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Posted: January 22, 2010

In the mood for blues?

Sugar Blue, Little Smokey Smothers have got what you need

Mike Cote

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SUGAR BLUE Threshold (Beeble Music)

Sugar Blue is best known for his work with the Rolling Stones, including the signature riff on the 1978 hit "Miss You," so it shouldn't be that surprising that the harmonica player and singer (aka James Whiting) has been stretching his sound beyond the blues.

That sense of adventure is evident from the first track on Threshold, a song that rides on a reggae beat and lead guitar. In fact, it's a full two minutes into "Living Your Love" until Blue's virtuoso harp sound enters the mix with a flurry of precise notes.

And like much of Threshold, the lyrical themes of "Living Your Love" -- a glimpse of the struggles of ghetto life -- transcend standard rock and blues fare. On "The Average Guy," Blue addresses the plight of the common man, with the backdrop of the current economic malaise clearly on his mind.

But even when Blue is addressing social issues, he's rocking the blues with verve. "Noel News" celebrates the people of post-Katrina New Orleans with a funky dance beat and some of Blue's most spirited harmonica playing on the disc. Likewise, "Stop the War" at first sounds like a song aimed at the dance floor, but its serious purpose becomes clear with the chorus and the mid-song newscast audio snippets.

Blue recalls his busker roots with "Ramblin," a solo harmonica work on which he accompanies his standard harmonica with a bass harp. It's a fitting segue to "Cotton Tree," a mid-tempo jazz-flavored tribute to harmonica legend and Blue mentor James Cotton.

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LITTLE SMOKEY SMOTHERS & ELVIN BISHOP Chicago Blues Buddies (Black Derby)

Elvin Bishop and Smokey Smothers have been friend for nearly half a century -- ever since a young Bishop arrived in Chicago from Tulsa in 1960 and turned to Smothers to help him learn some blues guitar licks. Bishop went on to fame with the Butterfield Blues Band and later under his own name, while Smothers, a sideman to such Chicago icons as Howlin' Wolf and Little Walter, has remained relatively obscure.

As a fundraiser for his "Chicago blues buddy," whose health has been declining in recent years, Bishop has compiled a collection of their studio and live work together, a document of some killer guitar playing and good-time repartee. The set kicks off with "Remembering," a guitar duel from Smothers' solo debut, Bossman, recorded in 1992. "Talkin' Blues," also from that disc, keeps the fiery antics flowing (though those synthesizers aping a horn section haven't aged well.)

Next come five previously unreleased tracks recorded live at the Chicago Blues Festival in 1993 when Smothers and Bishop were celebrating the release of Bossman. Plenty of smoking guitar (and a real horn section) marked the occasion, beginning with the Smothers originals "Smokey Shuffle" and "Crack Head Woman." On the latter, a slow-brewing slice of traditional Chicago blues, Smothers proves himself a strong, soulful singer in front of a festival crowd.

The disc also features a pair of tracks ("Roll Your Moneymaker" and "Little Red Rooster") from Smothers and Bishop's live set That's My Partner, recorded in 2000, and two previously unissued performances from 2006 ("Hello, Baby" and "Bye Bye Baby") recorded at Ground Zero in Clarksdale, Miss. Bishop is selling the limited edition discs via his Web site, www.elvinbishopmusic.com and at his shows. It's also available at www.cdbaby.com.

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Mike Cote is the former editor of ColoradoBiz. E-mail him at mcote@cobizmag.com.

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