CD REVIEWS APRIL 2013
ARTHUR “BIG BOY” CRUDUP
Delmark - DE 827
Mississippi bluesman Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup is so indelibly associated with his 1946 Victor recording of That’s All Right by way of Elvis Presley’s cover version that the full scope of his legacy is largely neglected. In fact, Crudup ranked among the earliest bluesmen to record playing electric guitar, and the 80-some songs that he waxed for the Victor family of labels from 1941 to 1946 also include such staples as Look on Yonder Wall, Mean Old ’Frisco and Rock Me Mama, to say nothing of his 1949 revival of Dust My Broom that preceded and probably inspired Elmore James’ iconic 1951 Trumpet recording. After the end of Crupup’s Victor years, there was an LP on Fire in 1962 and then a spell of inactivity before he was “rediscovered” in Virginia during the blues “revival” and released two LPs on Delmark and another on United Artists (UK) before his death in 1974.
The set at hand represents a third Delmark album that was held in the can. Said to have been recorded at Chicago’s Sound Studios on November 10, 1969—the same date listed for the Stereosonic session with Ransom Knowling that made up half of the Crudup’s Mood LP—Sunny Road finds Crudup’s guitar, which was always pretty rudimentary in any event, channeled through the same Leslie speaker employed by Buddy Guy on Hoodoo Man Blues a few years before. Lead parts are contributed by Jimmy Dawkins on three tracks and Mike Thompson on one, while Mark Thompson adds electric bass on those four plus another and Willie Smith plays drums throughout. The nine songs all have a familiar feel, both because Crudup never had a very broad stylistic range and because many of the songs are built from the blues’ library of so-called “floating verses,” albeit many of them Crudup’s own. The lack of variety is accentuated by the preponderance of slow and medium tempos—as if by way of explanation, there’s a snippet of studio chatter in which Delmark’s Bob Koester tries to cajole Crudup (even offering some “antifreeze”) into doing something a bit more lively, only for the singer to reply that he couldn’t do a swing number because “I got blues on my mind.” As if for emphasis, the chatter is followed by the seven-minute All I Got Is Gone, where Crudup is clearly shaken as he sings about his recently deceased wife.
Koester emphasizes in his notes that “the blues are, first and foremost, a vocal music,” a point that has been too often lost in the days of guitar pyrotechnics. And, to complete Koester’s quote, “the human voice has rarely been so movingly rich as that of Arthur Crudup, nor has the human experience been so thoroughly mirrored as in the simple blues poetry of this big and gentle man from Mississippi.” —Jim DeKoster
ROBERT RANDOLPH PRESENTS: THE SLIDE BROTHERS
Dare Records & Concord Records - CRE-34262-02
The Slide Brothers are a sacred steel super group consisting of four artists who are no strangers to readers of Living Blues: Calvin Cooke, Chuck Campbell, Darick Campbell, and Aubrey Ghent. Robert Randolph brought these pillars of the Church of the Living God together to record their self-titled debut—what listeners hope will be the first of many albums and accompanying tours. The Slide Brothers comprises 11 exciting songs mixing traditional gospel, rock, blues, and funk—many of which may be a surprise to unsuspecting ears. While the Allman Brothers’ Don’t Keep Me Wondering and Elmore James’ The Sky Is Crying, and It Hurts Me Too may have originally been intended for Saturday night, in the deft hands of these gentlemen, they take on a Sunday morning flavor all their own.
The same goes for the group’s moving version of George Harrison’s My Sweet Lord and Fatboy Slim’s Praise You, with Shemekia Copeland making a memorable appearance on the latter. Even though Calvin Cooke and Aubrey Ghent are the only ones doing double duty as vocalist and player on several songs apiece, the Campbell Brothers’ distinctive touch is apparent throughout as well. Among a host of other backing musicians, the quartet is also supported by the fellow Campbell brothers, Phil and Carlton, on guitar and drums respectively. Robert Randolph and brother (and fellow Family Band member) Marcus also make memorable appearances, sealing the deal on this one-of-a-kind amen corner. The Slide Brothers is a dazzling, crackling collaboration that is a welcome and overdue entry in the always-uplifting sacred steel genre. —Mark Coltrain
My World Is Gone
Telarc - 34028-02
Otis Taylor’s melody lines are shot through with mournful grace; his production, though enhanced by electronic embellishments and rock-tinged guitar solos, is as arid and spacious as the big-sky country his lyrics often evoke. His vocals sound life-toughened yet achingly vulnerable, just as his characters gird themselves against tragedy yet resolutely insist on the redemptive power of love. His storylines are often more implied than fully limned; an Otis Taylor song is a vignette rather than a full-blown drama, its thematic and emotional depth inferred rather than proclaimed.
This time out, Taylor focuses primarily (although not exclusively) on the legacy of conquest endured by Native Americans. His protagonists inhabit parched, desolate dreamscapes; they’re convulsed with loss—of their history, their possessions, even their dignity—yet they redeem that loss, if only partially, through the very act of proclaiming it. Sand Creek Massacre Mourning recounts an 1864 incident in which several hundred Cheyenne and Arapaho people were slaughtered by U.S. troops in Colorado; Lost My Horse is the plaint of a Navajo man whose alcoholism has left him bereft of his most precious worldly possession (as well as his dignity and, one fears, his soul); in Blue Rain in Africa, the image of a sacred white buffalo on a television show reminds an Indian viewer of how his history and heritage have been stolen; Coming with Crosses is the story of a Klan attack that results in the death of the narrator’s mother.
At times, Taylor employs startling thematic reversals: Huckleberry Blues (its noirish intensity ramped up by Larry Thompson’s midnight-of-the-soul cornet solo) portrays the torments inflicted by a stalker; but here the stalker is a woman, the victim a man. Girl Friend’s House finds a man discovering that his wife is having an affair with a woman—but rather than become jealous, he volunteers to join the fun. In Gangster and Iztatoz Chauffeur, a wealthy player tries to seduce his Native American employee (“He’s a gangster, she’s a limo driver”), but she refuses to be lured by either his riches or his charms.
At risk of mixing metaphors: Otis Taylor’s music calls to mind Peter Guralnick’s statement, in a different context, that “it’s difficult to approve the banalities of most blues singers after listening to Robert Pete Williams.” Unlike Williams, of course, Taylor draws most of his stories from history, not personal experience; nonetheless, few artists in any genre combine poetic acuity, musical eloquence, and a compassion-fueled craving for justice as deftly and effectively as he does.—David Whiteis
Voodoo To Do You!
TeBo - (No #)
Teeny Tucker was born and raised in Dayton, Ohio and, as the daughter of Tommy Tucker of Hi-Heel Sneakers fame, boasts a strong blues bloodline. Her own debut album, Tommy’s Girl, came out in 2000, and this is her fourth release since.
As befits a blues legacy, Tucker has always shown a deep respect for the tradition by honoring her predecessors through her choice of covers, and this set is no exception. In addition to opening with KoKo Taylor’s Voodoo Woman, Tucker pays her respects to Christine Kittrell (I’m A Woman), LaVern Baker (Voodoo Voodoo), and Etta James (Tough Lover). While she does justice to all, Tucker also shows that she’s willing to take a chance by way of her sassy rap on Howlin’ Wolf’s Commit a Crime and her band version of Reverend Gary Davis’s Death Don’t Have No Mercy. She tackles Skip James’s Hard Time Killing Floor straight, however, with pared-down backing featuring producer Robert Hughes on guitar. Elsewhere, however, Hughes and his crew are plugged in and up to the task of handling the diverse program, which is tied together by a recurring voodoo theme that is also evident in It’s Your Voodoo Workin’ from the obscure Louisiana blues man Charles Sheffield and the Tucker/Hughes collaborations Love Spell, Shoes, and the particularly fine I Can Do All That. The set closes with another original, Sun Room, dedicated to the Sun recording studio in Memphis.
