Issue 15-23 June 10, 2021

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Cover photo © 2021 Jim Hartzell


 In This Issue 

Marty Gunther has our feature interview with Jose Ramirez. We have four blues reviews for you this week including a new music from Jarkka Rissanen & Sons of the Desert, Rosedale Junction, Dr. Helander & Third Ward and Oliver Wood.


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 Featured Interview – Jose Ramirez 

imageThe blues is a powerful drug. No matter who you are or where you are, when it fills your ears and touches your soul for the first time, you’re hooked for life. It’s true in a country juke and big-city bars. It’s true anywhere across America or anywhere else in the world, too.

Just ask Jose Ramirez.

A singer/guitarist who delivers contemporary tunes steeped with old-school sensibilities, Jose’s one of the fastest rising artists on the scene today despite having been born and raised in San Jose, Costa Rica, where the blues has yet to take root in its rich, volcanic soil.

It’s a true-blue miracle that Ramirez plays the music at all. But man, he does it well – so much so that he was up for debut album of the year in the Blues Music Awards as this article was being written. Although he lost out to King Solomon Hicks, he’s still a major winner no matter the result.

As he announced on Facebook: “In only one year, I got second place in the International Blues Challenge and got my first nomination for a BMA with my debut album. So I can’t complain! Awards come once a year, but touring, recording and working hard happen every day.”

And as he told Blues Blast: “Because I come from Costa Rica, I’m supposed to be a salsa or reggae musician” – both of which are extremely popular in his homeland along with soca, merengue, reggaeton and a local version of calypso. Rock and punk rock are in the mix, too.

But blues? Fuhgeddaboutit!

“You can find blues-rock down there, but it’s mostly just plain rock,” says Ramirez, a polite, confident young man who speaks with only the slightest hint of an accent after attending a bilingual high school and studying to be either an English teacher or hotel administrator at the Universidad Internacional de las Americas.

“When I used to tell people where I’m from and I’m a blues guitar player, they used to think that I — (like many other musicians from his homeland) – was a Stevie Ray Vaughan fan who emulated his music,” Jose says. But I was never that type of player. I was always trying to play the older, older stuff…music that Stevie used to listen…and I came up with my own style along the way.”

The son of parents who love American oldies music, Jose grew up in a country of five million people situated between Nicaragua and Panama in Central America. While the official language is Spanish, a large segment of the population are fluent in English, too, because the nation is a major tourist destination.

“When I was a kid,” he says, “the family business was a bar. They opened it in 1990, two years after I was born, and their specialty was American oldies music. I remember going to help them out at age five or six, and all they’d play all night long was Ray Charles, good old Stax records and Motown. I used to listen to it all the time.

“When I grew older and showed an interest in picking up a guitar and learning to play, my dad said: ‘You know what? If you’re really serious about playing that instrument, the type of music you should study and listen to — before you even pick it up – is blues.”

Johnny Ramirez was a bar owner in a foreign land, but knew inherently that, like most music scholars will tell you, blues provided the life blood of all of the Western music we listen to today.

“It was weird for me,” Jose remembers. “I said: ‘Dad, how am I going to learn the music if I can’t practice on the instrument? I need to play along with what I hear on the records.’

“He was like: ‘No! Not before you listen to it and it kinda gets in your DNA…’”

IMAGERamirez’s first guitar – an acoustic – was a gift from his grandfather at Christmas in 1999. An obedient, only child whose love for his parents is boundless, he followed his father’s instructions, listening to B.B. King and John Lee Hooker, before finally picking up and attempting to play the instrument himself.

“Their sound was so strong, so powerful and so complete that I started listening to every blues record I could find,” he says, “beginning to learn the guitar parts by ear” the old-fashioned way it’s been done in the Delta for more than 100 years – and, quite simply, necessary because there was no one anywhere nearby to give lessons.

Jose’s first visits to the U.S. came as a teen, fulfilling every child’s dream by going to Disney World and also staying with relatives in Tampa and Texas. Despite the allure of Mickey and Donald and all that Orlando had to offer, his most memorable moments came during a three-week stay with a cousin in Dallas at age 16.

