our troubled minds.

I put that question to John once, in a email interview that we did, and his answer has always stuck with me as one of the most interesting answers to those questions.

“I do it,” he said, “to make my demons sing and dance.”

Here’s a video of one of the album’s best songs, “Bars,” that should make the demons extremely happy:

Track list:
01. Come and Take It (2:55)
02. Fountain of a Man (4:32)
03. Sometimes (3:36)
04. Throw Me in the Water (4:23)
05. Chain Breaker (4:30)
06. Bars (4:55)
07. I Can See Your Love Light Shine (3:17)
08. Depriving a Love (4:38)
09. Work for Love (6:12)
10. Guess Who (6:45)
11. She is My Punisher (3:20)
12. Sweep the Shack (3:46)

Tough blues and social commentary define new album by Pittsburgh’s Billy the Kid and The Regulators

I may be just a little bit biased, but I think that, over the years, the city of Pittsburgh, Pa., has generated some of the best regional blues bands in the country.

I’m biased because the Pittsburgh area is where I was born, grew up (some might disagree), found my blue genes with legendary ‘Burgh DJ Porky Chedwick, and worked for many years.

I’ve also heard a lot of blues bands from the region, and today’s focus, Billy Evanochko, working as Billy the Kid and the Regulators (that’s right, just like the outlaw), is one of the best.

On “It Is What It Is,” his third and brand new album, Evanochko departs a little from his traditional heavy-duty blues work with some social commentary on several original songs.

Evanochko has been paying attention to the social and political upheaval that has defined 2020, and he opens the album with three hard-hitting personal statements, wrapped in some finely crafted music.

Disillusionment, with the hope of redemption, is a primary theme.

In a recent interview with Scott Mervis of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Evanochko explains the origins of one of those songs, “Fall So Hard,” written immediately after hearing the news about the killing of George Floyd.

“All these years,” he says, “we’re all taught with this ideal to help your fellow man and be a good American. I’m also a veteran, so being a good American to me is whether you’re black, white, brown, red, yellow, whatever race, creed, you take care of each other. And that’s what that song is about.”

The funky title track is a similar adventure, describing how “Social media and corporate greed keep us blinded by the light…“ and then “…if we don’t stand and fight we’re just pawns in the game….”

The third original, “I Can’t Help Myself,” which kicks off with some soaring horns, is an ode to personal truth “…have to do what’s best for me, they’re gonna talk about me anyway….”

Then the Regulators take on a series of fine covers, ranging from The Rolling Stones’ “I Got the Blues” to Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People“ to “House Party,” from the J. Geils Band.

Billy told me in an email: “I set out to make a good record not a blues record. My goal was to do a CD with a combination of new original material and choice covers that would start-to-finish tell a story, but more importantly, have a message.

“Making this CD was good for my soul. Joe Munroe was so great to work with as a producer. He let me be me but got me to try stuff I normally probably wouldn’t have.”

And that formula, or lack of formula, paid off. It all holds together with the crackling band of Regulators, featuring Evanochko’s fierce guitar. He’s comfortable with a tough blues, some funk, or a flat-out rocker. And he tops it all off with gritty vocal chops

The Regulators are Derek Redd, Ben Davis, John Bartholomay, Jake Werkmeister, Ublai Bey and Larry Estes. The album was produced by Studio Joe in Center Township, Pa., run by Joe Munroe.

This isn’t just another blues band making just another album. It’s a furiously proud musical statement.