2016 Blues Albums
This 2016 Blues Album Round-up features albums from the time-tested veterans, great stuff from the genre’s younger apprentices as well as a lovely dose of surprises.
THE ROLLING STONES - BLUE AND LONESOME
The titanic blues influence on the Rolling Stones is something even the casual Stones fan is fully aware of. How could you miss it? They always brought a little Muddy Waters with them.
Blue and Lonesome is an enjoyable reminder of how the Rolling Stones could sound when they didn’t drift far from the world of the twelve-bar blues. No pompous art rock here, no psychadelica, no chasing of recent pop music trends. Just straight-ahead guitar, drums and harp blues. “All of Your Love” and “I Gotta Go” stand out the most, but they’re all gems – if only because they remind you where the World’s Greatest Rock Band came from.
JOE BONAMASSA - LIVE AT THE GREEK THEATRE
There’s something about a live setting that makes the blues explode. And who better to demonstrate this than Joe Bonamassa, a veteran blues-rock road warrior whose propulsive brand of blues-tinged rock is perfect for the stage? With a capacity of just under six thousand, Los Angeles’ Greek Theater is no tiny blues club, but Bonamassa has just the skilled touch needed to make his music intimate enough to fool the listener into thinking he’s enjoying the sounds of a small after hours tavern in rural Mississippi.
From the thrilling opening track, Some Other Day, Some Other Time, to the rollicking closer, “Riding with the Kings,” Live at the Greek Theatre is an unforgettable experience.
MATTY T WALL - BLUE SKIES
The ability to pour fresh new wine into old glasses is rare in contemporary blues. Most young artists of the genre either wind up simply duplicating the old masters or they go astray in their efforts to forge new ground. But Matty T Wall manages to avoid either extreme. His debut effort stays close to the blues formula, but still sounds very much like a product of his own voice – and nobody else’s. While he unmistakably borrows from the greats, he also creates a rich, evocative sound (both in his vocals and his guitar) that will undoubtedly be evoked by others in the future.
Many songs stand out, but the Robert Johnson cover, “Hellbound on my Trail,” stands out the most.
COLIN JAMES - BLUE HIGHWAYS
At fifty-two, blues guitar hero Colin James may be no spring chicken, but he certainly plays like one. He injects a youthful shot of energy into his music with ever note he twangs, bends and slides.
James also brings the vocals of a younger man, shouting and wailing the tradition of all the blues greats – and still somehow forging his own sound. But Blue Highways has quieter moments too, like the haunting classic “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” and “Gypsy Woman.” Your mileage may vary, but Blue Highways is guaranteed to take you for a ride.
HARVEY MANDEL - SNAKE PIT
Harvey Mandel’s Snake Pit is blues-rock with the emphasis on the rock. But blues purists shouldn’t be frightened away. Mandel’s sound is deeply rooted in everything that makes the blues what it is. Each track delights and haunts the listener in its own way. Elements of heavy metal, funk and even progressive rock can’t disguise the blues center at the core. Indeed the music shines even brighter because of the embellishment. There’s nothing wrong with dressing up the blues a little. And the when the clothes are this stylish, there’s nothing wrong with dressing them up a lot.
DAVID BROMBURG - THE BLUES, THE WHOLE BLUES, AND NOTHING BUT THE BLUES
David Bromburg’s unique and eccentric style could be best described as the blues played by a travelling band from Mars. And yet for all the odd and off-kilter quality of his vocals, Bromburg’s music somehow fits firmly into the tradition of the blues – with a refreshing dash of bluegrass and folk. If you ever need a reminder of how much fun the blues can be, the quirky track, “Why are People Like that” is right there waiting for you. But then there are also heaver tracks like “A Fool for You,” and “Delia.” In other words, Bromburg has a sound like no other, but still sounds like the history of the blues.
SEASICK STEVE - KEEPIN' THE HORSE BETWEEN ME AND THE GROUND
If the title of Seasick Steve’s latest release “Keepin' The Horse Between Me And The Ground” sounds like a classic western, that’s probably not a coincidence. The veteran bluesman has the soul of lonesome, wandering cowboy – and nothing sums up his persona better than “Gypsy Blood.” And wandering from one dazzling track to another is quite a journey.
As with many journeys, the final destination is the loveliest. Covering a Hank Williams classic, Steve delivers a heartfelt vocal that should leave even the toughest cowboy with a moist set of eyes. If country-tinged blues is something your thing, this is a must-have.
