Calling all jaded music-lovers. The Ragtime Rumours have come to prick up your ears. In an era when the dead-eyedmusicindustryclings to tired formulas, these time-travelling Dutch visionariestear up the rulebook – and that rebel attitude is all overRag ’N Roll. Anything goes on this revolutionary debut album, as the ghosts of Robert Johnson and Django Reinhardt meet the influence of Tom Waits and Pokey LaFarge, driving eleven self-penned originals and one traditional that could have been written in 1920 or 2018.“We combine our inspiration for ragtime music with the styles of blues, gypsy jazz and rock ‘n’ roll,” explain the band.“We call it rag ‘n’ roll…”
It’s been a rocket-fuelled rise for the lineup of Tom Janssen (lead vocals, acoustic guitar, banjo, Niki Van Der Schuren (upright bass, vocals, flute, baritone sax), Thimo Gijezen (electric guitar, accordion, piano, vocals) and Sjaak Korsten (drums, kazoo, washboard, vocals).Rewind just a few short years, and The Ragtime Rumours set out like any other young band: busking, grafting, playing any dive-bar and hell-hole that would have them. But this talentedquartet quickly rose above the pack, announcing their pedigree with a run of high-profile competition victories:they took first place at 2015’s BRUL contest, stormed the finals of the 2017 Dutch Blues Challenge, represented the Netherlands at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis, Tennessee, and – perhapsmost impressively – won this year’s European Blues Challenge in Hell, Norway.
All that silverware – plus triumphantinternational tours across Norway, Italy, Portugal, Switzerland and the UK ()– have left no doubt thatThe Ragtime Rumours can shake a live stage. We’ve had early hints, too, of their alchemy in the studio, with acclaimed EP Ain’t Nobody and standout single Love & Lust rarely leaving the radio playlists on their Netherlands home-turf. Now, Rag ’N Roll bottles the exuberance and megawatt energy of watching this livewire band from the front row. “Making this album,” they remember, “was a lot of nonsense, fun and music, as usual. We wanted this album to sound sincere and organic. It’ll give people the live feel, just like it does onstage.”
The other thing thatRag ’N Roll gives us, of course, is a fistful of new songs that confirm The Ragtime Rumours as one of the most creative forces in modern music.Way Too Smart kicks off the tracklisting in style with its high-velocity groove and hard-luck lyric, and the gems keep coming, from the bluesy harmonica-driven stylings of Hookman to the quicksilver Django-worthy guitar licks ofThe Cigar. There’s a change of pace with the honky-tonk intro of Stop That Train,while the broken-down jazz of Holly Woedend, sung withheart-rending poignancy by Van Der Schuren, will move you to shivers.
The album’s other ace card, of course, is the lyric-sheet.Anything but the usual boy-meets-girl, these words areoften funny, occasionally dark, sometimes surreal (or a combination of all three).There’s the topic of money, represented on both the flat-broke Way Too Smart and tight-fisted Turn Every Dollar (“I’m a cheap, cheap, cheap fucker”). There are failed relationships, addressed by Everywhere I Go, as Janssen tries to outrun an old girlfriend (“Drove planes, boats, trains, cars, rode on a camel’s back, oh, in my head I knew you would be back”). Then there are the classic story-songs like Hookman and Stop That Train, with their mad cast of characters.“The songs are about everyday life very exaggerated,” reflect the band. “And the remarkable and unfortunate people we’ve met.”
In a world where you think you’ve heard it all before, The Ragtime Rumours’ talents add up to the freshest debut album you’ll hear this year. This band might roll back the years with their irresistible vintage/modern music – but their time is now.
Take a ride along the banks of the Mississippi River, pull up a stool in any St. Louis blues joint and talk will soon turn to the musician who’s giving the city its soundtrack. Jeremiah Johnson’s towering reputation has been hard-earned. During a two-decade rise, his triumphs have been accompanied by struggles and scars – not to mention the solitude of a life in motion. But those hard knocks have forged him as an artist, and now they feed into Straitjacket: the warts-and-all masterpiece that gives it to you straight. “This album is original American rock ‘n’ blues with southern-fried soul,” explains Johnson. “I just close my eyes and feel the music go through me…”
Few are better-qualified to commentate on modern America’s melting pot of people, cultures and musical genres. As Johnson reminds us in the autobiographical groove of 9th & Russell, the bandleader cut his teeth in St. Louis, then honed his craft in Houston, where he won the Regional Blues Challenge for three years running. But it was the return to home-turf in 2009 that truly planted Johnson’s flag, as he hit the stage at the iconic Hammerstone’s blues bar and spliced the two cities’ musical palettes into his own searing original material.
