Editor’s note: Tahoe Onstage music critic Tom Clarke makes his picks for the best blues and roots albums of 2022. Tedeschi Trucks Band’s “I Am The Moon” gets the nod for number 1. The remaining records are in no particular order.
1. Tedeschi Trucks Band – ‘I Am The Moon’ – Concord Records
Derek Trucks may be the most brilliant and expressive guitarist of his generation, his wife Susan Tedeschi the finest rock and soul singer, and their 12-piece Tedeschi Trucks Band fully world-class. But “I Am the Moon” makes its unforgettable impressions through songcraft just the same. Twenty-four of them strong, spread over four old-school-sized albums. By turns sweet, sad, soulful, joyful, funky, and always penetrating, they live and breathe and entertain at uncommon levels by the profound performances of a true collective. Inspired by the 11th century Persian tale of Layla and Majnun, “I Am the Moon” features a huge scope of diversity and should endure as a classic in the league of Derek and the Dominos’ “Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs,” Eric Clapton’s masterpiece inspired by the same poem. With their fifth studio album, Tedeschi Trucks Band has finally captured on record, performances that equal the high standards they’ve set night after night on stage for 12 years.
Tinsley Ellis – ‘Devil May Care’ – Alligator Records
No one lights up a room quite like hot Atlanta’s blues roaring vocalist and soul shaking guitar star Tinsley Ellis. Ellis’ influences are many, and often leak into his songs. But a Tinsley Ellis song is a Tinsley Ellis song, period. “Devil May Care,” Ellis’ 17th album, began as a pandemic-induced search through his old inspirations and ended up a tribute to several, with a heavy focus on The Allman Brothers Band. Their flavor — particularly the post-Duane Allman, Dickey Betts-led configuration — jumps up several times in spot-on, loving fashion. The essences of Buddy Guy, Jimi Hendrix by way of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Mike Bloomfield, and even Texas T. Billy F. Gibbons (in the album’s slowly scorching, ZZ-like closer, “Slow Train to Hell”), also infuse the album. But again, they’re all unmistakably Tinsley Ellis. Talent, homage, and a “Devil May Care” attitude turned this into a major Tinsley Ellis album.
Buddy Guy – ‘The Blues Don’t Lie’ – RCA Records
Buddy Guy is 86 dang years old for the love of God! But he sounds every bit as hearty, soulful, and in-your-face-with-a-wide-grin as ever, about all kinds of things, on “The Blues Don’t Lie.” And he still plays one-of-a-kind blast-furnace guitar licks that speak volumes. With drummer, songwriter, and producer Tom Hambridge (part of the Guy camp for almost 15 years), the post-war blues legend — only a few remain — has recorded a career-defining album at this late stage. When Guy sings “I Let My Guitar do the Talking” at the outset, you have no choice but to believe it by his clear passionate voice and stabs at his guitar. These are important songs too, well-written, always sincere, and never preachy. The star-studded band affords them rubbery, robust readings. A peculiar array of guests including Mavis Staples, James Taylor, and Jason Isbell add personality to a half-dozen of the album’s generous 16-song set, but the ones that feature just the man of the hour and the band resonate best. Damn right Buddy Guy got the blues, and we can only pray that’s the case for a long time coming.
Jack Pearson – Eight separate acoustic instrumentals albums in various styles – Candlefly Records/Bandcamp
Jack Pearson has made an unprecedented move, releasing eight albums (most with over 20 songs) featuring him playing the living, breathing heck out of a stringed instrument. Pearson played tricky, challenging guitar with beautiful flair as a member of The Allman Brothers Band decades ago. But he’s long been a Nashville guitar scholar and a staple in the clubs, astonishing residents, fellow musicians, and tourists with a plethora of jazz, gospel, blues and rock stylings. Pearson’s natural forte sounds best the way it’s presented through these stripped to the core collections, including three separate volumes of “Acoustic Guitar,” single volumes showcasing the ukulele, mandolin, banjo, and “Cigar Box Slide,” plus “Pick One,” which contains a little of it all. Jack projects complexity with fluid ease. The emotion inside him, and what he instills in his audience, is incredibly profound, yet also as humble as the man himself. Play any of this music anytime. It works wonders.
