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Our critics' picks in new releases



Guitarist Mel Brown is a man for all musical seasons. A Mississippi native, Brown moved to Los Angeles in 1958 and joined Johnny Otis' R&B orchestra, a high-profile gig which led to a stint with the touring band of bold soul singer Etta James. When that was over, Brown settled into work as a session guitarist for Nancy Wilson, Bobby Darin and Brenda Lee before beginning to record under his own name in 1967. A string of recordings with titles like "Chicken Fat" and "Big Foot Country Girl" didn't pay the bills, so Brown joined Southern soul singer Bobby Blue Bland's group for more than a decade. He has also worked with Sonny and Cher, Steve Allen, and was in the house band of Antone's, the popular Austin, Texas, blues club.

This career as a veteran of road bands and Los Angeles studios brings Brown to the table for Neck Bones and Caviar, a full plate of classic nuggets from the kitchens of Z.Z. Hill, Muddy Waters, Ray Charles and John Lee Hooker. But Brown's brand of cookin' is his own: Hill's "You're the One" simmers, Waters' "Woman Wanted" is spiced with languid guitar licks, and Charles' "I Believe to My Soul" is blackened to perfection with a Barry White-like opening rap. Brown's own tunes have the flavor of California nouveau cuisine, light but organic. The exception is the instrumental "Blues on the Green" which is more like a hefty dish of fatback and chitterlings.

Neck Bones and Caviar won't make it onto rock radio because it isn't slick enough, and his backing band, the Homewreckers, is pedestrian at best. Nor will the CD attract the attention that less-seasoned players--such as Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Derek Trucks--get when they do the white-boy shuffle. But Mel Brown is a tasty guitarist who has internalized the licks of T-Bone Walker and B.B. King and the presentation of James, Otis and Bland. His singing style is straight out of Mississippi, tinged with the church but rowdy as a roadhouse on payday. Served up as a whole, Brown is the kind of blues man who keeps the genre alive without selling his soul to the devil of commerce. And his Neck Bones and Caviar is good enough to make you want to ask for seconds.

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