ALBERT KING (FROM THE ALBUM BORN UNDER A BAD SIGN)

Debut albums are important; the right songs, players, producer, sessions, studio, etc. Albert King had recorded for a number of other labels, making Born Under A Bad Sign his debut for Stax Records. Mr King was a good fit with the Stax label team of Al Bell, Estelle Axton and Jim Stewart, its songwriters Booker T. Jones and William Bell, and backing players from Booker T & The M.G.’s and the Memphis Horns. On its release, Born Under a Bad Sign was a fine effort. Time has made it the gem in Albert King’s output.

The album is grounded with the title track use a monster bass line developed by song author William Bell and Booker T. Other highlights on board are King’s first hit for the label, “Laundromat Blues”, “Crosscut Saw”, and “Oh Pretty Woman”, with M.G. axman Steve Cropper holding the rhythm steady for Albert’s blues riffs. Born Under A Bad Sign offers Albert King covering “Kansas City” and two rare ballad turns with “The Very Thought of You” and Ivory Joe Hunter’s “I Almost Lost My Mind”.

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DAVE ALVIN AND PHIL ALVIN (FROM THE ALBUM COMMON GROUND, DAVE ALVIN AND PHIL ALVIN SING THE SONGS OF BIG BILL BROONZY)

It has been close to thirty years since Dave Alvin and brother, Phil Alvin, recorded an album together. One-off songs here and there and the occasional live shows of their shared history with The Blasters have put the brothers together in studio and stage. It was inspiration that took them back in to record for their recent Yep Roc Records release, Common Ground: Dave Alvin + Phil Alvin Play and Sing the Songs of Big Bill Broonzy. Friends don’t stay friends in bands, and in shared blood and you have one volatile working environment in studio or stage. Addressing the unspoken question about how the recording process proceeded, brother Dave said it simply, ‘we argue sometimes, but we never argue about Big Bill Broonzy,’

Common Ground selects a dozen tracksfrom the thirty-year cross section of styles and sound given life by the pen and guitar of Big Bill Broonzy.  Blues and Country boogie bump and jostle for positions on “Trucking Little Woman”, finally figuring out that the styles sound better when they get along and mingle. Dave’s ragged guitar leads a charge into the blue sway of “Just a Dream” with Phil’s honey voice and harmonica breaths living big in the story until they ‘wake up in the morning’.  A percussive rattle hums with power as it watches the Ohio River rise in “Southern Flood Blues”, the rhythm falls in line behind Gene Taylor’s piano as Phil talks “I Feel So Good” and looks to be ‘balling-the-jack’. Dave Alvin and Phil Alvin are curators of American Roots music. They accepted the task in their youth by listening and take the mission with them into chronological adulthood with their music. They stay true to the beat. They are educators and students, teaching history and learning as much as listeners through their playing. Common Ground: Dave Alvin + Phil Alvin Play and Sing the Songs of Big Bill Broonzy touches on one man and his sound. The music is important enough create an anomaly in the life of the Alvin brothers…… and if Big Bill can get brothers to agree, think of what his music can do for you.

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Allison Moorer   (from the album Down to Believing) - Allison Moorer has released Down to Believing, her ninth studio album. “Thunderstorm and Hurricane” rumbles with the thunder of bass drums and the quiver of cellos, a bombastic confessional, big and bold and aching with pain and strife. Allison Moorer cashes in her crystal ball for a wrecking ball on “I Lost My Crystal Ball,” an 80s-style cowboy rocker that crashes again the wall with tons of guilty Telecasters, another blazing Greenberg solo and gorgeous harmonies (which appear from the liner notes to be Moorer’s own overdubs).

Leaving or staying, whether we do or we don’t -- the prospect of living without someone -- is the central theme of the three-quarter time ballad title track, gorgeously proffered here with lonesome pedal steel guitars and beautiful piano lines. Moorer takes the album in a down and dirty direction on “Mama Let The Wolf In,” a brash and ballsy blend of Creedence Clearwater’s groove and Bobbie Gentry’s badass attitude. Allison’s not whistling in the dark when she says “I’m Doing Fine,” a woman-powered anthem that’ll likely be covered within the next twenty minutes by the next contemporary country starlet to come down the road.

The one song on the record that didn’t come from Moorer’s pen, a cover of CCR’s “Have You Ever Seen The Rain,” is nice enough but, given the remarkable intimacy of this record, it seems slightly shallow and out of place. For it is the remarkable depth of Moorer’s intimate lyrics and the power of her voice -- with no small help from a great band and stellar production -- that make this album tick. It’s a good one, that gets better with every listening session.

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HOT TUNA - ACOUSTIC AND ELECTRIC BLUES

Hot Tuna was not as much of a departure for the pair that made the music as it would seem. Jack Casady  and Jorma Kaukonen were flying high as founding members and lead guitar (Jorma) and bass (Jack) for San Francisco psychedelic top dogs Jefferson Airplane. The duo formed Hot Tuna in 1970 and set to the business of releasing records.  Two albums came out quickly, a live show, on album one (recorded at the New Orleans House in Berkeley, California) and the jam style of album two, easing on the production costs and set-up. Hot Tuna (1970) and First Pull Up Then Pull Down (1970) brought Jorma Kaukonen full circle and back to the coffee house acoustic blues that he played in pre-Airplane days. Listening to the re-issues, it was a good return.

