Sunday, August 30, 2015

Blues Blast Magazine Album Review: Charlie Owen – Worth the Wait

Good day!

This CD review was originally published in the May 8, 2014 edition of Blues Blast Magazine. Be sure to check out the rest of the magazine at www.bluesblastmagazine.com

Charlie Owen – Worth the Wait

Self Release

www.facebook.com/pages/Charlie-Owen/175995942593538

15 tracks / 54:52

Vocalist Charlie Owen has experienced both coasts of the United, States, and apparently has decided that the eastern seaboard is home. Originally hailing from Birmingham, Alabama, he grew up in Washington D.C., where he started his music career. Charlie was a member of the house band at the Stardust Lounge in Maryland, which was a stopping place for many national acts during his tenure in the 1970s. In 1981 he headed off for the San Francisco area where he fronted the Dynatones and was the singer for the house band at Larry Blake’s Rathskeller in Berkeley.

Today he is living in Maryland again, but he brought a little of the city by the bay along with him this time. His new CD was recorded in San Jose, and Owen called on some of San Francisco’s finest sidemen in to the studio to join him. Charlie takes care of the vocals, and is joined by Todd Swenson on guitar, Steve Ehrmann on bass, Paul Ravelli behind the drum kit, Rob Sudduth and Johnny Bamont on saxophone, and Marvin McFadden on trumpet. Jim Pugh was the producer, and also handled the keyboard chores.

Worth the Wait celebrates the heyday of American rhythm and blues, and it includes 15 covers that are mostly from the 1960s and 1970s. The album starts off with Sam Cooke’s ”I Sowed Love and Reaped a Heartache.” The spirit of the 1968 version is maintained, and there is a lot going on in this song. There are horns, synthetic strings, a rolling bass line, and a pair of backing vocalists (Cary Sheldon and Kathy Kennedy). This all does a great job of supporting Owen’s vocals, and you will find that all those years of performing have not gone to waste. He has the perfect voice for vintage R&B – just a little rough on the edges and full of soul.

It is easy to tell from the playlist that Charlie has a few favorite artists. Sam Cooke must be on the list, because, besides the opener, you will also get to hear 1964’s “That’s Where It’s At.” This song features Curtis Salgado singing a heartfelt duet with Charlie, who also plays the trumpet on this one. Johnnie Taylor is also represented by the Sir Mack Rice penned “Cheaper to Keep Her” and “Hijacking Love,” which is pure super-sexy funk.

There are also a pair of Little Milton tracks: “So Mean to Me” and “We’re Gonna Make It,” which was Milton’s only top 40 hit back in 1965. The latter is an upbeat tune, and is the happiest thing you will find on Worth the Wait (there is a reason they call it rhythm and blues). This song is built around Swenson’s jaunty guitar work and Ehrmann’s round bass, and is supported by a much too short sax solo from the wonderful Frankie Ramos.

The standout track on the album is “No Pride at All,” a 1999 song by Jesse Winchester, a talented singer and songwriter who passed away this April. It has a conventional R&B format, but creatively uses electric piano, bells and Christoffer “Kid” Andersen’s electric sitar to set the mood. It might not seem like a good combination when you see it on paper, but it works well when it is coming out of your speakers.

The final track on the CD comes straight out of left field, as “Soft Place to Fall” is found on the soundtrack of Robert Redford’s 1998 film, The Horse Whisperer. Charlie rearranged Allison Moorer’s country version into a bluesy ballad, which works well with the bittersweet lyrics about hitting up an old friend while on the rebound. This was really the only place to put this song on the album, as it is completely different than the rest of the material, and it proves to be an interesting contrast and a good closer.

Charlie Owen has a sweet voice, good taste in music, and a group of fine friends that were willing accomplices for this project. If you are a fan of rhythm and blues, Worth the Wait will definitely be your cup of tea. Check it out if you get the chance!

Mahalo!

Chicago Blues Guide Album Review: Joe Louis Walker – Hornet’s Nest

Hi! This review was originally published in Chicago Blues Guide on March 27, 2014. For all the latest Windy City blues info, be sure to check out their website at www.chicagobluesguide.com

Joe Louis Walker

Hornet’s Nest

Alligator Records

As they approach retirement age, many people start to slow down as they contemplate the end of their careers and the transition to doing anything other than the drudgery of work. But professional musicians actually love their jobs and often continue to ply their trade well into their golden years. Fortunately Blues Hall of Fame inductee Joe Louis Walker falls into the latter category! Though he will turn 65 this year, JLW shows no signs of slowing down, and this spring there are dozens of shows and festivals on his tour schedule, with stops everywhere between the west coast of the U.S. and Switzerland.

