Roadhouse Album Review: Taj Mahal brings sparkling jazzy chops to a swinging “Savoy”

Taj Mahal — “Savoy” — Stony Plain Records (April 28 release)

Since he released his first two albums in 1967-68, Henry St. Claire Fredericks Jr. has not only recorded roughly 50 more, he’s also helped to define the face of Americana and roots music, world music, and a huge amount of great blues music.

By then, Fredericks was already calling himself Taj Mahal, having left behind his animal husbandry, veterinary science and agronomy studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he also led an R&B band called Taj Mahal & The Elektras. The Elektras turned out to be the correct prescription.

(In October 2018, Taj returned to UMass Amherst for the 100th Anniversary of the Stockbridge School of Agriculture. In this video, he reminisces about his early life and career.)

A big leap in time, space and mood later, Taj and longtime friend and producer John Simon have put together a tribute to the music that worked its way into Taj’s consciousness as a child in his parents’ home.

That is essentially the music of “Savoy,” standards from the great American songbook, written by some of the great names in American music, a throwback to the sounds of the swing jazz big band era. “Savoy is just pure fun for me and a chance to display my jazz vocal chops,” Taj explains. And Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom is where his parents met during an Ella Fitzgerald show. Talk about predestination.

The “fun” that Taj mentions is a great description of the results here. The music swings easily but with an insistent groove from the fine band assembled for the occasion — a rhythm section of Danny Caron – guitar; Ruth Davies – bass; John Simon – piano; and Leon Joyce, Jr. – drums; with background vocals by Carla Holbrook, Leesa Humphrey and Charlotte McKinnon. Evan Price’s violin graces two cuts. There’s also a special group of horn players, including Erik Jekabson — trumpet; Mike Rinta — trombone; Sheldon Brown — clarinet, tenor sax; Charles McNeal — tenor sax; Andrew Stephens — trumpet; Kristen Strom — flute, tenor sax; Lincoln Adler — tenor sax.

All those players deserve special mention because the music they so effortlessly create moves the album into an irresistible groove that provides the perfect background for Mahal’s easy vocals that flow smoothly through his vintage, soon to be 81-year-old pipes, with a gruff elegance.

My photo of Taj from a Legendary Rhythm & Blues cruise a few years ago.

The classic songs? “Stompin’ At The Savoy” with a spoken intro on how his parents met; “I’m Just A Lucky So-And-So,” the fine and mellow “Gee Baby Ain’t I Good To You,” and easy-living “Summertime,” the classic Duke Ellington “Mood Indigo,” the bouncy “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby,” the soulful alto sax intro on “Do Nothin’ Till You Hear From Me.”

Then there’s “Sweet Georgia Brown” with fiddle romping, a sensuous duet with Maria Muldaur on “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” the horn-powered opening to “Lady Be Good,” “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home” with sweet fiddle, a swinging “Caldonia,” “Killer Joe,” a mostly instrumental that’s a more recent tune, and the heartfelt eight minutes of “One For My Baby (And One More For The Road).”

This is a thoroughly enjoyable album, in which Taj Mahal stretches his many musical talents in yet another direction. The results sparkle with a fresh and swinging look at classic American music.

From the album, “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good to You”:

Track List:

  1. Stompin’ At The Savoy
  2. I’m Just A Lucky So And So
  3. Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good To You
  4. Summertime
  5. Mood Indigo
  6. Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby
  7. Do Nothin’ Till You Hear From Me
  8. Sweet Georgia Brown
  9. Baby It’s Cold Outside (duet with Maria Muldaur)
  10. Lady Be Good
  11. Baby Won’t You Please Come Home
  12. Caldonia
  13. Killer Joe
  14. One For My Baby

Roadhouse Album Review: Skylar Rogers looks at life “Among the Insanity”

Skylar Rogers — “Among the Insanity — Blue Heart Records

“Among the Insanity” is such a great name for a song, for an album, and for the thematic intensity that pervades this excellent musical session.

