Friday, February 26, 2016

Shure BLX24/SM58 Wireless Microphone System Review


There comes a time for many bands or DJs when they decide that their set-up would be better off without wires and they are willing to pony up for a wireless system. Unfortunately, often times they start out with entry-level equipment that just does not get the mail delivered. Surely you have run into this before, or seen it in This is Spinal Tap: radio interference, cutting out, and intermittent bursts of shrieking and static.

That is why I spent a little extra time researching and trying different systems before I ended up getting the Shure BLX24/SM58 wireless handheld microphone system. This system includes a BLX4 receiver, a BLX2/SM58 microphone, and a transmitter. This is delivered in a nice cordura case that looks like it should have a gun in it.

The BLX4 receiver is a nice looking unit, with an LED channel indicator display on the front, and ¼-inch and XLR connector output terminals on the back. This assembly is capable of receiving signals from 90 selectable frequencies across 24MHz bandwidth which provides plenty of opportunities to find some clear radio waves to use.

The BLX2/SM58 is bigger than a conventional SM58 microphone, and this is no surprise as the batteries and the transmitter have to go somewhere. It has a mute switch as well as a multi-function LED that lets the user know if the mute is ON, the power is ON, the power is low, or if the mute is locked out. The lock out feature is handy if you want to keep the user from accidentally turning off the microphone. Just press and hold the switch for 10 seconds while the power is on and it will lock the switch out.

System set-up is easy: I just plugged in in, connected a cable from the XLR output to my mixer (just like a regular microphone) and turned it on. I installed two AA batteries in the transmitter (they are supposed to last up to 14hours) and turned it ON. Before putting the battery cover back on I synced the transmitter to the receiver and that was it. The automatic transmitter set-up and automatic frequency selection paired the system lickety-split and it was ready to use with no hassles.

The sound performance of the BLX2/SM58 wireless microphone is identical to my conventional wired SM58 microphones. I have not had any wireless problems, such as static or cutting out, and there has not really been any downside to using this system.

Of course I install new batteries before each use, so I have not had any problems with battery failure. I find that Shure’s claim of 14 hours of battery is credible, though I have never had need to use them for more than 10 hours at a time.

I would have a hard time with letting some drunken karaoke performer loose with one of these, though as they do not come cheaply. The list price for a complete Shure BLX24/SM58 system is $436, and the street price is $350. So, you might be tempted to shop around and buy a dirt-cheap one from a shady seller, but be very careful when buying Shure wireless systems online or from Craigslist ads, as they are now being counterfeited like there is no tomorrow. I have seen a few of these systems being offered on eBay from foreign sellers for half the price without OEM packaging. Caveat emptor, amigos…


Thursday, February 25, 2016

Brothers Brown – Dusty Road | Album Review (Release Date: March 28)

Brothers Brown – Dusty Road

335 Records

12 tracks / 46:49

When people talk about musical supergroups, it often conjures images of shredding guitar heroes and metal band members who are trying to figure out what to do with their lives now that the 1980s are over. This is not what we got with the Brothers Brown, a group of four supremely talented musicians who got together and recorded Dusty Road, an album of very tight and original American music.

It is better to get to the confusing part right away – the band is led by two guys names Paul Brown. The first Paul Brown is a Grammy winning Los Angeles-based producer, guitarist, singer, and songwriter. And Brother Paul Brown is a Grammy nominated Nashville-based producer, keyboardist, and songwriter. The backline is also from Nashville, and they are David Santos on bass (Billy Joel, Elton John, etc.) and Pete Young behind the drum kit (Loretta Lynn, Burrito Brother, and more). All four members get production and writing credit for the dozen tracks on their debut album, Dusty Road, which is scheduled for release on March 28, 2016.

Brothers Brown’s Facebook page says this is a blues band, but when they kick off their set with “Cup of Tea,” you will hear that it is not possible to shoehorn their sound into a single genre. With trick rhythms on the drums, classic organs sounds, jazzy piano, countrified lead vocals, and R&B backing vocals, there is a lot going on here. But there are a few things that are easy to define: these guys can write a slick song, and they are really good musicians. Things do not let up from here, as every other song on this disc as just as good.

There seems to be an equal partnership in this group. The Browns get frontman duty (of course) but we also get to hear how well Santos sings on the country-rocker, “The River,” and Young gets his turn behind the mic on the bluesy ballad, “Drink You off My Mind.” When trying to find a group to compare these guys to, I am at a little bit of a loss, but am going to go with Steely Dan. Why? Not because they sound like them, but because there is a bit of jazz in their sound, their lyrics are clever and cover a wide range of subjects, and they seem to have tried really hard to achieve perfection.

After hearing how tight the band is and how well this album is put together, it is hard to believe that each member recorded their own parts in their own studios, and shared their files for the final product. These guys sound like they have been playing together for years, which is a testimony to their talent and professionalism.

