2017 Blues Albums
It may seem odd to consider this moment in time as a ‘golden age of the blues,’ but in some ways it is exactly that. Because of new technology, it is now possible to dive into the waters of a wide range of artists or entire subgenres of the blues that may have ordinarily slipped under everybody’s radar – except for a select few who may have witnessed the music in person.
So far 2017’s list of new releases feature mostly time-tested veterans who have nothing left to prove. And if you have any doubts about the blues’ enduring power, these new releases can make a believer of you.
Ever wonder what will happen when two blues powerhouses join forces? Check out TajMo and find out. As you might guess, the combined efforts of Keb’ Mo’ and Taj Mahal create an irresistible concoction.
Finding tracks that stand out is a fool’s errand – everything here works in its own way. As tempting as it is to praise the mature social commentary of ‘All Around the World’ or the mature spiritual reflection of ‘That’s Who I am,’ the naughty fun of ‘She Knows How to Rock Me’ steals the spotlight. It is a delightful reminder of how much fun the blues can be – especially in the hands of those who play it best.
Legendary Irish Singer-Songwriter Van Morrison released his 37th studio album, Roll With the Punches in 2017, and longtime fans will be happy to learn that Morrison shows no signs of slowing down.
The songs that most vividly display Morrison’s boundless capacity for energy are Going to Chicago and the cover of the Sam Cooke classic Bring it on Home to Me, which features blistering a performance from another time-tested veteran, guitar God Jeff Beck.
Nearing his 73rd birthday, Morrison has surely rolled with his share of punches, and this album is yet another reason we’re glad he’s weathered the storm.
King King have been known to deliver their brand of southern-fried blues authentically enough to make you forget they’re actually form Glasgow, Scotland – not the Mississippi delta.
Their latest effort, Exile and Grace continues their story of bringing home the blues, one tortured note after another. As scorching as King King can be when they unload the funky blues, it’s when they slow things down a little that a standout track appears. If the forlorn ballad Find your Way Back Home doesn’t give you shivers, it’s time to check your pulse.
Soulful blues crooner Tommy Castro pays homage to the San Jose neighborhood of his youth on Stompin’ Ground. Each song paints a different picture of the world Castro knew as a child, and he’s ably helped by fellow blues guitarist Mike Zito.
The songs that most remarkably transport the listener to Castro’s youth are the funky ballad My Old Neighborhood and the haunting and inspiring Live Every Day.
Kenny Wayne Shepherd is the kind of artist whose music is called genre-defying – and for good reason. His blend of blues, country and rock isn’t easy to label. The best way to describe it is to imagine the blues taking a detour from the Mississippi delta through Nashville, Tennessee.
Shepherd’s album Lay It On Down has many highlights, but the biggest may be ‘She’s $$$,’ a song that won’t get Shepherd any honorary awards from feminist groups with its adolescent leering at a comely female. But this isn’t an album intended for mature contemplation. It’s good, fun and funky, nothing more, nothing less.
Coco Montoya learned his craft in Albert Collins’ band, starting out of drums and later moving to guitar. His playing is plaintive and remarkably expressive, especially on the song ‘Old Habits are Hard to Break.’
On the whole, his vocals don’t quite pack the same power as his magnificent fretwork, but Hard Truth does have moments where he seems to forget that the guitar is his chief instrument. His vocal bravado on The Moon is Full makes the listener forget it too. Hard Truth is very much worth checking out.
Live blues albums tend to have an upside and a downside. The upside is that the music often captures a vibrancy that a professional studio can squeeze out of even the best blues band. The downside is that the recording quality is often poor. Live from the Fox Oakland could have featured better sound, but whatever its flaws, the album more than makes up for in pure blues passion.
Husband and wife band mates Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks may have been married for over decade but judging their playing and singing here sound like a couple on their honeymoon. The standouts are ‘Leaving’ Trunk’ and the scorching ‘Anyhow.’
If Samantha Fish’s stunning good looks distract you from the music’s quality, send your focus to her propulsive vocal energy. She belts out her unique blend of pop, 60s soul and blues in a way that makes her sound impossible to ignore.
Fish is also a skilled guitarist and that talent is most on display on ‘It’s Your Voodoo Working.’ Blues fans, if her name and voice are unfamiliar to you, this is a problem you need to rectify as soon as possible. And Chills and Fever is the best place to start.
Robert Cray is the sort of seasoned blues veteran whose new releases are as dependable as a new day’s sunrise. And true to form, his latest album delivers on all the promise we’ve come to expect from Cray. ‘You Must Believe in Yourself’ is the sort of inspirational tune that serves his uplifting vocals best. Although a case could made that he excels best at soulful ballads like ‘You Had My heart.’ Regardless of your taste, Cray has something for you.
