“West Texas Blues” a fine album of … West Texas blues, in forgotten formats

Since I opened the Blues Roadhouse late last year, I’ve written about a bunch of new albums that I’ve heard and enjoyed. I’ve resisted the occasional temptation to reach back beyond my start date for new releases, simply because there would be so many. And, you know, so little tiime.

But then I got my April newsletter from Sue Foley the other day, in which she mentioned shooting a video for an album she cut with Mike Flanigin last July, the album being titled “West Texas Blues.”

Available now on Compact Disc, Reel-To-Reel Tape, 8-Track Tape & Cassette from the Store! 180-gram vinyl available now through Experience Vinyl here. Also available on all digital platforms.

Well. I do love some fine B3. Likewise, Foley’s vocals and crisp guitar (plus, my very first girlfriend was a redhead, too). And West Texas itself, always a kind of mysterious place full of folklore, tough music, and tougher hombres (at least that’s how it seemed in the old cowboy movies I saw).

But what really caught my eye here was an image on Flanigin’s web site, promoting the formats in which this new album is available. Normally, you can get a CD, and digital downloads. And usually, streaming platforms. And sometimes, a vinyl version.

But “West Texas Blues” is not only available on CD and online, it’s available on cassettes! And 8-tracks!! And, wait for it, REEL-TO-REEL!!! All right here. I mean, I once knew someone who had a reel-to-reel player, but that was about a half-century ago. It did sound quite good, though.

But you say you only have a turntable, because that’s the only way that recorded music can possibly sound good? There’s also a 180-gram vinyl version available from Experience Vinyl.

The idea of a 21st-century 8-track is somewhat mind-boggling, but I think it was the reel-to-reel that got me. How could I not write about this album?

And, given the talent, and the resulting music, how could I not like it?

“West Texas Blues” is stripped-down, bare-bones blues. No frills. No fancy production gimmicks. It features just three stellar musicians: Flanigin, a Hammond B3 wizard, Foley, a Canadian-born but nonetheless Texas guitar wizardress, and Chris ‘Whipper’ Layton, holding it all together on drums.

It’s a “live” in-studio production that flows effortlessly. The haunting title track opens the album with guitar and organ riffs sensuously entwined around a rock-solid beat.

There’s a pair of sweet-sounding duets between Foley and Flanigin — “If You Think I’ve Lost You” and “Candy Kisses,” but they never lose the underlying toughness of the sound.

It’s not all haunting melodies: “Rooster Blues,” “Congo Mombo,” “I Live Where the Action Is” and “Bad Boy” all kick up the right amount of desert dust for dancing – real or mirage.

So yes, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable effort. Three talented musicians getting together to make some very personal blues to share. It sounds like the album cover looks.

Even if you don’t have an 8-track or reel-to-reel player, you should give it a listen.

Here’s the opening track, “West Texas Blues”

Track List:
West Texas Blues
I Got My Eyes on You
I Live Where the Action Is
Bad Boy
If You Think I’ve Lost You (Secret Weapon)
ThunderBird
Rockin’ Daddy
Candy Kisses
Rooster Blues
Congo Mombo

“Raisin’ Cain” is blistering new blues from Chris Cain

Chris Cain is one of those gifted blues musicians whose fame doesn’t extend quite as far as his prodigious talents.

His terrific new album, “Raisin’ Cain,” drops tomorrow (April 9). It’s his first for Alligator Records. Both of those factors — a terrific album, and Alligator’s prominence in the blues recording business — should go a long way toward moving Cain even higher in the blues guitarist pyramid.

I’m not trying to say that Chris Cain has been hidden in the blues witness protection program. He’s been playing his strings off for three decades. He’s a star in his West Coast stomping grounds in the San Francisco Bay area. This is his 15th album. His guitar work, like his vocals, is big, bold and relentless.

On this album, Cain delivers a set of 12 originals that highlight his songwriting skills, his tough and gruff vocal style, and his versatile guitar work.

