Review of “Tell It Like It Is” | March 2011
Written by: John Mitchell
Deb Callahan is a native of Boston but has operated out of Philadelphia for some years. She has performed at a wide range of festivals across the USA including Springing The Blues (Florida), Heritage Blues (West Virginia) and Monterey (California). This is her fourth CD release and follows on from her 2008 release “Grace And Grit” which garnered a lot of good reviews and airplay. The band is a stable unit with guitarist Allen James, bass player Garry Lee and drummer Tom Walling augmented by Jason Crosby on keys and violin and Matt Cappy on trumpet.
There is a good variety of mainly original material here, with gospel and soul influences as well as blues and rock. Most of the material is original, written by Deb and either guitarist James or producer Chris Arms. There are two covers, both outstanding cuts. Dylan’s rather menacing “Cold Irons Bound” is the final track on the CD. Starting with eerie sounds on guitar and violin, the tune moves to a dramatic interpretation of Dylan’s song, anchored by ringing guitar chords, emphatic drumming and violin accents supplied by Jason Crosby. The muscular guitar riff gives way to a sinuous solo in the middle. This is the longest cut on the CD and was certainly a winner for me. The other cover is Tina Turner’s sister Aillene Bullock’s “Funkier Than A Mosquito’s Tweeter”, also recently reworked by Joe Bonamassa. Deb’s is a catchy version and her vocal here is excellent, just right for the feel of the song.
The originals cover a wide range. Opener “Gonna Get There” is based on a repetitive, funky guitar riff. Deb’s vocal is strong and a short guitar solo offers a different rhythmic focus in the middle. The second track “Sun Is Rising” provides a good contrast, a slower pace with more of a country blues feel in the guitar. Deb’s voice is well suited to this kind of blues with a touch of gospel. “I Got It Bad” is again different, more of a latin lilt to this one. Deb’s lyric has her under the guy’s spell: “You’ve got me melting away, I’m like butter in the pan”, an interesting image!
“Old Ways” is a rolling blues, again with a strong guitar riff and solo at the heart of the song. I liked the use of the term ‘default mechanism’ in the lyrics, not your standard blues terminology. By contrast “Sweet Words” is very different, starting with muted trumpet, this is a song that could have been performed by Billie Holiday in her prime. The tune remains gentle and the solo is on piano, not guitar (although Allen James is the co-author).
“I Feel The Spirit” takes us to church, starting with handclaps and organ and a lyric about whether you need the trappings of organised religion to have faith and feel the spirit. There is a real gospel feel to this track, entirely appropriate to the subject matter of the song. The gospel feel continues on “In My Bones”, the shortest song on the album, an acoustic tune that recalls some of Eric Bibb’s material. Deb’s strong vocal is underpinned only by guitar here.
Next up is the sorry tale of the “Long Suffering Woman” who clearly has a lot to contend with in an abusive relationship. The music here is very soulful, again aided by the organ and a gentle guitar solo which sits nicely with the sad feel of the lyrics. The final original is “Throwaway Child” which follows a similar social conscience issue of a child born without love. Without solid family roots the child falls into bad company – “We don’t think before we make, we don’t take care of what we create: throwaway society, when are we going to change our priorities?” This is a definite blues tune, with concerned and relevant lyrics, another strong track.
This CD grew on me as I listened to it carefully. In my view the best songs are in the second half of the album, with the two covers, “I Feel The Spirit” and “Throwaway Child” the pick for me. The CD is well worth checking out and I would expect live shows to be fun too if she comes to your area..
Reviewer John Mitchell is a blues enthusiast based in the UK. He also travels to the States most years to see live blues music. He was recently on the January 2011 Legendary Blues Cruise.