Friday, May 27, 2016

Ivor S.K. – Delta Pines | Album Review

Ivor S.K. – Delta Pines

Self Release

www.ivorsk.com

5 tracks / 18:46

There is a strong blues scene in Australia, so I am surprised that more of their music does not make it to my desk for review. So, it was cool to receive a debut disc from Ivor S.K., Delta Pines. This young man has developed a mature voice and guitar skills in a short amount of time, helped along by the mojo of his beloved city of New Orleans.

Ivor Simpson-Kennedy wrote all five of the songs for this EP, and performed all of the guitar and vocal parts. Before he took up guitar he was a drummer, so you will hear that each tune has a cool and steady beat with subtle influences of soul, and maybe even some reggae or ska, but this is still undeniably based on Delta blues. Since there are a few less tracks to deal with than usual, following is the blow-by-blow for each:

First up is “Help Poor Me” and you will probably be shocked that an Australian kid has a voice like a grizzled man from the Delta. Also, he manages to break the word “help” into two syllables – I have never heard that before! In this tale of woe his guitar work is simple and clean, and this is a very listenable piece of music. Things change direction a bit after this. Many blues artists create their own ode to the bottle, and in “Missus Green” Ivor describes a man who puts aside all manner of liquor in favor of his chosen poison, which is all-natural, but not exactly drinkable.

Layers of acoustic and slide guitar are used to construct “Pelican,” an instrumental that is more roots than blues. It is a pretty tune that uses stereo effects to present a sound stage that makes seem like there is more than one player. Ivor’s guitar skills are up to the task, and his fingerstyle shows that he has a good feel for the instrument. A laid-back love song follows this up, and “I Like the Way” is a smart piece of acoustic blues with an intimate message.

The CD finishes up with “Delta Pines” which is a celebration of Mississippi and its music, with shout outs to cultural fixtures from all over the state. This is set to a simple quarter note kickdrum beat (provided by Ivor?), and this percussion provides an interesting change from Ivor’s usual guitar and voice formula. There are at least three guitar parts in play here, which makes me wonder which one he chooses when he is doing a live show!

Ivor S.K. has something going here, and Delta Pines is a solid first effort. His voice is impressive, and his original songs are easy to listen to with lyrics that provide a few surprises along the way. Hopefully he is busy writing new material so that we can get a full-length album from him soon.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Epiphone Limited Edition Les Paul Special EGS1WKNH3 Electric Guitar Review

Greetings!

I recently posted a review of an entry-level Fender Stratocaster, and in interest of fairness I should give the Gibson camp their fair share of publicity. So, today we are going to take a look at the Epiphone Limited Edition Les Paul Special EGS1WKNH3 guitar. This is one of the least expensive Les Pauls on the market, and it is not too bad!

I will start out by saying that is has the general look of a Gibson Les Paul, but this thing is serious de-contented in features, materials, and workmanship. This should not be a big surprise, as this guitar is not going to cost you much more than a hundred bucks. It has the single cutaway, a book shaped headstock, a couple of pickups, six strings, and a lot of stuff that you will not find on a real Les Paul. So this will take a little explaining.

The slab body (no carved top) is made of basswood, a good tonewood, but not the most durable material on the planet. Epiphone finished this LP in matte black, which is a departure from most of these that come with the faded finish. This is loaded up with Epiphone 700T bridge and 650R neck humbuckers that are wired through a 3-way switch that is located between the only tow knobs on the guitar: master volume and master tone. There is also a fairly terrible one-piece wraparound bridge.

The bolt-on mahogany neck is pretty nice, with a 1960s profile slim taper neck and 21 frets sunk into the rosewood fretboard. Funny how Gibson cannot use real rosewood on a $2K Les Paul, but Epiphone can do it on a guitar that costs a C-note. There are sealed tuners out of the headstock that are supposed to be nickel-plated, but it sure looks like chrome to me.

