Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Vaneese Thomas Sings Blues For My Father

The youngest daughter of the legendary Rufus Thomas, Vaneese Thomas, like her sister Carla and brother Marvel, been involved in the music business dating backing to singing back-up vocals for Stax. After college she relocated to New York where she was a session singer and songwriter.

She has issued several albums that showcase her singing and songwriting, and the latest is “Blues For My Father” (Seque Records). It had been five years since her last album “Soul Sisters Volume 1” (Segue Records), where she resurrected classic soul recordings from the likes of Bettye Swan, Tina Turner, Etta James and her sister Carla. This new recording, as indicated by the title, has her delving more into blues and she contributed ten originals as well as handles two covers, one of which is from her late father.

Produced by Thomas and her husband Wayne Warnecke, there is a variety of musicians appearing on this but the core is Buddy Williams on drums, Will Lee on bass, Robbie Kondor on piano and Tash Neal on guitars and Warnecke on percussion. There are appearances by (among others) Marvel Thomas and Paul Shaffer on organ, Ron Mathes and Jeff Mironov on guitars, horns led by Tim Ouimette and Perry Gartner and Shawn Pelton on drums.

What stands out on “Blues For My Father” is Thomas’ vocals. Rob Bowman, who penned the liner notes “Vaneese’s masterful control of phrasing, breath, intonation and timbre.” In other words she can flat out sing with a display of vocal dynamics as well as power to leave a strong impression on the listeners. She belts out about having the blues sitting at the station waiting for the train to bring her lover back on the opening “Southern Central Blues.” Then she gets sassy celebrating her man who plays no tricks and “10 X The Man You Are.“

The Memphis funk of “Wrong Turn” is a delightful duet with sister Carla (while Marvel adds organ) with some punchy horns in the backing and a crisp guitar solo from Jeff Mironov. “Wrap You Arms Around Me” has a bit of southern rock feel as Tash Neal is on dobro with Mironov again on guitar. Part of the melody here is evocative of the Ricky Allen recording “Cut You Loose,” although her lyric is telling her man to allow her to be strength for him and "wrap your arms around me and never let go.”

The centerpiece of this release is a duet with her father, “Can’t Ever Let You Go.” Like Natalie Cole did with her recordings with her deceased father, Vaneese adds her vocal to the original Rufus Thomas recording. Husband Warnecke pulled out Rufus’ vocal from the original analog masters, added some exhortations from other Thomas recordings, then provided a contemporary backing and guitar and sax solos along with Vaneese improvising around her father’s vocals.

Other highlights on this set include “Corner Of Heartache And Pain,” a straight, slow blues about the pain felt after her man left with. Paul Shaffer on organ. “Love’ Em And Leave’ Em Behind” is a soulful number where Vaneese tells a heartbreaker she has seen her friends in too much pain but he won’t do the same to her. “Southern Girl” is a celebration of her roots and the south with Kirk Whalum taking the sax solo. There is also a straight cover of John Fogerty’s “The Old Man Down The Road” before the disc closes with a wonderfully sung lament, “Blue Ridge Blues” backed simply by Rob Mathes’ guitars.

Blues For My Father” is a showcase of Vaneese Thomas’ craft as a songwriter and her soul-shaking vocals and should have considerable appeal among blues and southern soul audiences.

This review was written in Fall 2014 and appeared in issue 361 of the Jazz and Blues Report (issue 357). She will be appearing at the Pennsylvania Blues Festival this coming weekend (July 26). Here she is performing live.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Lil Ed and Shemekia Copeland Headline 24th Pennsylvania Blues Festival

Shemekia Copeland
The Pennsylvania Blues Festival approaches quickly. The following has appeared in the May-June Jazz & Blues Report (Issue 360) that can be downloaded at

Celebrating 24 years of Blues in the Poconos, the Pennsylvania Blues Festival takes place at Split Rock Resort, Friday July 24 through Sunday July 26. It moves to Split Rock in Lake Harmony, Pennsylvania after 4 years at the Blue Mountain Resort. The new location is close to the original Festival location on Big Boulder Mountain. "The Blues Lovers Blues Festival," as it calls itself will be headlined by Shemekia Copeland on Saturday the 25th and Lil Ed and the Blues Imperials. There will be zydeco from Dwayne Dopsie and the Zydeco Hell-raisers as well as gospel from the Highway QCs,and such notable performers as Walter 'Wolfman' Washington; John Nemeth and Alvin 'Youngblood' Hart.

Friday night, June 24, the Festival opens with an Indoor Showcase with Mikey Junior's Blues Review, featuring the fine harmonica player and vocalist. It takes place inside the Galleria at Split Rock.