So, the Brothers Brown’s Dusty Road is a very good album, but where does the band go from here? As with many other supergroups, these guys already have active careers, and I have not heard of plans for shows or a tour. So, check out the album when it comes out on March 28, and like their Facebook page so you can keep up with what is going on with the band. Let’s hope they keep this gig going for a bit longer!

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

2011 MusicMan Stingray 4H Bass Review


I have long been a big fan of the MusicMan Stingray bass and it seems like I always have one around the house because I think they are the best bolt-neck production basses on the market. So, this seems like a good opportunity to look over the 2011 Stingray that I recently picked up.

The Stingray bass was designed by Leo Fender and Tom Walker, and it was introduced in 1976. It was originally available only as a 4-string with a single humbucker pickup, a two band equalizer, and active electronics. This was one of the earliest productions basses with an active pre-amplifier, if not the first. This gave it more output and a more aggressive sound than the competition.

Ever since Ernie Ball Strings bought the MusicMan brand in the 1980s, there has been a constant improvement in features and options available for the Stingray, including: contoured bodies, improved neck joints, better truss rod ergonomics, and more than enough electronics and pickup configurations. But I am a simple man, and I still prefer a plain-old Stingray with a single humbucker pickup and the 2-band or 3-band (like this one) equalizer. And that is why this bass appeals to me so much - because it is pretty close to the way it was originally intended to be.

As I said before, this Stingray was built in 2011, and it is finished in a glossy black, like a lot of these are. This one has a contoured hardwood body with a six-bolt neck joint (for extra special sturdiness and sustain). It has has had a gentle life, so it is still in terrific shape.

The neck is a peach. It is true, and the truss rod works freely (you have to love the easy to adjust trussrod wheel). It has a nice-looking rosewood fretboard, and the 21 high-profile frets are still in good shape. The back of the neck is finished in gunstock oil and wax, which always feels as smooth as silk, though it does show dirt more. This one has a compensated nut, which I am unable to hear any intonation difference from, but someone with a good ear might…

The original hardware is all there, which includes the Schaller BM tapered post tuners and the high-mass bridge. I love the way the bridge bolts so solidly to the body on these basses. It is not a Classic model, so it does not have the string mutes, but I am not sure how many people actually use those things anyway.

The electronics are also unmolested, with the original single humbucker pickup and 3-band preamp. Stingrays have punch to spare, making them fabulous funk or rock basses. This is a well-made bass. The finish is perfect and the frets are simply gorgeous. I strung it up with some new regular gauge Slinkies, dropped the action a little, and It plays well and sounds magnificent, just like every other Stingray I have ever owned. As a bonus, it is relatively light (for a Stingray, that is), coming it at a little under 9 1/2 pounds. All bass players should own one of these at least once in their career.


Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Review of West Side Story from Musical Theatre West


I have been a season subscriber to Musical Theatre West for a few years, and have almost always been pleased with their offerings. So, I was thrilled when I saw that the classic West Side Story was on the schedule for the 2015-2016 season. I saw it this past weekend and it was pretty good!

Musical Theatre West has been around since 1952, when it started out as the Whittier Civic Light Opera. Their productions evolved over time, and they went from being an all-volunteer operation to producing full seasons, currently under the capable leadership and vision of Executive Director/produce Paul Garman. Their big shows are hosted by the Carpenter Performing Arts Center at Cal State Long Beach, which is a lovely venue with plenty of conveniently located parking. And only two bathrooms...

West Side Story is one of the heavy hitters in the musical world, and the original 1957 Broadway show was inspired by William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The original show was nominated for six Tony Awards and spawned the incredible successful 1961 movie of the same name (which won ten Academy Awards) starring Natalie Wood, Rita Moreno, Richard Beymer, and Russ Tamblyn (the latter two of Twin Peaks fame). This musical was so popular due to the music of Leonard Bernstein and lyrics from Stephen Sondheim, not to mention the groundbreaking choreography by Jerome Robbins.

In case you have been hidden under a rock for the past 60 years, the plot is nearly a direct lift from Romeo and Juliet, with a cast of anxious punk kids, hot women, harried cops, and an old fat guy. There are themes of love, racial tension, and death, and they all come together in a wonderful fashion. The musical was a head of its time, and the racial themes must have been controversial at the time, though they are no less pertinent today.

West Side Story has such a long history that nearly everybody is familiar with it, so effectively producing it is no small chore. Musical Theatre West rose to the challenge, and put all of the pieces together in a convincing manner thanks to the decision to use the Robbins’ original choreography. I have a few problems with the lyrics and the story in general (Maria sure jumps in the sack with Tony pretty quick after he kills her brother), but that is the way it was written…

Visually, the sets were good, with cool central piece that served as the drug store, front stoop, and Maria’s house, and Jean Yves Tessier’s lighting was fantastic. The costumes were mostly period correct and the women’s hair looked great, but the guys’ hair did not even come close. Need to break out the Brylcreem, fellas.

