The blues is one of those genres that’s simply open to limitless interpretation. Guided by the life experiences, personalities, moods, thoughts and feelings of those who choose to play it, it expands year on year and probably always will.
In 2023, we witnessed unforgettable collaborations, met some astonishing new artists, watched others mature into world-class form and took note as the genre’s elder statesmen showed off their ever-superlative skills. Here we celebrate some of our favourite blue-hued artists, albums and performances of the year just gone.
Blues artists of the year
Jared James Nichols
There’s no two ways about it, the Nashville-based wild man of blues has had a big year. He kicked things off with his speaker-scorching self-titled album and then finished them off with the release of his third signature guitar, the Epiphone ‘Blues Power’ Les Paul, which comes complete with a signature Seymour Duncan JJN Silencer pickup to boot. In between, he brought his incendiary live performance skills and signature stank face to stages across the US, UK and Europe and shows no signs of taking his foot off the gas anytime soon.
But, beyond being a busy man, Jared is important to the genre – and to guitar music as a whole – because he makes playing look like such a riotously fun thing to do, that you can’t help but want to get stuck in and give it a go yourself.
- Interview: Jared James Nichols on fingerstyle blues tips and perfecting his Les Paul signature pickup: "I would say it’s your favourite P-90 you haven’t tried yet"
Although he announced his intention to retire from touring back in 2022, the Louisiana-born Chicago Blues legend has visited no less than nine countries this year and performed live over 100 times.
As his Damn Right Farewell tour rolls on into 2024, it’s not just Buddy Guy’s age-defying stamina we admire. His music continues to be a point of reference for each successive generation of blues guitarists, and his ability to devise fresh material, (on average, one album every two years) has prevented him from ever becoming a tribute act to himself. Plus, he still possesses the most scorchingly hot Strat tone we’ve heard all year!
- Classic interview: Buddy Guy – "If people come see you, I think you should give them every damn thing you’ve got"
After suffering a stroke on stage back in July, Kirk Fletcher made a return to performing at the beginning of November in Oklahoma alongside Joe Bonamassa and Josh Smith – the pair of whom had set up a fundraising auction to support the guitarist with his medical bills.
A clip of the occasion was shared via Bonamassa’s Instagram showing the much-loved bluesman back on fine form, with his soulful, BB King-esque chops in full working order. A masterful performance and relief all round, Bonamassa summed things up nicely with the caption: “Nothing could have made me happier than to see our friend @kirkfletchermusic come out for the first time since his medical event in July and kill it tonight with us in Tulsa.”
- Kirk Fletcher interview: "Seeing Robben Ford was the thing to make me go, 'Okay, I wanna play for real…'"
Jackie Venson has been hailed as ‘one to watch’ since the release of her debut album Joy back in 2019, so if you’re yet to discover her ultra-cool, genre-blending approach to the blues, now is the time.
This year, she brought us two albums that push the genre forward, including a complete reworking of said debut, which she aptly titled Evolution Of Joy.
Although Venson is predominantly known as a guitarist, she started out on piano and actually only took to six-strings roughly a decade ago. Eager to capture the serious levelling-up of her skillset since the original cut, she literally made the record again - this time with more expressive phrasing, tastier tones and much more advanced soloing. It’s an exceptionally bold move and one that can only be applauded in a commercial universe that often pressures artists to forge ahead without ever looking back.
If that weren’t enough, the Epiphone Les Paul-toting guitarist/songwriter followed-up the release with another album of pure blues-pop genius with Ghost In The Machine back in October.
Already an influential figure in blues music, the Serbian-born virtuosa became an even greater inspiration when she returned from battling cancer this year to give us Power - her first new studio release in five years, and an excellent one at that.
In a press statement for the release, she wrote: “This record brought my spirit the salvation it needed, and ultimately, the music and my '64 Fender Stratocaster saved my life. I'm convinced now more than ever that guitars CAN save lives."
We might not be doctors, but it’s a sentiment we’d like to believe in.
Blues albums of the year
Nat Myers – Yellow Peril
A new face on the scene with an old-time sound, Nat Myers is a Korean-American blues poet who specialises in blending dextrous Piedmont-style fingerpicking and frenzied Charley Patton-style slide with intelligent 21st-century storytelling.
After his online clips caught the ear of Dan Auerbach, he was invited to come and record a full length debut at Easy Eye Sound studios, but opted instead to cut the 10-track collection at the guitarist-come-producer’s century-old home, capturing every foot stomp and floorboard creak as well as the dulcet tones of his lefty Mule Resophonic guitar. If you didn’t know any better, you could be forgiven for thinking this no-frills gem was a lost recording from another time.
Christone ‘Kingfish’ Ingram - Live In London
As we learned this September, there’s only one thing better than a new Kingfish studio album, and that’s a new Kingfish live album.
Fans had been asking for one for a number of years, and confident that he’d matured into a consummate live performer, improviser and frontman, the former child prodigy decided to seize the opportunity of his UK summer tour to capture his on-stage magic and bottle it for the first time.
Stuffed with soul-stirring emotion and incendiary flights of improv mastery, it has all the hallmarks of an album that will stand the test of time as a sonic ‘how-to’ guide on really playing the blues.
- Christone 'Kingfish' Ingram interview: "I’m really heavily into Gary Moore when it comes to the hard blues rock sound" – talking tones, tips and a new live album with the Delta guitar hero
Jared James Nichols – Jared James Nichols
Speaking to MusicRadar back in February, Jared James Nichols told us that his third album had to be self-titled “because this is the first one that sets the bar for where I want to go.”