“He took me to the blues jams downtown and also in Fort Worth,” he remembers. “I was in love! We went to The Bone in Dallas, a club that no longer exists, where all the blues jams happened back in the ‘80s and ‘90s. I remember walkin’ in…and just the vibe in that place, the musicians and the music, the people dancing and just an overall good time…I remember thinking to myself: ‘This is it! This is what I want to do. I don’t know when, but…’

“That was it, man!”

In addition to B.B., Ramirez’s other big influence at the time was Robert Cray. While King set the bar high in the blues world, Robert attracted him because of his ability to blend soul into the mix. His musical foundation expanded gradually through the music of Coco Montoya, Duke Robillard, Eric Clapton, Johnny “Guitar” Watson and Jimmie Vaughan, among others.

A true student of the blues, Jose says: “Since I moved here, I’ve learned that Robert Johnson is a very popular character in the blues story and blues history. But I’ve come to learn that there are many other Robert Johnsons out there from back in his time…guys that set the path before him.”

Ramirez’s inner right forearm is graced by a tattoo of Johnson along with words from two of his tunes, “Traveling Riverside Blues” and “Cross Road Blues” – something that intrigues fans the first time they see him. “But it was never meant to be a promotional tool.”

Although his play doesn’t necessarily reflect it, Jose’s now a student of first-generation country blues, too. His current favorites are Son House, Leadbelly, Peetie Wheatstraw and Blind Lemon Jefferson. “The more you listen to one, you start diggin’ for their influences,” he says, “and that dig never ends. It’s like going down a rabbit hole.

“But it helps me to understand the music more today.”

Despite delivering stinging, contemporary music, Ramirez is a traditionalist at heart. “I respect everybody’s job, and we’re all in this together to make a buck,” he insists. “But to be honest, there are a lot of rock musicians out there today who say they’re playing blues.

“It’s music. It’s art, and there are different genres and people can like what they like. And I’m sure that some experts might ask: ‘Do you think that (a first-generation star) would have respected Muddy Waters in the ‘70s?’ Maybe. Maybe not. But if you play blues from the ‘20s or ‘30s and if you play it now, when you play it right, it has the same structure…the same sound, the same root, the same passion.

“You can still mix it with other stuff like soul and R&B and it’ll still sound like straight blues. But when you mix it with rock and hard rock, I don’t know what the word is…it just changes a lot” – and becomes something else entirely.

“I can’t tell you how many times I get in my car and play an old B.B. or Anson Funderburgh record and say ‘this is it!’” Jose adds. “I often wonder why other guys out there claiming to be blues artists are shredding their butts off.”

imageRamirez founded the JR Blues Band in his homeland while still in school and toiled trying to make a name for himself. But it was a daunting, impossible task. The few other folks who claimed to “play the blues” didn’t have a clue about the true nature of the music. When he approached club owners for gigs, they wouldn’t give him the time of day. And even when he did get to play, audience response was marginal at best.

Jose’s greatest accomplishment during in the decade he kept at it was a small festival he booked at a club in San Jose. He scraped together enough money to bring Debbie Davies – a lady who cut her teeth working with Albert Collins before launching her own career — down from the U.S. to serve as the headliner with Ramirez’s group backing her up. And although it didn’t make a ripple in the water of the local music scene, it was a real life-changer for him.

“My band had already played a set,” he remembers. “Just before bringing her up, I was sitting in the green room with her and she says: ‘Jose, you’re doing great in your own country, but why don’t you consider moving to the States? The States is all about having a story to tell, and I think you have a great one. If you don’t try, you’ll never know.’

“For me,” Ramirez says, “that’s how it all started.”

Fortunately, his godmother lived in Tampa and agreed to put him up when he entered the country as an adult for the first time five years ago at age 28. “I asked her if I could come and visit for a couple of months. ‘If things work out,’ I told her, ‘fine. If they don’t, I’ll just go back to Costa Rica,’” Jose recalls. “She said: ‘Yeah. I’ve always supported you and your dreams.’

“But I think she didn’t expect for me to be successful (laughs). She thought I was only gonna be there for a month or two.”