Walker has been a blues force since he was a 16-year-old kid playing guitar and backing the best of the best on the stages of his hometown, San Francisco. Since then he has played with a dizzying assortment of big names, having shared the spotlight with legends such as Albert King, Willie Dixon, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters and Jimi Hendrix. He is well-regarded by his fans and peers, and has picked up four Blues Music Awards as well as appearing on Grammy-winning projects from B.B. King and James Cotton. Blues fans can count themselves lucky that he has recorded 25 of his own albums, including Hornet’s Nest, his most recent release from Chicago’s storied Alligator Records.

JLW provides the vocals and guitars for Hornet’s Nest, which was produced, mixed, and mastered in Nashville by the album’s drummer, Tom Hambridge. Hambridge and Richard Fleming get writing credit for all nine of the new original songs for this project, with Walker co-writing three of them. Joining them in the studio were Reese Wynans on B-3 and piano, Rob McNelley on guitar, and Tommy MacDonald on bass. This is the same team that worked on his Hellfire album a few years ago, and they are a stellar group of musicians that know how to craft a top-shelf record.

The title track is first up on this CD, and “Hornet’s Nest” is a hard-core blues rocker that proves that Walker’s skills have not faded at all. His voice may be weathered but is as strong as ever, and his guitar leads burn as brightly as the sun. This would be a fine album if he recorded 11 more songs just like this one, but Walker and his team did not take the easy route as they explored many of the different genres that JLW has perfected over his career.

Next up is “All I Wanted to Do,” a pop-infused rhythm and blues song that takes advantage of the Muscle Shoals Horn Section (Charlie Rose, Jim Horn and Vinnie Ciesilski) to set the mood for his heartbroken lyrics. His guitar tells the same sad story on ”As the Sun Goes Down,” and his axe takes the spotlight of this more traditional blues tune.

The covers they chose for Hornet’s Nest are diverse and unexpected, and include gems such as the 1967 Rolling Stones song, “Ride On, Baby” and Jesse Stone’s “Don’t Let Go.” Fortunately, Walker left off the harpsichord and marimbas on the Jagger/Richards classic and took it in a more contemporary direction -- it is now a fast-paced pop tune with vocal harmonies galore. “Don’t Let Go” retains the original’s rockabilly feel, but at a considerably slower pace than the Roy Hamilton or Jerry Lee Lewis versions. But it is JLW’s take on Kid Andersen’s “Soul City” that steals the show here. This is a gloriously funky blues explosion that shouts out to the influential music cities of this fine land.

The album comes to an end with “Keep the Faith,” a sweet gospel song that channels Walker’s early 1980s stint with the Spiritual Corinthians Gospel Quartet. This was an important part of his career that has influenced all of his recordings over the past 30 years, and eventually led to him embrace his blues roots once again. It is refreshing to see that he celebrates all parts of his career and is not afraid to use every tool available to him.

It might seem that this many genres would pull the CD in too many directions and make it lose its form, but this not true. Traveling to Nashville to cut this disc was worth the effort as Tom Hambridge has produced records for industry heavyweights such as George Thorogood, James Cotton, and Susan Tedeschi, not to mention two Grammy-award winning albums for Buddy Guy. He can sequence a record well and knows his way around the studio, and his work ensured that Hornet’s Nest would be cut from the same cloth as these other fine projects.

It is inspiring that after almost 50 years in the business, Joe Louis Walker is still writing, recording, and playing a grueling tour schedule. But it is even more impressive that he has not gotten into a rut and that his music is still innovative and pushing the limits of modern blues. Hornet’s Nest proves that he is still pulling all the stops out, and it would be well worth your time to check it out. Remember to peruse his webpage at www.joelouiswalker.com to find out when he will be playing near you, as his live show is something to behold!

Blues Blast Magazine Album Review: Innes Sibun – Lost in the Wilderness

Good day!

This CD review was originally published in the June 19, 2014 edition of Blues Blast Magazine. Be sure to check out the rest of the magazine at www.bluesblastmagazine.com

Innes Sibun – Lost in the Wilderness

Blues Boulevard Records

www.innessibun.org.uk

www.blues-boulevard.net

12 tracks / 50:45

For a budding musician, it would be hard to find a better example than B.B. King, the man that inspired British guitarist Innes Sibun to play the blues when he was just 12. This was a great start, and from there Innes went on to play all types of music including punk, reggae, jazz and rock -- but the blues had a firm hold on his heart. His skills improved to the point where he was able to join Robert Plant’s band, and during his career he has had the opportunity to share the stage with luminaries such as Joe Louis Walker, Steve Cropper, Peter Green, and Johnny Winter. Besides recording two albums with Plant, he has also cut a half dozen of his own discs.

