March of the Blues Divas

You could be forgiven for thinking the glory days of the blues are mostly in the past. The fragmentation of audience fostered by the Internet has been both a blessing and a curse to artists seeking to build a reputation. So it’s a great discovery to find that there’s a whole new generation of blues artists out there, with stellar standouts like Thornetta Davis, Mississippi Heat, and Reverend Freakchild, to name only three.

And all of these new blues acts have the benefit of a century of blues tradition to draw upon. So it’s not surprising that the myriad artists represented by Frank Roszak represent a broad spectrum of mix-and-match blues stylings. Like a Cajun gumbo, a little of everything gets stirred into the pot—zydeco, Delta, Chicago, folk, rock and at times even a little rap or punk. Blues musicians have an easier time than ever crafting a unique sound, even if cutting through the haze of a saturated music market remains a major challenge.

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The amazing Thornetta Davis, whose album ‘Honest Woman’ gets five stars from me. Image courtesy of the Windsor Star.

Of the many albums Roszak has sent my way, I find it interesting that many of the standouts are women artists. It’s as if this new wave of creativity has unleashed the March of the Blues Divas, as competent and diverse as their male counterparts. Broadly speaking, though, they seem to fall on either side of the stylistic divide—on one side you have the more commercial ‘Smooth Blues’ of Lauren Mitchell, Laura Tate, Lisa Biales and Gina Sicilia. On the other you have what I call the ‘Gutbucket Blues’—the floorboard-ripping, raw blues of Eliza Neal, Thornetta Davis and Polly O’Keary and The Rhythm Method and the soul-blues of Janiva Magness. Also in this category would be the acoustic roots-blues of Holly and Jon. The amazing Tony Braunagel, both a drummer and an excellent producer, is behind at many of the emerging blues divas. Braunagel has a golden ear for production and these women are lucky to have him in their stable. His mixes are always bright, rich and with beautiful separation and imaging of the various instruments. I tend to prefer my blues on the rougher side of town—the Gutbucket Blues that kicked off with Muddy Waters and Albert King and was excellently rendered during the Mick Taylor years of the Rolling Stones and Canned Heat. To me, nothing beats a fluent slide guitar solo fed through a Marshall stack, something Taylor mastered at a precocious age.

‘Gutbucket’ Blues—with Soul

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Eliza Neals: rockin’ the blues in the Stones tradition. Courtesy band website.

Eliza Neals’ album 10,000 Feet Below has some fine, speaker-shredding slide guitar work courtesy of Howard Glazer, and her voice has an earthy, raw-edged timbre. In the finest Taylor-era Stones tradition, stellar tracks include Call Me Moonshine, You Ain’t My Dog No More and Hard Killing Floor, songs I return to often. As a blues singer Neals easily gives Jagger a run for his money. Glazer is as fluent and gutsy an electric blues player as Taylor, though he prefers a nastier growl to his tone, which is fine by me. This is the real deal. Unfortunately, the mix-down too often buries the instruments in an aural sludge that competes with rather than supports this fine artist. She should get Braunagel to produce her next album or remix this one. http://www.elizaneals.com/10000-feet-below-new-blues-rock-album-from-eliza-neals-2172017/

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Grammy nominated Janiva Magness: deep down soul. Courtesy band website.

Janiva Magness on her six-track EP Blue Again keeps the instrumentation simple but starkly effective, providing an ideal vehicle for her richly soulful, almost Motown voice. In true roots-blues tradition, she opts for flourishes of blues harp, Hammond organ and punchy guitar solos rather than horns or string sections. Magness duets with Sugar Ray Rayford on If I Can’t Have You, soaring to new heights of soulfulness. The compact length of this album is a reminder in this age of filler that less is more—there isn’t a wasted track here. Her previous album Love Wins Again was nominated for a Grammy and she gets a shout-out from the iconic Mavis Staples: “Sista Janiva’s robust and soulful voice is showering each cut with determination to make us all fall in love. Her delivery is as always sincere and straight from the heart. Soul music is alive and kicking.” http://janivamagness.com

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Polly O’Keary lets it rip on Black Crow Callin’. Courtesy band website.

Another fine Gutbucket Blues album is Polly O’Keary and The Rhythm Method on Black Crow Callin’. A power blues trio in the finest sense of the term, O’Keary handles vocals and bass with equal proficiency, and guitarist David Miller is a revelation. With drummer Tommy Cook, the band creates a tight, dynamic blues-rock groove occasionally supplemented by Hammond B3 organ, harmonica and The Powerhouse Horns. The songwriting is consistently strong and catchy without ever losing its driving edge—Hard-Hearted World, A Man Who Can Stand, and Red Light pick you up by the shirt collar and before you know it you’re settling into the slow blues groove of title track Black Crow Callin’. Miller’s crisp, clean Stratocaster solo propels the song to another level. Reconciled is another standout, a soulful ballad that gives O’Keary a chance to soften her rough edges. http://www.pollyokeary.com

All three of these albums will remain on my playlist!

The Smooth Blues department

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Lauren Mitchell crafts a smooth, engaging album on ‘Desire.’ Image courtesy Lauren Mitchell band website.

