December 2015 | Reviewer: Ron Weinstock
This writer had the pleasure to see the Philadelphia based singer Deb Callahan several years back and it’s been way too long since I have seen her perform. In any event, this very talented vocalist has a new recording “Sweet Soul” on Blue Pearl Records. Produced by drummer Tony Braunagel, Callahan and her guitarist Allen James are joined by Braunagel, bassist Reggie McBride, keyboard wizard Mike Finnigan, and harmonica player Jimmy Powers. Johnny Lee Schell engineered this as well as added slide guitar to one selection. Callahan with either Chris Arms or Allen James wrote 8 of the 13 tunes on this with covers from Candi Staton and Clarence Carter, Tom Waits, David Egan & Buddy Flett, Rice Miller and Dr. John. While I have seen her compared to Bonnie Raitt, only one selection “Shackin’ Up,” with Schell’s slide guitar and a funky-rock groove suggests Ms. Raitt. Her natural and soulful delivery is in line with say Tracy Nelson, able to fill a room, yet never sounding harsh or mannered. The Staton-Carter “Sweet Feeling” is a terrific southern soul vocal that sounds like it could have been recorded in Muscle Shoals, and “Born to Love You,” an original by Deb and Arms, is a similar strong deep soul performance. “Seven States Away” is a rocking shuffle by Deb and James as she sings about having to drive home to Philadelphia for sweet baby and being so many states away. James’ lead jazzy guitar and Finnigan’s greasy organ supports her honey-drenched heart-felt vocals. Certainly having this terrific band helps make her cover of Waits’ “Way Down in the Hole,” with Powers on harmonica. The band’s dynamics in backing her, Braunagel’s touch and groove and Callahan’s nuanced singing contributes to the delivery of the gospel lyric. Then there is her handling the Egan-Flett “You Don’t Know Your Mind,” with James contributing nifty guitar (and he is such a refreshing change from so many guitar bangers out there). “Crazy About You Baby,” credited to Sonny Boy Williamson, is probably best known from Little Walter’s recording. Ike and Tina did a marvelous rendition on the “Outta Season” album, and that is the source for her treatment here and her rendition (along with James’ spicy guitar) is first-rate. “Sweet Soul” is a marvelous recording with some excellent material (both new and covers of lesser known numbers), terrific production and playing, and Deb Callahan’s superb singing. Let folks compare her to Bonnie and Tracy. After listening to her, folks will be comparing other singers to her.