Monster Mike Welch and Sugar Ray
Saturday June 25, the Festival Main Stage opens with Dwayne Dopsie and the Zydeco Hell-raisers. One of the sons of zydeco legend Rockin' Dopsie. Dwayne Dopsie's hard-driving and rocking music is also heavily influenced by Clifton Chenier and similarly he is marvelous blues singer and player as well as traditional zydeco artist who will also do a Hendrix-influenced rendition of "Hey Joe." Besides opening the main stage he will close the Tent Stage that night. Alligator Recording Artist Selwyn Birchwood, winner of the International Blues Challenge a couple years back, brings his exuberant blues with his tight band, solid vocals and guitar, including lap steel (he was mentored by Sonny Rhodes). Severn Records artist Sugar Ray & The BlueTones follows and the group led by Ray Norcia has been laying down Chicago styled blues for nearly 40 years (This writer saw them in 1978 in New York backing J.B. Hutto. Norcia a marvelous singer (reminiscent of Junior Parker and he had a stint fronting Roomful of Blues) and fine harpist is backed by Monster Mike Welch on guitar; Anthony Geraci on keyboards, Michael 'Mudcat' Ward on bass, and Neil Gouvin on drums. New Orleans Icon, Walter 'Wolfman' Washington and the Roadmasters is up next on the Main Stage bring there mix of blues, soul and funk. Closing the Main stage will be Shemekia Copeland who recently resigned with Alligator Records bring her tight band and her powerful vocals on a mix of blues and blues-rooted material that underscores why she has been named Koko taylor's successor as "Queen of The Blues."

Walter 'Wolfman' Washington

In addition to the Main Stage, others acts will be presented in the Tent Stage. Electro-Fi Recording Artist Harmonica Shah & Carlton Washington will open the tent stage and play a second set later. Also in the tent performing two sets is John Mooney. Mooney mixes Delta Blues with the New orleans second-line. Growing up in Rochester NY, Mooney was mentored by legendary Son House and his most recent recording is a tribute to the Delta Blues Icon. Dwayne Dopsie closes out the tent Stage after Mooney's second set. Later Saturday evening, Bobby Kyle will lead a Tribute to Johnny Copeland in the Galleria Governor's Ballroom.

Blues on Sunday July 26 starts with a Blues Brunch in the Governor's Ballroom featuring Slam Allen, a dynamic singer and guitarist who spent several years fronting James Cotton's Band. Sunday on the Main Stage opens with the legendary gospel group, The Highway QCs. This Gospel Quartet was sort of the junior Soul Stirrers and members years ago included Sam Cooke, Johnny Taylor and Low Rawls. Up next on the main stage is Vanesse Thomas, who is the terrific blues and rhythm singing daughter of Rufus Thomas. Victor Wainright and the Wild Roots brings this rocking keyboard wizard to the main stage and he is followed by the terrific soul-blues Blues Music Award winning vocalist John Nemeth. Closing the Main stage will be Alligator recording artists, Lil Ed & the Blues Imperials, who will bring their exuberant house rocking slide-guitar blues.

Lil Ed Williams
Sunday, the Tent Stage will have performances from Alvin 'Youngblood' Hart, The Peterson Brothers and Mikey Junior. Alvin 'Youngblood' Hart emerged over two decades ago laying down traditional Delta and Texas blues which has expanded to include a wide range of material, making him a 21st Century songster in the manner of a Leadbelly. He has been called a musical love child of Howlin' Wolf and Link Wray. The Peterson Brothers are youthful blues prodigies that show that blues can still inspire youth and have shared stages with Pinetop Perkins, Willie Smith, Michael Burks and Marcia Ball. their website notes they are recording a debut album. Hart and they will play two sets before Mikey Junior closes the Tent Stage.

Once again, the festival sports a superb line-up of blues. Split Rock offers lodging as well as serves as the Festival site. there are a number of other accommodations available near the Festival site. Information on tickets and lodging can be accessed at the Festival's website,  (all photos by and © Ron Weinstock).

Friday, April 10, 2015

In the Mix” (Jazzhaus Records) is Bernard Allison’s first studio in six years and certainly is a good one. Bernard produced this and is backed by a tight band of George Moye on bass, Mario Dawson on drums and Mark ‘Muggie’ Leach on keyboards with Bruce McCabe adding piano to two selections and Jose Ned James adding sax to four tracks. Bernard wrote five originals and the others are interpretations of songs from Colin James, Freddie King, Tyrone Davis and two from his late father, Luther Allison.