This set provides further proof, if any was needed, that Tommy’s girl ranks among the best female blues singers out there today.
Njumba - (No #)
This is Corey Harris’s first straight-ahead blues outing in some time. Armed as usual with both guitar and banjo, he reprises Catfish Blues (backed by a full band and enhanced by Gordon James’ tenor solo), Blind Blake’s That Will Never Happen No More, and Skip James’ Devil Got My Woman; he sounds like a juker on Crying Blues; he pours his heart into J. Gilly Blues, a lament for drummer Johnny Gilmore, who was killed in a Charlottesville, Virginia, fire in 2009.
Elsewhere, though, Harris’s intent runs deeper. His paeans to women—in turn romantic and lecherous—in Black Woman Gates and Black Rag are a welcome (and roots-rich) riposte to hip-hop “B-word” dissing; Underground, on its surface a flee-from-the-devil train song, reveals itself to be a not-so-veiled protest against racial persecution and injustice (the “devil,” it turns out, is also “giving to the rich / stealing from the poor”). Lynch Blues revisits the bad old days with harrowing vividness (with the implication that those days are still with us, albeit in disguised form); the title song bemoans hunger, despair, and the loss of young black men to nihilism. Tallahatchie recalls the brutal 1955 lynching of Emmett Till in Money, Mississippi; in House Negro Blues, Harris again summons images from a bygone era to address contemporary problems—in this case, black folks content to accept token favors from the oppressor in return for second-class citizenship. Maggie Walker Blues both praises and laments the fate of a woman who worked her way up from poverty (“Mama was a slave / you the bank president”) only to die and be buried in a grave where “don’t nobody come around.”
Corey Harris has been involved with Rastafarian-informed reggae and other Africanist music for so long that the voice of prophecy seems to come naturally to him. He’s infused these new blues with it, and listeners will do well to heed his message.
ANDREW “JR. BOY” JONES
I Know What It’s Like
43rd Big Idea - (No #)
Andrew Jones’ vibrato-enriched baritone is as soulful as ever, and his guitar work again features plenty of post-King bends and arpeggios, fired out with his trademark rough-edged Texas roadhouse tone. Whether riding a standard 12-bar shuffle or funking things up with a Crescent City-tinged street-dance beat, he makes his grooves—both rhythmic and melodic—cook.
Brown’s lyrics mostly revisit standard themes, but they do so with good-natured aplomb. Occasionally, as on Let the Child Be Wild, a sly fusion of liberationist’s manifesto (“Let the child be wild, let the girl be free”) and pick-up artist’s leer (“Don’t try to tame that girl, ’cause she’s coming home to me”), he crafts surprising new storylines out of well-worn ideas. Movin’ From the Dark Side portrays a man struggling to free himself from midnight-of-the-soul desperation—Jones’ guitar cuts to the bone, and his doom-laden vocals effectively reflect his protagonist’s anguish.
Guest vocalist/songwriter Kerrie Lepai’s vibrato is dangerously wide, but there’s plenty of sinew behind her delivery. For the most part, she’s adept enough to avoid forcing emotion—even on a slow-grinding testimonial like Whiskey Drinkin’ Blues, she avoids the neophyte’s trap of sounding impatient with the band’s glacial pace. She does, however, tend to overdo the vocalese a bit, inserting scat-like punctuations and stretching syllables into contortions when a little more understatement would have been more effective.
A few too many of the songs here fade out instead of coming to a meaningful conclusion; overall, though, it’s difficult to fault this helping of meat-and-potatoes contemporary blues.
THE CASH BOX KINGS
Blind Pig - 5150
Straight from the golden era of the blues comes the new album from Chicago’s Cash Box Kings, featuring an impressive line-up of A-list blues players.
Play this in the car to stay awake at night, though you might get a ticket for dancing while driving. This is a tight, far-reaching ensemble. Harmonica player Joe Nosek feels Little Walter and Slim Harpo in the essence of his soul. Singer Oscar Wilson could be right out of the Checker Board Lounge in its glory days. Guitarists Joel Paterson and Billy Flynn are stellar players. The rhythm section is astonishing: Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith, Beau Sample on upright bass, Gerry Hundt on electric bass. Any of these musicians could have played with the great bands of the golden blues era. Together they keep a sound alive that many thought was no more.
Black Toppin’ has everything you ever heard in the electric blues. It’s derivative track by track, but we love the comfort of familiarity. The Cash Box Kings take you back to Muddy, Little Walter, T-Bone Walker, Jimmy Reed, J.B Lenoir, and on. Jump blues, boogie-woogie, Chicago, Delta, swamp boogie, roots rock—it’s all there and all good. The band is in its comfort zone when it fires Delta-to-Chicago-style rockets like Willie Dixon’s Too Late, or Walking Blues or Money, Marbles and Chalk, which have a real Muddy-vibe. Biscuit Baby would make Slim Harpo smile. Harp player Joe Nosek puts his stamp down as one of the meanest on the scene today. Oscar’s Jump, a dance tune written and sung by Oscar Wilson, takes you back to the golden era of the jump blues, evoking the great Los Angeles showboat lounges of the 1940s. The Cash Box Kings also offer brilliant Fabulous Thunderbirds–type roots-rock on Trying Really Hard and Gimme Some of That.
Then, in an interesting twist, they bring on what they call “Mick Taylor–era ’70s Stones” music. Now the Chicago blues preservationists emulate the emulators. My Tinai draws on the lyric we know from Robert Johnson and many other blues singers, “I got a bird that whistles, I got a bird that sings…” Oddly, they also cover a Lou Reed song, Run, Run, Run from the Velvet Underground Days.
A great record by one of the best blues bands in the land, Black Toppin’ is a dancing and listening pleasure.
ANDY T-NICK NIXON BAND
Drink Drank Drunk
Delta Groove - DGPCD158
James “Nick” Nixon has been involved in his native Nashville’s R&B scene since he came up alongside Band of Gypsies bassist Billy Cox in the early ’60s, but he was little known outside that city before his exemplary No End to the Blues CD came out on the Dutch Black Magic imprint in 2001. This time out, he’s teamed with L.A.–based guitarist Andy Talamantez, whose own resume includes stints with Smokey Wilson and Guitar Shorty.
With Anson Funderburgh producing and contributing guitar parts to several tracks, it should come as no surprise that there’s a strong Texas flavor to the proceedings, beginning with the opening Midnight Hour from the Gatemouth Brown songbook. The other well-chosen covers include Don’t Touch Me from Johnny Guitar Watson and Life Is Too Short from T-Bone Walker, plus Paul Gayten’s No Use Knockin’, Tommy Tucker’s Hi-Heel Sneakers, and Ray Charles’ I Got a Woman, one of two tracks on which pianist Christian Dozzler switches to accordion to surprisingly good effect. There’s also a reprise of the title track from Nixon’s Black Magic disc and a handful of band originals, which include the aptly titled On My Way to Texas and the jazzy instrumental Dos Danos, which gives plenty of room for both guitarists (though pictured with a guitar on the cover, Nixon does not play on the set) to stretch out. The title track, despite sounding like something from the Amos Milburn or Wynonie Harris catalogs, was actually co-authored by Tom Hambridge and Gary Nicholson.
In sum, Drink Drank Drunk is one of those rare but happy instances where everything—from Funderburgh’s impeccable production and the consistently satisfying support provided by a host of bandsmen to Nixon’s still potent vocals and Andy T’s spot-on guitar work—combined to make an irresistible album that very well may rank among the year’s best.
On My Mind/In My Heart
Alligator - ALCD 4952
After so many over-hyped blue-eyed soul singers who fell flat, this CD cover does not instill confidence. Looking more like an ’80s New Wave album, the cover shows a lad with a blank stare. Don’t judge this one by the cover. It’s “…an axe and a pistol and a pocket full of explosion balls.”