Greensky Bluegrass – ‘Stress Dreams’ – Thirty Tigers
Such a perfectly sunny name — Greensky Bluegrass — for what this band sings and plays. Among the progenitors of the new newgrass movement, Greensky balances progressive ideals and adventurousness with traditional bluegrass values brilliantly on “Stress Dreams.” Like many, they turned the pandemic into a time and a subject of inspiration. In releasing of the stress of it all, they come off positively elated. The moods are many, from the underlying urgency in “Absence of Reason,” to the absolute positivity in “New & Improved,” the latter a strutting peacock of a tune that changes abruptly into a serious display of virtuosity. Expert players display their wares to optimum effect acoustically, the heart of the song becoming the focus. With “Stress Dreams,” Greensky Bluegrass have presented an abundance of riches boldly, and assuredly, with obvious happiness.
Marcus King – ‘Young Blood’ – Easy Eye Sound
South Carolina’s Marcus King still qualifies as a “Young Blood,” and one on a protracted rocket ship rise. Just 26, King’s been Grammy-nominated, and has shared the studio and the big stage with dozens, from Warren Haynes to Billy Strings to the Zac Brown Band. “Young Blood,” King’s second album produced by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, explodes with the kind of blues-based rock of vintage Humble Pie, but infused with King’s own white-hot liquid soul. It’s the full-blown album he’s hinted at having in him on the four that preceded it. When King emerged seven years ago, he was lauded as a wunderkind guitarist. But he quickly established himself as a soul singer to be reckoned. Auerbach’s uncanny touch once again draws out and makes shine the raw nature of the artist, and his vision, in straightforward performances of magnificent songs. King and his band dig in and toss out shovels full of hard-packed grit liberally dotted with razor-sharp guitar. Together, they’ve built a blues-rock road from one end of the album to the other that’s rutted and imperfect but with enough of a sheen to attract contemporary audiences.
Jimmy Hall – ‘Ready Now’ – KTBA Records
Jimmy Hall wrote one of the great songs of faith and resilience in the title track to “Ready Now,” his first solo album of new material in 27 years. Hall’s been busy collaborating all that time, including as the featured vocalist in Gregg Allman and Jeff Beck’s bands. But with this album, he finally stands tall in the spotlight on his own again. At 73, Hall shows that he’s still one of the most powerful and distinctive Southern R&B singers ever, as vital and exciting as he was when he founded the classic Wet Willie in the early 1970s. Hall belts a variety-packed hours’ worth of bluesy, soulful, swamp-drenched passion. Produced with care and the perfect punch in the gut by Joe Bonamassa, it features Bonamassa on guitar leading his crew of seasoned players, and it all goes down as savory as home-cooked collards and hocks.
John Nemeth – ‘May Be The Last Time’ – NOLA BLUE/Bandcamp
West Coast blues shouter and harmonica ace John Nemeth should surely be glad that he’s getting his groove back on, as he proclaims with high-powered, prime-styled glee here in Hank Cochran’s “I’ll Be Glad.” But the whole dang world should be glad. Glad for this music, glad for the blues community, and glad that Nemeth has friends like he does. Because this album proves that humanity thrives, just like these natural, jubilant grooves of blues and soul and roll do. “May Be the Last Time” is a crucial blues album in every regard. The performances — Nemeth backed by a quartet that includes hot guitarist/studio owner Kid Andersen and legends like Elvin Bishop — are off the floor, firecracker explosive. The idea was to cut a great blues album to help Nemeth with medical expenses for the unusual, perhaps life-altering, jaw surgeries he suddenly found he needed. At press time, thankfully, it seems this album’s incredible session will not represent the last time that John Nemeth blows us away.
Tim Gartland – ‘Truth’ – Taste Good Music
If delivery alone made a roots and blues singer and harmonica player famous, Tim Gartland would be a celebrity groove master by his displays on “Truth.” Gartland’s sweet vocal drawl calls to mind the late Louisiana legend David Egan singing a slate of Randy Newman songs. The music on his fifth album kicks up whorls of funky dust, like Delbert McClinton shuffling in and out the doors of French Quarter bars. And like Egan, Newman, and McClinton, Gartland can write a song that sticks like glued sandpaper. “The Thing About the Truth,” written with the acclaimed Karen Leipziger, is but one wonderful Latin-sashaying example. Every song here stands out in a variety of fashions. The A-List band of Nashvillians, led by pianist and producer Kevin McKendree (of Delbert’s band, incidentally), grabs tight right away on the rollicking “Don’t Mess with My Heart,” and never loses its grip.
