Deb Callahan is an exceptional blues singer who displays a deep appreciation of American roots music. On her new release, Sweet Soul on Blue Pearl Records, Callahan delivers a knock-out Blues punch securing her place among the genre’s finest vocalists and songwriters. Sweet Soul was recorded and mixed in California by Johhny Lee Schell with an assist from Chris Arms and consists of eight original compositions (all written or co-written by Callahan) in addition to five well-chosen cover versions. All the tunes are masterfully rendered by top-shelf musicians involved in the project.
Legendary drummer/producer Tony Braunagel has enjoyed a performing and recording history that is much too extensive to include in this review. However, I deem it paramount to document his lengthy involvement with three Modern Blues legends: Taj Mahal, Bonnie Raitt, and Robert Cray. Much of the production on Sweet Soul is the equivalent of a tight rope artist’s equilibrium. He expertly balances the commanding Deb Callahan vocals while showing the talented instrumentalists to achieve a tasty blues stew. His presence behind the drum kit gives the project a bona fide validity. Veteran session men Mike Finnigan on piano/organ and Reggie McBride on electric bass guitar are two of the most in-demand players on the vibrant Los Angeles music scene. Both artists also have recording and touring résumés that are impressively abundant. Allen James on guitar has been a part of the Deb Callahan Band for many moons, and his versatile guitar playing shines throughout Sweet Soul. James is also attributed with four co-writing credits on the disc.
Deb Callahan has a singing voice that is unique, though some of her major influences do bleed through. In her case, that is a good thing. She utilizes a confident swagger, great pitch, sincere passion, and resplendent phrasing that altogether combine to make her singing irresistibly captivating. Years of touring have honed her skillfulness to razor sharpness.
Sweet Soul open with “Big Love”. It’s a song with a boppin & poppin’ rhythm groove with the bass line prominent. Deb sings it gracefully, soaring and dipping, caressing the rhythm and teasingly holding notes. About mid-song Allen James adds a flowing bluesy guitar lead (resembling Robert Cray) that snugly fits the song. The background vocals on the refrain “bigggg loveeeee” add further texture to the blend. “Big Love” kicks off the release in style.
“I Keep things Running” simmers as Deb extols the virtues of being a woman in charge. The Hammond B-3 organ of Mike Finnigan wails as Allen James contributes quick biting guitar jabs before unleashing another ringing lead that is not lengthy, but is quite expressive. Callahan exhibits the credence of the consummate authentic blues mama; ultra-confident and self assured. I assume lyrics such as “up in the morning, got a list to go through, makin’ something from nothin’, that’s what women do” resonate with many women.
The joyful spirit of “Shackin Up” is more contagious than the swine flu. The song is a prime example of the uplifting power of the Blues. Finnegan’s B-3 organ and Johhny Lee Schell’s slide guitar match the passionate intensity of Deb Callahan’s vocal. Allen James contributes a R&B guitar approach that pays homage to the great Steve Cropper; just too fine for words.
A slow gospel-tinged blues number titled “I Am Family” contains a plaintive piano from Finnigan that keeps the song grounded, and includes another pleasing guitar lead by James. Braunagel’s drum work and McBride’s bass provide just the concise support needed. The lyrics are slightly cliché, or would be so, if they didn’t speak the complete truth. Debs sings with an earnest soulful roots vocal that is mesmerizing as she pulls the listener in for a warm embrace.
The first cover contained on Sweet Soul is “Sweet Feeling.” Candi Staton had a huge crossover hit with the song back in 1970, reaching peaks of #8 on the R&B and #60 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts. Candi Staton emerged from a gospel background and her singing showed that spirit. Callahan has a vocal tone and vocal character similar to Candi, both being full of soul and determination. It’s my favorite song on the album at the moment with the instrumental ensemble having an overwhelming synergy and a sway that hits me hard. But, once again, it’s the Deb Callahan vocal that illuminates the song.
“Born To Love You” is classic Memphis soul/blues with a Booker T. & the MG’s quality. When you add relevant love song lyrics and a from-the-heart yearning Callahan vocal you get something magnificently magical. My hat goes off to Callahan and James for another winning composition.
“Seven States Away” is a song inspired by Deb’s four-year old son Elijah (she dedicates the CD to him in the liner notes). It recounts the story of Deb on tour in the South and longing to get back home to Philly to her boy. Tallahassee, Florida is the starting point for her homeward journey. Topical references are seeded State by State throughout that should bring memories flooding back to anyone who has lived or visited this portion of the USA. A joyful vibe with an addictive rhythm with a walking bass line permeates the song. The swirling Hammond B-3 organ gives warm punctuations until ending the composition with a sharp period.
Tom Waits is one of America’s finest and most under-appreciated songsmiths. His “Way Down In The Hole” is given a dank dungeon feel with the B-3 sounding like it is being played by the Devil himself. Jimmy Powers augments the mood with some nice harmonica phrasings. Allen James’ guitar lead has the slinky tone of Peter Green in his classic “Black Magic Woman” as it snakes and twists along enticingly. The rhythm section is forward in the mix, but it is Callahan’s sultry vocal that is the cherry on top of the ice cream sundae.
“The Blues tells a story. Every line of the blues has a meaning.” ~ John Lee Hooker
Many of Deb Callahan’s compositions tell stories and have profound meaning. “Step Back” is one such example. It begins with a slow tempo featuring cymbal splashes and a straight-from-the gut sing/speak vocal delivery. It kicks into second gear when the organ ratchets the melody up a notch, only to fall back into the previous slower tempo with A.J.’s tender guitar. The meaning of the song is primarily the wisdom to slow down and enjoy life and its treasures.
“You Don’t Know Your Mind” is a cover of a David Egan song drenched in a sweaty soul funk tone. The lyrics relate to a person whose relationship has reached the “straw that broke the camel’s back” point; signaling it is time to hit the road for good. The guitar lead at mid-song is understated, but juicily tasty, somewhat in the manner of J.J. Cale. Deb uses a sublime vocal style while building the tension of regret until lashing back.
“Crazy ‘Bout You Baby” is a classic fiery blues song written by Sonny Boy Williamson. It has been covered in the past by bluesman Lonnie Brooks; but probably the best known is the version by Ike and Tina Turner. James goes “old school” on guitar similar to Ike Turner again showing his versatility. The song is a perfect fit for Deb Callahan to burn brightly. To my ears, she nails it even with more passion that Tina Turner could evoke. The production is also especially nice; everyone sounding as if they’re having the time of their lives.
“Slow As Molasses, Sweet As Honey” is a simmering slow-burn blues song solely composed by Deb Callahan. These lyrics signify that Deb has reached the point in her life when it is appropriate to slow down and savor all that life offers. It is like a chapter from her own life which addresses vital issues that are meaningful. The lyrics and her ardent singing really touch me. While listening to this one on headphones it occurs to me that it was music such as this that drew me to the Blues like a moth to a flame.
The final song on the release is a song written by New Orleans’ Dr. John, the Night Tripper, entitled “I Been Hoodood.” The song has been a staple of Deb’s touring set list for awhile, and she has the gris and mojo to make it a most memorable experience.
To sum it all up, I heartily endorse this release. The team of people that Deb Callahan has surrounded herself with on Sweet Soul is exceptional. This convergence creates something very special that shouldn’t be missed by anyone who desires to keep their “Blues Lovers Union” card.
Randall Parrish is a Senior Editor at Vivascene, with extensive publishing credits at various jazz and blues sites. He is also an avid guitar player whose musical knowledge of jazz, blues and roots music is widely respected. Based in Nevada, he can be reached by email here: RandallParrish@vivascene.com