Ronnie Earl & The Broadcasters "Spread The Love"

A lot of people I know have questioned how anyone could enjoy listening to the blues because they consider it to be “sad music”. While the argument can be made that a lot of blues songs deal with not-so-happy content, the name blues is a bit of a misnomer. At the base of it, blues is really a type of music that allows you to confront your demons and grow from experience; in this sense, playing and listening to the blues can be a spiritual experience. Ronnie Earl has exemplified the latter approach in his last few albums for Edmonton’s Stony Plain Records.

Though he has had a turbulent career and personal life, Earl has used the blues as a way to transcend his troubles and use his spiritual awareness to create wonderful music that touches people of all ages. With touches of jazz, soul, and gospel and possibly the best clean Strat tone since Mark Knopfler, Earl’s blues are unique in a world of SRV-clones and pop-blues crossovers.

Ronnie Earl and his band, The Broadcasters (named after the first solidbody guitar produced by Fender), are back with their latest all-instrumental album, Spread The Love, on Stony Plain Records. The album is stylistically diverse, with a little something for everyone; there are up-tempo workouts like the shuffling “Ethan’s Song” and the soulful organ-laden “Happy”, ballads like “Blues for Dr. Donna” (an ode to his wife) and the powerful “Miracle”, and even heartfelt tributes to some of Earl’s influences and blues greats like Albert Collins, Guitar Slim, and Otis Spann. There’s even a great acoustic blues at the end of the album, “Blues for Bill”, which almost transports listeners back to a back porch in the Mississippi Delta. The sound indicates that the band is playing in one room all together, with minimal overdubbing of instruments, which makes for an authentic and enjoyable experience; at times, I forget that this is not a live recording! Earl’s playing just keeps getting better year after year, with incredible licks seemingly being channeled through him from the heavens but without overplaying or assaulting your ears. Listeners who tire quickly of noodling instrumentalists have nothing to fear with Mr. Earl and his “less-is-more” approach!

Although this reviewer does not mind the absence of vocalists on this record (as it gives Earl more space to stretch out in his solos), listeners who enjoy lyrics with their blues may want to sample this album first before purchasing; however, unlike 2007's Hope Radio and 2009’s Living In The Light, the songs are for the most part shorter this time around, so the instrumentals shouldn’t get too long or boring.

It’s great to see Ronnie and the Broadcasters still releasing high quality music and Spread The Love is a welcome addition to their discography. Highly recommended for Ronnie Earl and blues fans, as well as anyone who wants to see how the blues is not necessarily “sad music”.


"Señor Blues" Fall Schedule

Señor Blues will be on on the following days this Fall (7-9am MT, as always):

September 18 (the 3rd Anniversary show!)
October 2
October 16

Future shows will be announced later this season. Stay tuned and check here for any updates or changes to the schedule!


Señor Blues 1980s Blues Retrospective

Legwarmers...MTV...Who's The Boss?...Stevie Ray Vaughan...Robert Cray... What do all of these things have in common? They're all associated with the 1980s!

Tune in to Señor Blues this upcoming Saturday from 7-9am for a 1980s blues retrospective to commemorate the 80th edition of Señor Blues. Join me as we discuss the major artists, trends, and recordings from one of the most important decades in blues history.

Legwarmers and Flock of Seagulls hair-do's not included! :)


Blast From the Past: Nina Simone Sings The Blues

I tend to be a bit skeptical about albums titled [Insert Artist Name] Sings The Blues, especially when the titular artist is not really known for singing the blues in the first place; more often than not, I find such albums to be curios and interesting experiments in marketing, rather than successful musical or artistic statements. There are exceptions, of course, and although Nina Simone is not often labeled as a ‘blues singer’, the blues has always been an important component of her music, whether it’s apparent or more understated. Nina Simone Sings The Blues, her first release on the RCA Victor label, was released in 1967, shortly after the blues revival influenced by the British Invasion and before the late-60s blues-rock boom.

From the first line of the opening track, “Do I Move You?”, it’s obvious that this record was not made for commercial reasons. This is raw blues, sounding more like some of Chess’s grittier sides of the ‘60s than the smoother blues of B.B. King and Little Milton; the arrangements are relatively sparse, allowing lots of room for Simone’s singing and piano and the playing of the small ensemble (two guitars, bass, drums, harmonica/sax) behind her. It definitely sounds like the entire band was playing in the room with Simone as they laid down the tracks. The album contains a mix of up-tempo blues and R&B tunes and slower ballads, which makes for a balanced and enjoyable program of music. Interestingly, although she covers some standards, Simone also adds some self-written blues tunes to the mix, which shows that she is not only an effective interpreter of other blues works but a skilled writer of her own blues songs too.

