Chocolate Cake by ZOOM with Shawn Kellerman Is Life-Affirming Party Blues

ALBUM REVIEW

Title: Chocolate Cake
Artist:  ZOOM with Shawn Kellerman
Label: Mouhaha Music
Released: 2021
Reviewer: Christine Bode
Stars:  4.5

In 2019, when the world was a different place, I attended a Kingston Blues Society show at the RCHA Club in which Shawn Kellerman played with Jerome Godboo and his band. I had seen Godboo a few times and had heard of Kellerman but never really paid attention to his superb guitar playing. That evening, he really got my attention. Like it says on his website, “Sitting up close at a live performance is truly an awesome, jaw-dropping experience.” That night, my jaw hit the floor. Kellerman’s guitar playing is transcendental in that you can almost see his spirit rise above his body when he’s playing the blues. Man, he is phenomenal!

Blown away by his skill, I chatted with Shawn at the break and after the show, and as I work as a social media manager/marketer for musicians, we stayed in touch. I had already heard Kellerman’s guitar playing on Miss Angel’s album, Down In Mississippi, as I’d done some work for her, but that album is Classic Blues in the Mississippi/Delta style and very different from Zoom’s new album, Chocolate Cake, featuring Shawn Kellerman.

Kitchener-based Kellerman played and toured with the late great Lucky Peterson (he passed in May 2020) for many years and I’d seen Peterson’s set at the RBC Ottawa Blues Festival in July 1997. He is also a gifted producer who started his label, Mouhaha Music, producing and mixing Bobby Rush’s Memphis Blues Award-winning acoustic album Raw, and most recently, his longtime friend, Zoom’s latest album, Chocolate Cake, contributing guitar and bass, with some talented musicians from the Waterloo region playing on it—Jimmy Boudreau on drums, Ray Podhornik on trumpet, Dave Wiffen on tenor sax and Matt Weidinger on keys.

Zoom’s boisterous, bawdy, blues/funk vocal performances on Chocolate Cake, knocked me out. I hadn’t heard of her before, but I’ll never forget her now. Based in Detroit, Zoom’s style is Chicago Blues, which to my ears means blues you can dance to. She’s played with legends, including Buddy Guy, Koko Taylor, and Bill Branch and the Sons of the Blues, around North America and Europe. Chocolate Cake is her comeback album after a twenty-year hiatus from music to raise her family.

After almost two years of the soul-shattering, livelihood-destroying pandemic blues, the raucous, danceable life-affirming party blues of Chocolate Cake, is just what the doctor ordered. Zoom’s dynamic vocals, Kellerman’s high-energy guitar, and the amusing, sexy, and saucy lyrics in many of the songs on the album are the perfect antidote to the tiresome, Groundhog Day-life perpetuated by the global pandemic. I laughed aloud at some of the lyrics more than once, with absolute delight! “Amazing Nepenthe (Weed)” might be my favourite new song. Sing it with me, “All I need is a little bit of weed.”

Zoom’s voice is sensational—she was truly born to sing the blues—and I love her passion and the raunchy humour in the lyrics. Standout tracks on the album include “Big Boss Woman” which should be an anthem for all female entrepreneurs. “I’m a big boss woman, I’m a big boss woman / oh, I’m big and I’m bad, I’m the best you ever had, I’m a big boss woman / I am a force of nature, pay me what I’m worth!”

As a single woman who has worked in the music industry for thirteen years, I’ve been living hand to mouth for most of that time. However, I’m a firm believer that music is one of the things that keeps us going during hard times. Its importance should not be understated and musicians should be supported.

“Born To Sing The Blues” is true of Zoom and this declaration is as genuine as it gets. “Still Got the Rhythm,” a testament to the wonder of Viagra, will make you chuckle while you’re shaking your hips to it in your living room. “He came home early in the morning, he was ready to jump / he took a funny little pill, he was ready to bump / I told him, take it, easy baby, you so big and strong / he said, don’t worry about it Mama, I don’t last that long.”

The title track, “Chocolate Cake,” is a funky, infectious horn-trimmed gem that reminds me, rhythmically, of Jack Mack and the Heart Attack. “Just like Ricky Bobby, we shake n bake / ah, come and get a piece of this chocolate cake / You like it when I give it to you, tell the truth / I satisfy your craving in your sweet tooth.”