And it all works so well because it’s based on the vocal magic of Skylar Rogers on her third album, paired with the impressive emotional songwriting of Rogers and producer Terry Wilson on 12 new songs. In that vein, Rogers says that she “hopes the listener feels connected to the emotions that were put into these songs….”

The power of that emotional content begins with the opening cut, the sensuous “Love in the Left Lane,” as Rogers immediately takes charge with intense vocals and lyrics that define an independent woman’s perspective on love and life.

The pulsating “Among the Insanity” comes next, a hard-driving vocal on the R&B-laced philosophy of the broken relationship — “…ain’t no heroes here, we’re goin’ down in villainy….”

“One Last Kiss” is a beautifully sung, sadly gentle reminiscence of lost love. “Ride That Lightning” strikes with passion — “…ain’t no shelter from me baby, I’m as bad as they get…” Next, “Blame It On Rock & Roll” picks up the beat and rocks the lyric.

“When It’s Broken,” is a lyrical gem of romance over a lilting piano. “Step It Up” rocks hard again with a honky-tonk flavor and a tough message for a potential suitor. “Both Sides Of The Tale” means just what it says in life, and “Between Friends” is a soft lesson on a love triangle. “Femininity” proclaims a bluesy sensibility for its title, while the island-themed “The Water” provides an escape from all that’s gone before.

“Apology Not Accepted,” with just a stirring piano backing, is a fitting final dramatic statement of independence among the myriad insanities of life and love and the turmoil they bring.

The band that creates the framework here includes Bennett Salvay (keys), Billy Watts (guitar), Brannen Temple (percussion), Snuffy Walden (guitar), Darrell Leonard (horns), and Teresa James (background vocals).

This fine album is a life-affirming, soul-satisfying session rich with the imagery of life and love, powered by a sharp backing band, and brought to life by Rogers’ deeply soulful vocals. Her personal background, detailed in her bio, has brought this all into focus, but mainly, her music speaks eloquently for itself. An excellent album.

The title track, “Among the Insanity”:

Track List:

01. Love In The Left Lane
02. Among The Insanity
03. One Last Kiss
04. Ride That Lightning
05. Blame It On Rock & Roll
06. When It’s Broken
07. Step It Up
08. Both Sides Of The Tale
09. Between Friends
10. Femininity
11. The Water
12. Apology Not Accepted

Roadhouse Album Review: Big Shoes lace country and blues together to make great music in “Fresh Tracks”

Big Shoes — “Fresh Tracks — Qualified Records

Big Shoes is a band. I mention that mainly because, 1) it doesn’t sound like the name of a band, and 2) I had never heard them (my loss), and 3) you should definitely hear them.

Big Shoes describes itself as an “Americana Roots SuperGroup,” and it was formed as a tribute project to recreate the early music of that great American band, Little Feat. Big Shoes released its first album, “Shoes Blues” in 2015, and Step On It!” 2018. I’m not certain, but it’s worth assuming that the name “Big Shoes” may have been related to the “Little Feat” project. That would only be fitting.

The supergroup tag also turns out to be very fitting, as this criminally talented group of musicians creates a sparkling blend of country and blues, of Nashville and Memphis, of musicians eloquently in tune with their music.

Lead singer and guitarist Rick Huckaby gives smart, laid-back voice to songs that he’s mostly written or co-written, in front of a band that lopes along behind him, managing to make their crisp, tight backing sound effortless.

The rest of the Shoes include Mark T. Jordan on piano, B3 and background vocals; Will McFarlane on guitar and slide guitar; Kenne Cramer on guitar; Tom Szell on bass; Lynn Williams on drums; and Bryan Brock on percussion. Additional guests include: Shaun Murphy and Vickie Carrico on background vocals; Dana Robbins on horn arrangements and saxophones; and Quentin Ware on trumpet.