KING KING - LIVE
King King is a four-piece band whose specialized brand of the blues comes with more than a hint of arena rock. They are loud and raw and relentlessly soulful. And their latest effort captures it all, inviting us right there in the middle of the screaming, dancing, smoking crowd. The Frenzied tune “Crazy” says it all. Its lyrics and music are as close as we’ll come to the band’s mission statement.
Give King King’s live album a chance and they’ll drive you crazy too. But insanity like this isn’t something you’ll want to get rid of.
JOE BONAMASSA - BLUES OF DESPERATION
A quick glance at the top of iTunes and Amazon blues charts gives us plenty of Joe Bonamassa. The hard-driving blues master’s album Blues of Desperation tops the album downloads chart while his heartfelt ballad ‘Drive’ stands alone on the single’s chart. Fans of the blues-rocker will be happy to hear Bonomassa sounding his usual vibrant self, both through his beloved Marshall amplifier and his time-tested vocal chords.
THE SONGS OF BLIND WILLIE JOHNSON - GOD DON'T EVER CHANGE
Another recent release not to be missed by fans of the blues is God Don’t Never Change: The Songs of Blind Willie Johnson. Compilation albums featuring classic songs by contemporary artists can be often be a tricky thing to pull off, if only because of the difficulty of one generation’s artists interpreting another’s. But God Don’t Never Change somehow works, perhaps owing to the simplicity of Johnson’s work. There’s never any confusion about the man’s subject matter and those along for this album’s ride don’t sound confused at all. Standout tracks include Trouble Will Soon Be Over by Sinead O’Connor, The Soul of a Man by Tom Waits and the haunting Let Your Light Shine on Me by Maria McKee.
JEFF HEALEY - HEAL MY SOUL
And speaking of sightless wonders of the blues, fans of the late Jeff Healey will not be disappointed in the Canadian-born star’s posthumous release Heal My Soul. The opening track’s first line “Gonna Cause me some trouble before I’m through!” tells you everything you need to about Healy’s tragically short career. With help from his trusted six-stringer, he caused the kind of trouble that turn bluesmen into legends.
LAYLA ZOE - BREAKING FREE
Among the current crop of Canadian blues-tinged stars, Layla Zoe stands out. On her recent release, “Breaking Free,” Zoe does just that. She boldly breaks free of the mold and belts out tune after tune in a way that evokes the very best of female blues belters.
ROUGH GUIDE TO BOTTLENECK BLUES
Rough Guide to Bottleneck Blues delivers exactly what its title promises. The compilation release would serve as an astonishing introduction to anyone unfamiliar with this style of playing. Featuring the fretboard mastery of such giants as Lead Belly, Blind Willie Davis and Son House, Rough Guide to Bottleneck Blues is a standout for anyone fond of the Blues’ storied past.
BONNIE RAITT - DIG IN DEEP
There are blue artists whose music and careers have a remarkably timeless quality. Bonnie Raitt is one such artist. It seems impossible that she’s been steadily recording and touring now for nearly half a century. The California-born songstress has a recent release that features all the wisdom of a blues veteran delivered with the vibrancy of a fresh-faced novice. Dig in Deep has all the trademarks well-known to Raitt’s style. Her sharp slide guitar, her acidic, but somehow soothing voice and an emotional rawness that makes listening nearly as painful as joyous.
JAMES COTTON - TWO SIDES OF THE BLUES
For those who like their blues flavored with a healthy dose of harmonica, there’s a recent re-release of James Cotton’s Two Sides of the Blues. Originally released a decade ago, Two Sides features the kind of down home rawness that would have touched the soul of any blues fan had it been released in 1990, 1955 or indeed in 1935, the year of Cotton’s birth. This speaks volumes about Cotton, but also about the elemental quality of the blues itself. It cannot grow old because the emotions that create it are the same now as they’ve been since the beginning of time.
JOHNNY RAWLS - TIGER IN A CAGE
Tiger in a Cage perfectly sums up Rawls’ career and his worldview. The opening – and title – track delivers a hard-hitting message about the incarceration of much of today’s youth. A similarly sober tone is set on the next track Born to the Blues, a sensitive detailing of his years in Mississippi. But just in case you forgot how much fun Rawls can have there’s also the Jackie Wilson cover Your Love is Lifting Me (Higher and Higher) as well as his spirited rendition of Sam Cooke’s Having a Party.
