Skylar Rogers first album “Firebreather” burns with musical passion

Chicago soul-blues singer Skylar Rogers, a powerful and passionate vocalist, is a relative newcomer to the national blues stage, having released a debut EP in 2018, began touring in 2019, and just released her first full-length album, “Firebreather” (Jan. 29, 2021). But it was worth the wait.

Rogers cites influences such as Tina Turner, Koko Taylor, Billy Joel, Whitney Houston, B.B. King, and Michael Jackson, and it’s not hard to hear some of those echoes as she moves through a variety of original material, but her voice and style are definitely her own.

She calls her style, “soul rockin’ blues,” and she does all of those — there’s guitar-driven blues-rock (“Like Father Like Daughter”), bluesy soul (“Thankful”), and soulful blues (“Failure”).

But it doesn’t really matter how you label Rogers’ music. The truth rests easily in the results. Her vocals flow effortlessly from tough (“Hard Headed Woman”) to tender (“Failure” and “Drowning”).

She displays the passion and intensity of someone who is comfortable in the world of her lyrics, and comfortable with her ability to share her emotional commitment to that world.

Drummer Bradley Arl co-wrote with Rogers the gospel-flavored “Movin’ On,” and the piano-fueled “Drowning,” and to her musical credit, Rogers produced this potent initial outing, a self-released album.

This debut effort gives all the signs of a talent that is just getting started. It would be easy to say that she can only go up from here, but that wouldn’t be exactly right. She is already “up,” with continued success almost guaranteed at this level.

Rogers’ sharp and crisp band, The Blue Diamonds, is Stephen J Hill: guitar; Marty Gibson: guitar; Jerry Ewing: bass; Bradley Arl: drums. Arl co-wrote the gospel-flavored “Movin’ On,” and the lovely, piano-fueled “Drowning.”

Together, they surround her vocals with the sound of rock, blues and soul. They have a great combination going, Keep it that way.

Here’s a video of “Like Father Like Daughter” (Please check the updates below this video)

Tracklist
1. Hard Headed Woman
2. Back To Memphis
3. Work
4. Like Father Like Daughter
5. Failure
6. Firebreather
7. Movin’ On
8. Drowning
9. Thankful
10. Insecurities

Libation Note:
This review was partially fueled with the smooth, sensuous and seriously enjoyable well-aged Brugal 1888 rum, but is essentially inspired by the passionate music of “Firebreather.”

Blues Roadhouse update:
My previous review of Selwyn Birchwood’s excellent latest album, “Living In A Burning House,” needs to be updated, as Alligator Records has released a two-part video interview of Birchwood and his producer Tom Hambridge by Alligator honcho Bruce Iglauer. (Note to Bruce: My life would have been easier if this was just one video. Not significantly changed, mind you, but slightly easier.)

So here they are (I’ll also attach them to the original review):

Interview, Part 1

Interview, Part 2

Here are the 2021 Blues Music Award nominees

Here’s a list of the nominees for the 42nd Blues Music Awards, sponsored by the Blues Foundation, which will be announced in Memphis on June 6.

What do you think? Has anyone been left out? You can always join the foundation, which gives you a vote in the results.

BB King Entertainer of the Year
Shemekia Copeland
Rick Estrin
John Németh
Sugaray Rayford
Lil’ Ed Williams

Album of the Year
100 Years of Blues Elvin Bishop and Charlie Musselwhite
Rawer Than Raw, Bobby Rush
Rise Up, Ronnie Earl & The Broadcasters
Too Far From the Bar, Sugar Ray & The Bluetones featuring Little Charlie
Uncivil War, Shemekia Copeland

Band of the Year
Anthony Geraci & The Boston Blues Allstars
John Németh & The Blue Dreamers
Rick Estrin & The Nightcats
Southern Avenue
Sugar Ray & The Bluetones

Song of the Year
“All My Dues Are Paid” – written by Kathy Murray, Rick Estrin, Frank Bey, Kid Andersen (performed by Frank Bey)
“All Out of Tears” – written by Walter Trout (performed by Walter Trout)
“Blues Comin’ On” – written by Dion DiMucci and Mike Aquilina (performed by Dion Feat. Joe Bonamassa)
“Is It Over” – written by Don Bryant and Scott Bomar (performed by Don Bryant)
“Uncivil War” – written by John Hahn and Will Kimbrough (performed by Shemekia Copeland)