Kellerman’s guitar solo in “My Baby Don’t Love Me” is a stellar accompaniment to Zoom’s weary, scratchy wail which is perfect for this classic, “damn, I’ve got the blues” composition.

The penultimate track, “Love Bone,” is another favourite because of Kellerman’s sensational wah-wah guitar and Zoom’s delivery of the naughty lyrics. “I’m like a bitch in heat, I want a doggy treat / I want your love bone / Don’t want to see your smile, we do it doggy style / I want your love bone / I’m going to twitch and twerk, Big Daddy, go to work / I want your love bone.” There aren’t too many singers who can get away with belting out lyrics like that while sounding like they’re keeping a straight face.

However, on the final, most consequential track, Zoom gets serious with the explicit “Tired of the Hate,” a lament about racism and an important reminder of why Black Lives Matter. “Sonny, day to day I’m going out for a run / I turn around, people chasing me with a gun / All I really want is vittles and iced tea / I got my hoodie on and, damn, they killing me / I’m tired of explaining, I’m tired of complaining / people always think the worst, my colour ain’t my curse.” Every Black woman and man I’ve ever known was born, made of love. This world wouldn’t be as rich, diverse, or meaningful without their contributions to every industry on the planet, and perhaps, Black contributions to music have been amongst the most remarkable.  


Chocolate Cake is a terrific feel-good party album that affirms that sex, weed, and the blues are still viable reasons for not giving up on life when it’s damn hard. But seriously, it’s also proof of why we should and do continue to care about diversity, equality, and every individual’s unique voice, regardless of their colour.

Listen to it on a Friday night or anytime you need to get your groove on.  And know that you would be remiss in not buying a copy for yourself and your friends who could use a pick-me-up this holiday season. It’s the perfect stocking stuffer for blues fans everywhere.

http://shawnkellerman.com/

https://zoombluesmusic.com/

New Album by SULTANS OF STRING, Sanctuary (The Refuge Project), Transports Listeners to Ethereal Plane with Musical Alchemy

ALBUM REVIEW
by Christine Bode

Just when I thought that Sultans of String couldn’t devise a more ambitious and exciting project than their 2020 album, Refuge, they proved me wrong with the second installment of this project entitled Sanctuary. It is an equally ambitious, diverse, inclusive, and passionate album with a VIP roster of global ‘ambassadors’, some of whom are recent immigrants and refugees to Canada, as well as important Indigenous voices. All are masters of world music that tell the story of how to communicate with others through the global language of sound.

The album was released on Friday, November 5, 2021, on Fontana North! You can listen and purchase digital and hard copies now and also see Sultans of String’s new video for “Ariengue Arianga” at this link: https://smarturl.it/SultansSanctuary.

I was fortunate to be among the first to enjoy a sneak preview of Sanctuary which features this phenomenal guest artist list:

Ahmed Moneka – IRAQ / CAN
Amchok Gompo – TIBET / CAN
Donné Roberts – MADAGASCAR / CAN
Duke Redbird – FIRST NATION INDIGENOUS
Fethi Nadjem – Algeria / CAN
Gundem Yayli Grubu – TURKEY
Juan Carlos Medrano – COLOMBIA / CAN
Leen Hamo – SYRIA / CAN
Marito Marques – PORTUGAL / CAN
Mehmet Akatay – TURKEY
Padideh Ahrarnejad – IRAN / CAN
Ravi Naimpally – INDIA / CAN
Sammy Figueroa – PUERTO RICO / USA
Saskia Tomkins – ENGLAND / CAN
Selcuk Suna – TURKEY / CAN
Suat Suna – TURKEY
Tamar Ilana – CAN
Tara Moneka – IRAQ / CAN
Twin Flames – INDIGENOUS CAN
Yukiko Tsutsui – JAPAN / CAN

Chris McKhool’s grandfather came to North America as a stowaway on a ship in the early 1900s from LEBANON and his pianist mother from EGYPT.  And Sultans of String’s percussionist Rosendo ‘Chendy’ Leon came to North America as a refugee from CUBA.

The regular band includes the hardest working man I know—he never sleeps—the winner of the Canadian Independent Music Association’s 2021 Pivot Award—Chris McKhool, as well as flamenco guitarist and songwriter extraordinaire, Kevin Laliberté, and master bassist Drew Birston!

