Album Reviews

Paul Cowley Rural

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Submitted by Iain Patience

This is a twelve-track album stuffed with tasteful, acoustic and slide guitar picking from an Englishman now resident in rural France - hence the title.

Cowley, originally from the Birmingham area, includes strong covers of many standard traditional acoustic classics including a couple from the ever-popular, melodic Mississippi John Hurt - 'Monday Morning Blues' and 'Pay Day'; another couple from Mississippi Fred McDowell - 'Write Me A Few Of Your Lines' and 'You Gotta Move' together with some Muddy Waters, Son House, Bukka White and Rev. Gary Davis. All are played with punch and talent supported by his gritty, quality vocal delivery. These tracks are interspersed with four self-penned titles in the tradition that sit well seamlessly within the overall mix, If there's a flaw here, for me, it's Cowley's take on Gary Davis's oft-overcooked 'Candyman', a tricky track to reinvent or bring with a fresh flourish. But this is a minor blemish in an otherwise cracking album.

'Rural' is a release that will appeal to most lovers of traditional acoustic blues and should ensure that Cowley himself reaches a wider audience with his ability fully to the fore. Rural blues it may be but this is no sluggish or stagnant backwater offering.  In reality this is a very good, balanced and varied album of good old Country Blues with fretwork and slidework of quality aplenty. A rewarding release well worth catching.

The Ragpicker String Band

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Submitted by Iain Patience

Back in the day we had so-called supergroups, bands of big-name musicians jamming together, producing big-selling albums and reaping huge financial rewards for their collective efforts. An era now seemingly long gone and partly forgotten.

The Ragpicker String Band breathes interesting life into that previous historic theme with a decidedly acoustic, 1930s ragtime-blues tradition at its core. The fourteen track album has no title, instead simply singling out the individual stylists and band members on its front cover: acoustic guitar picker and singer Mary Flower, easily one of the finest ragtime-blues pickers in the USA today, here joined by Mandolin/resonator mando-master Rich Del Grosso, again probably the finest blues mando-man on the road and Martin Grosswendt, yet another superb acoustic bottleneck-guitarist-cum-mandolinist-cum-fiddler.

Tracks include mighty fine takes on a few John Estes standards, 'Clean Up At Home', Milk Cow Blues' and 'Black Mattie', together with 'Lonely One In this Town' from the Mississippi Sheiks, a Mary Flower-driven old traditional winner, 'Trimmed and Burning' and even a surprisingly successful stab at an unexpected jazz classic with Thelonious Monk's 'Blue Monk'.

Debbie Bond: That Thing Called Love

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Submitted by Iain Patience

Back home in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, following a roller-coaster, roaring, successful tour of the UK and France, Debbie Bond remains elated by the whole experience and confirms she is already booking both repeat and new dates and festival gigs for her next tour in 2016.

'Our summer tour of mostly England and Wales, was simply wonderful. We met loads of our old buddies and made loads of new friends along the way,' she says. When Bond mentions her UK buddies, she means playing alongside the likes of some of the country's finest blues musicians, guys who need no introduction to UK blues fans - drummers Sam Kelly, Micky Barker and Pete Hedley, plus soulful Sax-man Sam Carless. As usual she was also partnered by her musical and life-partner, Londoner 'Radiator' Rick Asherson on Keys, Harp and growling vocals.

'Following the tour, tiring though it was at times, I now know I'm up for much more. I'm already looking forward to next year. I know I'm now roadworthy and ready to roll,' she jokes.

And though she evidently had a great time on tour in the UK and France, Bond is clearly happy to be back home. Alabama has been a positive musical inspiration to her and she gladly talks about the extraordinary encounters she has had with some literally legendary US bluesmen from the Deep - southern state.

Tim O'Brien: Pompadour

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Submitted By Iain Patience

It's a surprise to discover this is Tim O'Brien's first release since 2011 when 'The Crossing' launched to widespread acclaim.  Of course, O'Brien himself has been busy between takes as a soloist, and with his other pet projects Red Knuckles & The Trailblazers and Hot Rize, and as a member of the Jerry Douglas-led award winning country outfit The Earls of Leicester.

