|Seeking out the influence of remote locales and their specific aesthetic qualities has long been an inspirational tool for artists and creators. Chicago born guitarist and singer songwriter Donna Herula and her partner in crime, Tony Nardiello, embarked on such a journey to record her third album, Bang At The Door, in North Carolina. The duo partnered up with 2019 International Blues Challenge champion and producer Jon Shain and bassist FJ Ventre at Good Luck Studios in Chapel Hill, far from the gritty streets that made modern blues famous. Surrounding Herula with an ensemble of players including, Doug Hammer on piano, Dana Thalheimer on drums, trumpeter Tony Pons, Bill Newton on harmonica and special guests, violinist Anne Harris and pianist Daryl Davis. The resulting recording of eleven original songs and three arrangements of choice covers has a clean, wide open, relaxed sound and spontaneous feel, as if the players were discovering this music for the very first time. This departure from her previous solo albums, allowed her to explore compositions of greater emotional depth, that reflect on the world from a woman’s perspective, as well as a wider musical palette of gospel, jazz, and the many layers of blues styles that have grown out of New Orleans, Delta, Piedmont, and Hill Country traditions.
The blues party rips from the get-go with the opening title track, “Bang At The Door,” a lively rumba that recounts a late-night encounter with a drunken ex-lover. Herula penned the love note “Pass The Biscuits,” for her dearly departed mentor Sonny Payne; the second line serenade gives testimony to the impact of the legendary DJ and host of the King Biscuit Time radio show on her and the evolution of blues music in America. Donna and Tony trade vocals on the driving old school Chicago two beat “Can’t Wait To See My Baby.“ She then laments the plight of a lover, who lands in jail, on the acoustic guitar driven folk ballad “Promise Me.” The jazz lounge atmosphere of “Not Lookin’ Back,” is steeped in film-noir drama. The back porch party returns on the swinging “I Got No Way Home,“ with Herula trading hot licks with Newton before she shows off her formidable chops on the solo instrumental “Black Ice.” She pays tribute to Bottleneck guitar originator Bukka White on an authentic reading of “Fixing To Die,” a Delta Blues track that he recorded in Chicago in 1940; demonstrating her expertise in executing the formula of guitar counterpoint to somber imagery, creating music that throbs with restless energy. Nardiello joins her again for the acoustic duet “Jackson,” paying homage to another of her heroes, Lucinda Williams.
The comedic number, “Movin’ Back Home,” is a clever juxtaposition of a 1920’s ragtime blues while name checking iconic items from the 1980’s on a tale of frustration returning to live at your parents’ house as an adult. The next three originals are connected in a blues trilogy that digs deeper into the issues of domestic life with Herula delivering the songs from a woman’s point of view. The sublime fiddle lines from Harris gives the Ozark stomp “Got What I Deserve,” western flavor. Herula then dons her Collings acoustic guitar to demonstrate her mastery of Travis pickin’ on “Who’s Been Cooking In My Kitchen,” and concludes with the emotional “Something’s Wrong With My Baby,” punctuating her vocals with the dour tone of a 1935 National Steel Triolian. The album finale is an uplifting rundown of Blind Willie Johnson standard “Soul Of A Man,“ inviting several friends to sing with her on the chorus honoring another pioneering slide guitarist who influenced several generations of musicians.
Rick J Bowen
- Bang at the Door: Pop/rock blues about a late-night visitor
- Pass the Biscuits: New Orleans style about relationship between musician and radio DJ host
- Can’t Wait to See My Baby: Chicago-Blues style duet about the excitement of love
- Promise Me: Folk song about the loss felt when a loved one is in prison (with slide guitar and mandolin)
- Not Lookin’ Back: Jazz lounge singer style about leaving a partner with a drug addiction
- I Got No Way Home: Chicago blues jam with piano, harmonica, guitar and three-part harmonies
- Black Ice: Brooding slide guitar instrumental
- Fixin’ to Die: Traditional Delta Blues with slide guitar solos (cover)
- Jackson: Ballad with acoustic guitar and slide with male lead and harmonies (cover)
- Movin’ Back Home: Comical ragtime song with call and response
- Got What I Deserve: A woman’s view on the tribulations of motherhood (with fiddle)
- Who’s Been Cookin’ in My Kitchen: Double entendre solo, acoustic blues
- Something’s Wrong With My Baby: Heartfelt vocals, desperation with loving a man with depression
- The Soul of a Man: Blues gospel with harmonies (cover)
Donna Herula is a Chicago-born singer and acoustic blues slide guitarist that has a passion for playing traditional Delta and country Blues, early Chicago Blues, folk, roots, and Americana in addition to original songs. Using acoustic and electrified resonator guitars, her sound combines her love for music of the Deep South and Chicago with her love of blues guitar improvisation. Her songwriting tips the hat to the tradition while creating a fresh, contemporary perspectives on blues and roots music.
In 2016, Donna was inducted into the Chicago Blues Hall of Fame. The same year, Acoustic Guitar Magazine featured her in an article, “Down and Dirty: 10 contemporary resonator players talk about their love for that nasty sound.” In April 2018, she was featured in the Blues Blast Magazine article, Chicago Blues Guitar Women.
Donna has been a regular performer at Buddy Guy’s Legends in Chicago for the past 10 years and has opened for Buddy Guy multiple times. She has performed at the Chicago Blues Festival, King Biscuit Blues Festival, the Juke Joint Fest, the Mississippi Valley Blues Festival, the Woodstock Folk Festival, Fox Valley Folk Music and Storytelling Festival and was also the headliner at the Durban International Blues Festival in South Africa.
Donna is a guitar teacher at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago where she teaches fingerstyle and slide guitar. She has taught at Blues & Swing Week at the Augusta Heritage Center of Davis & Elkins College (WV) and the Great Guitar Camp (NC). She has provided numerous Blues in the Schools and blues educational programs. She plays solo, in a duo with her husband, Tony Nardiello, and in a trio/band. Donna’s inspirations include: Son House, Fred McDowell, Muddy Waters, Johnny Winter, Lucinda Williams, Lyle Lovett, and Rory Block.