Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Ranking Roger: February 21, 1963 to March 26, 2019

Vaya con dios, amigo.

Blues Blast Magazine Album Review: Zoë Schwarz Blue Commotion – This is the life I choose.

Good day!

This CD review was originally published in the June 29, 2017 edition of Blues Blast Magazine. Be sure to check out the rest of the magazine at www.bluesblastmagazine.com

Zoë Schwarz Blue Commotion – This is the life I choose.

33 Records



13 tracks / 59:32

Zoë Schwarz Blue Commotion has certainly been keeping busy, and earlier this year they released their fifth album in the last four years: This is the life I choose, a keen follow-up to their fantastic live release, I’ll Be Your Tonight. If you had the chance to listen to that CD you already know that this is a serious blues band with unique songs, tight instrumentation, and a powerful woman up front. This crew has not let up one bit, and their latest album is their best work yet!

Blue Commotion is based in the United Kingdom, with Zoë Schwarz on vocals and producer Rob Koral on guitar. Their comrades in arms include Pete Whittaker on the Hammond organ and Paul Robinson on drums, and the horn section of Ian Ellis (sax), and Andy Urquhart (trumpet) also join in for a few tracks. These folks are pros, and they were able to lay down all thirteen tracks (eleven of them originals) in just two days last October at Platform Studio. The result of this fast-paced production schedule is an album with a vibrant feel, and Zoë says that she likes to work “in the moment,” which has been very effective for this band.

The lyrics for the album’s originals were written by Zoë and Rob, and there also contributions from Phil Coles and Pete Feenstra. The songs are a neat mix of playful, sweet, and serious, and the ones related to living life in the music business will resonate well with listeners. For example, the title track sets the mood and theme for the album, as “This is the life I choose” provides a glimpse into the hearts and souls of musicians who put everything they have into their art. This power ballad is presented in a 1970s blues-rock format with cool dynamic changes and oodles of distorted organ from Whittaker and heavy drums from Robinson. Then there is “I Can’t Live Like That,” which has a completely different feel, going with an upbeat and funky sound that includes the horns of Ellis and Urquhart while Schwarz growls out the advice to message of not letting people get in the way of your dreams. And “My Baby Told Me So” spans the gap between blues and jazz with the message that, the blues and a faithful companion will make things seem a bit brighter, even if you are short on money.

Relationships are also a reliable source of song lyrics, and Blue Commotion heads there right off with the opener, “Hold On.” Coles’ words capture the essence of a dying romance, and the band delivers with Zoë’s edgy vocals and their hard rocking accompaniment, which includes a scorching solo from Rob. There is also an upbeat plea for unity with our fellow man with “People,” which has a decidedly international feel with its driving bass line and slick solo breaks from Rob and Pete. But, perhaps the most poignant track on This is the life I choose is “Broken,” a heartbreaking R&B song that addresses a hopelessness that many of will never know, but many will endure. This song has been released as a single, with proceeds going to charity to help the less fortunate among us; please keep this in mind as you listen to Schwarz’s emotional narrative.

This is the life I choose is a wonderful combination of modern blues sounds with infusions of jazz, funk, rock and soul. The songs are all well written and performed by a professional band, and the engineering and mixing meet the group’s high standards. Blues fans will surely dig this new release from Zoë Schwarz Blue Commotion, and if you will be on their side of the Atlantic you are in luck as they have plenty of UK shows and festivals scheduled. For those of us in the states, there is always the possibility that they will make it over here for a festival or a tour sometime soon. They are highly entertaining with a great catalog of original music, so hopefully they can make this happen!

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Fender Champion 600 Guitar 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, and they now sell for more than they did when they were new, with prices starting around $200. But be careful, as these are popular amps to mod, and you might not know exactly what you are getting into.


Blues Blast Magazine Album Review: Vanessa Collier – Meeting My Shadow

Good day!

This CD review was originally published in the June 15, 2017 edition of Blues Blast Magazine. Be sure to check out the rest of the magazine at www.bluesblastmagazine.com

Vanessa Collier – Meeting My Shadow

Ruf Records



11 tracks / 44:23

Vanessa Collier is a fresh face on the American blues scene, and in addition to her soulful vocals she brings a mighty sax to the table. I am not the only one that thinks so, as Vanessa was nominated for the best horn instrumentalist at the 2017 BMAs, putting her in the same club as Al Basile, Nancy Wright Sax Gordon, and Terry Hanck. Also, her latest release, Meeting My Shadow, is making the rounds and it is a solid collection of original blues that serves to make the genre a bit more interesting.