On the up-tempo side, “Day and Night” is a fun song, with Simone’s double-tracked harmonizing vocals singing over a jaunty soul-blues riff. Her rendition of the classic “House of the Rising Sun” has a gospel flavor to it, with some haunting minor chords cleverly hidden in the arrangement. Similarly, on the slower side, songs like “My Man’s Gone Now”, “Since I Fell For You”, and “Blues For Mama” have a haunting quality, mixing Simone’s plaintive and almost androgynous-sounding vocals with dark piano chords; they really are distinctive as her own unique interpretations of these songs. “Backlash Blues” is also notable for its poignant lyrics (written by Langston Hughes), which are about the then-current Civil Rights Movement. “In the Dark” also has an addictive smoky after-hours club feel.

My only gripe about Nina Simone Sings The Blues is that some of the songs are just too short; just as they seem to be getting going and finding their groove, they’re finished! Still, in the pre-CD/mp3 era, the time constraints were common to a lot of singles and albums, and it doesn’t detract from the experience of listening to the album…it just makes you want to repeat the album all over again from the start. If records titled [Insert Name] Sings The Blues make you skeptical too, don’t be fooled by this title…Nina Simone Sings The Blues is the real deal.


Señor Blues Review: Jimmie Vaughan Plays Blues, Ballads & Favorites

From founding the Fabulous Thunderbirds in the 1970s to playing on festival stages alongside fellow legends like Hubert Sumlin, Jimi Hendrix, & Eric Clapton all over the world, Jimmie Vaughan has had an illustrious career. Highly regarded by blues pioneers and contemporaries alike, he is probably one of the most influential Texas blues musicians around today. And he also happens to be the older brother of Stevie Ray Vaughan, another blues legend you may be familiar with!

Though he has been actively touring and recording with other musicians in the last few years, Jimmie Vaughan Plays Blues, Ballads, & Favorites is his first solo album since 2001’s Do You Get the Blues?. Was it worth the wait? I think so!

It’s quite obvious that this is a record of Jimmie Vaughan doing what he does best and loves doing: playing killer blues, early rock ‘n’ roll, and other Texas-influenced music, adding tasty and understated guitar licks to these classics, and playing with friends like Lou Ann Barton and Bill Willis. The excitement and joy of this ‘labor of love’ is apparent in this record, and for the listener, it simply is a joy to listen to from start to finish.

Known for his ‘less-is-more’ approach to guitar playing, Vaughan applies the same principles to the production work on this new record; he leaves spaces in the arrangements, rather than smothering them in a ‘wall of sound’. Even when a small horn section is added, the music retains the feel and sound of a smaller band playing in a local blues club. This results in a refreshing and consistently enjoyable listening experience, where the music can “breathe”. This album was recorded completely on analog equipment and it shows. Listeners who are more accustomed to modern recording technology may be slightly taken aback by the occasionally rough sound, but it doesn’t distract from the performances at all; in fact, the rough sound adds a unique element to this record that you don’t hear too often these days.

The opening track, “The Pleasure’s All Mine”, sets the tone for the album, with lean, mean guitar licks and a hypnotic, swaggering groove. Another highlight is the instrumental “Comin’ and Goin”, a showcase for Vaughan’s guitar playing and showing the influence of the late, great Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown (to whom the album is dedicated). Johnny Ace’s “How Can You Be So Mean?” is also a real jazzy gem. Elsewhere on the album, the vintage sound is reflected in some of the performances. For instance, the tasty cover of Little Richard’s “Send Me Some Lovin’” duplicates the drumming style of Little Richard’s 1950s classics, in the process creating an effective and touching tribute to the music of this era. The vocals are strong on almost every vocal track, especially the harmonies between Vaughan and Barton on “I’m Leaving It Up To You” and “Come Love”. The final track, a cover of Willie Nelson’s “Funny How Time Slips Away”, is an anti-climatic end to the album, and the playing seems to meander. Still, with the rest of the album being so strong, you can simply repeat the album from the top and revisit the excitement and energy that the other songs create.

Overall, Jimmie Vaughan Plays Blues, Ballads, & Favorites was well worth the wait. It is definitely a contender for my favorite new blues release of 2010.


