If there was a music industry award for consistency in both effort and quality, it would named after John Mayall. Mayall is the gold standard for dedication to craft. While a younger artist might take five years between albums to figure out what he was going to do next, Mayall would put out five albums worth of sterling material in the same time frame. Mayall can do that because he knows who he is, and what he wants to do. And he knows how to do it pretty damn well.
Eric and Ulrika Bibb celebrate love and relationship with Pray Sing Love
Eric Bibb has been expanding his personal vision for years, even though he is marketed primarily as a blues artist. And while that tag certainly fits him (you’d be hard pressed to find a better steward of pre-war blues) it is too small in scope to contain his prodigious talent. A better term might be troubadour, a word that frees him from the constraints of genre and liberates his skills as a songwriter and story teller.
Daniel and Lauren Goans, the indie darlings also known as Lowland Hum, are back again, one year after their gorgeous release Thin, with gifts for the holiday season. Songs for Christmas Time is one of those rare collections that hits all the right notes, and offers us a path through the hectic days to come. If you are looking for a place of rest and solitude, tucked inside the celebrations, this is a fine place to start.
Christmas albums, as a genre, are a mixed bag. There are the traditional records, with all the classics you know and love, there are the goofy and wonderful kitchen sink releases, unpredictable, yet entertaining, and there are those that are plainly dreadful and commercial.
Some of my fondest memories as a child were of Christmas mornings, with the family. The best gifts were an interesting mix of things you wanted, things you needed, and things you never thought of but grew to love. Songs for Christmas Time is that sort of gifting. There are seasonal songs you know by heart, some traditional tunes that you may be unfamiliar with, and a chestnut or two from Johnny Cash and Vince Guaraldi.
MVP is a solid dose of Texas bar-rocking blues. The combination of Malford Milligan on vocals, and Tyrone Vaughan on guitar hit you like an uppercut. Raw, bracing, tough as nails, Vaughan’s fretwork is all you might expect coming from the Vaughan family tree. The son of Jimmie and nephew of Stevie Ray, Tyrone is his own man, ably handling the expectations and proving he is ready to add to the legacy of his kin.
The album opens with “Soul Satisfaction” and immediately we’re off to the races. Milligan’s R&B crooner has been replaced by the growl of a desperate broke-down boogie man. His ragged, full-throated soul shouter is at the top of his game, and plays nicely against Vaughan’s razor-sharp riffs. The rhythm section is wound tighter than a spinster’s corset, courtesy of Chris Maresh on bass and Brannen Temple on drums. This is how you grab a listener’s attention.
“Dangerous Eyes” follows and keeps the party train rolling. The guitar work is springy, elastic, and extra greasy. Milligan is captivated by the eyes of a beautiful woman, and can’t help himself. He is caught in the throes of obsessive love at first sight. Expect a restraining order to follow.
One of the highlights of the record is a cover of Buddy Guy’s “Leave My Girl Alone.” A straight slow blues number, Vaughan tears it up, turning in a fiery and expansive solo. A warning from Milligan to a third party, the song implies there will be consequences if the meddling continues. Milligan gets downright creepy and menacing on this one. When he sings “I’m not an evil man, but I might do something wrong,” his voice projects a sinister undercurrent that makes your hair stand on end. By the end of the song you know he has already picked the place to dispose of the body.
Milligan and Vaughan work together so well that one hopes they take this act out on the road. Their collaboration is dynamic and intuitive, each man playing to his strengths while giving the other time in the spotlight. With talent like this the project could easily go off the rails and become self-indulgent. Milligan Vaughan avoid the trap by keeping the focus on the songs. Everything is working here, and MVP serves as a model for any young blues player that wants to see how you make a great breakout record.
Fred Wickham resurfaces from a lengthy lay off with a sparkling gem of an album, Mariosa Delta. The co-founder of the defunct roots rock band Hadacol journeys through the past to 1940, and finds the truth about a tragedy that struck his family. This is the second release from a Wickham this year; brother Greg Wickham dropped a solo record back in April.
The Mariosa Delta was a nightclub owned by Wickham’s grandparents. It was also the scene of a fatal shooting in 1940. “Newspaper articles confirmed that my grandfather’s brother Jim was gunned down by a jealous husband” Wickham relates in the liner notes. Wickham’s grandmother was the first to reach Jim, and he died in her arms at the Mariosa Delta.
