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Tip of the Top - From Memphis to Greaseland

Delta King Records

13 tracks/54:56

The title on this release refers to two key locations that provided highlights for Tip of the Top. Memphis is the site of the annual International Blues Challenge, an event the band competed in last year, reaching the Semi-final round. The Greaseland reference is not some slight directed at the Elvis Presley estate. It is the name of the studio owned by guitarist Chris “Kid” Andersen where the sessions for this release were held. The title also serves notice that this band isn't afraid to get lowdown and gritty when it comes to their music.

Tip of the Top is a veteran band comprised of Jon Lawton on guitar, Aki Kumar on harp, Frank DeRose on bass and Carlos Velasco on drums. Lawton and Kumar share the lead vocals while DeRose filled the role of producer for the project. Even though this is their third release in less than three years, there isn't any reason to fear that the quality of the material may start to suffer. The seven original tunes hold help well when compared to the six classic tunes that complete the play-list.

Things get off to a rollicking start with Lawton's “I Ain't Worried” with Kumar blowing some wicked harp licks. They dig deep into Johnny Littlejohn's tale of a cheating woman on “She's Too Much” before switching to a hard shuffle on “My Baby's Gone (And I Feel Good)”, with Kumar once again supplying the musical fireworks. “The Night is Young” is a DeRose composition with a propulsive, train-like rhythm. Lawton contributes a sampling of his taut slide guitar playing, encouraged by guest Johnny “Cat” Soubrand on guitar. Kumar belts out a convincing vocal as another guest, Sid Morris, pounds away on the piano. Kid Andersen sits in on guitar for “She's Fine”, building a solo full of razor-sharp licks.

The band's laidback cover of “Fattening Frogs for Snakes” illustrates their feel for the blues tradition, as does their equally fine treatment of Brownie McGhee's “The Sportin' Life”. They create a smoky, late-at-night ambiance and Lawton's vocal conveys the resignation of a man who has learned too late the cost of a life of sin. “One Way Out” bristles with energy but Kumar's singing doesn't quite measure up to better known versions of this classic.

The two instrumentals are standout tracks. Using Little Walter's “Rocker”, Kumar plays his heart out, unleashing a series of dazzling runs that honor the legacy of the world's greatest blues harp player. Lawton's original, “Slidin' Home”, finds him firing on all cylinders as he does his interpretation of the classic Elmore James slide sound. He even adds a brief quote of the famous guitar riff from “Train Kept a Rollin'”.

After you hear this recording, it might be hard for you to understand how Tip of the Top failed to reach the finals at the Blues Challenge. You will be hard pressed to think of another band that performs in a traditional style while managing to make everything sound modern and exciting. It takes a serious commitment to the music. Give them a listen – I know that their stellar musicianship and spirited approach will win you over.

Reviewer Mark Thompson is president of the Crossroads Blues Society in Rockford. IL. He has been listening to music of all kinds for fifty years. The first concert he attended was in Chicago with The Mothers of Invention and Cream. Life has never been the same.

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