BUDDY GUY - BORN TO PLAY GUITAR
This pioneer of the Chicago Blues is no newcomer to dazzling audiences with soul-shredding ballads. He’s been doing it for decades now and nothing on Born to Play Guitar suggests any plans to slow down.
Buddy Guy has influenced a host of guitar slingers on both sides of the Atlantic (Jimmy Page, Keith Richards, Jeff Beck, John Mayer, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan). Closing in on his eightieth birthday, he’s even outlasted a few of his younger devotees.
On his latest album, Guy delivers exactly the blues you’ve been aching for – the blues he’s been serving up since cutting his teeth in Chicago more than half a century ago.
But Born to Play Guitar is no mere exercise in nostalgia.
Tracks like Whiskey, Beer and Wine and Turn Me Wild sound as fresh today as they might have decades ago.
JONN DEL TORO RICHARDSON - TENGO BLUES
For those more eager to discover where the blues has recently traveled to, there’s Jonn Del Toro Richardson, whose album Tengo Blues celebrates a recent release. With a musical pedigree that began in a touring Mariachi band, it could safely be said that Richardson boasts an unusual background for a blues artist.
As a young fan, Richardson’s tastes ranged from Classic rock to Motown R&B to country. But finding his true home was simply a matter of finding the blues. A performance in the International Blues challenge in Memphis in 2005 lead to Richard garnering the Albert King award for the most promising blues guitarist. Among the many luminaries of the blues world he’s performed with are Gary More, James Cotton and Ronnie Earl.
Tengo Blues mixes boldly mixes all the influences that have made Richardson’s identity. Like any young blues star, he isn’t afraid to absorb the work of the time-tested masters. But a few songs (in particular Get Me Back to Texas and This I Know) stand out as possessing the kind of maturity you wouldn’t expect from such a newcomer.
Most distinctive about Richardson is his voice. More of a gentle whisper than the kind of bruising shout common in the genre, he seems to be softly guiding his listeners through all the sadness, agony, desire and hope of a journey worth hearing about.
It’s been several decades since the blues has crossed the Atlantic and landed in Europe. But for most fans, the genre’s influences have travelled no further than the UK.
Finland’s Ina Forsman is breathtaking proof of how deep into Europe that influence had extended. Released on Ruf Records, Forsman’s self-titled album puts the vocalist’s skills on vivid display. Most stunning is the versatility of subject matter and mood. From the unfettered joy of Hanging Out to the soft vulnerability of Before You Go Home, every base is covered and Forsman’s supple voice reaches the ear just right each time.
In addition to the usual cast of blues gods, the Finish chanteuse found influence from a wide range of sources. “Mostly, I listened to old-soul and blues records – artists like Donny Hathaway, Aretha Franklin and Sam Cooke – so this idea of a blues album turned into a soul/blues album.
Mostly, it just came out that way, without much planning or trying to get a specific vibe.”
Planned or not, Ina Forsman’s self-titled album is a gem not to be missed by blues fans. But be warned: blues fans unaware that Finns could sing the blues are in for a delightful surprise.
GREGG MARTINEZ - SOUL OF THE BAYOU
Gregg Martinez’s home state of Louisiana has produced more than a few blues greats from Little Walter to LIghtin Slim to Professor Longhair. And all of the defining qualities of Louisiana-grown blues – eccentricity, sexual braggadocio and a foot-stomping rhythm – are in ample supply in Mac Daddy. Indeed the words “I had twenty-five women follow me out of the club one night” could have just as easily come from a French Quarter street busker hoping to scrape together enough for a po’ boy sandwich.
SARI SCHORR - FORCE OF NATURE
Sari Schorr’s first album A Force of Nature was heavily anticipated by those aware of Schorr’s immense vocal talents. And while the native New Yorker’s singing ability is more than enough to create buzz, the supporting players certainly add to the excitement.
To begin with, there is producer Mike Vernon, a well-respected veteran of blues/rock players. Vernon’s resume reads like a who’s who of blues rockers of note. He’s produced Eric Clapton, John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers as well as Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac.
Guitar master Innes Sibun (former member of Robert Plant’s backing band) leads the way among her band mates. The others include and vocals, bassist Nani Conde, John Baggot on Keyboards and Jose Mena on drums. Guitarist Walter Trout performs his well-known tune ‘Work no More’ as a duet with Schorr.
Recorded in Seville, Spain, A Force of Nature sounds very much like a can’t-miss project.