Blues Box

Blues Box

Gimme five. Five guitarists, that is. And start with the youngest, please. While Jake Andrews' self-titled sophomore release for TMG-Antone's isn't quite the soulful triumph that 1999's Time to Burn was, it's clear Andrews is doing just what a young guitarslinger should: exploring the rock horizon of music. Because Andrews grew up with the blues (his father was Mother Earth guitarist John "Toad" Andrews), his need to grow will naturally take him elsewhere. Produced by Carla Olson, Jake Andrews is closer to Ian Moore turf than the Chicago and Texas blues he's already proficient at, as songs like "No One Cries" and "The Bitter End" demonstrate. This isn't to say Andrews has left the blues behind -- "Matters of the Heart" and "Tell Me" attest to that -- but he's amped up his style with songs like "2 Dirty Dogs" and "Could Not Be Found." If this album isn't up to his debut, the 14 tracks still illustrate Andrews' growth as an up-and-coming player and a singer, with a fine, sweet tenor that will age nicely in years to come. Jake Andrews may or may not know how much he has in common with Jerry Lightfoot's soulful, rocking blues, even when the longtime local musician waxes country on his self-released new album, Texistentialism. Lightfoot's got at least three generations on Andrews, but it's the kind of solid experience that makes each cut resonate. With Carolyn Wonderland's gutsy vocals leading the way, Lightfoot's songs (he wrote all but two of the 10 cuts) don't vary much from the blues-rock mold of smokin' guitar and a lotta organ swells, but that's no complaint. If anything, it's too bad there's not more bands making music this solid and comfortable ("Down Highway 59," "Monkey Got a Gun"). Kudos for the stellar artwork from artist Jim Franklin, too. Omar & the Howlers are back, up from the bottom with their relentless, downbeat, wide as the Mississippi and stronger than its currents debut for Bay Area indie Blind Pig. For Big Delta, Omar's returned to his roots, re-styling previously recorded tunes of his ("Monkey Land," "Wall of Pride"), plus the occasional cover ("Mississippi Queen," "Linin' Track"). Big Delta owes much of its considerable mojo to the production team of Max Crace and Malcolm "Papa Mali" Welbourne, who make Omar's trademark shake, rattle & growl as potent as it's ever been. That "big leg beat" of his is hammered out by Terry Bozzio and Frosty, who split the drumming chores, and bassist Roscoe Beck, with some help from Papa Mali. Omar knows that a little bit o' hoodoo blues is good for the soul, ya know. Denny Freeman's silky sound is classic soul, and on Twang Bang (V8), he lets 13 self-penned instrumentals do the talking. Freeman can rock, roll, and shuffle like nobody's business; for those who don't know, he was the main guitarist for Paul Ray & the Cobras, both before and after a little showoff named Stevie Vaughan came along. The titles suggest a good humor, but the smooth melodies of "Melancholy Valentine," as beautiful an instrumental as has been written, and "Clem's Dilemma" hearken to Freeman's well-honed jazz sensibilities. Freeman self-produced this album, with help from Ron Rogers, and his fine, professional touch is apparent from twang to bang, thanks to accompaniment from the likes of drummer Clem Burke. 3 Balls of Fire aren't as blues-based as the other players here are, but guitarist Mike Vernon can match any of them for style and speed and proves it on his newest recording, FirePower (Deep Eddy). Like Freeman, Vernon plays with a lover's touch, expert, sure, slow, and meaningful. A pause isn't a pause, it's a sensual sustain and leaves the listener breathless. Vernon wrote eight of the 13 tracks here, and his languorous style is in top form ("Blue Tango," "Ulan-Bator," "Tenderly"). There's also a subtle tension, doubtless due to its recording in and around Sept. 11, 2001, but it serves to make the music taut and memorable ("Sea of Tranquility," "FirePower"). And what is it about instrumentals that lends them to whimsical titles ("Good Clone, Bad Clone," "Return to the Oort Cloud," "Bali Hi Skool"), the lack of allegiance to words? Who cares. If the music sounds good, that's all that matters, not words or the absence thereof. Just ask Andrews, Lightfoot, Omar, Freeman, and Vernon. And take all five.

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