DONALD RAY JOHNSON: TRAVELIN' MAN (MAR VISTA)
Donald Ray Johnson has been Canada's Best Male Blues Vocalist for well over a decade and he's also one of the finest Blues drummers alive, a graduate of The Texas/West Coast school of time-keeping. I first met him when he used to tour Western Canada with the Legendary Phillip Walker and everyone knows Phillip's bands contain the premiere L.A. Blues musicians. Like a few dozen African-American Blues men before him, Donald Ray fell in love with Canada and he settled in the Calgary area, a decision that certainly made many Calgary players quite happy as Donald Ray quickly became a Calgary Blues Patriarch and mentor to many. Like many Canadian star-calibre Blues artists Donald has also become an in-demand, high profile club/Festival performer in Europe, while most Canadians East of Saskatchewan are totally ignorant of his abilities and even the name of Donald Ray. (We keep waiting for this to change but the Blues Media in Ontario stays focussed on acts connected to one Promoter/Publicist). Once thing is certain, if Donald Ray keeps releasing CDs like gTravelin' Manh he'll find his audience numbers growing and he'll be spending less and less time in small Canadian venues and more on Festival stages in Europe, Japan and Australia etc. Calgary is considered by many to be Canada's Blues eHotbed' and I must agree, with both Chicago and California Blues musicians performing regularly in Calgary clubs and connecting with local players. Some interesting alliances and cultural exchanges have taken place and Donald Ray has forged friendships with some good people, some who've shown-up on his past CD releases. On this recording, we get the talents of B.J. Emery (trombone), Maurice John Vaughn (guitar), Sonny Rhodes (lap steel) Murphy Doss (bass) and Gospel singer JohMax , a group comprised of 3 of Donald Ray's children on vocals ( Panzie, Johnathon and Tonya ). Donald Ray's also got the cream of Alberta Blues musicians on gTravelin' Manh; Brent Wright, Michael Huston, Fred Brusse (guitar, harmonica), Chris Byrne, Luc Blackstone (bass), Ron Casat (keyboards) and Kent McCray on drums.
Opening with the title track gTravelin' Manh you'll be hit with a blast of Donald Ray Johnson with his deep, powerful voice right up-front on this Chicago shuffle. Maurice Vaughn lends some tasty guitar and sax while Ron Casat adds some funky Hammond organ. Anyone hearing Donald Ray for the very first time could be easily convinced he's from Chicago. Very few artists could successfully pull-off a Little Milton Hit like gIf Walls Could Talkh but Donald Ray can power through just about any classic Blues/R&B tune thanks to the richness and depth of his vocals, which just flow out of the man. Even though this is the Calgary line-up backing him they sound like a Stax or a Muscle Shoals crew, and, there's a honkin' baritone sax solo. While some may wonder why a Pop tune like gAlways On My Mindh is on this CD, if you're going to be forced to listen to the tune, Donald Ray Johnson's version is certainly the most palatable one you'll ever have to face. Johnson's talents and individuality allow him (like other extra-special estars') to sing any song in existence and make it something special. (Also, Johnson is the last artist you should try and pigeonhole into a confined style niche as he's got a music history that includes a 1970s Grammy). gLast Two Dollarsh is a fine vehicle for Donald Ray given its' Southern Soul-Blues identity and this version may have outdone all others. P.J. Perry's alto sax solo has wings that take it right to the stratosphere. Again, gSteamy Windowsh the Tony Joe White song, is the finest version I've heard out of all the covers. Production work makes all the difference. Every instrument is handled by a real person and the performance level is stellar. gMe & Jack (Daniels)h features Sonny Rhodes on lap steel, Maurice Vaughn on guitar and Murphy Doss on bass and it's a rollicking tribute to Johnson's years in California. gYonder Wallh has an updated sound and lyric content (Iraq). It's a pure, snappy Blues that'll make you forget all about the 2,000 other versions of this song. gApple Treeh is Donald Ray on keyboard synth, Gib Monks on tenor sax and Maurice Vaughn on guitar and it's 21 st Century Blues at its' most adventurous and evolved. This could easily be an R&B Hit throughout the U.S. It's funky, infectious, hypnotic and ultra-cool. Perhaps this tune will still make some noise in 2008/2009, as it's too damn great to let it rest. Bill Withers ' gWho Is He?h again shows Johnson's genius as he's completely reworked the song, turning it into a smoldering Dance Hit complete with a searing Vaughn guitar solo. This album gets better and better as you get towards the last few tunes and the last song, gYou Reign King Jesush is the most incredible modern Gospel tune I've heard in a long time. JohMax (Donald Ray's 3 children) deliver an acapella masterpiece and THIS should be a huge Gospel hit. What incredible singing! Panzie Johnson, who handles lead vocals, is a one-in-a-million performer and apparently, she has been touring with Stevie Wonder for 12 years. So, this is easily the GREATEST Blues and R&B album to come out of Canada in 2007 (probably the Best of the last 8 years!), yet, Donald Ray Johnson gets none if the attention, accolades and Awards he should. The Politics of Blues in Canada certainly have become ridiculous but at least Donald Ray is acknowledged by those that truly matter. Besides an awesome voice, rock steady percussion skills and a knack for creating music that is a Joy to experience Johnson's production skills have also been shown to be Genius-level. 6 Bottles for the Best Blues CD to come out of Canada. The man is The Real Thing. Being born in Texas certainly didn't hurt his development!
Real Blues Magazine