Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Moonshine Society's Live Time In Shanghai

The Washington DC area band Moonshine Society, accompanied by harmonica master Charlie Sayles, spent three months playing six nights a week at The House of Blues and Jazz in Shanghai, China. During their engagement they were recorded live and the result is the self-produced CD, Live In Shanghai. The music of Moonshine Society is anchored around the vocals of Jenny ‘Black Betty’ Poppen and her husband Joe Poppen on guitar. They met at Berklee in Boston and moving down to the Washington DC area where they performed and mentored by Memphis Gold and others. In Shanghai the band included bassist Chris Brown and drummer Brett Byars in addition to Sayles. They are tight and functional band and with this small group the focus is on Jenny’s vocals, Joe’s fiery guitar and Charlie’s harp, with the bass and drums providing the setting.

Very little in the nature of surprises in the songs included which include a variety of familiar blues and blues-influenced pop material. Opening is the Al Jackson and Timothy Matthews tune that was a hit for Ann Peebles and later Albert King, Breaking Up Somebody’s Home. It establishes Jenny’s presence as a singer and Joe’s energetic guitar playing. Charlie Sayles is spotlighted as vocalist on Jimmy Reed’s Bright Lights, Big City which allows him to shine. Poppen pulls out all the stops on a lengthy solo during Love Me Like a Man on which Jenny sounds really tough singing while Charlie’s harp is in the back ground. They return to Jimmy Reed on Big Boss Man, with a choppy shuffle beat (but they don’t capture the restrained, unhurried feel of Reed’s original) although Sayles takes a strong harp solo. This is followed by a lovely, nuanced rendition of the Roberta Flack hit, Killing Me Softly benefiting from an understated vocal and spare backing,

Lazy Lester’s swamp blues shuffle Sugar Coated Love follows and is a rocking performance with Sayles’ harmonica again prominent along with Joe Poppen in the accompaniment. Jenny’s low-key vocal on Lisa Mill’s Better Than This is a lovely blues and rhythm ballad performance that is complemented by Joe’s restrained playing. Following is a nice shuffle medley of the classic Rock Me Baby (with more harp from Sayles) and Slim Harpo’s Te Ni Nee Ni Nu, with Jenny certainly asserting herself as sing sings “rock me like my back ain’t got no bone,” with Poppen stinging when they transition into a funk groove on the latter number. They get down into the alley on Albert Collins’ Do What You Want to Do, a lengthy slow blues performance with a short break from Sayles and a lengthy guitar solo. Not mentioned on the back cover is an atmospheric solo bass guitar rendition of The Beatles’ Michelle.

Moonshine Society‘s Live in Shanghai is an entertaining album with strong singing and solid musicianship. One can purchase the CD at their shows or as downloads from http://www.reverbnation.com/store/index/artist_670417. It is also available as a CD or download at cdbaby.com and iTunes.

This review originally appeared in the February 2012 Capital Blues Messenger, the DC Blues Society newsletter.

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