Sunday, January 26, 2014

Tesla at Riverside Casino - Riverside, Iowa January 25, 2014 : Review and Photos

By Phillip Smith

Saturday evening, I took a break from the harsh Iowa winter we’ve had this year and headed down to Riverside, IA to recharge my soul with the music of Tesla.  It was an exemplary performance.  Vocalist Jeff Keith, guitarists Frank Hannon and Dave Rude, along with bassist Brian Wheat, and drummer Troy Luccketta once again, proved they can sell out a show all while keeping an audience of dedicated fans on their feet for two hours.

Tesla took the stage, kicking things off with the hard driving, “I Wanna Live”, followed by “Hang Tough” and one of their newer songs, “Taste My Pain”.  Hannon switched out guitars, for “Heaven’s Trail (No Way Out)”, grabbing his Flying V and unleashed what seemed like everything he had on the song while Jeff Keith nailed it all down in place with his ‘made for rock’ raspy vocals.  Before switching over to Five Man Acoustical Jam mode, they finished the first chapter of the show with “Mama’s Fool“, which featured some really nice swampy bluesy guitar from Hannon, and cool vocal harmony with him and Keith.  I loved the bass line on this too. Wheat really tied it together.  Unexpectedly before the song ended, Hannon’s guitar whipped behind his back and he finished with an impressive guitar solo.  

For the Five Man Acoustical Jam, stools were brought to the front of the stage for the guys to perch upon, and the electric guitars were replaced with acoustic.  Although “Comin’ Atcha Live” was on their Five Man Acoustical Jam album, it’s still kind of odd to hear played in this format; however it is still cool as hell.  Hannon broke out his resonator guitar for this, giving the song some bonus twang.  And as on the Five Man Acoustical Jam album, they segued into the Grateful Dead song, “Truckin’”.  This put a huge smile on my face.  Before switching back to their electric instruments, Wheat switches his bass out for keyboard, and the band performs “Paradise”.  This one is really beautifully played.

With a driving beat provided by Luccketta, and the opening notes played by Hannon and Rude, “Signs” begins.  A brief chill hits me as the crowd begins to sing along. Bringing this one to an end, huge cheers are released to Hannon presenting a rather large banner over his head that read, ‘And the Sign Says Tesla Rules’’.  They ruled indeed.

The final third of the show was chock full of fan favorites. “The Way It Is” closed with a strong finish, and with the opening notes of “What You Give”, I could feel the excitement in the air balloon up.  Rude and Hannon, back on acoustic, sublimely play the intro to the power ballad, “Love song”.  Once it gets going, Hannon is handed his double-neck guitar.  His playing is so impressive.

It wouldn’t be a Tesla concert without a five start performance of Modern Day Cowboy, which is exactly what it was. For a moment it is thought the show is over, but Tesla, with a little coaxing from the fans, returned for one last song, “Little Suzi”.  This drew not only a ton of applause, but drew a few folks into the aisles for a little dancing as well.  I don’t know how he does it, but Keith can still hit those high notes.  All in all, it was a stellar show and a damn good time. 


I Wanna Live
Hang Tough
Taste My Pain
Heaven’s Trail (No Way Out)
Mama’s Fool
Comin’ Atcha Live / Truckin’
A Wonderful World

The Way It Is
What You Give
Love Song
Modern Day Cowboy
Little Suzi

All photographs by Phillip Smith.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Tommy Castro and the Painkillers - The Devil You Know

Alligator Records,  2014

By Phillip Smith; January 18, 2014

Returning to the studio with a new band, The Painkillers, along with a bus load full of special guests which includes Marcia Ball, Tab Benoit, Joe Bonamassa, Samantha Fish, Mark Karan, Magic Dick, Tasha Taylor, and the Holmes Brothers, Tommy Castro has recorded one smoking hot Blues album, The Devil You Know.  The Painkillers consist of bassist Randy McDonald, drummer Byron Cage, and keyboardist James Pace. 

It’s almost impossible to not get down and do some foot-tapping when I hear “When I Cross the Mississippi”.  Tab Benoit and Mark Karan both jump in with guitars. Tab joins along on vocals as well.  I really identify with this song, and the way it invokes a longing to return to wherever we call home.  When I hear him sing the lyrics, ‘That river runs so strong.  The river clears my brain.  When I cross the Mississippi, I got muddy water in my vein.’, I get the urge to hop in my car, drive down to Memphis, and catch some live music. 

