Damon Fowler’s new album “Alafia Moon” is perfectly moody blues

Multi-talented roots and blues guitarist/singer/songwriter Damon Fowler has just launched his eighth solo album into the sultry swamp of “Alafia Moon” (Landslide Records).

One look at the moody riverscape of the album cover hints at the musical earthiness of its contents. Fowler, a Florida native, sets his lyrical sights here on the Alafia River, near Tampa, where he collected youthful memories of fishing trips and moonlit boat rides. (It also makes you wish for a vinyl-sized version, suitable for framing and wall hanging.)

The blue landscape of Damon Fowler.

But it’s Fowler’s guitar work, ranging from ethereal to swampy to rootsy rocking, that delivers the album. He knows how to create the spaces between the notes that let the music speak as forcefully as his vocals.

Everything here except “The Guitar” is original, a tribute to Fowler’s evolving skill as a songwriter, where music and lyric blend seamlessly, neither overwhelming the other. There are echoes of Mississippi Hill Country blues here, southern rock, country, a little R&B, all filled with soulful undertones.

On the two uptempo opening tracks, “Leave It Alone” and “I’ve Been Low” Fowler uses his considerable guitar skills (fierce slide and lap steel among them) to create a relentlessly rhythmic and hypnotic effect.

Then, with the poignant title track, you can smell the mossy Alafia riverbanks, feel the humid air, and inhale the haunting lyrics imbued with the sensuousness of a full moon. It’s a personal journey to revisit youthful memories, floating on the currents of Fowler’s liquid guitar.

“Make the Best of Your Time” shuffles through a little day-to-day philosphy; “The Guitar,” the album’s only cover, is a touching acoustic tale of an old guitar in a pawnshop; “Hip To Your Trip” uses a magical slide to make the tasty journey; “Some Things Change” rocks a little harder with T.C. Carr’s harp and Betty Fox’s backing vocals for support; “Taxman” is not the Beatles’ whimsical tune, but a tough blues about a tough date with the taxman; “Wanda,” however, is a bit of whimsical barstool philosophizing about the lady sitting nearby with a gun in her purse and bottle of pills. The album closes with Fowler telling the story (“The Umbrella”) of a very early road gig with just one customer, followed by a song dedicated to that moment, “Kicked His Ass Out.”

“Alafia Moon” is a an excellent outing, filled with creative songwriting, gritty vocals, sublime guitar work, and crackling backers Chuck Riley (bass), Justin Headley (drums), T.C. Carr (harmonica), Mike Kach (keyboards), and Betty Fox (backing vocals). 

This is honest music, intense and impassioned, meant to be savored and absorbed.

Here’s an interview with Fowler in American Songwriter.

Here’s the video of the title track, “Alafia Moon”

Tracklist:

  1. Leave It Alone
  2. I’ve Been Low
  3. Alafia Moon
  4. Make The Best Of Your Time
  5. The Guitar
  6. Hip To Your Trip
  7. Some Things Change
  8. Taxman
  9. Wanda
  10. The Umbrella
  11. Kicked His Ass Out

New Moon Jelly Roll Freedom Rockers rolling again with Volume 2

This is the second volume of fine blues and roots music from a gathering of musicians in 2007, jamming just for fun, and who gave themselves one of the best band names since the “? and the Mysterians.”

I’m talking, of course, about the New Moon Jelly Roll Freedom Rockers, who, after the music simmered about 14 years until it was good and tasty, released Volume 1 last September.

Now, Volume 2 of that sparkling, creative music has dropped from Stony Plain Records. It’s just as fine. These are not warmed-up leftovers, these are tracks cut from the original cloth of their musical sessions.

The musicians, a generation-spanning group musicians, are Grammy-winning harpist Charlie Musselwhite, guitarist Alvin Youngblood Hart, ex Squirrel Nut Zippers’ frontman Jimbo Mathus, the late Jim Dickinson and North Mississippi Allstars members Luther Dickinson and Cody Dickinson (Jim Dickinson’s sons and recent Grammy nominees).

Their music is as fresh as it is timeless; moving from the pure down-home blues of Musselwhite’s laconic “Blues for Yesterday” to 1965’s rockish “She’s About a Mover,” from Doug Sahm and the Sir Douglas Quintet and given new life here by Hart.

Mathus puts together a strong, straight-ahead blues on “Searchlight,” and Jim Dickinson gets deep and rootsy with “Blues Is A Mighty Bad Feeling.”  He also adds some blues classics on Junior Wells’ “Messin’ with the Kid” and Jimmy Reed’s “Can’t Stand to See You Go.” And of course, there are more, just waiting for your ears to listen up.

But these guys are not a cover band, and they’re not just bluesy impressionists. They’re bringing their own considerable strengths and musical visions into the mix, churning out fresh and original takes on timeless music.

