Monday, June 29, 2015

Blues Blast Magazine Album Review: Chris James & Patrick Rynn – Barrelhouse Stomp


This CD review was originally published in the April 10, 2014 edition of Blues Blast Magazine. Be sure to check out the rest of the magazine at

Chris James and Patrick Rynn – Barrelhouse Stomp | Album Review

Earwig Music

12 tracks / 53:25

It is refreshing to see talented artists that are willing to leave their egos at home and give the limelight to others, which is the case with Chris James and Patrick Rynn’s latest album, Barrelhouse Stomp. This disc is a celebration of that uniquely American hard-driving genre, and it features three fabulous blues pianists that each get a shot at taking the lead role.

This San Diego-based pair have worked together for 24 years, but they have not adapted to their laid-back Southern California surroundings and they continue to crank out righteous Chicago electric blues. James is the vocalist and lead guitarist and Rynn handles the bass chores, just as they have with the Blue Four and all the other bands and artists they have worked with.

Barrelhouse Stomp is the Blues Blast Magazine Award-winning duo’s third effort for Chicago’s Earwig Music label and you will not find a bad track amongst the 12 tunes on this CD. Actually, that is an understatement -- these are all very good songs! They took their time making this album, as it was cut between 2009 and 2011 in Chicago and Arizona, and it includes the work of 11 extra-fine musicians, some of who are unfortunately no longer with us. The featured pianists are Henry Gray, David Maxwell, and the late Aaron Moore; you may remember that Gray and Maxwell also appeared on their previous album, Gonna Boogie Anyway. They also brought in a trio of heavy-hitting tenor sax players: Norbert W. Johnson, Eddie Shaw and Johnny Viau.

This disc kicks off with “Goodbye, Later for You” which was penned by James and Rynn along with their long-time buddy and harmonica player, Rob Stone. This trio also wrote six other originals for this release. This song is straightforward post-war Chicago blues that highlights Stone’s harmonica and David Maxwell’s piano. Stone and James each take a solo break in between the throaty verses, and though he does not get a solo Maxwell’s keys do not get lost in the mix as he fill the spaces in between.

“Just Another Kick in the Teeth” is full of tasty bass work, including a rare solo from Rynn. All three horn players participate in this one giving it an extra-funky vibe and a 1970s feel. James vocals are strong (as they are on the rest of the album), and his phrasing and feel are spot on. He has soul to spare and his years of experience are readily apparent, making him the perfect front man!

The first of two instrumentals, “Messin’ with the White Lightnin’,” is one of the standout tracks on Barrelhouse Stomp. This frenzied piece needed an extra guitarist so they brought in the venerable Jody Williams to help out. The guitar work of both men here is spectacular, as is Patrick Rynn’s hand-crampingly unrelenting bass line. David Maxwell keeps his right hand just as busy on the piano all the way through, not to mention his killer solo break that end up being the best 90 seconds of the album. By the way, Chicagoan Willie Hayes fills in behind the skins and does a first-rate job of keeping the beat going.

“Take it Easy” is a sweet tribute to the late Pinetop Perkins, and David Maxwell is tasked with honoring this legendary pianist. They clear the stage for this driving boogie and put the piano up front, giving Maxwell the chance to prove himself and, (as always) he does not disappoint. The backline is tight and James plays an aggressive rhythm guitar that he uses to set the playful mood.

The cover tunes were well-chosen, and include gems such as Big Bill Broonzy’s 1941 tune, “I Feel So Good,” boogie-woogie legend Little Brother Montgomery’s “Vicksburg Blues” and Elmore James’ classic favorite, “Bobby’s Rock.” Of these, ”I Feel So Good” is the big winner as all the pieces come together splendidly, including Aaron Moore on piano, plenty of gloriously raunchy sax from Johnny Viau, and the late blues virtuoso Willie “Big Eyes” Smith behind the drum kit.

Appropriately, the album comes to a close with one last original tune, “Last Call Woogie” that features Henry Gray on piano plus Viau and Johnson on sax. Eddie Kobek’s tom-heavy drums and creative use of silence lend this song an Afro-Cuban/Latin feel and James’ vocals are out front and edgy as hell. The lyrics are perfectly suited for the last song of the set, plus it is cool to end the album on an upbeat note.