The sound was very good. There was a 30-piece orchestra (very big for a MTW production) under the supervision of musical director David Lamoureaux. Unfortunately the musicians were uncredited in the program, and I have no idea if they were union or not. The sound engineering was pretty good, thought the vocals were sometimes drowned out by the orchestra.

So, the basic foundation was solid, and its success depends on the cast, and the performers (mostly non-equity) mostly delivered solid performances. Ashley Marie earned the role of Maria, her voice was beautiful, and she had good timing and could dance very well. Her love interest, Tony, was played by Michael Spaziani who is a wonderful dancer and looks good with his shirt off, but had a little too much trouble staying in tune when singing.

The other main characters, Riff and Bernardo, were portrayed by Tyler Matthew Burk and Cooper Howell. They both did well, and honestly I think either one of them would have done a better job than Spaziani did with the role of Tony. Lauren Boyd stole the show as Anita, as her acting, singing, and dancing skills gave her marvelous stage presence.

The ensemble turned in a solid performance, and they were very good dancers, and they made good use of Robbin’s choreography. Though I have seen this show a few times, I had not noticed before what an important role they play, as they do quite a bit of singing and dancing.

All of this came together well for solid (though not brilliant), performance. Musical Theatre West did well and West Side Story is a classic show with fine production values and a good cast. If you have the chance you should get out and see it before it is gone, but leave the little kids at home with a sitter. This is a long show and they will be squirming in their seats a long time before the final curtain falls (it clocks in at 2 ½ hours), not to mention a few decidedly mature scenes that you will have to awkwardly explain to them on the drive home.

If you want to see it at The Carpenter Center you had better hurry as West Side Story is closing on February. There are not many tickets left (this has been MTW’s all-time best seller), so grab them while you can. And, be sure to check out tickets for the last two shows of this season: Sister Act and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Also, now is the time to start thinking about next year’s season, which will include Memphis, Evita, Carousel, and Mary Poppins. You can’t beat the value!


Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Blues Blast Magazine Album Review: John Frick Band – Urban Crossroads

Good day!

This CD review was originally published in the October 16, 2014 edition of Blues Blast Magazine. Be sure to check out the rest of the magazine at

John Frick Band – Urban Crossroads

Blueshine Records

12 tracks / 37:16

The Hague often conjures up memories of murky high school civics lessons about international politics and possibly fond remembrances of the awesome Dutch band Golden Earring. But there is a lot more to this beautiful city in the Netherlands: it is still a major player in international affairs and it has a rich cultural history that goes back nearly 800 years. Also, it is home to a red-hot blues quintet, the John Frick Band!

The John Frick Band is relatively new on the scene, having formed in 2011 as an evolution of John Frick and the Blues Hombres. John Frick is originally from Cape Town, South Africa, but he has traveled all around Europe putting together his distinctive blues chops. He handles the vocals and guitar work for this project, and is joined by Michel de Man on drums, Leo Birza on keyboards and backing vocals, and Tom Moerenhout on horns. Rob Nagel provided the bass parts remotely from his home in South Africa, which is definitely a benefit of living in such a connected society.

Urban Crossroads is the John Frick Band’s sophomore effort, and it is a solid piece of work consisting of 12 tracks, all of them written by John. Frick and Peter Strujik produced this release, and Strujik did a wonderful job of mixing and mastering this material so that everything is clear and nothing is lost in the mix. When the first track starts there is no doubt where this album is going, as “Blinded” is a mid-tempo straight-up blues tune. There is everything you would expect: a 12-bar blues pattern, Hammond organ, thumping bass, tight lead guitar fills and a story of broken love and deception. Rob Nagel also brings his harp to this track, and his parts are tasteful and well integrated.

In fact, there is little in the music to suggest that these guys are not from Chicago or Memphis. Frick’s smooth voice has an almost Midwest accent, and the lyrics do not have the awkward phrases or misplaced words that are fairly common with discs from overseas. This crew has figured out the blues and can serve it up just as well as anyone from either side of the Atlantic.

The John Frick Band switches things up throughout while staying under the blues and rock umbrella. “Get a Load” is a country-rocker that makes good use of Moerenhout’s saxes and Birza’s backing vocals, while “Say What You Want” throws out some high-paced jump blues. “On the Radio” strays dangerously close to smooth jazz with its electric piano and subdued drums, but then the pace kicks back up again on the next track with the funky blues rock of “Recession Blues,” which tells the familiar story of how hard it is to make ends meet these days. There is a little something for everyone on this disc!

“Same Way Too” is the standout track from the album. This slow-paced blues song builds dramatically, almost like an early Led Zeppelin ballad. It is quite beautiful, with heavy organ parts from Birza and restrained guitar work from Frick combining to set the mood. Morenhout’s saxophones (and the more hopeful lyrics) put together a pretty love story that diverges from the classic Plant/Page writing template.

