2021 Blues Albums
A selection of a few of the 2021 Blues Album releases.
Born in Brooklyn, New York and raised in Worcester, Mass, Joanna Connor may seem to lack the pedigree needed for a blues singer and guitarist. But a quick listen to her latest effort, 481 South Indian Avenue will likely persuade all doubters. The opening track, ‘Destination,’ roars to life like a lion after a week-long slumber, thanks in part to a sizzling backing band as well as co-lead vocalist Jimmy Hall. But overall, it’s an extraordinary start for a fairly ordinary album.
‘481’ does have its share of highlights. The chilling ‘Bad News’ features some of the tastiest and most haunting guitar work of the veteran blues performer’s career. And the stunningly upbeat “I Feel So Good” is about as life-affirming as the blues can get, but other songs drag a little and fail to match the album’s high points. 481 South Indiana Avenue is worth getting for a devoted follower of Connor, but others may want to stay clear.
Vocalist and harmonica player Curtis Salgado’s first full band album in four years packs a strong punch. It covers a great deal of emotional terrain, ranging from the plaintive, contemplative ballad ‘What Did Me in Did Me Well’ to the rollicking ‘Count of Three.’ Salgado is a blues artist not afraid to embrace the fun side of the genre.
Damage Control’s highlight might be the title track, a seemingly sedate tune that allows its warmth to ease up to the listener, heartwarming lyrics and all. Salgado’s latest album isn’t for those who seek blues with a rough, raw edge to it. This is a more mature effort, something to enjoy on the front porch while gazing at a glorious sunset. And who says the blues can’t be that too?
Not yet forty years old, guitarist and vocalist Selwyn Birchwood has a ways to go before finding the kind of maturity that makes for a blues legend. But Living in a Burning House suggests he’s on his way.
With his deeply soulful vocals and wide-ranging guitar skills, Birchwood has the basic talent needed to succeed in the blues and he also has the creative ambition. ‘You Can’t Steal my Shine’ is a funny and touching number that glides along nicely. And ‘Searching for my Tribe’ might be the album’s strongest song. Selwyn Birchwood is a sold blues talent, and if you don’t watch out, he may soon reach the heights promised by this fine effort.
17 year-old vocalist and pianist Veronica Lewis makes her debut with this highly charged effort that, at its very best, makes you wonder what the young Lewis will someday become when her gifts mature.
There’s no doubting Lewis’ vocal capacity and her prodigious range of piano skills. She has clearly listened to the greats of the genre and learned much from them. And yet,‘You Ain’t Unlucky’ falls a bit short. The album does have its bright spots — the upbeat dance track ‘Fool Me Twice’ above the rest, and even at its weakest, it is a finely crafted work of pop blues, but mostly Lewis’ first album feels like a promise to blues fans. ‘This girl will be great somebody,’ it screeches. But blues fan may be better off waiting until someday arrives.
Guitarist and vocalist Ally Venable’s newest album is a work of mixed results. Venable’s guitar chops are as impressive as any young instrumentalist of the blues world. And while, she’s undeniably a capable singer, the discerning blues fan can’t help but wonder how much Heart of Fire could have soared with a truly thunderous vocalist.
There’s no delicate way of putting it: Venable’s vocal’s are too thin and pretty to strike with the power they aim for. Her attempts to fuse blues and contemporary rock are admirable especially on ‘Hateful Blues’ and ‘What Do You Want from Me?’ But for all its six-string virtuosity, the album’s less-than-earth-shattering vocals leave the listener hungry for something with more bite.
Canadian bluesman Steve Strongman has a long history of backing up stars in the world of country, blues and rock. Tired of Talking displays his wide range of influences and, more importantly, his ability to combine them. ‘Just Ain’t Right,’ for example, takes a funk beat and fuses it with tasty blues licks and catchy pop melody. The result is the album’s second finest track.
The finest is ‘Can’t Have it all,’ a truly blazing dance number with some of the strongest harmonica playing heard in a while and Strongman’s characteristically sizzling guitar work. Overall, Tired of Talking runs the gamut, reminding any blues fan how many various forms the genre can morph into in hands — and vocal cords — as capable as Strongman’s.
Christone ‘Kingfish’ Ingram is fast becoming an answer to the question, where are all the great young blues guitarists? Possessing a fierce guitar tone and a truly soulful voice, Ingram borrows the best of the genre he’s inherited while adding enough contemporary touches to make it his own. Not an easy task for a man yet to see his 30-birthday.
