There’s actually some overlap between blues and punk. For example, hill country blues, especially as practiced by artists like R.L. Burnside, has a wild, unpredictable energy, largely based upon raw performances that feel like classic punk rock. But it’s much harder for proficient instrumentalists to tap into that vibe, because once there’s a certain degree of musical skill, performances start to feel more prepared. But a band like Cream, at their best, brought punk to blues, and you can now add Albert Castiglia to that very short list of punk-blues virtuosos, with Wild and Free, a live show capturing the talented singer and guitarist at the height of his astoundingly rocking powers.

Taken from a show in Boca Raton, Florida, Castiglia pilots his band through 11 tracks that crackle with blues emotion and rock electricity. It’s especially shocking given Boca is the same town where my grandmother lives (I suddenly understand why my birthday checks haven’t increased in a while; I think she’s been spending money on shows). But if she happened to miss this one, she’s in luck, since it’s a perfectly documented performance.

The album kicks off with “Big Dog.” Organ and bass battle each other for control of the track while Castiglia’s guitar uses it as an opportunity to scamper around the tune like that aforementioned canine off its too-short leash. The band doesn’t build to anything. Instead, they just start at full climax, making you feel like you’ve been dropped into the middle of a race to the death. Castiglia’s guitar bends and wails but is never shrill. And his tone is pure stubble, in the best possible way. His rhythm tone is percussive, making every track groove that much harder when he’s not soloing. It feels like the chaos might shake the track apart, but it all holds together. Most live albums end on a track with this kind of fervor and Castiglia is leading off with it.

The band keeps the barely-controlled entropy going for two more songs before finally slowing things down with “Heavy,” off of Castiglia’s accurately-titled 2019 album, Masterpiece. The track is a power ballad that lets you hear just how beautiful a soloist Castiglia can be as he sews jazz and even a tiny bit of metal into his guitar work. His voice is also in fine form, sounding worn and gruff, like a classic blues artist. And then, following this brief slow-up, he’s right back to top speed with “Get Your Ass in the Van,” which is a cross between Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Pride and Joy” and Elmore James’ classic “Dust My Broom.” And here too, the tone is impossibly scratchy, but also just as impossible to resist.

Wild and Free is everything a great live album should be: relentless emotion executed to perfection, yet not too perfectly. Castiglia is an exciting, underrated musician. Masterpiece was an excellent blues rock album, but hearing many of those same songs performed live, they’re even better than the original studio cuts. The album is long, clocking in at well over an hour, but it flies by. There’s lots of jamming and soloing, but it never feels self-serving or dull. Instead, like Cream in their prime, Wild and Free presents ridiculously talented musicians hardly able to contain their abilities within the confines of a song. By the time it’s over, you’ll be out of breath but also probably ready to dive right back into the album.

The Review: 9.5/10

Can’t Miss Tracks

– Heavy
– Get Your Ass in the Van
– Too Much Seconal
– I Tried to Tell Ya
– Big Dog

The Big Hit

– Big Dog

Review by Steven Ovadia

Buy the album: Amazon | Amazon UK

Some artists wear their influences on their sleeves and others keep them closer to their heart. So it was surprising to learn that blues rocker Joe Bonamassa is a huge Danny Gatton fan and pays tribute to him on Easy To Buy, Hard To Sell, an instrumental album evoking Gatton’s singular mix of blues, jazz, country, rockabilly, plus any other lick from any genre that would work in service to a song.

Gatton lived up to his moniker as the world’s greatest unknown guitarist. Despite talent to spare, he never won anything close to mainstream acclaim. Eventually, his depression caused him to take his own life in 1994 before he would even reach 50. It was a sad end to a beautiful artist. While there’s musical overlap between Gatton and Bonamassa, Bonamassa’s work tends to be a little more in either the blues, rock, or blues rock vein, while Gatton pulled from everywhere, often in the course of a single solo. Bonamassa hasn’t explicitly integrated Gatton’s sound into his own playing, but the two had a personal friendship going back to Bonamassa’s days as a child prodigy. And if you think about it for a minute, even absent their knowing each other, it’s hard to think of too many guitarists who heard Gatton and didn’t try to, or wish they could, steal some of his riffs. And that’s the charm of Easy to Buy: a talented fan pretending he’s a beloved artist, the irony being that thousands probably do the same with Bonamassa and his music.

