The Phantom Blues Band Honors Departed Keyboard Great Mike Finnigan on ‘Blues for Breakfast’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

The Phantom Blues Band is a blues supergroup. Not only have they helped Taj Mahal win two Grammys and gain three other nominations, but they are also the same folks you see on records from Bonnie Raitt, Etta James, Joe Cocker, Robert Cray, Eric Burton, and even Bob Marley, and that’s just for starters.  One of the key members of the band was the late Mike Finnigan who passed less than a year ago, in August 2021. Finnigan’s resume arguably runs even deeper than his bandmates, having played with Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and Crosby, Stills, & Nash. Finnigan did play on the Phantom Blues Band’s most recent recording, 2020’s Still Cookin’. It only seems fitting that the band would gather again in tribute to their fallen bandmate and while there are few keyboardists that rival Finnigan, they tapped a great one in Jim Pugh, the driver of all the great Little Village recordings (the label for this one too) and a vital cog in the careers of Robert Cray and Etta James. Thus, we have Blues for Breakfast featuring drummer Tony Braunagel, bassist/vocalist Larry Fulcher, guitarist/vocalist Johnny Lee Schell, saxophonist Joe Sublett, and trumpeter Les Lovitt. Guests include Bonnie Raitt, Curtis Salgado, Ruthie Foster, and Kelly Finnigan, son of Mike and lead vocalist for the Monophonics. Mike Finnigan plays and sings on “OK, I Admit It.”

The repertoire is a mix of blues and soul tunes from mostly recognizable writers such as Muddy Waters, Sam Cooke, Freddie King. Curtis Mayfield, Little Milton, and more. They kick off with the rousing soul of Sam and Dave’s “I Take What I Want” as Schell and Fulcher trade verses and brief solos from Sublett, Lovitt, and scorching guitar from Schell. Fulcher steps up to mic with Schell on harmony for a funky take on the political rallying cry “Get Involved,” penned by George Soule.  Muddy’s “She’s Into Something” proves a swinging vehicle for the horns with Sublett in honking early fifties R&B style in his take. Schell leads on both vocals and guitar. Ruthie Foster helps the two vocalists take Curtis Mayfield’s “Move On Up” reggae style. The honoree, Mike Finnigan, sings and plays his B3 on the shuffle, fessing up on “OK, I Admit It,” reminding us of his natural swinging style. Fulcher and Schell collaborate on the sweet soul tune “Still Be Friends,” soothed by the backing horns and a lyrical solo from Sublett. 

Schell takes the vocal lead on the Freddie King’s strutting “Country Boy,” before Bonnie Raitt enters with a couple of verses before joining Schell in the unison vocal. This collaboration is anything but new as Schell plays on many of Raitt’s records (as did Mike Finnigan). Curtis Salgado steps in with soulful vocals and blues harp on Sam Cooke’s “Laughing and Clownin’.”  They stretch out on West Coast blues with Jimmy McCracklin’s “Stepping Up in Class,” as Schell rips off a solo following Sublett’s gutsy turn. Salgado returns for Ike Turner’s “I Know You Don’t Love Me,” making way for Kelly Finnigan following another searing Sublett statement with a stirring organ solo.  The horns lead into Little Milton’s “That’s What Love Will Make You Do,” featuring Pugh’s B3, Fulcher’s best vocal, and Schell’ stinging lead.  Pugh pounds the piano barrelhouse style in the closer, Muddy’s “Stuff You Gotta Watch,” a version that arguably swings even harder than the version The Band laid down on their 1993 Jericho.

Each member of the Phantom Blues Band is a first-call sideman. Together they are as formidable as any band that’s ever played the genre as evidenced by the likes of Taj Mahal and Bonnie Raitt. We will dearly miss Mike Finnigan but he couldn’t have asked for a better musical sendoff.

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2 Responses

  1. What wonderful memories we have of Michael. May his Memory be a blessing for all of us. We miss you Mike! Your remarkable talent on the Keyboards was the motive force for Phantom Blues, as we are certain is evidenced on this Album!
    Rest In Peace and Love.

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