Working for Chris McKhool and Sultans of String for ten years has opened my ears to more world music than I have ever heard before, so I must credit them for adding sophistication to my musical taste. Not only am I a member of their amazing team, but a huge fan. You may feel similarly about this 3x Juno-nominated group who have accumulated more award honours than any of us can count!

There is so much richness, texture, and complexity to the songs on Sanctuary, that it is an album that becomes more cherished with repeated listening. All the sensational artists who contribute their gifts to the album are to be commended on their stellar performances as they transport us to another place through their musical alchemy.

My favourite tracks include the pure and joyful Madagascar sounds of “Ariengue Arianga”, with music and lyrics by Donné Roberts, arrangement by Sultans of String, and vocals by Donné and Yukiko Tsutsui. “Moroccan Dreams,” my favourite instrumental track, with music by Kevin Laliberté is luscious, wild, and evokes the desire for a Casablanca-like adventure, featuring Padideh Ahrarnejad on tar, and Ravi Naimpally on tabla. Turkish pop star, Suat Suna, lends terrific vocals to a gorgeous version of “Hurricane” (originally released on Refuge), featuring Turkish strings by Gundem Yayli Grubu, among other innovative musical guests. The stunning, passionate up-tempo ballad “Tell the Night” with lyrics and Syrian vocals by the exquisite Leen Hamo could transport you to the Ethereal Plane, while the quietly stunning “Khatenche” featuring breathtaking Tibetan flute by Amchock Gompa, who also wrote the music with McKhool and Laliberté, is perfect for inner reflection.

“Mi Santuario” featuring Colombian musician Juan Carlos Medrano, was the first single released on Friday, September 10, 2021, and the second single “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” (originally recorded by Sonny & Cher) featuring Tara Saleh Moneka and Ahmed Moneka was released on Friday, October 8, 2021.

Sultans of String’s exciting new interview and music series, BACKSTAGE, a free online Livestream from their Facebook Page at www.facebook.com/sultansofstring has been featuring different artists from the album since Friday, September 10th with more yet to come. On Friday, November 12, 2021, at NOON EST, Sultans of String will feature powerful and versatile Canadian singer and flamenco dancer, Tamar Ilana.

Tamara Ilana – photo by Carlos Gárate


If you missed these episodes of BACKSTAGE when they were live, you can always visit the group’s Facebook page to watch them in playback and share them with your friends. Some episodes are also on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/sultansofstring.

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Exclusive Review of Finny McConnell’s (The Mahones) Debut Solo Album, The Dark Streets of Love

Exclusive Album Review of The Dark Streets of Love by Finny McConnell

     
Title: The Dark Streets of Love
Artist:  Finny McConnell
Label: True North Records
Releasing: September 2021
Reviewer: Christine Bode
Stars:  4.5


After 30 glorious years of leading worldwide, renowned Celtic punk rockers, The Mahoneswho have shared stages and toured with the likes of Dropkick Murphys, Shane MacGowan (The Pogues), Stiff Little Fingers, Billy Bragg, The Buzzcocks, Sinead O’Connor, and The Damned to name a few—Finny McConnell decided that it was time to make an album for himself as he winds down and adjusts to his “Van Morrison years”, although I’m sure he has enough piss and vinegar left in him that he will not go quietly or gently into the night.

Produced by McConnell and engineered by Gene Hughes (who also mixed it) of Telejet Music Studio and assistant engineer Del Cowsill, The Dark Streets of Love was recorded “live off the floor” from March 15 to 17, 2021, in Toronto, Canada. It features McConnell’s favourite songs from his repertoire as well four of his most loved covers, along with exquisite cover art by Hannah Blu.

The Dark Streets of Love opens with a superb cover of “Atlantic City” by Bruce Springsteen (that was released as the first single, yesterday). There’s a beautiful, reflective vulnerability in Finny’s voice on this track and lyrically, it’s a terrific choice for a cover song. Kevin Hearn’s accordion is a notable addition to the mix, lending it Celtic flair, but it’s the loss, longing, and weariness in Finny’s interpretation that makes it a winner. I cannot imagine anyone bestowing a better tribute to this song, and that is coming from a lifelong Boss fan.
 