His entire skill set comes together for me here on two blazing tracks — the scorching “Down on the Ground” and the autobiographical “Born to Play.” They’re filled with lyrical grit and seriously ferocious guitar; the kind of music that should immediately come to mind whenever you hear the word “blues.”

And if those two songs aren’t enough for you, there are 10 more, all just as fine in their own way.

Some highlights: “Can’t Find a Good Reason” finds Cain lamenting a lost love (relationships being a recurring theme here), but with a lighter touch with more liquid, guitar runs; “Found a Way to Make Me Say Goodbye” struts along with muscular vocals out front; “Hush Money” has a funky vibe; “I Don’t Know Exactly What’s Wrong With My Baby” is quieter, looser jazz-infused; “Space Force” wraps up the album with a quirky, jazz-like turn on the ARP Soloist synthesizer. And just to show that’s no fluke, Cain takes a keyboard turn on several songs with piano, Wurlitzer Electric Piano, and the clavinet (think Stevie Wonder on “Superstition.”

“Raisin’ Cain” was recorded in San Jose, Calif., at the prolific Kid Andersen’s Greaseland Studio. Andersen, as he often does, contributes some guitar and even background vocals. Cain’s backer’s here are bassist Steve Evans, keyboardist/organist Greg Rahn, and Chris’ touring drummer Sky Garcia and veteran D’mar Martin sharing those duties.

Cain says “I want my songs to tell universal stories,” and they do. That story-telling, a key to all good blues, lends a cohesive quality to the album that underlies the passion of the music. If you’ve never had the pleasure, or haven’t heard him for a while, check out “Raisin’ Cain.” It’s Chris Cain at the top of his already winning game.


And now for something a little different:

It has occurred to me (yes, sometimes things do) that in today’s world of music, a huge amount is heard through streaming services and is bought online, sometimes a track at a time. This means that today’s music consumer is deprived of one of the physical pleasures of music ownership that was once commonplace to dinosaurs like myself — the record album cover. Or CD booklet. Or cassette label. Or 45 sleeve. I don’t know what eight-tracks had.

You usually get to see the album cover (pictured above, at no extra cost), but you may rarely see the liner notes. It’s true, those notes are infallibly high praise for the contents, but quite often they include biographical or other information of interest to the fan who sometimes enjoys words with her music.

And so (again, completely free and with no obligation on your part), here are the interesting and informative liner notes from “Raisin’ Cain” by the illustrious Dick Shurman . Let me know if this is worth the time it takes me to copy and paste.

Take some influence from B.B. King, Albert King, Ray Charles, and a pinch of Albert Collins. Add in dazzling blues and jazz guitar chops, a rich soulful baritone vocal delivering original, often wry and beleaguered lyrics with sophisticated chord changes and instrumentation, and skills on various horns and keyboards, all delivered with an uptown cool that never lacks searing passion. It all adds up to the one and only Chris Cain, who has gone from being a newcomer phenomenon bursting onto the blues scene in 1987 with a classic debut release, to being a legend, inspiration and long-established member of the blues pantheon. His fifteenth CD, Raisin’ Cain, ranks among his best.

The San Francisco Bay Area has nurtured an illustrious coterie of blues guitar greats, including Chicago transplant Mike Bloomfield and Robben Ford. So blues fans took notice when word started coming from the South Bay in the late ’80s that a serious new contender was stepping into the ring, with major league string bends, a fluid touch, a soaring tone and a master’s approach to composition. Chris’ first CD, Late Night City Blues, was issued on Robben Ford’s brother Pat’s Blue Rock’It label. Containing all the essential elements of Chris’ excellence, conveyed via shuffles, slow blues, swing and funk, framed by keys and horns, it garnered raves. The album received four W.C. Handy nominations including Band Of The Year and Guitarist Of The Year.

