There's no doubt about it, blues-rock fans were provided a veritable smorgasbord of sounds to enjoy in 2011. From guitar-driven, unbridled blues-rock jams and bluesy Tex-Mex to gritty throwback R&B and soul, the year provided a little something of everything for fans of the rock-oriented side of the blues equation. These are the Reverend's picks for the best blues-rock albums of 2011; if you disagree or we overlooked your favorite, leave us a note in the comments section.
The spunky duo from Nashville (by way of Akron, Ohio) continue to supercharge their original garage-blues sound with elements of Memphis soul, Motown grooves, 1970s-era funk, and much, much more on El Camino. Following up a monster hit LP like the Keys' triple-Grammy® Award winning 2010 album Brothers is always a daunting task, so guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney hooked up for a second time with hip-hop mixmaster Danger Mouse (who produced the pair's 2008 album Attack & Release) for this instantly classic slab o' retro-soul. If the 11 songs and 30-plus minutes of El Camino's rockin' rhythm & blues doesn't warm your soul, you probably don't like music.
Damon Fowler's Devil Got His Way is a fine affair, the artist sounding more at home in his skin, more seasoned than his already mature-sounding debut album. Fowler's vocals are stronger, and while he is in no way a powerhouse shouter on the microphone, he brings the right amount of enthusiasm and soulfulness to each performance. His guitar-playing continues to improve, as does that intangible sense that makes everything sound 'right' when it's done.
Texas blues guitarist Gary Clark, Jr. made quite a splash this year with his debut four-song EP receiving a glowing recommendation from Rolling Stone magazine, pushing it to the top of the blues chart and, whether he wants it or not, passing Clark the Stevie Ray Vaughan blues-rock torch. Truth is, The Bright Lights is a stunning (albeit brief) first taste of Clark's skills as a singer, songwriter, and phenomenal guitarist, whetting our appetite for the full-length album promised us in 2012.
After a lengthy recording hiatus, George Thorogood – as close to a mainstream star as the blues-rock genre can boast of these days – returned with his first full studio album in five years with the excellent 2120 South Michigan Avenue. A loving, but rocking tribute to Chess Records and the label's artists, Thorogood pulled out the stops with producer Tom Hambridge to deliver a couple of inspired original songs and a whole lot of fine covers that are performed with a raw, gritty enthusiasm.
While Allman's day job at the fore of the Allman Brothers Band often has him calling on his blues, R&B, and soul influences in creating music that is firmly in the blues-rock form, with Low Country Blues he abandons any such preconceived notions to deliver an almost pure blues album. With producer T Bone Burnett – the "go-to guy" these days for artists attempting to capture the magic of ages past – Allman and a top-notch band have spun pure magic with Low Country Blues, creating music that sounds contemporary while drawing strongly from the past.
Brighter Days is the culmination of a decade of hard touring and recording, an electrifying two-disc CD/DVD set that captures a January 2011 performance by JJ Grey and Mofro in Atlanta, Georgia. The audio portion of Brighter Days offers up 12 inspired and wired performances by the charismatic singer/songwriter, backed here by a red-hot and ready-to-roll six-piece version of Mofro complete with a keyboardist and a pair of horn players while the DVD provides fans with three additional performances. As the Reverend said in Blues Revue, "Brighter Days...provides a great introduction to the talented JJ Grey, setting the stage for the next decade of what is certain to be a lengthy and illustrious career."
In Blues Revue magazine, the Reverend wrote, "Dust Bowl offers plenty of bluesy fretwork for the fan, from the blunderbuss solos of "The Meaning of the Blues" to the acoustic Appalachian country-blues of "Black Lung Heartache." Joe Bonamassa continues to try out new musical ideas, honing his storytelling skills to a fine edge while continuing to develop new canvases on which to paint his imaginative guitarplay. Let's be honest, though, shall we? Bonamassa's talents can no longer be restrained by a mere blues framework...so just hold on and enjoy the ride!
Former Mountain man Leslie West's Unusual Suspects is a rock solid collection of guitar-driven rockers and introspective ballads that doesn't stray far from the guitarist's road-and-time-tested signature blues-rock sound. The addition of rowdy friends like Joe Bonamassa, ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons, and Zakk Wylde, among others, provides an extra instrumental dimension to the performances. Overall, Unusual Suspects will appeal to any fan of blues and rock guitar, 'cause there's plenty of picking going on in these grooves!
"Multi-lingual roots-rock with a heavy Hispanic influence may not be every music lover's cup o' tea, but for those listeners with an open heart and ears, Los Fabulocos will scratch that itch you've had since the Texas Tornados broke up, or maybe even back to the Sir Douglas Quintet days. Give it a chance and you'll find that Dos will happily fill your ears with its rich mix of musical styles and the band's talented, inspired performances." That's what the Reverend wrote for Blurt magazine about roots-rockers Los Fabulocos, and every word is true!
Gov't Mule and Allman Brothers Band guitarist Warren Haynes gets in touch with his inner soul man for Man In Motion, only his second "solo" album in some 18 years. Haynes tones down the blues and rock elements of his trademark sound in favor of an exciting amalgam of 1960s and '70s-era soul, funk, and R&B, assembling a top-notch band that includes bassist George Porter, Jr. of the Meters, keyboardist Ivan Neville, saxophonist Ron Holloway, keyboardist Ian McLagan (the Rolling Stones), and drummer Raymond Weber. As such, Man In Motion sounds like an album out of time, more suited to 1971 than 2011, strikingly similar to the blue-eyed soul of Delaney & Bonnie but with a bluesier feel.