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Summertime Blues 2014: The Nighthawks and more of the season's best blues CDs

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Blues stay away from me? Nah. With all due respect to the Delmore Brothers, we blues fans will take all of it we can get. And if it makes a sweltering summer day all the more steamy, that’s even better. Here’s a quick listen to some of this season’s sizzlers.

THE NIGHTHAWKS – “444” – (Eller Soul) – One of the longest running and most versatile of American blues bands, the Nighthawks have been around for more than 40-years and encapsulate all that experience perfectly in the appropriately-titled, swaggering two-step of “Living the Blues.” “444 A.M.” though is a rockabilly blues that would make the Stray Cats envious, “Crawfish” is an eerily-sensuous bayou boiler and “Price of Love” is a Band-like roots rocker where harmonica player Mark Wenner duels with (slide) guitarist Paul Bell. The Nighthawks often cover Muddy Waters on their records and “444” is no exception as a funky and stripped-down version of Mud’s “Louisiana Blues” is included.

ALBERT CASTIGLIA – “Solid Ground” - (Ruf) - Singer/guitarist Castiglia honed his chops with a multi-year stint in Junior Wells’ band so you know when he starts off his seventh album with a song called “Triflin’” he’s sure not talking about his playing. “Keep You Around Too Long” bounces to the big beat favored by bands like the Fabulous Thunderbirds, “Have You No Shame” is a slow, closing time tear jerker and “Put Some Stank on It” is a swinging dance floor burner. Castiglia has a classic blues man voice but he also sounds great with his mouth shut, like on the Santana-like instrumental “Little Havana Blues (Arroz con Mango).”

BRENT JOHNSON – “Set the World on Fire” – (Justin Time) – Singer/guitarist Johnson is also a songwriter and he shines here on original cuts like the Gregg Allman-esque “Set the World on Fire” and the appropriately buoyant “Long Way Back to New Orleans” where Sonny Landreth guests on guitar. About half the album is self-penned but Johnson has also picked out a stellar batch of covers including John Lee Hooker’s “Meet Me in the Bottom” and a long take on Bob Dylan’s “Meet Me in the Morning;” both cuts feature guest guitarist Alvin Youngblood Hart.

LI’L RONNIE & THE BLUE BEATS featuring CLAUDIA CARAWAN – “Unfinished Business” (Eller Soul) – Talk about a labor of love; the band actually started cutting this record back in the late ’80s and only recently finished it. Fortunately the blues is timeless, as is the voice of singer Carawan who has a sweeter, less brassy voice than most blues women, giving songs like her own “Get Tough” a nice pop overtone. Carawan also knows her way around a torch song as “I Feel a Heartache Coming On” proves, and she’s one cool kitty on the swinging blues-a-billy of Louis Prima’s “Jump Jive, Then You Wail.”

MATT SCHOFIELD – “Far as I Can See” – (Provogue) – This British guitarist is considered one of the hottest talents going in the blues rock genre right now and this album reinforces that notion in spades. “From Far Away” is an Allman Brothers-style jam as is the organ-enhanced instrumental “Oakville Shuffle,” “Getaway” hints at Robin Trower and “Red Dragon” is clearly inspired by Jimi Hendrix. Schofield also plays tribute to one of his heroes with a funky cover of Albert King’s “Breaking up Somebody’s Home.”

DUDLEY TAFT – “Screaming in the Wind” – (Self released) – Most of this set is self-penned but Taft opens with a scorching ZZ Top-like interpretation of Skip James’ “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” and Texas-style blues rock is one of the predominant sounds here. “The Reason Why,” with former Double Trouble member Reese Wynans on Hammond B3, recalls Steve Miller, you’ll hear a little Hendrix (or Stevie Ray) in Taft’s guitar playing on the title track and “Red Line” is fast-paced, clutch-poppin’ southern rock. For those who like their blues with a bit of a snarl.

TWEED FUNK – “First Name Lucky” – (Tweed Tone) – Yes there are still bands that play good old-fashioned Rhythm & Blues and Tweed Funk are among the best. With the honey-voiced Smokey Holman belting out vocals and a sax and trumpet duo augmenting the grooves, Tweed Funk provide a solid set here with the ’60s-flavored soul pop of “Hoodoo Power,” a take on the Eddie Floyd/Steve Cropper chestnut “Knock on Wood” and album highlight, the James Brown-like “Sugarfoot.” Wherever this one goes a party is sure to follow.

KENNY ‘BLUES BOSS’ WAYNE – “Rollin’ With the Blues Boss” – (Stony Plain) – B.B. King-like guitar work highlights album opener “Leavin’ in the Morning” but pianist Wayne is renowned for his boogie-woogie playing style and the best cuts here are the bucolic boogie of “Hootenanny Boogie-Woogie,” the swingin’ dance instrumental (and Canadian lake monster referencing) “Ogopogo Boogie” and the ultra-boogie of “Out Like a Bullet.” Eric Bibb guests on vocals and acoustic guitar on the slinky shuffle “Two Sides.”

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