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East Side SlimBy East Side Slim

CD image - Cheryl Arena – Blues Got MeCheryl Arena – Blues Got Me – artist released, 2003

Cheryl Arena is a singer/songwriter/harp player who grew up in the Boston, Massachusetts area. She has been playing harp since 1987. By 1989 she had started (as well as hosted) her own blues jam, and by 1994 she was touring the East Coast and portions of the Mid-South. Cheryl has a love of musical variety, which displays itself on the CD. It also displayed itself in the long-running Downtown Blues Review she started in 1995. This weekly jam featured players from New England’s tough regional blues scene.

Ms. Arena has released 2 self-produced CD prior to the release of Blues Got Me. She has also had the wonderful opportunity to share stages with a who’s who list of elite blues singers and musicians over the years.

In 2005 Cheryl decided to move to Dallas, Texas on the recommendation of Dallas-based bluesman Andrew Jr. Boy Jones. She managed to escape the difficult Northeast winters and to find more work in the D/FW Metroplex area. Since arriving in Dallas, Cheryl has worked with several bands (including a 4-piece unit featuring Dallas’ legendary Hashbrown on guitar), has become a member of the church band at The Exciting Ervay Cedar Baptist Church, has taught harmonica lessons through Jon Gindick’s Harmonica Jam Camps, and has been performing country blues as ½ of a duo with guitarist Aaron Burton. Without a doubt, Cheryl has been keeping herself very busy.

(Thanks to Cheryl Arena’s website for the biographical information.)

The Songs: (songs composed by Cheryl Arena except as noted)

1. Blow My Blues Away – (C. Arena, M. Woodburn. J. Rawls)
--This 1st number on the CD is a contemporary pop-blues number. It isn’t too far from some of Susan Tedeschi’s material. It’s got a sing-song gentle quality, with the lyrics recounting Cheryl’s desires of why, when and where she wants to play her music – which is down in the South.

2. Love Gone Wrong
--Ah, this is more my speed. Tough Texas-style guitar, in the school of Jimmie Vaughan, with nice piano work supplied by Matt McCabe (who has played with Roomful, Anson Funderburgh, Sugar Ray Norcia, Duke Robillard and others). Cheryl doesn’t have a large vocal range, but she understands her range and sounds great within the confines of what she is able to do. The short version – she doesn’t try to over sing. This tune would not sound out of place on Jimmie Vaughan’s “Strange Pleasure” album. Cheryl also supplies a nice, tight harp solo, very tasty and made to fit the song.

3. Shave It
--This song has an old-timey feel, especially with the clarinet supplied by Scott Shetler. The song is a cease-and-desist order to those men who think whisker rubs are fun. Shave the skin-scrappin’ stubble off your mugs boys, if you want to get closer to those pretty ladies.

4. Listen To What I Say
--This track has a New Orleans vibe working, and contains some nice horn charts; dig the muted trumpet parts! Also, it’s the 1st tune on the CD where Cheryl really cuts loose on harp. She is a very good harp player, with good tone and great taste and economy of notes – she is from the less-is-more school of blues musicians. That’s my kind of school!

5. Blues Got Me – (C. Arena, D. Haley)
--Here we have a mid-tempo shuffler, built on a rearranged “Spoonful” riff, full of Texas roadhouse grit. At times Cheryl’s voice reminds me a bit of Sue Foley – as far as I’m concerned that’s very good thing. It’s a mix of naughty and nice. Huh, that sure sounds like the blues to me.

6. It Ain’t Right – (Little Walter Jacobs)
--Cheryl tackles an old Little Walter tune here. “It Ain’t Right” is basically a remake of “Tell Me Mama”. Needless to say, this is where she finally lets it all hang out as far as her harp playing is concerned. As stated previously, Cheryl’s style isn’t flashy (not a 1000 notes per measure), but is instead always tasteful and always fits the song. This is a vastly underrated talent for harp players - and for guitar players.

7. About To Break My Heart – (Woodrow Wilson “Buddy” Johnson, originally titled “It’s About to Break My Heart in Two”)
--This tune is so cool! It’s in the mode of the Buddy Johnson Orchestra, slinky, full of great horns riffs, with a seductive, very sexy vocal. I absolutely love this song – Cheryl’s nice/naughty vocal sound fits this type of material incredibly well. Let’s hope we hear more tunes in this vein on Cheryl’s next album.

8. Living In The Moment
--Hey, here’s a swingin’ little number. Well, if you play blues or jazz in Texas you can’t stay too far away from the influences of Texas Swing music. There’s some jazzy guitar chording and picking going on; kudos to Matt Woodburn’s guitar playing throughout this CD. Cheryl takes a short harp solo, which sounds very nice, but would have fit into this song even better if it had been played on chromatic harmonica. That said this is a good tune!

9. Baby – (Little Walter Jacobs)
--Cheryl’s 2nd Little Walter cover, although cover might be a bit strong, as the tune is arranged quite a bit differently than Walter’s original. Her version is all Texas. I think she’s found a spiritual/musical home in Texas, as she seems to have a great affinity for playing Texas-style blues.

10. Any Day Now – (Woodrow Wilson “Buddy” Johnson)
--Here is the 2nd Buddy Johnson-styled number on the CD. The older I get the more I enjoy great sounding horns. The horns here give us a mournful/crying sound during the choruses, kicking up several notches during the song’s bridge.

11. He Ain’t No Prince
--This tune pursues a late-night, after-hours feel. It’s laid-back, with some beautiful piano playing from Matt McCabe. Cheryl is using the “kiss a frog, turn into a prince” metaphor for the lyric, with some twists along the path to that pond. Also, Matt Woodburn plays some pretty T-Bone Walker (or Duke Robillard?) inspired electric guitar throughout the piece.

12. You Better Change – (C. Grossley)
--This tune brings us solidly back to harp-driven blues, with much more of a Chicago influence than a Texas influence. Of course, that means Cheryl gets to play some mean harp. I definitely enjoy how she plays only what fits the tune – sweet!

13. Grazing In The Grass – (Philemon Hou)
--How about this 1968 Hugh Masekela hit for an unusual cover choice and set ender? A bit unexpected for sure and it allows Cheryl to play in a little freer, jazzier style – more of a Lee Oskar thing going on here. Many of you might be surprised to find out just how large an influence Lee Oskar’s work has been on the blues harp players working today. Oskar’s influence is huge! Start asking harp players you know; they will fill you in.

The Verdict:

I have no trouble at all recommending Blues Got Me to readers of Stlblues.net; in fact, it’s my pleasure to introduce you to this fine album. The CD was released in 2003, so it’s been quite awhile since Cheryl last released an electric band-based CD. She did release a country blues CD (with Aaron Burton) in 2006. It would be great to see something new from her, building upon the fine work displayed on Blues Got Me. The CD was produced by Duke Robillard, so it sounds wonderful. Several Boston-area players show up here and there on the CD, but the core band used here is comprised of Texas-based players (including guitarist Matt Woodburn, whose playing I like a lot.) Frankly, everyone sounds fantastic, and the mix of players adds to the musical variety found on the CD. It’s time to rate this bad boy - STLBluesometer rating of 3.50. East Side Slim enjoyed this CD very much and is anxiously awaiting Cheryl’s next album.

For more information on Cheryl Arena, see the following websites:
www.cherylarena.com | www.myspace.com/cherylarena

Lee Howland - aka "East Side Slim"
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