By Devon Wendell
Sugar Sweet (Playing For Change)
New Orleans’s own Grandpa Elliott’s debut is pure down home blues and southern fried soul without the usual over production that plagues most modern blues recording today. (Elliott was first recognized on The Play For Change project with his rendition of Stand By Me.) He sings, plays harmonica and is backed by members of the Playing For Change Band, consisting of some incredible artists, in all genres, from all over the world: including Keb Mo’, Jason Tamba (guitarist from DR Congo), Louis Mhlanga on guitar, and Peter Bunetta on percussion.
There are many familiar chestnuts on Sugar Sweet, beginning with Elliott’s back porch boogie version of Bobby “Blue” Bland’s “Ain’t Nothing You Can Do,” enhanced by a mix of Memphis soul grooves and African rhythms. His laid back yet pleading vocals are reminiscent of Taj Mahal and Jimmy Reed, and his minimalist harmonica playing brings to mind the masterful Slim Harpo.
Elliott’s take on the Harry Dixon Loes’ classic gospel piece, “This Little Light Of Mine” surfaces with a ska flavor, and melodic guitar playing by Tamba and Mhlanga. On Little Milton’s “We’re Gonna Make It,” he perfectly captures every subtle vocal nuance. And It’s fitting that Elliott does a medley of Chicago blues master Jimmy Reed’s “Baby What You Want Me To Do”/”Bright Lights, Big City,” in which he shows off his powerful harp playing. Keb Mo’s slide guitar adds is subtle and colorful texture to this Windy City shuffle.
The title track is a sweet, African-tinged ballad. Singing lyrics such as “I’m afraid if you kissed the ocean, it would turn to lemonade,” Elliott sings like a man on his knees courting the last great woman on Earth. But he reserves his most powerful vocal performance for Aretha Franklin’s “Share Your Love With Me,” with his tearful, fast vocal vibrato and spot-on phrasing. The track is worth the purchase price alone, giving the Queen Of Soul’s own version a run for the money.
“Another Saturday Night” lacks the excitement of the rest of the album’s tracks, but Elliott makes up for it with a live version of “Fannie Mae,” a no-nonsense blues with great call and response between Elliott’s vocals and harmonica playing.
The album closes with a final highlight – a poignant version of Charles Brown’s “Please Come Home For Christmas,” with Elliott’s harmonica solo saying so much with just a few notes, and Steve Molitz Fender Rhodes laying down some perfect gospel keyboard backing.
With his memorable references to sawdust juke joints, back porch boogie, touching gospel music, Chicago blues, Memphis soul, Grandpa Elliott’s Sugar Sweet returns the listener to a purer time – reflecting the comment Sly Stone made at Woodstock in 1969: “If it was good in the past, it’s still good today.”
Stomp The Floor (Delta Groove)
Though Arthur Adams came to Los Angeles from Meden, Tennessee, he has been a staple of the Southland blues scene since 1964. He’s back in full force on his 7th album Stomp The Floor with an all-star lineup consisting of Hense Powell: keyboards, Reggie McBride: bass, Lou Castro: bass, James Gadsen: drums, Stacey Lamont Syndor: percussion, Lee Thornberg: trumpet, Dave Woodford: saxophone, and Garrett Adkins: trombone. But overall the results are mixed.
The opening title track starts with a sexy, Isaac Hayes Memphis funk beat. Adams’s throaty vocal, single string bends, and clear guitar tone have an uncanny resemblance to Chicago blues veteran Fenton Robinson, and McBride’s pulsating bass line drives the rhythm section to — in the words of George Clinton — “Funk or walk.”
Other tunes reach into different areas. On “You Can’t Win For Losing,” Adams offers a hopeful message with B.B. King-like phrasing and well placed horn arrangements. “Don’t Let The Door Hit You,” prompts Adams and the fellas to take it down to the alley with the humorous tale about a lazy, no good woman who’s got to go. Here, as elsewhere, Adams digs deep into his guitar strings. Although he can be a strong vocalist, the highlights of the album trace to his instrumental work. Especially the raw funk of “You Got The Right,” which brings to mind Texas six stringers Johnny “Guitar” Watson and Albert Collins, and “You Are Invited”, his Adams’s most melodic and interesting guitar solo, delving into minor keys with passion and intensity.