As a very, very brief example of their background: Big Shoes members have played and recorded with: Bonnie Raitt, Van Morrison, Delbert McClinton, Taj Mahal, Etta James, Bobby “Blue” Bland and more. Keyboardist Jordan played on Van Morrison’s classic “Tupelo Honey” album, and Bonnie Raitt’s “Road Tested.” Guitarist McFarlane has worked on albums by Levon Helm, Joss Stone, Bonnie Raitt and Bobby “Blue” Bland. He lives in Muscle Shoals, and works with the Muscle Shoals rhythm section, “The Swampers.” Huckaby is a session singer on Nashville’s Music Row.

The Shoes kick off the album with the relaxed rhythms of “I Got You Covered” carrying Huckaby’s expressive vocals; “Hole in the Sky” is a tightly driven bluesy shuffle that gently swings; “If the Blues Was Green” is clever wordplay with a country two-step feel.

“You Can’t Love Me Like That” turns the music soft and thoughtful; “Roses Are Blue” continues the mood with lovely background harmonies; “Permanent Midnight” is a gorgeous ode to lost love, with the title an elegant description of the subject; “I’ve Seen the Light” offers a rocking duet with former Little Feat vocalist Shaun Murphy; “There Ain’t Nothing You Can Do” is a percussive Latinesque playground.

“Drunk on Love” opens with a discordant barroom flavor that compliments the title; “Tell Me I’m Wrong” gives Huckaby a lilting melody to float above; “That’s What I Get (For Lovin’ You)” is more bluesy country with delicious backup vocals; “Dreaming Again” wraps it all up with a hopeful love song.

One of the best things about this album is the quality of the music, and the sheer musical pleasure that it generates. The band creates a groove that runs through the entire session, no matter what style or tempo. They create just the right feel for Huckaby’s considerable vocal skills.

It all makes for great music that gets better with each listening. Try on these Big Shoes. Walk a musical mile in them. You’ll feel better.

I really didn’t want to say that Big Shoes makes some sweet sole music, but I just couldn’t help myself.

Here’s “A Hole in the Sky” from the album:

Tracklist & Credits:

Roadhouse Album Review: Cash Box Kings check in with the classic sounds of “Oscar’s Motel”

Cash Box Kings — “Oscar’s Motel” — Alligator Records

You want some tough, old-school-feel Chicago-style blues, but with a contemporary vibe?

Then you should check out the latest album from the Cash Box Kings, featuring the massive voice of Oscar Wilson, and the massive talents of everyone else involved.

Harp man, vocalist, songwriter and band founder Joe Nosek has brought together a razor-sharp ensemble of Wilson on lead vocals, Billy Flynn on lead and baritone guitar, Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith on drums, John W. Lauler on upright and electric bass, and Lee Kanehira on piano and organ. There is also a handful of special guests who add just the right amount of icing on the blues cake.

Special guests include vocalists Deitra Farr, Cameron Webb, and John Nemeth, guitarists Shoji Naito, Andrew Diehl, Xavier Lynn, and Jon McDonald, drummer Derek Hendrickson, and The C-Note Horns.

Most of the music on their eleventh album is original, with Wilson and Nosek sharing the writing and creating new blues in the same tough spirit as their spiritual predecessors. They also add rugged covers of a pair of blues chestnuts.

The session kicks off with the title track (imagine that, the title track comes first!), featuring Wilson’s gritty vocals, a little reminiscent of Howlin’ Wolf, in front of Nosek’s wicked harp, all shuffling in classic blues harmony. Next, “Down on the South Side” creates an image of a Chicago filled with the characters of the blues, plus one of the special guests, the C-Note horns, adding their own vivid color.

“Please Have Mercy” downshifts the mood, with a mournful harp intro fueling Wilson’s slow-burning vocal turn on the Muddy Waters song. “I Can’t Stand You” is a light-hearted pairing of the heavy-duty voices of Wilson and guest vocalist Deitra Farr. “Hot Little Mess” is pure Nosek, from the lyrics to the harp to the vocals.

