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CD Reviews – January 2014

STERLING KOCH – A STEEL GUITAR BLUES CHRISTMAS (Full Force Music) Sterling Koch in 2000 issued his first Christmas-themed album, Acoustic Christmas, a gentle and reverent selection of mostly instrumental acoustic Christmas standards and original compositions. Since then, Koch has re-embraced the blues over the past 13 years and has made steel and slide guitar his forte. So his second Christmas album, A Steel Guitar Blues Christmas, offers rip-roaring slide guitar yuletide blues and blues rock over seven tracks. Koch sings and demonstrates his steel guitar talents, flanked by drummer Al Esis and harmonica wailer Jack Kulp. The disc opens with a swagger, with the bold and boisterous “I’m Your Santa,” announcing the arrival of the big ol’ blues elf himself. That news is also pronounced on the bouncing boogie of “Have You Heard the News,” and the brash bravado blues of “Back Door Santa,” with Kulp’s harmonica wailing out in glory. Kulp also shines on the deliberate and sturdy “Rock Me,” and Koch lends his steel guitar flavor on the rambunctious disc-closing edition of the Chuck Berry hit “Run Run Rudolph. Koch and company also get slower and slinkier with their Christmas blues, on “Christmas Blues” and “Merry Christmas Baby.” Koch’s steel guitar tones and bluesy growl are front and center throughout the disc, and he convincingly stamps his signature on each number. There is never any question that this is an electric blues album as well as a Christmas-themed set, and the overall presentation is edgy, bold and proud. The mix is clean and balanced, allowing Koch and his cast to show their edge and carry the set. A Steel Guitar Blues Christmas is a welcome dose of electric blues for the collective Christmas music lexicon, and is the perfect gift for that blues fan longing for some yuletide blues this holiday season. (The CD can be obtained through Koch’s website, www.sterlingkoch.com.)

NATE MYERS – IT’S MY MUSIC (no label) On his sixth full-length release, It’s My Music, Harrisburg-based blues harp proficionado Nate Myers broadens his musical horizons and expands his blues-based sound into a diversity of styles, with impressive results. Over 13 tracks, It’s My Music finds Myers harping, singing and scatting with his band the Aces and a plethora of guest musicians through a multitude of flavors; including blues, Texas waltz, rock, soul, country/Americana, hip-hop, swing and more. A capable storyteller, Myers marries traditional blues with a hip-hop touch to share the story of a Chicago-bound bluesman on the title track “It’s My Music.” He weaves a sad story of unfulfilled love on the Texas-flavored “Waltz for 1,” and conceals a secret on the folksy “Marked Man.” Myers celebrates brassy R&B on the disc-opener “Her Hand My Hand,” revels in the joy of living on the uptempo rocker “Breathe,” crafts a catchy ‘60s-flavored blue-eyed soul dance number on “Back Porch Swing,” and jumps, jives and wails on his own jump-blues romp “Dip Dip Wadda Dip.” Myers doesn’t neglect his blues foundation here, providing additional highlights with the slinky blues of “You Know” and its smoking midsong harp solo, as well as the dark and bluesy closer “Rainin.’” Myers’ voice and harmonica tie all of the songs together into a cohesive whole, and his distinctive presence and personality stamp his signature decisively throughout this entire set; per the album title, it’s indeed his music. His cast of players give additional color, variety and depth to the songs, keeping the set sounding fresh from start to end. The production by Myers, Pete Netznik and Jason Shaffer enable each song to radiate, and the mixes sound balanced and smooth throughout. It’s My Music shows Nate Myers embracing more styles of music and making them his own; and this is a fun album that should keep listeners tapping toes from start to finish. (The CD can be obtained through Myers’ website, www.natemyers.com.)

ROYAL BENSON – DOMINOES & GRAVITY (no label) Royal Benson first arrived on State College area stages four years ago, and quickly spread their tasty brand of jazz-flavored funk and rock to stages throughout the state. On their second longplayer, Dominoes & Gravity, Royal Benson further defines and focuses their sound, while raising the bar on their inventive arrangements and musicianship. Singer/keyboardist Adam Tarin, singer/guitarist Matt Fern, bassist/singer Tim Myers, saxophonist/flutist Michael Fortunato and drummer Jordan Thompson craft inventive melodies with intricate rhythms, intriguing chord progressions and adventurous arrangements. All five musicians constantly play and push off one another, elevating their full-tilt musicianship to the stratosphere; especially Fortunato, whose sax mastery escalates the excitement on each tune. The end result suggests the jazz-pop flourishes of Steely Dan merging with the improvisational theatrics of Phish. The jazz-funk flavor is obvious from the get-go, as Royal Benson opens the disc with the upbeat love song “Hold Me Down.” The title track “Dominoes & Gravity” drives forward into a soaring jazz-rock fusion reminiscent of Phish; and the group also stretches out with the atmospheric jazz-funk of “Time to Time.” Guest Cate Striplin helps with vocals on the beautifully soulful “Bird on a Wire.” “Primrose” creeps along a slinky jazz-funk groove, “Port of Call” bounces gently with a relaxed vibe, “Go Quietly” is playful in tone, and the piano-driven soulful ballad “Every Hour” finishes the disc. Royal Benson demonstrates abundant instrumental chops throughout the disc, and their vocals and harmonies are strong as well. The performances are inspired and uplifting; listeners can sense the excitement these musicians are sensing as they ride these grooves to their ultimate heights. The production is clean and clear, with everything sounding balanced and full. Royal Benson ups the ante with Dominoes & Gravity, a colorful and exhilarating slab of jazz/funk/rock fusion that will keep listeners captivated from start to end. (The CD can be obtained through Royal Benson’s website,www.royalbensonmusic.com.)

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