If you are not a fan of Chris James and Patrick Rynn, you will be after just one listen of Barrelhouse Stomp. Their refreshing take on an old genre, their tight groove and high production standards (not to mention their cadre of talented friends) will guarantee that their music will stick in your mind make you want to give it another turn. Check it out if you get a chance!

Sunday, June 28, 2015

2007 ESP Vintage Four Bass Review


Today we are looking at a cool ESP Vintage Four bass guitar. The Vintage series was introduced in 2007, and it was not a very hot seller for the company. This was probably because they were just too expensive, plus they were saddled with an overdone phony relic look. But in today’s used market they are pretty cheap, and the appearance is the only major gripe I have, as it is a great bass.

For starters, this one is a real live ESP bass, that was made by craftsmen in Japan, not an LTD model put together by little kids in some third world country. And every ESP bass (or guitar) I’ve had has been a great player with no cosmetic or functional flaws.

This Vintage 4 is no exception; it is a super smooth-playing bass, and the build quality is first rate. The neck is spot on with perfect fretwork and a great action, even eight years later.

The body is alder, and it has the traditional Precision Bass shape. As I said, it has a relic look, which some genius in the design department decided to cover in clear lacquer. It looks very contrived.

The hardware is very good, with a Gotoh high-mass bridge and vintage-look tuners. ESP carried over the trussrod adjustment at the base of the neck and no cutout in the pickguard to access it. Again, pure genius. The maple neck also gets the relic treatment, but it is still very cozy. I like the ESP inlay at the 12th fret, which hearkens back to the ESP 400 models that inspired this bass.

The electronics are first-rate, as ESP sourced Seymour Duncan P and J pickups. The wiring and joints are very neat, and the cavity is nicely coated. The controls are two volume pots and a master tone control. The Vintage 4’s electronics work well, too, but then again I have always been a sucker for P/J-equipped basses. I find it easy to get any tone from Motown thump to gnarly loud fingerstyle, and everything in between. This bass can do most anything you need from a 4-string bass, if you can get past the way it looks.

This one was well cared for and the relicing has softened a bit with age, so it does not look quite as bad. These basses originally shipped in a black ESP deluxe tolex hardshell case, which was to be expected in this price range, and this one still has it (though it is a bit worse for wear). That initially high price was probably the real deal-killer for these basses when they came out.

Though the dollar is strong now it was very weak in 1989, and ESP needed a lot more dollars to make the same amount of Yen. The list price for the ESP Vintage 4 bass was a nut-shrinking $2499, and I did not see new ones for any less than $1499 online. That was Sadowsky Metro series money at the time, so you can see why ESP had some trouble moving these. There were a lot better values for your money at the price point if you wanted to buy something new then. But now they are the same price as a used Fender Japan P-bass, which makes them a true bargain. If you ever see one, give it a try – trust me!


Chris Squire -- March 4, 1948 to June 28, 2015

Rest in peace, brother.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Blue Lunch – Above the Fold |Album Review

Blue Lunch – Above the Fold |Album Review

Rip Cat Records

15 tracks / 60:42

I am always happy to see a new album from Rip Cat Records, the purveyors of fine blues, swing, and rockabilly who are based in my hometown of Long Beach, California. They only represent solid artists and put out great music, and it is no surprise that their latest release from Blue Lunch, Above the Fold, is no exception!

Now, these guys are not from the Southland but come straight out of Cleveland, a truly rocking city. This band has been kicking around in various forms since I was in college (30 years ago) and Above the Fold is their eighth release. The gang includes Peter London on vocals and harmonica (the only original member), Bob Frank on vocals and guitars, Mike Sands on piano, Ray Deforest on bass, and Scott Flowers on drums. Completing the octet is also a killer horn section of Chris Burge on sax, Mike Rubin on trumpet, and Bob Michael on trombone.

