Sunday, April 26, 2015

Blues Blast Magazine Album Review: Lightnin Malcolm – Rough Out There

Good day!

This CD review was originally published in the December 26, 2013 edition of Blues Blast Magazine. Be sure to check out the rest of the magazine at

Lightnin Malcolm – Rough Out There

Self Release through ShakeDown Records

14 tracks / 66:39

There are plenty of slickly produced records out there, but there is something special about a release that is recorded live in the studio with limited postproduction. It allows the listener to hear what an artist really sounds like, and Lightnin Malcolm’s Rough Out There delivers an accurate snapshot of exactly what this man is capable of, and his abilities are impressive.

Steve “Lightnin” Malcolm is originally from Missouri, but as a teen he took out for the juke joints of Northern Mississippi where he worked relentlessly as a solo artist. With no other musicians to hide behind he had to sink or swim, so he persevered and learned how to fill a room with his voice, a guitar and some basic percussion. Of course there were great roles models out there, and he learned from the best, including R.L. Burnside, Honeyboy Edwards, and T Model Ford. Once he got his feet under him, he began collaborating with legendary artists including Cedric Burnside and the aforementioned T Model Ford as well as performing with the North Mississippi Allstars.

Rough Out There is Malcolm’s sophomore release and he took a few chances with it. Besides recording most of the material live in the studio, he also changed things up by bringing in a few friends to fill out the sound, plus all fourteen of the tracks are originals that were penned by him and a few of his buddies. But most importantly, these tracks represent a variety of genres that are rarely heard together in one package. On this album Lightnin provided the guitar and vocal parts, and a pair of drummers split the time behind the kit: Cam Jones and Stud (Carl White), who happens to be T Model Ford’s grandson.

The opening track, “Working,” is a driving blues rock tune with heavy guitar work from Malcolm and sweet slide guitar from Luther Dickinson, his Allstars bandmate. Lightnin has a raspy vocal delivery that works well for this material, and he doubles it nicely with his guitar lines, which the listener will find to be a recurring theme throughout the album. He also takes the blues rock route on “So Much Trouble” and “Took Too Long,” whose lyrics support the usual blues causes: bemoaning the terrible state of the world and telling the woman that did him wrong to go back where she came from.

Things are not so cut and dried when trying to categorize the rest of Rough Out There, as Malcolm is adept at mixing different genres into new creations while never losing touch with his hill country roots. Besides, when it comes down to it isn’t most modern music is somehow evolved from the blues? “My Lifes a Wreck” has a bit of rockabilly in it and “Dellareesa” has a Latin/island feel with well-arranged horns courtesy of David McKnight and Marc Oran. Their sax and trumpet can also be found on “Mama,” his modern take of the classic 1970s funky rhythm and blues songs.

Lightnin pushes the envelope further by adding in reggae with “Reality Check” and two hip-hop songs: “Rough Out There” and “How Blessed You Are;” the latter includes auto-tuned vocals interspersed with his rap musings, which is obviously not something that is usually found on folk or blues records. This is quite a contrast with the Delta-tinged “Young Woman, Old Fashioned Ways,” the pedal-steel soaked country song, ”Givin You Away,” or “Chiefs,” a native American-influenced instrumental. He seems to be redefining folk music by including a little something from most every kind of folk you will find in the U.S.

Rough Out There goes out on a limb with its amalgamation of genres and its mixture of traditional and modern sounds, but this collection works when it is looked at as a whole as it has a consistent feel throughout. Perhaps it is because the two drummers have very similar grooves and Lightning Malcolm is such a seasoned performer who knows how to please an audience. Or maybe it is because he had a hand in writing all of the songs and the album was recorded the old-fashioned way with live studio tracks. Either way, he has delivered the goods here, and it is definitely worth a listen.


Monday, April 20, 2015

Musical Theatre West 2015-2016 Season at the Carpenter Center in Long Beach, California


If you regularly read my blog you may have seen how much I loved the Musical Theatre West shows I have been to this year. I just renewed my season tickets for the 2015-2016 season, and from what they have on tap it looks like it will be another great season!

Musical Theatre West has been around since 1952, when it started out as the Whittier Civic Light Opera. Their productions evolved over time, and they went from being an all-volunteer operation to producing full seasons. They now perform at the Richard and Karen Carpenter Performing Arts Center at Cal State Long Beach, which is a lovely venue with plenty of conveniently located parking.

So far, this season’s shows have been fantastic and their casts, choreography, costumes, sets and music were all top shelf. It is great to have the opportunity to see quality entertainment this close to home (and avoid the hassles of heading to Hollywood).

Musical Theatre West surveyed their fans to see what kind of shows they wanted to see, and as a result the 2015-2016 season consists of four neat shows, two classics and two modern. These include:

∙ My Fair Lady

∙ West Side Story

∙ Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

∙ Sister Act

In the past, single tickets have been available from as low as $20, and season tickets from under $100. Parking is only $5 in the university parking lot, but be careful when you leave because the university police take events like this as an opportunity to issue traffic citations like there is no tomorrow.