Right out of the box, this Les Paul played pretty good. Intonation was ok, there were no dead frets, and the D-shaped neck had a decidedly Les Paul feel. With a little bit of set-up (truss rod and intonation adjustment), it was definitely way better than the entry-level guitars of the 1970s that I grew up with. The sound is not quite up to snuff and I missed the dual tone and volume knobs that I use on my Gibson Les Paul Standard to get the vibe that I crave. But it is good enough. The pickups have good output and certainly can get crunchy, though there is a bit of hum to be found. All in all, it hits the mark and it is a viable candidate for beginning guitar players, or anybody that is looking for an instrument that may be subjected to rough conditions.

How much does all of this cost? Not much! The Epiphone Limited Edition Les Paul Special guitar has a list price of $245, but you would be a fool to pay that much. The street price for these is $149, and it you hold out you will find them on sale pretty often for $99. That is a steal for a playable electric that sounds good and looks ok. Trust me!

Mahalo!

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Blues Blast Magazine Album Review: David Pinsky and Phil Newton – Over the Moon

This CD review was originally published in the December 28, 2014 edition of Blues Blast Magazine. Be sure to check out the rest of the magazine at www.bluesblastmagazine.com

David Pinsky and Phil Newton – Over the Moon

Self Release

www.davidandphil.info

11 tracks / 49:35

With the many diverse subgenres of blues that are being recorded today, it is good to regularly touch home with where the blues came from so we do not lose track of where we came from. Oregonians David Pinsky and Phil Newton are creating just this kind of bare bones music and are doing a very good job of it, as evidenced by their first album together, Over the Moon.

PInsky and Newton have known each other for years and started playing gigs together a few years back with their brand of Delta style roots and blues, and it caught on. This dynamic duo had enough juice to win the completion that allowed them to represent the venerable Cascade Blues Association at the 2014 International Blues Challenge in Memphis. Competition was stiff and they did not prevail, but the door did not close and they again won the right to represent the CBA again in 2015 at the IBC. I wish them luck!

They came back from Tennessee with none of their fire diminished, and they headed into a Central Point, Oregon studio this past summer to cut their first album together. The album was produced, engineered, and mastered by Thomas Hartkop and it features Dave and Phil on vocals and harmonica, with Dave also providing the guitar parts. That is it – no horns, drums, bass, keyboards, or trio of beautiful backing vocalists. Instead, we get 11 original tracks written with honesty from these two veterans of the Pacific Coast blues scene, and it is a good trade-off.

The set kicks off with “Memphis by Midnight,” and the blues listeners get exactly what they are looking for, which is bare bones acoustic blues. This is a raw recording with woody sounding acoustic guitar that is recorded so well you can hear the strings hitting the frets. The weathered vocals recount this year’s trip to Memphis, with plenty of their recollections, impressions and images. Rounding out the package are a few harp breaks that are muted yet still pretty.

There are other songs that throw out a little of the duo’s history. “Black Highway” is a howling Delta-esque ode to Oregon Route 238, the highway that David and Phil both live on. And “3303 Burdeck Drive” brings back memories of growing up in the cold clime of Oakland, California, this time with a country blues feel thanks to the carefully picked guitar lines and the doubled guitar/harmonica intro.

One of the standout tracks of Over the Moon is “Mama’s in the Kitchen,” which brings a lot of Louisiana spice to the table. This is accomplished with Pinsky and Newton’s minimal instrumentation by having the harmonica mimic a squeezebox, and at times you can be fooled into thinking it actually is an accordion. The guitar lays in the background playing heavy downbeats while the lyrics take the front of the stage (as they do on most of the album), but this time in a Fats Domino style.

Looking at the album as a whole, this is the kind of music that a couple of friends would get together to play at a backyard cookout or in a slow-paced roadhouse, and these two old buddies can do it better than most anyone else around.

Things draw to a close with “Your Turn to Go” with some beautiful harmonica work and aggressively strummed acoustic guitar. The lyrics recall remorse for how things have gone so badly in life, but realizing the need to move along anyway and hope the future gets better. This is what the blues is all about!

If you like what you hear on David Pinsky and Phil Newton’s album, you should try to catch their live show, as they have gigs almost every week for the next few months, including the IBC on Beale Street in Memphis this January. But, if you cannot make it to Oregon or Tennessee, the next best thing would be to pick up a copy of Over the Moon. Taking this journey to the roots of the blues and Americana will definitely be money well spent. Plus, picking up a copy will support their trip to the IBCs, which is a cause worth standing behind!