What do you do when you can play straight blues or Hendrix style hard rock with equal ease and finesse? On the seventh album of his career the phenom from Nelson County, Virginia reins in his inner guitar god and makes his most focused roots blues album yet. High Dollar Gospel finds Cook showcasing his acoustic mojo and the result is the most satisfying record of his career.
“The album title was a phrase that got stuck in my head. It resonated with me. It brings up, for me anyway, images of the south, religion and politics, and money.” Speaking by phone from his home outside of Charlottesville, Cook comes off reserved, almost shy. This is a vivid contrast from the confident stage presence the lanky thirty-one-year-old projects when he has his trusty resonator in his hands. One gets the sense that he would rather let his guitar speak for him.
Losing a mentor and founding member can be enough to sidetrack, if not completely spell the end for many a band. Olivia finds Steve Tucci soldiering on in the wake of the passing of co-founder Dan Toler. Originally known as The Toler-Tucci Band, the group was spear-headed by Steve Tucci and “Dangerous” Dan Toler, former guitarist for the Allman Brothers and the Gregg Allman Band.
The Nighthawks, Washington, DC's ambassadors of the blues prove once again that there is at least one group in the capitol city that knows how to get the job done.
Armed with a dirty dozen tracks that display their stylistic versatility while emphasizing their blues roots, Mark Wenner and company are clearly having a ball on All You Gotta Do.
The band starts off in fifth gear covering Jerry Reed on "That's All You Gotta Do." Wenner's wailing harp drives the song rolling on top of the rumbling drum work of Mark Stutso. The tune is guaranteed to get an audience on their feet and shaking their tail feathers.
This is followed by the roots/blues/gospel tune "When I Go Away." penned by Levon Helm collaborator Larry Campbell. Recorded by The Dixie Hummingbirds on Diamond Jubilation, and by Helm on Electric Dirt, the song stares death in the face and finds a faith that overcomes the graveyard.
The band's Chicago blues roots are on display with a fine cover of Willie Dixon's "Baby, I Want to Be Loved." The performance is down and dirty, the ribald harp work emphasizing the depths of desire. Bassist Johnny Castle turns in a fine vocal on "Another Day." Written by Castle, the song is an indictment of a government that has turned its back on the people it was meant to serve. Mark Stutso provides a tale of bad love turned revenge with "VooDoo Doll."
The playing, as expected, is first rate and the album is a blast from start to finish. As the liner notes say, "EVERYBODY SINGS," and it is evident that The Nighthawks could teach Congress a thing or two about collaboration and cooperation.
The Steel Wheels just dropped the best album of their career. Trent Wagler, Eric Brubaker, Brian Dickel and Jay Lapp have a lot of reasons to be proud. Their new release, Wild as We Came Here, has the boys from the Blue Ridge out on the road, giving some of the most stirring performances of their career. The Wheels deliver ten singularly brilliant songs that form a cohesive document of life in western Virginia. Subjects as diverse as environmental activism and religious oppression are all firmly rooted in a mural of rural life. At their core these stories are connected to the natural, tangible world, and as such, their struggles take on an epic, spiritual dimension, one that we immediately identify with.
That epic spiritual dilemma is rooted in the distance that stretches between what we hope for and what we settle for in this life. The vehicle that moves us along that terrain, and grounds us in the physical world, is the clean sound of acoustic strings set against a backdrop of gorgeous vocal harmonies. This is music made by people, not machines; hands of flesh and bone coaxing magic from instruments made of wood.
You don’t know how many chances you get in life. Perhaps that is part of the inspiration for the new release from Greg Wickham. Or maybe it is legacy. A chance to communicate to his children the things that truly move his heart in this world. An opportunity to give them a sense of where they fit in the story of the Wickham line. Whatever the driving focus is, Greg Wickham delivers a batch of songs that he gifts to his family and friends, a personal document of his deep love for honest music.
Wickham notes that he was jealous of his friends Dave and Jimmy Nace because they had their father’s country records to listen to after his death. They could still hear him on those old recordings. “When my dad died, I barely had any recordings of his voice. I included on this album, the only clip I have of him singing,” Wickham states. The impact of a father on a son is hard to underestimate. Wickham makes the conscious effort to leave behind a personal testimony, to be intentional and accessible. And we get to share in his moment.
J.M. McSpadden III is a writer and roots music enthusiast who believes every road trip is an opportunity for the full- tilt boogie.