Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Washburn Rover Travel Guitar Review


My go-to tiny travel guitar for many years has been a steel-string Martin Backpacker, but I am always on the lookout for something better, as it not ergonomic and it sounds terrible. So, I was interested to try out the Washburn Rover travel guitar, which is of the same ilk. On the surface of things, there are a few advantages for the Rover over the Backpacker, so let’s see how things add up!

For starters, even though the Rover looks a little bit more like a real guitar, it still looks pretty darned goofy. It is probably the smallest travel guitar I have seen, coming in at a few inches shorter than the Backpacker, through it still maintains a fairly normal 23.75-inch scale length. It is made of real wood, with a solid spruce top, mahogany body and neck, and a bound rosewood fingerboard. Overall it is a prettier instrument, with inlays and binding that are absent on the Martin. It has open gear tuners, and no electronics are available.

The one that I tried out had a satin natural finish, though it is available in fairly awful looking black, transparent red, and transparent blue. It had a few minor finish flaws, and the binding was not perfect. The frets were passable, and though the edges of them were rough, they were not sharp to the touch. It came with a pretty good set-up out of the boxwith its extra-light strings, though I did tweak the truss rod a bit to get rid of some buzz. Intonation was good, though with the tone this thing makes, it is almost a moot point. It was made in China, in case that makes a difference to you (the Martin is built in Mexico).

When it came time to play the Rover, there was no more satisfaction than playing a Backpacker, The ergonomics are terrible, and it has to be played with a strap, even when sitting down. The tone is nasally and not terrible pleasant at all. The worst part about using this instrument is that the Waverly look-alike tuners do not hold well, so it would go out of tune within a few minutes.

The best part about this Washburn is that it comes with a really nice semi-hard case that fits well in airline overhead bins. This is a step-up from the Martin’s soft case, which always makes me worry that someone is going to crush it with his or her carry-on bag. Also included in the package is a strap and an instructional DVD, though any beginner that chooses this as their first guitar will probably quit within the first week.

So, the Washburn and the Martin are both uncomfortable to play and sound terrible. The Washburn comes with a better case but will not stay in tune. With an Amazon price of $150 for the Rover and $200 for the Martin, I am going to have to go with the Martin on this one, because putting new tuners on the Washburn will eat up any financial advantage. Plus it is not a Martin…


Sunday, May 1, 2016

coWpilot – coWpilot | Album Review

coWpilot – coWpilot

Self Release


9 tracks / 30:44

I review a lot of blues CDs, and it was nice to get something a little different to listen to this time, and coWpilot certainly delivered. Their eponymous debut album is a dose of quirky country (among other things) that is nothing like the formulaic pabulum that Nashville songwriters crank out like there is no tomorrow.

coWpilot has survived a long germination, with three members who have known each other for decades since they first met up on the central California coast. The lives and careers of Tee Fitch, Jack Williams, and Chris Barham took different directions, but fate smiled on them and they all eventually ended up in the Lone Star State. About ten years ago they sort of picked up where they left off, found themselves a drummer (Andy Alsup) and another guitarist (Jimmy Buck), and started playing club and corporate gigs again. Hallmarks of their live shows were their curious mashups (such as “Folsom Prison Wizard”), and the welcome conversion of terrible pop tunes to country (“These Boots Are Made For Walkin’”).

Fast forwarding to today, these folks needed a demo CD that they could use to procure more of these precious gigs, so they hit the studio to lay down some quick and dirty tracks. Things got out of hand, and they put together nine original tunes that Tee had written, and spent more time in the studio than they ever thought possible. Jimmy Buck acted as executive producer, and enlisted Bruce Faulconer to do the studio magic at Dallas’ Cake Mix Recording, where much of the album was cut (the remainder of the guitars and vocals were recorded at Hezoree Sound Studios in Kyle, Texas).

