MARCIA BALL – Jazz Fest Live (MunckMusic): Marcia Ball is a music standard bearer at the New Orleans Jazz Fest. This year's performance, available through MunckMusic online, demonstrates why. Steeped in the musical legacies of Professor Longhair and Irma Thomas, Ball's blues piano goads the listener into a frenzied boogie. In an interview after hurricane Katrina, she opined that her music allowed folks to dance their cares away for a little while. Although a party girl, her thoughtful lyrics on "Where Do You Go" asks pointed questions beyond one city's struggles. Randy Newman's "Louisiana 1927" is delivered with heartfelt candor. Ball also kicks up dust on "La Ti Da," "Red Beans," and "Poodle," embodying New Orleans' reputation as a city that just won't quit. Grade: B – Joanne Ciccarello
JOE BONAMASSA – Sloe Gin (J&R Adventures): Bonamassa is the great white hope for the blues. Barely out of his 20s, but already one of the board of directors of The Blues Foundation and an educator in the Blues for Schools program, the guitar wiz has amassed a sizable fan base with his fiery fretwork flourishes and Gregg Allman-like voice. On his sixth record, Bonamassa has one foot in traditional blues, the other on a guitar-effects pedal set to rock overdrive. Purists may blanch at the studio polish of his records but, this time out, there's more focus on acoustic guitar. Highlights: The title track's glissando guitarwork and Chris Whitley's "Ball Peen Hammer," driven by a John Bonham-esque stomp and dramatic strings. Grade: B – Stephen Humphries
ROBBEN FORD – Truth (Concord Records): Robben Ford makes the blues sound more joyful than virtually any of his contemporaries. And that's just with his secondary instrument: a soulful voice. Where mere mortal guitar players solo linearly with runs up and down the guitar neck, Ford zigs and zags across the fretboard like a sailboat performing a tacking maneuver. The solo on "Lateral Climb," for instance, stands in proud defiance of the song title, veering off in delightful tangents. Elsewhere, "Riley B. King," a tribute to B.B., fails to muster a melody as strong as its sentiment, but Susan Tedeschi drops by for "One Man's Ceiling Is Another Man's Floor," a rousing duet about the internecine politics of an apartment building. Grade: B – S.H.
GARY MOORE – Close as You Get (Eagle Records): Once renowned for his fleet-fingered rock-guitar gymnastics, Gary Moore is now a reconstituted bluesman with a new philosophy: less is Moore. With each album, the Irishman continues to distill his playing to a minimalist style imbued with an amber-hued guitar tone reminiscent of Fleetwood Mac's Peter Green. On "Close as You Get," Moore's emotional playing comes to the fore with lingering laments and shimmering sighs on tracks such as a spooky cover of Jimmy Witherspoon's "Evenin.'" The ballad-heavy album could have done with more ballast, like Moore's rollicking version of Chuck Berry's "Thirty Days," and more variety, like his acoustic take on Son House's "Sundown." But Moore's singing, usually a weak point, has never been better and original compositions such as "Nowhere Fast" are fine indeed. Grade: B– S.H.
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Muddy Waters, Johnny Winter, James Cotton – Breakin' It Up /Breakin' It Down (Sony Legacy): White-maned Texas guitar-slinger Johnny Winter was responsible for reanimating the moribund career of blues legend Muddy Waters in 1977 by assembling a top-notch band of Chicago bluesmen and producing "Hard Again," Muddy's best album since his Chess Records prime, two decades earlier. A lengthy tour ensued and it was a supercharged affair, as this live recording attests. Veteran harpist James Cotton takes a few vocals, as does Winter, who tears it up with his muscular slide playing and machine-gun leads. But the night belongs to Muddy, whose commanding voice leaves no doubt who's got his mojo workin' on down-home classics "Can't Be Satisfied," "Black Cat Bone," and Louis Jordan's "Caledonia." Grade: A– John Kehe