I love the slow and swampy infectious groove on the title track, “The Devil You Know”.  Between that groove, Castro’s killer guitar licks and the soulful organ contributions from Pace, this makes for a strong opening track.  Things get even better when Joe Bonamassa joins in on a cover of Savoy Brown’s “I’m Tired”.  Bonamassa handles most of the guitar on this as Castro’s slightly gravely vocals add an extra layer of ‘cool’ to the song.  The jam between the two towards the end of the song is nice as well.  Mark Karan also sits in on another outstanding cover, Wet Willie’s “Keep on Smilin’”.  I might have to even say I like this version a smidge better than the original.  I can’t help but be in a better mood when I hear it.

Joining Castro as he wails on his guitar, in the fast paced original, “Medicine Woman”, is Samantha Fish.  She’s sexy and sultry.  It’s always a pleasure to hear her sing.  It’s also a pleasure to hear the Holmes Brothers who provide spiritually uplifting backing vocals on “Two Steps Forward”, which has an extra boost of richness provided by harmonica master, Magic Dick.     

One of my favorites, “Center of Attention”, is an energetically charged powerhouse of a song with pounding rhythmic drums, splendid guitar riffs, and fierce vocals.  Revolving around a drama queen who just has to be the center of attention, this song definitely ends up on my heavy rotation list. 

The Devil You Know is thirteen tracks of soulful positively charged Blues music. It is a fantastic listen from beginning to end.   

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Jimmy Vivino & the Black Italians - 13 Live

Blind Pig Records,  2013

By Phillip Smith; January 11, 2014

In November, 2012, Jimmy Vivino, leader of Jimmy Vivino and The Basic Cable Band on Conan, reunited the Black Italians, a band formed twenty years ago, for a concert and recording session at Levon Helm Studios in Woodstock, NY.  This nine member ensemble consists of Vivino (guitar, vocals, piano), Catherine Russell (vocals) Felix Cabrera (harmonica, vocals), Danny Louis (keyboards, trombone, snare drum, vocals) Mike Merritt (bass guitar), James Wormworth (drums), Mike Jacobson (congas, bass drum, percussion), Fred Walcott (timbales, percussion) and Justin Guip (snare drum).
13 Live captures the energy and magic on the stage that evening, chronicling the performances of a few originals and covers by Bob Dylan, Johnny Winter, Traffic, The Band, and James Brown.  

Vivino tears it up on guitar as Cabrera does the same with his harmonica on Bob Dylan’s “From a Buick 6”.  And what’s really cool about the performance of “Maggie’s Farm”, another Dylan song, is the dueling lead vocals by Vivino and Russell. Splitting the song into male and female lead parts makes it interesting.  Also, the background vocals take on the role of an old-time gospel choir.  Can I get an Amen?  This one is pretty damn close to being my favorite song on the album. 

With vocals reminiscent more of Jimi Hendrix, Vivito takes on Johnny Winter’s “Fast Live Rider” with unbridled ferocity.  Guiding this track is Justin Guip, who lays down a driving head-bobbing rhythm on the snare. Another Seventies inspired cover they perform is Traffic’s classic, “Light Up or Leave Me Alone”.  This one gets kind of funky, and Vivito’s vocals on this one remind me of Danny Hutton from Three Dog Night.  Vivito and company also hit a homerun on their cover of the Band’s “Shape I’m In”.  Louis nails the keyboards, giving it a soulful groove.  I believe this is what the song may have sounded like if it were originally recorded at Stax studios in Memphis, TN. The way Catherine Russell delivers the vocals on Sugar Pie Desanto’s “Soulful Dress” is sexy and soulful.  Her lead vocals on “Fools Gold” is just as sweet.

“Song for Levon”, is a poignant tribute to the late Levon Helm, who passed away earlier in 2012, the same year this was recorded.  Vivino, playing piano and singing in a style reminiscent of Randy Newman, recalls his memories of the good times he shared with his good friend.  I feel my heartstrings being tugged on and I well up a little with emotion with each listen.  I love the last line, ‘It’s not what you take with you, it’s what you leave behind’.  That’s so true, and such an inspirational thing to sing.

13 Live, this thirteen track recording, is outstanding and I wish I could have been in Woodstock to experience it in person. 

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Spin Doctors - If the River Was Whiskey

2013 - Ruf Records 
By Phillip Smith; January 4, 2014

The original members of the Spin Doctors have all reunited; bringing vocalist Chris Barron, guitarist Eric Schenkman, bassist Mark White, and drummer Aaron Comes all back together again to record their sixth studio release, If the River Was Whiskey. This ten song album is their first in eight years, and interestingly leans a lot more toward the Blues side of the scale.  It’s fun to hear the Spin Doctors take on the Blues full force.  If it weren’t for Barron’s recognizable voice, I wouldn’t have guessed this was the Spin Doctors.   