Interestingly, if you listened to these tracks blind, you might not pick up it’s Bonamassa. While there are some blues-oriented tracks, there’s also lots of jazz. “Fun House,” a Danny Gatton tune, becomes big band, with lots of organ, courtesy of keyboardist Reese Wynans, now touring with Bonamassa but perhaps best known for his work with Stevie Ray Vaughan. Bonamassa’s solo is bluesy, but with plenty of country thrown in. It’s a smart tribute to Gatton’s own influences.

“Ha So” is a problematic Jimmy Bryant cover which features the stereotypical East Asian riff, used in the West to crudely indicate Asian music or locations. The riff and song title feel incredibly dated, but if you’re able to get past that, it’s one of the album’s strongest tracks, featuring out-of-this world chicken picking guitar from John Jorgenson of The Hellecasters, an instrumental band that, like Gatton, could also seamless fuse disparate American musical styles into a single song.

Bonamassa pushes himself stylistically across the entire album, but there are a few tracks more in his wheelhouse. “Polk Salad Annie” is a Tony Joe White go-go tune where Bonamassa uses the blues to slalom through poles of harmonica, organ, horns, and even background vocals. “Blue Nocturne,” a surprisingly guitar-heavy tune considering it was written by saxophonist King Curtis, is delicate, with Bonamassa using jazz flurries to soften the edges of his blues runs.

Tribute albums are funny things. While the name implies some sort of paying of respect to an artist, often they’re just a point of departure. The artist paying tribute might change things up so that the songs are about the current performer rather than the one supposedly being honored. Easy To Buy, Hard To Sell is a true tribute, though. Bonamassa and his band put their own twist on these tracks, but for the most part, it feels like they’re trying to direct fans back to Gatton and the other artists featured on the album. It would have been very easy for Bonamassa to just do his own thing over some lightly modified tracks. But instead, he chose to do it the right way, showing his fans everything magical about his own influences. It’s impressive, selfless, and a true tribute.

The Review: 8/10

Can’t Miss Tracks

– Fun House
– Move
– Polk Salad Annie
– Ha So

The Big Hit

– Ha So

Review by Steven Ovadia

Buy the album: Amazon | Amazon UK

There’s an assumption that the older a blues artist is, the better they are. Like many assumptions, it’s not foolproof. There are lots of older blues artists who have gotten worse over time as they aged out of their prime. There are also lots of great young blues artists. But because the blues is such a deceptively simple art form, the longer one is immersed in it, the easier it is to understand that the genre is about conveying emotion. The Backtrack Blues Band understands that idea and puts it into action on Your Baby Has Left, their seventh album.

One way to understand the beauty of the blues is through a tale about learning Buddhism. The story explains that beginning students see mountains. Upon studying with a master, they no longer see them. Finally, upon fully grasping the concepts, students once again see mountains. It’s similar to the blues. First, most people try to learn the basics, essentially copying others. Then, many try to change things up, making things their own, but perhaps also no longer creating blues. And finally, if they’re lucky, they return home to classic blues. Tampa Bay’s Backtrack Blues Band have made the journey back to the heart of the source material.

Or, to be more precise, back to the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers, because Your Baby Has Left is vintage 60s blues rock. But where those classic bands were in the part of their journey where they were pulling away from the blues, trying to carve their own space, the Backtrack Blues Band successfully brings things back to the original blues artists who inspired everyone. They’re not trying to push the limits of the blues; instead it feels like they’re trying to plug back into it. And they succeed on track after track.

Each cut succeeds for the same reason. It begins with a dynamic rhythm section (Stick Davis on bass, Joe Bencomo on drums, aided by Little Johnny Walter on rhythm guitar and vocals) that keeps things simple and honest, but also high-energy. That frees up singer/harmonica player Sonny Charles and lead guitarist/vocalist Kid Royal to take the lead across songs. Charles has a bluesy, almost bratty voice, with character to spare. His harmonica work veers between rich bursts of sound and surgically precise saxophone-like runs. Royal is an old school blues player who’s able to wring every last bit of soul out of each note, seemingly strangling the blues out of his guitar. He’s not jamming out so much as he’s working out.