Best Emerging Artist Album
Hard Workin’ Man, Andrew Alli Harlem, King Solomon Hicks
Here I Come, Jose Ramirez
High Risk Low Reward, Ryan Perry
Peace In Pieces, Betty Fox Band

Acoustic Blues Album
Dustin Arbuckle & Matt Woods, Dustin Arbuckle & Matt Woods
Prove It On Me, Rory Block
Rawer Than Raw, Bobby Rush
Three Pints of Gin, Richard Ray Farrell
Traveling Man – Live, Watermelon Slim

Blues Rock Album
Ain’t Done Yet, Savoy Brown
Ice Cream In Hell, Tinsley Ellis Mike Zito and Friends – Rock ‘n’ Roll: A Tribute to Chuck Berry, Mike Zito
Mississippi Suitcase, Peter Parcek
Ordinary Madness, Walter Trout

Contemporary Blues Album
Cry Out, Kat Riggins
My Blues Pathway, Kirk Fletcher
Self-Made Man, Larkin Poe
Stronger Than Strong, John Németh
Uncivil War, Shemekia Copeland

Soul Blues Album
All My Dues Are Paid, Frank Bey
Found! One Soul Singer, Sonny Green
That’s What I Heard, Robert Cray Band
Where Have All The Soul Men Gone, Johnny Rawls
You Make Me Feel, Don Bryant

Traditional Blues Album
100 Years of Blues, Elvin Bishop and Charlie Musselwhite
Blueswoman, Nora Jean Wallace
Every Day of Your Life, Jimmy Johnson
Rise Up, Ronnie Earl & The Broadcasters
Too Far From the Bar, Sugar Ray & The Bluetones featuring Little Charlie

Acoustic Blues Artist
Dom Flemons
Catfish Keith
Harrison Kennedy
Doug MacLeod
Keb’ Mo’

Blues Rock Artist
Tinsley Ellis
Reverend Peyton
Ana Popovic
Kenny Wayne Shepherd
Mike Zito

Contemporary Blues Female Artist
Shemekia Copeland
Samantha Fish
Sue Foley
Ruthie Foster
Shaun Murphy

Contemporary Blues Male Artist
Selwyn Birchwood
Chris Cain
Rick Estrin
Christone “Kingfish” Ingram
J.P. Soars

Soul Blues Female Artist
Annika Chambers
Thornetta Davis
Bettye LaVette
Dorothy Moore
Terrie Odabi

Soul Blues Male Artist
William Bell
Don Bryant
John Németh
Johnny Rawls
Curtis Salgado

Traditional Blues Female Artist (Koko Taylor Award)
Rory Block
Rhiannon Giddens
Diunna Greenleaf
Trudy Lynn
Teeny Tucker

Traditional Blues Male Artist
Billy Branch
Sugar Ray Norcia
John Primer
Jontavious Willis
Kim Wilson

Instrumentalist Bass
Willie J. Campbell
Larry Fulcher
Danielle Nicole
Patrick Rynn
Michael “Mudcat” Ward

Instrumentalist Drums
Tony Braunagel
June Core
Derrick “D’Mar” Martin
Bernard Purdie
Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith

Instrumentalist Guitar
Christoffer “Kid” Andersen
Chris Cain
Laura Chavez
Kirk Fletcher
Christone “Kingfish” Ingram

Instrumentalist Harmonica
Billy Branch
Rick Estrin
Dennis Gruenling
Jason Ricci
Kim Wilson

Instrumentalist Horn
Mindi Abair
Jimmy Carpenter
Doug James
Mark “Kaz” Kazanoff
Nancy Wright

Instrumentalist Piano (Pinetop Perkins Piano Player Award)
Mike Finnigan
Anthony Geraci
Johnny Iguana
Bruce Katz
Jim Pugh

Instrumentalist Vocals
Thornetta Davis
Ruthie Foster
John Németh
Sugar Ray Norica
Sugaray Rayford

Selwyn Birchwood’s new album, “Living In A Burning House” burns with the fiery essence of the blues

Selwyn Birchwood seems to be a bluesman of many faces — an overnight success, a seasoned performer, a fiery new blues star, the new face of the blues, a veteran blues road warrior, a skilled guitarist, an inventive songwriter.

