REVIEWS - MISSISSIPPI BBQ
Mississippi BBQ #13 Soul Blues Album for 2020!
by Jon Siembieda
Mississippi’s own Zac Harmon has released his debut album on Catfood Records, “Mississippi Bar BQ.” It has been No. 1 on Root’s Music Reports Soul Blues Album Chart for eight weeks in a row.
I’ve been a fan of Harmon’s from afar for years. He used to play regularly in Los Angeles and built a long-standing reputation as a blazing blues guitar player, capped by winning the International Blues Challenge in Memphis in 2004 for best unsigned band. This newest record is produced by Grammy-winner Jim Gaines (Santana, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Journey), and was recorded at Sonic Ranch in Tornillo, Texas.
Leadoff track “Gypsy Love” comes out of the gates with midtempo energy. “Smoke and Mirrors” has a Stevie Wonder-esque groove, tasteful background vocals, and of course, smoking blues guitar licks. “So Cold” has a Three Dog Night-kinda feel to it. Zac isn’t playing by the typical blues numbers, which I like. The production is solid. Harmon is throwing strikes.
You have to love a blues album that has a song titled “Make A Dollar Out of Fifteen Cents!” “Sunday Morning After Saturday Night” is straight outta the B.B. King playbook shuffle. The record ends with a unique cover of Bob Dylan’s “Knocking On Heaven’s Door.” Better than Clapton’s version, in my opinion.
Side note – when you take the CD out of the case, there’s a recipe for Mississippi-style BBQ. Nice touch. This is a solid blues album. Really killer guitar playing. Pick it up if you’re looking for some contemporary blues, and if you’re trying to find a new spice rub for your ribs.
by David Whiteis
His label may be based in El Paso, but Zac Harmon puts his Mississippi roots front and center. This disc's inside sleeve even includes a recipe for Mississippi barbequed ribs (which of course would be pork ribs, not the beef usually preferred in Texas). That said, though, the music spans an agreeably broad stylistic/regional spectrum. The title song, instead of what might be the expected juke-joint raver, is a breezy, urbane, pop-soul celebration of family, community and heritage, along with the savory soul food that exemplifies it, that recalls R. Kelly's 2015 hit Backyard Party. Elsewhere, Harmon digs in to more aggressive sounds such as the spikey, blues-funk, hard-times anthem Make a Dollar Out of Fifteen Cents (on which his voice, unfortunately, can't match the rough-hewn grit of the sound and storyline). He sounds vocally more at ease with Lord Save Me From L.A., the lament of a formerly idealistic migrant who finds himself ground down by that city's relentless soul-crushing, high-tech, high-speed Silicon Valley culture. Harmon's guitar work ranges from in-the-pocket blues sparseness to power-pop grandiosity, but it's always tasteful and musically on point-no self-indulgent noodlings or pyrotechnics.
Harmon and his band don't wear their influences on their sleeves, but they're subtly evident throughout. The undulating bassline, piano/harmonica interplay (along with Bob Corritore's Cotton-esque harp solo), and lurching cadence of Honey Pleeze recall Muddy Waters' 1981 version of King Bee; Dan Ferguson's burbling keyboard line in Smoke and Mirrors sounds based on Stevie Wonder's Superstition; Sunday Morning After Saturday Night swings with unforced hipness that invokes Latimore's classic 1973 take on Stormy Monday (which itself arose in the wake of Lou Rawls and Les McCain's early 60's version).
As noted, Zac Harmon isn't the world's most expressive vocalist, and when the occasion calls for grit, anguish, or erotic intensity, he can sometimes sound strained or out of his element. Nonetheless, on a purely musical basis, he and his studio crew here deliver a tasteful, soulful, and winningly diverse set of contemporary blues and blues-based offerings.
by Graham Clarke
Mississippian blues singer and guitarist Zac Harmon brings it all back home with his latest release, and first for Catfood Records, Mississippi BarBQ. At first glance, the marriage between Harmon and Bob Tranchard’s label would be a heaven-made one, and upon further viewing it certainly proves to be. Harmon has always been most adept at blending contemporary blues with soul blues and he’s certainly in his element here, collaborating with Trenchard and others on eight dynamite originals, with contributions from other gifted songwriters on three other tracks.
Harmon is backed by Trenchard (bass) and the Catfood House Band --- the Rays (Richy Puga – drums, Johnny McGhee – guitar, Dan Ferguson – keys, Mike Middleton – trumpet, Andy Roman – alto sax, Nick Flood – tenor/baritone sax, and Drake Dominigue – trombone/tuba) --- on the 11 tracks, which touch on blues, soul, funk, and R&B. “Gypsy Road,” the catchy opener, touches on rock and funk, and the horn-fueled soul-blues burner “So Cold” would be a good fit on the radio.