You could play this new album for traditional soul fans and tell them it was a long lost master from the Atlantic Record vaults—a Jerry Wexler production recorded in 1966 with the original Muscle Shoals Horns. You could say they had Jimmy Johnson on guitar, with the Stax team of Donald “Duck” Dunn, Steve Cropper, and Booker T. helping out. The young singer was a sensation, you could claim, but the record never saw the light of day, and here it is, straight out of the time warp, when soul still gave you the shivers and shakes…and they would believe you!
Jesse Dee is a young singer/songwriter and guitarist, an uplifting soul man from Boston. This record is a blast, with an exceptionally high level of musicality, songwriting, and production. The sound is perfect, recorded the old way on analog tape for a warmhearted soul sound. Not only that, but Jesse Dee can sing. His honey-dripping, passionate, and stirring soul singing has a little Sam Cooke, a bit of Wilson Pickett, and a dash of Otis Redding. On My Mind/In My Heart has a tight groove, smooth hooks, and funky rhythms delivered by a full-throttle, superlative, big band.
Here is a young singer on the verge of stardom. Although Alligator is not typically a soul label, the company has plenty of crossover and a wide reach. There is already a lot of buzz about Jesse Dee in Europe, and judging by the quality of the songwriting and performance of this album, he will be hit.
Things start off strong on the title cut with a love song. The love theme carries throughout the infectious album, in a series of remarkably well-crafted songs. By the time the second tune, No Matter Where I Am, comes up it becomes clear that the first two songs on the CD could have been a number one hit-single back in better days—rare, danceable, musically perfect, yet joyous and dynamic. Then it just keeps on coming, one amazing song after the other. From the Start is reminiscent of the great Motown duets; in this case Dee couples up with Rachel Price for a lovely and emotive song. By the time The Only Remedy comes around, this album has already richly rewarded the music lover. By the time the album closes with Stay Strong, an upbeat rock/soul tune with a tip of the hat to Paul Pena, there are not enough accolades in the dictionary.
This is old-school passionate music with sizzle. Put this one on the top shelf right next to your old soul records.
Jumps, Boogies & Wobbles
Arhoolie - 544
The first Arhoolie blues release in 25 years, Jumps, Boogies & Wobbles is a sensation. Chris Strachwitz’ famed record label was a mainstay of the blues revival with Lightning Hopkins, Big Mama Thornton, Clifton Chenier, Big Joe Williams, Sonny Boy Williamson, Mance Lipscomb and more. The long Arhoolie blues hiatus has ended with this release by HowellDevine, a roots-blues combo from northern California.
Jumps, Boogies & Wobbles has a real King Biscuit Time vibe in sound, groove, and attitude. Joshua Howell, the band’s guitarist and harmonica player, plays wicked harp loosely in the Rice Miller tradition, with traces of Jaybird Coleman and Little Walter. The fiery Howell plays emotive, straight blues, with sharp and superb guitar sliding & picking. Apparently, nobody showed the rhythm section the playbook. They are wild, juxtaposing interesting syncopations and jazz beats. Drummer Pete Devine and contrabassist Joe Kyle Jr. are in their own dynamic creative realm, approaching the rhythm in a free, almost avant-garde way—a contrast that gives the ensemble an idiosyncratic edge.
Apt liner notes by LB’s Lee Hildebrand introduce this breakthrough project by a still relatively unknown ensemble.
The album offers twelve cuts, including three hot-licks guitar instrumental rarities by the great unsung country blues virtuosos Sylvester Weaver and Frank Hutchison, sweetly fingerpicked by Howell on the National resonator. It is packed with blues standards, starting with Muddy’s version of Rollin’ and Tumblin’ with Howell sliding it just right. Howell plays it safe, but perfectly, on Rice Miller’s Help Me, Willie Dixon’s Spoonful, Little Walter’s Mellow Down Easy, Sonny Boy Williamson’s (Rice Miller) Mighty Long Time and Fred McDowell’s Write Me a Few of Your Lines. The two originals are signs of good things to come.
CD REVIEWS FEBRUARY 2013
Down in Louisiana
Deep Rush - (No #)
Although this set uncharacteristically includes a few offerings penned or co-penned by others as well as a couple of remakes of earlier songs, Bobby Rush’s creativity and wit seem undiminished. The production is a bit thicker this time around, bass-heavy with some raucous blues-rock guitar and featuring double-tracked call-and-response vocals in places, but the distinctive Rush sound remains intact. Familiar riffs and lyric conceits are recycled (and, against all odds, made fresh); Rush’s voice may be a bit huskier than it used to be, but it still conveys lascivious jubilance, bluesy sincerity, and cavalier irreverence with equal aplomb.
The title song, although not a Rush original, harks back to Niki Hoeky, his faux-Creole workout from 1973 (itself a remake of a 1967 P.J. Proby hit); Raining in My Heart, which has nothing to do Slim Harpo (or, for that matter, Buddy Holly), is a tough-grinding swamp muck-rocker. I Ain’t the One borrows from influences ranging from Stevie Wonder to reggae, but Rush makes it his own; Don’t You Cry, based partly on the venerable You’ve Got to Move / Sittin’ On Top of the World / It Hurts Me Too theme, deftly combines backwoods rootsiness with sophisticated modern-day production. Rock This House may well be the most uncompromising hard-funk dance workout Rush has ever committed to record; You Just Like a Dresser revisits a lyric conceit that extends back at least as far as Robert Johnson. What Is the Blues, an atmospheric meditation on some of the music’s archetypes (and which includes a verse borrowed from Muddy Waters’ Forty Days and Forty Nights), captures Rush with his trickster’s mask removed, delving into deep blues mythos with spellbinding effect. Rush also updates his early-’70s punfest, Bowlegged Woman, Knock-Kneed Man, and he both reprises and embellishes the spiritual Swing Low (with a reverb-deepened slide guitar both setting the mood and heightening the intensity) to conclude things on an appropriately roots-rich note.
At age 79, the folk-funkster shows little sign of slowing down—long may he prevail.
Live at Legends
RCA/Silvertone - 88765-43762-2
Despite his status as one of the most electrifying performers in modern blues, Buddy Guy has released surprisingly few live recordings. This disc goes at least part way toward rectifying that situation. Eight of the 11 tracks here were recorded in performance at Buddy Guy’s Legends, his club in downtown Chicago. The other three are studio recordings.
The live segment is the most interesting. After a somewhat mannered intro from the emcee, Guy and his band rip into a set that includes Muddy Waters’ Mannish Boy and I Just Want to Make Love to You along with a couple of Guy originals (Best Damn Fool, Damn Right I Got the Blues); a two-song medley that pays tribute to two of his most important disciples, Jimi Hendrix (Voodoo Chile) and Eric Clapton (Sunshine of Your Love); and another medley that links a brief quote from John Lee Hooker’s Boom Boom with Clapton’s Strange Brew.
Guy’s finger-blistering speed is undiminished; his musical imagination, so often slighted by purists who get put off by his excesses, also remains fertile. Although he’s perfectly capable of firing out notes with such furious intensity that they’re barely distinguishable from one another, he can also craft lines of surpassing tenderness, inserting subtle harmonic and chordal variations on standard blues patterns to bring added texture to even his most high-velocity onslaughts. His voice, which too often gets neglected by critics overwhelmed by his fretboard prowess, is one of the most expressive and emotionally charged in all of blues.
The studio tracks don’t cover much new territory—there’s a bone-crunching slow blues (the self-referential Polka Dot Love), a psychedelia-tinged blues-rocker (Coming For You, co-written by Delbert McClinton), and a slow-burning take on Muddy’s Country Boy—but at this point in Guy’s career, that’s pretty much beside the point. This disc is a full-frontal onslaught of Buddy Guy doing what he does best, and what few others can do with his fire, his dexterity, and his panache, to say nothing of his tireless dedication. The man is a living, breathing “Keeping the Blues Alive” award; we can only hope he keeps doing just that for a long time to come.