Since then, there’s been victory in the 2011 St Louis Blues Society Challenge, acclaimed albums including 2014’s Devon Allman-produced Grind and 2016’s genre-hopping Blues Heart Attack – not to mention the Ride The Blues documentary that painted a candid portrait of Johnson’s bitter-sweet rise. “Let’s just say I’ve had my days with drugs and alcohol,” he nods, “and it took me a long time to get a grip on it.”
In 2018, Straitjacket wears Johnson’s soul proudly on its sleeve. Produced by St. Louis’s favourite son, Mike Zito, at his Mars studios in Texas, the calibre of the lineup of Frank Bauer (sax/vocals), Benet Schaeffer (drums) and Tom Maloney (bass) demanded that these songs were captured on the floor. “We went for a live feel,” says Johnson. “There are a lot of places I could have played a more perfect solo or sang the lyrics more precisely, but in the end it was perfect left alone. Real, human, breathing, imperfected perfection.”
Served raw and searingly honest, these songs examine Johnson’s history, headspace and place in the world. He can be playful, on the title track’s hectic funk-blues complaint to a controlling girlfriend, or the grooving Dirty Mind, about a lover calling up for “a little company” at 2am. But elsewhere, personal moments like Keep On Sailing bleed into the social commentary of Believe In America and Old School. “Keep On Sailing is about realising the people around you are only there because of the drugs and booze,” he explains. “Believe In America is about seeing people struggling with money and a government that keeps leaving us small people behind – but I also see people who still have faith in this country. Old School is probably the most important song on this record. In my childhood, we got in fights, lessons were learned and we all walked away with our lives. Today, people pull out a gun…”
There might be storm clouds on Straitjacket, but the record ends in a ray of sunshine, as a cover of Alvin Lee’s classic Rock ‘N’ Roll Music To The World sees the band flex their astonishing chemistry and enjoy the ride (“We just cranked it up and let it fly”). The man himself hopes that you will do the same: “I want people to let this record play from the first to the last note, crank it up at a party, zone out while driving or riding through the night on a Harley-Davidson. I want this record to make people feel like throwing it in and going on a trip of emotion…”
It had to be a train. The name of Victor Wainwright’s new band – and the sleeve image of their debut album – is also the most fitting of metaphors. In music folklore, the train might have associations with the freight-hopping bluesmen of yore, but with this restless boogie-woogie innovator stoking the furnace, this latest project is a charging locomotive – surging forward, crashing through boundaries of genre, sweeping up fresh sounds and clattering headlong past the doubters. As the man himself hollers in the ivory-pounding title track: “If you wanna boogie get aboard this train/Get yourself a ticket or get out of the way…”
At a sweet-spot in his career, where most established stars would rest on their laurels, Victor Wainwright & The Train instead rips up all that has gone before. These twelve tracks are originals in every sense, written by Wainwright, pricking up ears in a sterile music industry and stretching the concept of roots in bold directions. “I wanted to write this new music mostly on my own,” he explains, “as it was coming and speaking to me. I believe that for roots music to grow, and reach out to new audiences, we have to push it forward.”
The result is an album that walks a tightrope between scholarly respect and anarchic irreverence. You’ll hear Wainwright twist boogie-woogie tradition on barrelhouse thrillers like Healing and Boogie Depression, both driven by his visceral piano style. But you’ll also hear him fearlessly explore the gamut of genre, from the Latin flavours and New Orleans horns of Wiltshire Grave, to the mellow near-psychedelia of Sunshine.
It’s a musical cocktail served up by Wainwright’s inimitable gravel-flecked vocal. His words can be hilarious, as on I’ll Start Tomorrow, on which he postpones his doctor’s clean-living advice. But they can also be heartfelt, on the gospel-tinged kiss-off of That’s Love To Me. “I’ve tried to write songs that remind us to love ourselves,” he considers. “It doesn’t matter who voted for who, what your religion is, who you love…”
On this white-knuckle ride, only The Train could keep the material on the tracks. “I ended up with a hit-squad of downright amazing musicians,” he reflects, “that shared my curiosity for all corners of the roots genre. We wanted to capture how we feel performing, right smack-dab on this record, and I believe we’ve done that. Now I just try to keep up.”