Musician Spotlight: "Professor" Eddie Lusk

A relatively unknown and underrated figure in Chicago Blues, “Professor” Eddie Lusk was a session piano and keyboard player who was particularly active in the late 1970s and 1980s. His playing can be heard on records by Buddy Guy, Phil Guy, Koko Taylor, Jimmy Dawkins, and many others. Like many blues and R&B piano players, Lusk started out playing piano and organ in the church tradition; growing up in Chicago, however, he could not resist the influence of the blues music that was played all around him. The ‘professor’ epithet was in fact given to him by none other than Professor Longhair, a piano player and blues artist you may have already heard (of)!

Lusk’s roots in gospel music are clearly audible in his playing; a good example of this is in the dramatic intro to “Ice Around My Heart” from Buddy Guy’s 1980 album Breaking Out. He made extensive use of the full range of the keyboard, as well as chords and rhythm in his playing, making his sound driving, dynamic, and recognizable. Unusual for a blues pianist, Lusk also embraced keyboard and synthesizer sounds in the 1980s; while this has dated some of his session work and polarized blues listeners, it does add a unique flavor to his performances. Besides working as a sideman, Lusk also led his own band, the Professor’s Revue, which recorded one album with Karen Carroll on the Delmark record label in the late 1980s.

Sadly, due to the deterioration of his health, Lusk took his own life on August 26, 1992.

On the July 3rd edition of Señor Blues, we listened to three tracks that feature “Professor” Eddie Lusk’s formidable talents as a pianist. These are:
- “Professor’s Boogie” by Phil Guy (co-written by Lusk and featuring Lusk on both piano and organ)
- “I Don’t Care No More” by Koko Taylor
- “Beetin Knockin Ringin” by Jimmy Dawkins


"Señor Blues" Summer Schedule

Marc and I like to keep our listeners on their toes in the summertime, so the schedule for Señor Blues is going to be changed up a bit for the next little while. Señor Blues will be on on the following days till the end of August (7-9am MT, as always):

July 3
July 24
August 7
August 21

Stay tuned and check here for any updates or changes to the schedule!


This Week's Show Highlight: MTV and the Blues

Although there was a blues revival in the early 1980s, blues music was not really featured prominently on MTV, a trend that continues to this day. Few blues artists made music video clips, and even fewer of these were actually played on MTV. Having said that, a few artists managed to get their videos on rotation in the early days of MTV; three of these artists are featured on the latest edition of Señor Blues (June 5).

Johnny Winter – “Don’t Take Advantage Of Me”

I was previously unaware that Johnny Winter was actually involved with MTV at one time. However, upon reading his recent biography (Raisin' Cain), I found out that he did in fact produce a music video for this track off of his Alligator Records debut, Guitar Slinger, which received a fair amount of rotation on MTV in 1984. I was unable to locate the music video for this song, but you can hear the song itself on the program; for more information about the video itself, check out Winter’s biography.

Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble – “Cold Shot” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m2ou-WIxfLY)

As one of the most popular blues artists that emerged in the 1980s, Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble made several music videos. However, “Cold Shot” is a real gem! I had never previously seen SRV’s comedic side and I couldn’t stop laughing once I saw this video…it’s hilarious!

Robert Cray – “Right Next Door (Because of Me)” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jP2EvSNHqh0)

Robert Cray was another major blues artist who emerged in the 1980s and Strong Persuader was a major breakthrough album for him. One of the music videos produced from this record was for “Right Next Door (Because of Me)”. The video is fittingly moody and tense, in keeping with the sombre tone of the song. At times, the video borders on cheesy…but what music video doesn't (then or now)?

It's easy to see why these videos were not played as much as the trendier or higher-budget videos for, say, "Hungry Like The Wolf" or "Every Breath You Take", but taken on their own merits, they are entertaining music videos to see and hear.


Two New(er) Releases From Alligator Records

2010 seems to be the year for outstanding new releases by Alligator Records, and the latest efforts from Janiva Magness and Guitar Shorty (The Devil Is An Angel Too and Bare Knuckle, respectively) released on this famous blues record label don’t disappoint!