I Am Rhythm & Blues
Endzone, (No #)
Although he eschews the label “southern soul,” Willie Clayton is indisputably among the successful and important artists who usually get categorized under that rubric. His recordings have continually both set and raised the bar for vocal excellence; as Johnnie Taylor was before him, he is the vocalist to whom virtually all male singers in the field are compared, and whom they’re invariably accused of imitating, whether deservedly or not, when they tear off an especially expressive or soulful passage. He is, in short, the closest thing southern soul-blues has to a bona fide “superstar,” now that both Taylor and Marvin Sease have passed away.
This CD’s title song, co-written by veteran Chicago songsmith Bob Jones, is less a boast than a metaphor—Clayton is singing from the standpoint of the music itself, personified, not necessarily proclaiming his own prowess. And in fact, he manages to inhabit a lot of that musical identity throughout this set. His insinuating, grit-hardened tenderness, the call-and-response intertwining of his double-tracked vocals, and the occasional behind-the-beat horn (or synth) punctuations behind him recall the legendary Willie Mitchell/Al Green creations at Hi Records of the 1960s and ’70s (Mitchell also cut some sides on Clayton on the Hi subsidiary Pawn in 1974); his knack for laying tender vocal lines over a brawny blues-ballad backing (Last One to Know) harks back to Bobby “Blue” Bland and Little Milton, among others; the repentant player’s persona he takes on in Last Rendezvous echoes Tyrone Davis.
But Clayton retains his own musical identity throughout. Few contemporary singers in any R&B-related genre could summon the blend of erotic heat and emotional warmth he calls forth on Loving Each Other for Life, which incorporates elements of hip-hop flavored neo-soul along with Clayton’s usual deep-soul fervor. She’s Your Woman, with its trigger drum-fired lope and good-natured macho boasting, sounds closer to mainstream southern soul-blues boilerplate, but even here Clayton eschews hoochie-man silliness for what sounds like a sincere message of conjugal responsibility. Smile, again enhanced by modernist studio tweaks, is the kind of irony-free love song that seems all too rare in today’s music (regardless of genre)—it’s so old-school that it sounds utterly fresh.
The Last Man Standing, the title of Willie Clayton’s 2005 Malaco debut CD, reflected both his self-image and his reputation among aficionados as a singer for whom upholding cherished soul values represents a calling, as well as a calling card. With this outing, Clayton seems more determined than ever to codify both that persona and that mission.
BEN HARPER WITH CHARLIE MUSSELWHITE
Stax - STX-33874
Musical alchemist Ben Harper teams with veteran bluesman Charlie Musselwhite on Get Up!, their first joint album after a series of collaborations that date back to a session with John Lee Hooker in the late ’90s. That initial meeting produced a chaotic take on Burnin’ Hell for Hooker’s The Best of Friends compilation, and although its rambling, frenzied quality made it one of the weaker tracks in the collection, it lit a spark between the two artists that has been glowing ever since. “Ben and I really locked in, personally and musically,” Musselwhite recalls of that first meeting with Harper. “Ever since then we wanted to record together.”
Harper would later join Musselwhite as a guest on Musselwhite’s Sanctuary in 2004, and the rootsy aesthetic that permeated that superb album is also the defining hallmark of the equally impressive Get Up!. The mood on this set of ten original songs alternates seamlessly between frustration and introspection.
For example, Harper (currently going through a divorce with actress Laura Dern) is resolute and defiant on the blues-rock tinged I Don’t Believe a Word You Say, chastising a lover with words charged by angry blasts from Musselwhite’s amplified harmonica: “I see your mouth moving/But there’s a circus coming out/Always busy proving/What the world’s all about.” Although the song appears to be about a relationship that has turned sour, it easily doubles as an allegory for the seemingly permanent state of inaction that plagues contemporary two-party politics in the U.S. Juxtaposed this track with You Found Another Lover (I Lost Another Friend), a folksy acoustic lament about two lovers who have come to the realization they must part ways. Harper sings like he’s on the verge of tears, occasionally slipping into a pained falsetto amidst Musselwhite’s delicate backing harp work. I Ride at Dawn, a dark, haunting elegy about the apparent inevitability of war, sounds like it spawned from the mind of Otis Taylor.
The album closes with the beautiful slow eight-bar blues All That Matters Now. Harper, buoyed along by Musselwhite’s gentle third position harp floating in the background, is utterly convincing with his pained vocals: “This has been a long, hard day/And a long, hard night/Been a hard year/It’s been a hard life/But we’re together/And that’s all that matters now.”
In sum, Get Up! bares the soul of Harper and Musselwhite in believable, albeit ineffable, fashion—a rare feat for a blues album today. Indeed, the depth of feeling and attention to craft on display here make this an essential purchase to start off 2013. In addition to the CD and digital formats, the album is available on vinyl and a special CD/DVD edition that includes a “making of” documentary with footage from the recording sessions for three tracks. If the high-definition teaser footage posted to Harper’s website is any indication, then the DVD edition is worth seeking out.
Slap Your Mama
JSP Records - JSP8843
Rosie Ledet’s second JSP release continues in the same crossover direction as her last album, Come Get Some. This time she ventures a little further from her roots, blending zydeco with an even heavier, harder sound. Ledet rides these changes with ease on Slap Your Mama; her lyrics are as bold and fun as ever, and she sings with confidence and verve.
André Nizzari returns as both producer and multi-instrumentalist, along with bassist Chuck Bush. Nizzari’s synths and Bush’s bass bring a heavy funk vibe to You Told Me You Loved Me, which also features a sweetly-nuanced accordion solo from Ledet. A decidedly urban feel dominates Slap Your Mama and Wiggle, while Happy, Mind Your Own Business, and Smile On My Face swing closer to the bayou. Lil Malcolm Walker takes a guest turn at the organ on wait 4 u, weaving an atmospheric, Dr. John-esque thread throughout.
On some songs, the balance between instruments is a little uneven; Nizzari’s guitar solo threatens to drown out the others on the title track. The blend works better on Déjà Vu, tgif and Only When I Breathe, where the instruments are more evenly balanced. Nizzari’s slide playing on the latter two tracks is also a nice touch.
I’m Trying, with its dueling accordion and synths and “winners never quit” spirit, could be considered the heart of both this album and her new style. All things considered, Slap Your Mama is another adventurous outing for Ledet. It’ll be interesting to see where she takes her music next.
Jammin’ with My Friends
No label – (No #)
Freddie Roulette commands a small yet dedicated corps of admirers—including guitarists Henry Kaiser and David Lindley and German film director Wim Wenders—for his singular approach to the Hawaiian lap steel guitar. In Roulette’s hands the instrument becomes an otherworldly orchestra. Chords shimmer with the power of a Hammond B-3 organ, and his darting melodic improvisations sometimes mimic dog barks, human speech, or bongo drumming, while also reflecting the influences of Earl Hooker and Albert King.
The Evanston, Illinois–born musician recorded as a sideman in Chicago during the second half of the ’60s with Hooker, Luther Allison, and Big Moose Walker, among others. He’s kept a relatively low profile since Charlie Musselwhite brought him to Berkeley, California, in 1970 and has remained in the Bay Area. His recordings over the past four decades have been few and far between, making the new Jammin’ With My Friends a welcome addition to his slim discography.