The album covers a good amount of stylistic ground across nine tracks, eight of them originals. “Dixie Grill” is an uptown blues featuring the Muscle Shoals Horns that’s an unlikely tribute to Carolina cooking: “When they fix chicken, it’s always fried / They say it’s healthy, I think they lied.” In essence, it’s the world’s hippest commercial. “She Might Get Mad” is a familiar blues lifted by Bruce Katz‘s piano playing, which is pure boogie woogie. Katz’s 2019 solo album, Solo Ride, demonstrated just how talented he is, all by himself, but it’s great hearing him in a band context. Especially this particular band.

American culture assigns a lot of value to breaking rules and being iconoclastic. And those traits have led to some truly amazing music. But there’s also something to be said for mastering constraints and working within them. Your Baby Has Left is fun and exciting because the Backtrack Blues Band is pushing the boundaries of the blues without breaking them. They not only see mountains, they’ll have you seeing them, too.

Artist: Backtrack Blues Band

Title: Your Baby Has Left

Label: VizzTone Label Group

Release Date: April 3, 2020

Running Time: 46:11

Backtrack Blues Band

*Feature image courtesy of VizzTone Label Group

Cigar box guitars are made from wooden cigar boxes, with the box taking the place of a traditional guitar body. They go back to the mid-19th century, with periodic revivals, including during the Great Depression. The cigar box sound, especially plugged in, has an interesting resonance, making everything sound just a little oversaturated. Cigar box guitars are experiencing a resurgence, with lots of makers, festivals, and, of course, a documentary (Songs Inside the Box). There’s even a podcast, cementing this as a true 2020 trend. But RB Stone and Ben Rice’s Out of the Box, a fun tribute to the instrument, made using a variety of cigar box guitars, isn’t trendy or crass. Rather it’s a solid blues album that would be just as good a time with regular guitars; it just might not sound as smoky and mysterious.

Rice and Stone are blues singers/guitarists (Stone also contributes harmonica) and solo artists teaming up on a collection of 11 originals performed on cigar box guitars made by different builders, including a variety of string counts. Despite that, there’s an impressive cohesion to the album. There is lots of tonal potpourri, but nothing shifts too dramatically. There are differences in songwriting styles but all of the songs make sense together. Rice and Stone have similarly bluesy voices which pair nicely and also help unite the different tracks. This is a concept album, but not a gimmick album. And even if you don’t know the concept, it’s still an enjoyable record.

That’s because the album’s other underlying concept is simple, slide-based blues performed by talented musicians. So while the songs are familiar grooves and progressions, they’re executed at a very high level. “Hey Politician” swings like a Creedence Clearwater tune, if a song could also somehow get drunk and find its way onto ice skates. The slide isn’t played throughout the song so much as it crackles like a downed power line. It’s raw until the solo, which is melodic and composed, reinforcing the deliberateness of the song. Rice and Stone (and Guy Hale, co-writer but also co-owner of the Gulf Coast Records blues rock label) aren’t just jamming out. There’s thought and intent in their songs, too.

The album is chock full of great moments like “Hey Politician.” “Bad Blood on Mean Whiskey” features just Stone, a bass drum kick, and, of course, his cigar box. The guitar is plugged in and trying for a clean tone, but, as is the nature of these guitars, it feels like it could heat up into distortion at any moment. Considering the sparse arrangement, the song sounds like a full band. “Train of Time” is Rice’s solo turn, with no percussion and acoustic cigar box guitar. It’s low-key and feels like it almost could have been captured during the time of the birth of the original instrument.

The cigar box guitars don’t make or break the album. They certainly provide interestingly sonic variety, but the album would still work without them. So instead, Out of the Box is a great pretense to spend some quality time with Rice and Stone and to also learn about the possibilities of cigar box guitars. Until music returns to the time where it’s enough for artists to just be, you know, entertaining, it’s nice to see that talented musicians are also figuring out ways to be clever promoters. Out of the Box works as a cool record and as a smart marketing case study.

The Review: 9/10

Can’t Miss Tracks

– Bad Blood on Mean Whiskey
– Train of Time
– Hoodoo Workin’ Overtime
– Jesus Needs A Gig
– Hey Politician

The Big Hit

– Hey Politician

Review by Steven Ovadia

Buy the album: Amazon | Amazon UK

It’s hard being the singer in a guitarist-led band. It’s even tougher when your name isn’t in the band name. So yeah. I feel bad for David Lee Roth, who many thought was a Van Halen. Gregg Rolie, the singer in the classic Santana line-up, is hardly a household name despite his voice’s permanent position in classic rock radio rotations. And I empathize with Mike Mattison, lead vocalist of the Tedeschi Trucks Band (and the Derek Trucks Band before that), because it’s been hard for him to get his true due as a singer. Hopefully Afterglow, his wonderfully intimate second solo album, will correct this.