Ms. Collier is based out of Philadelphia, and her background is as impressive as her music. Vanessa is a graduate of Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music, and she brought her vocals and sax to tours with Joe Louis Walker’s band. Also, Collier’s 2014 debut album, Heart Soul & Saxophone, was highly praised on Dan Aykroyd’s blues radio show, and she was honored as the Best of 2014 Blues Breaker Artist on House of Blues Radio. It would seem that her schedule is pretty full, but Vanessa also finds time to run her own teaching studio, volunteer at schools, judge solo and ensemble festivals, and offer clinics all over the country.

Meeting My Shadow is Collier’s sophomore album, which was recorded in six days at Music + Arts Studio in Memphis, Tennessee; it was produced by Vanessa, Kevin Houston, and Thomas Ruf (of Ruf Records fame). She was joined in the studio by Daniel McKee on bass, Ty Jackson on drums, Charles Hodges on keys, Marc Franklin on trumpet and flugelhorn, and the blues giant, Laura Chavez, on guitar. This is a stellar line-up, and on this project, they demonstrate a palpable synergy that is infectious.

Eight of the eleven tracks are originals that were written by Vanessa, including the opener, “Poisoned the Well.” This song shows what a well-rounded musician Collier is, and she provides the vocals, flute, Rhodes piano, Wurlitzer, and clavinet. This funky blues rocker features smoky vocals with jazz influences in the phrasing, and a really neat orchestration that includes haunting flute parts. It must have been hard for her to set the sax aside at the beginning of the set, but hey - when was the last time you heard flute in a blues song? This is backed up by a little more funk with “Dig a Little Deeper” with its sassy vocals and 1970s vibe. We finally get to hear the sax here and Vanessa’s tone is amazing, as is her interplay with the clean horn style of Mr. Franklin.

The rest of the originals cover a wide range of the blues-based genres, and it is all tasteful and well written. “When it Don’t Come Easy” has a cool electric delta blues vibe thanks to Chavez, and one of the best phrases ever: “I’ve been sanding down my splintered heart.” The band also goes old school with the vintage rock and roll of “Whiskey and Women,” which includes hearty vocals from Vanessa and the healthy backline of Jackson and McKee. And the closer, “Devil’s on the Downslide,” has a sweet gospel feel that features Collier on the Wurlitzer organ.

There are also a handful of covers on Meeting My Shadow, including Rosetta Tharpe’s “Up Above My Head, I Hear Music in the Air,” which has a gospel call and response with ladies, killer piano, a hyper snare drum, a sweet chicken-pickin’ guitar solo, and a killer sax solo. There is also the unexpected inclusion of U2 and B.B King’s “When Love Comes to Town” from 1988’s Rattle and Hum. This version is slower than the original, which gives it a different feel, but it still rocks. Vanessa has an interesting character to her voice here and this complexity is compelling, which is helpful as this song is not presented as a duet this time. Also, Laura Chavez tears off an amazingly raunchy guitar solo that fits in perfectly. It is hard to outdo the original, but this version comes really close.

Vanessa Collier and her crew did a wonderful job with Meeting My Shadow, and the result is an entertaining 45-minute set of original blues with a fresh sound. Regardless of what you think the blues should sound like, there is plenty to like here so you should take the time and give it a listen. Also, Collier has plenty of bookings coming up, with many North American tour dates from Florida to Maine to Canada, and everywhere west, as well as some shows in Europe. So, be sure to hit up her website for dates near you as Vanessa is an important part of the future of blue, and it would cool to support her journey.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Aguilar Tone Hammer 500 Bass Amplifier Review


Well, my latest Genz Benz Shuttle finally crapped out and I have given up on it. Seven year ago I said if I was happy enough with it, but that I though the Aguilar Tone Hammer 500 had a slight edge on tone. So... now I have an amp to match my two Aguilar 1x12 cabinets!

Aguilar has been making extra-nice tube bass amplifiers since 1995, and they have a reputation for high quality as well as a clean and warm vintage tone. The Tone Hammer 500 aimed to recreate this tone, but in a totally solid-state package; there is not even a tube for the pre-amp. By the way, this amplifier is essentially an Aguilar Tone Hammer preamp/direct box with a class D amplifier added on.