What impresses is both the strength and restraint Bernard displays throughout whether playing a blues-infused rocker by Colin James, “Five Long Years,” that opens this CD, or the marvelous relaxed shuffle rendition of his dad’s “Move On The Hood” with his lean, muscular slide guitar that here. “Call Me Mama,” co-written with his mother, is a terrific soulful number with marvelous sax from James and a vocal that suggests that Allison would have considerable appeal on the soul-blues circuit even without a guitar. The rendition of Tyrone Davis’ “I Had It All The Time” certain reinforces this observation. Set against a lazy Jimmy Reed shuffle groove, “Something’s Wrong,” is a terrific blues performance again with wonderful slide and terrific playing by the band with McCabe adding some rollicking piano here. “Set Me Free” is an original that sound like a classic Chicago blues from the late 70s and 80s. The album ends with a terrific rendition of “Moving On Up” which was one of his father’s first recordings.

In the Mix” is a terrific recording that displays the breath and maturity of Bernard Allison’s music.

I received my review copy from a publicist. Here is Bernard with bis late father, the legendary Luther Allison.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Benny Turner's "Journey"

Benny Turner has has a distinguished career playing bass and anchoring the bands of his brother, the legendary Freddie King; another Chicago blues legend Mighty Joe Young, and the late Queen of New Orleans, Marva Wright (with whom this writer best knows him). Additionally he pioneered playing bass behind gospel acts and played with the likes of Dee Clark. He has just issued his third recording (the first this writer has heard) as a leader, “Journey” on Nola Blue.

One often looks beyond a sideman who may sing a couple or two opening numbers before bringing on the main act. However, from the first notes of “Breakin’ News,” one quickly becomes aware of the authority Turner brings as a vocalist, not simply a strong bass player who anchors a band. With the handsome production, solid shuffle groove, brassy horn arrangements (from Turner and saxophonist Jason Mingledorff), Marc Stone’s guitar and effective use of backing vocals he convincingly delivers his lyrics about the relationship being over and “ain’t no more crying.” The mood turns down home on “Don’t You Ride My Mule” with Sunpie Barnes adding his harp and Charles Moore rhythm guitar, while Turner’s regular drummer Jeffrey ‘Jellybean’ Alexander lays down the groove and Josh Paxton adds the keyboards here in lieu of Turner’s regular collaborator Keiko Komaki who plays on most of the recording. On other selections, Derwin “Big D” Perkins is on rhythm guitar.

Other selections display Turner’s way with a word in addition to his singing including the reflective “How I Wish” as he sits in his rocking chair wishing his woman was here with him and the topical “What’s Wrong With the World Today” that touches on issues of homelessness, violence and other matters as Turner sings that “We need love” on this closing track. Another number that should resonate is the soulful ballad “Worn Out Woman” with its theme of a woman’s work never being done, getting the kids on the bus and then dust the house. Turner even takes up the guitar and kazoo for the relaxed, down-home instrumental “My Mother’s Blues.” with twin keyboards and Alexander playing lightly on bass drum and cymbal.

The variety and strength of material, the strong work by the band and Benny Turner’s heartfelt and persuasive vocals make “Journey” a gem of a recording.

I received my review copy from a publicist. Here is Benny Turner in performance at the 2013 French Quarter Festival in new Orleans.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Junior Mance Jubilation

Delmark’s acquisition of the Canadian Sackville label continues to make available some wonderful recordings covering the whole spectrum of jazz. Among the latest releases to get back into circulation is a live solo piano recording from the wonderful Junior Mance, “Jubilation” (Sackville). Mance, who established himself with Dizzy Gillespie, Cannonball Adderly and the two tenor team of Eddie ‘Lockjaw’ Davis and Johnny Griffin, had been working leading his own trios and also in duos in New York from the 1960s on when he was recorded at Toronto’s The Montreal Bistro in September, 1994.

Jubilation” was originally released in 1996 and likely will be new to most ears. In a program ranging from Hoagy Carmichael, Ellington and Strayhorn, W.C. Handy, Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein, Dizzy Gillespie and Cole Porter, Mance throughout showcases his considerable and ability in mixing gospel and blues roots with florid Tatum-esque runs. The title track is a particularly exhilarating performance, but his touch and tenderness is shown on a rendition of “Georgia On My Mind.”

Mance gets playful on “Lady Be Good,” while his take on “All the Things You Are” is a high point on this exceptional release. Mance also puts his own stamp on a marvelous take of the venerable “St. Louis Blues,” as well as on “Birks Works,” while he invests a morose tone to “Lover Man.” “What Is Thing Called Love” starts in a reflective manner before Mance turns his interpretation into a stride-rooted romp. This track exhibits the wide ranging musical imagination mixed with his formidable technique making “Jubilation” such a delightful recording.

