Hubert Sumlin learned the blues at the side of Howlin' Wolf, and, during his thirty-plus years with the Wolf, he became one of the masters of blues improvisation. Bill Hickey started out with harmonica-legend Big Walter Horton, and, after Horton's death in 1981, he began to work closely with Sumlin. He's acquired depth and confidence both as a harpblower and as a vocalist under all of this tutelage. These two musicians and their band are the core of Bill's Blues, with guest appearances from Jimmy Rogers (guitarman for Muddy Waters and solo star in his own right) and Willie Murphy (who also produced). They can play fast and rough, as on "Feed Me", or slow and sweet ("I Am the Blues"). The album is almost equally divided between blues standards and Hickey's compositions, although Hickey's songcraft holds its own against "Slick Chick", "Shake Rattle and Roll", and the other covers. He has toiled, he has paid his dues, he has loved and lost, he IS the blues.
Bobby Radcliff's trio (his guitar, joined with Billy Ottinger on bass, and Chris Lacinak on drums) tears through a baker's dozen of blues and soul tunes, including "Turn Back the Hands of Time" and "Who's Gonna Take the Weight". His playing is slick and polished, with a certain amount of *speed* to it, even on songs like "Serve Me Right to Suffer", "There's A Cold Grave In Your Way", or "Hard Luck Blues", that would work just as well as slowburning blues. Don't get me wrong - I'm not saying they aren't good fast. They are; I'm just pointing out the speed.
Dalton Reed's second album for Bullseye doesn't fly at the same speed as Radcliff's disc, but, then again, it's cruising at a slightly higher altitude. Reed is an amazing singer out of Lafayette, Louisiana, who has attracted material from some of the best songwriters around: Bonnie Hayes, Dan Penn, and Ellis (Tower of Power) Hall, who contributes the title track, a slow soul number that lets Reed display his voice at full force. Other great songs include "Ophelia", which sounds upbeat, but warns Ophelia not to worry if the singer keeps his distance - "don't hold me too long / that'll make my love go wrong / take what I got to give and we'll do fine" - "Back on Track", and "The More You Got". The band is solid, and the soulful flourishes are neat, but not showy; the album is excellent.
Marcia Ball's brand of blues is much more honky-tonk. She's got a quirky-cool voice, and she plays a mean piano. The songs on Blue House, her latest release on Rounder, are spunky, rollicking, and, all in all, FUN tunes. It's virtually a non-stop party; there are a few somber cuts, like "One of a Kind", but songs like "Redbeans", the Joe Ely-penned "Fingernails", and "Big Shot" are in the majority here.
Finally, Michelle Malone's Band de Soleil probably isn't
what most people would think of when they think of the
blues. The band often has more of a rock-and-roll feel to
it, and the intro to the first song and title track,
"Redemption Dream", is decidedly funky. But the blues is more
than a particular way of playing, it's an attitude, and the
material on this album has that attitude, as far as I'm
concerned. OK, I'll grant that if you put this in the player
and expect something on the line of Marcia Ball, you're in
for a disappointment, but Malone's Joplinesque voice and
the strong images of nature (storms and thunder, black
rivers, blazing suns) and religion (brimstone hells,
Armageddons, pleas for God's mercy) are coming from a frame
of mind that is close enough to the blues for my tastes.
Whatever you want to call it, a song like "Sword" or "The
Gathering" is damn good material, and, like the rest of the
artists I've mentioned in this article, Band de Soleil
deserves the attention of your ears, so shut off the MTV and
get your butt down to the record store already.