“Gotta be Worth It” closes out the set, and it is a neat uptempo piece with Jerry Lee Lewis-like piano accompanied with biting guitar riffs from Frick. Coming in at a mere 1-½ minutes, this song leaves the listener wanting more, which is a common theme with this album -- if there is one thing to want from this Urban Crossroads, it would be more music. More than half of the tracks come in under three minutes, so this is not a terribly long release (around 37 minutes). It is better that they did not fluff up the record with substandard material, but another 15 minutes would have been fantastic. As it is, it is still a good buy and it would be a good addition to any blues fan’s library.

The John Frick band has headed back to the studio to cut a new album that will be released in 2015, and if they can keep this momentum going, it will certainly be worth checking out too.


Monday, February 15, 2016

BOSS Waza Craft Line of Products


In 2014 Roland’s BOSS brand introduced the Waza Craft line of products, which included refined versions of three of their more popular pedals: the SD-1W Super Overdrive, BD-2W Blues Driver, and DM-2W Delay. “Waza” is a Japanese term for art and technique, and these special edition pedals use analog components used Kaizen (the philosophy of continuous improvement) on the circuitry to deliver their classic sound signatures plus switchable modes for customized tones. I love each of these pedals, and Waza gives everything I expect from them and more.

The Waza Craft SD-1W Super Overdrive and BD-2W Blues Driver pedals can attain the tones of the originals, but also feature switchable Standard and Custom sound modes. But the most magical of the three is the DM-2W Delay. BOSS stopped production of this pedal in 1084, and it developed a cult following who loved the organic bucket brigade” analog delay tone. Its standard mode achieves the lush sound and 20-300 ms delay range of the first generation DM-2, and the custom mode instantly changes the sound to a cleaner analog and doubles the delay time. A win-win situation, if I have ever heard of one.

Of course, all of this neat stuff comes at a price, and these pedals are a bit more dear than what you would expect from the BOSS line. The SD-1W Super Overdrive and BD-2W Blues Driver each have a list price of $207.20 (street $149), and the DM-2W Delay has a list price of $248.80 (street $149). If you can only get one, go for the delay pedal. Trust me.

Well, BOSS went one further this year, and at the Winter NAMM show they debuted the Waza Craft guitar amplifier head. I have not had the opportunity to try this one out yet, but am looking forward to it (they are still in the pre-order phase). This solid state 150-watt amp appears to be versatile, with 1-watt, 50-watt, and 100-watt settings. There are four foot-switchable channels, and a 3-positin character switch, and it is touted as having the “ultimate brown sound.” It had better be perfect, with a list price of $3499 and a street price of $2499. It is hard to imagine any non-tube amp that comes in at this price point, so it had better be perfect.

I am excited by the Waza Craft line of products from BOSS, and though they are not breaking new ground, how much new stuff is left to develop in the guitar effect world? They have refined classic products and given working musicians tools that will help them do their jobs better. Check them out for yourself and see what you think.


Saturday, February 13, 2016

Blues Blast Magazine Album Review: Slim Bawb and the Fabulous Stumpgrinders – Gristle and Guts


This CD review was originally published in the October 9, 2014 edition of Blues Blast Magazine. Be sure to check out the rest of the magazine at

Slim Bawb and the Fabulous Stumpgrinders – Gristle and Guts

Self release through Swampgrass Records

11 tracks / 46:30

When thinking of Sacramento, California, high-test swamp music might not be the first thing that comes to mind, but this is where Slim Bawb cut his teeth with the Beer Dawgs, playing five nights a week for 20 years. Their take on swamp rock and blues was a powerful force, enough to gain them entry into the Sacramento Area Music Hall of Fame. But all things change over time, and Slim Bawb (also known as Bob Pearce) moved to Austin, Texas eight years ago, where he founded Swamp Studios and his latest band, Slim Bawb and the Fabulous Stumpgrinders.

Slim Bawb has released six albums, the latest of which is Gristle and Guts. The new Fabulous Stumpgrinders line-up for this CD includes Jay Warren on drums and “Lil” Howard Yeargan on accordion, keyboards, and harmonica. Pearce takes care of the vocals, guitar, banjo, mandolin, mandola, and the boot bass. The latter is a custom foot-operated bass pedal assembly that Slim Bawb uses to bang out the low end. It might seem weird on paper but it works very well in the real world (and on this disc).

Gristle and Guts includes 11 original tracks, all of them penned by Pearce and Yeargan. This is not unusual, as Slim Bawb has been playing his own music professionally for the last 35 years, which is an impressive feat in this era of used-up cover tunes. And when the first track “Job Job” starts, it is hard to believe that Pearce is a California native, as this song is straight-up Cajun country. Piano and accordion are used to set the mood over some heavy-sounding slide guitar work. Bawb’s voice has a pleasant whiskey rasp, and the lyrics are clever and use good rhyming techniques. By the way, the song is not referring to the Biblical figure, but rather to the idea that “She wants me to get a Job Job.”