Magness is known for her powerful vocals and captivating performances; take a look at any picture of her playing live and her stage presence is obvious. The question is, can her recordings capture her in-person charisma accurately? The Devil Is An Angel Too certainly does, without sounding cluttered or over-produced, as some of her previous records tend to. Opening with the raw Delta Blues-inspired riff of the title track, Magness delivers one emotional performance after another on a series of well-chosen covers and a few memorable originals. Highlights include “I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down”, which marries a mid-tempo rock beat to her bluesy vocals and some Buddy Guy-inspired guitar licks; “Weeds Like Us”, a smoky and lonesome slow blues; and “End of Our Road”, a fun and funky workout. A few sleepy ballads near the end threaten to disrupt the pace of the album, but it’s nothing the ‘Shuffle’ or ‘Program’ button on your iPod or CD player can’t fix!

Guitar Shorty is one powerhouse of a guitarist, and that’s putting it mildly. I had the pleasure of seeing him live last year and at 70 years of age, he has more energy than a lot of punk and rock musicians less than half his age! Showboating aside, however, Bare Knuckle is an accurate representation of Guitar Shorty’s breadth of material and depth as a blues artist. From rockin’ blues tunes to heart-wrenching slow ballads, reggae grooves to Santana-inspired passages, Guitar Shorty can do it all and with fire. Standouts include “Too Hard To Love You”, with its steady groove and funky clavinet stabs; “Texas Women”, a Texas blues shuffle that transcends the standard 12-bar blues pattern; and “Bad Memory”, which features Shorty’s characteristic tongue-in-cheek lyrics and some tasty guitar licks. I detect the use of (what sounds like) AutoTune on the vocals in just a few places, but it doesn’t detract from the high quality of the performances. Bare Knuckle is, in my opinion, the most consistent Guitar Shorty album to date.

Overall, these CDs feature some of the finest moments of these two blues musicians captured on record, and are the next best thing to seeing them in concert.

Blast From the Past: Hubert Sumlin's "Healing Feeling"

Simply put, Hubert Sumlin is without peer in the blues guitar world. With a tone and playing style as unique as his own fingerprints, Sumlin laid down inventive guitar parts on Howlin’ Wolf’s classic Chess recordings for over 20 years. Unfortunately, personal and professional issues delayed his solo career after the Wolf’s passing in 1975, and it wasn’t until the late 1980s that he released his first solo albums in America. Healing Feeling was his second album, released on Black Top Records in 1990.

With Healing Feeling, it’s not hard to see why these early solo recordings did not raise Sumlin’s profile at the time; on initial listens, few of the songs or performances stand out, and unless you are a Wolf or Sumlin fan, you might be tempted to dismiss it as just another 12-bar blues album. However, on closer listens, there are some “hidden charms”. Sumlin’s guitar cuts through the mix and is always clear, and co-producer/bandleader Ronnie Earl thankfully leaves him lots of room to lay down his spiky lead guitar lines (whilst contributing some fine guitar playing himself). “Down the Dusty Road”, a solo instrumental, really shows how unique and quirky Sumlin’s guitar style is (let’s see someone try to figure out the guitar tabs for this song!). Even when playing the Stratocaster he is pictured with on the cover (a guitar that has been played by countless musicians over the years), his tone still screams “Hubert Sumlin”. The two live performances on the record (“Come Back Little Girl” and “Honey Dumplings”) are especially enjoyable, since they allow Sumlin and the band to loosen up and play more raunchily than in the studio; it’s also a treat to hear him sing on these two tracks, with a rough yet surprisingly assertive voice. Elsewhere on the record, the vocals are handled quite well by James “Thunderbird” Davis and Darrell Nulisch. “I Don’t Want No Woman” is also a fun, up-tempo Stevie Ray Vaughan-esque shuffle. At times, the backing band (Ronnie Earl & The Broadcasters) sound more like a competent bar band than a gritty blues combo from the halcyon days of Chess Records (for instance, the wailing saxophone on “Play it Cool” sounds a little too smooth for my liking), but nevertheless, they back Sumlin ably on this set.

No, it will never be a substitute for Wolf’s timeless recordings and I would not consider it essential listening for new blues listeners, but if you take the time and listen closely, Healing Feeling is an entertaining and occasionally rewarding Hubert Sumlin record.


Welcome to the "Senor Blues" blog, based on the bi-weekly CJSR program of the same name and dedicated to everything related to blues music!

If you love blues or want to learn more about the blues, look no further! Check out album reviews, performer spotlights, program highlights, and more on this blog. Feel free to contribute if you have something to say too!

If you have a request that you would like me to play on "Senor Blues", e-mail me at senorblues@cjsr.com!