Lurrie Bell, The Devil Ain't Got No Music. Timing is everything, and when Lurrie Bell was hitting his stride in the blues most of the big-time damage had already been done by people like Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. That didn't stop Bell, who managed to make a name for himself in Chicago anyway. One of the things he always promised to do was record an album of gospel songs, dedicated to the Almighty but also still steeped in the blues, which he's finally done. It's a stunner, too. With help from veterans like Joe Louis Walker and Bill Sims, Jr., Lurrie Bell calls on the spirit in the sky to visit songs like "Search Me Lord" and "I'll Get to Heaven on My Own," showing that it's a fine line between religious music and all those sinners' laments. Color this man righteous, and then hear how he gets down on a Sunday morning fresh off a Saturday night ramble. Say amen.
Elvin Bishop, That's My Thing: Live in Concert. When it's time to draw the list of early heroes of young white musicians in the blues like Paul Butterfield, Charlie Musselwhite, Michael Bloomfield and Barry Goldberg, those living in Chicago who went into the clubs and came out certified, put Elvin Bishop at the very top. He grew up in Iowa and Oklahoma, but by the time he landed in the Windy City on a National Merit college scholarship, his blues fate was sealed. He was going to play that music come hell or high water. Joining with Butterfield to create the multi-racial band that opened the door for everyone else, Bishop learned hard and fast. During the '70s he made his own way and even snagged a hit single with "Fooled Around and Fell in Love." Naturally, the blues is still Bishop's calling card and this live concert filmed at Club Fox (!) in Redwood City, California lets the man turn up the volume and demonstrate what an incredible guitarist he still is. It also gives Bishop plenty of room to sing in a down-home way that keeps the glow around him turned up bright. By the end, when he's calling all cows to come back home and enlisting the crowd to shake their moneymaker it feels like one of the best friends the blues ever had has reached the peak and brought the true believers with him. Follow him anywhere.
Junior Brown, Volume Ten. Ask the common person what a guit-steel is, and the answers can vary from a fallen Catholic's resolve to a large agricultural machine. Ask Junior Brown, though, and he'll proudly answer it's the double-necked instrument he plays that features a regular guitar neck over a steel guitar. It might not be for everyone, but in the hands of Brown it becomes a lethal sonic weapon, one that is capable of tornado-like intensity and then moments of ultra audio beauty. Heard on originals like "Apathy Waltz" and "The Phantom of the Opry," it's apparent Junior Brown spends a lot of time chasing thoughts around his brain and then turns them into irresistible songs. That he closes with a cover of "Almost to Tulsa" shows he also knows where his country biscuits are buttered, and helps explain his thriving 30-year career. The Twang Gang starts here.
Shemekia Copeland, 33-1/3. Might as well get it out of the way first: Shemekia Copeland is blues giant Johnny Copeland's daughter, which means her pedigree is perfect. But that doesn't amount to much if she can't bring home the bacon herself, which is shown now once and for all. You can almost hear the pig squealing about its final fate. She leans deep and hard on songs written by her producers, but positively shines on covers of Sam Cooke, Bob Dylan, Randy Weeks and, yes, her father. This is the album where everything finally falls totally into place, and Copeland herself merges as the new super nova of the blues she's threatened to be for awhile. Next stop: the Grammys.
Sonny Landreth, Elemental Journey. When singers start seeking a rootsy guitarist steeped in the swamps of Louisiana but also capable of soaring into the stratosphere of rock virtuosity, they often start with Sonny Landreth. He has played some of the most indelible solos of recent times with journeymen like John Hiatt, while also recording solo albums that come close to matching his cred-heavy employers. Now he shoots for the top and gets there easily with 11 instrumentals that will not stop. Joined by guests like Joe Satriani, Eric Johnson and Robert Greenidge, not to mention the Acadiana Symphony Orchestra, Sonny Landreth has cracked open the sky. How the stars fall from it is a musical shower that's been a long time coming and illustrates that what starts in the swamp sure isn't going to stay there.