As far as their line-up goes, for this project Tee played the guitar and was in charge of the lead vocals, Jack was bassman, Chris played lead guitar and all manner of stringed instruments, Jimmy played the guitar, and Andy was stuck behind the drum kit. Jack, Chris, and Jimmy also added backing vocals. It should also be mentioned that their friend and ace in the hole, Chuck Ward (Bellamy Brothers, and a whole lot more), took care of the keyboard parts. It is good to have friends in high places!

Their half-hour set kicks off with “Texas Raindrops” with a Johnny Cash intro and bass that is slightly fatter than what you would have heard back in the day. Fitch has a pleasant tenor voice, and the catchy chorus features vocal harmonies that are destined to get stuck in your head. Barham throws down a tidy guitar solo with deft finger work, but he does not go overboard. And that is sort of the theme of this album: it is all about the songs so there are no epic solos or musical breaks for the listener to deal with.

This is followed up by one of the standout tracks from coWpilot, “Go Big Train.” Musically, this song is more complex, with layers of acoustics guitars, banjo and pedal steel. Though it starts out as a mid-tempo country ballad with lovely melodies, the chorus is more aggressive and the transitions pique the listener’s interest. This is a fun contrast to the next track, “White Trash Girls,” an up-tempo rhythm and blues love story (sort of) with tasty keyboards provided by Mr. Ward.

“She’s Changed Her Mind Again” features piano from Chuck, and comes off as more of a plaintive modern country tune. This track highlights the backline of Williams and Alsup, who are perfectly in sync yet still squeeze a few tasty fills in here and there. The group also steps into pop-rock on “Happy Going Nowhere,” with vocal harmonies galore and more guitar layers than you can shake a stick at. This is track is also a standout thanks to Fitch’s crooning and his lyrics that are easy to relate to.

Before things end, coWpilot flirts with easy-going California country on “The Opposite of Here,” and country rock with “About Elektra,” which has a gloriously distorted guitar break. Then, before you know it, the set draws to a close with “Until Then,” an example of roadhouse country at its finest, complete with honky-tonk piano and pedal steel.

By the way, there is also a hidden track, but you are not going to hear about it from me. You will have to go find it for yourself…

coWpilot’s debut album is a strong effort, with well-written songs that are professionally played and recorded with care. This kind of Americana music has good legs, and hopefully the guys will make it back into the studio to record their sophomore effort soon. coWpilot will be released on May 7, 2015 and will be available for purchase through the usual digital outlets (iTunes, Pandora, Spotify, CD baby, Amazon, Shazam, etc.), and surely it will be possible to pick up a physical copy at one of their upcoming shows. According to the band, “an extensive tour of Texas is in the works,” so follow them on Facebook to keep up to date on their activities!

Friday, April 29, 2016

Donald Ray Johnson – These Blues, the Best of Donald Ray Johnson | Album Review

Donald Ray Johnson – These Blues, the Best of Donald Ray Johnson

Self Release


13 tracks / 59:00

Donald Ray Johnson has certainly managed to get around, and has come a long way since he was born in Bryan, Texas. As a young man he worked the cotton fields and learned how to play the drums, leading to a career that started when he was 14 with legendary blues pianist, Nat Dove. After an all expenses paid trip to Southeast Asia (courtesy of the US Navy), he returned to Southern California, where he hooked up with the blues scene again. You may know of him as a member of A Taste of Honey, which won the Best New Artist Grammy in 1979.

Johnson moved to Calgary, Alberta in 1989 and since then he has recorded six mighty fine blues albums, and his voice is just as good as his work on the traps. These Blues, the Best of Donald Ray Johnson is a compilation of nuggets from this body of work, though it must have been tough to narrow it down to only an hour of material. The thirteen tracks on this disc reveal a lot of versatility as it includes a little rhythm and blues and a touch of country, but it is mostly hard-hitting Chicago style blues. For a Canadian citizen that grew up in Texas and honed his craft in LA, he has a lot of the Windy City in him!

