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Lack of fame doesn't equate to lack of talent

Ten Days in November
Ten Days in November
By Sue Foley

Shanachie Records: 1998

Red Mud
Red Mud
By Chris Thomas King

Black Top Records: 1998

Really Blue
Really Blue
By Tom Principato

Powerhouse Records: 1998

I'm Still Swingin'
I'm Still Swingin'
By Big Joe and the Dynaflows

Severn Records: 1998

Sweet & Swingin'
Sweet & Swingin'
By Sugar Ray Norcia

Bullseye / Rounder Records: 1998

Shadow of the Blues
Shadow of the Blues
By Little Charlie and the Nightcats

Alligator Records: 1998

These reviews first appeared in the October 31, 1998 edition of the American Reporter.

Fifteen, sixteen years ago, when the latest wave of blues popularity first hit, a new generation of blues artists got a chance to record and tour and make a living, such as it is, playing music they loved. And once Robert Cray broke through and hit the charts, a couple dozen of the best new blues musicians were immediately dubbed "the next big thing."

While most of them are still around, still gigging, still making a living (such as it is) from the music, none, of course, ever hit it big like Cray – not even Cray anymore. About the closest mainstream audiences want to get to blues is Bonnie Raitt or Eric Clapton (with an occasional arena opening gig to established legends such as Charles Brown or John Lee Hooker).

More's the pity – some of the best music being laid down and performed these days is nowhere near the radio. Six of the formerly "can't miss" blues prospects (to use a baseball metaphor) have new albums out, and there's not a dog among them.

Sue Foley first came to light as part of the Austin blues scene, touring with Cliff Antone's all-women blues revue in the early '90s. She was barely into her 20s then, looked to be barely big enough to even pick up a guitar, much less play it – but both on stage and in the studio, Foley had a presence about her that made her stick out from any crowd.

She writes her own songs, sings them, and backs it all up with some of the most tasteful blues guitar picking you're likely to ever run across. Got a voice all her own, too – both as vocalist and lyricist. Down-to-earth stories laid atop rock-oriented electric blues that invariably feature a radio-friendly accessibility.

Of course, her being female and all, she gets filed into the "Bonnie Raitt" category – maybe that explains her near-invisibility on the music scene.

The only legitimate comparisons to Raitt are that both have a distinctive sound and red hair. Stylistically, she's much less a rocker, more true to the blues. Plays more guitar, too – challenges the phallophillic stereotypes of the male stud guitar slinger. Might be another reason she gets overlooked.

Her new album is even better than the previous three. The backing band is outstanding, particularly keyboardist Jeremy Baum who plays a Hammond B3 on "Baltimore Skyline" with as much soul as anyone this side of Booker T. But mostly the songs are just better – "Highwayside," "Baltimore Skyline" and "She Don't Belong to You" would seem likely to be covered by others down the line.

Like Foley, Chris Thomas also got a boost to his career playing at Cliff Antone's club in Austin in the late '80s and early '90s. He'd been around earlier, though, having recorded a solid electric blues album for Arhoolie back in 1986 ("The Beginning") – and being the son of '50s regional blues star Tabby Thomas didn't hurt.

In 1990, Thomas had a national deal with Sire Records through HighTone – Cray's old label. "Cry of the Prophets," a charming, hypnotic melding of funk, soul, rock and blues, never sold much, though, and Thomas' next release three years later was on HighTone without the Sire support. "Simple," the '93 album, was dramatically different in style and tone from "Prophet" yet just as far from the blues and kind of suggested that what Thomas lacked was not talent or ambition, but a consistent artistic vision.

On his latest release, as on a 1997 disc, Thomas is now surnamed "King," and is back in the blues, where he's always seemed more comfortable. (Witnessing Thomas during a 1990 tour with Cliff Antone's brigade as Antone featured him for agents and larger labels was painful, as Thomas ran through a bag of Hendrix-esque stage exercises – playing the guitar behind his back, dropping to the stage and playing on his back; it all seemed forced and affected and completely unlike earlier performances where he simply put on a heck of a good music show.)

Not only is Thomas King back in the blues on "Red Mud," but he's in an all-acoustic setting, as basic as you can get (and as far from his soul-funk period as you can get, too). In a lot of ways, it's like his first album for Arhoolie 13 years ago: Stripped-down arrangements that put the focus on Thomas King's strong compositions, emotive vocals and strum-picking on guitar (not so far removed from what Lightnin' Hopkins used to lay down). If not as instantly accessible as his Sire funk-soul album, it is probably his most challenging album – and one that grows on a person over subsequent listenings.

Anyone who's ever had the opportunity to talk with him at any length knows that Chris Thomas King is one of the most thoughtful blues artists around – he knows the history and tradition of the music, wants very much to contribute to it and help carry it forward. His past career decisions suggest that Thomas King was frustrated by his inability, as he said in a 1978 interview at Cliff Antone's club in Austin, to reach more of an audience, especially African-Americans his own age.

