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!