Sibun’s latest solo effort is Lost in the Wilderness, which he recorded in Holt, England with bassist Steve Hall, drummer Kevin O’Rourke, and keyboardist Jon Buckett. Innes took care of the vocals and all of the guitars, as well as taking the role of producer and assisting with the mixing and mastering. So, what we end up with is an album that was the creative vision of a guitarist, so it has an incredible sound with up-front guitars, thunderous drums and fat bass tracks.

Ten of the twelve tracks are originals, including the opener, “You Can’t Miss What You Never Had,” a vintage rock and roll tune that has the energy of an early Jerry Lee Lewis performance. Sibun drastically changes direction for the next cut, “Lost in the Wilderness.” This track has a slow-grinding British blues rock feel (think early Led Zeppelin), and true to its album-oriented rock format it clocks in at over six minutes thanks to an epic guitar solo. Sibun’s vocals are not highly-polished, but are growly and heartfelt and perfectly express the introspective lyrics while Jo Nye’s soulful backing vocals complete the rock anthem concept.

Innes stirs things up again with the first of two instrumentals, “Where are You?” This song is an acoustic interlude that provides a breather between the title track and the hard blues rock of “There Always Will Be.” The other instrumental is “G’zan Hoedown” which takes its name from the G’zan custom guitars that he favors. True to its title this tune starts out with an Albert Lee country feel but morphs into an all-out shred fest with hammering snare drum from O’Rourke and a neat walking bass line from Steve Hall. Sibun proves here that he is a technically talented guitarist with tremendous speed, but unlike some other high-zoot axemasters he never loses the feel and emotion of the music.

Lost in the Wilderness has a tremendous variety of genres, and a great deal of care was put into the placement of the songs so that they all fit together into a cohesive whole. An example of this is backing up the raucous vocals of the punk-fueled blues rocker “Let’s Call it a Night” with the mandolin of the sweet ballad “When Love Breaks Down.” This is a delicate balancing act, but Innes pulls it off.

The sole cover on Lost in the Wilderness is Otis Rush’s 1958 single “Double Trouble.” This 12 bar blues classic maintains the dramatic feel of the original, and though it would be a temptation to overplay on a slow song like this, Sibun is disciplined and maintains space between riffs. Jon Buckett’s organ is spot on and sets a strong foundation.

The album finishes with Innes’ funk-fueled modern take on the traditional spiritual, “Going Home.” This turns out to be a fun song that makes use of different guitar techniques and effects, and is a fresh reminder of the constant evolution of the blues.

Innes Sibun put his heart and soul into Lost in the Wilderness, and it is a showcase of his love for the diverse genres of blues-based music. His band will be touring Europe for the rest of the year, including stops in the UK, Belgium, Poland, France, Italy, Germany, Russia, and Spain. We can only hope that he makes the time to bring his tour to the states – from the energy and skill he exhibited on this album his live show must be fantastic!

Mahalo!

Chicago Blues Guide Album Review: Damon Fowler – Sounds of Home

Hi! This review was originally published in Chicago Blues Guide on January 8, 2014. For all the latest Windy City blues info, be sure to check out their website at www.chicagobluesguide.com

Damon Fowler

Sounds of Home

Blind Pig Records

The American South is the source of countless talented guitar-slingers, but not many get the chance to hit the big time. But, through hard work, endless touring, and incredible talent, Damon Fowler is all set to make the jump. This Florida native has been working his solo act for years, and is also a member of the southern roots rock group, SoHo, alongside JP Soars and Victor Wainwright. Their work is highly-regarded, and it shows that Damon has the versatility to perform equally well as a solo artist or with a group.

Sounds of Home is Fowler’s third solo release on Blind Pig Records and he pulled out all the stops to make sure it was a success. His best decision was to bring Louisiana legend Tab Benoit onboard as producer. This album was recorded and mixed by Benoit at his own Whiskey Bayou Studios, and he also contributed his songwriting skills and a bit of his wonderful guitar prowess. It contains 11 tracks, with seven originals that were penned by Damon and his seasoned writing partner, Ed Wright, along with a little help from Tab. The guitars and vocals were handled by Fowler, with Chuck Riley on bass and James McKnight on drums.

The first track up is ”Thought I Had It All” and the listener gets a strong dose of heavy southern rock. Damon Fowler delivers the vocals with a bit of a southern accent and his voice is strong so he does not need to strain to get his point across. Up next is the title track, “Sounds of Home,” which is a slick piece of blues rock, with a rhythm section that could have been lifted straight out of a 1970s Robin Trower album. It should be noted that the vocals on this track were shared by perennial Mardi Grad favorite Big Chief Monk Boudreaux, which makes for a neat addition to what was already a cool song.