Cut live to tape and stuffed with riffy anthems, gutsy improvised solos, fiery fingerstyle and the kind of feedback experiments many wouldn’t even dare to try live, the trajectory is decidedly upwards - both in terms of quality and volume.
If you want to know what Jared means by Blues Power, just listen to the howler of a solo on album highlight, ‘Easy Come, Easy Go.’ But be warned, it literally resulted in multiple blown speakers during the recording process.
- Interview: Jared James Nichols on blues heroes, Zakk Wylde, Patsy Cline and the 10 albums that changed his life
Joe Bonamassa - Blues Deluxe Vol. 2
Twenty years after the release of his 2003 studio album Blues Deluxe, JoBo hit the studio again – this time, with Josh Smith in the producer’s seat – to take stock of how far he himself as a player and the blues genre as a whole has travelled in the last two decades. Spoiler alert: it’s a sizable distance.
But, beyond his killer chops and expensive tones, one of Bonamassa’s superpowers has always been reinterpretation, and the album’s eight cover versions will no doubt introduce a fresh wave of listeners to lesser-known greats like Guitar Slim, Pee Wee Crayton and Bobby Parker.
Samantha Fish & Jesse Dayton – Death Wish Blues
Oftentimes, and for obvious reasons, blues music has a tendency towards the melancholic. But when the Kansas City blues virtuosa and Texan alt-country badass got together earlier this year, they unlocked a raunchier, dancier and altogether more upbeat sound.
The pair’s natural chemistry first shone on their 2022 EP, The Stardust Sessions, where they reimagined classic tunes by the likes of Magic Sam and Townes Van Zandt. But for Death Wish Blues, they penned 12 originals and let rip live to tape at Woodstock’s legendary Applehead Recording facility.
Blues performances of the year
Eric Gales with Cory Wong – Meditation Live
Back in February, everybody’s favourite southpaw bluesman joined Cory Wong and his band on stage in Raleigh, North Carolina and absolutely stole the show. Stepping up to the mic with an upside-down Fender Strat bearing his own image, he said to the crowd: “I’m going to try my best to play one or two notes, and I’m going to get out the way. Is that okay for you?”
He then proceeded to do the exact opposite, unleashing around five whole minutes of blues soloing mastery. From the expressive wah-soaked pentatonic licks at the beginning to the stratospheric Whammy-fied bends near the end, there’s a truckload of techniques and tricks on display here. But, most importantly, there’s also a whole lot of soul.
If you can tear your eyes away from Gales’ fretboard for a few seconds, check out the look of pure awe on Wong’s face. In the video’s description, he asks the question that’ll no doubt be on everyone’s lips after watching this performance: “Can someone please teach me how to play guitar like Eric Gales?”
Christone ‘Kingfish' Ingram’ - Midnight Heat live in London
When Christone ‘Kingfish’ Ingram wowed the blues world with the release of his first live album back in September, he also treated us to a previously unreleased blues-funk explosion that’s as steamy and nocturnal sounding as its title suggests.
Equipped with his Mississippi Night Kingfish Signature Telecaster Deluxe, the young blues supremo transitions from a minimalist rhythmic groove into two rounds of the most astoundingly fluid and nimbly improvised lead work that you’re ever likely to hear - and he does it without breaking a sweat or even opening his eyes.
Speaking on the subject with us earlier this year, he offered some advice for others aspiring to his laid-back improv style: "Listen to some of your favourite players, take some licks and just build upon them with your own style.” Ah, he makes it sound so easy…
Buddy Guy - Live at North Sea Jazz 2023
Known the world over for his charismatic live performances, it’s hard to believe Buddy Guy has ever left an audience feeling like they hadn’t got what they came for, and that’s the way he plans to keep it.
“I watched all the old guys like BB King, Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters go until they got old,” he told Guitar World earlier this year, ruminating on his decision to wind down his touring days. “Often, when you watch older people playing shows, you think, ‘Man… they just don’t sound the way they did when they were younger.”
There’s no such disappointment in this clip taken from the North Sea Jazz Festival in Rotterdam, where Buddy - aged 86 at the time - blazes through stunning renditions of I Just Want to Make Love to You, Skin Deep and I Let My Guitar Do the Talking with the same twinkle in his eye, sting in his tone and power in his fingers as ever. Just watch out for his 'innovative' backside-to-guitar technique right at the end.
Eric Clapton & Friends: Tribute to Jeff Beck – Going Down live at The Royal Albert Hall
What other event could bring together such a star-studded cast but one celebrating the life and work of the late, great Jeff Beck?
On guitar, we have Kirk Hammett (with Greeny), John McLaughlin, Billy Gibbons, Doyle Bramhall II, Derek Trucks, Susan Tedeschi, Eric Clapton, Gary Clarke Jr, Ronnie Wood and Johnny Depp – plus Robert Randolph on pedal steel and Rhonda Smith and Nathan East on bass. Almost everybody gets a solo in this jammed-out encore rendition of the Freddie King classic in what was almost certainly a tough eight minutes for the sound engineer, but a whole lot of fun for everyone else.
Eric Gales, Samantha Fish and Christone ‘Kingfish’ Ingram - Going Down live at Crossroads Guitar Festival
Same tune, whole different set of world class guitarists. Gales, Fish and Ingram seem to bring out the best in each other as they take turns at exchanging their finest and fieriest chops over a groove-laden version of the blues favourite.
Each equipped with their trademark axes - Gales’ Magneto Sonnet RawDawg, Fish’s White Gibson SG and Ingram’s signature Fender Telecaster Deluxe - we get a full spectrum of absolutely belting tones and personalities. With all the makings of one killer 21st-century blues supergroup, this is a line-up we’d definitely like to see again!