In previous reviews I’ve written about the rise of women in contemporary blues, highlighting their impressive accomplishments reinvigorating the form. (See LINKS below.) But from all this it might seem the men are lagging behind. Nothing could be further from the truth! While in mainstream pop music the business seems to have devolved mostly to same-sounding divas and manufactured ‘stars,’ with originality in short supply across the spectrum, in the blues both men and women are injecting new life into an old genre. I thought it was well past time to catch up with the guys.
Matty T. Wall: Sidewinder (2018). This album kicks out of the gate with the high-powered instrumental Slideride, featuring Wall’s electric guitar slide work backed by his tight rhythm section in a fast uptempo groove. The album’s energy never lets up, and when it does—as on a cover of the Trombone Shorty song Something Beautiful, Sam Cooke’s Change Is Gonna Come, or the acoustic Leave It All Behind, a Wall original—it’s never cloying or sentimental. The Australian bluesman combines a blues and hard rock sensibility that builds its power as much on a keen sense of the song arranger’s art as it does on his impressive chops as a guitarist. Wall has the rare gift of a voice equally as attractive as his axe skills, well suited to both hard and soft numbers. Although he mostly stays in the blues-rock vein, his forays into R&B (Change Is Gonna Come, Ain’t That the Truth) ballads (Something Beautiful) and the socially-conscious singer-songwriter (Leave It All Behind), the final cut on the album (Mississippi KKKrossroads) veers into rap territory without seeming lame or out of place. Something Beautiful is easily the standout track here, beautifully arranged with a pizzicato guitar line, smooth but unobtrusive vocal harmonies, and a positive message we can all use in these crazy-ass times. This is one of those albums that gets heavy rotation on my stereo.
Steve Strongman: Tired of Talkin’ (2019). Canadian bluesman Steve Strongman turns in another strong effort. (I reviewed his excellent previous roots-blues album No Time Like Now in ‘Catching Up on the Canuck Blues.’) On Tired of Talkin’ Strongman opts for a more straight-ahead blues-rock approach, but with his usual fine ear for arrangements. This is one guitar hero who knows how—and when—to employ restraint, even as he’s no slouch with the fast licks. Strongman comes on with a muscular groove in Tired of Talkin’ and Paid My Dues, tipping his hat to the hard road all blues musicians must face, before slowing the pace on Still Crazy ’Bout You and Just Ain’t Right. The Hammond organ groove on the latter tune is a tasty echo of the glory days of modern blues in the ’60s. Rock numbers like Livin’ the Dream and Hard Place and a Rock, have a feel reminiscent of fellow Canadian Tom Cochrane’s Life is a Highway, and tip the hat lyrically to Strongman’s Canuck roots. Tasteful ballads like That Kind of Fight, Al Green’s Let’s Stay Together, Bring You Down and the Delta blues number Highway Man (a Strongman original) sit comfortably alongside the more intense tracks. The album was recorded in Hamilton, Ontario and Nashville with no loss of consistency in the production and overall tone. Multi-talented collaborator Dave King produced the album, played drums, and co-wrote nine of the 12 songs.
Terry Robb: Confessin’ My Dues (2019). If you’re looking for a change of pace, a downshift into a stellar set of acoustic blues, look no further than this album. Robb is clearly a living master of the guitar with more of a debt to ‘gentleman blues’ players like Chet Atkins and Les Paul than the all-out electric blues of Johnny Winter or Jimi Hendrix. And he’s Canadian! Currently living in Portland, Oregon, Robb received the Muddy Award for Best Acoustic Guitar by the Cascade Blues Association for 19 consecutive years, from inception of the award category in 1992 until it was renamed in his honour in 2011. His fingerpicking finesse opens the album with Butch Holler Stomp and Still on 101 and carries seemingly effortlessly throughout the album on both acoustic and resonator guitars. Like his guitar style, his vocals are clear and precise, not at all your prototypical sandpaper-throated classic blues singer, as on How a Free Man Feels, Confessin’ My Dues, Heart Made of Steel and Keep Your Judgment. Robb works with a traditional three-piece combo of guitar, drums (Gary Hobbs) and standup bass (Dave Captein), and seems most comfortable on the many instrumental numbers on the album. On numbers like Darkest Road I’m Told and High Desert Everywhere you can clearly hear echoes of Robert Johnson, still resonating (pardon the pun) with blues players nearly a century after his heyday. Though it’s probably more accurate to say that High Desert Everywhere is Johnson filtered through Ry Cooder. There truly isn’t a weak number to be heard anywhere here, thanks to Robb’s fluent, crystal-clear technique and compositional ability. A pristine delight from start to finish.
Ellis Mano Band: Here and Now (2019). I had a musician friend tell me the other day: “A bad singer’s a deal-breaker for me. Good singers are hard to find.” Well, Chris Ellis is a standout vocalist, with a wide range of expressive abilities. At times he reminds me of the gorgeously resonant singing done by Daniel Lanois on his classic album Acadie. The band is named for Ellis and guitarist Edis Mano, and what a combination! Like Matty Wall, the sound is a blend of rock and blues, hard-hitting when it needs to be—as on Whiskey—and shifting down a few gears for tracks like Here and Now, Where We Belong, Goodbye My Love and others. Ellis has the ideal ballad singer’s voice, with a broad range, effortless vibrato and passionate delivery. Ellis and Mano’s songwriting displays a keen understanding of how to build emotional dynamics in a song. One of the standout tracks on the album is Badwater, which starts off understated but gradually builds in intensity thanks again to Ellis’s vocal sensitivity. The album closes with the joyful Dixie jazz stomp of Jeannine. Keyboard player Manuel Halter’s Hammond organ links the band’s sound to classic blues but never dominates the proceedings. Guitarist Mano is similarly restrained, sacrificing showboating for overall texture and mood. This may not be the album for guitar hero worshippers but for those looking for well-crafted songs delivered by a soulful vocalist it’s sure to please.
‘March of the Blues Divas’ June 11, 2017 https://chameleonfire1.wordpress.com/2017/06/11/march-of-the-blues-divas/
‘Queens of the Gutbucket Blues,’ February 5, 2018 https://chameleonfire1.wordpress.com/2018/02/05/queens-of-the-gutbucket-blues/
‘Thornetta Davis: A New Blues Classic,’ February 16, 2017 https://chameleonfire1.wordpress.com/2017/02/16/thornetta-davis-a-new-blues-classic/
‘An Interview with Ice Queen Sue Foley,’ July 31, 2018 https://chameleonfire1.wordpress.com/2018/07/31/an-interview-with-blues-ice-queen-sue-foley/
‘Holly Hyatt Releases Solo Album Wild Heart,’ April 29, 2019 https://chameleonfire1.wordpress.com/2019/04/29/holly-hyatt-releases-solo-album-wild-heart/
‘Catching Up on the Canuck Blues,’ February 27, 2018
Matty T. Wall website: https://www.mattytwall.com
Ellis Mano Band website: https://www.ellismanoband.com/band/
Terry Robb website: https://www.terryrobb.com/home3
Terry Robb on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terry_Robb
Steve Strongman website: https://www.stevestrongman.com/home