If you're looking to buy blues albums as a holiday gift for yourself or a friend, you've come to the right place. Take a load off and set a spell. Here are seven that recently crossed my desk and knocked me out...
Louisiana Red (Iverson Minter) died earlier this year in February at age 79. The vocalist, harmonica player and guitarist recorded more than 50 albums. On the new release When My Mama Was Living (Labor), Minter is heard on unreleased masters and alternate takes from the mid-1970s. This is Delta blues minimalism at its finest, since most tracks feature just Minter wailing away with spare accompaniment. On several tracks, he's joined by harmonica player Peg Leg Sam, guitarist Lefty Diaz and pianist Kyril Bromley. Sample Got a Girl With a Dog Won't Bark, Going Down to Georgia and You Got to Move. Music so rich and on time that they didn't need a drummer.
The story of the blues in the '50s and '60s is about a lot of great musicians who bubbled just under the surface but never quite made it to household-name status. Either they sounded too much like others who were prominent or they preferred to toil on their home turf. Singer-guitarist Otis Rush is one of those artists. Rush was a powerful influence on Chicago's West Side in the '60s, playing a hoarse electric guitar and singing with a strong, moaning sound. On A Cold Day in Hell (Delmark), recorded in 1975, Rush's guitar licks on slow blues are drizzled with informality and searing heat. Sample Society Woman and You're Breaking My Heart. Pickin' and pluckin' with plenty of testifyin'.
Pianist and three-time Grammy winner Willie "Pinetop" Perkins died in March 2011 at age 97 and was one of Mississippi's last old-time blues artists. Recorded in September 2010, How Long? (Rock Beat) was Perkins's last recording. Perkins's blues here rock and sway and feature guest singers and a tight band with organ and horns. Sample Back to the Chicken Shack, How Long Blues and Rhumba Man. All of the tracks are catchy and fetching. Take-your-time blues from the Pinetop Boogie Woogie man himself. The CD version comes with a terrific DVD of video from the session.
Singer-guitarist Samuel "Magic Sam" Maghett's Raw Blues (Rock Beat) was recorded live at Mandrake's in Berkeley, Calif. This album features Magic Sam in July 1969—five months before his untimely death from a heart attack at age 32. You can hear Magic Sam's guitar influence on Eric Clapton, Duane Allman and Dickey Betts and many other rock-blues standouts of the '60s and early '70s. Sample I Got Papers on You Baby, Strange Things Happen and Just Pickin'. Exciting blues from a master who was taken from us way too early.
Mike Wheeler's Self Made Man (Delmark) is a contemporary blues album recorded in May. Wheeler, a guitar-vocalist, is a solid picker who integrates many forms, including funk and rock. Best of all, Wheeler's lyrics tell terrific tales or offer lovers stern warnings. Sample Big Mistake, Join Hands and Walkin' Out the Door. In the tradition of B.B. King—party-time meets a story-and-a-half.
Chicago blues singer and Muddy Waters disciple Willie Buck has a determined sound on Cell Phone Man (Delmark). The band here is particularly powerful and features guitarist Rockin' Johnny on two tracks, former Waters' guitarist Rick Kreher on others, with Barrelhouse Chuck on piano and blues harp vets Bharath Rajakumar and Martin Lang. Sample Strange Woman, Two Trains Running and My Eyes Keep Me in Trouble. Buck's gut-bucket voice backed by twisted harps, stinging guitars and lots of licks.
Though not a traditional blues band, The Fat Babies transport you back to the late '20s on Chicago Hot (Delmark). This young group has all the syncopation of bathtub gin and chalk-striped double- breasted suits. Leader and bassist Beau Sample is an established Chicago player, and he's joined by a gang of enthusiasts, including cornetist Andy Schumm. So tight, you might mistake this group for a speakeasy house band. Sample Froggie Moore, Susie and San. Bluesy jazz from the days when people wore hats, work meant labor and radio was rage.