Heart Of Fire
Released 2021 on Ruf Records
This is no time for faint hearts. The pandemic might have silenced the music scene, shuttered the live circuit and divided artists from their fans. But with Heart Of Fire, Texas’s favourite new gunslinger Ally Venable is coming off the ropes swinging. Defying dark times and rolling up the amps, this fourth release from the acclaimed singer-songwriter is a record to rattle your speakers and signpost better times ahead. “My vision was to really spread a positive message of love,” says Venable. “The world needs that right now.”
If Heart Of Fire finds Venable giving the globe some much-needed love, then the feeling is entirely mutual. Still in her early twenties, the guitarist’s breakneck two decades have moved as fast as her fingers, her path winding from childhood church choirs to the teenage influence of local heroes like Stevie Ray Vaughan and Miranda Lambert. Early releases No Glass Shoes (2016) and Puppet Show (2018) earned her international fans, Top 10 chart placings and ETX Awards, but it was 2019’s #2 Billboard-charting Texas Honey and house-rocking sets on that year’s Blues Caravan tour that sent her stratospheric. Now, with Venable’s fanbase snaking further around the block every time she blows into town, Texas roots icon and Texas Honey producer Mike Zito is in no doubt: “Ally is the future of blues and the crossover music of American roots-rock.”
Not even a global pandemic could derail her momentum. Working at the Bessie Blue Studio in Stantonville, Tennessee last February with world-renowned producer Jim Gaines, Heart Of Fire finds Venable laser-focused on her songcraft, challenging herself to write with unguarded honesty, even if it hurts. “On this album, I really wanted to create a tone of overcoming your struggles and persevering through them,” she explains.
Like any battle, this record gets loud. Anyone who has left an Ally Venable show with ringing ears will come expecting rip-it-up guitar work, and Heart Of Fire is a lovely way to burn. In a world of electronic pop, this old-soul gunslinger riffs up a storm on the Led Zeppelin-worthy sting of Hard Change and Do It In Heels, revs up the slinky hook of Sad Situation and drives the title track’s intro with a heavy-booted wah lick. “That song is about being in a state of sadness,” she explains, “and someone comes along and brings you out of it, and then nobody is able to take out your flame.”
Guest Kenny Wayne Shepherd, tears up Bring On The Pain. As Venable says: “That song is about loving someone, staying true to yourself during the bad times and saying, ‘No matter what’s going on, my love won’t change’. Kenny is one of my heroes, so I’m very honoured he said yes to be a part of the song.”
While nobody is better at squeezing fresh juice from the blues-rock genre, Venable’s songwriting frequently forks into leftfield. There’s the chain-gang stomp of Hateful Blues, its lyric cursing a cruel lover (‘Oh, my love has been abused/and that’s why I’ve got these hateful blues’). There’s the pace-changing cover of Bill Withers’ classic Use Me, reborn here with congas, rubberband bass and a grooving lick. And don’t miss the impossibly wistful Road To Nowhere, with Southern rock great Devon Allman dovetailing with Venable on the chorus harmonies. “Devon jumped right into the song, elevated it and brought it to life,” she remembers. “His vision for the song aligned perfectly with mine, and I’m so happy with how it turned out.”
The same could be said for Heart Of Fire. Defiant, passionate, honest and raw, this is the record these times demand, from an artist who refuses to wait for the storm to pass, but prefers to dance in the rain. “My goal for this album was to give an outlet for people,” Venable considers. “That’s really where the core of these songs comes from…”
King Solomon Hicks
King Solomon Hicks grew up in Harlem “around a lot of great musicians.” That certainly shows on HARLEM, an 11-song salute to those roots — and how the 24-year-old guitarist and singer has turned them into his own fierce and distinctive style over the years.
The set, produced by multiple Grammy Award winner Kirk Yano (Miles Davis, Public Enemy, Mariah Carey), showcases Hicks as a writer, player and interpreter. Originals such as the roadhouse ready “421 South Main,” the gospel shuffle of “Have Mercy on Me” and the aching instrumental “Riverside Drive” rub musical elbows with staples such as “Every Day I Sing the Blues” and “It’s Alright,” a Latin-tinged take on Blood, Sweat & Tears’ “I Love You More Than You Will Ever Know,” a funked-up romp through Gary Wright’s “Love is Alive” and a searing rendition of Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Help me” that closes the album.