This unit is rated at 500watts at 4 ohms and 250 watts at 8 ohms, and it is very small, measuring 10" x 3" x 9". It is very light as well, coming in at around 4 pounds. Despite its light weight and small size it is very solidly built.

There are a few different controls on the front of the Tone Hammer 500, including these knobs: gain, master, bass, mid level, treble, and drive. Drive uses Aguilar’s Adaptive Gain Shaping circuit, which works by using the gain and mid controls to change the tone from warm all the way to overdrive. Also included on the front are the balance XLR out and effects loop jacks, as well as the ground lift, signal pad and a mute switch.

The back is pretty barren with two Speakon outs, the tuner out a voltage selection switch. Oh yes, and the power switch. I hate it when they put the power switch on the back.

I hooked the Tone Hammer 500 up to my pair of Aguilar GS112 cabs, one with a a tweeter and one without, and I am very impressed. I tested it out with my Nash P basses and my ESP 5-string, as well as some miscellaneous crap from around the studio, and I got some very tube-like tones out of it, and it is definitely voiced like the other Aguilar amplifiers I have played before.

With all of the controls set flat, it dis a wonderful job of reproducing the inherent tone of whatever instrument I was using at the time. And as I started to futz with the knobs (especially the drive knob) I was able to get a panoply of tones from it -- everything from an aggressive growl down to a warm and mellow purr. At high volume levels it never got very harsh, and I actually had trouble getting a high-fidelity tone out of it. They really did make this thing sound like a tube amplifier!

As far as volume goes, this thing is just as loud as my Shuttle, which was rated at 600 watts 9now it is rated at zero watts). I guess manufacturers can rate things however they want, but the proof is in the pudding. It is plenty loud for smaller shows or quieter bands, but if you are really going to crank it out and compete with the guys with the Marshall stacks, you will need to bring another amplifier or go through the PA system.

Aguilar’s is in line with the rest of the industry, and the Tone Hammer 500 has a list price of $999, and a street price of $749. I am happy with my choice, and hope that it holds up longer than the Genz!


Blues Blast Magazine Album Review: Thorbjørn Risager and The Black Tornado – Change My Game


This CD review was originally published in the June 1, 2017 edition of Blues Blast Magazine. Be sure to check out the rest of the magazine at www.bluesblastmagazine.com

Thorbjørn Risager and The Black Tornado – Change My Game

Ruf Records



11 tracks / 51:10

When hearing Thorbjørn Risager sing it is natural to assume that he is from the American Midwest, as his powerful voice cuts through the mix with just a touch of twang. But Denmark is his home, and for the past fourteen years he has been churning out soulful blues-rock with his band, The Black Tornado. These gentlemen have recently released their latest studio album, Change My Game, and it is their best work yet.

The stability of the lineup for Thorbjørn Risager & The Black Tornado is a rarity in the music business, as five of the eight members have been with the band since 2003. During their tenure they have released eleven albums and played over 800 live shows, so they have figured out how to do things the right way with a combination of well-crafted songs and good production values. Critics and fans agree, as the band was nominated for British Blues Awards in 2014 and 2015 and won Danish Grammy Awards in 2013 and 2014.

Change My Game was recorded at the Medley Studios in Copenhagen, Denmark in January and August of 2016. Risager took care of the vocals and guitar, backed by The Black Tornado band that includes Peter Skjerning on guitar, Emil Balsgaard on keyboards, Søren Bøjgaard on bass, and Martin Seidelin on the drums; there is also the horn section of Hans Nybo, Kasper Wagner, and Peter Kehl. The band self-produced this album (a first for them), allowing them to achieve exactly the sound they were seeking. It includes eleven tracks, and all of them are originals that were written by Risager and Skjerning.

The set list includes a bit of everything in the blues spectrum, including blues-rock, soul, funk, and rhythm and blues; the latter is the basis of the first track, “I Used to Love You.” Slow jams like this show off Risager’s astounding voice that is undeniably smooth and strong, and demonstrate his range that extends from baritone to a growly tenor. This song of remembrance features soft horns and a guitar solo that is simple yet very effective. Another standout ballad is “Lay My Burden Down,” which is delivered in a maudlin lyrical style with piano accompaniment, and there is a lovely build to the finish as the horns join in.