Walter Trout’s long, storied career as an East coast bluesman is well known to any fan of the genre. And each album adds another compelling chapter to his story. And We’re All In This Together may be his most compelling chapter yet.
Trout is at his most dynamic and alive when joined by other skilled guitarists, in this case that includes Kenny Wayne Shepherd on ‘Gonna Hurt Like Hell.’ and his Jon on ‘Do You Still See Me At All.’ Scheduled for a September release, We’re All In This Together is not to be missed.
Dubbed "The King of Slydeco,” Sonny Landreth unique blend of chicken-fried zydeco-inflected blues along with his unusual guitar picking never fail to entertain. Born in Mississippi, Landreth settled in Lafayette, Louisiana, making this release a homecoming of sorts. This may explain how relaxed and contemplative he sounds throughout the album.
The songs that shine the most are ‘A World Away,’ Blues Attack,’ and the haunting ‘True Blue.’ On this track, Landreth’s wistful vocal seem to echo across the Louisiana swampland. A exemplar song on an exemplar album. Don’t miss it.
A list of blues and pop masters who have passed through John Mayall’s band John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers reads like a hall of fame of blues/rock stars. A few of those names include Eric Clapton, Mick Fleetwood, Mick Taylor and Jack Bruce. And yet John Mayall’s latest album – Talk About That – doesn’t sound like the stroll down memory lane you’d expect from a man with so much blues history in his past.
True, the eleven-track collection is as deeply rooted in blues history as anything you’re likely to hear. But Mayall’s voice doesn’t ache for a revival of the past. It’s all about looking forward – to new love, new music and, in the case of the album’s best song Gimme Some of that Gumbo, a steaming hot bowl of New Orleans tastiness.
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member Elvin Bishop has a knack for blending country and the blues in a way that truly stands out. And his latest effort, Elvin Bishop’s Big Fun Trio is a familiar-sounding romp through territory Bishop knows well after over half a century of playing the blues. Ably backed-up by Bob Welsh and well-travelled journeyman Willy Jordan, Bishop reminds us how much fun the blues can be while also taking a few dips into darker waters.
Those darker waters consist mostly of the wounded ballad Can’t Take No More and the odd moment of despair on otherwise upbeat tracks. Simply put, there’s a reason Bishop’s band is called the Big Fun Trio.
Bishop’s raspy shout won’t dazzle the American Idol crowd, but here it’s just fine, barking out the blues like nobody else.
Describing Otis Taylor’s latest album as a treatise on the African-American experience is both accurate and unfair. Why unfair? Because this oddly titled masterpiece isn’t the dry history lesson that such a label would suggest. Instead it is visceral, raw, beautiful and often deflating. History class has never been such an emotional experience. Although everything works wonderfully here, the stand out tracks include the deeply spiritual Hands on Your Stomach and the rollicking Jump out of Line.
On, ‘Fantasizing,’ Otis Taylor summons bebop, bluegrass, psychedelica and African tribal rhythms in a way that feel both refreshingly new and warmly familiar.
Closing in on his 70th birthday, Taylor has delivered tasty blues before, but this is a remarkable achievement even by his sky-high standards.
Hayes McMullan lived and died as a man of mystery in the world of the blues. A gifted bluesman whose life exemplified everything sad and lovely about the genre, Hayes has recently become rediscovered by blues scholars.
His stunning musical legacy offers a window not only into the life of the bluesman behind it, but to the roots of the genre itself. Hayes, after all, was born in 1902 and as we listen to such striking cuts as Look-a-here Woman Blues and Goin’ Where the Chilly Winds Don’t Blow we are listening to the very invention of a bold new music.
Also included here are snippets of a conversational interview captured on audio cassette. These brief interludes – sometimes funny, sometimes tragic – keep us grounded in the wild, wondrous life of McMullen. In other words, they teach us all about the blues.
Unlike the other albums featured here, Thorbjorn Risenger’s Change My Game is not the work of a longtime bluesman. Nor is his home a region widely recognized as a hotbed of traditional blues. But this Danish singer/songwriter has done his homework. And his searing voice is deeply seeped in blues tradition enough to make us forget he wasn’t born the son of a Mississippi sharecropper.
The song Holler N Moan packs the most punch. Raw and unrelenting, this tune channels the best from the genre Risenger so obviously loves. The same can be said of the album’s stunning closer, City of Love. Both tracks make the most of Risenger’s aptly dubbed backing band The Black Tornado. However unlikely its origin, Change My Game is electric blues at its most electrifying.