Gina Romantini’s lovely violin adds gravitas to “Someone Save Me”, a poignant love song full of hope and gratitude, co-written by McConnell and Katie Lonergan. The singer bares his soul while finding redemption through his loving saviour, and this song makes the listener want to grab their lover on the dance floor and envelop them in their arms, as they sway to and fro to the music—an anthem for so many of us who haven’t given up hope although we’ve found ourselves heartbroken and alone in middle age.

“Stars (Oscar Wilde)”, also co-written by McConnell and K. Lonergan, is an elegant ballad and stand out track, telling the tale of the Catholic boy from Dublin who suffered under a priest’s harsh gaze—a damaged loner who developed his wit while maintaining his earnestness. “The stars look better from the gutter…”, an ode to one of my favourite authors, Oscar Wilde, is melancholic while never giving in to self-pity.

Glenn Milchem’s drum tattoo opens “A Pair of Brown Eyes”, written by Finny’s friend, Shane MacGowan, whom he channels perfectly with his vocal. The sweet tin whistle from Michael O’Grady adds Irish wistfulness to this mid-tempo track that follows the narrator as he goes a roving for a pair of brown eyes. This could be a sea shanty!

Closing Side One on the album is my favourite track, “New York City”. Co-written by McConnell, D. Whelan, and K. Lonergan, it is a rocking, stylistic salutation to David Bowie, Lou Reed, and the city that made Lou one of the most relevant artists of 70s alternative rock. Toronto Trans Queen Patricia Wilson’s wah-wah guitar adds fire to this life-affirming celebration of rock, glam, punk, and loving the vibe on the Lower East Side. “New York City” should be a hit single if there is any justice in the music industry of 2021.

Side Two begins with plaintive, lonely, pining lyrics by McConnell in “So Far Away”, a song splendidly accompanied by piano and languorous guitar strumming in this restrained banshee wail. Following it is a cover of Lou Reed’s “Pale Blue Eyes”, a ballad accentuated with soft drum brushes and delicate keys by Kevin Hearn, highlighting another powerful vocal performance by McConnell. Sad, full of emotional atmosphere and empathy, “Linger on, pale blue eyes”, tugs at the heartstrings, something that many of the songs on this album do, unashamedly.

Unapologetic for who he is and always was, the character in “We’re Miles Apart” tells his former love that they can still be friends and have a new start even though they’re miles apart. This short, succinct ballad is also heart-wrenching, due to its autobiographical nature.

Another favourite track is “Cocktail Blues”, a Stray Cat-like bluesy shuffle with jazzy piano evoking a smoky nightclub and cocktails for two. Oh God, how I miss them! With Finny’s flirtatious intimate vocal, knowing wink, and shoutout to my favourite alcoholic beverage—tequila—this song arouses sheer delight.

The album concludes aptly with “Fiddlers Green”, written by long-time friends, The Tragically Hip. This stripped-back version with Finny’s tremulous vocal and acoustic guitar offers an emotional homage to Kingston’s own Gord Downie that is the perfect ending to this stellar collection of songs from the dark streets of love.

As always, McConnell offers a bonus track and on this album it’s the beautiful, acoustic version of his song of yearning, “Back Home”, featuring Nicole Akkordion on the accordion, perfectly evoking the naked desire of wanting to be with someone you love when you can’t. This is Shane MacGowan’s favourite song of Finny’s and it’s one of mine too.

Finny thanks his musical mentors in the liner notes and the influence of artists such as Lou Reed, Joe Strummer, Shane MacGowan, Paul Westerberg, Pete Townshend, Tom Waits, and Bruce Springsteen is evident. This is his love letter to everyone important in his world and it should not be missed. For me, The Dark Streets of Love is Finny’s “Fisherman’s Blues”, a collection of his most stripped bare and personal lyrics that represent not only his truth but a truth that we can all recognize, offering us a reflection on loving, losing, grieving, and loving again—essentially what it means to be human.

You cannot take the Irish out of McConnell, nor would we ever want to. He is defined by his Celtic soul and his punk rock heart, which he wears on his sleeve here, and we love him more for it. The Dark Streets of Love is among the best, most honest, thoughtful music of his legendary, illustrious career, so look for its release in early September 2021 and buy it.

Get The Dark Streets of Love on Truth North Records
New Single – Atlantic City out now on Spotify
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