But Thomas King's voice is in the blues, and now that (it appears) he's accepted his gift for what it is, he is playing the best music of his career. Will he ever become a rock 'n' roll star? Maybe not, but he could become one of the blues' most intellectual voices, a younger Taj Mahal not only performing the music but providing it historical context and artistic vision.

Tom Principato has been gigging around the various blues circuits since the early '70s. A founding member of the still-legendary Washington D.C. soul band, Powerhouse (for which his label is now named), Principato also played with founding members of the Nighthawks, another lore-filled East Coast soul-blues combo. In the years since Powerhouse folded (almost 20 years ago), Principato has put out a half-dozen CDs – all of them outstanding electric boogie blues featuring his tasty and interesting guitar work.

He is, in fact, one of the best unknown blues guitarists on the scene – a fact that is rather shameful when one considers how many 16-year-olds who barely know where to plug their guitar in have been hailed as the "next Stevie Ray Vaughan" and given fat recording contracts while all Principato does is go out night after night and blow away the audience with insightful, incisive guitar solos.

Never a pure speed merchant nor a pyrotechnic wiz like Vaughan or Hendrix, Principato instead offers a complete command of his instrument and an attitude of less is more – kind of the Count Basie approach to soloing. Principato's improvisations are logical yet nonlinear, more extrapolative than simple variations on a theme.

His latest album is a nice balance of virtuosic instrumentals and slow blues burns. He continues to improve as a singer, age giving his voice a certain rough edge that adds charm and character.

Big Joe Maher is a former singer and drummer for Principato, and his first album was on Principato's Powerhouse label. Like his mentor, Maher has a slew of albums on various small labels that are now out of print (you find one by either of them at the second-hand shop, purchase it – there will be no disappointment).

The title to his new release plays on the current popularity of the swing revival, but Maher has been playing and singing his '50s jump blues a la Louis Jordan ever since he began fronting his own combo in the '80s.

What marks Maher's music is his easy touch on vocals. Not soft, mind you – easy. The man can flat-out growl when necessary, but there's a smooth confidence to his singing that's missing from so much of what passes as swing these days. It's a nice, swaying approach to singing that sets him apart. No matter how frantic the beat, Maher never sounds hurried or rushed.

He's also got a fine ear for picking songs – and writing them, too, with a handful of originals on the new release. All have that classic postwar swing sound to them, and all have a nice, tight Kansas City arrangement to boot.

Sugar Ray Norcia's new album is also geared toward the young swing set, both in title and style. Unlike Maher, this represents a fairly drastic switch from Norcia's earlier solo outings.

Of course, it's been a few years since Sugar Ray last fronted his own combo – for the past six years, he sang for various incarnations of Roomful of Blues (with no original members, by the way – I mean, what kind of Roomful is it with no Ronnie Earl anyway?).

Last time we heard from Sugar Ray, he headed up a hard-charging rock 'n' blues outfit (The Blue Tones) that delivered up one of the hottest rockers of all time, "I'm Your Professor." And last time, there was a lot of Sugar Ray's definitive harp playing as well, which is present on the new one, but not to the same extent.

Let it be said, though, that Norcia seems far more at home as a singer with the swing material on "Sweet & Swingin'" than he did with the rockabilly. He has a beautiful, expressive voice, and the new album shows it off much better than the harder approach ever could.

Like Big Joe, Sugar Ray has a fine ear when it comes to selecting songs. There are covers of everything from Hank Williams to Percy Mayfield to Big Walter Horton. He's got his old guitarist, Kid Bangham, back with him, as well as his old Blue Tones drummer Neil Gouvin – the three of them obviously click (and on one cut, Horton's "Need My Baby," they hit their old hard-charging groove once again, with Sugar Ray wailing on harp as well as anyone).

Few bands have had as much pressure to break through as Little Charlie and the Nightcats. Ever since their first blues-rock-boogie release for Alligator Records a decade ago, the band has had fame and glory predicted for them.

Which, as for every other blues artist out there, hasn't happened for them – and who knows why. It's not as if they're failures. They make a nice living doing what they love, they have seven other albums out, they headline blues festivals and cruises and all in all have done quite well for themselves.

But it's like a sports franchise that's predicted to win the championship: Anything less than Top 40 hits and radio domination is unacceptable from Little Charlie Baty, lead singer Rick Estrin and the band.

Which is both unfair and a bit silly: After all, if they're all that good (and they're damn close to whatever standard you want to haul up the flagpole), why not just enjoy them without having to share them with the whole world?

Their new release shows the band as confident and loose as ever. They've not varied from their accessible, blues-shuffle sound and have a new collection of solid songs to show their chops off on.