Jorma’s guitar was always a key ingredient of Jefferson Airplane music though the politics and talking points of front woman Grace Slick and band leader Paul Kantner took media and, by default, public attention.  In Airplane songs, Jorma’s guitar work always had a blues base, which was an easy listening miss for the predominantly young white audience. Cross pollination of music was still a future goal and psychedelic music was a clearing house of varied sounds coming together under one banner. The acid dripped leads of the Jefferson Airplane were all part of the trip, man, and tracing them back to the source was not a goal amid finger trails and melting walls.

Hot Tuna arrived with no need to trace the path of music anywhere. Jorma Kaukonen was a blues natural and the songs included on the album were, for the most part, Folk Blues classics. Hot Tuna played host to two of Jorma’s originals alongside a pair of songs each from ReverendGary Davis (including the much recorded “Death Have No Mercy”) and Jelly Roll Morton. Three traditionals make an appearance including “Uncle Sam Blues”, a track that fit in perfectly with the turbulent anti-war tone of the 1960’s. (NOTE: A “traditional” is the term used to connote an often well-known song which has no writer credited.) The song breaks down the message to more human terms with lines like “Uncle Sam ain’t no woman, but he sure does take your man” and “I’m gonna do some fighting, of that you can be sure. Well now, I wanna kill somebody, won’t have to break no kinda law”. Hot Tuna barely raises its head above an acoustic tone, with the work of Jorma and Jack complemented with Will Scarlett on harmonica.

Jorma Kaukonen plays blues guitar with an intuitive ability, but Hot Tuna’s dual punch came courtesy of bassist Jack Casady. Few other bass players play their instrument as if it were a lead guitar. Jack Casady shares that status with maybe one other four sting guru, John Entwhistle of The Who. Jack Casasdy’s playing can be described as jam or jazz-based, but his playing is pure rock and though hardly a strictly rhythm instrument in his hands, his bass notes manage to balance both improvisation and beat.

For their second album, Hot Tuna retreated deep into the Santa Cruz Mountains, returning with the three players from their eponymous debut and adding in recent Airplane addition Papa John Creach on fiddle and Sammy Piazza on drums. Like another Who member, Keith Moon, Piazza’s drumming does double duty, maintaining a consistent rhythm and still finding lots of room to move around. Papa John Creach makes fiddle playing blues cool. Another change on First Pull Up Then Pull Down is the decision to plug in. The second album, and first studio session, is 100% electrified.

You know how it is when friends drop by and things get rowdy? First Pull Up Then Pull Down kicks off with Papa John leading the charge with his fiddle. The opening track, “John’s Other” (written by Papa John Creach), sets the pace and forces itself out of the speakers with the message “Hot Tuna paid the dues on electricity”. Extended jams are the norm and only seven tunes grace the album. There are psychedelic overtones to the production, but even amid the distortion and feedback, there is a blues heart beating. Two blues classics, both tunes by Reverend Gary Davis, receive a remake for the second album. “Candyman” is a traditional blues song that got a lot of attention in the early 60’s folk days as a hit for Dave Van Ronk. In “Keep Your Lamps Trim and Burning”, Hot Tuna upped the electric ante and delivered a song that stands as a cornerstone for psychedelic blues. Hmmm, guess that lamp must have been filled with lava.

Hot Tuna created their sound in the early 70’s and both albums one and two were released at the dawn of the decade. The 1970 stamp on the albums gives the impression that they were meant as companion pieces for a new group who wanted the world to know that they were as comfortable with acoustic as well as electric deliveries.

Jamming was something you did in 1970 but not something that you dubbed the finished product. With Bonnaroo, not even a gleam in the three-day-music-festivals eye, Hot Tuna was certainly one of the first bands to achieve major success with the style. Hot Tuna and First Pull Up Then Pull Down stand as proud testament to a band that continues today, long after the main gig as Airplane members has disappeared.

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The Slide Brothers (from the album Robert Randolph Presents the Slide Brothers) - Do not be fooled be the ‘scared steel’ name that the style of The Slide Brothers wears. The title, like one hour cleaning, is just a phrase attached, it doesn’t apply directly. The sound of scared steel was born in the House of God Church more than 80 years ago but has since crossed over to mainstream secular success. Robert Randolph has revitalized the sacred steel tradition in the modern era and the push he gave the band to put some rock, funk and ferocious blues on record is captured on their debut album title.Robert Randolph Presents The Slide Brothers. The band take covers and make them soar with sacred steel guitar work. George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” bows at the altar of some mighty riffing, the traditional “Wade in the Water” follows the band of string to glory along its instrumental path and Fatboy Slim’s “Praise You” foregoes its trip-hop heritage to become a gospel rock god.

The Slide Bothers exit the album with a New Orleans second line stepping message for the happiness you are looking for in the hereafter with “No Cheap Seats in Heaven.”

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