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John Kessler’s Top 10 Blues Albums Of 2017

Every year, blues connoisseur John Kessler compiles a list of his favorite blues records. Enjoy!

Larkin Poe, 'Peach'

Tricki-Woo Records

After abandoning their Bluegrass act The Lovell Sisters in 2009, Georgians Megan and Rebecca Lovell are now mining music from the deep stores of American Folk and Blues. What they deliver is a unique blend of driving, southern Blues-Rock with searing slide guitars, and impassioned sisterly harmonies that take traditional songs like “Black Betty” and “Preachin’ Blues” in totally new directions. 


Eric Gales, "Middle Of Road'

Provogue Records

Earlier in his career Eric Gales was understandably linked to Jimi Hendrix, who he clearly emulated, and his astonishing dexterity and fluid guitar mastery established him as a major talent. As he’s matured, Gales has become less prone to over-playing, and more focused on writing rhythmically interesting songs and arrangements. This release, his strongest yet, features some almost Reggae/Blues grooves and some very enjoyable guest appearances from Gary Clark, Jr. on Freddie King’s “Boogie Man” and young Christone “Kingfish” Ingram on “Help Yourself."


Rhiannon Giddens, 'Freedom Highway'

Nonesuch Records

Giddens is one of the leading voices and instrumentalists of Americana. With the Carolina Chocolate Drops, she made old-time music accessible to a much larger audience and with her two solo releases, she has been able to move beyond the vintage sound. This is a performer in total control—a trained opera singer, Giddens can do miraculous things with her voice, but keeps things understated. She doesn’t shy away from difficult topics; “At The Purchaser’s Option” a song about slavery is both chilling and uplifting. 


Cary Morin, 'Cradle To The Grave'

Cary Morin

Without question Cary Morin is one the finest acoustic Blues guitarists I’ve heard. His fingerpicking guitar style is casual yet deft, precise yet soulful. He’s obviously studied the work of masters Gary Davis and John Fahey, but doesn’t get stuck in imitation. His voice has a realness to it, a hardened edge that gives his lyrics a true-to-life character. Some well written songs make this an excellent showcase for Morin. 


Samantha Fish, 'Chills And Fever'

Ruf Records

Samantha Fish has been busy trying on new musical outfits this year, this is the first of two releases from 2017. She came up in Kansas City, playing gritty garage-band Blues that didn’t really do her vocal and guitar talents justice. This time, working with a Detroit band and producer, she has added elements of that city’s soul and rock legacy to her sound, and a strong batch of original songs allows her to have more fun with her voice. 


North Mississippi All Stars, 'Prayer For Peace'

Songs Of The South

In many ways, brothers Luther and Cody Dickinson have stuck to their original vision for the band, which gets its musical DNA from the droning yet raucous sound of Mississippi Hill Country Blues, re-packaged with electric guitars and drums. When they started 20 years ago they were one of the first groups to incorporate samples and loops into traditional Blues and that approach still serves them well. They keep their roots close at hand and feature compositions from Hill Country masters Fred McDowell, R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough. 


Southern Avenue, 'Southern Avenue'

Concord Music Group

An impressive debut from an unexpected confluence of talent in Memphis. Guitarist Ori Naftaly came to the city from Israel for the IBC convention in 2013 and started his own band in the States. When he crossed paths with singer Tierinii Jackson and her drumming sister Tikyra (TK), he sensed greater possibilities and they joined forces. While this release is a showcase for Tierinii’s amazing voice, TK’s powerful drumming and harmonies are also up front as is Naftaly’s nimble and melodic guitar. Equal parts Soul, Gospel and Jam Band, they’ve carved out their own space in a city steeped in music.


Tommy Castro, 'Stompin' Ground'

Alligator Records

A truly soulful singer and witty lyricist, Tommy Castro is also a very accomplished guitarist, although he keeps the focus on songs and arrangements and less on extended soloing. A journeyman, he is touring constantly and the album benefits from a band that knows how to have fun playing together as a unit, tight and loose at the same time. Standout tracks include duets with Charlie Musselwhite and Mike Zito.


Gregg Allman, 'Southern Blood'

Concord Music Group

Released just a few months after his death in May, this album is truly bittersweet in every sense. Allman doesn’t sound like he’s ailing, his singing and playing are still strong, but it’s hard not to find hidden messages that he knew his time wasn’t long. Songs like “I Love the Life I Live” and “Going Going Gone” are certainly suggestive. This is not strictly a Blues album, there are Folk and Americana moments, but songs like “Love Like Kerosene” still have the burning Allman Blues stamp.


Milligan Vaughan Project, 'MVP'

Mark One Records

This release got my attention right away just because of the names. Malford Milligan I knew as the supremely talented soul singer with Storyville, and Tyrone Vaughan turns out to be Jimmie’s son and Stevie Ray’s nephew. Apparently, guitar genes run strong with the Vaughans because this young man plays with finesse that does credit to the family name. You can tell these guys are enjoying this excursion and hopefully this is the first of more from the group. Standout tracks are the Les McCann/Eddie Harris classic “Compared to What” and a nod to uncle SRV with “Leave My Girl Alone”.

John has worked as a professional bassist for 20 years, including a 15 year stint as Musical Director of the Mountain Stage radio program. John has been at KNKX since 1999 where he hosts “All Blues”, is producer of the BirdNote radio program, and co-hosts “Record Bin Roulette”. John is also the recording engineer for KNKX “In-Studio Performances”. Not surprisingly, John's main musical interests are jazz and blues, and he is still performing around Seattle.