When I read the musicians that inspired Donna Herula, I already love her…Son House (his song, Pearline is an example of the best blues ever), Eric Sardinas, Rory Block, Johnny Winter, Fred McDowell, Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Booker White, Furry Lewis, RL Burnside, Elmore James, Tampa Red, plus some of my favourite female guitar/vocalists Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Sippie Wallace, Memphis Minnie, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Jessie Mae Hemphill, Bonnie Raitt. Put those touchstones together with Donna’s own inherent understanding of the guitar and the blues and you have the ingredients for her third release, Bang At The Door. She serves up fourteen songs (including one superlative instrumental) with the odd flourish of folk, ragtime and jazz to keep it fluid and interesting.
The recording of this album was not without difficulties; her Mother was very ill with cancer and the sessions were put on hold while she and her sisters cared for her until she sadly died. On top of that, her husband (Tony Nardiello, who also plays and sings on the album) lost his mother too and then 2020 supplied a pandemic…however, dedicating the album to her mother and mother-in-law, the pair helped each through their tribulations and released this fine body of work in May 2021.
Onto the music: opening with the title track, Bang At The Door, the resonator sets the tone in every sense as the bottleneck puts its own melody on top. The song is sort of poppy rock but with slide! The lyrics are wry and clever too.
The next track, Pass the Biscuits, is a fresh slide take on New Orleans blues: rolling piano and neat snare work and another extremely short slide solo that leaves you wanting more…the good news is, after a short piano section we get another one, but that’s too short too! Can’t Wait to See My Baby moves to Chicago style as hubby Tony joins on vocals. The slide riff and intro are brilliant and the pair obviously have fun on the vocals…although they’ve only been apart for “27 days” the reunion is going to be something! The slide solo is jaunty, cleverly phrased and should have lasted about the same length as their separation.
Promise Me moves toward the folk end of the musical spectrum as the slide, mandolin and acoustic provide a very Son House-ish, many-layered base to back a tale of a loved one in prison. The string work on all three instruments is very deft and the solo is suitably plaintive…and too short. The next song also sees a partner in prison due to drug addiction; on Not Lookin’ Back, the tale is wrapped in a more jazzy blues with the piano and slide working well together and apart. It has a feel similar to the song Fever, but with a slinky slide solo that is pure genius…apart from, you guessed, it’s too short.
Back to Chicago next for I Got No Way Home in a blues that jumps and the addition of the harp works too; especially in the duet come duel with the slide…nice! Now to my favourite: Black Ice is a brooding slide guitar instrumental that lets me listen to Donna’s dexterity for just over two minutes and revel in the tones, inflections and skill. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the similar skills of Sylvester Weaver…his Guitar Rag instrumental from 1947 has that same lilt yet a simultaneous bite: geniuses both.
A cover of Booker White’s immortal Fixin’ To Die is next…the 1940 original is a powerful strummed song with slide highlights and striking lyrics that was (in my opinion) strangled by Dylan and nicely done by Robert Plant: Donna does the Delta proud on her interpretation with percussive chords and the solo is raw, unfettered and damn good. Next up is a Lucinda Williams song called Jackson; from 1998’s album Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, Lucinda’s was a gentle, picked acoustic country song; suitably plaintive but with some depth. Donna switches it from female to male lead vocals as Tony sings and plays acoustic. Donna provides the harmonies and slide…it also provides a geography lesson, so if you’re ever headed down there, take this with you to enjoy the lovely slide and bemoan the fact that sat-navs don’t all work this way!
Movin’ Back Home picks the pace back up with the jaunty ragtime base, a call/response chorus, an untouched for years bedroom in her family home is the tale which is enlivened further by a brilliant picked solo just to prove she can do that very well too! Back to slide and blues but with some fiddle too on the story of the tribulations of motherhood. The fiddle, unusually for me, is fitting, fun and brings a frisson to the proceedings, although the bottleneck is still the star even if it is held in the background for most of the song, when the (too short) solo arrives it is one of the most imaginative I’ve heard for a while.
Now real blues wouldn’t be real blues without a serving of double entendres…Who’s Been Cookin’ in My Kitchen is nothing to do with Robert Johnson (that was Come On In My Kitchen) although a reference to squeezing lemons is nicely integrated; nor, thankfully, is it the Dana song. This is a wry take on the humour that is sprinkled liberally through the blues and across the decades in a Herula original. The guitar work, strummed and picked, is quite magical and works well.
Something’s Wrong With My Baby is wrapped around by that superbly tuneful resonator and some nice upright walking bass brings this together so well…another excellent slide (too short) solo. The Soul of a Man closes the album with a neat take on a Blind Willie Johnson classic from 1930. Gospel enriched blues with more fabulous resonator. It is also fascinating how Donna has swapped around the order of the lyrics and actually makes it more coherent…add to that the bottleneck work and this is the way cover versions should be done: considered, carefully adapted so that it’s fresh but faithful and an all-important dash of individuality.
This is a quality album from start to finish and, apart from my endless moaning about solos being too short, is close to faultless blues.
Bluesdoodles rating: 4 Doodle Paws – a wonderful resonator and bottleneck led blues album that with repeated listens reveal the layers of a simple, yet complex, slice of blues covering the past, present and future of our beloved genre.
1. Bang at the Door
2. Pass the Biscuits
3. Can’t Wait to See My Baby
4. Promise Me
5. Not Lookin’ Back
6. I Got No Way Home
7. Black Ice
8. Fixin’ to Die
10. Movin’ Back Home
11. Got What I Deserve
12. Who’s Been Cookin’ in My Kitchen
13. Something’s Wrong With My Baby
14. The Soul of a Man
Donna Herula: guitar, vocals
FJ Ventre: upright and electric bass, percussion and background vocals
Dana Thalhelmar: drums
Doug Hammer and Daryl Davis: piano
Tony Pons: trumpet
Tony Nardiello: acoustic guitar, vocals
Jon Shain: mandolin, acoustic guitar and backing vocals
Bill Newton: harmonica
Anne Harris: fiddle
Rebecca Toon, Katherine Davis, Janie Grandsart and Chris Holda: backing vocals
Produced by Jon Shain at Good Luck Studio.
(iTunes run on track this time delivered the short but sweet rock of The Donnas and the heavyweight Bitchin’ from 2007…nice one ladies!)