One of the standout tracks is “Down to the River,” a gospel-tinged Cajun tune with some super sweet vocal harmonizing by Pearce and Yeargan. This is a fun song with good interplay between the squeezebox and the resonator guitar, with a kicking snare drum driving the way. Bawb also throws in a well-placed mandolin solo, which lends a little folk feel to the proceedings. This is backed up by “Bottle is Home,” a swamp blues track that provides a grim contrast to the hopeful feel set by the previous song. What album would be complete without a song about the misery of the hard-drinking life?

But the Fabulous Stumpgrinders do not limit themselves to bayou music, as they serve up some hearty funk with “Last Call for this Fool,” which features hard-core syncopated electric guitar from Pearce and terrific harp work from Yeargan. They also put together a beautiful ballad, “Redneck Riviera” which may be the best track on the album with its gorgeous melody and laid-back vibe that paints a vivid mental picture. This band is not a one-trick pony by any stretch of the imagination.

The title track, “Gristle and Guts” was written to honor Slim Bawb’s grandson Jon, who was hit by a drunk driver when he was 15. This swamp blues song tells the story of that night in chilling detail, accompanied for the first half by a somber guitar ostinato and a simple kick drum to hold the beat. After this, synthesizers are used to add to the mood and then all hell breaks loose to end the tune on a positive note. By all accounts it was a terrible accident, but fortunately Jon is recovering and getting stronger every day.

Though the spooky accordion-fest “Bayou Shine” is listed as the final song on Gristle and Guts, there is a hidden reprise of “Job Job” for track 11, and it is a jangly 60-hertz snippet with glorious feedback and hiss. It is not exactly something people would buy all by itself, but it is a fun closer and gives and idea of what a neat spirit Slim Bawb has.

Throughout Gristle and Guts, Slim Bawb and the Fabulous Stumpgrinders keep coming up with new musical approaches for each song so that the album never gets dull and it remains consistently entertaining. These guys have made their own niche of Louisiana-style rock and blues, and it works well for them. They are gigging regularly, and their shows are well-reviewed by critics and well-received by their fans, so check out their website for their schedule if you are anywhere near Austin. Also, if you are in the Sacramento Area, Slim Bawb comes back each year for a Beer Dawgs reunion show, so keep your ear to the ground or you might miss it!


Wednesday, February 10, 2016

ESP Standard Series Phoenix II B Electric Bass Review


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.

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 2-tone burst finish (black 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 10.5 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!


Monday, February 8, 2016

Blues Blast Magazine Album Review: Steve Freund and Gloria Hardiman – Set Me Free


This CD review was originally published in the September 4, 2014 edition of Blues Blast Magazine. Be sure to check out the rest of the magazine at

Steve Freund and Gloria Hardiman – Set Me Free

Delmark Records

14 tracks / 53:31

Delmark Records has done blues fans a few favors this year as they re-released classic blues records that have previously been unavailable in the digital world. First there was Queen Sylvia and John Embry’s Troubles, and now we get Steve Freund and Gloria Hardiman’s Set Me Free, both of which were originally published by Chicago’s Razor Records. This 1983 Freund/Hardiman album has been hidden for too long, and it is quite a collector’s item.

Steve Freund is a legendary Bay Area bluesman, guitarist, and producer, but he was based out of Chicago when he cut Set Me Free, his first album. It was also Hardiman’s vocal debut as she jumped into the music scene after the birth of her twins, and her chemistry with Steve was magical. They were backed by a killer team from the Windy City that was made up of Ken Saydak on piano and organ, the legendary Sunnyland Slim on piano, Sam Burckhardt on sax, Bob Stroger and Harlan Terson on bass, and Eddie Turner on the skins. Those truly were the good old days!

Right from the first track, “You Got Me (Where You Want Me),” it is apparent that Freund had left his Brooklyn upbringing behind, as only a Chicagoan can make this kind of blues. His guitar work is razor sharp and his timing is impeccable, things that would make him welcome in any blues band. The other eye-opener is how unbelievable it is that this is Hardiman’s first album because her voice is powerful and sassy, with a confidence that is contagious.

Sunnyland Slim makes his first appearance on Jimmy Rogers’ slow-rolling “That’s All Right.” Freund was Slim’s guitarist back then, and this is fortunate as his presence on this disc is a real treat. It is neat to hear this song sung from a woman’s perspective, and Gloria nails it. Also, Freund’s guitar is played with perfect phrasing and feel over the rock solid backline of Stroger on bass and Fred Grady on the drums. These guys also pitch in on the Slim’s other songs: the original instrumental “Jammin’ with Sam” and Guitar Slim’s “The Things I Used to Do.” Surprisingly, this last song is the only time that Freund takes the vocals on this album, and he does Guitar Slim proud with his wailing tenor.