Damon also includes a few country-inspired songs on this album. “Old Fools, Bar Stools and Me” takes on the classic theme of drinking away heartache, but uses a hard punch of heavily processed guitars to get the message across. “Where I Belong” is a catchy tune with fancy fingerpicking and slide that does a good job of evoking images of home. “Do It For The Love” is the standout track on Sounds of Home, as this ballad has sublime lyrics that are interwoven with wonderful interplay between Fowler’s guitar and Benoit’s slide work.

The two covers are not the usual suspects, and they include an unexpectedly faithful rendition of Elvis Costello’s “Alison” and a hard hitting version of Johnny Winter’s “TV Mama.” Fowler electrifies Winter’s 1977 song with well-placed lead and slide guitar licks, which are more than fitting for the slew of double entendres of the original version. This track highlights his backline, which features Riley’s chugging bass line and McKnight’s drums, which are heavy and perfectly recorded and mixed.

The album ends up with “I Shall Not Be Moved,” a traditional spiritual, which seems right at home amongst the southern-fried rock and blues that make up the rest of Sounds of Home. It starts out with Damon singing along with a fun fingerpicked riff, and then he is joined by the bass and drums and some perfectly sweet vocal harmonies courtesy of Tab Benoit. It was clever to put this song at the end, as it is different enough from the rest of the material that it provides a clearly defined finish.

Damon Fowler should be proud of the work he put into Sounds of Home. All eleven tracks are solid, and it is obvious that he has mastered the art of blues and swamp rock performance and writing. Check out this album for 50 minutes of top-shelf entertainment, and be sure to hit his website at www.damonfowler.com for tour dates, as he will be making his way around the country this winter and spring.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

1993 Fender Japan JB62G-70 Jazz Bass Review

Aloha!

Boy, the folks at Fender Japan sure came up with a lot of cool stuff over the years, and I was very sad to hear they shut down operations earlier this year. One of their gems is this really cool 1993 JB62G-70 Jazz Bass I picked up on a recent trip overseas.

As always, a little deciphering needs to be done on the model name. JB means that this is a Jazz Bass, 62 means that it is a copy of a 1962 model (sort of), G stands for gold hardware, and 70 is the price in Yen (70,000 Yean when it was new). This is a rare model that was only made in 1993, and it was available in three colors: see-through green, see-through red and see-through blue. This one is the latter, which the factory called Clear Charcoal Marine (CCM in the catalog).

As this was a one year only model, specs can be a bit iffy. The catalog says that the body is made of American Basswood, but it looks like light northern ash or Sen wood to me. But everything else seems pretty straightforward to me. This bass looks awesome with its pretty clear poly finish and the 3-ply pickguard.

The neck is slim with a pretty rosewood fretboard. The 20 original frets are vintage sized, and there are nice full-sized tuners, not the wrong-looking small base tuners that are found on the cheaper models. The logos all look right (except for the contour body one, which is not in the right place) and they even put the extra strap button on the back of the headstock. But still, nobody is going to mistake this thing for a 1962 Fender Jazz Bass.

The hardware is all gold, even the pickguard screws. As always, gold stuff does not hold up well, so it is mostly faded, but it is still pretty fly. There are the usual Jazz Bass volume/volume/tone knobs connected to the single coil pickups. No big surprises here.

The overall condition of this instrument is very good, with just normal play wear. The original frets are in good shape and are still level, – the craftsmanship is first rate. The pickups are surprisingly beefy, with more output than most of their Japanese counterparts. What more could you want?

I set it up with roundwounds, and it has a nice medium action, a fast neck, it looks good, and it sounds exactly like a Jazz Bass should. It is not terribly heavy, either, coming in at 9 ½ pounds. With the strong dollar, you cannot beat the prices of these instruments either, especially if you pick one up overseas. There is nothing on the used market in the US that can even compare at this price point. If you are looking for a solid Jazz Bass, you need to check one of these out if you can find one!

Mahalo!

Friday, August 21, 2015

1980 Yamaha Studio Lord Electric Guitar Review

Greetings!

Today we are looking at a nice Les Paul lawsuit guitar, a 1980 Yamaha Studio Lord straight out of Japan from one of my recent trips there.

In case you have not run into these before, the lawsuit guitars were built by Japanese companies in the late 1970s and early 1980s. They used classic guitar and bass designs from Fender, Gibson, Hofner, Martin and Rickenbacker, and made killer knock-offs. The 70s and 80s were not exactly the best years for quality for any of these companies, and consumers really ate up the good quality copies. Well, Fender and the gang caught on eventually and threatened to sue the pants off of the Japanese companies. Some of these very playable guitars are now collectible.

