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…”
You can’t miss Ghalia. She’s the natural-born rock star with the leather jacket and wicked grin, leaning from her album sleeve to offer you a hit on her hip flask. But the real Southern blend ain’t in the bottle, it’s on the songs. Following the New Orleans flavours of her 2017 breakthrough, Let The Demons Out, this year sees the acclaimed Brussels-born singer-songwriter dive deeper into the American South, recording in the hill country of Mississippi, where she shared her songs with a cast of esteemed local musicians and caught the flying sparks. This is Mississippi Blend: an album as fiery and throat-burning as Delta moonshine.
Six years ago, Ghalia was a best-kept secret, her days spent busking on the streets of the Belgium capital, her nights shaking the city’s blues clubs. But as a die-hard R&B and blues fan, the singer-songwriter found the siren call of America too strong to resist. Visiting Chicago, Memphis and Nashville, Ghalia’s livewire talent saw her embraced by the musical motherland and elevated to headliner status.
Before long, on Let The Demons Out, she fused the groove of New Orleans with her own punk-rock attitude, hooking up with bassist Dean Zucchero, guitarist Smokehouse Brown and harmonica player Johnny Mastro from the Crescent City’s legendary band, Mama’s Boys. Commercially and creatively, this debut release made a seismic impact, hitting #1 on Louisiana’s Roots Music Report, #15 on the national Contemporary Blues Chart and #23 on the Living Blues Charts – while scoring Blues Album Of The Month in Classic Rock (“They’re an irresistible force”).
But like any musician with the blues under their fingernails, Ghalia always burned to make a record in Mississippi. Right from the start, her vision for Mississippi Blend was clear. This was to be an album so raw it bled, recorded deep in the hill country, letting all the region’s favourite sons add their thumbprint and catching the vibe that blew on the breeze. “Raw and natural,” nods the singer. “With bleedings, minimal microphones used, a traditional approach with modern influences.”
There was one studio that fit the bill. Owned and operated by, award-winning producer Jim Dickinson sons, Cody and Luther Dickinson, the Zebra Ranch in Coldwater, Mississippi, is a beacon of old-school production, where titans from T-Model Ford to R.L. Burnside have torn it up. But rather than being overawed by the studio’s history, Ghalia stepped up with her own songs and attitude, immersed in the Mississippi spirit. “I wanted this record to be organic, with hill country influences and the punk, garage and rock ‘n’ roll that I started with. I’m not trying to imitate any style, but letting my songs drive this music.”
Lyrically, these songs are Ghalia’s most powerful yet. “Meet You Down The Road is an emotive poem about the tragic loss of a loved one,” she says. “Drag Me Down is about never stopping doing what we aim to do. Squeeze is an erotic love song disguised in a cute, playful story. Why Don’t You Sell Your Children? speaks of a society in which common morals have become so increasingly depleted in the interest of greed that one’s next step might as well be to sell off your offspring for some extra cash.”
Ghalia sings up a storm, while playing soulful dobro and slide guitar. But this is anything but a one-woman show. Once again, Zucchero and Brown were the engine room, while every morning saw the singer welcome a new guest. On drums, you’ll find Cody Dickinson of the feted North Mississippi Allstars, alternating with Cedric Burnside, whose feel on the hill country-flavoured tunes would have made both his late father and grandfather proud. The veteran harp-blower Watermelon Slim duets with Ghalia on the dusty-road groove of Wade In The Water, while Lightnin’ Malcolm – a guitarist credited with keeping the hill country scene so healthy – plays searing leads. “The process of this record,” says Ghalia, “was an absolutely beautiful experience.”
By all means, take a slug on her hip flask. But don’t forget to play Mississippi Blend – and fall for the most powerful cocktail of star players and roots styles you’ll hear this year. “I just can't wait,” says the singer, “to share this new album live…”
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