Hardiman gets to shine on nine of the tracks, though, and her most notable contribution is on King Curtis’ “Let Me Down Easy.” Gloria had a strong gospel background before she hooked up with Steve, and she brought this with a heart dose of soul as Ken Saydak rolled out a gospel-inspired piano accompaniment. A close second is her respectful take on Aretha Franklin’s “Dr. Feelgood,” which will give you goosebumps.

Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson’s “Kidney Stew Blues” is the final song from the original release, and this instrumental is one of the standout tracks of the album. Harlan Terson holds down a solid bass line on this one as Saydak and Freund trade leads with Sam Burckhardt’s sublime tenor saxophone. This is some of the finest instrumental blues that you will come across.

The original album had ten tracks, but the CD re-issue lists four bonus songs that include the previously unreleased “Homework” and “Kiddio” and two songs from a Ken Saydak 45 record (remember those?), “Shoppin’ and Snackin’” and “Swanee River Boogie.”

It must have been a hard choice to leave the first two songs off the original cut of Set Me Free, but perhaps their 1960s sound just did not fit in when all was said and done. Gary Heller and Freund get a few good guitar licks in on Otis Rush’s “Homework,” but Hardiman takes the lead with a firm hand and gorgeous supporting vocals from Diane Homes and Gail Washington. And Brook Benton’s “Kiddio” is extra tight with honkytonk piano from Saydak and hard drum fills from Eddie Turner. Both of these tracks feature the extra cool harmonica stylings of Mr. Ron Sorin, and it is a shame that this is the first time his work on this project has been available to the public.

Chances are good that you never heard the two Ken Saydak songs before, and this is a fabulous opportunity. “Shoppin’ and Snackin’” is one of the funniest songs you will find, and Saydak goes all the places musicians fear to tread, singing about patriotism, race and religion in his pleasant tenor range. Of course he does it with his piano supporting him, not to mention a solid guitar performance from Bob Levis. “Swanee River Boogie” brings the disc to a close, and Saydak does a wonderful job on this instrumental that turns out at least as good as Fats Domino’s version. His piano work stands on its own in this solo performance, and he can certainly throw down a serious boogie that could shake a piano to pieces.

Set Me Free is an incredible album, and it is easy to see how it propelled Steve Freund into a stellar career that includes seven of his own albums and production credit on dozens more. But it is also a wonderful snapshot in time, with heart wrenching vocals from Gloria Hardiman, phenomenal keys from Ken Saydak, and a chance to hear Sunnyland Slim accompanied by a certifiably dangerous band. There is a good reason why the original LP is so collectible and this CD is a must-have for any blues collection. If you are a fan of the genre I guarantee that you will listen to it more than once!


Saturday, February 6, 2016

Sennheiser HD 218i On Ear Headphones Review


Ear buds are the most convenient way to take your sound with you, but they are usually uncomfortable, especially for extended trips. But there are some nice options for lightweight over the ear headphones, such as the industry standard Koss Portapros. I recently picked up a pair of Sennheiser HD 218i phone, and they are working out to be a good compromise for travel. I already own a few pairs of Sennheiser headphones – the HD 228, HD 299, HD 280 and HD 380 models, and they are really a phenomenal value.

The HD 218i headphones have a compact over-the-ear design, and fold flat to make them a little more portable for travel. They are only available in black (as far as I can tell), and come with a 1/8-inch (3.5mm) Apple-style jack on the end of a 4 foot (1.2-meter) single-sided cable. It does not look like the cable or the vinyl ear pieces are replaceable, so these will probably not last for the rest of your life.

These cans are very lightweight (under 4 ounces), and with the padded headband and swiveling ear cups they are super comfortable. They are springy enough to stay on at the gym or while walking, but not so tight that they hurt. I have worn these for hours on end (including a few 10 hour flights) with no problems.

Neodymium magnets are used for higher output, and specs-wise, there is nothing unusual going on with these dynamic headphones. They have a frequency response of 19,000 to 21,000 Hz and they are capable of putting out 108 dB. Total harmonic distortion is supposed to be less than 0.5% with 100 dB at 1000Hz. These phones have 32 Ω of resistance, so they are loud enough for travel, (32 ohms is as high as I would want to go with headphones for an iPod).

The biggest difference between these and the other low-end Sennheiser headphone is that these are designed for use with Apple products. There is a module built into the cable that has a microphone and controls for volume, play/pause, and skipping to the next track. It works very well, and I have used it with iPods, my iPhone, and my newer Macbook Pro with no problems at all. Pretty much none of these features will work on an Android phone, so keep that in mind.

I have burned them in for around 100 hours, and they loosened up quite a bit and sound much better than they did out of the box. I use them or traveling on planes and at the gym, and though they do not have big ear cups, they provide pretty good isolation and not much leakage to annoy my neighbors.