It was a great spot to land because of its well-established blues community and a relatively large number of clubs at which to play. And his timing couldn’t have been better.

Three days after he landed, Ramirez crossed paths with singer Lauren Mitchell. A two-time Blues Blast Music Awards nominee with a large following across the Southeast because of her powerful stage presence and a voice that’s reminiscent of Etta James, “her guitar player had quit the night before and offered me a chance to try out for her band,” Jose says.

“It was a crazy coincidence. She auditioned me in front of a live audience a couple of weeks later, liked what she heard, said ‘let’s do it,’ and we worked together for the better part of a year.”

No longer a front man, he relished the chance to continue to learn more about the business and develop his skills as a lead and rhythm guitarist by playing behind someone else. A short while later, he began serving as Lauren’s musical director, and built up more confidence about his voice by singing backup and taking the lead, too. He also worked on his stage presence by studying Sugaray Rayford in action every chance he could.

Unquestionably a risk-taker, Ramirez managed to put together a European tour for himself in 2018 during breaks from Mitchell’s group. He researched places he wanted to play in advance across England, Spain, Belgium and the Netherlands then recruited local bands to back him, practicing with them for a week in advance before hitting the road.

When he and Mitchell parted company on pleasant terms a year later, he relocated to Washington, D.C., where he formed his first U.S. band and began working on another overseas tour. His group represented the DC Blues Society in the 2020 International Blues Challenge in Memphis after winning the local competition and wound up in second place overall. Canada’s Horojo Trio – a group that included veteran recording artist JW-Jones – took home the top prize.

As spring approached, things were really looking up for Ramirez. Not only were bookings increasing because of his IBC showing, but he was on the verge of releasing his first CD, Here I Come, an album that was produced by Funderburgh, one of his heroes. They’d developed a strong friendship after first meeting in Bradenton about four years ago.

Funderburgh was in town to play the Bradenton Blues Festival as part of Mark Hummel’s Golden State Lone Star Blues Revue alongside another guitar master, Little Charlie Baty, and they booked a gig at Ace’s, a club that was a regular stop on the blues circuit until shuttering before COVID struck.

image“I showed up just wanting to see two of my favorite guitar players ever together on the same stage,” Jose remembers. “For me, it was a dream come true. I introduced myself to Charlie, may he rest in peace. He said: ‘Oh, you’re that little kid from Costa Rica!’ I said: ‘Yeah! I’m no longer a little kid, but I guess I am.’ Immediately, he said: ‘Would you like to play tonight?’

“’Would I like to play? Sure!’ But I explained: ‘I didn’t even bring my guitar. I just came to watch you guys.’ He says: ‘Well, I heard a lot of great things about you. Do you wanna play my Strat?’

“’Are you kiddin’ me?’ I asked. He said: ‘No. It’ll be good for me. I can take a break and drink a beer, and you…you can play a couple of songs with Anson.’”

Baty introduced Ramirez to Funderburgh a few moments later, and before Jose knew what was happening, he was standing on stage with Little Charlie’s ax in hand and undergoing a baptism by fire as he traded riffs with Anson, one of the greatest instrumentalists Texas has ever produced, with Hummel providing harp accents in accompaniment.

“I don’t even think Anson realizes how good he is,” Jose insists today. “He’s such a modest, humble guy. And there’s a reason that Stevie Ray wore T-shirts with his name on ‘em!”

The young Costa Rican and veteran Texan have grown closer ever since, crossing paths on a few occasions and keeping in touch electronically. “A while later, I saw that Anson was producing an album for Italian guitarist Dany Franchi and that he’d started producing them for other younger guys,” Ramirez says. “I said to myself: ‘I’m gonna send Anson a message and say: Hey, I’m ready for my debut album, too.’

“I reached out, and immediately, he said: ‘Jose, I’ve been watching your every move on Facebook, and I’m very proud of you. I would love to produce your record.’

“The sessions took place at Wire Recording Studios in Austin in December 2018, and he put together an unbelievable group of musicians. I was so-o-o honored just to be in the same room with these guys: Jim Pugh (Cray and Etta James) on organ and piano, Wes Starr (Hummel, Gary Primich and Omar & the Howlers) on drums, Nate Rowe (Nouveaux Honkies) on bass and Kaz Kazanoff and the Texas Horns. And it was mixed by Grammy winner Stuart Sullivan (Jimmie Vaughan and Willie Nelson).”