I really like the twangy guitar riff Schenkman dishes out on “Some Other Man”, a song about broken hearts and lost love.  This could very well be mistaken as the missing track from Bob Dylan’s Tempest album. It has a very folky blues feel to it.  I also enjoyed the cleverly written, “So Bad”.  Schenkman puts an eerie spin on this slow devilish twelve bar blues song about the horrifying Mr. Satan.
Surprised and impressed is how I feel each time I hear “Scotch and Water Blues” .  Schenkman steps out in the spotlight and lets it rip on this electric blues favorite, while Comes pounds the hell out of his drums.  It doesn’t get much better than this.  And while on the subject of spirits, I better mention “If the River Was Whiskey”, a catchy fast paced rockabilly selection with the hook, ‘if the river was whiskey, you’d have no trouble drowning me’. I like this one quite a bit too.

More Blues, along with just a tiny bit of their trademark alt rock music round out the rest of the album.  I’m not sure if this is a new direction for the Spin Doctors, or if making a Blues album is a one-time gig. However, if this is a new direction for the band, consider me on-board.  

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Cyril Neville - Magic Honey

Ruf Records,  2013

By Phillip Smith; December 28, 2013

We all know moss doesn’t grow on a rolling stone, and at Sixty-Five years of age, one will not find one gram of moss on Cyril Neville.  Constantly recording and touring with either his own band, or as part of the super-group, Royal Southern Brotherhood with Devon Allman and Mike Zito, the man keeps on rolling.  That being said, one can plan on settling down for a nice groovy listen when one reaches for the new Cyril Neville album, Magic Honey, and taps the play button.  I love the way Neville adds his funky spin to the Blues to make his own fresh sound.  Band members consist of guitarist Cranston Clements, drummer “Mean” Willie Green, bassist Carl Dufrene, and keyboardist Norman Caesar.  Neville also enlists help from friends, Dr. John, Walter Trout, Mike Zito, Allen Toussaint, and David Z, Neville.  With all of that going on, this album can’t help being anything but fun.

I was drawn in by the catchy melody and Clements swampy licks on the bluesy title track, “Magic Honey”. But by the time I got to “Something’s Got a Hold on Me”, I was totally captivated.  With guest guitarist, David Z on board, this one emanates the sound and energy of Led Zeppelin. Crank up the volume on this one and enjoy.  

It’s cool to hear Dr. John sitting in on and applying his trademark sound to “Swamp Funk”, a song he wrote himself.  I find myself nodding my head and hitching a ride on this tasty groove every time I hear it, as it leans a little more to the side of team ‘funk’, as opposed to the side of team ‘swamp’.  It’s also neat to hear Mike Zito playing on “Money and Oil”, a track co-written by Zito and Neville. Neville addresses the reality of the politics of today, as he rightfully sings ‘when it all comes down, it’s all about money and oil’.         

The must-hear song on this album though, is “Working Man”.  If it sounds like the title of a Rush song, that’s because it is.  Instigating a proverbial double take at first, I realized this was an outstandingly cool cover after my neck snapped back to its rightful place.  This one is surely more bouncy and playful than the original, but that’s what makes it memorable.  I really like Neville’s smooth and vibrant vocals coupled with Clements killer guitar performance.

Really good from start to finish, one can’t go wrong picking this album up.    

The Official Video – Cyril Neville covers the RUSH classic – “Working Man”

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Johnny Rawls “ Ace of Spades ” From the Archives #9

by Phillip Smith

With Ace of Spades, Mississippi blues artist Johnny Rawls brings the big city blues club to the listener with a very polished production and smooth as silk vocals.  His style reminds me a lot of Sam and Dave, as it reflects a lot of that Memphis sound from the mid to late Sixties. The recording of  Ace of Spades was split between two different studios, Sonic Ranch in Tornillo, TX, and Soul Tree Studios in Helena, MT.  Rawls uses a separate set of musicians at each location. 

There are three songs recorded at Sonic Ranch that really jump out and grab me.  The first being the title track, “Ace of Spades”.  This is such a fun song, and I really like the way Rawls includes the horn section.  The second, being “Gasoline on the Fire”, a really funky selection from the viewpoint of a fellow whose lady is a bit on the wild side.  Lastly, “My Broken Heart”, which features a powerful horn arrangement with a taste of keyboards to spice up Rawls soulful vocals as he sings about his heart being torn apart. 

