Time once again for me to select six songs from the hottest albums and artists at blues radio from this week’s Blues Power Rankings. This week we have songs from JW-Jones, Charlie Musselwhite, Albert Castiglia, Steve Miller Band, Jimmie Vaughan, and Smokin’ Joe Kubek & Bnois King.
JW-Jones – “Howlin’ With Hubert” (feat. Hubert Sumlin): We’ll never be graced by another voice or presence like the inimitable Chester Burnett, better known as Howlin’ Wolf. The grit, force, and terror in his voice was unique and such a focal point of his music it’s easy to miss another key ingredient that made his music special: the guitar work of Hubert Sumlin.
Sumlin is still with us and bluesman JW-Jones teamed with the legend on his Memphis Midnight Sun record for a couple of tracks. This instrumental finds the two trading licks. Some guitar matchups like this turn into competitions but not this pair. Each gives the other room and makes this a song rather than two guitarists cutting heads. Sumlin says of his young protege, “JW’s got it down! So much soul, and nice material. You can’t beat it. I am telling the truth.” Believe the man.
Charlie Musselwhite – “Rambler’s Blues:” The lead track from The Well is one of the best on the record, pushing Musselwhite’s signature harp out front over a thick backing guitar track that has just a little crunch and just a little ring to it. Musselwhite has perfected a blend of blues that combines Chicago and Memphis and this is a textbook example. His vocal is easy and relaxed, delivered with just a little drawl and just a fraction behind the beat. Nothing is rushed. Nothing is rocked. This is Chicago blues with stately Southern charm.
Albert Castiglia – “Gettin’ By:” The intro and repeated riff of this song is a cousin to The Black Crowes’ “Twice As Hard” as Castiglia plays around with a Southern rock approach to a slow blues. The vocal melody sounds nothing like the Crowes tune which makes for for fun listening as a fan of that song. Similar chords and riff pattern, yes, but two very different songs. They came to the fork and the road and they took it, as Yogi Berra might say. The guitar solos are a little less intense on this track than elsewhere on the album, which means it fits very well with the fabric of the song.
Steve Miller Band – “You Got Me Dizzy:” There’s a clean, antiseptic sheen to the SMB version of “You Got Me Dizzy” which might be a turn off to some, but I like it. For starters, I like the classic SMB sound. I also like that unlike other rockers who return to their blues influences and routes, Miller doesn’t exert himself trying to impersonate a blues singer or by trying to wow audiences with acrobatic guitar solos. The sound is clean but true.
Jimmie Vaughan – “Roll, Roll, Roll:” The cynic in me rolls my eyes when I hear about an artist getting back to basics and I had that same reaction when I saw the title of Vaughan’s latest album Plays Blues, Ballads, & Favorites. It would be like AC/DC naming their next record Yes, It’s Another AC/DC Album or Pete Townshend naming the next Who album Who Cares? What the hell else would Jimmie do but play blues, ballads, or favorites. This is not a self-conscious retreat after a career misstep nor is it contrived statement of purpose. The title of this album is truth in advertising. Everything about “Roll, Roll, Roll” sounds vintage and authentic. The tenor sax adds a hint of youthful menace as Jimmie sings and plays. This song cooks and boogies but never rocks because the roots run deep.
Smokin’ Joe Kubek & Bnois King – “Payday In America:” Think of this as a blue-collar twist on Muddy Waters’ “Champagne & Reefer” brought to you in a Texas-flavored blues bottle. Kubek’s slide stings as King sings about getting loose on the weekend after spending 40 hours earning just enough to have a little fun. Songs like this make up an entire strand in the DNA of the blues. Most of the Delta bluesmen of the early 20th century wrote and played their songs at parties on the weekend for fellow sharecroppers looking to bring a little fun to a life that was hard and soul crushing. Music has long been an avenue of escape and songs about escape have long been a part of the blues.