CD Reviews – Blues You Can Use (Hep Cat Records)

Blues you can use:

Rod Piazza and The Mighty FlyersAlphabet Blues
Anson Funderburgh and the RocketsShe Knocks Me Out
Ronnie Earl and The BroadcastersSoul Searching
James Harman Band Do Not Disturb
Sam Myers and Anson FunderburghMy Love Is Here To Stay

Hep Cat Records

During the blues revival of the mid-’80’s many indie labels popped up focusing primarily on roots music and blues, giving new blues artists a cfhance to build national careers when previously they would have played in their hometown and maybe a few surrounding areas for the entirety of their careers. While this development built a whole new crop of blues heroes, signing every blues band in sight may have diluted the waters a little and given rise to more mediocre talents than had these labels been more judicious in their signings. Luckily, these reissues are focused on a label named Black Top, which was one of the best indie blues labels ever and survived into the early 2000’s when the label finally succumbed to the current and puzzling general nonchalance regarding blues music. To be on Black Top meant you were an up and comer with real potential. The label focused on new acts and older stars who had low profiles. Plenty of blues stars were created from the Black Top roster and when you were on the label, the bigger labels kept an eye on you. I am reviewing five of the most noteworthy releases in this article and if you pick these up, you will encounter some of the best blues of the past twenty years.

During the mid-’80’s, Texan Anson Funderburgh was a guitarist on the rise. Possessor of one of the keenest ears in Dallas, Funderburgh was entranced by the blues at an incredibly young age and snuck into many concerts featuring the likes of legends such as Freddie King and Lightnin’ Hopkins so he could study at the feet of the masters themselves. In the late ’70’s he formed the first incarnation of the Rockets and, a few years later, the band was featured on Black Top’s first ever release, Talk To You By Hand. While gaining manu accolades for his stinging guitar work, Funderburgh felt something was missing and offered blues journeyman Sam Myers a spot in the band. Myers brought with him a gregarious personality, a distinctive vocal style and a keen harmonica-playing skill that immediately took the band to another level. Not only did the band have an interesting look with the visual of a bi-racial blues band, but Myers had a commanding presence honed from years of working with the creme de la creme of bluesmen such as Elmore James. More albums for BlackTop followed, and in the late ’90’s the band had switched labels (to Bullseye) but not focus. She Knocks Me Out gives the blues fan a look at Funderburgh’s band pre-Myers. Blues journeyman and solo artist in his own right Darrell Nullisch was the band’s vocalist and harmonica player at that time and the band has a youthful energy and roughness that is exciting and almost jaw-dropping. Blues was just starting to have a resurgence in 1983 when this album was recorded and Funderbugh and group sound ready to grab on to the music business beast and ride it as long as they can. Though Nullisch did not last long with the group, his contributions here help make this album one of the key releases for Black Top at the time, not to mention Funderburgh’s always amazing guitar work.

By the time Funderburgh and Co. released My Love Is Here To Stay with Sam Myers in 1985, the two had found they got along so famously they decided to combine forces and thus the modern day version of The Rockets was born. Where Nullisch and the rest of the band had relied on energy to get their musical points across, this version of the band relied on pure skill. By now Funderburgh and his band had been on the road for many years and were up to speed skill-wise with the veteran Myers. Now aligned, they proved a formidable unit that could take on any blues band in the country pound for pound and come up winners every time. Between Funderburgh’s stingingly skillful guitar and Myers many talents, this album and their band were able to assault the blues world from every which way and take their rightful place as one of the most popular blues bands of the time, which they still remain some twenty three years after this album was recorded.

Like most blues labels, Black Top’s roster was loaded with great blues harmonica players in the Little Walter tradition of post-war blues. Harpist and vocalist James Harman was possibly the best of all the Black Top blues harp blowers and Harman’s album Do Not Disturb is possibly the best blues album featuring harmonica the label ever issued. No less than Los Lobos’ David Hildago was aware of Harman’s talents and guests here on accordian. Also bolstering Harman and his band are Gene Taylor on piano and the legendary sax man Lee Allen. This album burns from start to finish and touches on just about every blues subgenre ever created from Texas blues, swing blues, the jump blues style and even gritty Chicago-style blues. This album is deep. Deep and tuff and if you like blues, you’ll love this set.

Lest you think Black Top focused solely on harmonica-led blues bands, guitarist extraordinaire Ronnie Earl (Horvath) was one of Black Top’s biggest stars and his star probably shines the brightest of any former Black Top artist. Earl started his career as a member of Rhode Island jump blues powerhouse Roomful of Blues. Replacing Roomful’s former lead guitarist Duke Robillard when Robillard decided to pursue a solo career, Earl faced the dilemma of taking over a spot held by one of the best guitarists in the music business. To make it, Earl had to bring it. And Earl brought it. Due to the decline oif blues music over the past decade you will not hear Earl’s name spoken in reverent tones the way it should be, but trust me, one listen to any of Earl’s recordings will show you his boundless fret-fire talent. He is a certified guitar monster and it is a shame he doesn’t get his due. Soul Searching is one of Earl’s best early albums, made shortly after he left Roomful for good. The rest of Earl’s band on the album band includes vocalist Darrell Nulisch, harmonica player Jerry Portnoy (ex-Muddy Waters), bassist Steve Gomes, and drummer Per Hanson. While Portnoy is featured on some tracks, the show belongs to Earl as a good number of the songs of the album are instrumentals, one of Earl’s trademarks. By this time Earl’s electric style had come into its’ own and Earl is masterful on this album. If you like blues guitar, this is a must-own.

We wind up this set of reviews back where we started: in Harmonica Land. Rod Piazza, even before hisb tenure at Black Top, was known as the premier West Coast harmonica bluesman. Cutting album after album on small labels with his band The Mighty Flyers, Piazza was able to show the world you didn’t have to live in Texas, Chicago or the Piedmont to get great harmonica blues from a rocking blues band. Piazza was a veteran by the time his Black Top album Alphabet Blues was released. His career began in 1969 with the Dirty Blues Band, who cut two albums for ABC Records. Next, Piazza formed a partner ship with George Harmonica Smith named Bacon Fat but also released the occasional solo album for smaller labels. In 1980, Piazza formed the first version of The Mighty Flyers with wife Honey on keyboards. Alphabet Blues was released in 1992 and followed several other albums from the band so Piazza’s group was well greased up by the time this one was released and you can tell. The playing is seamless and there is an instinctive sort of telepathy going on where the band members are able to complement each other in a sort of sympathetic manner borne from years of camaraderie and roadwork. This is a great album for those who love harmonica blues records.

While these five albums may not be blues classics, they are solid blues offerings by young turks who have continued to make names for themselves to the present day. While the blues genre may not command the attention it once did and not have the clout to build legends any longer, these discs feature some of the top talents in the blues world today and these albums feature these players when they were young, hungry and had something to prove. The electricity crackles on each of these albums and although none of them are classics like Live at The Regal or Lovejoy or Hard Again, these are albums that will provide plenty of enjoyment.

Scott Homewood