If he can take several years to be an overnight success, if he can be a seasoned performer at 36, if he can put together a finely tuned band and produce great music on his own terms, then he is all of those things. And has been for about half of his relatively young life.

Birchwood’s music was inspired by Jimi Hendrix and Buddy Guy. and mentored by veteran blues guitarist Sonny Rhodes, like Birchwood a lap-steel player, when he took Birchwood on the road with his band at age 19.

All of that road and album cred is obvious on his latest album, “Living In A Burning House,” (Alligator Records), his third for the label since 2014, following two self-released CDs — “FL Boy” from 2011 and “Road Worn” from 2013.” It’s set for release Friday, Jan. 29.

Birchwood’s style here flows easily from the funkiness of “You Can’t Steal My Shine” to the playful swing of “She’s a Dime” to the down-home flavor of “Mama Knows Best” (with Diunna Greenleaf as red-hot Mama) to the acoustic calm of “My Happy Place” to the fierce blues-rock of “Through a Microphone.” In other words, he’s not only comfortable with music across the blues spectrum, he lives within it.

The songs are all deeply original, from inventive lyrics to creative musical arrangements. The inclusion of a single horn player in the band adds a distinctly different feel, with Regi Oliver a versatile saxman who also wields a flute. A little bluesy B3 doesn’t hurt, either. There’s an organ born with the blues.

Also in this crisp, tight band are Donald “Huff” Wright, bass; Philip “Squeak” Walker, drums; Walter “Bunt” May, B3, Wurlitzer, piano.

This outing was produced by the steady and creative hand of the seemingly ever-present Tom Hambridge, who has amplified recent recordings by Buddy Guy.

I’ve had to catch up a little bit on Birchwood, since his success has come largely during my blogging hiatus. Going through his other Alligator albums shows that his latest didn’t just suddenly appear. He’s been working at this level for years.

Sonny Rhodes

And in one of those mystical, bluesified musical experiences, the Sonny Rhodes mentioned above also popped up in my two previous posts on documentary films (just scroll down, after you’re done here, of course) on the history of Oakland, Calif., blues, where Rhodes was a major player for many years.

In fact, Rhodes called himself a disciple of the blues, and wore a turban with a big fine jewel in front to make the title work. Until, he said, someone at a show called him a terrorist.

 “There were too many threats while I was wearing that turban that I had worn for 34 years! You don’t know what it’s like to have a .38 [pistol] put to your head!” he once told the Kankakee (Ill.) Daily Journal.

But I digress. This is about the blues prowess of Selwyn Birchwood.

For years now, people like me (have mercy on their souls) have been writing about the future of the blues. Who will replace the blues players who brought the real deal from the South and spread it around the country? Most of them are gone.

Well, nobody can really replace the people who carried the blues in their souls from Mississippi to Chicago.

But artists like Selwyn Birchwood can easily carry the torch that they lit.

Here’s the title track from “Living In A Burning House”:

Album track list (All songs by Selwyn Birchwood):

1. I’d Climb Mountains
2. I Got Drunk, Laid And Stoned
3. Living in a Burning House
4. You Can’t Steal My Shine
5. Revelation
6. Searching For My Tribe
7. She’s a Dime
8. One More Time
9. Mama Knows Best
10. Freaks Come Out at Night
11. Through a Microphone
12. Rock Bottom
13. My Happy Place

And just for fun, here’s a taste of Sonny Rhodes:

Update:

Since I wrote this post, Alligator Records has released a two-part interview with Selwyn Birchwood and Tom Hambridge by Alligator honcho Bruce Iglauer.

Here they are:

“Evolutionary Blues: West Oakland’s Music Legacy” puts the blues into its historical context

In my previous post, I wrote about “Long Train Running,” a fine little gem of a documentary on the singular history of blues music in Oakland, Calif., produced in 1981 as a graduate thesis by two students at University of California at Berkeley.