Friday, May 20, 2016

Tas Cru – You Keep the Money | Album Review

Tas Cru – You Keep the Money

Crustee Tees Records

www.tascru.com

12 tracks / 56:25

Tas Cru’s sixth album, You Keep the Money, did really well last year as it debuted at #1 on the Roots Music Report and at #2 on the Living Blues chart. This was no anomaly as this New York-based singer, songwriter and guitarist delivered a smart package of modern blues that was well written and recorded. I think it is the best work that he has done so far, which is saying something as his other CDs are pretty good too!

I could have thrown together Tas’ biography and background for you, but what he does now is so very relevant that I want to tell everybody about it. You see, besides being a stone-cold professional bluesman he is also a stellar dude that gives a lot of himself to the world. He is a blues educator who presents his workshops to schools, hospitals and community centers. He has also recorded two blues albums just for kids, and was recognized for his work with the 2014 Blues Foundation's Keeping the Blues Alive Award for Blues Education.

Tas wrote all twelve of the songs on this record, as well as handling the lead vocals and guitars. A medium-sized crew came along to the studio to join him, including Mary Ann Casale on backing vocals and dulcimer, Bob Purdy on bass, Dave Olson and Bob Holz on drums, Dick Earl Ericksen on the harp, and keys courtesy of Chip Lampson and Guy Nirelli.

The first tune in this nearly hour-long set is the title track which is derived from a conversation that Tas Cru had with the legendary T-Model Ford. This occurred at a benefit show for T-Model, who was a little disconcerted that the band was working for free. There is a fat sound to this piece with a funky beat that features Purdy’s super-fat bass and an abundance of Hammond from Nirelli. Dick Earl Ericksen is hot on the harp and he very effectively trades riffs with Cru’s guitar.

Tas included a slow and sweet instrumental, “La Belle Poutine,” which is one of my favorite tracks on the disc. With no vocals it is easy to focus on Tas’ guitar, and it is smooth and melodic with a great touch and tone. Electric piano from Lampson and extra percussion from Ron Keck give this song a 1970s feel, and it comes out as sort of a mash-up of Robin Trower and Gary Moore. I wonder if this tune was named after a restaurant I went to in New Orleans a while back…

Another cool song is “One Bad Habit,” a cool shuffle that features lovely harmonies from Casale and Alice “Honeybea” Ericksen. The beat on this one is perfect, and it is a joy to listen to a backline is that is so tight.

The disc closes with roots and blues, and “Thinking How to Tell Me Goodbye” makes heavy use of acoustic, electric, and slide guitars. The lyrics are a nice twist on the usual break-up song, and when combined with unique (and constantly changing) arrangements of instruments, make this a song that can be listened to more than once before you figured out exactly what is going on.

You Keep the Money is a solid album from Tas Cru and you should head over to his website and give it a listen. While you are there, check out his show schedule and think about picking up a copy of his latest kid’s album for the young ones in your life. Not only will you be spreading the good news of the blues, but the proceeds go towards the Blues Hall of Fame too. How could you go wrong?

Monday, May 16, 2016

Jeff Jensen – The River City Sessions | Album Review

Jeff Jensen – The River City Sessions

Swingsuit Records

ww.jeffjensenband.com

www.swingsuitrecords.com

12 tracks / 67:00

Jeff Jensen is one of the most energetic and engaging performers on today’s music scene, and his live shows are an amazing blend of the blues, funk, rock, and roots genres. You may know Jeff from his last release, Morose Elephant, which was an excellent album. This left coast bluesman has done wonderful work since his move to Memphis in 2011 (where he was director for Brandon Santini’s band), and since then his grueling solo tour schedule has continued unabated.

His latest disc is The River City Sessions, a live show that was recorded in December 2015 at the Ardent Studios in Memphis, Tennessee with an audience of the band’s fans in attendance. Jeff provided the guitars and vocals for this show and was joined by Bill Ruffino on bass and Robinson Bridgeforth on the skins. This club-friendly set included eight original songs and three cool covers.