Colin Linden, Still Live. Canada has a way of growing great musicians. Ask Neil Young, The Band and, yes, King Biscuit Boy. Or Colin Linden. He released his first album, a live one, in 1980, and to celebrate that beginning returns to a club stage in his now-hometown of Nashville to do it again. He brings with him a Howlin' Wolf favorite, "Who's Been Talking," a hatful of originals and a whip-ass band that just happens to include keyboard kingpin Spooner Oldham. Just to show true flexibility he has added a studio track that may be the inspired keeper of the whole set — "John Lennon in New Orleans." It's the kind of song that means everything at the same time it makes no real sense, which spotlights what a musical magician Colin Linden has, is and likely will always be. Voila.
The Mercy Brothers, Holy Ghost Power! There aren't many Cajun bands that have the guts to turn their back on the secular and head for the heavens. Leave it to Lafayette's Mercy Brothers to run through the briars and the brambles to fashion their own reeling revival on songs like "Rise, Devil, Rise" and "Come Home, Sinner." That they also wrote this whole album themselves shows a dedication to doing it right that makes the results hit home like a deal done with the divine. While the compadres are out cruising for gators, the Mercy Brothers are jamming on a joyful noise that is never less than sheer jubilation.
Omar and the Howlers, Too Much is Not Enough. There are few more primal forces in rock and roll than Jimmy Reed. He seared his power on so many aspiring rockers during the '50s and early '60s that it's like Reed had a unique impact, making his music a requirement for any and all bands during those years. The Rolling Stones studied his records like a blueprint when they were formulating their early sound. Omar Kent Dykes grew up in Mississippi, learning where Reed's music came from first-hand. His previous album of Jimmy Reed songs recorded with Jimmie Vaughan showed an obvious passion, and this new release was actually recorded first. It's a unmitigated kick from start to finish, and also allows the spotlight to shine on the late harp player Gary Primich and young gun guitarist Gary Clark Jr. Listen to hear how Jimmy Reed lives on in all of us forever, in the hands of a man who got bit by the bug as a manchild and never got over it, including one original to show he's got the goods his own bad self. Howl on, Omar.
South Memphis String Band, Old Times There... Sometimes the older something is lets its arrival again in the present hit with that much more force. It can be especially true with folk and blues in the hands of a younger generation. They grab the past by the throat and won't let go, simply because they love it so very much. Luther Dickinson, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Jimbo Mathus and Justin Showah bonded together as the South Memphis String Band and turn tradition on its head, at the same finding more contemporary songs by Lee Baker, Ry Cooder and others to pump new juice into that old-time spirit. Only masters-to-be could pull off such a feat and still make it so vital. Find the force right here.
Various Artists, From the Vaults of Ric & Ron Records: Rare and Unreleased Recordings 1958-1962. Rhythm and blues emperor Ernie K-Doe once said that he wasn't sure but was almost positive that all music came from New Orleans. Granted, K-Doe was a man not unfamiliar with overstatement, but his proclamations often carried more than a little truth. In this case, he was right on and hearing the songs on these ten vinyl 45s (!) is Exhibit A. The independent Ric and Ron labels specialized in real-deal Crescent City classics, and the surprises lurking in this super-fine box set of singles feels like Christmas all year long. Artists Johnny "the Tan Canary" Adams, Al Johnson, Barbara Lynn, Eddie Bo, Edgar Blanchard & the Gondoliers and Paul "Little Mummy" Marvin let us discover that even their outtakes are outrageously strong. Adams' demo of "I Won't Cry" will convince anyone with ears that the man really was, as Dr. John once said, "the greatest soul singer out of New Orleans ever," while Eddie "Check Mr. Popeye" Bo had a hand in creating the coming funk craze and Barbara Lynn, well, the woman walked tall then—and now. And that's just for starters. As Al "Carnival Time" Johnson sings, "Throw my baby out the window let the joint burn down." The New Year's Eve party begins immediately.