Nine of these tracks are originals, and he included four pretty cool covers for good measure. Donald opens the set with one of these, the Reverend Al Green’s “Ain’t No Fun to Me” which has a rock-solid backline (not surprisingly, he is a drummer after all), with plenty of harp, horns and Hammond. Johnson’s voice is a wonderfully hearty, but still smooth. This is a great tune, and all of the other tracks are just as good, which makes it hard to pick favorites, but I will give it a shot. Here are a few:

- It seems like every great bluesman has written at least one drinking song, and “Me and Jack (Daniels)” is Donald’s contribution to the community. This romp features a popping bass line, and an incredibly visual depiction of a man’s battle with the bottle. In this case the bottle always wins…

- “Always On My Mind” is one of my all-time favorite tunes, and this one provide a cool contrast to the most famous version, which was done by Willie Nelson (sorry, Elvis fans). Though this one also uses mainly country-style acoustic guitar as accompaniment, Donald’s voice is so much smoother than Willie’s that it makes this sad song new to me again.

-Johnny Taylor’s “Last Two Dollars” makes my list, as Johnson lays down some of the sexiest rhythm and blues lyrics you will ever hear. Of course, it helps that he started out with a very well written song that motors right through when played by one of the tightest bands you could put together.

- “No Guitar Blues” has plenty of guitar in it, courtesy of Michael Huston. This slow-rolling smooth blues track bemoans the fact that the blues community expects a front man to have an axe over their shoulder, and not be sitting behind a drum kit. The lyrics are witty and there is a glorious sax break and killer leads from Huston. This original song defines what Johnson is all about, so there was no way he could leave it off this “best of” compilation.

If you are not familiar with his work, These Blues, The Best of Donald Ray Johnson would be a perfect way to become familiar with his work. But be careful, after hearing it you might end up buying his other six CDs!

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Blues Blast Magazine Review: All My Friends: Celebrating The Songs and Voice of Gregg Allman

Good day!

This CD review was originally published in the November 27, 2014 edition of Blues Blast Magazine. Be sure to check out the rest of the magazine at www.bluesblastmagazine.com

Various Artists -- All My Friends: Celebrating The Songs and Voice of Gregg Allman

Rounder Records



2 CDs / 26 tracks / 2:31:54

1 DVD / 2:40:55

The Allman Brothers Band has survived its share of adversity since their first paying gig in 1969, and after 45 years they have finally called it quits and had their finals shows at New York City’s Beacon Theatre. One of the founding members, Gregg Allman, will continue on with his solo career, which is to be expected as he has quite a following of fans, including countless professional musicians.

On Friday, January 10, 2014, some of these legendary artists joined at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia to honor Gregg and join him in song. All two-and-a-half hours of this show were captured on two CDs and a DVD, so you can experience this magical evening for yourself! All My Friends: Celebrating The Songs and Voice of Gregg Allman includes 26 songs with performances from a lengthy list of industry hard-hitters and hall-of-famers, including Warren Haynes, Derek Trucks, Susan Tedeschi, Dr. John, Eric Church, Pat Monahan, Jackson Browne, John Hiatt, Vince Gill, Martina McBride, and more! Gregg Allman joined in the celebration too, along with the rest of the Allman Brothers Band for a.

The set list is chock full of Allman goodness, with early Allman Brothers Band albums represented as well as tunes combed from Gregg’s solo catalogue. It is noteworthy that the Allman Brothers Band actually performed a few of the tunes, but they also assembled a house band to die for that played for the rest of the evening. This included Don Was on bass, Kenny Aronoff on the skins, Jack Pearson and Audley Freed on guitar, Chuck Leavell on piano, Rami Jaffee behind the Hammond, and Jimmy Hall tearing it up the harmonica. This would have been good enough, but they also brought in the McCrary Sisters on backing vocals and a killer horn section of Jim Hoke, Vinnie Ciesielski, and John Hinchey. These are all pros with centuries of combined stage experience and they made the evening enjoyable and complete.