Drummer Michael Borbridge, the CD’s producer, surrounds his friend with an all-star cast of Bay Area blues and rock players. They include guitarists Harvey Mandel and Rich Kirch, violinist David LaFlamme, keyboardist Pete Sears, and saxophonists Bernard Anderson and Terry Hanck. The ten tunes are mostly blues standards, including Directly from My Heart, Reconsider Baby, It Hurts Me Too, and Killing Floor, with the exception of a couple of quirky instrumentals. Roulette applies his mellow, Albert King–like baritone voice to only two numbers, with Davey Patterson, Chris Cobb, and the late Kathi McDonald talking turns at the mike on the other six. Mandel and LaFlamme both play terrific solos, but it’s the leader who steals the show throughout. Roulette, at age 72, has seldom sounded better.
Echo Records - ECCD 358
It was a cold, damp night in early January when Otis Clay stepped on stage in front of a capacity crowd at north suburban Chicago club SPACE to debut his first album since 2007’s exclusively gospel effort, Walk a Mile in My Shoes.
The concert doubled as a record release party for his Truth Is disc, and Clay was armed to the teeth, carrying with him a 13-piece band featuring fellow soul luminaries Willie Henderson on baritone sax, former Tyrone Davis bandleader Hollywood Scott on guitar, and Dedrick Blanchard on Hammond B-3. Three female backing vocalists, including the fantastic Diane Madison, also squeezed onto the club’s minimal stage for the evening’s performance.
It was clearly a special event for Clay because although it was a little more than five years since he released Walk a Mile in My Shoes, the legendary singer hadn’t issued a studio album of secular music since 1998’s This Time Around. Clay tried to keep fans satiated in the long interim with the live album Respect Yourself in 2007.
Not surprisingly, the crowd at SPACE was treated to a heavenly evening of hard Chicago soul, and as they filed out, many audience members met Clay and took home a signed copy of the evening’s companion CD, Truth Is.
Clocking in at 68 minutes, the disc is a fresh blast of soul from a master of the idiom who is captured working with his favorite colleagues, also tops in their field. The album shows that, despite being 71 years old, Clay still has a young man’s heart as well as, apparently, a young man’s problems with women. Happily, Clay’s voice remains strong and is still among the finest in American music.
The delightfully varied disc kicks off in upbeat fashion with Love’s After Me, a rocker reminiscent of Malaco-era Tyrone Davis. But if giddy love truly was on the heels of Mr. Clay, it caught him even before the second track, the slow, methodical Even Now, a song about the peace and resignation that can eventually come after an intense love affair. Following what seems to have become a tradition on modern soul/blues albums, Clay uses That’s the Way You Ought to Do It to implore the fellas to appreciate their hard-working women more.
A highlight of the disc is Clay’s duet Steal Away to the Hide Away with veteran soul chanteuse Uvee Hayes. Although somewhat marred in terms of production, the track shows off Hayes’ incredibly sweet voice and the strong stage chemistry between the two performers. Clay and Hayes are such a good match, in fact, that one female audience member at SPACE was heard to comment, “They have got to be together,” as the two concluded their live presentation of the number. Other notable songs on the disc are I Thought You Knew, the triumphant I Know I’m Over You, which was recorded at the Monterey Blues Festival, and I Keep Trying Not to Break Down.
Truth Is is a homemade labor of love from Clay on his Echo Records label and he seems to have retained most of the creative control over it. That’s a positive thing in many ways, perhaps especially because Clay hand-picked his band. Like almost everything else in today’s economy, however, this disc was created on a limited budget. Gone from Clay’s world, at least for now, is a major record label with a state-of-the-art studio and the ability to release a high-end CD. Truth Is contains good production for the most part, but its sound does fall off in spots. In particular, the superfluous “bonus track” Messing with My Mind should have been omitted. It is, like the song The Only Way Is Up, inexplicably clipped directly from Clay’s 1985 album The Only Way Is Up. The disc’s single-page, slip-sheet cover reveals little about the recording sessions and nothing about Clay’s career as it currently stands.
These problems aside, Truth Is is an enjoyable document of where Clay’s music is in 2013. This long-overdue album contains numerous wonderful, moving doses of high-octane soul from a man who will forever stand as one of the greatest artists the genre has ever produced.
HABIB KOITÉ AND ERIC BIBB
Brothers in Bamako
Stony Plain Records - SPCD 1362
On his highly successful Deeper in the Well (2012), songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Eric Bibb found musical inspiration down south in the bayous and Cajun country of Louisiana. On his latest release, Brothers in Bamako, Bibb turned east to Africa and combined forces with noted Malian musician Habib Koité. According to the disc’s liner notes, Bibb and Koité met a decade ago during the recording of Mali to Memphis. The two developed a friendship and Bibb recently decided to travel to Bamako, the capital of Mali, to record 13 songs with his new musical partner. The results are impressive. Brothers in Bamako is worthy of a Grammy nomination.
Brothers in Bamako is a real partnership. Bibb and Koité contribute individual songs and collaborate on four songs including Touma Ni Kelen/Needed Time and Tombouctou. Koité and Bibb stretch out on a variety of stringed instruments, including acoustic and electric guitars, banjos, and an assortment of ukuleles. They are accompanied by Mamadou Kone on percussion with cameo appearances by Kafoune (backing vocals) and Olli Haavisto (pedal steel guitar). This partnership has created music that truly transcends any individual influence, whether it be blues, folk, gospel, or West African/Malian.
Brothers in Bamako begins with a travel tale, the lilting On My Way to Bamako. Calling Koité a “good friend” and a “great musician,” Bibb sings of his impending visit: “It’s my first trip to West Africa / But I’m pretty sure / In some kinda way / It’s gonna feel like comin’ home.” The song really feels like the two are at home, and it previews the disc’s beautiful musical synchronicity. Listen to every track, especially On My Way to Bamako, Touma Ni Kelen/Needed Time, Nani Le, Foro Bana, and Mami Wata, and hear the two musicians weaving their individual musical parts together in the spirit of genuine collaboration. Because Koité and Bibb play essentially the same instruments, it is difficult to determine who is playing what on Brothers in Bamako, but perhaps this is by design. Brothers in Bamako is not about separation, but interdependence and unification. The four songs the two wrote and composed together find Koité and Bibb trading verses (one sung in English, the other in French, the official language of Mali). Bibb and Koité also wrap their voices around each other, and when these moments appear, especially on Khafolé, it’s as if the two are singing with one voice.
Beyond the exquisite musical interplay that permeates every track, Bibb and Koité are social critics, casting a skeptical eye on a seemingly unfair and unjust world. Given the recent eruption of violence in Mali, it’s not surprising to find Send Us Brighter Days, a cautiously optimistic song that calls for “brighter days” and “blues skies” to heal a world “so sad.” Socio-political commentary can also be found in With My Maker I Am One and We Don’t Care. The latter comments about the disconnect between labor and consumption: “We want the gold / As long as we don’t have to mine it / Don’t care who suffers / Or who’s behind it.” Other songs, including Khafolé, do not include English translations, but it is safe to assume that the lyrics are not throwaways—the words have some story to tell. Similar to Deeper in the Well, Bibb includes a Dylan song and this time it’s Blowin’ in the Wind. Commenting on both human rights and war, Blowin’ in the Wind is a perfect choice.
This cross-cultural experiment could have been a disaster, but it wasn’t. In the disc’s liner notes, Etienne Bours traces the intriguing musical similarities between Bibb and Koité and makes an argument for why Brothers in Bamako sounds so right: “What could be more natural than for this Malian and African American to join the rhythms of their guitars and voices in some transatlantic blues?” Brothers in Bamako’s “transatlantic blues” sounds natural and it sounds right. Although divided by geography and culture, Bibb and Koité share a beautiful brotherhood of sounds and words.