The soulful Cameron Webb shares the vocals on the history lesson in “Nobody Called It the Blues,” and then Wilson relives the urgent driving rhythms of “Pontiac Blues,” the remaining cover track on the album (a footnote about the original below). “Trying So Hard” is another scorching slow blues, fueled by Nosek’s harp and Wilson’s potent pipes, with a stinging guitar adding fuel to the fire. “She Dropped The Axe On Me” is another solo Nosek effort. John Németh adds his considerable vocal chops and wry sensibilities to the envious “I Want What Chaz Has.”

The closer is a surprisingly out-of-season “Ride Santa Ride,” but a rocking good way to giftwrap the package.

“Oscar’s Motel” is the latest in a long run of outstanding music from the Cash Box Kings, who continue to create new music that remains faithful to its roots in style and substance. And it sounds great, too.

A “Pontiac Blues” footnote and a blues pet peeve: This song is credited here to “Williamson,” presumably meaning the man who wrote and recorded it, usually known as Sonny Boy Williamson II, but who was actually Alex or Aleck “Rice” Miller (or Ford, his mother’s name). In the early 1940s, a radio sponsor began referring to Miller as Sonny Boy Williamson to take advantage of the fame of the already well-known blues harpist, John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson, and the name stuck. For a long while, Miller was referred to as Sonny Boy Williamson II, but now even that small distinction seems to have become less used.

There’s no question that Miller had an extraordinary career as an artist. His talent was immense.

But so did John Lee Williamson, and I think it’s important that the blues record remembers that.

Here’s the album’s title track:

Track List:

1 Oscar’s Motel 2:46 (Wilson/Nosek, Eyeball Music, BMI)
2 Down On The South Side 3:41 (Nosek/Wilson, Eyeball Music, BMI)
3 Please Have Mercy 4:00 (Morganfield, Watertoons Music, BMI)
4 I Can’t Stand You 4:20 (Nosek/Wilson/Farr, Eyeball Music, BMI)
5 Hot Little Mess 3:29 (Nosek, Eyeball Music, BMI)
6 Nobody Called It The Blues 3:33 (Abrahamson/Procell/Nosek/Wilson, Throw Your Voice Music, Saw Rite Music, Eyeball Music, BMI)
7 Pontiac Blues 1:57 (Williamson, Arc Music, BMI)
8 Trying So Hard 5:17 (Flynn, Easy Baby Music, BMI)
9 She Dropped The Axe On Me 3:43 (Nosek, Eyeball Music, BMI)
10 I Want What Chaz Has 3:43 (Nosek/Wilson/Flynn, Eyeball Music, BMI)
11 Ride Santa Ride 3:15 (Nosek/Nosek/Wilson, Eyeball Music, BMI)

The Cash Box Kings are:

Joe Nosek: Harmonica, Vocals (5,9), Acoustic Guitar (9)
Oscar Wilson: Vocals
Billy Flynn: Lead Guitar, Baritone Guitar (5)
Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith: Drums (1,4,7,8)
John W. Lauler: Upright and Electric Bass
Lee Kanehira: Piano, Organ

With Special Guests:

Deitra Farr: Vocals (4)
John Nemeth: Vocals (10)
Shoji Naito: Rhythm Guitar (1,4,7,8), Kick Drum (3)
Andrew Diehl: Rhythm Guitar (5,6,9,10,11)
Derek Hendrickson: Drums (5,9,10,11)
Alex Hall: Drums (2,6)
Cameron Webb: Vocals (6)
Xavier Lynn: Rhythm Guitar (2)
Jon McDonald: Guitar (3)

The C-Note Horns:
Al Falaschi: Tenor and Baritone Saxophones (2,5)
Jim Doherty: Trumpet (2)

Roadhouse Album Review: Bob Corritore unlocks some great music from his vaults for “Women In Blues Showcase”

Various Artists — “Women In Blues Showcase — VizzTone

Blues harpmeister and archivist Bob Corritore seems to have everything in his musical vaults except Jimmy Hoffa.