The energy of Afterglow makes sense. His main employment is with the huge Tedeschi Trucks Band, which at this point, is more of an orchestra. And his other gig is singing for the bluesy Scrapomatic, along with guitarists Dave Yoke and Paul Olsen, who also appear on this album. He’s probably ready to flex different songwriting muscles, which he does to great success on Afterglow, a collection of lovely country-influenced rock that makes you feel like Mattison is right there, singing to you.

Influence is the key idea. This isn’t traditional country. Like on “Deadbeat,” a piano-driven tune, he sings “I’ve taken all the drugs I can” before heading into a dramatic statement: “Deadbeat. Hard times. What’s yours is mine,” sounding vocally and lyrically just like Elvis Costello, certainly not of country music, but definitely heavily influenced by it himself. And just to profile for a moment, the Harvard-educated Mattison, who also works as an essayist, has probably listened to some Costello in his day.

In fact, Afterglow‘s less-than-traditional style of country recalls the Jayhawks, who like Mattison hail from Minneapolis. The Minneapolis connection also pops up on “I Really Miss You,” which is a 70s soul groove that has Mattison channeling fellow Minnesotan Prince. It’s co-written with Kofi Burbridge, Mattison’s Tedeschi Trucks Band colleague, also featuring Burbridge’s always captivating organ. There’s not an ounce of country in the tune and no one is missing it. This track should be a legally mandated prom song in areas with a sluggish birth rate.

Trucks doesn’t play on the album, but co-wrote the title track, an upbeat country tune that’s classic Byrds meets Johnny Cash.”Kiss You Where You Live” channels Tom Petty’s take on Thunderclap Newman’s “Something in the Air,” another Byrds-esque touchstone.

It’s always weird when someone associated with a band does a solo album. Mattison writes songs in all of his projects and is working with a lot of the same people from his usual bands. Why couldn’t he just do these these tunes with those bands? The answer is the beauty of Afterglow: it’s Mattison’s personal connection to these songs, which probably wouldn’t work
nearly as well with either band. So while he’s singing and writing as he always does, Afterglow reveals a side of Mattison we don’t often get to see. But it’s a side everyone should hear.

Artist: Mike Mattison

Title: Afterglow

Label: Landslide Records

Release Date: March 20, 2020

Running Time: 40:12

Mike Mattison

*Feature image courtesy of Devious Planet

How is Sonny Landreth like baseball’s 2017 Houston Astros, recently revealed to have stolen signs from opposing pitchers? It’s a question we’re all asking. One of the interesting aspects of the Astros’ sign-stealing is the debate around just how helpful it is to know what pitch is coming next. Some players like to know what to expect and others don’t find it helpful. With Landreth, the brilliant guitarist, you always know what to expect: beautiful slide lines laid over Cajun-derived grooves. But knowing what’s coming doesn’t make his albums, like Blacktop Run, any less enjoyable. He’s not about delivering a surprise, so much as he’s about delivering great music.

The genius of Landreth’s playing is his lyricism. Elmore James perfected modern electric blues slide guitar and Duane Allman took it to a different level, figuring out how to fold in country and rock. Landreth, an Allman acolyte (he owns a piece of an Allman-worn shirt, the now-magical shirt a gift from Eric Clapton to Allman during the Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs sessions), consistently captures Allman’s sense of melody and drama. His playing is clean and pretty, with a tone like a violin. Landreth’s playing never overpowers. Instead, he dazzles with slide lines that have the natural beauty of a bird gliding along a gust of wind.

That’s what you get every album. So an instrumental like “Beyond Borders” is fairly standard Landreth. His slide explores some Middle Eastern melodies, Steve Conn provides some very pretty piano, and you never miss the vocals. The songs are interesting, but don’t spin out too far. There are verses and choruses and familiar structures. It’s just that Landreth lets his slide do the talking for him.

