Kelly Richey
Carry the Light
Sweet Lucy KRB1138

Liz Mandeville
Red Top
Earwig Music Earwig CD 4954

The blues is many things, and one of those things is its Janus-faced looking to both the past and the future at the same time. That is what’s so well manifested by these two strong CDs from two most notable blueswomen.

While Liz Mandeville’s Red Top builds up a contemporary blues sound based on the stylistic bricks from its past, Kelly Richey’s Carry the Light trailblazes by forging ahead into straightforward blues-rock that owes more to the rock of the mid-1960s and early 1970s than to what’s culled from the traditional blues repertoire.

Yet it’s just as much part of contemporary blues as Liz Mandeville’s Red Top, and both CDs are eminently rewarding, affirmative statements of the real future of the blues (now very much a hybrid, polyglot genre), a future that looks lovingly toward its substantive past certainly, but simultaneously in eager anticipation of its uncharted, undetermined, and unpredictable future.

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Thus it is with Kelly Richey’s Carry the Light, which evokes the blues influences of mid-1960s and early 1970s rock to incorporate them into her own blues-rock creation. For blues-rock is blues and rock simultaneously, a felicitous mating that forms a child from the genes of both.

That’s what Cincinnati-based singer/songwriter/guitarist Richey has done so well on Carry the Light -- given us a new gestation out of her understanding of both blues and rock that is both blues and rock. While her understanding owes much to the positive new rock developments of the 1960s and 1970s, those developments, in turn, had their underpinnings in the electric blues that was both its progenitor and contemporary sidekick.

"For Kelly Richey’s eloquent vision is indeed leftist, and deeply philosophically so."

Now, in 2008, this legacy from both comes together in Kelly Richey to affirm and enhance that simultaneous past as a meaningful statement for our present and future. These roots thus firmly ground her tree as it sprouts new shoots, and the iridescent blaze of the past only strengthens her contemporary illumination. Hence, Kelly Richey does what she says she’s doing -- she carries the light.

This CD of 11 original songs all co-written by Kelly Richey with able partners stands as a substantial fulfillment of what was inherent in the mid-1960s and early 1970s rock on which she’s based herself. The songs base themselves on the best that was found in that music of the mid-1960s to early 1970s: meaningful, socially and individually relevant lyrics set against a creatively engaging, insouciantly experimental, musical backdrop that combines elements from blues, funk, soul, folk, psychedelia and even heavy metal that actually has a vision, that is actually about something.

In this alone, as is true of so many almost-exclusively small-label, independent recordings, it rises well above the derivative mediocrity that infests all too much of contemporary pop music.

This contemporary mediocrity is one of the reasons why creative people of today, such as Kelly Richey are so eagerly “looking backward” for inspiration (the same can also be said for Liz Mandeville). Why the strength and relevance of Carry the Light lies so precisely in its fulfillment of what was both explicit and implicit in mid-1960s to early 1970s rock; why it is Richey’s “looking backward” that gives Carry the Light its contemporary strength; and why Kelly Richey’s articulately expressed vision for now is so enhanced and made manifest, precisely again, by her creatively “looking back.”

“Back” to that past that speaks across the decades to us now, that bittersweet, rowdy time of the counterculture and New Left, whose excesses and shortcomings only underline the safe, tepid, fearful mediocrity that is our lot today. We can even uncannily express today in the borrowed words of yesterday, which is exactly what Kelly Richey makes us so aware of -- for Iraq, substitute Vietnam; for Bush, Cheney, McCain, substitute Eisenhower and Joe McCarthy; for Britney Spears and Ludracris, substitute the eminently forgettable Her Nibs, Miss Georgia Gibbs and Pat Boone; for anticipatory hope expressed in Barack Obama, substitute the charisma of John Kennedy, and his contrast to Richard Nixon; and in economics, for 2008 substitute, all too eerily, 1929.

For Kelly Richey’s eloquent vision is indeed leftist, and deeply philosophically so, as is her anger at war and social ills, and her affirmation of love and human connectedness in face of it all, with that vision infusing all her songs on Carry the Light. We sense the power here from the opening track, “Leave the Blues Behind,” where she gives her limning of social ills the riposte of coming to consciousness and affirming justice and determination, an activist thread that runs through all 11 songs.

We sense this power also in her antiwar screed, “No More Lies,” and in her cry against the world we’ve allowed to happen, “Run Like Hell.” She calls for bittersweet reflection in “What in the World” and “Carry the Light,” and bittersweet affirmation in “Angela’s Song” and “When All Is Said and Done;” describes our sense of loss and abandonment in “Jericho Road;” addresses our personal needs and plight in “I Want You” and “Lookin’ for a Fight;” and finally, in the ending track, calls upon us to find hope and affirm justice in “Time for a Change” -- all illuminated creatively in compelling music that, as noted above, dynamically synthesizes sub-genres and is further enhanced by her compelling vocals, excellent guitar-playing, and powerfully supported by her excellent studio band.

Kelly Richey’s logo is an inkprint of a spread-out hand with the peace sign imprinted in the middle -- fitting indeed. For this reviewer, the richness and creativity of Richey’s left screed expressed culturally contrasts itself invidiously with the impasse today’s political left has unfortunately wandered into; and where she, through affirmative example as an artist first -- in that same positive sense that another cultural leftist, Kurt Vonnegut, was also an artist first -- nastily informs us that the mediocrity of our present age manifests itself as well in the dreariness, inept irrelevance, and narrow political correctness of far too much of our contemporary political left.

Sometimes there’s a felicitous marriage between commissars and artists, oftentimes not; and for those motivated by leftism today, we are far better off looking for affirmation of that leftism in the cultural realm rather than the political one.

Kelly Richey is one of those artists who can justly serve as guide and inspiration in that affirmation. ( Richey’s earlier CD, the all-instrumental Speechless, was reviewed in my “Blues and More” column for Nov. 7, 2007. Both CDs can be ordered online from her Web site and Sweet Lucy Records. )

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While Kelly Richey draws her inspiration from the rock and blues-rock of the mid-1960s and early 1970s, Liz Mandeville draws hers from more traditional sources, not just the electric blues from the 1950s on, but also from the swing and jazz of the 1940s, and, on “Rub My Belly,” from the blues rags of the 1920s, and on “Home Cookin’,” from the double-entendre acoustic folk blues of Mississippi John Hurt. (His classic “Candy Man” comes readily to mind.)

As with Carry the Light, Mandeville’s Red Top is a CD of artist-penned music, 15 tracks of Mandeville originals that comprise contemporary electric blues, jazz swing, a rocked-up 1920s Bessie Smith-style rag, a straightforward acoustic folk blues, and on the last cut, “Little Queen,” a musically eclectic number that’s a mixture of country-rock with Chuck Berry influence. Same as with Richey, Mandeville is not only an accomplished songwriter. She’s also an excellent guitarist and compelling vocalist with a style that’s her own, another showing of the diversity within contemporary blues on the distaff side.

"Mandeville is a master of the blues idiom, both vocally and in songwriting."

The basic substantive stuff of Chicago-based Mandeville’s sound is further enhanced by the array of musicians she’s chosen for this recording, including members of her touring band. (Richey doesn’t use her own band members on Carry the Light.) These include fellow guitarists Luke Pytel and Mark Wydra, keyboardist Allen Batts, a three-piece horn section, and the Black Roses Gospel Choir on the fifth cut, the poignant “My Baby’s Her Baby Too.”

On the above-mentioned “Rub My Belly,” Mark Wydra plays electric slide guitar, and special guest Eddie Shaw, the dean of Chicago blues saxophonists, lends his elegant chops to the early 1960s soul-like “Hold Me” (partaking of both Jerry Butler and Otis Redding), and joins with the horn section on the aptly-titled rocker, “Guilty of Rockin’ All Night.”

Mandeville is a master of the blues idiom, both vocally and in songwriting, and throughout Red Top shows top ability to teach the old blues dog new tricks. She’s exuberantly self-referential on “Red Top” and “Guilty of Rockin’ All Night;” indignantly reproachful of her bad men on “Dog No More” and “So Smart Baby;” celebratory of her “badness” on “Spanky Butt;” aptly sarcastic as she skewers her drunken man on “Corner Bar Blues;” and existentially approaches life and death through the blues idiom in her tale of hitting black ice while driving her rig on “Whoa, Whoa, Whoa.” She sexily appropriates the classic blues double-entendres on “Rub My Belly” and “Scratch the Kitty.”

While generally sticking to the apolitical, which is common in most blues, she does deliver a lament and protest of the U.S. healthcare system on “Illinois National Guard Blues.” Her mastery and aplomb enables her to effortlessly glide through sub-genres, and she is equally convincing on both jazzy swing and traditional blues, even to the point of mastering semi-scat on the jazz jump, “Bad Man Blues.” The CD is also nicely organized for variety, with various styles appropriately intermingled.

Both Mandeville’s Red Top and Richey’s Carry the Light engage the listener’s attention throughout, and don’t let up. Two solid blues approaches from completely different vantage points from two accomplished, seasoned artists of their respective genres -- an excellent way to sum up both Liz Mandeville and Kelly Richey.

Red Top may be ordered online directly from its label, Earwig Music, at mailorders@earwigmusic.com.

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“Say it’s your birthday”
“Blues and More” turns one year old!

That’s right. The first “Blues and More” column for the Alternative was posted on Sept. 12, 2007, and I hope to keep it going for a long, long time. I don’t play an instrument myself, so I have to content myself with releasing my soul on the keyboard of my computer, which I take as successful with this passing that first milestone of longevity.

Keep reading, people, keep it up -- and by the way, I love feedback! Special thanks to the lady who penned the poem about me that she posted, and also for the words of encouragement from musicians Brad “Mr. B.” Lorton, Mike Milligan, Brent Bennett, “Fast Johnny” Scharbrough, Davis Coen, Jethro Easyfields, Tad Robinson and Howard Glazer, and to Rick Congress of Random Chance Records and Betsie Brown of Blind Raccoon publicity for the many fine promo CD copies they’ve passed my way. And to many, many others -- I’m not overlooking you. Very special thanks to the Bloomington Alternative’s editor, Steven Higgs, for supporting my endeavors this whole time. First anniversary! Wow! I hope to have many, many more. -- George “The Blues Fin Tuna” Fish.

George Fish can be reached at georgefish666@yahoo.com.