Duke Robillard throws a swinging “Blues Bash”

The first time I saw Michael John “Duke” Robillard, to the best of my fading recollection, was about 42 years ago, in the late 70s, at a club called the Decade in Pittsburgh. He was fronting the band he had founded about ten years before that — the jumping, swinging music of Roomful of Blues.

Since then, Duke has carried his guitar and his expert musical chops through scores of albums, and seemingly almost as many musical styles and genres — all rooted deeply in the blues.

All of which leads to Robillard’s (& Friends) latest album, “Blues Bash” (Stony Plain Records), a tasty throwback to some traditional blues styles. There’s tough guitar, some rollicking piano (the best kind), and enough horns to satisfy the horniest of musical desires. Some of the Friends include, from Roomful, saxmen Rich Lataille, Greg Piccolo and Doug James.

The opening tracks kick off with two fine blues, the exuberant “Do You Mean It” with Chris Cote shouting big vocals, and the scorching “No Time,” laced with tough harp lines.

“What Can I Do” rolls in on that rollicking piano from Bruce Bears, kicked along by some spiffy sax work, and the bash continues until things take a double entendre turn with Michelle “Evil Gal” Willson singing “You Played On My Piano (and now you wanna beat my drums…”) surrounded by sinuous guitar. “I Ain’t Gonna Do It” follows with furious boogie woogie.

There are more, of course, in the same swinging style, a vintage treat from a vintage Duke. And at the end, after you’ve jiggled yourself into a blues frenzy, pour a couple fingers of bourbon over a big ice cube and unwind into Duke’s gently swinging closer, “Just Chillin.”

All of this adds up to a fine ensemble effort, from a group of excellent musicians, all comfortable within themselves, and masterfully woven together by Robillard.

Or, as Duke describes “Blues Bash”: “Packed with plenty of bright sounding Fender guitar a la Ike Turner, Lefty Bates, etc. Just a good listening or dancing record like the blues records I bought when I was a kid. It was pretty much a reunion of sorts and I wanted the material to be simple, straight-ahead ‘50s style blues and R&B… Basically it’s a blues party album and that feeling is what I wanted to convey.”

Indeed it is. Enjoy the party.

Here’s a promotional video of the lead track, “Do You Mean It”

“Blues Bash” track list:
1. Do You Mean It (featuring Chris Cote)
2. No Time
3. What Can I Do (featuring Chris Cote)
4. Everybody Ain t Your Friend
5. Rock Alley
6. You Played On My Piano (featuring Michelle “Evil Gal” Willson)
7. I Ain t Gonna Do It
8. You Don t Know What You re Doin (featuring Chris Cote)
9. Give Me All The Love You Got
10. Just Chillin

Blues Grammy album nominees announced — all 10 of them

Well, the Grammy nominees were announced today, and since I know you are all on the edge of your thoroughly disinfected seats awaiting the list, I thought I’d share the ten albums that earned Grammy’s attention in the blues category. Two categories, actually, traditional and contemporary.

Here they are, for your amusement or consideration:

Best Traditional Blues Album
For albums containing at least 51% playing time of new vocal or instrumental traditional blues recordings.

    Frank Bey
    Don Bryant
    Robert Cray Band
    Jimmy “Duck” Holmes
    Bobby Rush

Best Contemporary Blues Album
For albums containing at least 51% playing time of new vocal or instrumental contemporary blues recordings.

    Fantastic Negrito
    Ruthie Foster Big Band
    G. Love
    Bettye LaVette
    North Mississippi Allstars

And if you have broader interests, here is a link to every Grammy nominee in all of the 83 categories.

John Lee Hooker: New vinyl, old photo, “I’m in the Mood”

Just recently, I noticed a new release of John Lee Hooker music, a double vinyl album titled “Live at Montreux – 1983 & 1990,” on Eagle Records.

I might not have mentioned it, since it’s a double album in vinyl, but I know that more and more music is being released in this great old format for its sound quality, and also so you can have those nice big album covers to hang on the wall for artwork. Like we did in the ’60s. With beads.

This is a live album (I know, that should be obvious), and as far as I can tell, not yet streaming. On the other hand, the music has been previously released on two earlier, separate albums, which are streaming, at least on Amazon Music. So what’s new here is the double set, the vinyl, and a pair of video packages for each concert.

If you’ve ever paid any attention to the blues, and maybe if you haven’t, you’ve heard of John Lee Hooker, one of the all-time greats. He left the Mississippi Delta when he was 14, apparently never looked back, and after performing a while in Memphis, moved around until he settled in Detroit, and was working as a janitor in a steel mill when he recorded “Boogie Chillen” in 1948.