Don't get the idea that Change My Game is full of slow-paced ballads, as hard-blues rock is a specialty of this crew. “Dreamland” is sequenced early in the album, and it has a huge sound with distorted guitars, Hammond organ, and a stellar horn arrangement. There is also “Hold My Lover Tight” with its driving beat and creative use of synthesizers and guitars. This song features an awesome guitar solo that is not over-the-top crazy, but it is powerful and perfectly in sync with the rest of the instruments. But the sweetest jam is “Train,” which starts out with an acoustic intro and a decidedly different rhythm pattern. At first there is a folk feel with honky-tonk piano, but momentum grows as the full band comes in, and it finishes with a minute of electric hardcore insanity.

The band also does a respectable job with funk and soul, as shown by “Maybe It's Alright” and “Change My Game.” This title track is catchy with its funkadelic intro and synthesizers, and the chorus draws the listeners in with its harmonies, but the smooth horns and tight backline really complete the package. The bass and drums of Bøjgaard and Seidelin are perfectly in sync, and are almost hypnotic. These two songs are an interesting contrast to “Holler n Moan,” a Delta influenced swamp tune that ends up as a funeral dirge party towards the end. This message here is that the band is able to play most anything, and the songs are slickly written and arranged so that they all work well together, even as they span multiple genres.

After the band spends the first ten songs proving that they have mastered many elements of American music, they cut loose and have some fun by ending the album with “City of Love.” This is a hard-rocking blues tune that goes all out with powerful vocal harmonies on the chorus, a cool blend of acoustic and distorted electric guitars, and one last dose of the super-tight horn section. Everybody gets a chance to shine on this track, with props going out to Balsgaard’s killer work on the organ, and Risager’s (or is that Skjerning’s?) searing lead guitar.

With Change My Game, Thorbjørn Risager & the Black Tornado have met the challenge of living up to their excellent 2014 breakthrough release, Too Many Roads. This is a fresh take on modern blues, and the band has really created something different with their blend of blues, soul, and rock – indeed, they have changed their game. Looking at their tour plans for the rest of 2017, it looks like they are only playing European shows, but hopefully there will be enough demand to get them over to the states soon. While you are waiting, be sure to check out this new release, as it is dynamite!

Thursday, March 21, 2019

1999 Epiphone Japan Gold Top Les Paul Standard LPS-80


Before you start rolling your eyes at today’s subject guitar, I have to say that this is not one of the run-of-the-mill Epiphone guitars that are put together by little kids in China. These guitars were assembled at the Fujigen factory in Japan, so they are very well made and a tremendous value for the player who is on a budget.

This one is a 1999 model year LPS-80 so it originally sold for 80,000 yen, which is a good chunk of change. It is a gold top, which is not the most common Epiphone color and it has the Gibson-style open book headstock shape. If you do not look at the headstock logo you would be hard-pressed to tell the difference between this and a real Gibson gold top.

The bound body is made of mahogany with a carved maple top and it does not seem to be chambered. The hardware is standard Les Paull-issue chrome stuff (including Gotoh-sourced Kluson copies), and the single-ply pickguard matches the cream-colored binding.

The electronics are very good. It is wired with a 3-way switch and dual volume and tone pots like every other Les Paul, and it has a very beefy tone. As it plays well and sounds good, I did not pull the pickups, but rumor has it that they were supplied by Gibson: a 498T in the bridge position and a 490R at the neck.

The neck is nice and thick with a 50s feel. It has a rosewood fretboard and MOP inlays and fretwork show fine craftsmanship, and still look very good 20 years after this guitar was built. I do not really see anywhere where they cheaped out on this one.

For a 20 year old guitar, the overall condition is very good. The paint is still nice and glossy, with some swirling and a small chip on the back of the headstock. The headstock laminate started lifting at the nut, but this has been arrested, for now at least. There is very little wear to the frets, and no signs of a hard life or abuse. There appear to be no other repair history of modifications.

This Epiphone is a really nice guitar for not much money, and it is probably is better quality than 90% of the guitars coming out of Gibson’s US factories today. After I set it up with Ernie Ball Slinky .010s. and it plays like butter and sounds killer. I hate to say it, because it never comes true, but this one might be a keeper!