Biography The BB King Blues Band

Long live the King. Four years since the passing of the great B.B. King, his towering influence over the blues world – and beyond – remains undimmed. From the long-standing fans still held spellbound by 1965’s classic Live At The Regal album, to the young guitarists adding a shiver of vibrato to an emotive solo, King’s music will never be forgotten. And this year, the iconic bluesman’s presence is felt stronger than ever, as his spirit imbues a star-studded new album, The Soul Of The King.

            The term ‘legend’ doesn’t do justice to B.B. King. The eight-decade story of how a Mississippi cotton-picker rose to the heights of the blues – changing the genre forever with his soul-drenched voice and ‘one-note’ touch – is told by his acclaimed studio catalogue and fabled live shows. Now, as the men who walked alongside him every step of the way for over 35 years, The B.B. King Blues Band write the next chapter, on an album that salutes King’s classic songs and showcases their own. “It’s important,” nods executive producer Terry Harvey, “to continue what he started.”

Boasting several world-class songwriters in their ranks, The Soul Of The King finds the lineup supplying material that stands alongside their late leader’s catalogue. There’s the addictive brass-bolstered shuffle of Low Down. The slow-burn balladry of She’s The One. The spring-heeled funk of Taking Care Of Business, and trumpet legend James ‘Boogaloo’ Bolden’s own Hey There Pretty Woman. Joe Louis Walker gives a soulful hat-tip on Regal Blues – while the King would surely approve of Louisiana gunslinger Kenny Wayne Shepherd’s masterful solo on opener Irene Irene. As Harvey says: “This record is a representation of B.B.’s musical styles and influences, to those who never got to hear or see him live.”          

            In modern times, most musicians shrink from the challenge of covering King’s material, wary of being hopelessly exposed as they strain to capture the soul. But as the King’s faithful sidemen, this band of blues lifers have his music under their fingernails, and during sessions at Hollywood’s Paramount Recording Studios and Houston’s Lucky Run Studios, their performances soared. “After being with B.B. for 35 years,” says Harvey, “this band lives and breathes his music. It has become a part of them.”

Choosing songs from King’s sprawling catalogue could have been an ordeal. But for The Soul Of The King, the lineup made a smart move, letting the A-list guests dictate the material. “As the name artists joined the project,” remembers Harvey, “we picked songs from B.B.’s catalogue that we felt fit their voices. Our approach was not to stray too far from the original, but still to make it fresh. I want the world to remember B.B. and to introduce his music to the youth of today.”

            Mission accomplished, with The Soul Of The King making a bracing return to some of King’s greatest cuts. There’s a heartfelt turn from Michael Lee on The Thrill Is Gone. Mary Griffin and Taj Mahal combine their vocal and guitar talents on Paying The Cost To Be The Boss. Kenny Neal lends poignant vocals and licks to Sweet Little Angel. “Recording with the different artists and the band was an enlightening experience,” reflects Harvey. “Everyone came in prepared, but when Mary Griffin came to record, she came in all bubbly – and nailed her vocals in two takes.”

            They might have an illustrious history, but The Soul Of The King reminds us that The B.B. King Blues Band are a lineup moving forward, writing a love-letter to their fallen leader while staking their own claim in the modern era. “When we started this album, we wanted to let the world know the B.B. King Band is live and well,” explains Harvey. “And that we are continuing B.B.’s musical legacy…”                

Biography Michael

It’s not often that blues breaks the Internet. But after six million-plus YouTube views for his jaw-dropping rendition of The Thrill Is Gone – an unforgettable highlight from last year’s The Voice TV show – it’s no wonder that Michael Lee has been tipped as the bluesman set to drag the genre into the mainstream. Now, with the release of Michael’s self-titled Ruf debut, the next big thing has truly arrived. “This album was a journey,” he reflects. “And a fun one at that.”

            Of course, that soulful B.B. King cover features here – and the thrill ain’t gone. But as that album title suggests, this new record holds a mirror up to Michael himself, offering ten original songs that let you into the heart and mind of an artist who has already walked many roads. Given his roots, it was inevitable that Michael would run with the state’s blues baton. “Being from Dallas and Fort Worth,” he considers, “I’m heavily influenced by Freddie King and Delbert McClinton. But I also bring my own style to the party. It’s retro-Texas rhythm and blues with a helping of rock ‘n’ roll.”

But nobody predicted how Michael would fuse those vintage influences with his own modern fire. And from breakout gigs in the roadhouses and honky-tonks of his home state to performing for an audience of eight million on The Voice, Michael’s old-soul voice and fiery fretwork has carried him ever onward. This year has already started with live vocal duties for the iconic B.B. King Blues Band. But a classic studio album was always on the cards. “I had a vision of where I wanted this album to go and sound like before I even rehearsed with the band,” Michael recalls. “That vision or sound has been surpassed by what we’ve been able to achieve with my producers, Nick Choate and Nick Jay.”

