Tahoe Onstage picks year’s best albums, says goodbye

From the editor: All years and careers come to an end. After my newspaper career ended in 2013, I pursued my passion for music – especially blues– with Tahoe Onstage. After 10 years, this website will be reformatted in 2023. However, the thousands of stories and photos will remain on the site for you to see. Thank you to the millions (Hard to believe!) who have visited Tahoe Onstage. And thanks to my partners Joan Pilar, Chris Gandolfo, Randy Hashagen, the late Rick Chandler (Rick was always late.) and the dozens of writers and photographers who contributed to make Tahoe Onstage great.

I am amused when I hear people lament the lack of great new music. If someone can’t find good new music, they aren’t looking very hard. Fortunately for me, I just look in my mailbox for new CDs. (I am going to miss that a lot.) So finally, as promised, I give to you my picks for the Best Blues Albums of 2022 by hard-working, talented bands you might not have yet discovered. The criterion basically is bands or artists who have not yet received a nomination for a Blues Music Award. Kathy Murray and The Kilowatts’ “Fully Charged” gets the nod for number 1. The remaining 10 studio records are in no particular order. Also here is my choice for Best Live Album.

Bill Jones and Kathy Murray and the Kilowatts light up listeners with “Fully Charged,” 14 bluesy Texas tracks.

Best Album of The Year

Kathy Murray and The Kilowatts – ‘Fully Charged’

Anyone who has listened to Kathy Murray and the Kilowatts new record won’t be shocked to see it named Album of the Year.

“Fully Charged” is an energetic blues party from its first note all the way through 14 songs – 11 originals by Murray and three brilliant covers. The band leader is Bill Jones, who plays guitar, accordion, washboard, and he sings. The songs have a traditional blues flavor yet feel modern.

Kathy Murray and the Kilowatts are enlightening record listeners to its grooves for 37 years. This is the Austin band’s fifth album.

Turn on “Fully Charged” and ears will remain engaged. The songs are all blues but each with different shades and Texas is shone throughoutBrass trio The Texas Horns play on four tracks, and Los Flames barrelhouse piano player Matt Farrell joins the party on an old-timey rocker, “Get Ahold of Yourself.” (Baby!) The fabled little Armadillo World Headquarters is remembered and the Texas Cannonball Freddie King is honored in “The House That Freddie Built.”

Murray’s conversational, purring delivery is a comfort, especially on the cover of Ronnie McDowell’s cover of Doc Pomus’ “Suspicion.” Yep, it’s multilayered. Murray’s wide-ranging voice is made for the stories of blues tunes. As a songwriter, she’s clever, not cliché. She really gets it. Music fans, too, should get “Fully Charged.”

Steve Howell and the Mighty Men – ‘Been Here and Gone’ – Out of The Past Music

This record is all kinds of cool. Steve Howell and The Mighty Men have been reimagining great old songs since the last century, but I’ve only discovered the ensemble this year. Listening to “Been Here and Gone” made me search for Howell’s previous eight albums. The vintage instruments were recorded on analog tape. The tone and flavor are warm and measured, including Howell’s comfortable vocal delivery – shouting isn’t required to emote passionate, honest blues. A breezy instrumental – “The ‘In’ Crowd,” a 1965 hit by The Ramsey Lewis Trio – is the first of 12 superb songs. I am not sure what defines a song as a “standard,” but each one here is wonderful, some I’d never before heard, others that induced smiles upon recognition, including the The Ventures-and-Chet Atkins-made-famous “Walk Don’t Run,” and Spain’s one-hit sensation Los Bravos’ tune “Black is Black.” My favorite is song is one the band reportedly has played for years, Ray Charles’ “I Believe to My Soul.” This album will inspire the listener to read the liner notes and explore the history of each song. The players have performed since the 1980s and each doubtless is an astute musicologist. Shreveport, Louisiana has the worst weather in the nation, but it’s produced some of the greatest musicians. Guitar player Chris Michaels has performed with Cab Calloway and Augie Meyers and drummer Dave Hoffpauir played with numerous Shreveport groups. Bass player Jason Weinheimer is from Little Rock, Arkansas, where he produces and engineers records and plays in various bands. This is a mighty collaboration, indeed!