You can check out ticket and venue details at


Sunday, April 19, 2015

Memory Lane: BOSS OS-2 OverDrive/Distortion Pedal Review


It seems like a month does not go by when I do not review some sort of BOSS effect pedal, so today we are looking at the good old OS-2 OverDrive/Distortion pedal. It is probably one of the most popular crunch pedals on the planet, and that is because it is a pretty good pedal that comes in at a reasonable price.

Roland’s BOSS division makes effect pedals for the everyday working musician. These are folks that cannot afford the boutique pedals, or more realistically, they realize that good is good enough (sort of a Voltaire attitude). You have seen that you pay whatever you want can pay anything you want for guitar effect pedals, with the choices include crummy junk for twenty bucks all the way up to hundreds of dollars for stuff that was put together by people in first-world countries. BOSS pedals fall in the middle, as they are reasonably priced and good quality, making them a good value.

What exactly does an overdrive distortion pedal do? Well, this one is a combination of two other popular BOSS pedals, the DS-1 Distortion and the SD-1 Super Overdrive. It lets users blend these two effects to provide sounds that are appropriate for blues or metal, and most everything in between.

The OS-2 is a standard single-space sized pedal, measuring 2.9 inches wide by 2.4 inches tall by 5.1 inches long, and it weigh in at a touch under one pound. See? The metric system will never catch on as long as I am on watch! This pedal runs on a single 9-volt battery or it takes the optional BOSS PSA adapter.

It has the same general style as other BOSS pedals, but this one comes in a gaudy yellow. The outside of the sturdy metal case has a ¼’ input and output jacks, and a jack for the aforementioned AC adapter. The expected BOSS high quality is to be found here, with a smooth finish, clean wiring, and knobs that have a nice feel. These knobs include LEVEL, TONE, DRIVE, and COLOR. Here is a quick and dirty rundown of what they do:

- LEVEL: adjusts the sound level when the effect is applied. It should be adjusted so there is no volume change when the effect is turned ON.

- TONE: adjusts the tone of the modified sound.

- DRIVE: adjusts level of distortion.

- COLOR: adjusts balance between overdrive and distortion.

That is it, and after a quick look through the manual you can put it away and never need it again. About two minutes of knob twisting will get you the tone you are looking for and then you can move on with your life. It might be one of the easiest to use pedals I have come across.

The OS-2 works really well for guitar and just ok for bass due to the frequency range it is tuned to. I have used it with my Strat and Tele through my Twin Reverb, and was able to get a very bluesy tone with the COLOR knob more towards the overdrive side of things. Cranking the COLOR knob the other way with My Les Paul through a Bugera, I got a very crunchy hard rock/metal tone. It is surprisingly capable of working well with both single-coil and humbucking pickups. I did get a little hiss and hum when the distortion is cranked all the way up, but it was only noticeable when not playing. The COLOR knob is the magic part of this effect, giving it a tremendous amount of versatility, and it is the pot I fiddle with the most.


Thursday, April 16, 2015

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Ghost Town Blues Band – Hard Road to Hoe | Album Review

Ghost Town Blues Band – Hard Road to Hoe |Album Review

Self Release

12 tracks / 39:12

Many blues bands choose a genre and sound and do not stray very far from what they have found success with in the past. But a few are willing to go outside their comfort zone and experiment with mixing genres and coming up with a new sound of their own. This is exactly what you will find with the Ghost Town Blues Band’s latest release, Hard Road to Hoe.

If you pay attention to blues news, chances are good that you have heard of this group. This Memphis-based band has been to the International Blues Challenge the past two years, making it to the finals in 2013 and earning second place in 2014. The seven-piece group has been working since 2009 and this is their third album. The songwriter/frontman is Matt Isbell, who takes care of the vocals and guitars (including cigar box guitars he makes at his company). He is joined by Preston McEwen on drums, Jeremy Powell on keys, Alex Piazza on bass, Suavo Jones on trombone, Richie Hale on sax, and Vicki Loveland with the background vocals.

Hard Road to Hoe is the correct title, and I know you are saying to yourself “Wait, that should be hard row to hoe!” But their reasoning is that they are not farmers, they are musicians who work the highways as they travel to gigs around the United States and Canada – it totally makes sense in this context. The album has a dozen tracks, and they are all originals that are straight out of Memphis with a sound that spans from raw roots to slick blues-rock, and everything in between.

They kick off this set with the title track which starts with hand percussion and an electric push broom (Isbell makes more than cigar box guitars), then morphs into a hill country rock tune with slide guitar and well-arranged horns. It is well written, and the lyrics are heavy and evoke feelings of loss. But this record is not a stone-cold bummer, from there they slide into “Big Shirley,” a boogie about a saucy lady that kicks off with Jeremy Powell doing his best imitation of The Killer on the piano. Both the piano and horns are signs of evolution for the band, as the roster has grown a bit since their last album, Darkhorse.