Sennheiser says that the HD 229 phones “bombastic bass-driven stereo sound” and are “optimized for iPod, iPhone, MP3 and CD players.” Well, they sound good with my iPhone and my laptop, but I would not say the bass performance is excellent. I did try them with a few different headphone amplifiers and they really perked up, but that is not really the sort of use these phones were designed for.

They do, however, have a nice crisp tone with good enough bass. I hear some mid-range resonance, and they are not nearly as good as any of my over the ear Sennheisers, but they were never supposed to be as good. The HD 218i are cheaper, more portable phones so I did not expect miracles. All-in-all, they are a good value.

The Sennheiser HD 218i headphones have a list price of $64.95 and they sell for around 30 bucks on Amazon. For the price range and portability they are very good, but if you want heavy sound, spend another 50 bucks and get a pair of HD 228 Pro headphones (but they will be bigger). But, if you crave portability and comfort, these are a great value.


Wednesday, February 3, 2016

2015 GS Mini-E Mahogany Acoustic Guitar Review


I have spent a lot of time trying out travel guitars, and have played everything that Martin and Taylor have to offer. A while back I picked upa mahogany-topped GS Mini-e acoustic, and thought it was about time that I shared the results with the world.

Taylor guitars are fantastic instruments, and though the sound of their full-sized guitars is not my cup of tea, they have untold numbers of devotees that will say that I am full of it (and maybe I am). Most Taylor guitars are built in their San Diego, California factory, but some of their lower-priced instruments are built just across the border in Tecate, Mexico. These include the 100 and 200 series instruments, as well as the Baby Taylor and the GS Mini models.

For a travel guitar the GS Mini is awfully big -- most parlor and travel guitars are called ¾-sized guitars, and I call this one 7/8-sized. It has a 23.5-inch scale, and it measures almost 5 inches deep with a 15 inch wide body. For me, this disqualifies it as an airline travel guitar.

But, the Taylor GS Mini is a nice instrument, and it has a definite role to play in the musical world. Before we get to that, let’s take a look at how this thing is put together.

GS Minis are available with either a spruce or a tropical mahogany top, and I chose the one with the solid mahogany top. The top has X braces to keep everything together while still allowing it to vibrate well. The back and sides are made with a sapele laminate, which ends up looking like mahogany to me. The body has a tasteful black and while purfling, a simple rosette and a tortoise shell pickguard. The whole this has an even coating of matte-finish varnish.

The neck and heel are also made of sapele, and the fretboard is hewn from ebony, which is surprising on a guitar at this price point. The nut is a bit narrow at 1 11/16 inches width, but combining this with the shallow V profile of the neck you end up with a guitar that is nice for those with smaller hands. There are 20 frets standard-sized Taylor frets, and you will find 14 of them free from the body. The headstock has a simple overlay with a screen printed logo, and sealed-back chrome tuners. They are unbranded, but seem to be good quality, and they hold tune well between practice sessions.

The craftsmanship is up to Taylor’s high standards, with an even finish and a truly terrific job with the fretwork. The Tusq nut and compensated bridge are perfect, and this GS Mini came out of the box with a surprisingly playable low action with the OEM Elixir medium gauge Nanoweb strings.

Playability is also top-notch, taking into account the narrower neck, which makes fingerstyle a little more difficult for clumsy chaps like myself. This is a very easy to play instrument. This one came with a slightly higher action, so it was easier to dig in and I really like the way it plays.

The sound is amazingly big for a smaller guitar, living up to the GS in its name (Grand Symphony). This is helped by the big soundhole and the rounded back, the shape of which eliminates the need for back bracing. Of course the bass is not terribly thunderous, but it certainly has an even tone across the strings when playing with light to medium intensity.

The sound is big, and is a bit more sterile than the spruce top model. It lacks the warmth that I like in my little Martin, and it definitely sounds better plugged in, which is where the “-e” in the model name comes from.

The electronics package for the GS Mini-e is the Taylor ES-T system. This is an under-saddle transducer with individual elements for each string. The onboard preamp is powered by a 9-volt battery, with a battery life LED power indicator (which is lit when the battery is being used). The pickup also has a phase switch for feedback control, which is located on the preamp board inside the soundhole. It has a very clean and natural sound, and I have not run into any problems with feedback as I have experimented with it.

In case you were wondering, these guitars ship in a surprisingly sturdy padded soft case. Like all Taylor soft cases, it is that terrible tan color than gets dirty as soon as it comes out of the factory shipping box. It does a nice job of protecting the guitar, though

So, where does the Taylor GS Mini E fit in if it is too big to take on the plane? Well, it would still be great for a car trip, or if you have to lug your guitar around on the subway or bus. But where it really works is as a modern day parlor guitar. Its small size makes it great for kicking around the house, and as I said it would be a good guitar for smaller people. If you set it up with light gauges strings, it would be a great instrument for lucky kids and beginners.