Hicks’ playing and singing shine throughout HARLEM, blending reverent familiar with vigorous fresh, the work of an artist deeply rooted in blues birthed decades before him but equally invested in finding his own way of playing it. Yes, every day he sings the blues, but in a manner only Hicks himself can.
“This has been a long time coming,” Hicks says of his first major recording, “but I’m really happy with the sound and the way everybody played. This music is where I come from. It’s really special to be able to record these songs — and really important to get ’em right.”
Hicks has been steeped in music for as long as he can remember. Harlem, he says, “is not like New Orleans, where music is 24 hours a day — but it’s close.” His father and mother played music at home constantly. His mother also took him, as a youth, to local nightspots such as the Lennox Lounge, Saint Nick’s and the Cotton Club, where Hicks witnessed performances that made a significant impact on his outlet and ambitions. “When you’re around good musicians, it gives you that spark — ‘I want to do what you do. I want to hold my own,’” says Hicks, who started playing guitar when he was six years old. “But being around those types of musicians also taught me to NOT be the fastest guitar player. I wanted to be the one who knew the most riffs and drew on a lot of knowledge so I could play anything, and with anyone.”
The self-described “kid in school that had a guitar on his back, interrupting all the classes,” Hicks was on stage at the Cotton Club when he was 13, and during high school as part of a 15-piece band playing there three nights a week. “The owner saw I was serious and genuinely loved the music,” Hicks recalls. He also learned a great deal from playing rhythm guitar at first, gradually developing his lead and soloing skills at gigs as well as at private parties and open jams — the latter of which provided a kind of master class for the developing artists.
“I wouldn’t know the song or the key of the song; They’d say, ‘Hey, go…’ and either you sank that day or you swam, and if you didn’t get it you got to try to come back the next week and do it again,” he remembers.
Hicks, not surprisingly, stayed afloat during those encounters, building a reputation on the scene that began to spread outside of the New York area — while his home turf expanded to venues such as the Iridium, the Red Rooster, Ashford & Simpson’s Sugar Bar, Terra Blues and more. After high school Hicks began playing in Europe, opening for Jeff Beck and Ringo Starr, playing festivals in Spain and France, as well as at the Cotton Club in Tokyo, and being booked on KISS Kruise V in 2017 and on this year’s Joe Bonamassa Blues Alive at Sea Cruise. He’s shared stages with the likes of Tony Bennett, Beth Hart, George Thorogood & the Destroyers, Mavis Staples, Paul Shaffer and others.
Hicks also became a member of the Blues Foundation in Memphis and he has Judged the IBC’s in Memphis [International Blues Challenge]” along with being a supporter of young Blues Musicians and The Blues Foundation.. He paid his own success forward by teaching music for the Children’s Aid Society and working with the Harlem Arts Alliance and the New York City Jazzmobile.
“It’s a lot of hard work and responsibility,” Hicks notes. “The older I get, it’s not just playing music just for me anymore. It’s playing music for people to feel good and enjoy themselves, maybe take their minds off their problems.”
Hicks and Yano started working on HARLEM two years ago, finishing up during late 2019. “It was just about getting my own sound together,” explains Hicks, who was aided by a corps of players that includes members of Soulive, Lettuce, Jack White and Hank William Jr.’s band and others — including Foghat/Savoy Brown veteran Roger Earl, who plays drums on the smooth, R&B flavored take on Fred Koller’s “What the Devil Loves.” “I wanted to have a foot in the blues, like coming back home to mama,” Hicks says. “But I didn’t want it to be traditional. I wanted people to feel like they’re in a juke joint, listening to what the blues sounds like in 2019, my own spin on it.”
Hicks certainly achieves that on HARLEM, and he’s planning on more for the future. As well-traveled as he is Hicks has a long list of places he hasn’t played yet that he intends to add to his itinerary. There are also more original songs he plans to release after future forays into the recording studio.
“This is like a first impression,” he says of HARLEM. “I want people to know me as a musician first. I’m trying to get my roots planted with the blues fans, and later I’ll cross over into some different worlds. There’s a lot I want to do — I’m patient, but at the same time I’m really ready for people to hear my music. Can’t wait, actually…”