This album is chock full of originals written by Burge, Frank, and London, along with a couple of other tunes that may be familiar to you, making for an hour-long set. Though they are often referred to as a jump blues band, these fifteen songs draw from many genres so the show never gets into a rut. And it really is a show, as most of the material was laid down live in the studio (with the usual vocal overdubs), which results in a vibrant sound throughout.

Above the Fold kicks off with “Ain’t Trying to Kill Nobody,” and it is apparent that this will be a fun album! The clever lyrics, slick guitars, and smoking sax ensure that the listener is drawn in right away. From there they continue their tour through different styles, with a bit of jazz in “One Fine Day,” a righteous boogie with “The Long Game,” and some Rip Cat swing on “Everybody’s on the Phone.” They also touch on blues, Afro-Cuban rhythms, pop, gospel, rhythm and blues, big band, and jump blues. There is a little something for everybody here, and they even threw in a few instrumentals!

The standout track of this effort is “Where Do You Think It’s Going,” which checks all of the boxes. It has a glorious gospel/soul/rock feel with strong lyrics, perfectly arranged horns, a smoking harp solo, a roaring bass line, and killer guest vocals from Evelyn Wright and Hammond organ from Tim Longfellow. This song comes in under three minutes, and I wish it were a bit longer!

There are also a couple of lost hits of the 1950s included on the album: Andre Williams’ “Tossin’ & Turnin’ & Burnin’ All Up Inside” and Dave Bartholomew’s “Love No More,” both of which play to the strengths of the horn section. And finally, the set draws to a close with a traditional a capella gospel tune, "Good News," which was the perfect way to finish this project.

One last thing: the liner notes are really neat. The band had their friend (and distant relative), Harlan Ellison, write a few words and it is great to see two artists that I enjoy get together when I least expected it. By the way, his quote of a quote is spot on in so many ways: “To define is to kill. Too suggest is to create.”

Above the Fold is a really cool album full of songs that are all a little different, and the guys from Blue Lunch really delivered the goods. Don’t try to put them in a box, just buy the CD and enjoy their music, or better yet check out one of the 120 shows they perform every year. Trust me!

Friday, June 26, 2015

Blues Blast Magazine: Pete Cornelius – Groundswell | Album Review

This CD review was originally published in the March 20, 2014 edition of Blues Blast Magazine. Be sure to check out the rest of the magazine at

Pete Cornelius – Groundswell | Album Review

Self Release

11 tracks / 54:37

Pete Cornelius has squeezed a lot of musical experience into the past 20 years, since he took up the guitar at the age of nine. This Tasmanian bluesman released his first album when he was 13, and by the time he was 15 he had his own band, Peter Cornelius and the DeVilles. Working with this band, his other band (King Cake), and countless side projects, he must spend all of his time in the studio and on stage!

For his latest album, Groundswell, Pete put together a new team of musicians and recorded most of the tracks live at his friend’s vacation house in Elephant Pass. Besides providing the guitars and vocals, Cornelius produced, recorded and mixed this CD. He is joined by the backline of Simon Holmes on bass and Henry Nichols behind the drum kit; other contributors include Randal Muir on the Hammond organ, Kelly Otaway on piano, and Susannah Coleman-Brown on backing vocals. Paul Williamson, Jeremy Williamson, Donald Bate and Lila Meleisa added their horns to the basic mix, giving this project a huge sound where it needed it the most.

Groundswell starts strongly with an original track, “Drinking the Blues” which is not the expected paean to overindulgence of adult beverages. Though Cornelius is a guitar slinger of the highest order, he does not show off, and instead submits tasteful backing guitar and well-placed clean leads. The horns are well-arranged, and with the piano added in this spooky-sounding R&B number achieves a hearty blues revue mood. This and the other five originals were all written by Pete – he is a busy guy.

The five covers that Pete selected for this disc are diverse, and when there are combined with his original songs no two tracks sound the same. This project is a refreshing blend of blues, country, funk and rock that confirms his separation from the current crop of uber-talented Stevie Ray Vaughn disciples. For example, Reverend Al Green’s “Love and Happiness” showcases Cornelius’ well-practiced vocals. His voice is strong and he sings with no trace of an accent (in case you were wondering). He doubles the organ with a few of his guitar licks, and cuts loose with a solo the likes of which you will only hear at the finest of blues jams. He follows this up with Otis Rush’s “Right Place, Wrong Time” which proves that his vocals are up to the task of taking on the most soulful of tasks.