—Stephen A. King
Come On in This House
9 Below Productions - NB0 002
Steve Freund is one of the most consistently creative guitarists playing blues today. His crisp, cleanly executed solos are marvels of invention, filled with surprise yet firmly within traditions established by such giants as Hubert Sumlin and Albert, B.B., and Freddie King. Noted for his extensive credits as a sideman for the likes of Koko Taylor and James Cotton, the New York–born musician has concentrated on a solo career since relocating to the San Francisco/Oakland Bay Area from Chicago in the mid-’90s. He also has evolved into a commanding, quite soulful vocalist.
His fifth solo album—and second for San Francisco harmonica blower Scot Brenton’s 9 Below label—is made up mostly of tunes by other artists, rather than his own songs, which had been the focus of his earlier CDs. He does open the current set with an original blues composition titled Worried About That Gal but then moves into a program of great tunes by others that are too seldom performed these days. They include Junior Wells’ Come On in This House, Detroit Jr.’s Call My Job, Janis Joplin’s Turtle Blues, Roosevelt Sykes’s Dangerous Man, Freddie King’s Play It Cool, Eddie Vinson’s Cleanhead Blues, and St. Louis Jimmy’s Evil Ways. The set deviates from the urban blues format with a delightfully old-timey treatment of the traditional Easy Rider, on which mandolinist Dave Earl and trombonist Mike Rinta help give the song an early New Orleans flavor, and with the Delmore Brothers’ Blues Stay Away from Me, one of two duets with the powerful vocalist Jan Fanucchi. Also making noteworthy contributions to Freund’s outstanding new recording are bassist Steve Wolf, drummer Paul Revelli, and keyboardists Wendy DeWitt and Sid Morris.
Music Maker - MMCD156
George Conner was born in Pickens County in western Alabama in 1934. After heading north to Chicago, he fell in with that city’s West Side blues crowd and waxed singles for Atomic H in 1962 (as George Corner or George & His House Rockers) and Marsi in 1965 (as Birmingham George). In 1999, he resurfaced in Alabama, sharing credit for the private-label CD Walkin’ the Walk/Talkin’ the Talk with fellow Pickens County guitarist Willie King. This, his first full-length album under his own name, was recorded in Graysville, Alabama, in 2004 with Gary Edmonds on guitar, Jock Webb on harmonica, and producer Ardie Dean on drums.
The eight-track playlist kicks off with a reprise of I’m Leavin’ (as Woman I’m Leaving You) from the King CD, followed by a slower than usual take on Treat Me Like I Treat You and the mid-tempo I’m Gone but I Don’t Know Where I’m Going. Next up is the atmospheric Brother’s Tone, which Conner previously cut for Marsi (purportedly with Otis Rush and Lonnie Brooks on guitar) and on the 1999 CD as Poor Boy and provides the vehicle for his most intense vocal effort of the date. Conner then returns to his Chicago roots with a somewhat straightened-out rendition of I’m Ready and the slower All Night Long, which is evocative of his days with the likes of Magic Sam on the city’s West Side (although his voice is far heavier than Sam’s). I’m Going Home is a stolid shuffle, and the set closes with Woman Hear My Plea, which Conner recorded with King as I Want to Get Married; the song is performed here with only guitar and harmonica backing.
Like many Music Maker releases, this one’s a bit rough around the edges, but that doesn’t detract from the honesty and power of the music. Conner still has a lot to offer, and it’s good to finally hear him at greater length.
CD REVIEWS DECEMBER 2012
GARY CLARK JR.
Blak & Blu
Warner Bros. – 531981-2
Gary Clark Jr., the most heavily hyped blues artist in recent memory, has been touted as the “savior of the blues.” Blak & Blu, the 28-year-old singer-guitarist’s first full-length album for a major label, entered Billboard’s Top 200 pop album chart in early November at #6, a debut position rarely, if ever, attained by a musician associated with blues. It’s Clark’s eagerly awaited follow-up to a four-song EP issued by Warner Bros. in August of last year.
The Austin-born-and-based artist made his recording debut in 2001 at age 17. That self-released CD and a few later ones for the tiny Hotwire label in Austin were largely blues affairs. (Only one of them remains available.) Blak & Blu, on the other hand, is so wildly eclectic that much of it can barely pass for blues. Clark produced the disc in collaboration with Mike Elizondo (of Dr. Dre and Eminem renown) and Rob Cavello (chairman of Warner Bros. Records and longtime producer of Green Day) and also wrote or co-wrote all but two of the 14 songs himself. On his hip-hop-flavored The Life, he drops the “t’s” and “g’s” in such words as “getting” and “sitting,” much as many urban rappers do. He delves into doo-wop with Please Come Home, singing the plaintive ballad in a high falsetto. His mid-tempo soul song Things Are Changin’ is treated to a Hi Rhythm Section–style groove, and the up-tempo Travis County betrays a pronounced debt to Chuck Berry. Other numbers are full-tilt rock ’n’ roll, filled with layer upon layer of Jimi Hendrix–inspired fuzz and feedback.
Clark also delivers four actual blues songs in the set. His tenor vocals on the mid-tempo When My Train Pulls In are rife with passion, as are his two incendiary guitar solos (one utilizing a wah-wah pedal), and he and his rhythm section pack the tune with plenty of punch. Hendrix’s influence permeates Numb, a blues rocker on which Clark cries out, “I’m numb; yeah, woman, I can’t feel a thing.” His interpolation of the Hendrix instrumental Third Stone from the Sun and the Little Johnny Taylor vocal classic If You Love Me Like You Say is wonderfully imaginative. Clark closes out the program with the lo-fi Next Door Neighbor Blues, a haunting unplugged performance on which his tortured voice, sliding Delta guitar, and stomping foot sound as if they’d been recorded some 70 or more years ago. Clark may be on a fast track to rock stardom, but at least he keeps one foot in the blues.
The Hidden Treasures of Taj Mahal 1969-1973
Columbia/Legacy - 82876824922
The Hidden Treasures of Taj Mahal 1969-1973 features one disc of unreleased tracks from four recording sessions and a second disc with a 1970 set from a Royal Albert Hall concert. Taj Mahal had released his landmark eponymous debut and The Natch’l Blues the year before the earliest session featured here, and in his final three years on Columbia, following this CD’s latest session, he expanded his musical focus to include a pan-African mix of reggae, other Afro-Caribbean grooves, and jazz. So, essentially, Hidden Treasures expands and enriches one of the most groundbreaking and innovative blues and roots recorded legacies of any artist to emerge during the 1960s.
The five Columbia albums that Taj released during the period covered on this archival release, Giant Step/De Ole Folks at Home, Happy To Be Just Like I Am, The Real Thing, Recycling the Blues & Other Related Stuff, and Ooh So Good ‘n Blues, feature an incredible blend of tradition and innovation in acoustic and electric blues that stand as both an historic and creative goldmine. The place to begin for anyone looking to explore Taj’s early career are those five records, along with his first two. They are all distinctive, and the aural journey of his blues evolution is enthralling.