This is a high-quality release with excellent production values, and the producer for this Rounder Records project is the one-and-only 3-time Grammy award winner Don Was. He was definitely qualified for this task, with credits that include The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Roy Orbison and Neil Diamond. The sound and mix is as good as you will get with a live album, and the cinematography and editing of the DVD is crystal clear and it was put together so that fans get to see everything worth seeing.

Listening to the CDs is more challenging than the DVD as the first few times through it is difficult to envision what is happening on stage and who is actually singing – and most of the time it is not Gregg Allman. In fact, he does not even appear on stage until almost an hour in, when he joins Grammy-winning blues musician Taj Mahal on “Statesboro Blues.” But, without the visuals there is also a better of idea of who is getting the mail delivered, and there are definitely standout vocal performances. The highlight of the evening was “Midnight Rider” with Zac Brown and Gregg on lead vocals and Vince Gill backing them up on the harmonies: it induced goose bumps! Not far behind was McBride and Monahan’s duet of “Can You Fool” and the Sam Moore (of Sam & Dave) take of “Please Call Home.”

But the best part of the set is the DVD, and if you are not terribly busy you can take most of an evening to sit back and watch it. There are no special features or commentaries, but it is probably one of the better-produced concert videos that you will ever see. On the screen you get to see the mountains of amplifiers and the huge cast of musicians that made this tribute possible. This video gives a better idea of what a bang-out job that the house band does, including the powerful drumming of the indefatigable Aronoff, and the kicking yet subtle contributions of Pearson and Freed on guitar. The pedal steel work of Robert Randolph on “You Can’t Lose What You Ain’t Never Had” was a complete jaw-dropper and he did a righteous job alongside Gregg’s son, Devon Allman, on guitar. Also, the finale of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” is very touching as all of the musicians returned to the stage one last time with Gregg kicking things off.

If you are a fan of Gregg Allman or the Allman Brothers Band, then purchasing All My Friends: Celebrating The Songs and Voice of Gregg Allman will be an easy decision. If you like Southern rock, you will certainly want to pick up a copy too. But the universal appeal of this well-produced set is that it includes work from some of the most influential artists of today, which makes adding this well-rounded music collection to your library almost irresistible, even if you are only the least bit interested in the man or the band. Check it out for yourself, and do not be surprised if you end up buying a copy too!


Thursday, April 21, 2016

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

MONO M80 Dual Guitar Gig Bag Review


There was a time when I sneered at gig bags, and would only get hard cases for my guitars and basses. My attitude has since turned around on this opinion, and most of my instruments are in gig bags now.

I would feel differently if I was playing out a lot and had to stick my gear in a van with the rest of the band’s crap, but that is not my situation. For around the house or loading up my car a gig bag is plenty for me. You will find that lightweight and less space are big bonuses, especially if you are using public transportation.

I got the chance to try out the MONO M80 Dual Guitar Gig Bag Review earlier this year, and it blew me away. In fact, you could even say that I am tickled pink with it. Hee!

For starters, this is a double bag so it holds two solid-body electric guitars, which makes for a tidy package when travelling, and it is always nice to have a spare guitar at a gig. It fits most of my electrics, including the Strat, Tele, Les Paul, SG, and even a pointy headstock metal thing. Of course my Gibson Explorer will not fit, but I never through for a second that it would, and Flying Vs are probably out of the equation too.

In case you are wondering it is around 42 inches long, and will fit guitars with a 12 inch upper bout and a 14 inch lower bout. More or less. And the whole thing weighs in around 7 pounds, without any guitars in it. That is pretty heavy, but fortunately it has comfy built-in backpack straps that tuck neatly out of the way if you are not using them.

Those guitars are very well protected inside, thanks to generous padding and a super-nice neck support system that might be able to keep you from snapping your Les Paul headstock off. It has a heavy-duty nylon exterior that is pretty much water-resistant, and the dual zippers are as heavy as they come. There are plenty of pockets, and they are well padded to keep the contents safe, as well as keeping whatever is in them from damaging your guitars.

