2019 Blues Albums
As the world of mainstream popular music grows more and more focused on technology and its latest trends, the blues gains a new kind of respect among those too young to recall the genre’s early days.
The respect is mostly earned through a mastery of old-school instruments. Whether’s it’s Robin Trower’s blazing guitar work, Brandon Santini harmonica skills or the keyboard chops of longtime session player Reese Wynams, it is through the blues that good old-fashioned musicianship lives.
Fast approaching birthday number seventy, Walter Trout has been a part of the blues scene long enough to earn the right to name an album Survivor Blues. If you’re familiar with this brand of the blues, you know that his years of serving as sideman for John Lee Hooker and Joe Tex have given his playing the vivid color it needs.
Survivor blues has the trademark Walter Trout voice, whether that voice is the one blasting through his amplifier or his throat. The gently rocking ‘Sadie’ might be the album’s best track, but it gets fierce competition from the searing ‘Be Careful How you Vote’ and the plaintive ‘Nature’s Disappearing,’ both of which take a familiar blues formula and update them for the contemporary world.
If you want to know what the blues will sound like in the future, Deep Blue Sea’s 2019 release Strange Ways would be a great place to start. Blues purists may object to the enormous debt the band owes to the realm of recent guitar-based rock, but make no mistake: Live it up is as worthy an inheritor of the mantle of Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson as any ‘pure’ blues band.
Lead singer Dregas’ vocals shine best on The Thrill of it All, but the album’s closer Wounded is where all the elements come together most urgently. Deep Blue Sea’s latest album follows in the tradition of strong live blues performances. And even better, it promises more great music to come.
Buddy Guy’s legacy for many baby boomer fans of the genre is his enormous influence on sixties rock artists such as Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck and The Rolling Stones. So it’s appropriate that his latest album’s strongest tracks are ones that feature cameos by some of these boomer generation stars.
Jeff Beck and Keith Richards provide strong support on the mischievous track ‘Cognac.’ Meanwhile Mick Jagger lends his remarkable mouth harp skills to the sweet ballad ‘You Did the Crime.’ Fellow Stone Keith Richards has been quoted as saying ‘You get the real Mick Jagger when he plays the harmonica.’
Jimi, of course, is no longer around to provide a cameo, but his soul is alive on well on the kamikaze blitz of ‘Whiskey for Sale.’ As long as Buddy Guy keeps grinding out albums, the blues will indeed be alive and well.
If you only know the Climax Blues Band from 70s and 80s pop hits like ‘I Love You’ and ‘Couldn’t Get it Right,’ you’ve been missing out on a band with a surprisingly impressive body of work. This veteran blues/rock band has a lot to say that you’ve been missing over the years. And Hands of Time is your chance to catch up.
Hands of time lacks the raw energy of their earlier efforts, but it’s a fine album just the same. ‘Top of the World’ captures the playfulness of Louisiana Zydeco in a way that might seem impossible for a band from Stafford, England. Meanwhile the haunting ‘Flood of Emotions’ gives us the world wear lamentations of a good man watching the world go bad. For those not yet familiar with Climax Blues Band, Hands of Time would be a strong introduction.
So far, Ina Forsman has already answered the question ‘Can a girl from Finland really sing the blues?’ with a commanding yes. But she now has her sights on conveying a maturity her previous albums had only hinted at.
The opening track ‘Be My Home’ sets the tone stunningly. Forsman’s aching voice is all the track needs to beguile the listener. But she’s backed by an able band that helps us get to that soulful place Ina wants to take us.
And then there’s the funky ‘Chains,’ maybe the albums’s strongest track. As her career sprints along, Ina Forsman’s voice gets stronger and stronger — and, thankfully, so does her music.
Known as a reliable session keyboardist, Wynam’s sound could be best described as blues-tinged, southern boogie. His best-known sessions have been with such luminaries as Double Trouble, Buddy Guy and Joe Banamassa. His work here suggests he’s learned a lot over the years.
But it’s not enough for Wynam to showcase what he’s learned over the years. He also brings along Bonamassa — one of his past mentors — for the ride. We also get a healthy dose of Buddy Guy, Kenny Wayne Sheppard and Keb’ Mo.’ While the guests help the album shine, Sweet Release is best when Wynams’ keyboard take center stage. ‘Shape I’m in’ and the Beatles cover ‘Blackbird’ are prime examples.
The harmonica is often regarded as a vital component of the blues. Brandon Santini understands this as well as any mouth harp player. A gifted singer and songwriter, Santini excels at many things, but his harmonica playing stands out even among a highly skilled lineup of bandmates.
Santini’s skills are most vividly on display on the songs ‘Heartbreaker’ and ‘My Worried Mind,’ but thankfully, his harp-playing ability isn’t his only asset. He also has the vocal chops to make The Long Shot a solid winner.
The relationship between gospel and the blues is complicated, but undeniably linked. The blues has been thought of as a ‘The Devil’s music’ while gospel comes directly from a more spiritually respected place.