The studio tracks on Hidden Treasures add detail and nuance to this journey. Almost all of these tracks are fully realized recordings, not outtakes, studio sketches, or exploratory jams. On the 1969 session, the band that played on The Natch’l Blues, guitarist Jesse Ed Davis, drummer Chuck Blackwell, and bassist Gary Gilmore are still backing up Taj. Two gems uncovered here are an eight-minute waltz time cover of Bob Dylan’s I Pity the Poor Immigrant and a blues-rock reworking of the spiritual Jacob’s Ladder (which also features backing vocals from Anna de Leon). A 1970 session finds Taj and guitarist Davis hooking up with the Dixie Flyers (featuring pianist Jim Dickinson) at Criteria Studios in Miami. The melding of blues-rock and funky Southern-fried soul generates lots of heat, and it is surprising that the results of this session remained in the vault. One of the highlights is the first released recording of Taj performing his adaptation of Willie McTell’s Chainey Do, which he gave to the Pointer Sisters for their 1975 Steppin’ album. Taj’s version is built on a propulsive, grinding funk groove highlighted by a brilliantly constructed Davis guitar solo featuring a crackling blues tone. A January 1971 session presents Taj at Bearsville Studios in Woodstock collaborating with horn man Howard Johnson in shaping a four tuba plus rhythm section band that would record The Real Thing the following month at the Fillmore East. The three tracks from this session are live in-studio versions of songs that appear on the concert album; however, another gem is uncovered here in You Ain’t No Streetwalker, Honey But I Love the way You Strut Your Stuff, not only for the surging, raucous performance, but thanks to the scat intro which Taj delivers, which lays out the arrangement for the band. As Taj intones, “It’s all in there, man,” it is apparent just how much he essentially personifies blues and funk and groove. The final session finds Taj in another legendary studio, Allen Toussaint’s Sea-Saint in New Orleans, in a stripped down format with Taj on harmonica and National steel guitar or banjo, backed by Hoshal Wright on electric guitar and Eric Ajaye on bass. Two of these tracks truly add to Taj’s recorded legacy: the nine-minute banjo showcase, a steady rolling update of Shady Grove and the poignant harmonica led instrumental, Butter, which melodically echoes Curtis Mayfield’s People Get Ready.
The Albert Hall disc comes from a Columbia Records showcase that featured label mates Johnny Winter and Santana—talk about a knockout triple bill! The backing band includes guitarist Davis, pianist John Simon, bassist Bill Rich, and drummer James Karnstein. It is the mother lode on this release for Taj fans because heretofore his recorded cannon lacked an electric blues band recording from this era. The way Taj’s wailing harp and Davis’s scorching hot licks duel on tunes like Bacon Fat, Diving Duck Blues, and Checking Up On My Baby truly make these Hidden Treasures worth searching out.
— Robert H. Cataliotti
THE LEE BOYS
Evil Teen - (No #)
Miami’s hardworking Lee Boys return to the studio with their third sacred steel effort, Testify. The album (on Warren Haynes’ co-owned Evil Teen label) offers a stirring collection of 11 original songs and traditional arrangements bearing this family affair’s unique and signature sound. If you missed their feature piece in LB #190, the Lee Boys consist of three brothers, Alvin (guitar), Derrick (vocals), and Keith Lee (vocals), along with their three nephews, Roosevelt Collier (pedal steel guitar), Alvin Cordy Jr. (7-string bass), and Earl Walker (drums).
Mostly recorded at Maurice, Louisiana’s Dockside Studio, Testify also features Warren Haynes on lead guitar and vocals on I’m Not Tired and lead guitar on Praise You. Jimmy Herring takes lead guitar duties on Testify, and Always by My Side, and Gia Wyre sings lead vocals on Wade in the Water. The Lee Boys continue to shine effortlessly at filtering blues, soul, funk, rock, jazz, contemporary R&B, and pop through an exultantly stained-glass lens of deep gospel. Standout songs include the album’s first single, Smile (much more genuine than the recent Kirk Franklin hit by the same name), the joyous, I’m Not Tired, and the slow-building grand finale, We Need to Hear from You, which propels Testify right to the edge of the pearly gates. This disc is a rock solid effort from six spiritual young men that should not be missed.
Cell Phone Man
Delmark - DE 825
Scott Dirks’s liner notes pretty much say it all: this CD may be “one of the best collections of ’50s blues recorded since the ’50s.”
The difference, though—and it’s an essential one—is that vocalist Willie Buck (born William Crawford in Mississippi in 1937) was actually there in the ’50s, honing his craft in the clubs, when it was all going on. In other words, this isn’t some self-conscious revivalist attempt at being “authentic”—it’s a straightforward offering of no-nonsense Chicago blues from a man who has never stopped singing them, and to whom that classic style comes as naturally now as it did then.
This is only the second full-length studio recording of Buck’s career (he issued a live CD on his own Bar-Bare label in the early 2000s, reissued on Delmark as The Life I Love). It includes seven originals and a handful of lesser-known contributions from others (including, somewhat oddly, Ted Taylor’s Darling I Miss You So), as well as five Muddy compositions (only two of which, Blow Wind Blow and Two Trains Running, a remake of Still a Fool, would probably be familiar to most modern-day listeners). His vocals are sinewy and expressive (he demonstrates a powerful upper range that even a lot of his longtime fans will find surprising), and his accompanists, the Rockin’ Johnny Band, hue faithfully to the revered postwar style with both spot-on dedication and enough energy to make them sound almost as up-to-date as Buck manages to do. (Pianist Barrelhouse Chuck and harpists Bharath Rajakumar and Martin Lang augment the lineup.) Buck’s lyrics are as unpretentious as his vocal delivery—even the title tune, with its anomalously modernist technological imagery, sounds deeply rooted and unselfconscious.
Don’t expect museum-piece fustiness from Willie Buck; postwar Chicago blues have long been, and remain, a contemporary music to him, and he delivers them with both urgency and elan. Even skeptics who hold “revivalism” in less than high esteem should find this disc a worthy addition to their collections.
When My Mama Was Living
Labor - LAB 7085
This disc consists of sessions Louisiana Red recorded in the ’70s for Kent Cooper, who co-owned the Blue Labor label (among others) and played a significant role in launching Red’s “comeback” career. Red’s erstwhile career had ground down to a virtual standstill by this time, but his chops were undiminished: both his fretwork and his harmonica playing here are strong—roots-rich and evocative, fraught with immediacy—and his vocals are rife with that indelible combination of wracked agony and defiant, irony-rich humor that was his calling card.
On many of these tracks (several of which carry strong echoes of Lightnin’ Hopkins), Red sounds every bit the unreconstructed backwoods “discovery” that a lot of his younger fans at the time probably assumed he was. He’s joined by the fabled itinerant harpist/songster Peg Leg Sam on a few cuts; Chicago guitarist Lefty Dizz makes a rare acoustic appearance on Got a Girl With a Dog Won’t Bark and then returns with his electric guitar, along with Red himself and pianist Kyril Bromley, to create an evocative feel of juke-joint gaiety on Stole from Me.
Red had the gift of inhabiting both his own and others’ creations with convincing sincerity—several of this disc’s most moving cuts (including the title tune) were either written or co-written by Cooper; also included are a pair of traditional numbers (John Henry, the spiritual You Got to Move), Peg Leg Sam’s Little Suzie Jane, and Slim Harpo’s King Bee, as well as some stellar offerings from Red himself. Through it all, whether crying out a scorched-sounding field holler wail like Joanna or chuckling his way through the vintage signifier’s anthem I’ll Be Glad When You Are Dead You Rascal You (usually credited to Louis Armstrong but attributed here to Peg Leg Sam), Red sounds as if he’s baring his soul and living his autobiography in every note and verse—the essence of the storyteller/ bluesman’s craft.
. . . First Came Memphis Minnie
Stony Plain - SPCD1358
As a fledgling blues and folk artist in the 1960s, Maria Muldaur was taken under the wing of Classic Blues diva Victoria Spivey. The older singer not only recommended that Muldaur (then d’Amato) be hired by the Even Dozen Jug Band (which included such blues/folk revival luminaries as Stefan Grossman, John Sebastian, and Steve Katz), but she also mentored her by playing vintage 78 recordings of songs that she thought would be suitable for the young singer’s voice. One of those records that she heard in Spivey’s New York City apartment was Tricks Ain’t Walkin’ by Memphis Minnie. Muldaur immediately fell in love with the song and added it to her repertoire, and now, five decades later, she has produced an outstanding tribute CD, . . . First Came Memphis Minnie, on which she and a prestigious array of contemporary blues divas, such as Bonnie Raitt, Rory Block, Ruthie Foster, Phoebe Snow, and Koko Taylor, bring to life a program of 13 selections from the Memphis Minnie songbook.
