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Steve Miller digs up his roots on blues tribute album

  • Steve-Miller-2

    Classic rocker Steve Miller returns to his blues roots.





The Steve Miller Band (Roadrunner)



Long before Steve Miller was the gangster of love and the joker, he was a blues guy, plain and simple.

He learned at the knees of Chicago greats like Muddy Waters and developed a reputation as a hard-core guitar slinger with a fluid, soulful feel for the music. After a series of misfortunes, including a bad automobile accident, and some stylistic changes, in the '70s he emerged as a potent hit-maker who dominated album-oriented rock radio with tunes like "Fly Like An Eagle," "Jet Liner," and "Rock'n Me."

Of course, the hits stopped and Miller, a natural musician and savvy businessman, simply stepped back to his roots: the blues. "Let Your Hair Down" is a natural follow-up to 2010's roots workout "Bingo!" and many of the songs were recorded during those sessions. The disc finds Miller gleefully mucking around in the classic blues songbook and giving his take on tunes by Jimmy Reed, Willie Dixon, Waters, and others.

It's not a lark though, and Miller has the cred to pull off tight, propulsive versions of tunes like "Snatch It Back and Hold It," "No More Doggin' " and "I Got Love If You Want It," backed by an ace band and augmented as always by Miller's smooth vocals and tasteful arrangements.

"Let Your Hair Down" isn't breaking any new ground, but Miller doesn't have to at this point in his career.



Irvin Mayfield (Basin Street Records)



From the opening stanza featuring Mayfield on a sweet and soft trumpet solo that showcases his absolutely gorgeous tone, the listener is in for a sumptuous treat -- 14 selections from Mayfield's 10-album recording career on Basin Street Records, which has had Mayfield, 32, under contract since he was only 20.

Unpretentious and with fascinating rhythms to go with their rich texture, many of the songs selected for this project were done with the famed Latin-influenced group, Los Hombres Calientes, as well as Ellis and Wynton Marsalis, Cyril Neville, Big Chief Bo Dollis, Sr., the Dillard University Choir, the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra or Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews, Kermit Ruffins, and the Rebirth Brass Band.

Released in conjunction with an acclaimed book by the same name that has been generating buzz by CNN's Anderson Cooper, Soledad O'Brien, and others, the music on this disc offers a brilliant cross-cultural look at New Orleans and is indeed a work of love and dedication to a one-of-a-kind city. Besides paying homage to influences such as pianist James Booker, Latin music and Mardi Gras Indians, Mayfield is taking listeners on a musical journey rich in culture and heart.

The record label says the songs that were selected help explain his emergence as an artist. And what a career he's having. Having won a Grammy Award and a Billboard award, Mayfield is a bandleader, composer, arranger, professor, and government-recognized cultural ambassador in addition to being a world-class trumpeter.

His efforts have caught the attention of President Obama, who last year nominated Mayfield to the National Council on the Arts, the advisory board of the National Endowment for the Arts. The U.S. Senate confirmed him for a six-year term that ends in 2016.



Raphael Saadiq (Columbia)



At the Grammy Awards in February, Mick Jagger appeared -- performing there for the first time in the ceremony's 53 years -- to pay tribute to Solomon Burke, who died last year. He gave an electric reading of "Everybody Needs Somebody to Love," one of Burke's greatest songs, giving it just the sort of wattage that Grammy tributes often lack.

But while he provided the star power, he needed an anchor, someone to set the appropriate atmosphere. That fell to Raphael Saadiq and his crack band, who made sure that Jagger's ambitious flights of voice and mood had a firm foundation.

Based on his bona fides, Saadiq shouldn't be doomed to the background. His years as part of the soul group Tony! Toni! Tone!, from Oakland marked him as a nimble, light singer with a sweet tone. But Saadiq's recent reinvention as a vintage-era soul man has offered him the opportunity to go rougher.

In the music, it's there. "Stone Rollin' " is a better, more lively album than the last one Saadiq made in this vein, "The Way I See It," from 2008. It opens with the stormy "Heart Attack," a fuzzy 1960s rock number, and there are segues into surf rock (the era-appropriate but unexpected "Radio") and Motown sass on "Good Man."

That song is the place where Saadiq sounds the most anguished and is pushing his voice the hardest. But mostly he's still saddled with the same gentle voice that was so effective two decades ago as a smooth soul tool. Here, though, it's a liability. It only scratches the humor in the lyrics of the title track or the desperate ambition of "Day Dreams."

Saadiq has a keen ear as an arranger, knowing when to bring in the heavy guns: Robert Randolph, playing steel guitar on "Day Dreams," and Larry Dunn of Earth, Wind & Fire, playing spectacular keyboard solos on "Just Don't." Saadiq can hold his own with them musically, deploying them knowledgeably. But the only guest singer here is the small-voiced Yukimi Nagano of Little Dragon, on "Just Don't," who treads extremely lightly: Saadiq is savvy enough not to be relegated to the background on his own album.

-- JON CARAMANICA, New York Times

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