I received my review copy from Delmark. Here is Junior Mance doing "Jubilation" in 1959.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Brandon Santini Live & Extended

Brandon Santini has been establishing himself as one of the new blues harmonica hotshots. With his band of Timo Arthur guitar, Nick Hearn on bass and Chad Wirl on drums, the Memphis-based Santini was recorded in July 1014 performing at Le Petit Imperial de Québec as part of Festival D’été Du Québec and his rousing performance can be heard on “Live & Extended” (VizzTone).

Santini’s formidable fat, wet harmonica sound is present throughout with his no-holds barred attack. At the same time, the performances are straight blues. He may be high energy but that does not mean he has rocked out and his sense of dynamics is terrific. He has chosen intriguing covers and solid idiomatic originals. His vocals are solid and the band provides solid support whether taking us  down in the alley or rocking a nice shuffle.

From the opening moment of his hot take of James Cotton’s "One More Mile” to the closing encore number “Come On Everybody,” Brandon Santini lays down  driving harmonica blues and forceful singing. “This Time Another Year,” with its chugging rhythm and some of guitarist’s Arthur best  playing is a terrific track as he sings about maybe being in Chicago or down south in Tennessee. Then he takes down the tempo on “Elevate Me Mama” which again sports some strong harp. After the nice groove of an original “Evil Woman” we hear a fresh, rockabilly tinged reworking of Walter Horton’s “Have a Good Time.”

Other choice covers include the funky groove to recast Slim Harpo’s "Got Love If You Want It,” and Frank Frost’s “My Back Scratcher,” with its mix of a lazy groove and Santini’s extroverted vocal and harp. Then there is his hot shuffle “No Matter What I Do,” and the breakneck tempo of “I Wanna Boogie With You.” Listening to this terrific recording one gets a sense of just how exciting he is live. “Live & Extended” certainly whets this listener’s appetite to see him live.

I received my review copy from VizzTone. Here is Brandon Santini performing "Evil Woman" at another Festival. 

Monday, January 19, 2015

Lisa Mills Says I'm Changing

Gulf Coast chanteuse Lisa Mills refers to herself as "a blue-eyed-soul singer armed with a guitar" who speaking about her music says "If anything, I would refer to what I do as American Southern roots music.” Her new release "I'm Changing" (MillsBluz Records) is mostly a re-constructed version of tracks Lisa originally recorded and released in 2005. For this updated release she employed groundbreaking producer Trina Shoemaker, the first woman to win the Grammy Award for album engineering. Her backing musicians include guitarist Rick Hirsch and drummer T. K. Lively of Wet Willie fame; guitarist Corky Hughes and bassist Ian Jennings. Lisa notes “There are two fully re-recorded tracks on the album, ‘Take My Troubles" and "Tell Me," and three new [original] songs." While she thought she would have to redo vocals on other songs, Trina Shoemaker's mixing resolved many issues so only two songs needed to be totally redone.

The opening track "Better Than This/ I Don't Need You Anymore" grabbed the attention of this listener. With Hirsch's uncluttered guitar lead and a backing that evokes classic Muscle Shoals, Mills vocals ring true. This song with lyrics of leaving a cheating man is followed by another strong performance, "I Don't Want to Be Happy" ("I just want to be with you"). Again kudos to the backing whose direct, uncluttered backing lets the full warmth of her singing to be felt and appreciated. 

"I Need a Little Sunshine," co-written with bassist Jennings, is another display of her soulful vocals, while the title track has a country-folk flavor with Pat Murphy's fiddle being prominent. The pace changes with "Eyes So Blue" an expression of love set to a joyful reggae groove. This may not be the musical highpoint, but it may be this writer's favorite selection. There are a couple gospel numbers including an a cappella rendition of her original "Tell Me,” and Rev. Robert Wilkins' "Wish I Was in Heaven Sitting Down," with Corky Hughes on resonator guitar. "Rain in the Summertime" is a folk-flavored performance where she is backed only by her own acoustic guitar.

"I'm Changing" closes with a marvelous interpretation of Jimi Hendrix's "Little Wing." Lisa Mills is an extraordinary singer and also songwriter and with the backing provided and the production supplied by Trina Shoemaker, she has provided a superb recording that should appeal to a wide range of listeners.

I received my review copy from a publicist. This CD has been out a few months and I apologize for not reviewing it earlier. I remember enjoying it when I first head it and when listening to it a couple days ago I knew I had to write about it. Here she is seen performing "I'm Changing."