The album was released independently about two months after the IBCs, and Ramirez was set to tour the U.S. and Canada to promote it, but never got the chance. Unable to enjoy an in-person album-release party because of COVID-19, he had to settle for a virtual one thanks to the Can’t Stop the Blues organization on the Facebook platform. He also uprooted himself again to Tampa both to renew old friendships and to take advantage of the local scene as the world returned to normal.

“We had a U.S. tour booked for 30 shows and a European tour that was gonna last two months, and we were going to come back to play Canadian shows during the holidays,” Jose says wistfully. “But then corona said: ‘No, you’re not going anywhere!’”

Despite lack of promotion, the album had major legs of its own. It soared to the top of blues charts internationally and stayed there for pretty much all of the year, earning a nomination for best debut release in the 2020 Blues Blast Music Awards and again in the 2021 BMAs.

Fortunately, Florida never totally shut down during the epidemic, allowing him the opportunity to play infrequently locally. His new band included brothers Andre Reyes Jr. on drums and Antonio on keys – former member of the band Stranded in the City, which represented the Kansas City Blues Society at the IBCs. They relocated to Tampa to join him along with bassist Kenny Watson Jr.

image“We all lost a lot last year,” Jose says, looking back. “And we couldn’t play live very often. But part of the prize I won at the IBCs was a six-song recording session at Purple Ridge Recording Studio near Asheville, N.C. We had the studio for ten days, and I decided to bring my band up and produce a new record myself.

“Anson had given me a lot of free will in the studio when we recorded because they were my songs. We kinda co-produced, and I learned a lot. I already had good material to record and thought this would be a good challenge to see if I could produce it on my own.”

The session took place last November, and the Reyes brothers were forced to return to Kansas City because of their uncertain financial situation. Ramirez, meanwhile, returned home and started pitching his new work to labels. “The first one that replied was Delmark,” he says happily. “They were interested in the songs I’d cut, but told me: ‘We want you to come to Chicago and sign a contract with us. We’re going to release a single first and then work on the rest of the album.

“Later this year, they want me to travel to Chicago to record the rest of the album with their musicians to put the Delmark stamp on it, and I’m very excited about that.”

But fans around the world already are enjoying a small piece of that effort.

Remastered by label co-owner Julia A. Miller in the Windy City, Delmark has already released the single “Whatever She Wants,” a soulful blues burner that might remind folks of material by Bobby “Blue” Bland or Johnnie Taylor. Its theme deals with a love for a woman so enticing that Ramirez will do anything to be with her.

“It’s a very personal song,” says Jose, who’s the label’s first-ever Latin-American blues artist in its 63-year history – surprising because of the strength and depth of the blues world in Brazil and Argentina. “There are composers out there who can write a song based on another person’s story. But when you write one based on your own personal experiences…that just digs deeper into peoples’ hearts.

“I wanted to cut a record that sounded like the music I used to listen to with my dad when I was growing up, and I think this one’s gonna have a lot of that.”

Issued on April 16, the song hit the No. 1 on Billboard’s blues chart 24 hours later.

Jose’s eager to get to Chicago to finish the CD. In the interim, he’s currently booking gigs in Florida with regional musicians and has launched a side project, too: an international blues review that includes a drummer friend from Costa Rica, a bass player from Peru and a keyboard player from Boston.

But big things are on the horizon, he insists. “I’ve been really excited in the last week or so. I’ve now got a booking agent in Germany, and he already has seven shows lined up for October, and we’re working on more. We’re just hoping things continue to improve and don’t close back down again.”

Through it all, Jose remains humbled by the groundswell of encouragement he’s received in the U.S. since his arrival. “I couldn’t be where I am today without the support of everyone – club and festival promoters, the fans who come to the shows, the small clubs, the big clubs,” he says. “I’m looking forward to giving them a great new album on Delmark for them in a few months.”

Learn more about Jose’s music and find out where he’ll be playing next by visiting his website: www.joseramirezblues.com.