It was surprising to hear Tom Waits’ “Cold Water” on this playlist, but it fits in well with the amalgam of genres that are to be found here. There is a hard-rocking gospel feel that plays well off of Waits’ brilliant imagery of a man of the road who has a hard life but still gets by. This is the roughest-sounding track on the album, but this jaggedness lends a gloriously live feel and it turns out perfectly.

The most impressive re-do on Groundswell is Cornelius’ searing, eight-minute take on Ray LaMontagne’s “Repo Man.” A hefty dose of funk is injected into this song by Holmes’ bass and Muir’s Hammond while Cornelius finally lets his guitar take center stage as he plays a killer solo that is equal parts Hendrix, Clapton and Stevie Ray, with a few of his own twists mixed in.

As good as these covers are, Pete displays great maturity in his own songwriting. These songs run the gamut from a sweet ballad for his young daughter (“Goodnight my Love”) to the Creole horns of “Talkin’ Bout New Orleans.” The standout track amongst his original work is “Strong Suit,” a roots tune with genuine lyrics, beautifully fingerpicked guitar, and heartfelt vocal harmonies. He chose to end the album with this song, which was a wise decision.

Pete Cornelius has done more in the past two decades than most musicians accomplish in their lifetime, and Groundswell reflects his dedication to the blues and its related music forms. It is a top-notch album with both quality original material and a unique sound, and it is worth your time to give it a listen. We can only hope that he adds a tour of the states to his busy schedule, because it would be great to see these song performed in person!


1980 Yamaha BB800 Electric Bass Review


Sometimes basses just pop up when you least expect them too, and you have to act quick or miss out on the deal and wonder how you let it slip through your fingers. The 1980 Yamaha BB800 we are looking at today is one of these deals, and it was certainly worth the money.

My son and I frequent the monthly local antique flea market, and it is pretty hit-and-miss as far as what sort of musical instruments you will find there. I have gotten lucky there before, having found some cool effect pedals and a sweet vintage Acoustic 260 amp for short money. But, mostly there are souvenir ukuleles, beat-to-death classical guitars with stickers all over them, and one or two sellers that have a Martin or Fender that is so expensive that it must have been played by Eric Clapton at some point.

So, this BB800 stopped me in my tracks when I saw it laying on the ground in its original Yamaha hard case. I knew from past experience that these are generally very good instruments, and this one checked all of the boxes for me. I picked it up to look it over and it was not super-heavy, and the condition was quite remarkable: no stickers, scratches, dings, or fret wear – amazing for a 35-year old bass. But even more cool was that it was completely original with none of the expected modifications that were performed back then. So, there is no brass nut, no Badass bridge, no goofy tuners, and no Dimarzio pickup. It even had a brand new set of flats on it.

I asked the seller what he wanted for it, and right off he quoted a price that was around half of what it was worth. I must have been stunned into stupidity, because I mutter thanks and wandered off to check out the rest of the swap meet. About a half hour later we were ready to leave, and I had to see if the bass was still there, and sure enough it was so I paid up and we made a quick getaway before he changed his mind. Of course, I ran into a killer Teisco on the way out (also for a good price), but my funds were gone. Figures.

The BB (Broad Bass) instruments were produced by Yamaha in Japan by Yamaha, and there were a bunch of different models (BB200, BB300, BB500, BB800, BB1000, BB1200, and BB2000). The higher the numbers, the more expensive they were, as the number indicates the price in Yen. So, a BB800 was originally 80,000 Yen, or around $327 at the time (at 244 Yen to the dollar).

The BB800 basses were built only from 1978 to 1981, and they are an unabashed knock-off of the Precision Bass knock-off, with just enough things changed to keep Yamaha from getting sued by Fender. This means you can expect a double-cutaway alder body with a bolt on maple neck and alder fretboard. There are 21 frets on that neck, and it is capped off with large-base open-gear Gotoh tuners with cast heads. There is a super-meaty bridge at the other end, and it is a cool piece with flowers engraved in it and two extra screws at the bottom corners to keep it from lifting from the body (a problem with the initial production run).