Even though these recordings took place in 2007, Jim Dickinson’s death in 2009 put the production into limbo, and it was basically forgotten until 2019 when Stony Plain founder Holger Petersen heard about the sessions from Musselwhite, and turned over the production to Luther Dickinson and his engineer Kevin Houston, who finished the project.

This is good music-making at its best — full of energy and spontaneity. Put both volumes together for double the fun.

Here’s the opening track, “Blues for Yesterday,” by Charlie Musselwhite:

Here’s the tracklist:

1. Blues for Yesterday (featuring Charlie Musselwhite)
2. She’s About a Mover (featuring Alvin Youngblood Hart)
3. Searchlight (featuring Jimbo Mathus)
4. Oh Lord, Don’t Let Them Drop That Atom Bomb on Me (featuring Jim Dickinson)
5. Greens and Ham (featuring Jimbo Mathus)
6. Messin’ with the Kid (featuring Jim Dickinson)
7. Black Water (featuring Charlie Musselwhite)
8. Millionaire Blues (featuring Alvin Youngblood Hart)
9. Can’t Stand to See You Go (featuring Jim Dickinson)
10. Blue Guitar (featuring Luther Dickinson)
11. Blues Is a Mighty Bad Feeling (featuring Jim Dickinson)

Virtual concert trying to keep Moondog’s music alive in Pittsburgh (well, Blawnox, actually)

“Keeping the blues alive” has been a catchphrase for years. And among other things, it’s also a cruise, a musicians relief program, and an annual award. But no matter where you find them, the words have the same purpose: Trying to make sure that the great music of the blues never dies.

That phrase has taken on new meaning in the past year, with a pandemic shutting down music venues, turning off the music, and creating financial strain for club owners, concert promoters and the musicians themselves. Many of them have taken to the internet with virtual shows on Facebook and other media. A Facebook group called Can’t Stop the Blues has provided a forum for dozens of performers. I’ve also seen John Nemeth on his front porch, Rory Block in her living room, and Ronnie Baker Brooks in his basement.

But that’s not quite the same experience as live music, shared with friends and fans, and feeling the musicians feed on a roomful of enthusiastic fans.

That’s what you got at Moondog’s.

I know, because I spent a lot of nights there, enjoying gin and tonic (and cigars, before we started to care about our health), and some of the best blues talent in the world.

Moondog’s is small, intimate bar (maybe 250 people, elbow to elbow at its most intimate) whose purpose is mainly music — no kitchen, no ferns, no valet parking — in the tiny Pittsburgh suburb of Blawnox, where it has lived for its past 31 Moondog years.

There’s nothing fancy about the place, just the musical magic that comes from musicians up close, filling that hole in your soul. I can remember nights when the audience dwindled down to 10 or 20 at the end of the closing set, but the musicians never let up.

Like many such blues joints, a year without business hasn’t helped. It’s run by Ron “Moondog” Esser, who has been a fixture on the Pittsburgh area music scene a few notes short of forever, with his club long a nexus for the local blues scene, and making his own music before that. Here’s a Q&A with Ron by a Scott Mervis, a former colleague at a former employer, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, that will tell you a little about Ron.

So, because of Ron’s background, his help for area musicians and his devotion to music, Mark Byars and Cheryl Rinovato, a couple of musicians who think Moondog’s should be kept alive, are producing three nights of music online this weekend (March 26-28), to help keep the dog and the music going. When it returns live, of course.

Ron is humble about this unexpected help. In the Post-Gazette interview, he says: “This fundraiser, I really didn’t want them to do it, but they’re doing it anyway, and I’m grateful. I’m eternally grateful.”

In addition, there’s a GoFundMe campaign that has raised $4,100 toward a $30,000 goal, and a Save Moondog’s Facebook page. And here’s more information about viewing.

Ron “Moondog” Esser, and and some of this weekend’s performers.

And we haven’t even mentioned his shepherding of the Pittsburgh Blues Festival for many years.

The National Blues Foundation honored Ron Esser with the “Keeping the Blues Alive” award in 2005. 

Seventy artists are booked for the weekend’s virtual festival, including national acts Tommy Castro, Barbara Blue, Joanna Connor, Selwyn Birchwood, Mike Zito, Vanessa Collier, Jerry Cortez (from Tower of Power) and Jason Ricci, and Pittsburgh acts such as Joe Grushecky, Bill Toms, Billy Price, Norm Nardini, Soulful Femme, Bobby Thompson, the Granati Bros., Charlie Barath, Matt Barranti, Ms. Freddye and the Neids Hotel Band.