In an email exchange with Peter Webster, one of that film’s creators, he recommended that I look up a more recent film about the same subject, “Evolutionary Blues: West Oakland’s Music Legacy,” from 2017.

I did. In a word, it’s excellent.

In even more words, it’s a thoughtful, moving, loving, evocative, musical exploration of the unique development of the blues in just one area — West Oakland, California.

Amazingly, most of that music came from a small chunk of West Oakland — Seventh Street. (You might not click on most of these links (frowny face emoji should go here), but the one for Seventh Street is especially informative.)

Because it was fertile ground for the black music styles planted there, including blues, jazz and funk, West Oakland was known as the “Harlem of the West.” Black musicians who migrated west from places like Texas and Louisiana in the years around World War II brought their down-home blues with them, and from that beginning, the evolutionary process of the culture and the music led to more elaborate blues forms (think bands with horns; jump blues), to jazz, funk and beyond. Hence, “evolutionary blues.”

And the music evolved because the people evolved. Post-war West Oakland became a sophisticated community that allowed the down-home blues brought in by migration to evolve into newer forms: Fulson, for example, added a horn section to his traditional blues combo, and helped usher in a slicker “West Coast” blues sound.

The musicians who lived in, or moved through, or came to perform for receptive audiences reads like a Who’s Who of blues stars from that era: Sugar Pie DeSanto, Jimmy McCracklin, Lowell Fulson, T-Bone Walker, Big Mama Thornton, and many, many more. Record producer Bob Geddins recorded many local performers on his many labels.

And this doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of the many fine blues performers who never went far beyond West Oakland. Freddie Hughes is one of those, and he’s still singing today. Judging from his vocals that I’ve heard, he deserves a spot in the pantheon of great soul singers.

Here’s a list of the complete cast, which includes all the musical performers as well as others interviewed for their perspective. Worthy of special mention in the interview category are two authors, Pulitzer Prize-winner Isabel Wilkerson, who wrote “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration” (there’s a link to a TED talk by her below), and Historian Robert O. Self, who wrote “American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland.”

Self and Wilkerson’s views are important, because they add the ever-present context of race into the history of blues music, in this case, in both its historic and contemporary relevance.

The film is directed and co-produced by Cheryl Fabio, commissioned by the City of Oakland and co-produced by KTOP-TV in Oakland, and while it has toured some festivals, is not available yet for public release. It should be.

Fabio deserves high praise for putting this documentary together. It’s the type of history of the blues (America’s truly classical music) that is often overlooked or missing — placing the blues in the appropriate historical and cultural context, adding even more substance to its already profound origins.

It’s a beautiful, vital, meaningful piece of filmmaking. It is available to stream from the Oakland Public Library, if you happen to live in California. And it’s broadcast occasionally on KTOP, where streaming is available.

Here are some miscellaneous links:

A list of the songs from the film.

A perceptive review from BluesBlast Magazine.

The trailer for “Evolutionary Blues”:

A relevant TED talk by author Isabel Wilkerson:

Oakland blues documentary “Long Train Running” a 40-year-old window into West Coast blues history

I enjoy finding old and historical blues information online, especially videos. It seems like many older documentaries, TV shows and much concert footage has found its way onto YouTube.

There are some, like “You See Me Laughin’: The last of the hill country bluesmen,” a documentary that I wrote about recently, which offer a look inside the music and the musicians’ lives. They are absorbing and informative with their personal perspectives. Others, such as “Blues Masters,” show film and photos that go back to the dawn of recordings and filmmaking. Some are enjoyable; others can be a little too preachy. But most are very interesting.

And now I’ve found another source for the blues: the academic world. I recently stumbled across the digital collections of the University of California at Berkeley library. Actually, the academic world is not all that unusual as a source — blues music has been examined by scholars for decades, as they struggle, I think, to explain this deeply personal and emotional music on an intellectual level. The best explanations of the blues are made by hearing and feeling the music.

Image from the film. Born Lowell Fulson, he recorded under several variations of his last name.

And that seems to be the purpose of this 1981 documentary, “Long Train Running,” a powerful half-hour of sights and sounds that trace the blues history of Oakland, Calif., from the 1940s into the ’70s. It’s probably not accurate to call it a history in an academic sense, but it is a powerful evocation of some of the people, places and music from that period, including some of the origins of West Coast blues.