Some very wonderful cuts were recorded at Soul Tree as well.  Rawls makes an excellent point, as he  preaches about how self indulgent we have all become trying to live the “American Dream”.  The lyrics are poignantly honest  as he sings ‘as you drive on by in your limousine, he [the homeless man] can’t see into your American dream.’.   It makes one think about priorities.   “Can’t Win For Losing”, another song I think quite a few folks can identify with,  considering the current condition of the economy,  is a slower cut with a slight zydeco flavoring.  When I hear the hook, ‘I can’t win for losing, I lose every time.  Every time I get a nickel, somebody want a dime‘, I say ‘Amen brother!’.

This is a solid CD.  It’s enjoyable from beginning to end, and worth checking out. 

Rating =  5/5

Originally published in the Linn County Blues Society Bluespaper - April 2010

Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Janeys - Get Down With the Blues

Grooveyard Records,  2013

By Phillip Smith; December 22, 2013

It has always been a pleasurable treat when Billylee Janey and Bryce Janey join forces to play as The Janeys. With Get Down With the Blues, their third studio release playing together, they continue a family tradition of producing outstanding blues.  Accompanying the talented father/son team is bassist Dan ‘DJ’ Johnson, and drummer Eric Douglas.  Also joining the crew on four tracks with his Hammond organ is Tommy ‘T-Bone’ Giblin.

Get Down With the Blues opens strong and closes even stronger as the Janeys cover Jimi Hendrix’s “Beginnings” on track one, and serving up a very cool rendition of ‘Third Stone From the Sun’ on the last track.  I love the dual electric guitar sound riding atop the percussionary bus driven by Douglas on “Beginnings”. Billylee and Bryce trade licks back and forth as if fighting it out in a psychedelic guitar-centric ‘Thunderdome’. 
I consider “Third Stone From the Sun”, the desert at the end of the meal.  I just want to close my eyes and listen when it comes on.  Johnson and Douglas keep the trance-friendly rhythm going while the Janeys totally let loose on their guitars.  This one is the crème de la crème.

The Janeys offers up quite a soulful rendition of “It’s Not My Cross to Bear” from the Allman Brothers Band’s self-titled album.  I like the way it witfully ends with the closing riff from “Whipping Post”, also from that same Allman Brothers album. Giblin and his Hammond, gives this one authenticity.   Still on the subject of covers, I have to smile when I hear “Mind Bender”, the classic ditty from Stillwater about a mind-bending guitar whose father was a Gibson and mother was a Fender (that’s why they call him Mind Bender).  The Janeys also nail down “The Good Love”, a track from Johnny Winter’s Second Winter album.  Bryce’s deep vocals fit this one very well. 

There’s some really nice originals on the album too.  I really like the slightly unsettling track, “When the Devil Comes Out to Play”.  It has a retro Seventies Blues Rock vibe and just the right amount of fuzz.  “The Rose” is another one that made me perk up and take notice.  Marinated in a big bucket of Southern Rock, I hear a definite Allman Brothers influence running through this one.            

The Janeys scored big with the appropriately titled, Get Down With the Blues. This collection of Blues Rock is a sweet blend of deep covers and interesting originals.            

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Paul Thorn - “ Pimps and Preachers ” From the Archives #8

Phillip Smith

Hailing from Tupelo, Mississippi, the birthplace of Elvis Presley, Paul Thorn proves that lightning does strike twice in the same place every once in a while.  Composing an almost perfect anthem for the common working man, Thorn mixes it up with a variety of styles ranging from country-blues to zydeco boogie on Pimps and Preachers.

Appropriately named, Pimps and Preachers tends to avoid pledging total allegiance to either ‘Team Pimp’ or ‘Team Preacher’.  It finds humanity, as it exists, right in the middle of God and the devil.  I love the last few lyrics in ‘You’re Not the Only One’, the first selection on the album: “Life don’t come with a  guarantee.  You only get so many heartbeats.  It’s such a blessing to be alive.  Whatever happens I’m satisfied.”.   These words are so true, and its nice to be reminded that every day is a blessing.

“Pimps and Preachers”, the title track, is one of the most interesting tracks, as Thorn describes the conflicting lessons he learned from his father the preacher, and his uncle, the polar opposite.   I find there is also a pimp and preacher aspect to the musical portion of the song as well, as it mixes contemporary country with a funky R&B bass line. 

I got tickled listening to ‘I Don’t Like Half the Folks I Love’, a bluesy song that poignantly reminds us that just because someone is loved, they don’t necessarily have to be liked.  This is one of my favorite tracks.   A couple of other favorites are  ‘Better Days Ahead’, which has a certain Bruce Springsteen air to it‘s chorus, and ‘Nona Lisa’, a melody about pining for a gal with which he once had a one night stand.  

Paul Thorn is an expert story teller/song writer.  I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this album from start to finish, and will enjoy it for years to come.

* Originally published on, Oct 2010