He never seems to have any trouble finding enough fine music from his archives to put together an enjoyable album filled with outstanding blues by some of its best practitioners.

This time, it’s a very special “Women In Blues Showcase,” with a special variety of singers whose voices and songs cover a range of blues styles.

The eight women who contribute the 12 tracks are: Barbara Lynn, Carol Fran, Koko Taylor, Francine Reed, Diunna Greenleaf, Valerie June, Shy Perry, and Aliya Primer (John Primer’s daughter, 17, with her first recording).

The musicians on these songs are multitudinous (see the credits below) as well as magical. Corritore has a knack for capturing some of the best blues performers as they’ve passed through his Rhythm Room club in Phoenix since it opened in 1991. Those recordings make up the archives for his ambitious “From the Vaults” series.

The musicians, songs and styles in the archives are varied, but the constant musical theme is Chicago blues, underlined by Corritore’s tough, versatile harmonica work throughout. He manages to stand out musically, and at the same time, blend into a perfect background for each individual artist.

Those artists, and their songs here, are: Barbara Lynn, “You’re Gonna Be Sorry” — Carol Fran, “I Just Need A Friend” — Valerie June, “Crawdad Hole” — Koko Taylor, “What Kind Of Man Is This” — Shy Perry, “Wang Dang Doodle” — Diunna Greenleaf, “Be For Me” — Aliya Primer, “Te Ni Nee Ni Nu'” — Carol Fran, “I Needs To Be Be’d With” — Diunna Greenleaf, “Don’t Mess With The Messer” — Barbara Lynn, “You Don’t Have To Go” — Carol Fran, “Walkin’ Slipping’ And Slidin'” — Francine Reed, “Why Am I Treated So Bad.”

Each artist offers a unique style, and each song shows off that style, making for a terrific collection of good old-fashioned blues, leaning heavily on its Chicago roots.

Except for Aliya Primer, who is just 17 and making a sparkling recording debut with “Te Ni Nee Ni Nu,” the others are, or were, veteran performers. Sadly, Koko Taylor and Carol Fran are no longer with us, but their voices linger as testimony to their greatness. It’s not clear when each of these recordings was made, but the vocals are powerful blues statements.

In an interesting twist, Shy Perry shines on the raucous “Wang Dang Doodle,” which had become a signature song for Taylor, and Taylor makes her own powerful statement with “What Kind Of Man Is This.”

Diunna Greenleaf and Francine Reed are two big-voiced blueswomen and their traditionally tough vocals stand out here. Valerie June, a singer who is equally at home in folk and country, gives “Crawdad Hole” a delicious old-timey feel.

If I may digress for just a minute, I want to offer my own experiences with Taylor and Reed. Koko Taylor turned up at Pittsburgh-area clubs way back when, and you could always count on her to lift you out of your seats. My photo at left is from her 2008 Chicago Blues Festival appearance, about a year before her death.

I saw Francine Reed, once, in the summer of 1999 at Atlanta’s gorgeous Chastain Park amphitheater, when she was featured with Lyle Lovett’s Large Band. Her performance of the 1924 Ida Cox song, “Wild Women Don’t Get the Blues,” was one of those unforgettably hair-raising, spine-tingling musical moments that never quite dissolve in time.

But back to work. This is a thoughtfully produced, highly enjoyable selection of songs from a handful of great blues singers, some of whom may not have had the recognition that equals their talents. Put this on your playlist, and check out more of the great music from these women.

Here’s the track by Koko Taylor, “What Kind of Man Is This”

Here’s a nice big image of the album’s back cover, so you can find all the credits for these excellent songs.