Studio trickery was not an option for a dues-paying bluesman who sings every line from his soul. The brief was simply to set up live, catch the sparks between Michael and his stellar studio band – and bottle the raw emotion of these songs. Heart Of Stone opens the album in style with dirty beats, fuzzbox guitars and punchy horns. Don’t Leave Me switches vibes with a broken-man vocal (“That’s a begging song,” explains Michael). Weeds fuses irrepressible money-lick horns with a reflective lyric. “When my wife and I moved into our house,” explains Michael. “I imagined the overgrown weeds in the backyard being our future children playing. I grabbed my guitar and wrote that song in ten minutes. It was just meant to be.”

It’s typical of an observational artist who finds inspiration everywhere. Praying For Rain feels like a modern flood song, its infectious riff locking with a thudding beat and moody brass (“I haven’t seen water in forty damn days”). Love Her’s breezy strut disguises the barbed lyric (“It’s a classic tale,” says Michael, “of a dangerous woman”). This Is has an elegant swoop, while Can’t Kick You celebrates a woman’s addictive pull (“I can kick the nicotine, I can kick the alcohol… but I can’t kick you”). “Some of these songs, I can see folks turning the radio up with the windows down,” says Michael. “Others might need some candlelight, wine and someone special.”

            Even as the album plays out, Michael slips fluidly between moods and vibes. Fool Of Oz has a sparse guitar line and raw lyric. Here I Am is a brass-bolstered slow-blues sung with bruised poignancy (“Don’t leave me stranded in the pouring rain”), while Go Your Own Way is a moody strut, complete with virtuoso guitar work and a spooky storytelling lyric of swamps and gunmen.

            In a modern age of manufactured music, Michael Lee is the flesh-and-blood bluesman we’ve been waiting for – armed with the album we always knew he was capable of. “I’m looking forward to the future,” he considers, “and seeing where this thing goes…”                

Biography Katarina

It takes a brave artist to blaze their own trail. From her birth-city of Belgrade to the Marz Studios in Texas where she recorded her dazzling new album, Katarina Pejak has walked countless roads and stuck a thousand pins in the map. Now, with Roads That Cross, this award-winning performer unveils a fresh set of songs that follow her muse wherever it leads her. Inspired by blues, jazz, country and rock ‘n’ roll – and shaped by all the cities she’s called home – this is music that crosses borders and brings people together. As producer Mike Zito says: “Katarina is one of a kind…”

            Making her debut on the iconic Ruf Records – and taking part in the label’s famous Blues Caravan tour in 2019 – Roads That Cross is the stone-cold classic that Katarina has promised since the start. Rewind to the post-millennium and this upcoming artist was already a little different: a classical piano virtuoso who raided her father’s record collection for Tom Waits, Bessie Smith, Van Morrison and Otis Spann – then challenged herself to write songs that measured up.

Hitting the blues circuit in her late-teens, word of Katarina’s house-rocking musicianship and smoky vocal spread across the Serbian capital like wildfire. But she had bigger plans. In 2011, Katarina followed the call to the birthplace of US roots, winning a scholarship to the famed Berklee College of Music that trained stars from Steve Vai to Quincy Jones. “It was amazing and tough at the same time,” she recalls. “Studying with people like Dave Limina and Pat Pattison really shaped me.”

            Katarina soon made her own mark, picked out for Berklee’s prestigious Songwriting Achievement Award and winning critical acclaim in her native Serbia for early releases like Perfume & Luck (2010), First Hand Stories (2012) and Old New Borrowed And Blues (2016). Her material touched on every genre, but the common factor was honesty, which flooded from the speakers and held audiences spellbound as she performed with the A-list and began to be mentioned in the same breath. “I've had the privilege to meet and play with some true blues greats,” she recalls, “like Ronnie Earl, Mike Zito, Anson Funderburgh, Mark Hummel and Ana Popović.”

            For now, Katarina has put down roots in Nashville. But Roads That Cross was born in Texas, where she arrived this year armed with a notebook full of new songs, a stellar studio band and the burning desire to make the best album of her career. “A young woman from Serbia,” considers Zito, “surrounded by Americans, in Southeast Texas, takes the reins and leads this band into some of the best songs I’ve heard in a long time. Her voice is subtle and seductive, her piano playing is on fire. She has emotion, passion and a desperate need for the music to be magical.”