A well-established US Americana/modern country/bluegrass festival favourite, he is also a sideman of note and lends his multiple talents to countless other artists each year both vocally and instrumentally where he majors, it seems, on most acoustic instruments. Basically, if it can produce a tune, O'Brien can play it - banjo; guitar; mandolin; fiddle; bazouki - the list seems endless.

He's also a noted songwriter and many artists have cut their teeth with his tracks over the years. With 'Pompadour' O'Brien again produces an excellent album full of eclectic tracks and influences that range across the gamut of emotion, energy and genres. Around half the tracks are self-written while others reflect the dazzling diversity of styles this guy has mastered: Woody Guthrie, Michael Hanley, Dan Reader and even James Brown all get a look-in here alongside his ever-present, Irish traditional fiddle fun.

Michael Messer's Mitra

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Submitted by Iain Patience

Now, here we have that genuinely rare thing - a total original of wondrous cross-continental music that makes you pinch yourself and ask why it hasn't been done before.

Messer is a UK resonator/blues/slide guitar master with a positive pedigree in acoustic blues. For Michael Messer's Mitra, he has teamed up with two young Indian musicians, Hindustani, Manish Pingle on Mohan Veena (a new instrument to me) otherwise known as Indian slide guitar, and Gurdain Rayatt an English Tabla player of some distinction.

Messer says he has long been interested in the possibility of bringing this Indian sub-continent musical tradition into the studio to merge with his own love for traditional US blues music. With this extraordinary release, he has successfully done just that. Astonishingly, perhaps, the whole project was completed in a matter of a few days with virtually no overdubs and the result is little short of jaw-dropping.

Not since the Beatles teamed up with Ravi Shankar back in the day has there been such an experimental and inspired meeting of musical cultures. I've no doubt this album is going to be internationally lauded for both its musicianship and Messer's stunning vision. This is an album of pure, sparkling, sublime originality. Anyone with an interest in traditional acoustic blues will be inevitably bowled over by the seamless fusion of what could easily have been two clashing musical cultures.

Jeff Jensen Morose Elephant

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Submitted by Iain Patience

Jensen is a Memphis-based rock-blues guitarist/singer/songwriter. Morose Elephant is a hi-energy, rocking release featuring some excellent fretwork from Jensen himself and fine percussion from Robinson Bridgeforth, and Wurlitzer from band-member Victor Wainwright. This is the core of Jensen's band and a few other musicians also guest here on this eleven-track album.

'Morose Elephant' is an album that pounds along for the most part, with catchy riffs and licks galore pouring from Jensen's guitar.  Tracks move effortlessly from hard-rocking, guitar-led numbers to slower, soulful songs often Wurlitzer-fuelled  (frequently building nicely to a fast-moving, upbeat middle eight) that allow everyone to do their thing and add to the whole mix.

Jordan Officer: Blue Skies

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Submitted by Cashbox Canada

Jordan Officer is acclaimed not only for his virtuosity, but also for his unequaled sensitivity and sober elegance. Composer and singer, as well as guitarist, Jordan has the gift of blending blues, jazz, country and rock’n’roll into a single and personal style. And when he works his magic, the Jordan Officer sound is unforgettable.

Up until 2010, Jordan Officer was principally known as the jazz guitarist, cofounder of the “Susie Arioli Band featuring Jordan Officer". Their band, “discovered” at the Montreal Jazz Festival in 1998 grew to be known throughout Quebec, Canada and internationally for its unique covers of jazz standards: Susie’s velvety smooth voice and Jordan’s powerful, yet understated jazz guitar. Over the next 12 years, they sold over 250,000 albums. Their album, Christmas Dreaming as well as their DVD Live at the Montreal International Jazz Festival both received Gold status in sales. Besides playing guitar and composing instrumentals on each of their albums, Jordan produced 4 of them: Learn to smile again, Night Lights, Christmas Dreaming, and All the Way.

