Review of Sweet Soul, Deb Callahan | Nov-Dec 2015 | Reviewer: John Mitchell
It has been four years since Deb released “Tell It Like It Is”, the gap being partly explained by her becoming a mother and this album is dedicated to her son Elijah. For her fifth release Deb took her new songs to California to record with producer Tony Braunagel at Johnny Lee Schell’s Ultratone Studios. As with most projects in which Phantom Blues Band members play a significant role this is a good album: Tony plays drums with Reggie McBride on bass, fellow Phantom Mike Finnegan on keys and Deb’s regular guitarist Allen James on all tracks, Johnny Lee Schell adding slide to one track; harp is added by Jimmy Powers and an array of backing singers help out: Teresa James, Leslie Smith, Lydia Hillard, Mike Finnegan and Johnny Lee Schell. Deb brought eight songs to the sessions, mostly written with Allen or Chris Arms who produced her earlier albums. The five covers were suggested by Tony Braunagel to fit the upbeat mood of the record and come from Candi Staton, Doctor John, Tom Waits, Sonny Boy Williamson and David Egan – quite a diverse set.
The album opens with four originals, starting with the funky “Big Love”, Deb singing of her feelings towards her “new love and it feels just right”. The crisp and funky rhythm section is brilliantly supported by Mike’s organ work and Allen steps out to nail the solo on guitar. Juggling motherhood with everything else in a busy life takes careful planning and Deb seems to have managed that well, to judge by “I Keep Things Running”: “If you want something done, I’m the girl to go to. I’m in the know, I run the show, I carry the weight, never hesitate”. However, there are some aspects of modern relationships that don’t seem to work for Deb as she states in “Shackin’ Up”. A rocking tune with Johnny Lee Schell’s slide and Mike on both piano and organ underpins Deb’s account of several romances in which she concludes that “shackin’ up ain’t all it’s cracked up to be, feels so good until you get fed up”, concluding that greater stability and longer term commitment may bring more honesty and stability to the relationship. Dropping the pace, “I Am Family” is a superb song with some moving lyrics: “Out in California again, don’t have a dime and you don’t have a friend. Somebody somewhere did you wrong, how many times have I heard that song. I tried to help you for all those years, been a lot of anger and a whole lot of tears; been here before, this crash and burn is feeling real old.” Mike’s piano work here is terrific and supports Deb’s emotional vocal really well, the backing vocalists also doing a great job on the choruses.
Deb is just as happy singing soul as the funkier blues and rock elements of the first few tracks and the first cover is “Sweet Feeling” (Candi Staton/Clarence Carter/ Marcus Daniel/Rick Hall) and it works just fine before the gospel-toned “Born To Love You” finds Deb confessing her love for someone – perhaps her son Elijah? “Seven States Away” is a shuffle that recounts a tour down south and Deb really missing her family, counting down the states until she gets home. Tom Waits’ “Way Down In The Hole” adds some menace to the set with Jimmy Powers’ harp combined with Mike’s organ work providing an almost horn-like accompaniment while the original “Step Back” is a slow, moody piece with some gospel parts and finds Mike on echoey electric piano and moody organ with Deb producing a particularly fine vocal. David Egan has written songs that have been recorded by artists such as Tab Benoit, Marcia Ball and Etta James and his and Buddy Flett’s “You Don’t Know Your Mind” fits perfectly into the groove and style of this album in a relentlessly funky version. “Crazy ‘Bout You Baby” is a Sonny Boy Williamson song but has been sung by Tina Turner (in her days with Ike) and more recently by Gina Sicilia. Deb’s take on the song is quite fast, almost rockabilly, with more fine piano and guitar work. Deb’s final original is “Slow As Molasses, Sweet As Honey”, a slow blues with an excellent, sultry vocal and a well-poised solo from Allen and more stellar keyboard work from Mr Finnegan. The album closes with Allen working the wah-wah pedal hard on a swampy take on Dr John’s “I Been Hoodoed”. Deb continues to progress both as a singer and songwriter and this latest album is well worth a listen.