            Mission accomplished. Listen to Roads That Cross and you’ll be taken on a magic carpet ride of emotion and mood. There’s She’s Coming After You, with its Latin groove, echo-chamber guitars and a lyric about a femme fatale who “looks like the Devil’s daughter/Walks like a baroness”. There’s the choppy reggae-flavoured Down With Me, and the expert jazz of The Harder You Kick, carried by organ and Katarina’s astonishing vocal. The upbeat Cool Drifter combines escapism with a soul edge, while Moonlight Rider will satisfy the blues hardcore, its gritty riffs and dusty groove addressing a lover that she knows will leave. “I didn’t realise until after making the album,” she reflects, “but most of these songs are about good-byes.”

            For everyone else, Roads That Cross is the start of a beautiful relationship. Following her meteoric early career, Katarina Pejak stands at a crossroads, ready to step into the fast lane. “She’ll make you think,” concludes Zito. “She’ll make you cry. By the end of this record, she’ll have you in the palm of her hand. For Katarina, this is only the beginning…”

Biography Ally

There’s something about Texas. Open up the history books and you’ll find the Lone Star State at the eye of every rock ‘n’ roll storm. Pull up a stool in any bar-room and you’ll still hear Southern gentlemen spin stories of ZZ Top, Johnny Winter and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Now, tip a ten-gallon hat to the bandleader writing her own name onto the state’s famed back pages, as Ally Venable releases breakout third album, Texas Honey – with production from another local hero. “Ally is the future of the blues and the crossover music of American roots-rock,” nods Mike Zito. “She is Texas Honey.”

            She might only be hitting her twenties, but long-term fans will know this isn’t Ally’s first rodeo. Rewind to her childhood in the post-millennium and this rising star found her voice in church, but it was the influence of fiery Texas guitar-slingers like SRV and the melodic smarts of Miranda Lambert that showed her the path. “What’s cool about Stevie is that he introduced so many people that didn’t know about blues to this music,” she reflects. “And that’s what my goal is to do with my music.”

With her soulful vocal, burn-it-down fretwork and heart-on-sleeve songcraft, Texas was hers for the taking. Detonating venues across the South and holding their own as support for titans like Lance Lopez and Eric Gales, Ally’s lineup of Bobby Wallace (bass) and Elijah Owings (drums) proved a power-trio to rank alongside the best. “I take in that Texas guitar-slinging influence in my shows and songwriting,” she explains. “My band is a three-piece, so it’s a ‘right-in-your-face’ power-trio.”

That live punch was captured on No Glass Shoes (2016) and Puppet Show (2018): the latter dubbed “exceptional” by Blues Rock Review as it scaled the Top 10 on both Billboard and iTunes Blues Charts. Meanwhile, the ETX Awards mounted up in categories including ‘Best Female Guitarist’, ‘Blues Band’ and ‘Album of the Year’.

But it’s all been leading to Texas Honey. Released alongside her appearance on the 2019 Blues Caravan, Ally’s Ruf Records debut went down at MARZ Studios in Nederland, Texas, where producer Mike turned the killer songs in her back pocket into the album of her career. “On this album,” Ally reflects, “it’s still guitar-oriented, but I focused more on the songwriting, the hooks and melodies. I try and write about what goes on in my life, or something that I feel can relate to others. I want my songs to be a release for people, something they can play and enjoy.”    

            Expect some sweetness – and plenty of sting. Opener Long Way Home sets the pace, fusing a twanged riff, white-hot solo and anthemic chorus. One-Sided Misunderstanding pairs a reflective verse with an overdriven chorus, before Running After You offers a bad-tempered buzzsaw riff and a lyric that tells it straight (“If you want to leave then go/But just know I’m not running after you”).

            Broken has a gritty verse that builds to a knockout chorus, while Blind To Bad Love is a moody half-time strut that finds Ally caught under the spell of a bad lover (“I’ve tried everything to get you out of my head”). The title track serves up a growling riff and a solo that races the length of the fretboard, while White Flag is positively vicious, with a distorted vocal, scything licks and sneered solo. Nowhere To Hide has an irresistible pulsing groove, while Come And Take It welcomes Eric Gales to the studio, the pair trading vocals over stormy guitars. "What can I say?” muses the guest-star. “It was a huge honour and privilege to be a part of Ally's new record coming out. I’m sure all will love what they hear. I sure know I do. Boom!”

            Finally, on an album of all-original material, Ally tips her hat to the greats with a grooving cover of Careless Love Blues and a love-letter to SRV on a mojo-packed Love Struck Baby. It’s the cherry atop the first great breakout record of 2019 – from a Texas legend-in-waiting with everything coming her way. “I’m very grateful,” reflects Ally, “for all the cool things that have happened, are happening – and will happen…”

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