Roadhouse album review: “Where and When” is passionate acoustic blues from Kelly’s Lot

Kelly Zirbes, or Kelly Z as she is sometimes known, has been performing her unique blend of folk, Americana and roots music since 1994, with a band (Kelly’s Lot) that can be two people, or as many as eight. She has 15 albums to her credit, but her newest release, “There and Then” (Self-release, June 11), is the first to focus entirely on the blues.

It’s an acoustic effort — just my luck to write about two excellent acoustic albums in a row, following Donna Herula’s sparkling “Bang at the Door” — with six originals written by Kelly and rhythm guitarist Perry Robertson that effortlessly capture the essence of their blues ancestors. Five other songs are taken from the considerable works of those ancestors, and given exemplary treatment.

There are three critical interlocking parts to this album — the lyrical content of all the songs, originals and covers; the whipsmart band (the Lot) of Doug Pettibone on sinuous lead guitar, David Grover on bass and Robertson; and blues-baked vocals by Zirbes.

From the opening track’s liquid guitar notes of the original what doesn’t kill you makes you “Stronger,” Kelly’s Lot sets the tone for what’s to come — an album filled with the musical strength and passion of the blues.

The rest of the album alternates between their creative originals and their selection of songs from the great blues talents of Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, Cora “Lovie” Austin and Ma Rainey.

Here are the album notes on how these songs came to be written or selected (consider this a public service, since many of you are streaming your music and never get to see all the work that went into the CD or vinyl packaging. It certainly has nothing to do with me looking for easy content. And I’ve added a few notes of my own in italics.)

1) Stronger – Kelly and Perry were inspired to write this song by everything happening in the world. So many are feeling down, depressed, and trapped. We wanted to remind them that maybe these challenges will make us all stronger. A hopeful song to help us come out of a tough situation. (The best blues can be very hopeful, despite their reputation to the contrary. This is a beautiful example.)

2) Somebody In My Home – Kelly chose this song from Howlin’ Wolf (Chester Arthur Burnett) for its slow-moving groove and message about infidelity and who’s to blame. We all want love in a relationship but without it we may stray. Howlin’ Wolf writes the lyrics as the person who didn’t love their partner enough, which created a path for his lover to welcome someone else into his home.

3) Heaven – Kelly wrote the lyrics to this song after hearing Perry fiddling around on the guitar. Took them about 15 minutes from fiddling to finishing the song. They like to think of this song as a spiritual that doesn’t want to surrender. The truth is we don’t want to miss out on things when it is our time to leave this earth. (There’s a stirring call and response here with the band.)

4) Jealous Hearted Love – Cora “Lovie” Austin wrote this, and Ma Rainey made it known. It’s one of Kelly’s favorite Ma Rainey tunes and Lovie’s lyrics about jealousy make for some smiles instead of the ‘pit in your stomach’ jabs you get when you feel it. (Sample lyric that encourages smiling: “Got a range in my kitchen, cooks nice and brown, All I need is my man, to turn my damper down.”)

5) Lost – Perry challenged Kelly with a few guitar riffs to sing slower than she was used to and these words just came out. Depression is universal and those who feel it also know what it’s like to be lost. (“Lost on a lonely road…” is how it begins.)

6) Nature – Another great twist by Howlin’ Wolf. His lyrics explain how it is natural for a man to be lookin’ around or even being unfaithful. The twist is singing it as a woman who also has that choice. The upbeat vibe makes for a little fun.

7) Where And When – This song was written for a project Kelly did about grief. But it was also inspired by the idea that we don’t spend enough time with each other. (The shuffling blues melody is perfect counterpoint to the message.)

8) Stones In My Passway – Kelly knew she had to do this song by Robert Johnson because everyone can find a message in these lyrics. We all have stuff that gets in our way including those who love us and promise to respect us. You can also find a darker message too if you look for it, but it will come from your own experience because these lyrics let you do that! (One of Johnson’s best, I think. A universal message.)

9) That Fool – Kelly and Perry wrote this to express the deep sorrow of loving someone who doesn’t love you back and the quest to find a way to stop doing it. (The eternal quest.)

10) Black Eye Blues – The hard part about covering this song is Kelly’s mother lived the same experience as ‘Miss Nancy Ann’. Domestic violence is too common of a thread in our world, but these lyrics and upbeat music give some hope in finding strength and hopefully making the decision to leave. (Also a Ma Rainey song. An interesting sidelight or two: The original recording featured the prolific and influential Tampa Red on guitar and Georgia Tom Dorsey on piano. Dorsey later changed his tune a little, and became known, with some accuracy, as the father of gospel music.)

11) Ship – The phrase, “My ship is about to come in” morphed into this song about waiting for your ship when all along it is waiting for you to get on board. (Just the right thought to conclude this excellent album.)

Kelly’s Lot has been around for more than a quarter-century, which is a tribute to both the quality of the songwriting and excellent musical production. This album, for example, is rich with interplay between two talented guitarists (and a bass, of course!), all layered warmly around thoughtful lyrics and expressive vocals.

Listen to it soon.

Here’s a video of “Heaven”:

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