Named after the area code of his Northern Mississippi home, his latest album boasts an impressive array of styles. Most impressive is the way he updates the blues, utilizing drum machines, hip-hop influenced lyrics and contemporary cultural references in a way that stands a good chance to appeal to a demographic thought too young to enjoy the blues. Upbeat blazers like ‘Not Gonna Lie,’ and mournful ballads like ‘you’re already gone’ demonstrate his range as well as his ability to make the blues as vital today as it has been in the past.
Gifted multi-instrumentalist bluesman Cedric Burnside is in his 40s, but has a grasp of the genre’s complex roots that would suggest a much earlier birthdate. The Memphis, Tennessee native has many tools in his arsenal, but what makes him stand out among contemporary blues singer/songwriters is his grasp of spiritual matters. He doesn’t forget the debt the blues owes to gospel.
Burnside’s fondness for weaving his faith into his music is most evident on the aching ‘Step in’ where he urges the almighty to enter the material world to remedy its broken ways. Another emotionally uplifting song that demonstrates his spirituality is ‘Love is the Key,’ a ballad and plea for forgiveness. Burnside isn’t as strong a vocalist as a songwriter and instrumentalist, but his relatively weak vocals do little harm to an otherwise solid album.
With a decades-long session guitarist’s background that includes stints in the worlds of pop, rock, jazz and the blues, you wouldn’t think Robben Ford would have much to prove at this point in his career. But his latest effort, ‘Pure’ sure sounds like it was made by somebody who needs to establish his blues bona fides. And in case you’re wondering, it achieves this in spades.
The album kicks off with a psychedelic-rock influenced title track that prepares us for the trippy ride to come. The ride’s highlights include the funky, fusion-based ‘Go’ and the heartfelt ‘Blues for Lonnie Johnson.’ If you’ve not yet experienced a Robben Ford album, ‘Pure’ is a good place to start. If you’re already initiated, ‘Pure’ is a good place to continue. Either way, Robben Ford’s latest album is a must-have.
Eric Bibb’s background as the child of jazz musicians involved in musical theater gives us a clue as to how his approach to the blues is nuanced and woven with genres not normally associated with his chosen path.
Bibb’s haunting, but ultimately hopeful portrait of a troubled nation is one of the year’s best blues albums. Standouts include the deeply poignant ‘Whole World’s Got the Blues’ and the title track, which reminds us that with all that has changed, the blues is still here with us.
Even if you don’t recognize the name Steve Cropper, you undoubtedly recognize his guitar’s blazing sound — at least you do if you have a love for classic R&B. As a key figure in the 60s and 70s music, Cropper’s latest album contains enough hard-hitting blues to remind us what the B in R&B stands for.
Fire it up might have been a stronger effort if he’d left the vocals to someone with a more expansive range, but this is Fire it Ups only major flaw. It pounds like thunder and shows a side of his playing that his previous work as a session musician only hinted at. Even if you don’t recognize the name Steve Cropper, you undoubtedly recognize his guitar’s blazing sound — at least you do if you have a love for classic R&B. As a key figure in the 60s and 70s music, Cropper’s latest album contains enough hard-hitting blues to remind us what the B in R&B stands for.
Guy Davis’ take on the blues can be safely identified as ‘traditional.’ At times, as we hear on the album’s opener ‘Badonkadonk Train,’ his tongue can be firmly planted in his cheek. While at other times, he’s stunningly sincere. The best example of the latter is the fatalistic and mournful ‘God’s Gonna Make things over.’
Davis is the son of the late legendary actors Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis and the bluesman has clearly inherited his parents’ sense of theatricality and it’s a quality that serves the album well. Davis has put together a strong — if occasionally overwrought — release.
With a throbbing beat and a sultry soprano, Samantha Fish is a likely candidate to find an outside with mainstream audiences outside of the world of the traditional blues. But don’t let her apparent crossover ambitions fool you. Faster is a fully satisfying blues album through and through.
The album gets off to a rollicking start with the title track ‘Faster.’ From there, things get heavier and funkier. The R&B number ‘Hypnotic’ is especially pleasing. Faster is the latest in a long line of Samantha Fish efforts that straddle the pop and blues wall in a way that could well satisfy fans of both genres.
The 2020 Ruf Blues Caravan was a tour that featured Ruf recording artists Whitney Shay, Jeremiah Johnson and Ryan Perry. If these names aren’t yet familiar to you as a blues fan, I’d recommend becoming familiar. And the best way to do so, is this album. Simply put, this is high-octane, live blues at its best.
Ryan Perry’s soulful vocals make the stirring ‘High Risk, High Reward’ a standout track, but the dance track ‘Stand Up’ is a strong runner-up.’ All three artists here distinguish themselves on this album and best of all, they provide a good reason for a blues fan to check out more of Ruf Records. An outstanding album by three artists any contemporary blues fan should get to know — if they don’t already.