"Young and Evil" by Li'l Ronnie & the Grand Dukes; "Shy Dog" by Kurt Neumann; "The Road Ahead" by Martha's Trouble; "A New York Night" by Richard Hal Dobson 

Now Hear This

Li'l Ronnie & the Grand Dukes, "Young and Evil" (Planetary) — Bandleader Ronnie Owens and his boys aren't kidding around with this one. Recorded live in the Ashland Movie Theater with a minimum of overdubs and with nationally known guitar great Anson Funderburgh, Li'l Ronnie & the Grand Dukes raise some serious sand on "Young and Evil." Over the course of the 11 cuts, the band tackles a number of blues styles, and each song swings with a muscular assurance that lays a restrained and tasteful groove. And, while Funderburgh adds fire to five of the tunes, this would be a hard-as-nails blues bash even without him.

Owens wrote or co-wrote six of the tunes, and his songwriting and singing improve with each outing. The band is in top form whether it's Owens' harp, Steve Utt's simmering organ, Terry Hummer's soulful sax, Mike Dutton's spot-on guitar work, or the deep rhythm of drummer Bobby Olive and upright-bass man Steve Riggs. Highlights include the wicked vibe of the title track, the Southern-fried, humorous story-song "Buck Naked" and the improvised "Think Big." "Rockin'" is drenched in tone, and if you close your eyes for the instrumental "Doggin' Round," you could easily be in the hippest after-hours joint in town.

"Young and Evil" is a giant dose of talented bluesmanship from a group of musical veterans, and it deserves notice. Join Li'l Ronnie and the band when they debut the CD at Fireballz, Saturday, April 28, at 9 p.m. — Ames Arnold

Kurt Neumann, "Shy Dog," (OarFin Records) — Since scoring an unexpected hit with "Closer To Free," the hit theme song for the television show "Party Of Five" in 1995, the BoDeans have become scarce. So the release of "Shy Dog" by Kurt Neumann, who along with Sammy Llanas fronts the BoDeans, should be greeted enthusiastically by the group's fans. It's a CD that fits squarely within the unpretentious rootsy Midwestern pop sound of the BoDeans — and like virtually every BoDeans album, it has its share of solid material.

Neumann opens "Shy Dog" on a frisky note. "Words," "Perfect Blue Sky" and "Venus" are all solid rockers that mix folky textures with appealing pop melodies. "Feel" is a winsome ballad accented by strings and harmonica. On occasion, though, Neumann's talents fail him. "Walking Song," "Breath Away" and "Hopes" are among the tunes burdened with lackluster melodies.

Such songs keep "Shy Dog" from rivaling the best of the BoDeans' work. But this album will serve as a welcome side trip until Neumann and Llanas put the BoDeans back on track with a new CD. — Alan Sculley

Martha's Trouble, "The Road Ahead," (Aisling) — This homage to youthful dreams of faraway places and the magic of the open road by Ontario folk duo Martha's Trouble is not terribly poetic or musical, but it has its undeniable charms. Using simple arrangements based on acoustic guitar and light percussion, the songs of Jen and Rob Slocumb focus on those wandering days of discovery so common to the free-spirited. Throughout the 10 self-penned tunes, theirs is a trip that takes them down the highway through the age-old questions of love, to the delights in life's beauty and promises. Jen sings her songs of the journey with both confidence and uncertainty, in turns sounding like the young and beautifully wide-eyed Joni Mitchell and a less strident Alanis Morissette.

"Road" is the uncomplicated celebration of fleeting moments in a life that's all too short, and what's wrong with that? — A.A.

Richard Hal Dobson, "A New York Night," (Lalo) — This engaging live album is Dobson's first, and what a welcome addition to today's acoustic music scene it is. His relaxed yet vital jazz-folk style is as accessible as it is accomplished. Accompanied by his own graceful acoustic guitar and a stand-up bass, Dobson's style mixes equal parts of instrumental and lyrical talent with an honest, warm voice that carries just enough of an edge to make the package interesting. There's not a clinker in this group of songs. Highlights include "Learning to Fall," a tune about a young man searching for answers against the background of family unrest, and "Surrender to the Night," a song about a lost lover's unrealized life.

Performing primarily in New York and Los Angeles, Dobson remains largely unknown to most. But if the warmth of "Night" is any indication, his work shows much promise. — A.A.

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