Both genres are blissfully alive and well in the voice of time-tested veteran Mavis Staples. As the long-time lead singer of the family gospel outfit The Staple Singers, Mavis has helped pioneer the idea of gospel music finding a mainstream audience. Live in London is peppered with reminders of the path she has helped blaze. ‘Let’s Do it Again’ stands out as the best track, but there are also a few unlikely covers (the Talking Heads song ‘Slippery People’ and the Funkadelic song ‘Can You Get to That’) to let us know how breathtakingly diverse her tastes have become.
Staples’ vocal prowess is on display on the recently released Live in London and hotly anticipated on her soon-to-be released We Get By. For newer fans, Live in London is an ample introduction to Staple’s prowess. For those already fans, the album serves as a robust refresher course. Meanwhile, We Get By — due for a May 24th release — promises to be yet another gem in an already stunning career.
Jeremy Spencer takes us back to the very roots of blues guitar. He plays the slide acoustic six-stringer with grit and passion. In other words, he played music Robert Johnson would have loved.
‘Serene Serena ‘stands out as the album’s most heartfelt track. Not only does Spencer’s lovely guitar work add volumes to it, but his limited vocal range actually gives the song a sense of vulnerability it might have otherwise lacked.
But there’s also ‘It Hurts Me Too,’ another sweet ballad. Here, Spencer’s playing and voice create a palpable sense of empathy. The chorus “When things go wrong with you, it hurts me too” captures something lovely about the ability of the blues to make the pain of others hit home.
Precious Little is very close to a classic of the genre.
Coming from a musical family — she’s the daughter of blues singer Victor Brox — Kyla Brox came by her talent honestly. Her voice has an emotional range that’s highly unusual in the blues. She can belt out tunes like the very best of the genre’s shouters, but when the song demands it, she can show a sweet and vulnerable side.
The intense — presumably autobiographical — ‘Bluesman’s Child’ stands out as the album’s high point, but it gets fierce competition from the gentle but uplifting ‘Choose Life.’ Overall, Pain and Glory is a joy, in part because it drifts away from the blues just enough to keep things intriguing.
It’s been over a half century since Robin Trower’s breakout success with the band Procol Harum, but Trower sounds fresh and full of passion. His latest album Coming Closer to the Day combines the intensity of a much younger man with the old-school grit of a blues/rock legend.
The title track may be the album’s high point. On it, Trower whimpers and cries with a vocal chords as well as his guitar. And the result is stunning.
Coming Closer would be a great album for someone unfamiliar with the singer/songwriter to start with. In fact, it wouldn’t be a bad place to start for someone seeking a crash course in the blues.
Joanne Shaw Taylor’s latest album is not for those who like their blues soft and gentle. It is a wild roller coaster through Taylor’s dreams and nightmares. Scheduled for a May 17th release, it will not disappoint anyone who’s come to expect nothing less from the singer/guitarist.
The raucous ‘Bad Love’ stands out as packing the most punch, while the flirtatious ‘In the Mood’ kicks the album off with just the right tone. Reckless Heart is Reckless tour of its subject’s heart — in the very best way.
A vibrantly delivered live album is nothing new for blues guitarist Joe Bonamassa. In addition to his impressive array of studio albums, he’s previously gifted his lucky fans with releases recorded at locales as wide-ranging as London’s Royal Albert Hall, The Beacon Theatre of New York and LA’s famed Greek Theatre. But with each new offering, Bonamassa’s work matures and deepens. By the blues’ standards, the 42-year can’t yet be considered a time-tested veteran, but he’s well on his way. And Live at The Sydney’s Opera House may be his best live recording ever.
The standout tracks range from the blistering ‘Mainline Florida’ to the understated ballad drive. The New York born Bonamassa may have recorded his latest effort far from his stomping grounds, but the blues master has a way of sounding right at home in any live setting.
The opening track to Beth Hart’s latest release ‘War in My Mind’ is like a warming shot — a loud raucous spark that sets the tone and lets us know right away that we’re dealing a dangerous lady. While preserving the tradition of female blues shouter, Hart also helps bring the blues in the 21st century.
From there, things only get louder and more raucous. The gritty vocalist and multi-instrumentalist has a gift for creating a hauntingly vivid picture of her mind, whether its state of mind is peaceful or at war. In addition to the hard-driving opening song, the other standouts include the upbeat ‘Let it Grow’ and the soft ballad ‘I Need a Hero’ perhaps the best showcase of Hart’s dynamic vocal range.
In the past, guitar and vocal sensation Samantha Fish has been accused of abandoning her blues roots for the more lucrative world of pop/R & B, prompting the question: Is Kill or Be Kind a return to her blues roots? The answer is yes and no. While most of the tracks on Kill or Be Kind seem to point in a different direction that the raw blues that first catapulted her to renown among blues fans, the genre is still alive and well in Fish’s latest album — albeit in somewhat diluted form.