After a quick intro from the famed Memphis bassman, Leo Goff, the band kicks off with a searing rendition of T-Bone Walkers’s “T-Bone Shuffle,” complete with an almost jazz-like interlude. Jeff has a tremendous vocal range that comes off as natural and relaxed, and his guitar chops are first-rate. This is pretty much one of the best live shows you will hear, as in the controlled environment it is easier to get everything at the right levels. So, the end result is a studio album with the spontaneity and audience reactions of a live show. One take!

From there they segue into an original, “Make it Through,” which is more casual with a gulf coast feel. This fun blues-rock tune highlights the tightness and talent of Ruffino and Bridgeforth’s backline. Then, “Empty Bottles” uses more light-hearted lyrics over a simple beat to show another side of the band’s ability. Jeff lays down a smooth solo, and eventually the tune flips into a full-blown rocker.

The band included a couple of instrumentals to break up the set. “JJ Boogie” starts out with the audience enthusiastically clapping along and once the band get going on this driving song it becomes hard to believe that there are only three of them on stage. Changes in dynamics keep things interesting, and there is no boring flailing on the instruments to be found here. In fact, this is the most kick-ass instrumental blues that I have heard in a long, long time. The other instrumental is “Elephant Blue” (from the Morose Elephant album), and this up-tempo piece features chords that give it an Eastern European mood. You will even hear a bass solo here, and it actually good with no gratuitous popping or slapping.

Jensen and his friends came up with a couple of other covers for the audience’s entertainment. Tom Waits’ “Hear Attack and Vine” (also covered on the Road Worn and Ragged disc) is more conventionally constructed and accessible than the original, and Jeff hollers out Waits’ horrible lyrics that expose the darkness of man while Bridgeforth hits the drums with everything he has. The group finishes up the CD with Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” and after a jazzy intro they turn it into something bluesier than Bob’s version, and smoother than how Hendrix played it. Pretty much it became a Jeff Jensen song at this point, which is a good thing.

If Jeff Jensen and the band needed to find gigs, The River City Sessions would be the perfect demo and would surely get them plenty of work. But looking over their website, it appears that they are really busy with a European tour, and there are many US dates scheduled after they get home. So, you need to give it a listen for yourself and use what you hear for motivation to get off the sofa and head out to one of their shows. This could be your ticket to the Jeff Jensen experience!

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Squier Bullet Strat HH Electric Guitar Review

Aloha!

It used to be that entry level guitars were miserable and unplayable instruments that were likely to discourage a novice player from practicing. There are still plenty of axes out there like that, but there are also a surprising number of pretty good six-strings that you can buy new for under 200 bucks. The Squier Bullet Strat HH that we are looking at today is in this latter group, and you could sure do a lot worse things with your money.

This Strat was built in Indonesia in 2014, and it is finished in a breathtaking Sparkle Red poly with a nicely contrasting single-ply white pickguard. Obviously it has the traditional Fender shape, and this time the body is carved out of basswood. This is a great tone wood (in my opinion), and it is certainly lightweight and easy to shape. But this wood is also pretty soft, so you have to be careful about dinging it.

There is also the usual Fender-shaped headstock at the end of the maple neck. A nice rosewood fretboard caps this off; it has a 9.5-inch radius with 21 medium jumbo frets sunk into it. The frets are fairly well done and they are level enough. The edges are good enough, with no sharp edges or bevels that are too aggressive. By the way, this is a conventional 25 ½-inch scale guitar, and the nut has the normal 42mm width.

The hardware is fairly standard with a cheap-o tremolo and sealed tuners. Though the machine heads are cheap, they hold well. Then things get a little oddball with the electronics package, as this Strat is a more rock-oriented instrument. Instead of three single coils, it comes with two humbuckers wired through a three-way switch. Seems like a weird combination for a Stratocaster, but it is certainly workable.

Putting all of this together, and you end up with a decent instrument. It certainly looks good, but it also plays well (after a basic set-up) and sounds surprisingly good. It does not sound very much like a Strat as it has a lot more output and fatness, but it is also has a lot less noise than single-coil equipped guitars. It will get the job done, for sure.