Except when he actually sings himself. Landreth has a nasal voice, that while not in Bob Dylan territory, is distinctive. I’m a fan, mostly because it’s almost the opposite of his slide work, which is boldly confident and precise. Having said that, his voice and slide mesh unusually well on “Don’t Ask Me,” which sounds like a Louisiana standard but is actually written by Conn. There’s accordion and cajón percussion, but Landreth steals the show, with some impossibly lovely acoustic slide work that has the feel of genuine Delta blues, but that’s also way more complex and sophisticated. His voice evokes the swamp and adds a down-home charm to the tune.

And make no mistake. Landreth’s charm is what powers much of this album. “Mule” is familiar country-by-way-of-the-Bayou rock, but Landreth’s voice gives it an earth-bound sincerity while his slide takes the tune into space. Not space in the jazz way, but with melodies that come at you so fast, you can’t even process how gorgeous they are. Songs bounce around like lumbering trains coming down a track, while his slide nimbly races in and out of the beats. Landreth’s playing is technical, but you don’t necessarily notice because it also sounds so relaxed and natural.

When I say that knowing what to expect doesn’t necessarily change your response, it’s not a defense of the Astros so much as a reflection of how impressive Landreth is. His music is remarkably consistent, which in many ways makes it harder for him to thrill. Landreth has his sound and captivates us by continuously finding new ways to make beautiful music within the surprisingly broad genre of Louisana blues. Like the closer who only throws fastballs and still gets outs, Landreth catches us joyfully listening across every moment of this album and while we’re probably not surprised, we’re certainly delighted. Every time.

The Review: 9/10

Can’t Miss Tracks

– Mule
– Beyond Borders
– Somebody Gotta Make A Move
– Lover Dance With Me
– Don’t Ask Me

The Big Hit

– Don’t Ask Me

Review by Steven Ovadia

Buy the album: Amazon | Amazon UK

Your 20s can be a crazy time of life. You’re out of college and expected to have your life together, but you’re really more high school student than adult. So for many of us, it’s a time of uncomfortable drifting that, if you’re lucky, eventually turns into a charted course. But not everyone struggles at that time in their life. King Solomon Hicks, singer/guitarist, age 24, for instance. He shows a sophistication and wisdom beyond his years on Harlem, his debut album.

The trap for young blues artists is coming in too hot and heavy. They’re often anxious to show everything they’ve got. It’s not a bad strategy, since a second album is hardly a given for most artists, but it can overwhelm the listener, making them feel more battered than elevated. So the impressive thing about Hicks is how much restraint he shows here. There are fantastic vocals, infectious grooves, and lots of solid blues licks, but it’s all in manageable proportions. He’s not force-feeding us his work, so much as he’s making us hungry for his delicious menu.

The tastiest dish is Hicks’ voice. It’s not the usual blues bass. A better comparison might be rocker Lenny Kravitz. But it works perfectly within his music, which is fairly straight-forward blues and soul. It’s a modern voice fronting an older-fashioned sounding band, but there’s nothing elderly about the backing tracks. The result is not a new sound, but it’s a different one. Where blues rock is often used as a short-hand to describe guitar-heavy rock music that uses a blues-based vocabulary, Hicks has created more of a rock blues, that plays with the proportions.

You can hear the difference in a standard like “Every Day I Have the Blues,” made famous by B.B. King. Organ explodes out of the track and Hicks lays down a guitar riff that’s right out of Cream’s playbook. Factor in his rock voice and it’s a decidedly rock-and-roll take take on a blues standard. But there’s enough blues in Hicks’ solos and fills that the end-product reads as bluesy. A huge part of that effect is that Hicks’ playing has taste for days. There’s lots of vibrato and a huge tone, but not too much unnecessary flash. In some ways, he’s like Stevie Ray Vaughan, had Vaughan been more inspired by B.B., rather than Albert King. But also, without Vaughan’s fret-based athleticism.

Hicks also isn’t scared to change songs up. His take on Chris Andrews’ “It’s Alright,” is almost unrecognizable, going from non-descript pop song (I wasn’t familiar with the original before seeking it out because Hicks covered it), to trippy, phase-drenched step-child of Jimi Hendrix and Joe Walsh. The new song is unrecognizable, but it shows off a heavier side of Hicks’ style.