A few of the national acts Moondog’s has hosted:
Susan Tedeschi, Keb’ Mo’, Derek Trucks, Koko Taylor, Luther Allison,Junior Wells, Jimmy Vaughn, Tommy Castro, the Nighthawks, Jimmy Thackery, Maria Muldaur, Pat Travers, Candy Kane, Ana Popovic, former Beatle Pete Best, Johnny “Clyde” Copeland, Walter Trout, Tinsley Ellis, Shemekia Copela, Lil Ed and the Imperials, Long John Hunter, James Cotton, Chris Duarte, Johnny Clyde Copeland, Rod Piazza, Corey Harris, Monster Mike Welch, Luther Allison, Shemekia Copeland, Brian Auger and Jim Croce’s son, A.J. Croce.

Plus several generations of Pittsburgh area musicians, including Norman Nardini, Bill Toms, Guitar Zack, Glen Pavone, Billy Price, Gary Belloma and the Blue Bombers, Jill West and the Blues Attack, the Jimmy Alder Band, Patty Spadero, the SPUDS, Nieds Hotel Band, Good Brother Earl, Bill Deasy and more.

None of this means that there isn’t a multitude of similar clubs across the country undergoing similar hard times. I just happened to know about Moondog’s because I used to live and work nearby. In fact, performers at Moondog’s often wound up on my previous blog, BlueNotes. So I jumped at the chance to highlight a national condition with this local connection.

Here are a few of those artists (and a chance to show off some of my favorite photo work), most with a view of Moondog’s stage wall, painted with caricatures of well-known artists, but with a dog’s head.

John Nemeth working harp magic.
A cheerful Magic Slim toasts happy fans.
Bill Wharton, the Sauce Boss, with a gumbo pot simmering.
Ana Popovic and Jason Ricci just simmering.
Guitar Shorty and Moondog’s wall.

Blues Foundation rescinds music award nomination for Kenny Wayne Shepherd over Confederate flag display

Here’s a news release from the Blues Foundation, issued this afternoon, about an ongoing issue in the Foundation.

THE BLUES FOUNDATION RESCINDS 
KENNY WAYNE SHEPHERD’S 2021 

BLUES MUSIC AWARD NOMINATION
The Blues Foundation (the Foundation) has rescinded Kenny Wayne Shepherd’s 2021 Blues Music Awards (BMA) nomination for Best Blues/Rock Artist. The BMAs will be presented virtually on June 6, 2021.

The decision to rescind the nomination is in keeping with the Foundation’s statement Against Racism (March 15, 2021) https://blues.org/the-blues-foundations-statement-against-racism/ which asserts “The Blues Foundation unequivocally condemns all forms and expressions of racism, including all symbols associated with white supremacy and the degradation of people of color.  We will hold ourselves as well as all blues musicians, fans, organizations, and members of the music industry accountable for racist actions and encourage concrete commitments to acknowledge and redress the resulting pain.” 

The decision to rescind the nomination was based upon continuing revelations of representations of the Confederate flag on Shepherd’s “General Lee” car, guitars and elsewhere.  The Blues Foundation has also asked Ken Shepherd, father of Kenny Wayne Shepherd, to step down as a member of its Board of Directors.  The Blues Foundation states that it is resolute in its commitment to purposefully address racism and contribute to a more equitable blues community. The Blues Foundation is widely acknowledged as the foremost non-profit blues organization with more than 4,000 members and nearly 200 affiliated blues societies across the globe. 

The Foundation preserves blues heritage, celebrates blues recording and performance, expands worldwide awareness of the blues, and ensures the future of the uniquely American art form.  The BMAs are generally recognized as the highest honor given to blues musicians. The Best Blues/Rock Artist is one of 25 BMA categories that are awarded by vote of Blues Foundation members.  In addition to the BMAs, the Foundation also presents the International Blues Challenge, as well as Blues in the Schools, the HART Fund which provides grants to cover the medical needs of blues artists and, most recently, the COVID-19 Blues Musician Emergency Relief Fund which has distributed more than $250,000 to address the urgent needs of blues musicians impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Here are the 2021 Blues Grammy winners

Just another public service from your Blues Roadhouse.

The award for Best Traditional Blues Album or Best Traditional Blues Recording, went to Bobby Rush for “Rawer Than Raw.”

The other nominees were:

  • “All My Dues Are Paid”
    Frank Bey
  • “You Make Me Feel”
    Don Bryant
  • “That’s What I Heard”
    Robert Cray Band
  • “Cypress Grove”
    Jimmy “Duck” Holmes

The award for Best Contemporary Blues Album or Contemporary Blues Recording, went to Fantastic Negrito for “Have you Lost Your Mind Yet? .”

The other nominees were:

  • “Live at the Paramount”
    Ruthie Foster Big Band
  • “The Juice”
    G. Love
  • “Blackbirds”
    Bettye LaVette
  • “Up and Rolling”
    North Mississippi Allstars