With this first Blues Bites column we're catching up on releases from folks like Bob Margolin, John Mayall, and Lino Muoio, providing a truly international take on the blues. 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!
Alabama Shakes – Boys & Girls
This multi-racial outfit from Alabama is the latest indie-rock buzz band, their growing reputation based on the band's dynamic on-stage performances, which are said to rival a Bible-thumping tent revival in their energy and spirit. Boys & Girls, the debut album from Alabama Shakes, captures a small part of the band's intoxicating live elixir, mostly in the soul-shaking vocals of Shakes' frontwoman Brittany Howard and guitarist Heath Fogg's earnest, Steve Cropper-styled fretwork.
Although my ears are saddened by the lo-fi, ridiculously hollow production that Boys & Girls has been saddled with...just because you're recording on a budget doesn't mean that you have to sound cheap…and is it really a good idea to let a novice band produce itself when skilled board-riders like Tom Hambridge are right down the road a piece? That said, my heart is gladdened by the performances on Boys & Girls, the band masterfully blending scraps of blues, rock, and Southern soul (Memphis and Muscle Shoals) into an electrifying original sound that strongly relies on Howard's enormous vocals. A powerful singer capable of mixing Koko Taylor-inspired highs and Etta James-styled lows, Howard can switch gears from sultry to soaring within the course of a song.
The Shakes' rhythm section of bassist Zac Cockrell and drummer Steve Johnson lay out a mighty fat groove, which itself is embellished by Fogg's funky, soulful guitar style. While Boys & Girls is an encouraging debut, the Alabama Shakes are a band worth keeping an eye on long after the blog buzz has diminished. Grade: B (ATO Records, released April 10, 2012)
Bob Margolin with Mike Sponza Band – Blues Around The World
Former Muddy Waters Band guitarist and bona fide blues legend in his own right "Steady Rollin'" Bob Margolin hooked up with Italian blues trio the Mike Sponza Band for a 2011 tour of Eastern Europe. By all accounts, the partnership went swimmingly, and they decided to move their musical collaboration to the studio. The result is Blues Around The World, a twelve-track love letter to the blues that proves the point that blues music is universal.
Margolin, Sponza, and crew rip and roar through a dozen songs, some Margolin originals, a couple written by Sponza, and a few more beloved covers. The performances are a blues lover's dream come true, Chicago-styled blues with a spicy international flavor that feature Margolin's fluid guitar and gruff vocals. Highlights of Blues Around The World include Sponza's Delta-tinged "Rather Than Being Free," showcasing his own skills as a guitarist and vocalist; Margolin's "Ice or Fire," a funky lil' romp with jazzy fretwork; and, of course, Waters' signature "Rollin' and Tumblin'," Margolin's vocal growl matched by his menacing string-bending. A charming, acoustic cover of Robert Johnson's "Love In Vain" was tacked on the end as a tribute to Margolin's lost dog. The Rev says "check it out!" Grade: B+ (Vizztone Records, March 6, 2012)
John Mayall – Smokin' Blues
British blues-rock legend John Mayall has made a lot of great albums through the years, both with various line-ups of the Bluesbreakers and with other disconnected band rosters that have explored different musical tangents. Mayall has always been his best on stage, however, and his live performances – thousands upon thousands of them through the decades – have provided a welcome coda to his immense legacy.
The U.K. release Smokin' Blues charts the progress of Mayall's live band circa 1972 and '73 with a handful of recordings culled from a pair of May performances in Frankfurt, Germany, albeit a year apart. Mayall's band is essentially the same for both concerts, featuring guitarist Freddie Robinson, drummer Keef Hartley, string bassist Victor Gaskin, trumpeter Blue Mitchell and, of course, Mayall on vocals, keyboards, guitar, and harmonica. The lone variable comes in the form of the band's saxophonist – Clifford Solomon in 1972, the great Red Holloway a year later. These are the players, essentially, that recorded Mayall's acclaimed 1972 album Jazz Blues Fusion and 1973's Ten Years Are Gone.
Smokin' Blues features Mayall's uniquely British vision of jazz music colliding with his equally original style of blues. Although the album lists twelve tracks, there are really only eight actual performances, but each is a lengthy essay of improvisation and composition, providing the individual instrumentalists their moment in the spotlight. The track selection leans heavily towards the jazz side of the equation, but that's not to say that there aren’t some genuine bluesy moments hereabouts. "Got You On My Mind" starts out as a Chicago blues romp but quickly evolves into a raucous, horn-driven foot-shuffler, while "No Smoking" hits a bluesy vibe from jump street, with Mayall's languid harp and Robinson's elegant fretwork.