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Delta Highway – The Devil Had A Woman
East Side SlimBy East Side Slim

Delta Highway – The Devil Had A Woman
Delta Highway – The Devil Had A Woman
Delta Highway & Oh Lonesome Me Music, 2007

Memphis-based blues band Delta Highway is a fairly new unit, only coalescing as a band after 2003. This band’s music is pure living blues for modern times; it’s not rock-blues, soul-blues or any other hyphen-blues. The band features guitar, harp, organ/keys, bass and drums - no frills, just fine soulful ensemble blues playing. The band was originally formed by, and is centered on Brandon Santini (harp and vocals) and Justin Sulek (guitar). Both men were originally from the piedmont region of North Carolina, and came to Memphis in 2003 in order to absorb the blues sounds and history of the Mississippi delta region. Traditional sounds form the core of the Delta Highway’s sound, but the band doesn’t let their love of traditional blues forms stagnate them or tie their hands. They take the best of what makes the blues such a vital art form and merge it with their own sensibilities and ideas.

Santini is a fine young singer, possessing soulful, deep-toned vocals with a slight drawl which acts to enhance that soulfulness. At times his tone reminds me of Steve Guyger, at other times a grittier version of Noah Hunt (who you may know from his work with Kenny Wayne Sheppard) and at other times his phrasing is reminiscent of Paul Reddick’s. Brandon’s amplified harp tone is heavy, thick and warm - I hear influences ranging from Gary Primich to Mark Sallings to Jason Ricci, even some John Popper (but don’t let that scare you away if you’re not a Popper fan.) There’s a good chance that Santini will become a rising star in the world of blues harp players. Delta Highway’s rhythm section (at the time of this recording) consisted of bassist Paul Chase and drummer Steady Keven Eddy (Keven has played with both Mojo Buford and Blind Mississippi Morris). If I’m not mistaken, both men used to work with Jason Ricci, during Ricci’s Memphis/Mississippi days – prior to the formation of his New Blood band. Guitarist Justin Sulek is another young player you should keep your eyes on. He knows when to sit back and play to the songs, knows when to step up front, displays a nice tonal palette, and can really play that greasy, swampy North Mississippi/Memphis style well. Also, he know how to, and seem to enjoy, playing along with a harp player. Not all guitarists master this trick.

The band reminds me a lot of Paul Reddick’s band in his 1990s ‘Sidemen’ days, but with a growly drawl channeling Memphis grit and Mississippi Hill Country feel. Brandon has a style of vocal and harmonica phrasing that reminds me very much of Reddick’s work (this should be considered a compliment), although his vocal tone is different that Paul’s vocal tone. Personally, I think this band has tremendous potential. In fact, I’m not the only one who is thinking that way – Delta Highway was nominated for the 2009 Blues Music Award in the Best New Debut Artist category. That is high praise, indeed.

The Songs: (all songs by Santini or Santini/Sulek except bonus track)

1. 23 Hours:
--This is a great song, a mid-tempo shuffler with a backwoods feel. If you are familiar with work of the late, great Gary Primich (we miss you, man), then you will have a good idea of what I mean. Brandon plays unamplified harp here (meaning straight into a mic, not through an amplifier first), displaying a nice feel for tonal effects. If you really want to determine whether or not a harp player is truly talented, listen to him/her playing unamplified; there’s no where to hide. I should also mention that Justin plays a good and greasy solo here that’s worth the price of admission itself.

2. Devil Had A Woman:
--This song rides a groovy, funky beat, and reminds me a lot of some of Paul Reddick’s bluesier tunes. Brandon is really working hard on harp, there is some tough piano supplied by Victor Wainwright, and Justin slides around the guitar in slinky, sinister ways. I really dig Brandon’s vocal phrasing and the tone of his voice, not only here but throughout the CD.

3. Feelin’ Bad:
--The boys are slowing things down here. The tune is set on a nice organ bed (I do love that organ sound...it raises the hair on my neck). The slow tempo allows Justin to stretch out nicely on guitar and allows Brandon to do the same on harp, as well as allowing him to display his soulful vocal (and harp) phrasing to full extent.

4. We Got A Thang Goin’ On:
--This is another funky, gritty blues tune, featuring the organ prominently. It also features Brandon’s fiery harp work. The only word that really works here is wailing. Don’t worry, there’s plenty of guitar, too. The boys didn’t forget about all you guitar-heads out there.

5. Got To Be On My Way:
--This is a fiery, up-tempo number, the kind of roadhouse blues you think of when you say Texas blues, especially of the D/FW variety, music from cats like Anson Funderburgh, Mike Morgan and Jimmie Vaughan (he didn’t always live in Austin you know…)

6. Funky Little Baby:
--This cut sounds very familiar, but I can’t quite place it - maybe similar to one of Steve Guyger’s more funky tunes? Anyway, this song is a funky little tune, one which I like a lot. It’s retro but modern, funky yet tough, just very, very cool.

7. Shake It Just A Little Bit:
--This is an old-fashioned up-tempo shufflin’ romp. Loads of wailing harp, warbling, pumping organ and plenty of razor sharp fret work. This would be the perfect tune to end a live set on – leave the people wanting more!

8. Somebody’s Gotta Go:
--This tune has a real sinister vibe, nice and slinky due to an unusual but very cool rhythm pattern supplied by the drummer. The organ is featured here once again. You don’t hear much harp until about half-way through the track, but the wait is worth it – Brandon is playing so hard that it’s tough to believe the reeds could take it. Justin gets his turn a little later on to do the same thing to his guitar – blisters on his fingers!

9. I Want You To Know:
--This cut has Texas via Chicago feel, or is it simply that funky/gritty Memphis sound? You know what? It just doesn’t matter, as this is a good one. This is another track in the vein of some of Gary Primich’s work. It’s all blues, nothing but the blues, set to strip-tease groove.

10. Goin’ Home:
--This is a fun track, kind of a modified back-porch rockin’ blues. Justin really lays some fine guitar work out there, Brandon chugs away on harp and Steady Eddy drives it all home with his slappin’ percussion. This one is a winner, for sure.

Bonus Hidden Track: Don’t Let My Baby Ride - (RL Burnside)
--This unlisted/uncredited tune is found at the 4:30 mark of track 10, and runs for about 6 minutes. The cut is Delta Highway’s funky update on RL Burnside’s version of ‘Don’t Let My Baby Ride’. It’s true to Burnside’s version, showing that the band knows and respects its roots. Nice!

The Verdict:

The verdict is…guilty – guilty of playing some of the finest blues in the Mid-South region. Fans of gritty, greasy, harp-based blues should absolutely love this CD. The boys play in the ensemble style so important to all the best blues, and Brandon Santini’s harp work shines throughout. He is the primary songwriter for the band, with Justin Sulek credited on half the tracks. It’s obvious after listening to this CD that these 2 young men truly love and feel the blues, and I think it’s great to find 2 more young men, 2 more young BLUESmen, playing and sharing their personal vision of this amazing musical form with the rest of us. This really is a fine album, folks – I’m giving it a rating of 4.00 on the STLBluesometer. FYI: the Delta Highway band plays B.B.’s Jazz, Blues & Soups (in St. Louis) several times a year; catch them if you can – you won’t be disappointed.

For more information concerning the band Delta Highway, visit the following websites:
Official Band Site - www.deltahighwayblues.com
MySpace - www.myspace.com/deltahighway

Lee Howland - aka "East Side Slim"

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