He wrote and recorded prolifically, and like many bluesmen of his era, recorded under different names to avoid label contract problems while trying to earn more money. He sometimes recorded under the names John Lee Booker, Johnny Lee, John Lee, John Lee Cooker, Texas Slim, Delta John, Birmingham Sam and his Magic Guitar, Johnny Williams, and the Boogie Man.

His music was unusual — he often played with his own beat and tempo, making changes to suit the song, or maybe even his mood. It was sometimes repetitive, often hypnotic. Plus, he always looked really sharp. Usually with a fine fedora.

Another reason for wanting to write about this new release is that I’ve been looking for a chance to show off some of my blues photography. I don’t come anywhere close to the massive and creative body of work of my favorite blues boxman, Joe Rosen, but I do have a few things that I like, and which generate fond memories.

Jim White photo

This Hooker photo is one of them. It was taken around 1980, in a club called Mancini’s Lounge, in the town of McKees Rocks, just outside Pittsburgh, where the blues flourished for a few years.

Hooker was starting his set, and as fans kept coming up to the stage and popping their flash cameras in his face (yes, Virginia, there was a time before cell phones existed), he quickly grew annoyed. So he told everyone to cut it out, or he would cut out – no more Hooker.

Well, I was standing around with my camera and long lens, and I didn’t usually use a flash anyway, but I didn’t want my big lens to scare him away. But I did want a photo. So I hid behind one of the speaker towers at the side of the stage, poked my lens around the front, and snapped off a few pics with the stage light available. Which happened to be red. And this red profile is the result.

It’s a decent photo, but it brings back great memories as well.

Hooker’s blues are unique and memorable, but one song I find among the most memorable is his duet recording of “I’m in the Mood” with Bonnie Raitt for the 1989 album, “The Healer.”

It’s about as sexy and sensual as the blues gets, and as much fun as it is to listen to, here’s a video that gives you a good idea of the interplay. Raitt has described the 1989 recording as “one of the highest erotic experiences of my life.”

Here are the tracks on the new double album:

1983 – LP 1
1. “It Serves Me Right To Suffer”
2. “I Didn’t Know”
3. “Hi-Heel Sneakers”
4. “If You Take Care Of Me, I’ll Take Care Of You”
5. “Boom Boom”

1. “Worried Life Blues”
2. “I’m Jealous”
3. “Crawlin’ King Snake”
4. “Boogie Chillen’”

1990 – LP 2
1. John Lee Hooker Introduction
2. “Mabel”
3. “I’m In The Mood”
4. “Crawlin’ King Snake”
5. “Baby Lee”

1. “It Serves Me Right To Suffer”
2. “Boom Boom“
3. “The Healer”
4. “Boogie Chillen’”

Reviews in brief: Kim Wilson, Chris Smither, Crooked Eye Tommy

Here are a few recent albums I’ve noticed that seem worthy of some attention.

Kim Wilson — “Take Me Back – The BigTone Sessions” M.C. Records

Wilson has been the lead singer and harp man for The Fabulous Thunderbirds for about 30 years now, but sometimes steps out on his own, This album is a nice throwback to a more traditional blues framework than the T-Birds often provide (not that the T-Birds aren’t still tuff enuff). This is more of a deep-blue, down-home album, with music steeped in the bubbling cauldron of Chicago blues. The harp work is fine and the vocals tough, and the old-fashioned mono and “live” recording need only a whiskey chaser to feel more authentic.

Chris Smither — “More from the Levee” Signature Sounds

Chris Smither may not be your idea of the typical bluesman, but his 50 years of writing, recording and performing his very personal brand of introspective music have always seemed to be well-informed by the blues. This album picks up where his 2014 retrospective “Still on the Levee” left off, with tracks that missed out on the earlier sides. It’s. is always worth a listen to see what Chris has to say about our world. This is an excellent example.

Here’s one of the tracks:

And here’s a video of Chris performing his now-classic “Love You Like a Man,” which people seem to associate more with Bonnie Raitt, who made it a big hit. She, of course, reversed the gender roles, and the song became “Love Me Like a Man.” I have no objection to that, but I have always been a little miffed because Bonnie also decided to change the first line of the song from:
“These men you’ve been seeing got their balls up on the shelf….”
To the somewhat more ethereal:
“Men that I’ve been seeing, baby, got their soul up on a shelf… “

Crooked Eye Tommy: “Hot Coffee and Pain” Blue Heart Records

Brother guitar duos are a rare and special commodity in the music world, with such a bond resulting in historic acts like AC/DC, The Kinks, CCR, The Everly Brothers and Stevie Ray and Jimmie Vaughan. Ventura County brothers Tommy and Paddy Marsh formed Crooked Eye Tommy in 2010, becoming six-time Ventura County Music Award winners and two-time International Blues Challenge semi-finalists (2014 and 2019) and in 2020 reached the IBC finals as a duo act.

