Reviewer: Richard Skelly | March 2016
In the last dozen years, Deb Callahan has become a fixture on the Philadelphia area blues scene. But what most people don’t know is how widely she was able to tour. She has done extensive touring from Florida to New England with a lot of stops in New Jersey, Boston, Delaware and the Carolinas.
A native of Massachusetts, she moved to Philadelphia to attend graduate school for social work. Between the recent arrival of her son Elijah and continuing duties as a social worker in Philadelphia, Callahan, a natural born creative type, has had plenty of fodder for new songs.
She does an excellent job of avoiding tired old blues themes on Sweet Soul and is accompanied by some expert West Coast musicians on this release, produced by West Coast drummer Tony Braunagel. She opens with a co-write with her companion guitarist Allen James, “Big Love” and follows it up with another spry original “I Keep Things Running” sort of a bluesy ode to soccer moms and busy working women who raise kids everywhere.
This album was a leap of faith for Callahan, who was used to recording exclusively with her own Philadelphia backup band. Here she’s accompanied by California veterans Braunagel, organist Mike Finnigan and slide guitarist Johnny Lee Schell (all have worked with Bonnie Raitt). Of her regular bandmates, only guitarist James accompanies her on the record.
By this point, Callahan has evolved into such a highly stylized singer that she offers up convincing covers of the Candi Staton-Clarence Carter tune “Sweet Feeling”, Tom Waits “Way Down in the Hole” and closes with an inspired take on Dr. John’s “I Been Hoodood”. Anyone who thinks contemporary blues is not evolving enough lyrically or stylistically need only have a listen to Callahan’s pioneering originals here to have their faith restored.