Meanwhile, “Smoke and Mirrors” ventures into blues-rock territory with a funky backdrop, and the delightful “Mississippi BarBQ” is a gentle, laidback R&B/soul confection that captures perfectly the feel of a downhome family BarBQ, down to the smell of ribs and chicken on the grill.
Harmon narrates a story of a brief encounter on the contemporary blues tale, “Desperate Love,” gets down and dirty with guest harmonica master Bob Corritore on the rollicking “Honey Pleez,” and gets funky with “A Dollar Out of 15 Cents” (the latter two tracks with backing from his own band --- Corey Carmichael – keys, Chris Gipson – bass, Ralph Forrest – drums, and Texas Slim – rhythm guitar). “Sunday Morning After Saturday Night” is a smooth urban blues track with Texas Slim adding B.B.-esque guitar work.
On “Lord Save Me From L.A.,” Harmon tells the tale of a recent arrival to the City of Angels, who laments being thrown into the crush of people, technology, and the relentless fast pace of the city. Though not written by Harmon, it sounds a bit autobiographical. “Since You Been Gone” is a mid-tempo R&B track that finds Harmon backed by his regular band and backing vocalists Janelle Thompson, Shakara Weston, and SueAnn Carwell, who, along with Carmichael, provide splendid backing throughout. The album closes with a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Knocking On Heaven’s Door,” an outstanding version of the oft-covered classic that gives it a gospel/soul feel.
Mississippi BarBQ is an excellent kickoff for Zac Harmon on the Catfood Records label. Hopefully, it is just the beginning of a beautiful relationship that will last a long time.
by Peter Marinus
If you become interested in the blues as a young person, chances are that you will be totally devastated by it. That happened to singer-guitarist Zac Harmon from Jackson, Mississippi. At the age of 16 he was already part of the band of Sam Myers and later also in the bands of Dorothy Moore and ZZ Hill. Zac was even approached by Michael Jackson to become a "staff writer" for his ATV Music and also wrote songs for soul artists such as The O'Jays, The Whispers and Karyn White. A very versatile artist, who has now released his seventh album.
And it is not surprising that it is full of soulful blues. Blues that may be parked in the Robert Cray / Joe Louis Walker department.
A good example is the opening track, Gypsy Road . A song with a very pleasant warm groove and corrosive guitar work. So Cold is more on the soul side. Melodic a la Al Green or ZZ Hill with yet more corrosive guitar work and warm wind instruments.
Smoke And Mirrors has the same drive as "Standing On Shakey Ground" and might just catch on with Delbert McClinton fans. Mississippi BarBQ sounds very relaxed. Soulblues a la Bobby Bland's "Members Only". This song sounds like a barbecue, where the participants are already bulging before only one bite is eaten.
After that, the spirited-banging soul blues from Desperate Love used with excellent flaming guitar work. It keeps swinging with the pumping blues shuffle Honey Pleez with a leading role for the rolling piano by Dan Ferguson.
A funky clavinet opens Make A Dollar Out Of Fifteen Cents , a boldly functioning song with a lot of influences from Johnny "Guitar" Watson's repertoire. Sunday Morning After Saturday Night is a languid shuffling, somewhat jazzy, shuffle in which the hard-biting Albert Collins-like guitar playing is central.
After the lazy funky soul blues of Lord Save Me From LA , the light-hearted soul song Since You Been Gone soundsa little too polished for me. A song that belongs more to a "neat" soul formation like The Whispers, despite the great powerful bluesy guitar work.
Zac's version of the Bob Dylan classic Knocking On Heaven's Door sounds bluer than the original but at the same time a bit superfluous.
This seventh album from Zac Harmon is full of very pleasant soul blues and is definitely recommended for fans of that genre!
by Richard Ludmerer
Zac Harmon is from Jackson Ms. where he grew up in a musical family. His father, a pharmacist, played harmonica while tending to the needs of local musicians including Muddy Waters, BB King, Albert King, Ike & Tina Turner, and Little Milton. Young Zac began his professional career as a guitarist playing with Sam Myers, Dorothy Moore and Z. Z. Hill. At the age of 21 he moved to Los Angeles and found work as a studio musician, songwriter and producer. As producer he worked with the reggae band Black Uhuru resulting in a 1994 Grammy nomination.
After composing some blues for a movie score Harmon recorded his first blues album, “Live at Babe & Ricky’s Inn”, and introduced himself as a torchbearer for future generations. Zac Harmon and the Mid-South Revue took first place in the band competition at the 2004 International Blues Challenge. In 2005 Harmon released “The Blues According To Zacariah” and won the Blues Music Award for “Best New Artist Debut”. As an actor Harmon starred in the independent feature film “Black and Blue” in 2010. He released his last album “Right Man Right Now” in 2016 on Blind Pig Records.