Performers featured in the film include Troyce Key, also the owner of Oakland’s Eli’s Mile High Club; Sugar Pie DeSantoLowell Fulson; Elmon Douggar; author and blues historian Paul Oliver; record producer Bob Geddins; Jim Moore; Frankie Lee; Johnny Waters. (History, via the internet, has not been kind enough to provide adequate biographical information on all of these people.)

There are clips here of the performers in Oakland and Richmond clubs, and interviews where they expound on on what the blues means to them, interspersed with history of the black community in the bay area.

One of the more pleasant surprises in the film is the inclusion of Geddins, a musician and record producer, who almost single-handedly captured much of the Oakland blues scene on record after moving there from Texas in 1942.

Bob Geddens, in an image from the film.

In doing so, he was taking the path of many black Americans from Louisiana and Texas, who, instead of heading north to Memphis or Chicago, went west to California. Oakland, with its shipyards, was a big lure.

Geddens tried to describe the music he recorded, saying here that “It’s not much different from other blues, but it’s got a slow draggery beat and a mournful sound…” In film, Fulson talks about Geddens as a producer of blues records: “He had a beautiful ear of how to phrase the blues.”

From 1948 on, Geddens founded small independent record labels, including Art-Tone, Big Town, Cavatone, Down Town, Irma, Plaid, Rhythm, and Veltone. He also leased his recordings to Los Angeles based labels such as Swing Time, Aladdin, Modern, Imperial, and Fantasy, and also to the Chicago operated Checker label. Geddins produced acts including Lowell Fulson, Jimmy McCracklin, Johnny Fuller, Sugar Pie DeSanto and Etta James.

This lively, interesting film was produced in 1981 as the graduate thesis of journalism students Marlon Riggs and Peter Webster for the Graduate School of Journalism, University of California, Berkeley. They produced, wrote and edited the film. Riggs went on to a career as a filmmaker, educator, poet, and gay rights activist. He created several documentary films besides this one, including “Ethnic Notions,” “Tongues Untied,” “Color Adjustment,” and “Black Is…Black Ain’t.” He died in 1994.

The co-creator of this excellent effort is Peter Webster, who moved on from journalism and is now an attorney in Salt Lake City. I point this out only because the Berkeley library information on the film inaccurately lists the co-creator as “Webster, Peter Richard, 1947-” I know this because I found his website, which describes him as studying “children’s creative thinking in music and the appropriate use of music technology for music teaching and learning,” and asked him via email if he was involved in this documentary. He said he was not, but that it looked like a great project.

I finally tracked down the appropriate Peter Webster (whose name is correct in the actual film credits), and he confirmed his role as Riggs’ partner on the project.

And I point out all of this, not just to make this post look longer and more important, but to demonstrate how a simple matter (hold the sarcasm, please) like this post can turn into an investigative adventure. Isn’t the internet a wonderful place?

All in all, this smart, gritty little film does a wonderful job of preserving a piece of blues history that’s pretty much disappeared. That history was on shaky ground even when this project was completed, 40 years ago..

Here’s the link to the “Long Train Running” video. It doesn’t show an image here, I think, because it goes to a video player at the Berkeley library.

https://avplayer.lib.berkeley.edu/Video-Public-MRC/b22146011?fbclid=IwAR0VkNhJ9aNfPb6M__rmQTPXvruurXp_j3okXCzz4Hf3-ZA_tyJbOuHZNIM

Some random music from Curtis Salgado, just for fun

Curtis Salgado is one of my very favorite performers. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a show or heard a song by him that wasn’t meticulously crafted, perfectly sung, and packed with feeling. What more can you ask?

How about a new album, “Damage Control,” to be released by Alligator Records Feb. 26? While I was playing the video of one song from the album, “The Longer That I Live,” I ran across a couple of other videos that sound fine, so I put them together here just in case you’re in the mood.

This is Salgado’s ode to Covid, “Pandemic Blues,” from last year:

This is a swinging, bluesy piece, with Delbert McClinton, on a Sandy Beaches Cruise. Remember cruises?

And this is the “Damage Control” preview, “The Longer That I Live.” Very cool moves as well.