Paul Cauthen – ‘Country Coming Down’ – Thirty Tigers
Paul Cauthen sings country music like actor Jeff Bridges might, with a slack lip inflection and Johnny Cash authority. But they call him “Big Velvet” because his baritone’s just so dang smooth. “Country Coming Down” takes country down a different kind of rebel road. Cauthen’s songs are sharp, hip, and often hilarious. He makes no apologies for being a good ol’ boy, proudly revealing that he’s “Country as F*ck,” goes “Country Clubbin’,” and has a pocketful of “F*ck You Money” to do what he wants with because he earned it through honest toiling. The band snaps, and Mr. Cauthen convinces all the way. “High Heels” lightens it up, a two-stepper that would be a perfect fit for an episode of “Yellowstone” when they let off a little steam. Throwing any kind of caution to the f*cking west Texas wind, Paul Cauthen obliterates stereotypes with stylish, brilliantly written and executed words and melodies. He’s far from couth, but that’s OK because he makes up for it in soul. Keep a sharp eye on him. There’s a giant Made Only in America brand on this one.
Hot Buttered Rum – ‘Shine All Night’ – Self-released
Hot Buttered Rum, San Francisco’s prototypical progressive bluegrass band, began life as the Hot Buttered Rum String Band 20 years ago. That moniker suggested about half their story. Yes, they’re a string sextet that interchange their roles on banjos, dobros, guitars, mandolins and fiddles. But one member plays drums, and they all harmonize on unusually deep songs that go to smooth, spicy places. Every side of the band shines brightly on “Shine All Night,” 10 songs that thrive on typically skilled instrumental excellence, but with conscious extra gusto that the Covid lockdown forced on them. “Shining Twice,” one of the album’s namesake songs, beams with the love of togetherness and how by relying on that, anyone can get through anything. There’s jazz and jam and folk and soul in this bluegrass, and dreaminess beside all the sunniness. If the jubilance of “When the Good Times Come Your Way” doesn’t bring good times your way, see a professional.
Bywater Call – ‘Remain’ – Gypsy Soul Records
Maple Blues Award winners Bywater Call have drawn themselves a fair share of parallels to Tedeschi Trucks Band. “Remain” cements the distinctive character of this seven-member group through gripping performances of 11 original songs. Soaring, swaying, funky and contemporary in just the right way, this is rhythm and blues music born in the American South and played with Northern boom. Singer Meghan Parnell’s vast range contains buttery Memphis tenor cut with Chicago grit, her power like a train banging into a subway station delivering hordes of heated resolve. Susan Tedeschi may come to mind, but this lady stands very firmly and confidently in her own place. Guitarist Dave Barnes lights up as red hot as Parnell, with an obvious affinity for Mr. Trucks and Duane Allman, but with restrained class.
A Live One If There Ever Was One —
Live Album of 2022
Little Feat – Waiting for Columbus 45th Anniversary Tour, April 13th, 2022 – Scottish Rite Auditorium, Collingswood, New Jersey
Little Feat’s footprints are immense, their intricate patterns still making fresh and weighty impressions 53 years down the line. Several configurations of the band have kept the signature Little Feat rhythm and roll alive and thriving all that time. Led by founding keyboardist and vocalist Bill Payne, this edition features longtime bassist Kenny Gradney, percussionist and baritone vocalist Sam Clayton, and guitarist Fred Tackett. Newcomers Tony Leone on drums and vocals, and Scott Sharrard on guitar and vocals complete the revitalized lineup. Abetted by the brightly colorful Midnight Ramble Horns on this night, Little Feat celebrates a milestone concert album — widely considered one of the best in rock and roll — bursting with unique personality. Sharrard wasn’t even born in 1977 when the Waiting for Columbus concerts took place, but he fills Feat guru Lowell George’s long sailed away shoes with impressive devotion. “Day or Night” and “Mercenary Territory” alone prove that here, and lay bare Little Feat’s heart, soul, ingenuity, and improvisation for 20 sweaty minutes. Nugs does one heck of a job presenting the show in pristine, punchy sound.
–Tom Clarke for Tahoe Onstage
Coming next: Tahoe Onstage editor Tim Parsons says goodbye to 2022 and his choice for the year’s 12 most soulful blues albums by bands and artists you might not yet know.