Their new album (just their second), “Hot Coffee and Pain,” is a tasty blend of blues, rock and roots tracks, including six originals. Their style ranges from a high-intensity version of Son House’s “Death Letter Blues” on the opening track, to the soulfully sensual “Baby Where You Been,” a duet written by Tommy Marsh that features Teresa James on piano and vocals. These very talented and creative brothers deserve a listen.

Here’s the title track:

Buddy Guy and Son House featured on a 1968 TV show

More blues history from the vault — or at least from the depths of the world wide web.

Maybe this is newer to me than to some of you, but I thought it was still a striking pair of performances. The film is from an old TV show devoted to the arts called Camera Three, which ran from 1956 to 1980 on CBS and then PBS. This clip is one of the CBS episodes.

In some ways, 1968 doesn’t sound all that long ago. But on the other hand, some of you might not have been born yet. Or, looked at another way, more than a half-century ago. Or, on yet another hand, it was just one year after the Summer of Love. I know you remember that!

The show features a segment by Son House, then 66, and a set by Buddy Guy, then 32. Then, the best moments, a duet between the two — an all-too-brief pairing.

Christone “Kingfish” Ingram brings his blues to NPR

I know there are a lot of fans out there who love the music of one of the latest young new blues stars — Christone “Kingfish” Ingram. He’s just 21, and already received a bunch of awards for his slashing guitar and authentic style. I saw him on the LRBC in February of last year. Everything you hear about him is true!

So, for those of you may have missed the segment that NPR devoted to him last night, here it is — just another public service from the Blues Roadhouse.

“Searching for Secret Heroes,” a film by Sam Charters, is a powerful, historic look at country blues

The rich history of the blues is what helps to make it a compelling musical form. Getting in touch with that rich history is another matter.

There are grainy films and images, and scratchy recordings of some of the artists from the early years of the 1900s who introduced the music to wider audiences, beyond the house parties and juke joints where the primeval music bubbled from its origins into the national consciousness.

And there were enough revivals and rediscoveries of old-timers in the 1950s and ’60s to offer a tantalizing picture of early blues — Mississippi John Hurt, Fred McDowell, Sleepy John Estes, Sippie Wallace, Son House and Alberta Hunter, to name a few.

And just a handful of writers and researchers were trying to document the music in a serious way. One of those hardy individuals was Sam Charters, (don’t overlook his biography here, he was born in Pittsburgh and musically talented at an early age) a writer, music historian, record producer, and a widely published author on blues and jazz.

Charters would write “The Country Blues,” a seminal book of blues history, in 1959, which was accompanied by a Folkways album of the same name. The album was filled with songs that illustrated the music described in the book.

As his love of and interest in the blues developed, one of the things that Charters wanted to do was document the blues, not necessarily as a commercial product, but as a profound expression of human lives. To do that, he wanted to find and film some of the people who were performing the music where they lived.

“Searching for Secret Heroes” is the story of how Charters and his wife Ann toured the South to gather material for this earliest of blues documentaries, filmed in 1962, but never really released commercially, and thought to be lost. The film was titled simply, “The Blues.” An album of music from the film had been released, and is part of this new release package.

The 26-page booklet that accompanies this historic DVD/CD set tells the fascinating story of how Charters and Gary Atkinson, the owner of Document Records in Scotland, a small but prolific producer of vintage blues, jazz and more, met by accident in 2013. The result was this film.

The film itself is a brief, but very powerful journey into the lives of its musicians, which Charters found was tortuously bound to the oppressive and racist conditions under which they lived.

The bulk of the DVD is a compelling interview with Charters and his wife Ann, a writer and photographer who helped produce the documentary, in which they talk about how it came about, the many tasks of filming, and their being overwhelmed by the living conditions of these musicians. Don’t ignore this part — it’s as important as the music itself.

The musicians featured in the film are J.D. Short, Furry Lewis, Gus Cannon, Memphis Willie B, Pink Anderson, Little Pink Anderson, Baby Tate and Sleepy John Estes. CD Features some of the recordings made at the time of the making of the film and pre-war recordings by the artists. The CD includes previously unreleased recordings and an interview with Henry Townsend that did not make it to the film.

I don’t usually do this, but I think it’s worthwhile to link to the page where you can order the package. That’s how I got mine. I’m not sure that it’s widely available, and I think it’s worth considering if you’re interested in this type of blues history.

Here’s a trailer for the package from Document Records: