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CD REVIEW -- Jeff Dale & The South Woodlawners
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Blues Power

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Jeff Dale Blues Power CD

By Robin Zimmerman

Whether it’s lamenting about lost loves or bellyaching about being broke, the blues manifests itself in many styles—often based on the artist’s specific life experiences. As the adage goes, it makes sense to work with what you know.

Such is the case with Jeff Dale and his latest release, Blues Power. Dale grew up on Chicago’s Southeast Side during the turbulent sixties. His Jeffery Manor neighborhood was near the steel mills and slag heaps of this industrial area. But Jeffery Manor residents also had to deal with the toxicity of prejudice and panic peddling.  Dale and his close-knit crew of childhood friends were dispersed in all directions as parents felt the pressure to sell their homes and move elsewhere.

Although Dale was uprooted from his childhood home, it’s apparent that his old ‘hood left a mark on him. Many of the original compositions on Blues Power are centered around his childhood memories. This upbringing also had a strong influence on Dale’s decision to be a bluesman. He has said, “if you had your antennas up, you could feel the blues right here.” 

Another element of Dale’s ongoing blues education was his association with the late David “Honeyboy” Edwards. Dale had the opportunity to tour with Edwards, who is widely recognized as one of the last, true Delta blues masters. He was friends with Robert Johnson.

All these influences come together for Dale’s sixth commercial release, Blues Power, where he explores a wide range of topics with musical styles ranging from a buzzing roots rave-up to a slow Mississippi groove that would do Honeyboy proud. 

The first track, “Toxic Stew” alludes to Dale’s upbringing in the shadows of the Southeast Side steel mills.  Here, he pulls no punches in terms of the damaging elements he dealt with during his formative years. Dale paints a not-so-pretty picture of “gray skies and black dust, things you get used to, but I’m alive, I survived, the toxic stew”

Dale survived and continues to thrive in the company of a stellar class of fellow musicians, many with Chicago roots. “Toxic Stew” opens with a strong and steady drum beat by way of the late Tim Austin, who was Buddy Guy’s go-to drummer before he passed away in April. Dale dedicated Blues Power in Austin’s memory.

Other contributors on “Toxic Stew” include local guitar whiz Charlie Love, bass player Orlando Wright (Buddy Guy’s bassist), Derek Phillips on keyboards and Pat Zicari on saxophone. These seasoned professionals add a considerable dash of musical flash and finesse on many Blues Power tracks.

The next track, “Good Luck Woman” showcases Dale’s considerable writing talents. Whatever was in the water—or air—on the Southeast Side certainly didn’t stifle his creativity or his ability to turn a phrase in a witty way. Sherry Pruitt’s vocal phrasing and Glen Doll’s harmonica solos are pitch-perfect on this jaunty little number. 

The heavily-syncopated, gospel-flavored “Blues Power” is up next. On this title track, Dale touts the healing powers of music and this toe-tapping number could certainly cure any ills. This healthy concoction is enhanced by Doll’s harp, Clark Pardee’s steady drum beat and some lovely “sacred steel” guitar courtesy of Dale himself. Backing vocals on this track are provided by keyboardist Phillips, bass player Darryl Lieberstein and Sherry Pruitt.

          Dale apparently needs all the blues therapy he can muster up on the next number, “Middle Class Moan.” Here, he details the day-to-day struggle to stay ahead despite the setbacks that many know all too well. He employs some nice call-and-response interplay with backing vocals by two Chicagoans: bass player Andre Howard and drummer Mark Mack. Lee Loughnane’s soaring horn work adds the perfect mournful note to Dale’s middle class crisis.

Dale waltzes in a different direction for the next number. On “One Step from a Broken Man,” he wails about a woman who did him wrong. His lament is enhanced with some hauntingly beautiful cello work by Dane Little.

Dale and his South Woodlawners effortlessly segue back to more upbeat fare on the next track. On the autobiographical “Best Kind of Trouble,” Dale outlines his blues journey from the Southeast Side where he gained “steel and rust” to getting a generous dash of “Mississippi dust” by way of Honeyboy Edwards.  This rhythmic sixth track features an excellent ensemble cast that makes “Best Kind of Trouble” one of the standout songs on the CD.

The next track, “Stone Cold” features lyrics that only a native Chicagoan could pen.  The line, “You used to be my ray of sunshine until you dumped me in ten feet of snow” will hit home for any Midwesterner dreading the impending winter. Nora Germain’s violin wizardry is very well-suited to Dale’s perfect storm of emotions.  

Dale also shows that he’s equally adept at pulling a rootsy vibe out of his bag of tricks. On “Let’s Buzz,” he affects an Elvis-type accent on this rocking little number. In keeping with the throwback nature of this track, he brings on Aaron Barnes to play stand-up bass. Barnes and Dale are joined by keyboardist Phillips, Jon Siembieda on guitar, Hunter Ackerman on harmonica and drummer Brian Lara.

Never at a loss for lyrics, Dale goes over the top with double-innuendos on “Undercover Man.” He’s joined by many of the “Let’s Buzz” brotherhood as well as Carmelo Bonaventura on second guitar with Lieberstein and Marvin Etzioni on backing vocals.

After the down and dirty turn, on “Undercover Man,” Dale takes us down in a different direction on the next track. His “Black Crow” has the thick coat of the “Mississippi dust” that Honeyboy spoke of. Dale’s slide guitar work on this track would do the late Delta blues icon proud.

The CD wraps up on a satisfying note with “Can I Boogie?” The answer to that musical question is a resounding “yes!” Dale and his South Woodlawners are clicking on all cylinders throughout the course of this short and snappy CD that showcases Dale’s writing skills and his ability to bring a troupe of talented artists to create the music that’s seeped through his veins ever since his formative years on Chicago’s Southeast Side.

Blues Power lives up to its name by demonstrating how the therapeutic power of music can help do everything from releasing “toxic” childhood memories to honoring our Mississippi blues heritage. On Blues Power Dale has done his part to preserve his legacy as both a versatile Chicago bluesman as well as a disciple of that stripped-down Delta sound.

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