John Kessler’s Top 10 Blues Albums Of 2013
Boz Scaggs: Memphis (429 Records)
A tribute to the Memphis soul-blues tradition, made with some of the city’s best players. His unique rasp has only improved with age, and perfectly complements the laid-back groove that permeates the release. Not all the material is “soul” music, some of the best tracks are the bluesy “Cadillac Walk” and “Dry Spell”. Boz is a master of the simmering blues vibe, slightly restrained, but overflowing with mojo.
James Cotton: Cotton Mouth Man (Alligator Records)
James Cotton has a story to tell, and with the help of Grammy-winning writer, producer and drummer Tom Hambridge, has put together a set of original songs that are a mini-autobiography. Since, at age 77, James doesn’t sing anymore, an all-star guest list makes this a fun record that also has quite a bit of depth. Oh, and he can still play the harp like a madman. Highlights include “Something For Me” with Warren Haynes and “Mississippi Mud” with Keb Mo.
Beth Hart: Bang Bang Boom Boom (Provogue Music)
Beth Hart brings a decidedly brash and modern touch to her music, which is equal parts blues, rock and pop. Her songs are often highly arranged, in contrast to her vocal work, which is delightfully eccentric. Like many memorable singers, her voice has an unusual quality, in her case a trembling vibrato that conveys vulnerability on quieter tunes, and on the rockers, a fury that would make Janis smile. The title track is one of the catchiest songs I’ve heard all year, and “Caught Out in the Rain” is a superb and intensely moody slow blues.
Tedeschi-Trucks Band: Made Up Mind (Sony/Masterworks)
Their albums made my Top Ten list in 2011 and 2012, and this band just keeps getting tighter. Susan Tedeschi’s voice is the feature, but “back-up” singers Mike Mattison (who used to front the Derek Trucks band) and Mark Rivers are also out front at times. Derek Trucks continues to come up with startling and unexpected solos, but this time he holds back a bit, giving the 10-piece band some space to create massive grooves. Admittedly not a “blues” release, but there’s plenty here for a blues listener to grab onto.
David Egan: David Egan (Rhonda Sue Records)
This album caught me by surprise, and although I’ve heard pianist David Egan’s songs for years, he remains one of Louisiana’s best-kept secrets. He’s written tunes for John Mayall, Etta James, Solomon Burke, Irma Thomas and many others, but he has only a handful of solo releases. His style is smoky, late-night blues, with hints of Mose Allison and Tom Waits.
Trampled Underfoot: Badlands (Concord)
One of the most promising “young” blues bands I’ve heard in a long time. TU is a family affair; Kansas City siblings Danielle (bass), Nick (guitar) and Kris (drums) offer up a fairly traditional r&b/blues sound that is distinguished by uncommon soul. Unlike many young bands, they are not in a hurry and don’t try to impress with flash and speed. Their best tunes, including “Bad Bad Feeling” and “Pain in My Mind” showcase their laid-back vibe that’s oozing with emotion.
Buddy Guy: Rhythm & Blues (RCA-Silvertone)
This release resembles James Cotton’s in some ways, as it was also produced by Tom Hambridge and many of the songs have the same retrospective, autobiographical feel. And like Cotton, Buddy Guy does have a story to tell. Buddy’s blues can be euphoric, like the funky and feel-good “Meet Me in Chicago”, and he can bring you to tears with poignant slow blues of “I Go By Feel”. A true master who still has his chops.
Delbert & Glen: Blind, Crippled & Crazy
Delbert McClinton and Glen Clark were bandmates in the 70’s before taking different paths—McClinton as a live performer and Clark as a songwriter. (The Blues Brothers covered their “B-Movie Boxcar Blues.”) Grooves are basic but also well planned and compelling; the emphasis with these guys is on lyrics, with plenty of word-play and banter. One of the best lines: “I say yes when I oughta know."
Eric Bibb: Jericho Road (Stony Plain)
Eric Bibb’s style of folk-blues is gentle and unhurried, but also deeply rhythmic and almost funky at times. In the folk tradition, the songs are often stories in themselves, and an understated gospel influence is present, with themes of deliverance and redemption. There are some beautiful instrumental touches as well, with some delicate and fleeting string and horn sections.
The Soul of John Black: A Sunshine State of Mind (Yellow Dog Records)
It’s impossible to categorize TSOJB. It’s mastermind, John “JB” Bigham worked with Miles Davis during his electric period and later with alt-rockers Fishbone. He has always morphed his blues with soul, hip-hop and jazz and the results are almost always surprising and unique. If Robert Johnson and Sly Stone had a band, this is what it might sound like.