CD Reviews – July 2024

BARBARA BLUE – FROM THE SHOALS (BIG Blue Records) A Pittsburgh native, Barbara Blue started singing at an early age, putting on backyard concerts as a teenager. She eventually fronted a Detroit blues band during her college years before returning to Pittsburgh to front another blues group six nights a week for more than 10 years. Her journey then took her to Memphis in 1997, where she landed a gig at Silky O’Sullivan’s on Beale Street, performing five nights a week for nearly 25 years – earning her the title “The Reigning Queen of Beale Street.” Along the way, Barbara has performed and/or recorded with such names as Taj Mahal, Ronnie Earl, Maceo Parker and many others; toured internationally with five visits to Australia and appearances at multiple blues festivals, and has released seven studio albums and three live albums. On her latest album, “From the Shoals,” Barbara belts out a robust and passionate voice over 13 stirring tracks, with a strong cast of musicians to help bring her blues to life – the rhythm section of drummer Bernard “Pretty” Purdie and bassist David Hood, the keyboard tandem of B3 and Wurlitzer player Clayton Ivey and pianist Mark Narmore, the dual guitar contingent of Will McFarlane and Davor “Hutch” Hacic, the horn section of saxman Brad Guin and trumpeter Marc Franklin, and backing singer Kimberlie Helton. Keys and horns prominently drive the album-opener “The Shoals,” where Barbara celebrates the influential musical center where the album was recorded: Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Likewise, the bold 12-bar blues number “Nutthouse Blues” references the studio where she recorded the album, Nutthouse Studios in Sheffield, Alabama (outside Muscle Shoals). Barbara honors a key influence – Etta James – by delivering sincere and soulful reads to two songs that Etta recorded in 1967, her biggest-charting hit “Tell Mama” and “Steal Away.” She addresses the problem of our divided and spiteful society on the slow and serious “Severed.” Barbara also gets downright funky on “Nothing Lasts Forever,” muses about attraction on the slinky “Curse Of Beauty” and offers some double-entendre playfulness on the 12-bar blues of “Slide Man,” presents some heart-tugging slow blues on “Lost Young Love” and “Too Far,” and reminisces Pittsburgh romance on “Never Stopped Loving You.” Co-written by Barbara and “Hutch” are two emotionally powerful numbers that close the album, the spiritual-toned “Song Of The River” and the swaggering “Trails of Tears”; both respectively referencing Native Americans who lived along Alabama’s Tennessee River – “The Singing River” – and the plight of those “Five Civilized Tribes” as they were forcibly relocated westward by the government between 1830 and 1850. There’s never a doubt that Barbara is the centerpiece of this album, as her voice radiates enthusiasm, energy and powerful emotion through the entire set. Her band skillfully backs and surrounds her vocals, while establishing just the right instrumental mood for each song, whether bold and brash or quiet and peaceful. Engineered by Jimmy Nutt and assistant Jonathan Moody, this album sounds clear, sturdy and vibrant. Barbara dedicated this album in loving memory of her mother, Rose, who passed in 2021. Barbara Blue easily lives up to her title of “Reigning Queen of Beale Street” on “From The Shoals,” as she delivers passionate, powerful and emotion-shaking blues and soul from start to end. An excellent listen! (The album can be accessed through online streaming services, and obtained through the website