Tim Williams: So Low

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Submitted by Iain Patience

An excellent ten track album of traditional acoustic blues from Canada, Tim Williams simply has to be one of the finest pickers on the planet these days. A former double award winner at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis, this release highlights his captivating style and talent to full effect.

Both of Williams' previous recent releases, 'Blue Highway' and 'Evenings Among Friends' - a re-release of an earlier effort - were wonderful bits of striking resonator and acoustic guitar-led blues work.  With 'So Low' Williams confirms his clearly well-deserved place at the hi-end of the acoustic blues-tree.

Tracks covered include the jazz-inspired 'If You Live' from Mose Allison; Broonzy's 'My Big Money - a lesser-known gem; Blind Boy Fuller's 'Pistol Slapper', here titled 'Pistol Snapper', with Williams' own take on it as part of the ever-evolving folk-process; Johnny Cash's 'Big River'; and Tampa Red's classic 'The Witching Hour'. Many tracks are self-penned and showcase the guy's deep absorption in and understanding of the music and traditional blues in general.

Closing with his own composition, 'Lightnin',' a clear homage to his own personal hero, Texan Lightnin' Hopkins, this album is a genuine revelation, filled with neat guitar chops and intricate picking in styles that range through Delta to Piedmont, Texas to Chicago and most of the USA's notable blues-posts in between. A positive delight.

Auld Man's Baccie: Resonating With The Blues

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Submitted by Iain Patience

Auld Man's Baccie is an English acoustic blues duo with an evident love of and understanding for traditional acoustic blues music, with a ragtime background and grounding that bubbles through on most of the dozen tracks here.

Nick Phillips and Davey Curtis have only been playing together for just over a year or so but already they have an apparent, near-seamless empathy that makes their similar styles and approaches meld perfectly. 'Resonating With The Blues' is their debut release and has good support backing from a few of their blues buddies to lift the album out of the ordinary.

Tracks include colourful, skilled covers of Muddy Waters' classics like 'Can't Be Satisfied' and 'Champagne & Reefer', together with classic Jimmie Rodgers, Taj Mahal and Tampa Red.  As the title suggests, there's some very fine, slippery slide steel/resonator guitar work in the pot here and some equally fine and subtle harp-work from a buddy, Jim Bullock, and soulful backing vocals from Rhiannon Phillips.

This is one of those albums that manage to stand out from the crowd by dint of the passion, purpose and talent clearly on display. A positively enjoyable bit of work, ideal for lovers of that ole-style ragtime-blues music with a modern edge and timeless feel.

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year – Maybe – The Broadsway

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Submitted by Sandy Graham

The ‘Broads’ are back – and this time it is with bells on – Christmas bells that is. The first CD to get reviewed this year with the holiday season approaching – and as always we thank Jane Harbury for always delivering the best product for review.

‘The Most Wonderful Time …Maybe’ is the second CD from the these talented women, their first release ‘Old Friends’ met with critical acclaim and great reviews. With the help of Danny Greenspoon and John ‘Beetle’ Bailey, Bernie Cisternas and Jono Grant on the recording side (recording live at the Jazz Bistro and in Studio) this is a great offering to get you in the holiday spirit.

Winter Wonderland’ is a jazzy, swing interpretation of this old classic, bringing back a 1940’s feel while keeping it new. The contrast in the girls’ voices really pulls this version together.

Carol of the Bells’ continues the great arrangements of what is usually a somber selection but the clever solo of ‘We Three Kings’(Colleen Allen) and the great piano playing of Diane Leah is refreshing.

Christmas Time is Here’ is more of a modern classic, and is so sweetly delivered, with soothing vocals and beautiful arrangement.

Julie, It’s Cold Outside’ (recorded live) shows the great banter of the girls, bringing the talent and their humour together, adding one liners to the tune turning it into an engaging song.

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