Blues Blast Magazine Senior writer Marty Gunther has lived a blessed life. Now based out of Charlotte, N.C., his first experience with live music came at the feet of the first generation of blues legends at the Newport Folk Festivals in the 1960s. A former member of the Chicago blues community, he’s a professional journalist and blues harmonica player who co-founded the Nucklebusters, one of the hardest working bands in South Florida.


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 Featured Blues Review – 1 of 4

imageJarkka Rissanen & Sons of the Desert – Cargo

Humu Records – 2021

9 tracks; 40:30 minutes

Blues artists understand the need for an energy change, within an album or a set. It’s why so many of them keep assorted jazz licks in their arsenal, so they can take things down a notch, keeping the music bluesy, but the dynamics lower-key. Finnish artists Jarkka Rissanen & Sons of the Desert tap into a blues jazz vibe on Cargo, an album of chill, instrumental blues.

Guitarist Rissanen, who also handles everything from mandolin to lap steel, is well-known in the Finnish roots music scene. Cargo spotlights his tasteful playing, which follows in the jazzier traditions of blues players like Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Vaughan often used extended instrumental jazz tracks, like “Lenny” and “Riviera Paradise,” to close out albums and live sets and Rissanen applies a similar kind of relaxing jazzy blues to all of Cargo.

Laid back music like this can be a trap for the artist. The musician is trying to work with a specific sound and intensity, but it’s easy to drift from mid-tempo into dull, like a drowsy driver floating over to the shoulder. It’s especially difficult on an instrumental album without any heavy rockers to amp up the energy. Rissanen navigates the limitations using a few tools.

For instance, “Pow-Wow” is the album’s bluesiest track, using acoustic guitar and slide that give the track a country and western kind of feel. Coming in more than halfway through the album, it feels like a reset, especially juxtaposed against the more electric-oriented tracks. “Roll Call” has a catchy groove, and it’s hard not to wonder what the track, with its memorable riff, might sound like with lyrics. However Rissanen uses some jazzy soloing and pops outside of the song’s pocket, getting almost atonal at times. Rissanen is a bluesman at heart, though, and right as melodies veer too far from the song, he brings them back. “Roll Call” isn’t a Miles Davis; it’s Rissanen and Sons of the Desert successfully stretching out and getting experimental within the confines of blues rock.

However, even with all of the tasteful playing and smart arrangements, an album of instrumentals can be a challenging sell. For many people, especially myself, this kind of music, especially when it doesn’t have too much of an edge, becomes background music. Rissanen and his band have created pretty tunes, but for many, it won’t be the type of album you seek out for listening, so much as it will be something to accompany you while you do something else.

Reviewer Steven Ovadia writes about music and technology. You can see more of his music writing at https://steven.ovadia.org/music/.


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 Featured Blues Review – 2 of 4 

imageRosedale Junction – Stompin’ On The Front Porch

www.rosedalejunction.com

Center Block Records

12 songs – 68 minutes

Stompin’ On The Front Porch is the debut release from Rosedale Junction, a band led by Boston-based multi-instrumentalist and songwriter, Toby Soriero. Its footprint lands squarely in the broader American music scene, mixing blues with country, R&B and rock ‘n’ roll. And Soriero demonstrates that he is a deft hand at pretty much everything.

In addition to composing seven of the songs on the album, Soriero also plays guitar, bass, resonator, mandolin, piano, uke bass, drums and percussion as well as contributing backing vocals. Drummer Jim Riley is present on all bar one of the tracks (the Bo Diddley-esque “Bourbon Man”), while a variety of guest musicians add a multitude of different flours to the songs.

Comprising Soriero’s songs, four covers and two alternative takes, Stompin’ On The Front Porch is a highly enjoyable release. The album opens with the grinding blues rock of “Prison Yard Blues” with wonderfully weathered vocals from John Lee Sanders, whose whiskey-soaked voice is gloriously contrasted against Tyra Julliet’s sultry backing vocals. Trent Williamson’s lonesome harmonica weaves nicely around the vocals.