Chris was born in San Jose on November 19, 1955, as he recounts in “Born To Play.” Both his parents were blues-enlightened, especially his Memphis-raised, African-American father but also his Greek mother. He was taken to concerts by blues and jazz immortals from the get-go; he remembers attending a B.B. King show when he was three. His father gave Chris a guitar at age eight; by the time he was 18 he was playing professionally (and had also taught himself piano). His mother introduced Chris to Mike Bloomfield’s music early on; it served as an affirmation that someone like him could achieve what he was chasing. Vocal inspirations came from Curtis Salgado, Gary Smith, and big-voiced jazzy blues singers like Jimmy Witherspoon and Big Joe Turner. Chris has described his efforts to sing in a voice like his speaking voice, and his vocals reflect a conversational quality as well as a full quotient of melodicism. He studied music at San Jose City College (where he also took up saxophone); soon he was teaching jazz improvisation there. Eventually, to help him get jobs, he recorded the songs that became Late Night City Blues. Chris says, “Today that record is still a favorite. It was me doing it my way.” It sent him into the blues public consciousness and onto the touring circuit. He made an immediate splash, earning the respect of his fellow musicians, including that of his heroes Albert King and Albert Collins, who invited Chris onstage to jam with them.

Since then Chris has cut a dozen CDs on Blue Rock’It, Blind Pig, Little Village, his own label and a 2015 release fronting a New Zealand big band. It is a sign of the esteem from his peers that he has been in demand for recorded cameos, with Mighty Mike Schermer, Luca Giordano, Sista Monica, E.C. Scott, the Ford Blues Band, Robben Ford, Chester Thompson and Nancy Wright, plus many others. His previous album, Chris Cain, on the Little Village label, was produced by Kid Andersen and recorded at Kid Andersen’s Greaseland studio in San Jose in 2017. Things went so well that the principals returned to the scene of the crime. Raisin’ Cain is the happy result.

Chris’ path to Alligator has been the proverbial long and winding road. Early on, Chris sent some of his music to Alligator; the label took a pass. After all these years, it’s extremely gratifying to see that the stars finally lined up, and Raisin’ Cain more than justifies the mutual faith between Chris and Alligator that should benefit both parties and blues fandom. The program is all originals, with Chris stinging and swinging over mellow but insistent grooves in well-crafted settings and on top of his game, even venturing to an Arp Soloist synthesizer for the concluding “Space Force.” The autobiographical “Born To Play” reiterates that few can or could dig as deeply into a slow blues as Chris. But it’s his versatility as well as his musical mastery that continues to mark Chris as special. Chris continues his globetrotting (he’s performed in Argentina, Uruguay, Italy, Spain, France, Belgium, The Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, Switzerland, Australia, New Zealand, Russia, Ukraine and more) and racking up highway miles in the U.S.. He retains his reputation as one of the tastiest and most powerful artists on the scene and a musician’s musician. He’s a beloved cult figure in the Bay Area, and his licks resound through the playing of many locals. But there was never a hit song and he never sustained visibility on the national scene. Now he has an opportunity with a label which has proven to be a major asset for its roster.

For all his booming voice, Chris will never be known for the imposing physical stature its depth suggests. But that’s the only lack of stature about Chris. When a lucky listener enjoys his music, there is absolutely no doubt that Chris Cain is a giant.

Dick Shurman
Dick Shurman is a blues producer and historian. He has produced over 60 albums and been published worldwide. He has been inducted into the Blues Hall Of Fame and the Chicago Blues Hall Of Fame.

“Raisin’ Cain” tracklist:

1. Hush Money
2. You Won’t Have A Problem When I’m Gone
3. Too Many Problems
4. Down On The Ground
5. I Believe I Got Off Cheap
6. Can’t Find A Good Reason
7. Found A Way To Make Me Say Goodbye
8. Born To Play
9. I Don’t Know Exactly What’s Wrong With My Baby
10. Out Of My Head
11. As Long As You Get What You Want
12. Space Force

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.