A fine specimen of these is this 1980 Yamaha Studio Lord model SL-500S. In traditional Japanese marketing-ese, the 500 in the model name relates to the instrument’s original list price, in this case it was 50,000 yen. This was around $250 back then, if I did the math right. I have never seen another one in the US. I picked this one for a few hundred bucks at a secondhand store in Nagoya.

This Studio Lord is finished in a classy cherryburst, which is a very close match to how Gibson did it at the time. The body is mahogany, with a mystery top that could be ash or agathis, maybe. It is not unduly heavy for a Les Paul, coming in at a little under 9 ½ pounds.

It has a set neck with a rosewood fretboard. The neck is nicely rounded, is between the 50s and 60s style Les Pauls as far as feel. It is straight with plenty of life left in the frets. It has a medium action and it plays like a dream. There are a few small marks on the back of the neck, but nothing that bothers me when I play it, because I am a rock star.

Everything appears to be original on this guitar. The wiring is tidy and the pickups and knobs appear to be OEM. The tailpiece shows some pitting and the tuning pegs have a few signs of oxidization but those things are not a big deal. As this is a 35-year-old guitar, there are some small blemishes and the typical soft markings on the rear of the guitar. But overall it is in very respectable condition.

It plays very well with a fresh set of Ernie Ball 0.010s on it. The uncovered pickups are sweet at normal levels, and are super crunchy with an overdriven amp. All electronics work as they should with plenty of output, and it is wired like the usual Les Paul. The action and feel are awesome and it is fun to play!

If you are considering a new Gibson Les Paul, think twice. Their necks and frets are a crapshoot in a losing game. Find a lawsuit guitar from Aria, Yamaha, Tokai, or Greco, and you will spend a lot less coin and get a better playing guitar.

Mahalo!

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Pyle PDMIC78 Microphone Review: The 10 Dollar Wonder

Aloha!

I got a box full of stuff to try out a while back and was slightly taken aback by one of the items inside – a dead-on knock-off of the Shure 57 microphone. This dynamic microphone is made by Pyle: the PDMIC78. Get it? They reversed the last two numbers so you do not think they are trying to pass it off as a real SM57…

You may remember Pyle as the company that made those mediocre yet big, thumpy, and cheap car speakers back in the 1980s. Well, it turns out that nowadays they crank out mediocre yet amazingly low priced pro audio equipment that is generally good enough to get the job done.

Well, it sure looks like an SM57, as it has the same barrel shape and copies its distinctive head and grill. But when you pluck it out of the box, the first impression is that it is quite a bit lighter than its doppelganger. It is not plastic, but is some sort of lighter alloy than Shure uses. Another difference is that there is no transformer in this microphone, so that cuts down on the weight too.

Pyle gives some specs on their website, but god only knows if they are accurate: “Frequency Response: 50HZ to 15kHz” and “-54db (+/-) 3db(0db=1v/pa @ 1khz).” If any of you get around to doing in-depth testing on one of these, let me know. I can tell you that this thing is wired out of phase with Shure mics, so you will want to rewire this thing if you are running the real things on the stage at the same time. And while you are rewiring stuff, you might as well put some normal gauge wire in there, as they really cheaped out on the guts of these things.

Does it sound like an SM57? Not really, but it is actually not bad either. It has a little lower output (no transformer, remember?), and the sound is a bit more boomy on the low end and ringy on the top end. They scooped the crap out of these things as the midrange is a bit lacking. There is definitely a proximity effect with these , but it lessens predictably with distance. They are definitely usable.

These are amazingly cheap microphones, yet they get the job done and they do have a place in my kind of snobby world. See, Shure mics cost about $100 each, and many times it is not worth the risk of putting them out there for the unwashed masses to grab.

You’ve seen it before. The drunk lady tries the Roger Daltrey microphone swing during karaoke, or the best man fumbles the mic while making announcements, or the mic stand gets kicked over as young bands are hustling while loading or unloading during a festival or party. And do you need high fidelity for any of these gigs? Most likely not.

The list price on the Pyle PDMIC78 is a ho-hum $37.99, but these things sell all day long for 10 bucks on Amazon, which is pretty much an unbeatable deal. For this you get the microphone and a terrible quality 15-foot XLR to ¼-inch cable that you will end up throwing away after trying to use it once. No stand clip or carry bag is included. I recommend picking a couple of these microphones up for situations where you are not going to want to put your good stuff on the line. Let me know what you think!

Mahalo!