The album features just two originals, both of them instrumentals. Hicks has an interesting sense of song and structure though, and it’ll be interesting to hear how his sound evolves as his songwriting develops. While he doesn’t sound like Robert Cray, Hicks reminded me of Cray in the way they both take other genres (Cray soul and Hicks rock and roll) and shift them to just short of full-on blues. It’s a neat twist that makes me curious to hear what Hicks has waiting for us.

Artist: King Solomon Hicks

Title: Harlem

Label: Mascot Label Group/Provogue

Release Date: March 13, 2020

Running Time: 39:18

King Solomon Hicks

Will Sexton‘s Don’t Walk the Darkness is mature in the best possible way. Sexton’s laid-back album has a decidedly 1950s vibe, making it feel classy, if not classic. There’s a confidence and swagger to Sexton’s modesty, and it all makes for the kind of album that only comes from experience.

And Sexton’s experiences read like a song. He was signed to an MCA record contract before he could vote and dropped before he could legally drink. A 2009 stroke cost him his verbal and language skills, as well as his memory of songs he had written. He’s worked with a therapist to relearn what was lost, but as you might imagine, it’s not an easy process. In 2013, love brought him to Memphis, via his wife, singer/songwriter/collaborator Amy LaVere. And now he has his first album in over a decade, recorded in just ten hours.

As fraught and intense as that all sounds, Don’t Walk the Darkness feels completely under Sexton’s control. The amount of control is impressive, because he’s fronting New Orleans’ The Iguanas. And in those types of situations there’s always the risk one entity might overpower the other. But that’s not the case here, where the band and the artist exist in an equilibrium across different styles of music.

“Temptations Call,” with its powerful horn riff and downhill groove is rock energy wrapped up in pop trappings. Sexton’s voice isn’t notable, but there’s a definite charm in the imperfections. You can hear him pushing to meet the right notes at the right times and there’s a pleasant suspense to the endeavor. “The Whole Story” also features horns punctuating a sad tale, the whole track feeling like at a different time, in different hands, it might be a doo wop tune. Luckily for the listener, whatever the song is, it makes perfect sense as conceived by Sexton.

“Mess Around With My Mind” has a desperation that immediately recalls grunge, but Sexton’s Texas-flecked vocals have an underlying optimism that offset the darkness of the melody. The Iguanas are especially impressive here, pushing the track, pulling Sexton along — very much present, but never dominating the track. “Only Forever” is soul jazz, with Sexton once again working a voice that, while not particularly powerful, has an honesty that lifts the tune.

You know Sexton is the real deal because of the way he keeps hitting away at life’s curveballs. A different artist might make a milestone album like this, the first after a major medical incident, overtly about that event. While the stroke is now a part of the fabric of all of Sexton’s work, the wonderful thing about Don’t Walk the Darkness is its evenness. This isn’t someone exuberantly screaming about survival. Rather, this is someone reflecting upon it and serenely sharing with his audience. It’s the refinement of a different era.

Will Sexton

The New York Times obituary for blues rock guitarist Rory Gallagher says he was known for his “flashy guitar work,” which, while certainly true, is a dramatic oversimplification of Gallagher’s legacy. But the tribute, coming in at a scant 150 or so words, also crystalizes Gallagher’s career: misunderstood in the United States, underappreciated, and seen as one-dimensional by those who didn’t choose to delve into his full body of work. Check Shirt Wizard – Live in ‘77, a compilation of four European shows, won’t change Gallagher’s stature in the eyes of the public at large, but it does serve as a strong reminder of just what made him so great.

Gallagher’s live work is well-documented. There’s 1972’s Live In Europe, Irish Tour ’74, and 1980’s Stage Struck, plus some posthumous live releases. So it’s hard to say where Check Shirt Wizard fits into those other shows, other than as a great excuse to delve back into Gallagher’s catalog.

And one thing that comes across Check Shirt Wizard is that while Gallagher was a gifted guitar player, he was also a soulful singer. The vocal performances are impressive. I was particularly struck by “Calling Card,” with Gallagher, notoriously critical of his own abilities, sounding both relaxed and confident. While there’s plenty of “flashy” guitar punctuating the track, the piano and Gallagher’s weathered voice make it special.