There are a few differences from their Fender brethren, aside from that cool bridge and the Gotoh tuners. There is a uniquely shaped 3-ply BWB pickguard (kind of ugly, actually), a cool truss rod cover at the heel of the neck, and volume/tone speed knobs with pointers. And then there is the way they reversed the coils on the pickup so that the one for the higher strings is closer to the neck and the portion for the lower strings is closer to the bridge. I have always thought this was the proper way for these to be set-up as it gives more balanced tone across all strings, but apparently Leo Fender did not think that was the best way to do it.

Thanks to its nearly time-capsule condition, all these years later we can still have an appreciation for what a great job the craftsmen in Japan did of putting this thing together. The black poly finish is even, the neck pocket is tight, and the frets are still level and pretty. This is particularly significant because 1980 was right around when Fender’s quality hit absolute rock bottom, so this was a powerful challenge to their authority.

If you strap this bass on and plug it in, you will find that it is pretty much a really good Precision Bass. It has the feel and the sound down, so this Yamaha would be perfect for blues or rock. It has a P-width nut and a nice beefy neck, which fits in with the slightly hefty weight of this thing: 10 pounds, 10 ounces.

This Yamaha BB800 bass does not really fit in with my collection or with the paucity of playing time that I am getting nowadays, so I will probably be flipping it soon. Hit me up if you are interested, I am sure we can make a deal…


Tuesday, June 16, 2015

ESP Standard Series Phoenix II B Electric Bass Review

Hi there!

Today we are looking at the ESP Standard Series Phoenix II B bass guitar, which is their take on the Gibson Thunderbird. There were sold from 2009 through 2012 with little success in the US market, though their cheaper LTD version seems to still be doing pretty well. I recently had the chance to pick up a few of these for short money, and cold not resist, as they are really wonderful instruments. Let’s see what we have here!

For starters, this is a real live ESP bass, not an LTD model that was made by craftsmen in Japan, not by little kids in some third world country. And every ESP bass (or guitar) I’ve had has been a great player with no cosmetic or functional flaws.

And the Phoenix is no exception: this is a super smooth-playing neck-through bass, and the build quality is first rate. The neck is spot on, with perfect fretwork, and a great action is attainable with a minimum of fussing around. The black finish (2-tone burst was also available) is deep and gorgeous, though the white pick-guard is a bit too much of a visual contrast for me.

The body is mahogany, and with a modified reverse Thunderbird shape. As I said it is neck-through, and the 34-inch scale maple neck has a bound ebony fretboard. The neck has a thin-U profile with 21 extra-jumbo frets and a 40mm (1 9/16-inch) bone nut. I like the inlays, especially the ESP inlay at the 12th fret, which hearkens back to the ESP 400 models that really made a name for the company.

The hardware is excellent, with a custom high-mass bridge and large-base cloverleaf tuners. Like I said, the white pickguard does not do much for me, but it is a quality multi-ply piece.

The electronics are first-rate, as ESP sourced a pair of EMG 35DC ceramic magnet pickups that are powered by a single 9-volt battery that is hidden by the coolest battery box design that I have ever seen. The wiring and joints are very neat, and the cavity is nicely coated. The controls are two volume pots and a master tone control.

The bass plays wonderfully and sound amazing, and can everything from jazz to blues to rock to metal which only minor adjustments of the knobs and your playing style. It balances much better on a strap than any Gibson I have ever played, which might be due to the 11 pounds of fine hardwoods they crammed into this package.

These basses shipped in a black ESP deluxe tolex hardshell case, which is to be expected at this price point. And that price is probably what killed this bass in our market. As you may know, the dollar was really weak around the time these were being built, and ESP needed a lot more dollars to make the same amount of Yen. The list price for the ESP Phoenix II bass was a nut-shrinking $2750, with a street price of $1900. That was Sadowsky Metro series money, so you can see why ESP had a lot of trouble moving these.

Anyway, they are great basses that are as rare as hen’s teeth, so if you see one make sure you get a chance to try it out. You might just like what you hear!