In truth, Wainwright has always been an artist that sets the pace. Born into a musical family in Savannah, Georgia, the formative influence of his father’s vocals and grandfather’s rolling boogie-woogie piano compelled him into a life of music. By 2005, he’d announced his talent with solo debut, Piana’ From Savannah, while his central role in Southern Hospitality and partnership with Stephen Dees in WildRoots has seen him ignite stages and stereos for over a decade. “Looking back on your career is a tough thing to do,” he says. “Challenges are many, and frequent, but when you get it together, it can also be extremely rewarding.”
A man of many talents, Wainwright is a composer, producer, vocalist, piano player and award-winning entertainer. A long-standing leader of the boogie-woogie pack, he could refer you to his BMA and Blues Blast trophies, or a catalog that has repeatedly hijacked the Billboard Top 10. But rather than dine out on past glories, this questing artist would rather you joined him for the ride ahead. “Of course, I still have songs on this album that are just about kicking ass and taking names, like The Train,” he laughs. “But if you listen to the lyrics, what I’m really saying is, we got to get on the train and move forward together…”
Some albums stop you in your tracks. Like the smoky thump from a New Orleans juke-joint as you pass by on the sidewalk, Let The Demons Out is a rock ‘n’ roll siren call that pricks up your ears and puts you under its spell. And with Europe’s fastest-rising young vocalist and Louisiana’s hottest R&B crack-squad running the show, resistance is useless.
If you’ve not yet met Ghalia Vauthier, prepare to fall hard for an artist on the cusp of big things. Rewind to 2013 and Ghalia’s rise began with an apprenticeship busking on the streets of her native Brussels and double-duty in her two early bands, The Naphtalines and Voodoo Casino. “I always thought busking is the best schooling one could have,” she says. “You have only one second to catch people. It’s like a challenge – and I love challenges!”
Ghalia soon set herself the biggest one of all: America. With her passion for rocket-fuelled R&B drawing her to the motherland, the singer trekked the US cultural nerve-centres – from Chicago and Memphis to Nashville and Mississippi – winning fans and raising roofs at every stop. “The first time I went to the USA was like a musical pilgrimage to discover the places all my favourite songs talked about. The second time, things became real. I started singing where my heroes sang. I was strolling where they used to walk, buying booze maybe at their favourite liquor store, driving the same highways, watching sunsets in the same cotton fields. Then, from sitting in with local artists, I began to get my own shows.”
Every state heralded a new adventure, but perhaps most pivotal was Louisiana, where the seeds of Let The Demons Out were sown as Ghalia fell in with local legends Johnny Mastro & Mama’s Boys. The chemistry between these fast friends was undeniable, and it spilled over into New Orleans’ Music Shed Studio, as Ghalia drafted the lineup as her studio band. “The goal was to mix their attitude and experience with my songs and vocals,” she explains, “creating a symbiosis and letting the musical chemistry blossom.”
Working on impulse and trusting in their talent, this makeshift collective tore a page from the playbook of the blues originators, cutting live in the same room. “We think that this organic recording style brings more spontaneity and integrity to the music,” considers Ghalia. “Plus, it’s more fun and way more challenging.”
In an era of manufactured music, Let The Demons Out is as real as it gets. Mama’s Boys provide the engine-room on these twelve tracks, with sparks flying between Mastro’s gale-force harp, Smokehouse Brown’s stinger guitars, the grooving bass of Dean Zucchero and the visceral beats of Rob Lee. Leading the line, meanwhile, is Ghalia’s astonishing vocal, which somersaults from a honeyed purr to a hollered battlecry. “My lyrics come from stories I’ve experienced and the emotional reactions to them,” she says. “In the old days, they said blues is not only about lamentation but encouragement. That’s the way I see it, too. Another subject I find myself writing about is freedom – mine, yours, ours. Of course, there’s the subject of men. Can be about love, can be about sex, can be none of the above.”