The album’s opener, Bulletproof, sets the mood just right with an upbeat combination of electric blues and contemporary pop. Meanwhile, Kill or Be Kind’s closer, ‘You Got it Bad’ features the hard-driving Chicago blues that leaves us wanting more. Between those tracks, most of what you’ll hear will sound more like mainstream pop than ‘pure’ blues, but in the capable hands (and vocal chords) of Samantha Fish, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
If it’s straight-ahead, uncomplicated southern boogie blues, you seek, you need look no further than Beyond the Blue Door, the latest effort from Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters. If, on the other hand, you need your blues complete with elaborate pop composition and orchestration, Ronnie and friends are on a mission to change your mind. And with Beyond the Blue Door, they may just get it done.
As a guitarist, Earl’s touch is light and gentle enough to make you forget the blues can be played any other way. Stunningly offset by the hard and heavy vocals of Diane Blue, Earl’s playing is what makes Beyond the Blue Door a treasure. The album’s best track may be ‘Piece of Mind’ but there’s lots of great stuff to choose from.
Former John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers standout guitarist Coco Montoya has had an extraordinary career in the blues. This latest album, Coming in Hot is just the latest notch on his blues belt. With such eye-popping credentials, Montoya could be forgiven for going through the motions. But it doesn’t take long to figure out that his work is as impassioned as it’s ever been.
‘Stone Survivor’ could be considered the guitar whiz’s life story. It’s a searing, rollicking tune that commemorates a long and fruitful career in the blues. Also of note is ‘Ain’t it Good Thing,’ which marries an upbeat gospel feel with stunning guitar work. All told, Coco Montoya’s new album displays a blues legend whose blues only deepens with the years.
Robert Randolph & the Family Band have a classic blues/R & B sound that suggests they’ve been around as long as their sound. But the truth is their leader has yet to see his 50th birthday. If you’d like a trip away from the world of mainstream popular music, Randolph & his family band are the best way to get there.
The gospel-influenced ‘Don’t fight it’ may be the album’s best track, while the hauntingly spare ‘Simple Man’ ranks as a close second. In it, Randolph embraces old-school values with an old school attitude, and it works beautifully. There is nothing on Brighter days that doesn’t work. It’s a blues albums that packs as much power as anything you’re likely to hear this year.
The latest offering from British blues-influenced rock back Avalanche probably won’t do much for blues ‘purists’ who prefers their blues to sound straight from the Mississippi delta, which is to say uncut with modern pop. But if you’re comfortable with hybrid blues, blues that wears the influence of contemporary funk, classic rock and even a trace of punk, you may just warm up to Nine Below Zero.
What’s best about this album is the way it updates the blues landscape by introducing not only recent musical elements, but themes that capture the spirit of the times as well. The best example may be the album’s opening track ‘I Wanna Be a Wanna Be,’ which satirizes the oddness of social media fame, and those that eagerly chase it. Meanwhile, Austerity Blues also packs a punch that Europeans can relate to. Nine Below Zero is a fine glimpse of where the blues can go in the 21st century.
This fine tribute to blues legend BB King is the searing a ride you’d expect, given the the names involved (Kenny Wayne Shepard,Taj Mahal, James ‘Boogaloo’ Bolden). But what makes it a true treat is that there’s never an attempt to make you forget the legend behind the tribute. King was a glorious icon of the blues and The Soul of the King is fueled by that fact.
The tracks that stand out most are the gentle ballad ‘She’s the One’ (featuring Eric Demmer) Regal Blues (with Joe Louis Walker) and the New Orleans-Influenced ‘Low Down.’ If your face isn’t sore from smiling by the album’s closing track, Michael Lee’s rendition of ‘The Thrill is Gone’ you may want to check your pulse. The Soul of the King is an outstanding tribute to a true blues legend.
Black Stone Cherry brings the hard and heavy southern blues in the fine tradition of The Marshal Tucker Band and Molly Hatchet. If you like your blues with a classic rock edge to it, Black to Blues two may be a blues album that moves you more than any other this year.
A ‘sequel’ of sorts to the 2017 EP Black to Blues, Black to Blues volume 2 is also an EP, meaning sadly means it doesn’t stick around as long as you might like. But the release isn’t lacking thrills — however fleeting. Me & the The Devil Blues is an enjoyable nod to the blues tradition of faustian bargains, while Early One Morning is a low down shuffle that is sure to get your body moving. Black to Blues Vol 2 packs a lot of power in a short span of time, a true delight.
In case you’re wondering, Keb’ Mo’s latest release is not a track-by-track rendition of the classic broadway musical and film of the same name. It is, however, yet another fine collection of fine blues songs in the already impressive body of work of the blues master.
Mo’ was actually born and raised on the west cost, but you’d never know it from the heartfelt title track. But then again, it often seems impossible that such a guitar god could have been born in 1968 — not say, 1944. Simply put, Keb’ Mo’ is an old soul in a body that’s just reaching middle age. In addition to the sweetly delivered title track, his timely ‘Put a Woman in Charge’ (featuring Rosanne Cash) is another of the album’s highlights. All told Oklahoma is more than just OK — it’s outstanding. But that’s exactly what we’ve come to expect from Keb’ Mo.’