But there are down sides, as well on Stomp the Floor. Adam sings falsetto on the minor key “I Know What You Mean” with originality and grace, and plays a soft, sweet guitar solo. But Powell’s electric keyboard work is distracting. The saccharine ballad “So Sweet” sounds intentionally geared to be a hit, but it lacks power and doesn’t go anywhere past the chorus. Similarly, “Callin’ Heaven” has some unique, overdubbed vocal harmonies from Adams, but the backing arrangement is far too polished.
On “Nature Of The Beast” Adams’ guitar tone has too much chorus, robbing it of its bite. “Around the Sun,” a light jazz instrumental, seems out of place in this collection, although it does show off Adams’ jazz chops and versatility. And “Blues Roots,” another instrumental is simply an obvious nod to T-Bone Walker’s more funky recordings of the ‘70’s.
In sum, Stomp The Floor, has a good share of great vocal, guitar and band performances. But too much of it feels over produced and lacks consistency, ending up with an album that has more valleys than peaks.
My Lady Don’t Love My Lady (Justin Time)
The Louisiana blues guitar legend is back with his eleventh solo CD, featuring a list of blues icons, both young an old – among them Buddy Guy, David Maxwell, Doug James, Sax Gordon, and Kenny Wayne Shepard – with production by the veteran Duke Robillard. Leading a loose but swinging band romps through a far-reaching collection of New Orleans-tinged blues.
Doc Pomus’s “Imitation Of Love” jump starts the album with Lee’s biting guitar and soulful vocals backed by a Meters-like groove from the rhythm section. Interestingly, his vocal performance on this track is oddly closer to that of Etta James in tone and attitude than his fellow male ax-slinging singers. Although Willie James Mabon and Thomas King’s “I Don’t Know” has been covered by every blues artist you can name, Lee’s whimsical version, combined with David Maxwell’s rollicking piano solo and Doug James’ hard-swinging baritone saxophone, gives the distinct impression of hearing it live, for the first time, on Bourbon Street.
Maxwell’s piano also takes it all the way down on Big Bill Broonzy’s “When I Been Drinking.. Maxell’s drunken affectation and tired-sounding vocals drive the point of this song home, with Gordon Beadle shining on tenor sax and Duke Robillard adding a down and dirty guitar solo. This is what this kind of blues is all about — meant to be heard very late or very early before crash time.
Buddy Guy steps up to the plate on “Early In The Morning,” which he originally recorded with the late Junior Wells on the Hoodoo Man Blues album. This time, Guy plays some of the same phrases, with the same tone as on the original, while Lee does a great vocal imitation of Wells. Wisely, Lee lays out on guitar, knowing it’s hard to go up against Guy’s boundless energy.
There’s a lot more, most of it driven hard by the band: The horn section’s Louisiana boogie-woogie take on “Heartbreaker”; their slow grooving, hooks on Earl King’s “Three Can Play The Game” (with Lee singing alone with his guitar, paying homage to one of his heroes, Albert Collins); their swing and sway on “Reconsider Me” – with another strong vocal from Lee. The up-tempo shuffle, “Let Me Up I’ve Had Enough,” with Kenny Wayne Shepherd doing a blues-in-a-can, Stevie Ray Vaughan solo. And “Me and My Music – shifting to a true Texas, Albert Collins shuffle features Lee roving through some of Albert’s signature licks with love and understanding.
A few segments in this otherwise entertaining album leave something to be desired. On “Too Many Wolves” and the title track, Lee falls back on too many commonplace guitar tricks and effects, instead of exploring new ground. And Shepherd’s Vaughan simulation includes – perhaps understandably –a few too many blues clichés.
But all is forgiven with the final “Just To Prove My Love For You” with its Mardi Gras spirit. The fun reaches a peak, as Lee sings just a few verses and choruses and gives each band member some solo time. Like most of the album, it’s loose, swinging, fun, and most of all, not perfect. Which is exactly what the blues is all about.