These are songs that mark Ghalia out as a writer of dizzying potential. There’s the gunshot opener 4am Fried Chicken and the bone-shaking All The Good Things, with its fat beat and hedonist vocal (“All the good things, babe, they’re bad for you”). There’s the fuzz-faced swagger of Have You Seen My Woman and the unstoppable momentum of Hoodoo Evil Man. Press That Trigger fizzes with a frantic guitar solo, while the hoarse mouth-harp and thunderous beat of the title track recalls the Stones in their dazzling prime.
This multi-faceted band can also shift gears, as evidenced by the snake-charmer slow-burn of Addiction, or Hey Little Baby, which takes its sweet time, as Ghalia breathes a hypnotic vocal melody in your ear. Yet this party goes out with a bang on the closing Hiccup Boogie, with its shades of Canned Heat and a travelogue vocal that holds the listener rapt.
Look elsewhere for your background music. Let The Demons Out is an album that demands your undivided attention, and drags the blues genre into fresh relevance. “We’re not aiming to replicate traditional blues,” says Ghalia, “but rather to push the songwriting and playing to a point at which we discover something new and hopefully fresh, while still maintaining a blues vibe. Basically, we hope to strike a balance between the traditional and progressive. That’s what good art is about anyway…”
Introducing Vanja Sky – the newest discovery by Ruf Records. For over 20 years, the label has been a fertile breeding ground for young blues talent, having already helped exceptional female artists such as Samantha Fish, Erja Lyytinen, Ana Popovic and Joanne Shaw Taylor achieve international success. Hailing from the Croatian capital of Zagreb, the singer/guitarist is part of the next wave of hungry, up-and-coming musicians from all corners of the globe who are diving into the blues with passion and energy.
Sky picked up the guitar just five years ago, inspired by an evening visit to a live music venue near her hometown of Buzet. "It was crazy," she laughs. "There was a special energy in the air. I can't even describe it. I decided I wanted to play guitar right then and there – and when I decide something, I just have to do it." She ordered a cheap guitar on the internet, began taking lessons from the guitar player whose performance had inspired her and eventually quit her job as a pastry chef to dedicate herself to music. Roughly two years later, she left home to join a band in Croatia's capital. Concerts in Serbia, Slovenia, Germany and her native Croatia allowed her to hone her skills as both a singer and guitarist.
Jump ahead to the year 2017. Faster than she could ever have imagined, Sky is now making a record with some of the biggest names in the blues business. Her first stop is Bessie Blues Studios in Stantonville, Tennessee, the home base of Grammy-winning producer Jim Gaines. There, she records the sizzling, Luther Allison-penned roadhouse blues "Low Down and Dirty" together with fellow guitarists Mike Zito and Bernard Allison. A short time later, she reconvenes with Zito and a cast of experienced session players to record another eleven tunes. The result is her debut Bad Penny – an album of modern electric blues with a straightforward, rock'n'roll attitude.
"We named it after the Rory Gallagher song, which I also cover on the album. Rory is one of my favorite players. He has a special place in my heart." Besides the Irish blues-rock legend, Sky cites Stevie Ray Vaughan and Albert King as key guitar influences. At times, her tasteful playing on Bad Penny also recalls that of Dire Straits founder Mark Knopfler. Vocally, there's an edge and aggressiveness that wouldn't feel out of place on a late-70s recording by L.A. rockers The Runaways.
"Vanja is a passionate songwriter who writes from her feelings. But she also enjoys having fun and cutting loose," says Mike Zito, who oversaw the production in Berlin. "She has a very strong voice and her love for blues guitar will be her strong suit."
Besides Zito, Sky is joined on Bad Penny by drummer Matt Johnson and bassist Terry Dry, a potent rhythm combo with credits including Trudy Lynn and The Mighty Orq, as well as fellow Texan Lewis Stephens, a standout keyboarder who has accompanied Freddie King, Delbert McClinton and Gary Clark Jr. "We worked very hard and also had a lot of fun," says Vanja Sky with a smile. "The band did an amazing job and helped me feel comfortable, since this was my first album. Mike helped me arrange the songs, shared a lot of good advice and showed me some great licks on the guitar."
"Low Down and Dirty," her triple-threat performance alongside Zito and Bernard Allison, is not just one of the album's highlights. It also signals what's ahead for Sky in 2018. Starting in January, she'll be featured together with Allison and Zito on the 14th edition of the Ruf Records Blues Caravan. The tour will take her across Europe and North America, allowing her to fulfill the ambition that was born on that night five years ago when her old life stopped and the guitar became the center of her universe. "Music is the most wonderful gift on the planet. It's my aim to bring happiness through music to as many people as possible."