Lauren Mitchell’s album Desire features a diverse stable of songwriters, including Mitchell herself, with covers of songs originally performed by Etta James, Bettye Lavette, Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin and Betty Davis. Mitchell’s smoky vibrato is liberally supported by backing vocalists and soaring horns, giving her crooners a radio-friendly sheen that should appeal to a wide audience. But Mitchell can rock it out too, as in stellar tracks Desire, Jump Into My Fire, I Ain’t Been Licked Yet and Brown Liquor, a Mitchell original reminiscent of Take Me To The River. Reggie McBride provides a funky bass groove on the obscure Anti-Love Song, allowing Mitchell’s vocal improvisation full flight. But this isn’t an album for people who love guitar, horn or keyboard solos—everything is kept brisk and to the point. Given how tight the performances and arrangements are, it’s incredible this album was recorded in just ten days at Braunagel’s Los Angeles studio. It’s testament once again to the man’s genius for production. http://laurenmitchellband.com

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Laura Tate’s ‘Let’s Just Be Real’ is a well-rounded mix of pop, blues and light jazz. Image courtesy band website.

Laura Tate on Let’s Just Be Real similarly draws from a wide, sometimes surprising range of songwriters. Tate’s voice and vocal style leans even more heavily toward blues-inflected pop than Mitchell. She gives Terry Wilson and Teresa James a special shout-out for their help with the album. Wilson—who performed with the legendary Eric Burdon—plays bass here and is the writer of If That Ain’t Love, a snappy jazz-blues number. Wilson is also producer of the album and co-writer with James of I’ll Find Someone Who Will, a brisk, horn-driven tune. Tate offers a seductive spoken word intro to Can’t Say No before shifting gears for her interpretation of Thin Lizzy’s rock classic The Boys Are Back in Town. This could have been a huge misstep, but she wisely chooses a downbeat, lounge jazz rendering that shouldn’t work but somehow does, and beautifully. If anything, it makes the tune far more interesting than the original. Here again Braunagel’s presence is felt, though primarily as drummer, not producer. https://www.musicbylauratate.com

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Gina Sicilia goes beyond covers to craft a nearly all-original album on ‘Tug of War.’ Image courtesy The Bluegrass Special.

Gina Sicilia on her seventh album Tug of War is intent upon proving herself not just as a singer but an original tunesmith. She wrote seven of the album’s eleven tunes and co-wrote I Don’t Want to Be in Love with Dave Darling, who plays guitar and bass. Sicilia’s voice is well-rounded, never harsh and always deep. But this isn’t truly a blues album, except in spirit. According to American Blues Scene, the album was made in Nashville on the heels of a traumatic event in her life, prompting “a period of really challenging myself as a songwriter.” The Nashville influence is most prominently heard in I’ll Stand Up, yet never slips into country music kitsch or sentimentality. There’s a tasty acoustic guitar solo in Never Gonna End by Ron Jennings, who provides restrained, to-the-point guitar throughout. Abandoned has a catchy hook and a mid-tempo groove propelled by Jennings’ snappy electric guitar work. Sicilia slickly updates the Sixties pop classic Tell Him by Bert Berns. Her rendition of the Lennon-McCartney tune All My Loving I found less convincing. The album matches Braunagel’s high standard of production, thanks to Glenn Barratt and Dave Darling. https://www.americanbluesscene.com/2017/05/gina-sicilia-life-tug-war/ http://www.blueelan.com/gina-sicilia-store/gina-sicilia-tug-of-war-cd-pre-order

I’ll deal with the male blues artists I’ve been listening to in a separate review.

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About seanarthurjoyce

I am a poet, journalist and author with a strong commitment to the environment and social justice. If anything, I have too many interests and too little time in a day to pursue them all. Film, poetry, literature, music, mythology, and history probably top the list. My musical interests lie firmly in rock and blues with a smattering of folk and world music. I consider myself lucky to have lived during the great flowering of modern rock music during its Golden Age in the late 1960s/early '70s. In poetry my major inspirations are Dylan Thomas, Rilke, Neruda and the early 20th century British/American poets: Auden, Eliot, Cummings. My preferred cinema includes the great French auteurs, Kirosawa, Orson Welles, and Film Noir. My preferred social causes are too numerous to mention but include banning GMOs, eliminating poverty (ha-ha), and a sane approach to forest conservation and resource extraction. Wish me—wish us all—luck on that one!
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2 Responses to March of the Blues Divas

  1. Teresa James says:

    Hey Sean – I tried to send a reply a bit ago and am not sure that it went through… I just wanted to thank you for all that you are doing here and for recognizing and giving press time to these great artists. The industry definitely needs more guys like you! I just wanted to clarify one thing that you mentioned; while Tony Braunagel has produced a lot of amazing blues records, the Laura Tate CD was produced and arranged by Terry Wilson, not Tony. (Of course, Tony did a superb job on drums, as always!)

  2. Teresa: hey, thanks for getting in touch and for the clarification. It’s great to see so much fine music carrying on the blues tradition. I’ll correct the article.

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