Phantom Blues Band’s “Blues for Breakfast” Available June 18th, 2022
For all his considerable musical talents, Taj Mahal has always been shrewd. And smart. In the early 1990s he knew he’d assembled something special in his backing band. He dubbed his secret weapon the Phantom Blues Band.
After helping Taj win two Grammys and gain three other nominations, the band members realized they could stand on their own. The Phantom Blues Band began assembling what would become Out Of The Shadows in 2006, an album that stretched the band and won raves at every turn.
The Phantom Blues Band – drummer Tony Braunagel, bassist/singer Larry Fulcher, guitarist/singer Johnny Lee Schell, saxophonists Joe Sublett, trumpeter Darrell Leonard and keyboardist/singer Mike Finnigan – has been a resilient unit. At various times, its members have backed just about every marquis band you can name, but they continued to support Taj when he needed them.
On its own, Phantom has recorded Out Of The Shadows and Footprints in 2007 for Delta Groove and Inside Out in 2012 and Still Cookin’ in 2020, both for VizzTone. Album after album features the same musicians, although at one point Les Lovitt replaced Leonard on trumpet.
It’s a rather remarkable testimonial that these guys who are first-call sidemen for people such as Bonnie Raitt, Etta James, Joe Cocker, Robert Cray, Eric Burdon, Bob Marley among others always seem to come back to their nest with the Phantom Blues Band. Unusual allegiance and true camaraderie come to mind as character traits.
So it was especially painful during the pandemic shadow in 2020 when Finnigan was diagnosed with cancer. Finnigan held his own place in the music industry. Through the years, he played on hundreds of records and thousands of shows with artists as varied as Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Crosby, Stills & Nash. He made it through the Still Cookin’ album, but succumbed to his illness in August 2021.
The Phantom Blues Band wasn’t going to let that knock them out. They recruited veteran Jim Pugh on keyboards (Etta James, Robert Cray, Chris Isaak) and immediately set about to produce an album in tribute to the fallen Finnigan.
Schell and Fulcher handle most of the vocals on the new album, which is scheduled for an early summer release on Pugh’s Little Village record label. The band invited two of its long-time musical companions – Bonnie Raitt and Curtis Salgado – to pitch in on the effort.
As a tribute to the Finnigan, proceeds from the new CD will be donated to the Mike Finnigan School of Music at the Stiefel Theater in Salina, Kansas. It is surely an honor Finnigan, a native of Kansas, would smile at.
The members of the Phantom Blues Band can take plenty of pride from their aggregated musical experiences, but they know this project is something special.
Of course, Taj Mahal could have probably told you that they could do this long ago. He believed in them first.
The Phantom Blues Band:
Larry Fulcher – bass, vocals (1, 2. 4, 6, 11)
Tony Braunagel – drums, percussion
Johnny Lee Schell – guitar, vocals (1, 3, 6, 7, 9, 12) backing vocals (2, 4, 5, 9)
Joe Sublett- saxophone
Les Lovitt – trumpet
Jim Pugh – piano, organ
With very special guests:
Ruthie Foster – backing vocals (4)
Bonnie Raitt – vocals (7)
Mike Finnigan- vocals & organ (5)
Curtis Salgado – vocals & harmonica (8, 10)
Tony Chin – rhythm guitar (4)
Kelly Finnigan – organ solo (10)
Beth Styne – backing vocals (6)
Information on the music school: https://www.stiefeltheatre.org/school-of-music
Little Village: www.littlevillagefoundation.com
The Phantom Blues Band Honors Departed Keyboard Great Mike Finnigan on ‘Blues for Breakfast’ (ALBUM REVIEW)
June 13, 2022
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.
TAJ MAHAL’S LONGTIME PHANTOM BLUES BAND HONORS LATE KEYBOARDIST ON ‘BLUES FOR BREAKFAST’
August 25, 2022
Asked what he’d like people to know about his Phantom Blues Band comrade Mike Finnigan, who died in August of 2021, Johnny Lee Schell doesn’t pick something musical.
“He’d be doing an overdub with me and say, ‘I gotta take a break, there’s another drunk calling me up,’” the guitarist and singer recalls with a laugh, noting the priority Finnigan, a keyboardist, placed on his involvement with Alcoholics Anonymous. Schell estimates that Finnigan and his wife together “saved hundreds of lives.”
The anecdote illustrates why the Phantom Blues Band — who got their start backing Taj Mahal and continue to play with the septuagenarian on occasion — was missing more than a keyboard player when they began work on what would become their new CD on Little Village records, “Blues for Breakfast,” which bears the words “In Memory of MF” on its cover.
“Mike was so important to us, we didn’t know what our next step was going to be,” says Schell. “But we thought we would just take a stab at it, and we wanted to do it fairly quickly. We took some of our favorite songs we had always wanted to do anyway and included them on the album, and were lucky enough to get help from some of our friends. Curtis Salgado sang two songs and played a harp solo, and Bonnie Raitt did a duet with me (on ‘Country Boy’). I played with her for a while during the ’80s; she’s a longtime friend who also loved Mike.”
Also featured alongside Phantom Blues Band members Joe Sublett (sax), Larry Fulcher (bass), Tony Braunagel (drums) and Les Lovitt (trumpet) are Little Village founder Jim Pugh on piano and organ, Ruthie Foster on vocals and a special archival inclusion of Finnigan on organ and vocals on “OK, I Admit It” and his son, Kelly, also on organ, on “I Know You Don’t Love Me.”
Including Kelly, says Sublett, “meant a lot to us.”
“I think as far as it being a tribute album, we’re dedicating it to him because of our love for him and the fact that he was our band member for many years,” Sublett says. “In fact, it’s dedicated to him as much as it’s a tribute record.”
While the bona fides for Finnigan the person are heartwarming, he boasted a towering resume that should not be overlooked, with the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Leonard Cohen and Etta James enlisting his talents, in addition to his work with Mahal.
The Phantom Blues Band began touring with Mahal in the ’90s.
“We had done a record with Taj Mahal called ‘Phantom Blues’ (1996). When he asked us to go out and join him on the road, he said, ‘You guys are going to be the Phantom Blues Band,’” Sublett explains.
“He had us on the road for like six or seven years straight,” he adds. “Together we had done three albums with him, and he always billed it as Taj Mahal and the Phantom Blues Band. We went around the world a couple two, three times, and all that time the Phantom Blues Band name was out there. So when we started doing our own records, we had at least 10 or so years of that name as a brand out there, and it allowed us to have some name value.”
Mahal’s website reveals a busy touring schedule, with dates running from Thursday through the end of November, including at the XPoNential Music Festival in Camden, NJ, on Sept. 16 and a performance with the Phantom Blues Band on the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise, which runs from late October through early November.
“His body of work is so massive,” marvels Schell. “To start in the late ’60s and to be going 60 years later, it kind of speaks volumes, but just watching him and all of us age. … It happens so slowly, that one day you just turn around, and like two nights ago I got a call from my grandson that I’m going to be a great-grandfather in January. … It happens so slowly that one day it just sort of dawns on you, but we have to count our blessings and say how fortunate we are to still be alive.”
Finnigan, who died of cancer during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, helped Schell and Sublett realize that too.
Doing “Blues for Breakfast,” Schell says, “boosted our confidence in a way.”
“It’s not like we were lacking on confidence,” he clarifies. “The band has probably a combined 300 years of musical experience. But it always knocks you off your center a little bit when someone that big is not in the room. We just had to adjust.”