The Reverend receives a lot of worthwhile CD releases here at the About.com Blues HQ, but there sadly just aren't enough hours in the day to pen lengthy reviews on all of them. Some of these albums are just too good to ignore, thus "Blues Bites," a monthly round-up of records that we hope will get you as excited about them as we are! This month we're covering three widely diverse releases in Marion James, Pat Travers, and the Phantom Blues Band. In honor of the "Dean of American Rock Critics," the one and only Robert Christgau, each album is stamped with its own appropriate grade. Enjoy!
Marion James – Northside Soul
Nashville's great Marion James is a welcome reminder of the city's once-thriving rhythm and blues scene, a bona fide survivor who, along with Charles Walker of the Dynamites, seem to be the last ones standing on Jefferson Avenue. Like many traditional soul singers, James came up through the church, taking a left turn sometime during the 1950s after hearing the blues through her mother's 78rpm record collection. James' band during the early 1960s included a young guitar firebrand who would later become known as Jimi Hendrix, and she recorded several hits throughout the decade for the legendary Nashville-based Excello Records label.
These days, James continues to perform live in the Music City and at festivals, releasing the occasional album like Northside Soul and carrying the torch for a musical tradition that she's championed for better than five decades now. Northside Soul is an engaging collection, a throwback to a simpler time and era when singers poured their heart and soul into a song and didn't need Pro Tools to add any emotion to their performance. James' voice sounds damn near as good today as it did all those years ago, weathered, perhaps, by a life lived, and she's accompanied on Northside Soul by a top-notch band that includes guitarist Ivan Appelrouth and keyboardist Steve Bassett.
James kicks out nearly an hour of old-school soul and R&B here, mostly original tunes with a handful of choice covers, including a smoldering reading of Ray Charles' "I Believe To My Soul." James' original "Corrupted World" is an intelligent, introspective bit of bluesy social commentary with an incredible vocal performance that starts out nuanced and ends up fiery, while a cover of Nashville R&B pioneer Ted Jarrett's "I'm Just What You're Looking For" is provided a lively, 1950s-styled jump-blues arrangement. Willie Dixon's classic "I Just Want To Make Love To You" is given a stripped-down and primal false-start intro before launching into a bluesy, funky, hip-hop-styled performance that reminds of vintage James Brown. While neo-soul artists like Sharon Jones are certainly all the rage these days, check out Marion James and Northside Soul for a taste of the stone cold real thing. Grade: B+ (EllerSoul Records, released July 4, 2012)
Pat Travers – Blues On Fire
Even during his late-1970s commercial heyday, guitarist Pat Travers wasn't afraid to stir a little smoky blues into his hard rockin' performances. Inspired by musicians like Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck, the Canadian-born fretburner filled stadiums on the strength of such blues-tinged albums as Heat In The Street, Live! Go For What You Know, and the Top 20 charting Crash and Burn. As Travers' commercial fortunes waned in the late 1980s, though, he turned more frequently towards his blues muse, recorded a string of fiery but mostly overlooked albums during the 1990s and 2000s for Mike Varney's Blues Bureau International label.
It should come as no surprise, then, that after 40 years of performing, Travers would get around to releasing an album of pure blues covers. After a lengthy 2011 European tour, Travers returned home for a little R&R, which subsequently became a crash-course in blues history. Inspired by the earthy music of artists like Blind Boy Fuller, Tampa Red, Blind Willie McTell, and others, Travers recorded Blues On Fire, a fine twelve-track collection of classic blues music. Of course, it wouldn't be a Pat Travers album if a few sparks weren't flying from the grooves, and the guitarist's six-string pyrotechnics certainly change the spirit of the originals he's tackled here with no little aplomb.
Travers' gruff vocals have never been the best in the blues-rock world, and after four decades on the road his well-worn pipes have taken on a gritty, growling tone that's not entirely effective. Fans don't buy Travers records for operatic vocals, though, and the guitarist applies his skills with energy and electricity to these blues covers. Blind Blake's "Black Dog Blues" is pumped-up like Led Zeppelin with lots of razor-sharp licks flying around dangerously, while Lonnie Johnson's "Back Water Blues" takes on a country-blues sheen with some greasy, Delta-dirty fretwork. It's Travers' eerie performance on Son House's classic "Death Letter" where it all comes together, though, his haunting vocals paced by mournful guitarplay worthy of the master. If you're among the Pat Travers faithful, you're going to love Blues On Fire, but any blues-rock guitar fan will also find a lot to like here. Grade: B- (Purple Pyramid Records, released July 31, 2012)
Phantom Blues Band – Inside Out
Originally formed as a studio outfit to back up the great Taj Mahal on his 1993 album Dancing The Blues, the Phantom Blues Band has since taken on a life of its own. It should have come as no surprise, really, given the pedigrees of the various band members. Guitarist and singer Johnny Lee Schell made his bones as a member of Bonnie Raitt's road band, but has also performed and/or recorded alongside talents like B.B. King, Buddy Guy, and Lucky Peterson, among many others. Drummer Tony Braunagel has equally impressive credentials, working with Raitt, Curtis Salgado, and Robert Cray while saxophonist Joe Sublett has lent his talents to recordings by Salgado, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimmie Vaughan, and Solomon Burke. The other band members are skilled veterans as well...in other words, these guys have been around the block a time or two and held their own with the best of the blues.
What is surprising is that Inside Out is only the band's third album together since debuting in 2006 with the acclaimed Out of the Shadows. Much like the band's first two efforts, Inside Out is a spirited mix of blues, soul, gospel, and R&B jams by an accomplished outfit that includes three solid vocalists and six talented instrumentalists. Anywhere you look, you're going to find some great music in these grooves. The Chicago/Texas blues hybrid "Having A Good Time With The Blues" offers up loads of Schell's fiery guitar playing and Mike Finnigan's smooth-as-silk keyboards while trumpet player Darrell Leonard's spry instrumental "Where Did My Monkey Go?" is a funky number with Latin rhythms and soulful horns. A cover of the Son House classic "Death Letter" is appropriately somber, the band's sparse instrumentation only adds to the claustrophobic menace of the original, while their cover of Jimmy McCracklin's "Shame, Shame" is a jazz-flaked R&B burner with catchy horns that builds from a slow burn to a rocking crescendo and back again.
The Phantom Blues Band sounds like they're having a lot of fun with the performances on Inside Out, and that's the key to the album's success...the six band members are professional musicians, sure, but they show the enthusiasm of kids on Christmas morning when they're playing together in the studio or on stage, and it's this energy that makes Inside Out such an infectious, entertaining collection of songs. Grade: B+ (Vizztone Records, released April 17, 2012)