As I said earlier, this is an entry level guitar, and it is certainly worth the money. The Squier Bullet Strat HH has a list price of $249 and a street price of $149, but if you look around you can usually find them on sale for around $100. This does not include a case or gig bag, but it is still one of the best deals you will find for a playable starter guitar. Check one out if you get the chance!

Mahalo!

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Blues Blast Magazine Album Review: Marlon McClain – TBC

This CD review was originally published in the December 25, 2014 edition of Blues Blast Magazine. Be sure to check out the rest of the magazine at www.bluesblastmagazine.com

Marlon McClain – TBC

Mac Man Music

9 tracks / 37:06

There are a few folks in the music industry that seem to always be busy and plugged into many diverse projects, and Marlon L. McClain is a shining example of this. After cutting his teeth in Portland, Oregon’s favorite funk band of the 1970s’, Pleasure, he had a stint with the Dazz Band before demand for his writing and producing sent him behind the stage. After many successes with artists as diverse as George Clinton, Tower of Power, George Benson, Kenny G and Joan Baez, he is finally back to making his own music for us to enjoy.

Over the past four decades, McClain has only had time to record three solo discs: Changes in 1981, TBD in 2010, and this year’s release, TBC. Marlon wrote all nine songs on this latest self-produced album, and he also took care of the guitars and keyboards. Al Turner laid down the bass lines, Thomas McElroy played the keyboards, and the drum parts were all handled electronically, with programming by McClain, McElroy, Soulpersona, and Ken Sato. Do not get the impression that this is some sort of 1980s beat box album, though – the drums sound real and are spot on throughout.

The tracks are mostly instrumentals with vocals added here and there as needed to accentuate the action, including the opener, “Me & You.” This is a super-funky tune with jazz influences that shows what a masterful guitarist Marlon is, and his playing is as smooth as silk. Guest artist Curtis Salgado brought his harmonica in for this song, and he does a fabulous job of mimicking McClain’s lines, so that at times it sounds like there are two guitars playing.

After listening to the rest of the tracks, it would be difficult to categorize this record into any one genre, as there is a little bit of everything, but if you dig deep enough there a foundation of funk for all of them. The most divergent song from the blues would be “Positivity,” a bouncy dance track with a disco groove and tightly intertwined guitar/vocal lines. You will also find that “Step into the Light:” is quite danceable, though at a slower and sultrier pace.

Blues-rock is represented in the mix, too, with the harder-hitting “Radiation Blues” which has minimal vocals, round bass, tons of high hat, and smoking guitar from McClain. This is a marked contrast from “That Ain’t Right,” which is more of a loose funky jam session, with a cool give and take between Marlon and Turner’s killer bass lines – it is almost like the whole song was built over a bass solo, which is not something you will find on your average blues album.

There are fairly drastic changes of pace and feel from track to track. For example, “Tokyo Time“ is smooth and jazzy with a laid-back vibe, and then the listener is hit with “GWUWGWUN.” This song has a lot plenty going on, besides a lot of consonants and an unpronounceable title. Marlon’s guitars are up front in this fast-paced tune, but there is also a lot of synthesizer work with simulated flute and trumpet patches, and all of this is playing all over a popping and funky bass line. Both of these instrumentals are catchy and could get stuck in your head for days, which is not a bad thing in this case.

The last song in the set is “You Know,” which is notable for its simple lyrics and complex guitar lines. It is a healthy dose of funky rhythm and blues with more layers of guitar than you can count, and all of them are soaked with distortion and wah pedal galore. After only 37 minutes the album ends, and it definitely leaves the listener wanting more – a few more tracks would have been welcome. We can only hope that Marlon heads back to the studio again soon, as his songs are well written and are a pleasure to listen to.

There is a lot to like about Marlon McClain’s TBC – it has catchy songs that cross genres and hypnotizing grooves that would make it an awesome party soundtrack or even a nice pick-me-up for the morning drive to work to brighten up an otherwise gloomy day. If you like your blues on the jazzier side with a healthy helping of funk, this might be just what you are looking for!

Mahalo!