A spirited Live at Lakeview crowd witnessed this onstage scene last summer with Dennis Johnson & The Revelators in South Lake Tahoe. Tim Parsons / Tahoe Onstage

Dennis Johnson & The Revelators– ‘Revelation’

Dennis Johnson didn’t twiddle his thumbs during the music hiatus. He sharpened his ax. Johnson said he spent an enormous amount of time during the lockdown improving his slide guitar skills, “… articulations with a slide, types of vibrato, sliding up or down to a note, and moving the slide at various angles like a lap steel player to connect the notes, which made my playing way more expressive.” Johnson’s work paid dividends with stirring live performance and many accolades for his fourth album, “Revelation,” which topped at least once blues chart for album and song, “Talk To You.” He produced the record with his longtime bassist Jonathan Stoyanoff, drummer Anton Fig (best known as playing with Joe Bonamassa), keyboardist Bob Fridzema (Walter Trout, Joanna Shaw Taylor), and engineer Chris Bell (Samantha Fish, Kenny Wayne Shepard). “When Covid hit, I took the athlete approach and treated it as the offseason and I really spent so much time upping the ante on the guitar and upping the ante from a producer standpoint and really spending time on groove,” Johnson said. “If you have a great groove, it’s easy for the guitar and keyboard players.” Around Northern California, slide great Roy Rogers has long reigned as the fastest gun. Johnson, who was inspired and influenced by Rogers, has proved himself a slide master as well with this outstanding album.

Tim Gartland – ‘Truth’ – Taste Good Music

Fact: Tim Gartland’s “Truth” is the only album to make both Tahoe Onstage compilations by Tom Clarke and Tim Parsons for best of 2022. Clarke noted that Gartland sings with a roasted molasses drawl. The songwriting is clever and arrangements straight to the point. A virtuoso chromatic and diatonic harmonica player, Gartland doesn’t show off. The 12 original tracks are all about the song. After finishing college, he moved to the belly of the blues beast Chicago where he learned from Jerry Portnoy from Muddy Waters’ bands and jammed with Bo Diddley, Carey Bell, Big Jack Johnson and Pinetop Perkins. He now lives in Nashville, where he has a talented group of peers. For his fifth album, Gartland again went to the Rock House with producer Kevin McKendree. Joining the sessions were guitarist Robert Frahm, singer Wendy Moten, drummer Kenneth Blevins and drummer Steve Mackey.

Bob Stroger & The Headcutters – ‘That’s My Name’ – Delmark Records

I break my own rule here because not only has Chicago’s Bob Stroger been nominated Blues Music Awards, he’s won twice for Best Bass Player. But while Stroger has played on more than 30 Delmark Records, “That’s My Name” is the 90-year-old Stroger’s first album as a band leader. The Headcutters are a quartet from Brazil that is adept at Chicago-styled blues. This record is reminiscent of 2011 when Muddy Waters’ former drummer Willie “Big Eyes” Smith stood out from behind the kit and sang lead and won a Grammy for Best Traditional Blues Album. Stroger sings with the same sagacity, unsurprising in that he’s shared the stage with Otis Rush, Sunnyland Slim, Snooky Pryor and many more, including the previously mentioned man with “Big Eyes.” The haunting “I’m A Busy Man” evokes an image of a heartbroken man waiting for the El train on a winter street chilled by the Hawk wind. To me there is no music greater than pure, authentic Chicago blues, and no living man knows it more than Bob Stroger. Chicago’s Jimmy Johnson was 91 in 2020 when he released “Every Day of My Life” on the same Delmark Records, which is the go-to label for fans of traditional Chicago blues.

