The Kentucky Headhunters Deliver Raucous Blues-rock with Bonus Material with Pianist Johnnie Johnson on ‘Live at Ramblin’ Man Fair’ (ALBUM REVIEW)


Buoyed by the success of Alligator’s 2015 release, Meet Me in Bluesland, the label encores the by now almost iconic southern rockers The Kentucky Headhunters (KHH) first overseas festival appearance, along with additional tracks with Johnnie Johnson. This band has a way of connecting with an audience that few others can match. That’s due to their “don’t take us too seriously” attitude combined with the confidence of knowing they can blow the roof off any building. It’s rather surprising we haven’t heard more live material from them. It’s only their second live album. Nonetheless this 2016 date is special, marking the first time the KHH had toured outside North America.  It just bristles with energy, fun, and some powerhouse guitar work.

The core members of the band – brothers Richard (guitar) and Fred (drums) Young and their cousin, lead guitarist Greg Martin have been playing professionally since 1968. After playing together with another cousin, Anthony Kenney, for almost twenty years,  they evolved into the Kentucky Headhunters and won a Grammy for 1989’s Pickin’ on Nashville. Kenney left the band and long-time friend Doug Phelps joined on bass and vocals, forming the unit that is still intact today.

Why did it take so long to play overseas? Richard has long been fearful of flying but let his son, John Fred, of the rock group Black Stone Cherry, talk him into going to Europe. A tour of Sweden and UK was booked, introducing the band to a new audience. This was recorded a The Ramblin’ Man Fair in Maidstone, UK in front of 25,000 enthusiastic fans. Combining old school blues and the best rock n’ roll techniques the band blazes through a mix of blues standards (“Big Boss Man,” “Have You Ever Loved a Woman”)  and originals (‘Ragtop,” My Daddy Was a Milkman”), capping it off with the requisite Beatles tune, “Don’t Let Me Down” (with Black Stone Cherry). Sometimes it’s difficult to know whether KKY is a blues band, country band, or rock band – they do it all so effortlessly as the crowd gives them cheers and yelps. The music is raucous, rowdy and loud, but somehow never obnoxious – just glorious rock n’ roll.

As an added pleasure, the three bonus tracks with Johnnie Johnson show the pianist in top form. The band had befriended Johnson, Chuck Berry’s sideman, in 1993 and recorded “That’ll Work” with him, throwing their fans a curveball by proving they could play deep blues. They then went on to record with Johnson the tunes that grace Meet Me in Bluesland. These three are equally as strong, laying down “Rock Me Baby,” “Rock ‘N” Roller” and “Hi-Heel Sneakers” with Johnson taking pounding, blistering solos in each.

As the song says, “Let There Be Rock.”  Crank this one up and enjoy the ride.

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