“Mississippi BarBQ” is Harmon’s seventh album overall and first for Catfood Records. The album is produced by Jim Gaines and recorded at the Sonic Ranch Studios, in Tornillo, Texas; thirty miles east of El Paso International Airport. Eight of the eleven songs were written or co-written by Harmon, five with Catfood Records owner and Executive Producer Bob Trenchard.
Harmon, is both vocalist and lead guitarist on all tracks, recorded with two completely different bands; Trenchard’s “Rays” (formerly known as Kay, Kay and The Rays) on seven tracks, and The Zac Harmon Band on four. The Rays include bassist Trenchard, Richie Puga, drums; Johnny McGhee, guitar; Dan Ferguson, keyboards; and the horn section of trumpeter Mike Middleton, alto saxophonist Andy Roman, tenor and baritone saxophonist Nick Flood, and Drake Dominigue, trombone and tuba. The horn arrangements are by Rudy Torres.
“How’d you get So Cold” is the first of five tunes from the songwriting team of Harmon and Trenchard with some fine guitar from Harmon. The funky “Smoke and Mirrors” features the background singers Janelle Thompson, Shakara Weston, and SueAnn Carwell. The background singers are featured again on the fabulous title track, a soon to be Southern Soul classic, with Corey Carmichael on keyboards. “Desperate Love” is another well produced track with the horns and the background singers, and another nice solo from Harmon. The fifth song from them is “Sunday Morning After Saturday Night”.
Linda “Kay Kay” Greenwade passed in 2012 one of her songs “Lord Save Me From L.A.” is reprised here, co-written with Trenchard, it also appears on Catfood Records “The Best of Kay Kay and The Rays”. “Son you gotta’ go down, down, down, down that Gypsy Road”, is from Trey Hardin and Sandy Carroll.
Four more songs are performed with Harmon’s regular touring band, included are keyboardist Carmichael and the rhythm section of Chris Gipson, bass; and Ralph Forrest, drums. Harmon’s “Honey Pleez” features Bob Corritore on harmonica. “Make A Dollar Out of 15 Cents” is from Harmon and co-writer John Hahn. The lone cover is an outstanding version of the Bob Dylan classic “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”.
Harmon states “For the first time in my career, I have had the opportunity to just be the best artist I can be at the guidance of a master producer…I got a chance to work with The Rays, which is a group of studio musicians headed up by Bob Trenchard. The Rays are incredible, and they bring the best out of every song. I also got a chance to collaborate in the writing with Trenchard…my favorite is the title song “Mississippi BarBQ” …my other favorite is “A Dollar Out of 15 Cents” which I wrote with John Hahn.”
Harmon has surrounded himself with the best in the business resulting in this truly great recording. Vocally he sounds more relaxed than ever before. This is an award winning effort.
by Brenda Nelson-Strauss
A native of Jackson, Mississippi, Zac Harmon knows barbecue like he knows the blues: intimately! No wonder the award-winning blues singer and guitarist has chosen to celebrate grill season in the South on his latest album, Mississippi BarBQ. Like many young folk, Harmon was beckoned by the bright lights of Tinseltown and spent many years in L.A. as a studio musician, songwriter and producer—including a stint at Michael Jackson’s publishing company, ATV Music. After writing songs for R&B artists such as The Whispers, The O’Jays, and Karyn White, Harmon decided to return to his roots and released his first blues album in 2003. What is immediately apparent on his latest effort are the dual strands of his musical influences, or in more colloquial terms, the soul seeps into his blues like barbecue sauce into pork.
The title track brings local culture to life as everyone from the “cousins to the Johnson twins” are invited to come on over for “chicken and ribs on the grill, two kinds of pie on the windowsill, pickles and onions and collard greens, corn bread and a big pot of beans.” There are two additional tracks that seem to speak to Harmon’s lived experience: the funky “Make a Dollar Out of Fifteen Cents” and the pleading strains of “Lord Save Me From L.A.” to which Harmon promises, “I’ll never go astray.” Other songs hew more closely to blues rock such as the opener “Gypsy Road” and “Smoke and Mirrors,” both highlighting Harmon’s prowess on vocals and lead guitar. On the track “Desperate Love” the horns come out to play, while on “Sunday Morning After Saturday Night” organ riffs remind sinners they are in the house of the Lord, which all goes up in flames as special guest Texas Slim leaps in with a blazing guitar solo. The album closes with a heartfelt rendition of the Bob Dylan classic, “Knocking on Heaven’s Door,” and a spoken dedication to “all of our country’s service people.”
Mississippi BarBQ offers a variety of musical styles and messages, ranging from lighthearted celebratory songs to the blues of love gone cold, with a few life lessons for good measure. Top that off with an excellent crew of musicians, including The Rays and the Zac Harmon Band, and you have a recipe that brings the heat to a whole new level.