Album Reviews

Premier Blues Label Turns 20

Walter Trout, Devon Allman, Sue Foley, Savoy Brown and more make the case that Ruf might just be the best blues label of the past two decades

Artist:     Various Artists

Album:     20 Years Anniversary

Label:     Ruf

Release Date:     11/11/2014

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While you cannot always judge a book by its cover, this disc jacket offers plenty of insight into the Ruf Records brand—youth, an equal split between guys and gals, and, of course, blues-rock. Furthermore, Thomas Ruf, the label’s founder and president, describes the label with a simple, clear tagline: “When the blues crosses over.” But as for his initial vision, upon starting the label 20 years ago, Ruf said, “I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I was working with this one artist, Luther Allison, for seven years and had the opportunity to record him. Our audience here in Europe liked it and it just took off from there.”

Looking back on the 20 years since, Ruf takes tremendous pride in developing young artists and watching their careers grow (sadly, a rare practice in today’s music industry, at least among the majors). “We are a small label, almost like a family, where our artists introduce me to their friends and that’s generally how we’ve grown. The last three years have been especially good. Take Royal Southern Brotherhood—not only did I get a great band, but solo records from Mike Zito, Devon Allman and Cyril Neville.”

Fortunately, the charismatic Ruf is only 48 years old, so we may be blessed with yet another 20 years or more of his innovative concepts (particularly for female blues artists). He worked with Sue Foley to bring us Blues Guitar Women, and launched the Girls with Guitars group (which brought emerging stars Samantha Fish, Cassie Taylor and Dani Wilde to the spotlight) as well as the “Blues Caravan” touring concept (featuring rising young blues-rock talent from Europe and North America). Such successful endeavors have built for Ruf both a focused vision and a unique identity on today’s blues scene. “We are a European label based mostly on crossover appeal, directed mainly to a younger audience. I am really good friends with Bruce Iglauer of Alligator and Bob Koester of Delmark and I leave the authentic, Chicago style blues to them.”

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Ruf’s vision and identity come into focus on the new best-of, 20 Years Anniversary—in fact, Ruf himself selected the 28 tracks that appear on its two discs. The first features females and reads like a “who’s who,” from veterans like Ana Popovic and Sue Foley to stars still-on-the-rise like Dana Fuchs, Samantha Fish and Joanne Shaw Taylor. Indicative of Ruf’s uniquely worldwide approach to the blues, the first disc also spotlights rising Italian singer/guitarist Eliana Cargnelutti and lesser-knowns like Finland’s Erja Lyytinen and Austria’s Meena. The latter’s devastating slow burner, “Try Me,” is one of the best tracks in this entire collection.

The second disc, featuring the male artists, is likewise a mix of relative newcomers and veterans, from robust Danish singer Thorbjørn Risager, to, of course, the closer, Luther Allison. Other highlights include Royal Southern Brotherhood (RSB), Spin Doctors and Savoy Brown. Of special note is Bart Walker, the Nashville guitarist who will be assuming one of the two RSB guitar chairs recently vacated by Mike Zito and Devon Allman (who are both concentrating on their solo careers). Keeping the label’s grand tradition moving forward, Florida singer/guitarist Albert Castiglia, featured here on the disc’s penultimate track, is one of the newest Ruf artists.

If nothing else, all blues lovers, purists included, should tip their hat to the ever modest Thomas Ruf, who, when faced with all his achievements, said simply, “We’re all in this together.”

– Jim Hynes

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