Vanessa Collier’s time is now. For uninitiated listeners who have never experienced this fascinating artist, Meeting My Shadow will be a revelation. But to the long-time fans who have followed the Maryland singer, songwriter and saxophonist through the twists of her career, this is the classic album she’s promised from the start. “Meeting My Shadow is a meeting of the past, present and future,” notes Vanessa of this second release. “A tribute to the spirit of blues tradition, a reflection on our present culture and a hopeful wish for growth, understanding and inclusion as we move forward together. It’s also a story of perseverance and empowerment, meant to share strength and provide an uplifting message.”
As anyone at the sharp end of the music business will remind you, there’s no such thing as an overnight success. Vanessa was already brimming with potential during her early studies at Boston’s illustrious Berklee College Of Music. Yet it was her thrilling sets on tour with Grammy-winning blues titan Joe Louis Walker that achieved lift-off. “I love performing,” she says. “The energy of the people makes me come alive and allows me to find a part of myself that I really only share on that stage. I love that moment after a show, when people come up to meet me and I can see the emotion of being touched by one of my songs.”
Things began to move faster. When debut album Heart Soul & Saxophone landed in 2014 – announcing a songwriting palette touched by blues, funk, rock and soul – Vanessa found herself honoured as a Best Of 2014 Blues Breaker on Dan Aykroyd’s iconic House Of Blues radio show. Since then, she’s been a top-three finalist in the John Lennon Songwriting Competition, fought through to the 2016 International Blues Challenge in Memphis and shared bills with Annie Lennox, Willie Nelson and more. “Of course, there have been setbacks too,” she notes. “But what is a songwriter – or a person – with no setbacks? I learn about myself, and about people, and channel many of those setbacks into my songwriting.”
Now, Meeting My Shadow presents eleven songs that explore life’s triumphs and challenges. “This album is really a collection of experiences,” explains Vanessa, “which are as varied as the musical influences I draw from. I like to write about subjects that connect with audiences and that are universal to life, and I like each song to take you on a journey, both in the lyrics and in the music. This album has songs about shared struggles, empowerment, and perseverance that make you feel like you can overcome any obstacle.
“This album is then balanced out with witty, playful songs that make light of life,” she counters. “For instance, Poisoned The Well is about being let down and watching someone poison your surroundings, but there’s a strength in accepting that and always standing true to yourself. When It Don't Come Easy is about perseverance and finding your strength to keep moving regardless of any obstacles. Then, I have songs like Two Parts Sugar, One Part Lime and Meet Me Where I'm At, that are about finding the fun in life and celebrating each day.”
As bandleader and co-producer, Vanessa was the driving force behind last October’s sessions at the Music + Arts Studio in Memphis. Scan the inlay and you’ll find her credited for instruments from flute to organ, alongside her trademark soul-drenched vocals and searing sax. “The saxophone is very much an extension of my voice in each song,” she notes, “and you can really feel my attitude and emotion in the song through the way I play it. With my saxophone, I can wail, I can growl, I can cry. I can drive a song forward with a strong, edgy, unleashed attack. I can be subtle and beautiful. I can be strong and powerful.”
Meanwhile, Vanessa is quick to credit co-producer Kevin Houston and the crack-squad of studio musicians who brought grit and groove to her new material. “I got to laugh with T.K. Jackson (drums), find a sincere friendship with the very talented Laura Chavez (guitar) and feel my jaw drop with the slide guitar work of Josh Roberts. I was also deeply touched by Charles Hodges’ (keys) deep appreciation for my music and for my skills as a songwriter, and by Daniel McKee’s (bass) comparison of my music to that of Prince, in that my music appears simple and approachable by everyone, but has a surprising nuanced challenge that makes it really interesting as a musician. All of the musicians on my album were great to work with, and for me, these sessions were about bringing my music to life to share with people throughout the world. I'm super excited to do that in 2017.”
Released in 2017 on Ruf Records, Meeting My Shadow is the sound of a rising talent reaching unstoppable momentum. “I am unrelenting and passionate about what I do,” says Vanessa. “I’m made to perform and, for me, I don’t see any other option. I’m all in. Let’s go!”