The Norman Transcript

Sound Advice by Doug Hill

June 9, 2014

New album reviews for Vaneese Thomas and Back Pack Jones

Musician: Vaneese Thomas 

Album name: Blues for My Father

Why you should listen: Vaneese Thomas made an album her daddy Rufus Thomas (1917-2001) would be proud of and it’s dedicated to him. Her pop was a blues, funk and soul star that epitomized those sounds in the 1960s and 70s. His dance tune “Do the Funky Chicken” represented the fun of the era.

Vaneese is the kind of daughter who fathers love bragging about. She’s a 1974 Swarthmore College graduate, was one of the founders of its Gospel Choir and current director of the Alumni Gospel Choir. In this fifth Vaneese Thomas LP since 1987 you can hear the churchly tradition and sweet southern soul in every track. The power and majesty in her voice can send chills down the spine.

Thomas has range that falls into the extraordinary category. It’s an alternately comforting and seductive voice. One that may be familiar but you can’t quite put your finger on why. Thomas’ voice was “Grace the Bass” on public TV’s “Shining Time Station” and “Clio the Muse, Goddess of History” in Disney’s “Hercules.”

Ten of the 12 compositions here are her originals. “Southern Girl” demonstrates Thomas’ lyrical mastery. Food, faith and flowers from below the Mason Dixon line are among the many other influences that have formed her into the remarkable woman she is today. Thomas’ siblings Marvell and Carla Thomas are also noted musicians and contributed to their sister’s project. Vaneese and Carla perform a duet on “Wrong Turn” that brings their vocals together tighter than bark on a tree. Marvell plays keys on the same tune. The whole fam damily got in on the act with Vaneese’s spouse Wayne Warnecke recording, mixing and mastering the disc as well as being co-producer. Through the wizardry of 21st century recording technology there’s even a duet by Rufus Thomas and his daughter appropriately titled “Can’t Ever Let You Go.” The entire album is a sweet tribute to a wellspring of talent who produced others sharing the gift.


Musician: Back Pack Jones 

Album name: Betsy’s Kitchen

Why you should listen: This is the first jump blues album by Illinois quintet Back Pack Jones. They’re a guitar band with keys that’s fortified to enormous extent by a five-piece brass section. Violinist Chenoa Alamu is included for good measure. The title is a mystery. There’s no song on the disc titled “Betsy’s Kitchen.” No mention of Betsy or her place of culinary skills anywhere in the liner notes or publicist sheet. The only clue is the CD art work. Front and back depicts a voluptuous and heart-shaped female silhouette spanned at the waist by an apron. Love and food have inspired oceans of poetic ink as well as millions of musical notes. Back Pack Jones’ promotional photo and lyrics reveal that the band has an appreciation for both.

Their music is a creative gumbo that blends jazz, funk and soul with the main blues roux. These men are seasoned players whose compositions convey musicianship and extensive life experience. It’s a tremendous part of their resume that all the members are active participants in the Blues Foundation’s youth outreach program called Blues in the Schools. “Even God Sings the Blues” is about the inner city violence potentially just outside the doors of where this album was recorded in sweet home Chicago. Wendell Day’s keyboards on this track are bone-chilling. Michael “Big Mike” Wallace’s lead vocals are deep as a canyon. He has a smooth as satin  approach on these numbers that defines soul. Wallace is perfect vocal ambassador for all American males singing “I’m Just a Man.” It’s a love and begging-forgiveness ode to the women who put up with socks on the floor, intemperate words and forgetful tardiness. Wallace probably hums this tune when he’s washing dishes in Betsy’s Kitchen after she’s made him a big meal.             

Blues for My Father cover art.

Betsy's Kitchen cover art.


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Sound Advice by Doug Hill