Bennett Matteo Band – ‘Shake The Roots’ – Gulf Coast Records

Jade Bennett and Gino Matteo have been together since 2010 when they had an impromptu jam at one of Bennett’s band’s shows. Bennett is a passionate R&B singer and Matteo a smoking guitar virtuoso. During the COVID lockdown, the couple finally joined talents and made a record at Kid Andersen’s Greaseland studio in San Jose. “Shake The Roots” doubtless has music listeners hoping they make more. Bennett Matteo Band might be categorized as blues, but the sound is unique; isn’t that was every band wants to achieve? Matteo can do it all on the guitar, including pinching the strings to make it sound like a violin and singing into a talk box – Greaseland has a treasure trove of gadgets. The anthemic “Shiny Creatures” is a standout song out of a number of soulful tracks on an attention-grabbing debut album.

Michele D’Amour and The Love Dealers – ‘Hot Mess’ – Blueskitty Records

Michele D’Amour and The Love Dealers don’t mess around on its seventh album, opening with the title track “Hot Mess.” Midway through this funky and clever record, on Muddlin’ Through” D’Amour sings “Don’t judge me and I won’t judge you.” However, judging is the point of this post, and I rule this is one of the best blues-based albums of the year. The Pacific Northwest Band has been prolific, busting out groovy records since 2014. An onstage performer since she was 6 years old and published poet since she was a teenager, D’Amour wrote 10 of the 12 tunes on “Hot Mess.” Her storytelling is captivating. The band includes Patrick McDanel on bass, Carl Martin on drums, Noel Barnes on saxophone and Richard Newman the new guy on guitar. Seattle keyboardists Tom Worrell and Philip Woo joined the sessons.

David Lumsden  – ‘Rooted in the Blues’

Guitar love. That’s what David Lumsden is all about on “Rooted in the Blues.” The Springfield, Illinois resident’s story is a familiar one. At age 6, he was hooked by a song he heard on television, “Peter Gunn.” He became a fan of the British Invasion band and began to play guitar. Then he learned about where the Brits found their rock, from the Delta and artists such as Robert Johnson and Bill Broonzy. At 16, he heard Freddie King and he was on his way. Lumsden played guitar for blues-rocker Hurricane Ruth from 2011 to 2017. On his energized 2022 album, he gives nods to the Yardbirds (“Runaway (Blues Train)” and Hurricane Ruth (“Ruthless Boogie”). Fun guitar riffs fill the 10 songs, including rearranged classics by Bob Dylan and Steely Dan. Others are obvious homages to rock and blues standards, including “Ode to Jimi A.K.A Slow Burn.” The blues band is tight with Gary Davis on bass, Jim Engle on drums and time ban on keyboards. This album will make you smile and want to play air guitar.

Bobby Gentilo – ‘Gentilo’ – Blue Heart Records

“Gentilo” is one of those records that once you listen to it, you will play it over and over again until your family says, “Uncle.” But not the 3-year-old grandson. The instant the album starts with “Disease,” the little guy closes his eyes and bobs his head. It’s visceral and adorable. The sound is a mashup of trancey Hill Country grooves and soulful disco, or what is called Washington D.C. Go-Go. Gentilo wrote all 10 songs, singing and playing bass, moog, drums and percussion. This is no ordinary blues record, but Gentilo’s roots go right to Clarksdale, Mississippi. His ensemble The Cornlickers backed Big Jack Johnson and was the house band at Red’s Lounge, where he played with Hill Country heroes R.L. Boyce, Terry “Harmonica” Bean, “Cadillac” John Nolden and  T-Model Ford. In the past decade he has collaborated and released five albums with Colombian artist Carlos Elliot, who he met at Clarkesdale. “Gentilo” is longtime producer Bobby Gentillo’s debut solo record.