“Brass City Blues” sounds like a ZZ Top boogie if they had horns and Hammond organ, although Dgiovahni Denize’s vocals are closer to George Thorogood than Billy Gibbons. Soriero nicely meshes two guitar leads over the solo section, while Roger Smith’s Hammond organ even gives the song a hint of Deep Purple towards the end.

Indeed, there is an echo throughout the album of bands from the 1970s like Purple, who delighted in making music, rather than letting themselves be pigeon-holed into a single genre. Socerio is equally comfortable on the gospel-style cover of Led Zepellin’s “Baby Come On Home” (with an exhilarating vocal performance from Rachel Gavaletz), the acoustic folk “The Ballad Of The Leatherman French” (with superb weeping violin from Vito Gutilla and a pitch-perfect reading of the tale by Joel Jorgensen on vocals), the country swing of “The Blizzard of ’73” or the bluesy shuffle of “Chasin’ The Devil Blues”. A second version of “The Ballad Of The Leatherman French” is one of the outtakes, but is purely instrumental, enabling Soriero to stretch out on acoustic guitar. The other is an alternative take of “Bourbon Man”, played this time in a heavier blues-rock vein, with Socerio trading guitar licks with Joe Soriero and Jorgensen even adding in one verse from Jimmy Rogers’ “Sloppy Drunk”.

Soriero is a sharp songwriter, often penning narrative tales that engage the listener lyrically. Of the covers, “I’d Rather Go Blind” is perhaps one of those songs that doesn’t need to be covered ever again, but Soriero makes a valiant stab at it, ably assisted by another top vocal performance from Gavaletz. Rodney Crowell’s blues-country “Song For The Life” and Bill Withers’ “Grandma’s Hands” are excellent choices, however, and Soriero pulls them both off with panache, replacing the lap steel of Crowell’s original with another glorious violin solo from Gutilla and adding a heavier, rockier edge to “Grandma’s Hands” as well as turning it into a duet between Jorgensen and Julliet.

Soriero produced the album, with engineering by Alex Allinson. Recorded at The Bridge Sound And Stage in Sommerville, MA, The Record Room in Hong Kong “and other remote locations across the globe”, Stompin’ On The Front Porch, has much to enjoy. It isn’t a pure blues album but there is more than enough blues herein for any fan of modern blues, particularly with a rock or country edge to it, to enjoy.

Reviewer Rhys Williams lives in Cambridge, England, where he plays blues guitar when not holding down a day job as a technology lawyer or running around after his children. He is married to an American, and speaks the language fluently, if with an accent.


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 Featured Blues Review – 3 of 4 

imageDr. Helander & Third Ward – Traffic Jam on the Back Street

Bluelight Records Records – 2020

10 tracks; 41:49

The amazing things about international blues is you often can’t tell if a band is from outside of the United States until you go to the liner notes. If there’s any kind of tell for international blues, it’s that it often sounds too perfectly vintage and American, recreating a pristine sonic moment that might not have ever occurred, a form of musical historical fiction. The charm of Dr. Helander & Third Ward’s Traffic Jam on the Back Street is that once the vocals kick-in, you know this is international blues.

Dr. Helander is Ilkka Helander, a Finnish blues singer and guitarist. His voice is calm and staccato, with a touch of accent around his English vocals, like the last stubborn remnants of snow on the ground in the thaw after a big winter storm. Blues vocalists tend to let their voices sway along with the music, but Helander’s voice is steady, feeling almost immovable within the swirl of blues music created by his band. His unique tone makes for fun blues songs that sound different, if not an evolution of the classic sound, then certainly a fresh take.

The take is so fresh, that even as Helander and the band work through a set of standard originals, ranging from 1960s electric blues to more rock-oriented numbers, his vocals make it all sound new. Helander’s singing give the tunes a futuristic shine that works well against the soulful, old-fashioned music. That means that on a track like “Ask Me About the Blues,” a slow blues, Helander’s voice channels the spirit of the style, if not its timbre. Every other element is classic blues, though, from Helander’s stinging guitar, to the Third Ward rhythm section (bassist Esa Kuloniemi and drummer Leevi Leppänen), which does a masterful job with the groove—on this track, and across the album—laying back so the beat feels welcome but not inevitable.

