Blues Round-up: January 2016

Henry Yates on new releases from Mike Zito & The Wheel, Thirsty Mamas, Benji Kirkpatrick, Taj Mahal & The Hula Blues Band and Son Little

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Mike Zito & The Wheel: Keep Coming Back

When Mike Zito walked out of Royal Southern Brotherhood last year the blues scene rang out with slapped foreheads. The 45-year-old songwriter has form when it comes to self-destruction – he nixed his early solo career with a post-millennial drugs habit – but leaving the acclaimed supergroup seemed a torn-up meal ticket too far.

Keep Coming Back is vindication, and then some. Zito answers his doubters early, the opening title track aptly demanding: ‘What have you got to lose?’ over a stompy rockabilly squall, before the twisty, muscular Chin Up shrugs off the financial crash. The reflective moments that follow feel hard-won, rather than sewn-on (I Was Drunk is a bruised account of Zito’s lost years, in the very saddest country tradition); Get Out Of Denver kicks in the teeth of Bob Seger; Zito’s own brass-driven observations of sidewalk-level America on Girl From Liberty stand comparison with Springsteen. On this evidence, Zito works best when the chips are down. (810)

Thirsty Mamas: I’ve Been Down

Reinterpreting rock material in a blues context can add freshness to a tired repertoire asphyxiated by tradition, and that’s precisely what Hamburg’s Thirsty Mamas do. An adept, dutiful shuffle through Hellhound On My Trail only drags, while an intensely graunchy, harp-driven assault on Depeche Mode’s Personal Jesus positively throbs with seductive, dark vitality. (710)

Benji Kirkpatrick: Hendrix Songs

Realising that any Strat-toting Hendrix covers artist is on a hiding to nothing, British folkie Benji Kirkpatrick takes a different tack, presenting 12 covers on banjo, mandolin and bouzouki. It’s testament to Jimi’s songwriting that his tunes slip their identities so readily, with Voodoo Chile becoming a cowboy storm cloud, and Crosstown Traffic revealing unexpected poignancy. (710)

Taj Mahal & The Hula Blues Band: Live From Kauai

As a man who once gigged with four tuba players, it’s a pleasure to find Taj Mahal, at 73, still finding new ways to present the blues. Recorded in Hawaii, this two-disc set decks out classics such as Good Morning Miss Brown and Queen Bee in floral shirts and flip-flops, softening their melodies with lap steel, flute and ukulele. Music to listen to while drinking from a coconut. (810)

Son Little: Son Little

In formative years the man born Aaron Livingston drifted from LA to New York, and this debut suggests he swept up most of the great American genres along the way. Gospel bleeds into hip-hop, electronica tussles with soul, and the voice presiding over it all delivers street-poet couplets alternately solemn, sad and strange. Son Little either doesn’t know the rules, or he doesn’t care. (810)

Henry Yates

Henry Yates has been a freelance journalist since 2002 and written about music for titles including The Guardian, The Telegraph, NME, Classic Rock, Guitarist, Total Guitar and Metal Hammer. He is the author of Walter Trout's official biography, Rescued From Reality, a music pundit on Times Radio and BBC TV, and an interviewer who has spoken to Brian May, Jimmy Page, Ozzy Osbourne, Ronnie Wood, Dave Grohl, Marilyn Manson, Kiefer Sutherland and many more.