Michael Rubin – ‘I’ll Worry If I Wanna’

The harmonica playing is flawless and the metaphors are hilarious. Austin’s Michael Rubin’s “I’ll Worry If I Wanna’ is blues that inspires smiles. Clearly a brilliant guy, Rubin reminds me of David Bromberg, a musical virtuoso with a playful, clever wit. The music is a hoot and punctuated with guffaws. For example: the chorus on “Can We Break Up Again” finishes with “’cause there’s something on my mind I wish I’d said back then.”  On “Beer Belly Baby,” Rubin sings “Some women are built like a bird, some built like a wire. I don’t worry about mine breaking down, my baby she’s gots a spare tire.” And the standout tune, “Kama Suta Girl,” an old-timey rockin’ ditty with Mike Keller on guitar, we hear, “After I took her to my bed, I suggested the missionary. She said, ‘No I think I got something a wee bit more visionary.’” Get the record to hear the rest of the story. Brilliance and the blues sometimes encourage salacious eccentricity.

Orphan Jon and the Abandoned – ‘Over The Pain’ – Vintage LaNeill Records

Orphan Jon English is a rocker but he knows the blues. He was an infant when he and three older siblings were placed in an orphanage. Orphan Jon and The Abandon’s “Over The Pain” is dedicated to “society’s Foster Youth.” After a challenging early life, English, was more than 50 years old went full-time into music and teamed with guitarist Bruce Krupnik in 2015 to start Orphan Jon and The Abandoned, often referred to as OJATA. During the live music lockdown, and with Krupnik leaving the band for heath reasons, English brought in guitarist and former Rip Cat Records labelmate Alastair Greene to produce the record. Greene helped write and arrange all but two of the album’s 12 original songs. English possesses a wide-ranging confident and genuine voice that complements an aggressive classic rock-styled band. Brian Boozer engineered the record at his Bakersfield studio. Since there were no live shows, the band was able to focus in working out perfecting the songs. Since those sessions and a single tour, English has moved to Wichita and Greene from Santa Barbara to Austin. Their short, intense collaboration is immortalized with this superb blues-rock album.

“Hurricane Ruth, Live at 3rd and Lindsley” band, from left: Lewis Stephens, Calvin Johnson, Hurricane Ruth LaMaster, Jimmy Hall, Tom Hambridge, Nick Nguyen and Scott Holt.

Best Live Album

Hurricane Ruth – ‘Hurricane Ruth, Live at 3rd and Lindsley’

Tahoe Onstage readers know about Hurricane Ruth. I’ve been writing about her new records ever since seeing her live in 2015. Hurricane Ruth LaMaster has made some outstanding studio records, but it’s her live performances that blows people away. Finally, we get a sonic taste of a performance with “Hurricane Ruth, Live at 3rd and Lindsley,” an August 2021 show in Nashville. Kathy Mac was the front-of-house sound engineer and the record was mixed and mastered by Michael Saint-Leon and produced by Tom Hambridge. We know the blues had a baby and it was called rock ‘n’ roll, and – Baby! – Glen Carbon, Illinois resident Hurricane Ruth is the greatest rock ‘n’ roll singer on either side of the Mississippi. The record roars from the start with original scores of “Roll Little Sister,” “Hard Rockin’ Woman” and perhaps Ruth’s most played radio song in recent years, “What You Never Had.” A surprising treat is when Wet Willie’s Jimmy Hall joins the band for two songs, including “As Years Go Passing By,” a duet with Hurricane Ruth.

Related story: Tom Clarke’s 12 favorite roots and blues albums of 2022.

ABOUT Tim Parsons

Tim Parsons
Tim Parsons is the editor of Tahoe Onstage who first moved to Lake Tahoe in 1992. Before starting Tahoe Onstage in 2013, he worked for 29 years at newspapers, including the Tahoe Daily Tribune, Eureka Times-Standard and Contra Costa Times. He was the recipient of the 2011 Keeping the Blues Alive award for Journalism.

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