Johnny Wheels and The Swamp Donkeys “Keep on Pushin” (LP)

Johnny Wheels definitely knows his blues and his skills are a harmonica player are second to none. I feel like I can make this statement after a virtual lifetime of listening to the blues; Wheels’ harp skills remind me of the great Paul Butterfield’s proficiency on the instrument.


Don’t let that alarm you, however. He isn’t any imitator and has surrounded himself with other musicians every bit as committed to winning the audience’s favor as Wheels is. Bassist Taylor Frazier and guitarist Brandon Logan are prodigiously talented musicians in their own right.

Wheels is the nucleus, however, the unquestionable center. I hear it from the first cut onward. “On the Run” bears a title suggesting it will be an up-tempo pace, but Wheels moderates the pace and confounds our expectations for the first time. I like the lyrical content for this a great deal – it’s succinct, the words well chosen, and it’s deeply felt.

“George Fisk” is a much different tune. I won’t spoil the song for those who haven’t listened yet, but it’s safe to say that it isn’t a topic often broached in any genre. Wheels doesn’t play it for laughs, no, but there is a little bit of an eyebrows-raised delivery coming through. He puts a lot of thought into the vocal phrasing rather than just tossing it out there for listeners. The song flashes by at an appreciable clip, but you won’t feel like they’re rushing it.

“This Time” plays like they can stretch it out to any length in concert. It’s a song, not an excuse for extended instrumentals, but the bulk of the track builds around two solos, the first from Wheels and his harmonica, the second from Logan’s guitar. Wheels absolutely leaves you breathless with his inspired playing, without question, but Logan responds in kind with furious guitar playing that has a profound effect on me. It’s a wowser of a tune that holds up under repeated plays.

I hear “The Fall” as practically its sibling. There are key differences, however. Organ figures into this tune in a big way, never dominating, but providing a new wrinkle rather than merely regurgitating the aforementioned song. Logan, as well, takes his guitar work even higher than before and left me reeling. “Finding Your Way Back Home” has a surprising pop bite thanks to its percussion but this otherwise funky interlude shows off how elastic this band is rather than one-dimensional.

“Time to Bail (Keep on Pushin’)” provides a final curtain that you won’t soon forget. I know I won’t. The main draw for this song is the scorched earth chemistry that the two singers, Wheels and guest star LaRhonda Steele, share throughout the performance. It’s the longest cut on the release by nearly ninety seconds, but you won’t get tired. There’s a bottomless amount of inspiration in this tune to keep you focused on its rewards and it closes Johnny Wheels and the Swamp Donkeys’ Keep on Pushin’ with a final reminder of their formidable gifts.

Mark Druery