Ergonomically the MONO 80 is awesome, as it Is very well through out, and it even balances well on the carry handle. This is the nicest gig bag I have ever used, but it is not terribly cheap. One of these will set you back $329 ($415 list), though that does include the MONO limited lifetime warranty. For that price, I cannot imagine them hassling you too much if you have to file a claim.

Check one out for yourself and see what you think, I think you will be impressed!


Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Blues Blast Magazine Album Review: Sam-One – Bad Boy of the Blues


This CD review was originally published in the November 11, 2014 edition of Blues Blast Magazine. Be sure to check out the rest of the magazine at www.bluesblastmagazine.com

Sam-One – Bad Boy of the Blues

Self Release


8 tracks / 37:51

For every big-name blues artist with a record deal there are thousands of blues bands out there, playing their own style of music and grinding out gigs at bars and clubs around the world. One of these is Sam-One, a singer and guitarist from Pittsburg, California who is carving out his own niche.

Though he now lives in this San Francisco Bay Area town, Sam Wesley Jr. (his birth name) hails from Memphis where he started playing guitar when he was eight. 55 year later he is still at it, and he has certainly learned a few thing over the years, including singing, songwriting and arranging. Sam cut his first album, You Ain't Right, in 2009 and this southern soul disc got him in the door of a few radio stations and some hard-earned airplay.

Bad Boy of the Blues is Sam-One’s self-released sophomore effort and this time he has gone for more blues and less soul, which really works for him as his guitar chops are wonderful. It is a fairly short disc, coming in at 37 minutes, but all eight tracks were written and produced by Wesley. Sam takes on the guitar and vocal duties, and he is joined by a solid band that includes Niklas Nordstrom on bass, Twist Turner on drums and the horn section of Gino Archimede, Adrian Justice and Mark Sullivan.

“Somebody Lied” is the first song in the set and it might not be what you expect from the title. This is not a song about infidelity, but is instead a rebuttal those that say the blues genre is dead. As he calls out the familiar blues heroes in his weathered voice Sam is backed by the simple yet spot-on foundation of bass and drum and a brief but smooth guitar solo.

Things get fun quickly with the next track as “My Baby” is a catchy tune with plenty of funk that lets Nordstrom step out on bass as the horn trio pecks out their staccato accents. There is a similar vibe to “You Ain’t Feelin Me” which artfully uses the counterpoint of Sam-One’s reverb-soaked guitar and a brief solo interlude.

There is also a smooth love song, “Forever & Beyond,” which has a funky jazz feel thanks to Mark Sullivan’s flute parts. Wesley shows versatility in his vocals and his guitar playing, which adapts well to this lighter and slower pace. The time that he spent playing southern soul appears to have paid off in allowing him to change his sound up as needed.

After a passel of three-minute songs, the album finishes up with a couple of double-length tunes that give Sam-One a chance to cut loose on his guitar and he really can play! His feel, bends, and timing are terrific, and his work is as clean as a whistle. There is a smoky feel to “You Think You Fooling Me” which features fine clean guitar leads, and poignant lyrics about the darker side of relationships. For the closer, Sam picked “Do You Want Me Baby” with its classic blues structure with a slow-grinding beat. The horns go a bit crazy in this one, and there is one last chance to squeeze in a couple of tasty guitar solos. This may be the best track on the record!

One thing to keep in mind that this a self-released album and it did not have the benefit of a big record company budget, so there are a few production issues. Post-production engineering is uneven in spots, particularly with the horns, which are generally too far forward in the mix. That being said, this disc is still an enjoyable listen – it is just that at times it sounds more like a live album than a studio recording.

Sam-One’s Bad Boy of the Blues is a fun straight-up blues album and a strong reminder that there are countless souls out their spreading the gospel of the blues everyday. There are many clubs in the Bay Area that support the genre, and if you are in the area you might just run into Sam. If you do, be sure to pick up a copy of his CD!