Roadhouse album review: Donna Herula creates an acoustic gem with “Bang at the Door”

I have to confess that prior to a few weeks ago, I had never heard the vibrant, rootsy acoustic music of Chicago singer/songwriter Donna Herula. My loss, of course.

She released a self-titled debut album of her finger-picking styles in 2009, and a follow-up in 2011 titled “The Moon Is Rising: Songs of Robert Nighthawk.” Since then, she has performed regularly in Chicago and worldwide, but her new album, “Bang at the Door,” (self-release, May 21) is her first studio effort in ten years.

The release of this sparkling album is a double treat: hearing her for the first time, plus enjoying the dynamic range of her songwriting and finger-picking skills.

In the space of eleven finely crafted originals and three unique covers, Herula displays a fluid range, moving from irresistibly jaunty rock (“Bang at the Door”) through folk music reminiscent of the ’60s (“Promise Me”) to straight-ahead blues (“Can’t Wait to See My Baby“).

Herula and her bandmates create a combination of lyrical sensibility and musical authenticity that makes you feel that this music has leapt right from a time out of mind onto the digital stage.

“Not Lookin” Back” is almost a ’50s jazz combo standard. “Got No Way Home” features rollicking piano, harp and liquid guitar that offer tasty blues, “Movin’ Back Home” dips into a lighthearted old-timey ragtime, “Got What I Deserve,” is a countryish ode to what appears to be unexpected motherhood, “Who’s Been Cookin’ in My Kitchen” is one of those delightful little slightly salacious double-entendre blues things, “Something’s Wrong With My Baby” is a bittersweet bluesy ballad.

The three covers are excellent versions of Bukka White’s “Fixin’ to Die,” Lucinda Williams’ “Jackson,” and Blind Willie Johnson’s magnificent “The Soul of a Man.”

Pay close attention to Herula’s guitar work throughout. No matter what the style — Delta, fingerpicking, slide — she brings an effortless authenticity to the music. Her vocals follow suit, and the combination makes the music go down easy. She deserves a much wider audience.

Special guests on this session include Anne Harris (violin), Daryl Davis (piano), Doug Hammer (piano), Bill Newton (harmonica), Tony Nardiello (singer/guitarist), and backup-singers Katherine Davis and Rebecca Toon.  The CD was produced by Jon Shain and recorded by FJ Ventre (also the upright bass player) at Good Luck Studio in Chapel Hill, NC.

If you want to hear how Herula sounds mainly on her own, working entirely in blues (and it’s very good), check out her album “The Moon Is Rising: Songs of Robert Nighthawk” for some enjoyable time travel through the visceral music of Robert Lee McCollum, or Robert Nighthawk.

And there’s an excellent interview with her on the Acoustic, Folk and Country Blues website by Frank Matheis, where she talks about how she came to be who and where she is.

Here are videos of two songs on “Bang at the Door”:

Track list (with descriptions from the album)

  1. Bang at the Door:  Pop/rock blues about a late-night visitor
  2. Pass the Biscuits:  New Orleans style about relationship between musician and DJ host
  3. Can’t Wait to See My Baby: Chicago-Blues style duet about the excitement of love
  4. Promise Me: Folk song about the loss felt when a loved one is in prison (with slide guitar and mandolin)
  5. Not Lookin’ Back: Jazz combo about leaving a partner with a drug addiction
  6. I Got No Way Home: Chicago blues jam with piano, harmonica, guitar and three-part harmonies
  7. Black Ice: Brooding slide guitar instrumental
  8. Fixin’ to Die: Traditional Delta Blues with slide guitar solos (cover)
  9. Jackson: Ballad with acoustic guitar and slide with male lead and harmonies (cover)
  10. Movin’ Back Home: Comical ragtime song with call and response
  11. Got What I Deserve:  A woman’s view on the tribulations of motherhood (with Anne Harris on fiddle)
  12. Who’s Been Cookin’ in My Kitchen:  Double entendre solo, acoustic blues
  13. Something’s Wrong With My Baby:  Heartfelt vocals, desperation with loving a partner with depression
  14. The Soul of a Man:  Blues gospel with harmonies (cover)

All songs written by Donna Herula except track 8 (Booker T. Washington “Bukka” White), 9 (Lucinda Williams), 11 (Jon Shain & Donna Herula), and 14 (Blind Willie Johnson).

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