“Strike a Match” is John Lee Hooker simplicity filtered through a big rock sound, a la ZZ Top. “Blown Off With the Wind” is uptempo blues rock, and “Highway Shoes” is 50s-inspired rockabilly, with lyrical, raw slide guitar courtesy of versatile bassist Kuloniemi. Tomi Leino’s harmonica shines on the track, as it does during all of its appearances on the album. Helander and his band know the blues, but never take it for granted.

Lots of artists respect the blues, but many seem challenged by how to channel the reverence. It’s too easy for a band to transition into musical transcription, out of fear of offending blues purists. Helander and Third Ward do an incredible job paying tribute to the blues, but also inserting Helander’s Finnish roots, creating something both new and authentic, but most importantly, an enjoyable listen.

Reviewer Steven Ovadia writes about music and technology. You can see more of his music writing at https://steven.ovadia.org/music/.



 Featured Blues Review – 4 of 4 

imageOliver Wood – Always Smilin’

www.oliverwoodmusic.com

Honey Jar/Thirty Tigers

11 songs – 38 minutes

Always Smilin’ is the debut solo release from the Wood Brothers frontman, recorded with a wide range of guest musicians. And, as you’d expect from someone with Wood’s impressive résumé, it’s a glorious gumbo of gospel, folk, blues and Americana, all adding up to a prime slice of American roots music.

Wood’s raw, almost discordant guitar playing and distinctive, wise, aching voice are both in fine fettle throughout, from the opening track, “Kindness”(with its beautiful refrain “Kindness. Kindness is my religion”) to the electrified gospel of the closing “Climbing High Mountains (Tryin’ To Get Home)”. In between, there is the deep bottleneck blues of “Unbearable Heart”, which sees Wood alone with an acoustic guitar, and the upbeat groove of the first single from the album, “Fine Line”. One of the absolute highlights of an album packed with great moments is the magnificent gospel blues of “The Battle Is Over (But The War Goes On)” – originally performed by Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee in 1973.

He calls in some first class support at different times throughout the album, with Jano Rix, Ted Pecchio, Phil Cook, Tyler Greenwell, Ken Coomer, Nicholas Falk, Ric Robertson, Aaron Lipp, Phil Madeira, Bryan Owings, John Medeski, Susan Tedeschi, Brook Sutton, Freda McCrary and Steve Lee all contributing. In addition, production credits are shared between Wood, Sutton, Rix and Cook. But while Always Smilin’ may have been recorded over a period of months, often the result of impromptu jam sessions as the various musicians travelled through Wood’s home town of Nashville, it has a firm thematic unity thanks to Wood’s voice, guitar and singular musical vision and Sutton and Rix’s lively, warm recording.

Wood co-wrote all the songs with a mix of co-writers, except for the classic gospel covers of “Climbing High Mountains (Tryin’ To Get Home)” and ” The Battle Is Over (But The War Goes On)”. As he often does, the vocal melody often goes where the listener least expects it, but this only magnifies the impact of the lyrics, particularly on the chorus of “Kindness”, which really shouldn’t work but absolutely does.

The sheer number of different instruments on display add depth and variety to the songs, from Sutton’s anarchic tube on “Get The Blues” and Lipp’s banjo on “Kindness”, to Robertson’s wurlitzer and mandolin and Falk’s chicken coop and percussion, in addition to the more common guitars, drums and keyboards.

This isn’t an album of extended solos (although the wild, distorted slide guitar solo on “Molasses” is outstanding). Rather the focus is on the songs and Wood’s voice. The result is a fine collection of well-written songs, superbly played and recorded. In addition, in these times of pandemic, discord and uncertainty, Wood’s uplifting, optimistic lyrics add some much needed positivity.

If you like the Wood Brothers, or the loose, groove-orientated songs of Colin Linden & Luther Dickinson or the New Moon Jelly Roll Freedom Rockers, there is lot for you to enjoy on Always Smilin’.

Reviewer Rhys Williams lives in Cambridge, England, where he plays blues guitar when not holding down a day job as a technology lawyer or running around after his children. He is married to an American, and speaks the language fluently, if with an accent.


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