The Taylor GS Mini has a list price of $828 and a street price of $629, which includes the aforementioned gig bag. Though I do not consider it to be the world’s greatest travel guitar, it is a very nice instrument that would be great for smaller-statured players, or for general playing around the house of campfire. Try one out, and see for yourself!


Monday, February 1, 2016

Blues Blast Magazine Album Review: Chris Bergson Band – Live at Jazz Standard


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

Chris Bergson Band – Live at Jazz Standard

Innsbruck Records

15 tracks / 62:45

It is not hard to find a great blues or rock guitarist, and tracking down a good singer and front man is a little harder, but they are out there. Songwriting clinics crank out more than enough new writers every week, and some of them can actually pen really nice tunes. But, finding a talented guitarist that is also an effective leader, singer, and songwriter is not an easy task, which makes Chris Bergson a true find!

Bergson is a New York City native who has lived in the tri-state area for his whole life, and who has been recording his music for the past 20 years. Chris’ playing has deep roots, and he is more than proficient in all genres of music, and he is even a faculty member of NYC’s 92Y (serving the community for 140 years), teaching jazz, rock and blues guitar. He has worked and played with the big names in the business, including B.B. King, Etta James, Norah Jones, The Band’s Levon Helm, and Howlin’ Wolf’s guitarist, Hubert Sumlin. He has recorded six studio albums, including the award-winning Fall Changes and Imitate the Sun.

This time around the Chris Bergson Band gives up a dose of their stage show with Live at Jazz Standard. This New York City club has been his home base for the past 10 years, and he drew these 15 tracks from two shows last summer. His usual four-piece group was up front, including Chris on vocals and guitars, Craig Dreyer on keys, Matt Clohesy on bass and Tony Leone behind the drum kit. They were joined on these gigs by the fine horn section of Ian Hendrickson-Smith and David Luther on sax, and Grammy winner Freddie Hendrix on trumpet. Roman Klun recorded and mixed this CD, and acted as co-producer with Bergson.

The first track on the disc is “Greyhound Station” and the band opens strong. Even though the club is called Jazz Standard and Chris was appointed the U.S. Jazz Ambassador by the Kennedy Center, this show is nothing but killer funky blues. After the guitar-heavy intro Bergson launches into the vocals and he belts them out convincingly with harmonies courtesy of Tony Leone. Chris also tears out a hard-hitting solo and lead licks throughout. This is one of the seven songs he co-wrote with his wife, Kate Ross – in fact this album was mostly written by Bergson, with eight all-new songs, and five older tunes that have been extensively remodeled.

After the horn-heavy “Mr. Jackson” (with horn arrangements by Jay Collins) the band is joined by special guest vocalist Ellis Hooks for “The Only One.” Hooks’ glorious voice pairs well with Bergson’s, and there is a Sam and Dave good times vibe at work here. The backline of Clohesy and Leone is spot-on but never goes over the top as this show is all about the songs, and the musicians are there to help tell the story, not to show off.

There is a touching moment as Chris puts Tennessee Williams’ poem “Heavenly Grass” to music. He plays a mean delta-style acoustic guitar against a sparse backdrop of bass, drums and just enough Wurlitzer of Craig Dreyer. This slow roller features extended solos from Bergson and Dreyer and is a nice partner to the next track, the soulful and inspirational “High Above the Morning.”

The two non-originals on Live at Jazz Standard are the harmony-heavy traditional “Corinna” and Ronnie Shannon’s “Baby, I Love You.” The latter is an instrumental that allows Bergson to spit out sharp lead licks on his guitar over the punctuation provided by the ultra tight horn section. The vocals leading up to this point were so compelling that the musicians were appropriately playing a supporting role, and it is nice to hear the band cut loose a little!

The heavy funk of “Christmas in Bethlehem, PA” makes sure that this is nothing like any holiday song you have heard before. Dreyer’s 1970s organ sound, Bergson’s processed guitar and Leone’s massive snare set the stage for Hendrix, who channels his inner Maynard Ferguson. The lyrics are full of hard luck and longing, and Chris sings them with all of his heart.

The final two cuts on the album are “The Bungler” and “Gowanus Heights,” both Bergson/Ross songs from his acclaimed breakthrough album from 2008, Fall Changes. Listening to these cuts is a reminder of what a well recorded, mixed and mastered album this is. The sound is clear, no instrument or voice seems too loud or soft, and there is a logical progression to the songs with natural sounding breaks in between. Kudos go out to Klun for his recording and mixing, and to Chris Gehringer for his mastering work – professionals like these guys make all the difference in the world.

Live at Jazz Standard is a fine piece of work from Chris Bergson, providing a realistic overview of his career to date, and it is much more relevant than any “Best Of” or “Greatest Hits” album could be. Most artists would be content to rehash old stuff, but the Chris Bergson Band stepped up and provided more than enough new material for their old fans to enjoy. For those who were not fans before, this disc will convert them into believers and it may convince them to seek out his catalogue and maybe even inspire them to catch a live show the next time they are in New York City!