For blues fans, 2009 has been a real humdinger! During the last twelve months, we've seen earth-shakin' live discs from the legendary Charlie Musselwhite and legend-in-the-making Nick Moss; liver-quivering new albums from talented axe-slingers Duke Robillard and Ronnie Earl; and groovy new tunes from young – but-seasoned – blues veterans like Shemekia Copeland, John Nemeth, and much more. Here are the Reverend's picks for the best blues albums of 2009; any of these twelve discs would be a welcome addition to your blues library. Love blues-rock? See the Reverend's choices for the best blues-rock of 2009.
Rough Dried: Live At The Triple Door is a rock solid live document, Charlie Musselwhite and crew masterfully mixing houserockin', scorched-earth tunes with slower, tear-jerkin' blues numbers to thrill the audience and keep them on the edge of their seat. If you've wondered what a Charlie Musselwhite show sounds like, this is as close as you're going to get to the real thing.
The African-American music of the Deep South - blues, soul, and gospel - was heard on tiny transistor radios by Jamaican musicians during the 1950s and '60s, who then used it as a foundation for the creation of reggae. With blu.black, Harris brings the entire affair full-circle with an inspired collection of songs that mixes musical styles with gleeful abandon. Blues purists will run from this album like a cat from water. However, if you'd like to challenge your musical preconceptions and let your imagination fly, you'll discover one of the most unique and entertaining albums that you'll ever hear.
The best thing about a hearing a brand new Duke Robillard album for the first time is that while you're never quite sure where he's driving, you know that you're always going to enjoy the ride. Such is the case with Stomp! The Blues Tonight, a retro-delight that features a perfect balance between Robillard's skilled six-string chops and the invigorating, Doug James-led horn section. Throw in Sunny Crownover's feminine wiles as a counterpoint to Robillard's gruffer vocals on an inspired mix of covers and original songs that were carefully-crafted to evoke an earlier era of the blues, and Stomp! The Blues Tonight is a complete rockin'-n-rollin' success story certain to please your ears even as it sets your toes-a-tappin'!
There are only a handful of top-notch blue-eyed soul-blues singers floating around the blues world these days – Tad Robinson comes to mind – but John Nemeth can easily make a claim as one of the best on the strength of Love Me Tonight. The largely original material (Nemeth wrote ten of the eleven songs) is spot-on throwback soul with bluesy undertones, a welcome musical trip back to the 1950s and '60s. Nemeth displays a wide vocal range, a firm grasp on related styles, and a real talent on the harp while his band, especially guitarist Bobby Welsh, are skilled instrumentalists capable of going whatever way Nemeth swings on a particular song.
Nick Moss and the Flip Tops are the real deal, a road-weary blues band seasoned by hundreds of shows and enthusiastic audiences. Live At Chan's – Combo Platter No. 2 is a spot-on document of the band's loud-and-proud live sound, an ear-pleasing collection of performances that, instead of being dominated by guitar – as with a lot of similar bands today – rather provides listeners with a rich thrill-ride of instrumentation that lends plenty of stage time to harp, piano, bass, and drums. Live At Chan's – Combo Platter No. 2 should motivate any modern blues fan to buy a ticket to the next Moss and the Flip Tops show that comes anywhere within a hundred miles of home.
In the past, bluesman Otis Taylor has written about racism, social injustice, poverty, and drug abuse, imbuing each song with dark humor and the darker-hued, acoustic-based music that he calls "trance blues." With Pentatonic Wars And Love Songs, the uncompromising songwriter turns his creative attention to love and romance, tragedy and loss, creating a master work that not only perfectly captures the energy and emotion of romance and relationships, but has also taken blues music as an art form to a higher level altogether.
Robert Cray – 'This Time' (Nozzle Records/Vanguard)
Robert Cray's This Time is a solid collection of blues, blues-rock, and soul with jazzy overtones that display the guitarist's immense six-string skills without dominating the strong and talented accompaniment of his band. There are few barn-burners here, just emotionally-measured performances where blues and soul slowly pour out of your speakers. The songs work together in creating a finely-crafted whole that evokes a beauty and quiet dignity that has come to define the work and vision of Robert Cray.
There really aren't words sufficient to describe Ronnie Earl's incredible six-string talents. Just when you figure that you have the man figured out, he pulls out a musical triumph like Living In The Light. It's not that the album defies expectations – Earl's skills are such that you're always guaranteed a great time – but that Earl manages to set the bar higher with each musical outing, and then clear it with ease. Backed by a top-notch band that follows him note-for-note, and with talented guests like Wilson and Keller, Earl has put together one of the best albums of his already impressive and lengthy career, a shoo-in for end of the year honors.
The first time that you hear Shemekia Copeland's voice, you're certain to stop dead in your tracks. An old-school blues wailer in the vein of Etta James or Koko Taylor, Copeland's vocal toolbox includes the complexity of 1970s soul and the subtle influences of 50 years of recorded blues music. Quite simply, Copeland is one of the very best vocalists on the road and in the studio these days. Copeland's Never Going Back takes full advantage of the singer's talents, the album's performances ranging from Chicago-style blues, R&B, and soul to material which borderlines on rock music.
Tommy Castro isn't a pure bluesman, but you'll hear the spirit of pure blues in the raucous musical hybrid that has become his trademark sound. There's plenty to love on Hard Believer, from the band's energetic and lively performances, to Castro's inspired choice of cover tunes and his own considerable original songs. As deep as the muddy Mississippi and as wide as the entire United States, Hard Believer is a big-hearted celebration of American music, and from blues and soul to R&B and rock, Castro and his band of merry fellow travelers kick out the jams with a joy and affection that is downright infectious.