Guest artist Brandon Santini brings his harp to two tracks, “Tip of My Hat” with naughty double entendres and a zydeco beat, and “My Doggy.” The latter actually includes a few vocal lines from Matt’s pup, Marry, which are used to good effect, and the tight horns of Jones and Hales bring it all together in a tight package.

After a cool intro piece,“Mr. Handy Man,” the album moves along through another six songs, and there are no clunkers in the mix. After only 40 minutes (much too soon), Hard Road to Hoe draws to a close with “Road Still Drives the Same.” This song is somber with a beautiful accompaniment of slide guitar with just a touch of drums and organ. This was a clever way to bring things to an end as its theme of sad memories makes it a perfect bookend for the opener.

Even with its wide range of genres and tempos, this disc holds together well as a single piece of performance art and does not sound like a jumble of songs that were randomly stuck together. This is because the tracks are sequenced well, and the backline of McEwen and Piazza hold down the bottom end so consistently throughout. Also, the recording itself is top notch. The band went with Ken Houston (6 Grammy nominations) to record and mix the project, and his work on the 2-inch tape is nothing short of amazing.

The Ghost Town Blues band should be proud of what they accomplished with Hard Road to Hoe, and this CD is a must buy for your collection. Check them out if you get the chance!

Fender Champion 600 Amplifier Review


Today we are looking at a super-fun Fender Champion 600 guitar amplifier. This is a re-issue of the original amplifiers that were built between 1949 and 1953. This is a pretty faithful reproduction of the original, although Fender said they have added a higher-gain pre-amp circuit to get more overdrive. I have never seen (let alone played) an original, so I will have to go along with them on this one.

>The Champion 600 is a neat amplifier, and very light weight. It weighs in at around 15 pounds, and measures about 12 inches wide by 11 inches high by 8 inches deep. The 50s groove is going ON with the two-tone Tolex.

The electronics are 1950s simple. This is an all-tube amp, with a 12AX7 pre-amp tube and a 6V6 output tube. The output is pretty low, putting out 5 watts at 4 ohms through the built-in 6-inch speaker. You can hook up a larger external speaker, should you wish. The controls are basic: 2 inputs (high and low gain), and a volume control. That is it -- you will have to do all of your EQ with the guitar or your pedal board.

There is not much more to describe, other than the tone. This amp sounds great! It does not hiss or hum excessively, and it puts out enough volume for home practice or recording. It overdrives fairly quickly, which is great if you want some old-style blues or rock and roll at reasonable volume levels. It sounds equally fabulous with my Strat or my Les Paul, and it is a bluesy little amp.

Looking this one over, I would have to say the craftsmanship is pretty good. The Tolex is even, and the electronics are tidy. And, yes, these are built in China, so they do not have any “Fullerton” magic, but that does make them more affordable.

Of course, it does not hurt that the Champion 600 is very affordable. It looks like it has been discontinued, but many sellers still have them for around $199.99. And, it looks like you can find used ones for about $150 on eBay, but be careful as these are popular amps to mod, and you might not know exactly what you are getting into.


Monday, April 6, 2015

Matt Isbell – Once There Was a Cigar Box | DVD Review

Matt Isbell – Once There Was a Cigar Box |DVD Review

Self Release

23 minutes, 4 seconds

Not many DVDs make their way in here for review, and there has never been one in my mailbox quite like Once There Was a Cigar Box, a short film by Alexander Conrads from Germany. It is about the Memphis Cigar Box guitars that are handmade by Matt Isbell, the frontman for the Ghost Town Blues Band. It is a short film (ten minutes for the main event), but they manage to condense the construction of a guitar into a few minutes, and then take that same instrument to Beale Street for a gig at Rum Boogie’s Blues Hall, where it sounds amazing in Isbell’s capable hands.

The construction process is fascinating, both with creativity in the materials chosen, and with the use of power tools in ways that they were probably not intended for in the first place. His shop is a glorious collection of boxes and parts, and as he assembles the guitar it is apparent that he has built a lot of these – he has it dialed in!

Matt narrates the disc, and he talks about his background, as well as a bit about how he runs his business with the help of his wife, Lisa. Of course there is no talk about money, but I imagine his self-run luthier shop is a bit more lucrative than gigging, even though his band is amazing and scored a second place at last year’s IBC in Memphis. By the way, a review of their new album, Hard Road to Hoe, is forthcoming.

The video is clear and steady, and Conrads has a good eye for composition and lighting. The editing is top-notch, so I have nothing to complain about here, except that I wish it could have been longer!

As an added bonus, there are three song videos on the disc too, and they are all really fun tunes that feature Matt and a couple of friends jamming out.

This short film is quite good, and it premiered at film festivals in more than a half-dozen countries last year. Head over to to get a copy of your own, or better yet see about picking up one of Matt’s creations for yourself. These are super-cool instruments, and there is a real satisfaction in playing a cigar box guitar. I should really be picking one up too…