Clocking in at twenty generous tracks, you get to hear Gallagher cover a lot of stylistic ground in-depth. There’s a nice run of acoustic songs, which make you feel like you’re hearing Gallagher in a pub. “Barley and Grape Rag,” just Gallagher and his acoustic guitar, sounds like Gallagher is performing across the room from you, a tribute to his ability to convey intimacy, and to the quality of the recording. “Too Much Alcohol,” the J. B. Hutto tune Gallagher tackled with a full band on Irish Tour ’74 is performed here as a Delta blues.

Gallagher also hits some surprisingly glam notes that I wasn’t expecting. “I Take What I Want,” a Sam and Dave soul cover, sounds like Sweet in Gallagher’s energized hands. “Walk on Hot Coals” has a similar power, with an abandon that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a Led Zeppelin track. And here too, you have to be impressed with Gallagher’s vocals, which have a sexy smokiness. The joke is that European rock singers try to sound American and American singers try to sound British, but Gallagher, across the entire album, does a beautiful job of sounding like his true Irish self, but organically channeled through the American south.

As someone who doesn’t pay for the music being reviewed, I feel funny criticizing the length of an album, but at 20 tracks there’s a lot to process here. “Bullfrog Blues,” a fun tune with some vintagely wild Gallaher slide, clocks in at almost 10 minutes, largely because Gallagher introduces the band during the performance. It’s cute the first time, but as you might expect, the same introduction loses its charm over repeated listenings. It hardly detracts from what is a very strong album, but it would also be nice if labels understood that the things that make a one-time live show work don’t translate across the board for live albums.

The Review: 9/10

Can’t Miss Tracks

– Too Much Alcohol
– I Take What I Want
– Walk on Hot Coals
– Country Mile
– Calling Card

The Big Hit

– Calling Card

Review by Steven Ovadia

Buy the album: Amazon | Amazon UK

To understand Thorbjørn Risager & The Black Tornado’s Come On In, their 10th album, you just need to listen “Love So Fine.” The riff borrows heavily from Bachman–Turner Overdrive’s “Taking Care of Business” but in Risager’s hands, or throat, to be more precise, it’s something different. Risager’s voice is deep and rich, sort of like ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons with the edges smoothed out with some Van Morrison touches. Risager’s band, or orchestra, as he classily calls them, power the tune behind him, the horns giving the rock track an uptown blues grandeur. It perfectly captures everything good and interesting about the album.

Because while the Danish band is tight, Risager’s voice is the focal point of the album. It isn’t particularly textured, the way many blues singers are, but the depth of his vocals is impressive. Even if you couldn’t hear him slicing his way through the tracks, you can almost feel his bass in your chest. It’s a perfect amalgamation of blues, rock, soul, and even grunge. Risager is a unique singer and for that alone, Come On In is worth the price of admission.

Of course, you can have the greatest voice in the world, and you still need the support of songs and band. Come On In has both of those covered. The Black Tornado mostly stay in the background, which actually creates balance within the tracks. Rather than having all kinds of horns and organ coming at the listener, you’re free to focus on Risager’s voice, which is tough to miss anyway, as well as the rocking guitar. However, the band does get some spots to shine. One of the more impressive is “Over the Hill,” a straight-forward blues a la Freddie King’s “I’m Tore Down.” While the guitar, courtesy of Risager and Joachim Svensmark, and vocals take center stage, the rest of the band pushes the track along, giving it polish. It’s a fun, classic blues that takes full advantage of The Black Tornado’s personnel.

At the same time, some of the songs have more sonic white space. “Last Train” begins with an acoustic blues riff and quickly builds, organ and electric guitar fleshing things out, including a beautifully insolent slide guitar line that feels like it’s trying to wrest the song away from Risager. The song is more rock than blues, with a heavy Black Keys influence, but it’s notable for its lack of horns, which wouldn’t have worked for the track. So while the band, which co-produced the album, has many musical options, they don’t feel the need to execute all of them on every track. Instead, they make choices.

The story of the album is Risager’s voice. That’s not a surprise given his name is on the record cover. But The Black Tornado are an impressive backing band that give their front person plenty of space to operate. Risager could probably coast on his voice, so it’s nice he and the band take the time to create well-balanced tracks that walk the tight line between feeling too crowded and sounding like someone possibly cheating at a capella.

The Review: 7.5/10

Can’t Miss Tracks

– Over the Hill
– Last Train
– Love So Fine
– Come On In

The Big Hit

– Come On In

Review by Steven Ovadia

Buy the album: Amazon | Amazon UK