Muldaur handles lead vocals on eight of the tunes with accompaniment from guitarists Del Ray (five tracks), slide master Roy Rogers (one track), and Alvin “Youngblood” Hart (two tracks), who takes on the guitar and vocal duet role played by Minnie’s husbands, Kansas Joe McCoy and Ernest Lawlers. Each of the guest “Sisters in Music,” as Muldaur calls them, contributes one track (both Taylor and Snow, who passed away in recent years, are represented with licensed recordings).
. . . First Came Memphis Minnie features an embarrassment of riches when it comes to country blues singing and fingerpicking and slide guitar work. Muldaur’s distinctive voice, along with her many years immersed in the genre, enables her to deliver her selections with a laid back ease, a seductive charm, and a sure-handed confidence, particularly on Crazy Cryin’ Blues, She Put Me Outdoors with Hart, and, of course, Tricks Ain’t Walkin’. Both Bonnie Raitt and Rory Block share those qualities and blues veteran status with Muldaur. Block has done a number of tribute albums over the past few years (Fred McDowell, Robert Johnson, Gary Davis), and her multi-tracked guitar work on When You Love Me testifies to her technical facility and fiery spirit. Raitt’s easy riding, pickin’ exchange with Steve Freund, Ain’t Nothing in Ramblin’, makes one longingly wonder why she has yet to record an album dedicated to the blues in her four decade career. Ruthie Foster is the new kid on the block here, and she holds her own on Keep Your Big Mouth Closed, which also features guitarist Freund, bassist Tanya Richardson and percussionist Samantha Banks. The licensed tracks from Phoebe Snow (In My Girlish Days) and Koko Taylor (Black Rat Swing) are full-band outings that lend variety (and totally unique vocal stylings) to the largely acoustic program and feature solos from Dave Bromberg and Bob Margolin respectively.
With . . . First Came Memphis Minnie, Maria Muldaur and her “Sisters in Music” (along with some solid brothers) has put together a genuinely enjoyable homage to Memphis Minnie, a blues woman who, all those years ago, held her own in a man’s world.
— Robert H. Cataliotti
Silk City - LPD2028
From the time he joined Muddy Waters’ band in 1952 until his death at age 40 in 1970, Mississippi-born Otis Spann earned himself a place on the short list of the blues’ greatest pianists. This new release from New Jersey–based Silk City presents a program of 13 previously unissued recordings that feature Spann in both solo and band formats. Fittingly, the solo performances include nods to two of Spann’s greatest influences with slow-rolling renditions of Big Maceo’s Someday (aka Worried Life Blues) and Walter Davis’ Come Back Baby, along with the equally ruminative Country Boy and Blind Man and a rollicking Spann’s Boogie. Except for the last, sound quality on these tracks is studio quality.
The band tracks, which were recorded live, include a second version of Someday and T-Bone Walker’s Cold Feeling Blues but otherwise veer uptempo with Jimmy Smith’s jazz classic Back at the Chicken Shack opening the set and Spann’s own rock-ribbed Blues Don’t Love Nobody closing it, with a Meet Me in the Bottom that incorporates bits of Hand Me Down My Walking Cane and an instrumental version of St. Louis Blues among the other tracks in between. Aurally, these sides date from the days when Spann and his bandmates were cutting sessions for labels such as Spivey, Douglas, and BluesWay c.1966-68, and feature tolerable if somewhat low-fi sound.
Though perhaps not the best place to discover Spann for the first time, this set effectively presents both his husky, engaging vocals and rolling piano stylings and represents a welcome addition to the discography of one of the genre’s greats.
ELMORE JAMES JR.
Old School Lover
Wolf Records - 120 829 CD
Elmore James Jr. (born Earnest Johnson) definitely has that Elmore sound—and it’s stronger than ever on this release, only his second CD, following JSP’s Daddy Gave Me the Blues in 2008.
He learned his open-D style of slide guitar directly from his father, who taught him while on tour in Mississippi in the 1950s. That iconic sound is complemented by the excellent guitar work of both Eddie Taylor Jr. and Illinois Slim, the fine bass playing of Carl Norington, the drumming of Jimmy DiSpirito and Ed Williams’ spot-on evocation of saxophonist J.T. Brown, to create a thrilling, layered sound that captures the feeling and drive of Elmore Sr.’s classic recorded work. These guys got something going on. In addition, Mark Brumbach appears on keyboards (not Duke Haramdas, as credited), and while not listed, Scott Dirks and Dave Waldman appear on harmonica on a track apiece.
The Elmore Sr. sound dominates with I Can’t Hold Out and others in that musical vein, such as his own Steppin’ With Elmo Part 2 plus What’s Wrong and No One to Love Me (both, credited to Elmore Jr., are actually Billy Flynn’s), Goin’ Home (credited to Elmore Jr. but actually by Houston Boines) and Greenville Smokin’ (actually Charlie Booker’s No Ridin’ Blues).
As satisifying as the Elmore Sr. sound is, James’ rendition of Eddie Boyd’s Third Degree is arguably the best of the batch, with Illinois Slim laying down a perfect guitar complement to James’ ardent vocals.
Mr. Blues Is Gone is James’ earnest assessment of the current blues scene with shout-outs to several stalwart musicians for keeping the flame burning.
Old School Lover, another James original, gives a lecherous account of his sexual prowess while grooving mightily to a Scratch My Back motif.
She Put Me to the Test, a solid, driving Chicago shuffle incorrectly credited to Elmore, is an Illinois Slim composition, again on the inexhaustible subject of James’ smokin’ libido.
Covers of two Jimmy Rogers numbers feature harp guests Scott Dirks (You’re the One), and Dave Waldman (Out on the Road).
It seems that every Wolf release must have some easily avoidable errors, and on this one it’s talking during solos, the pointless inclusion of false starts and studio banter (five minutes’ worth), and the careless omissions of performers’ names and the inaccuracies of songwriters’ credits.
Too bad this otherwise superior recording is marred by such preventable issues.
(Thanks to Illinois Slim for all corrections and omissions.)
RALPH “SOUL” JACKSON
The Alabama Love Man
Rabbit Factory - RF-009
The Alabama Love Man is the debut album for Phenix City, Alabama’s Ralph “Soul” Jackson. Other than a handful of singles recorded mostly in the late ’60s and ’70s (including a smoking 1969 Atlantic B-side cover of Cream’s Sunshine of Your Love), Jackson remains a fairly obscure footnote in soul music history. Rabbit Factory hopes to change that with this effort.
Several of Jackson’s original recordings were featured on both volumes of the same label’s popular 2009 compilation, Birmingham Sound: The Soul of Neal Hemphill. The Alabama Love Man’s sparkling songs show that Jackson has only gotten better with age. The album is three years in the making and, according to the Rabbit Factory website, all started with a diverse group of musicians from Chicago and Alabama “cutting the rhythm tracks live in Jackson’s home studio” in 2009. Overdubs and vocals were recorded over the next couple of years in Chicago with an assortment of musicians including vocalist Nellie “Tiger” Travis. What is left are eight mini-masterpieces: seven originals and one cover (the Ides of March’s 1970 single, Vehicle) that, according to Rabbit Factory, don’t try to “recreate the magic of an era disconnected by our analog to digital world,” instead capturing “a living document of Ralph “Soul” Jackson in his prime.” This is an accurate portrayal of The Alabama Love Man if there ever was one. The album doesn’t try too hard to hit that sweet spot for soul fans who like their music equal parts gritty, funky, and passionate, celebrating a long and sanctified tradition without pretense or predictable cliché. Jackson just is and that’s enough. Because of Jackson’s intense and personal sincerity, it is not possible to take him or his loving music on anything more than its own terms. As Jackson sings appropriately in the album’s final song, I’ll Take Care of You, “Believe me that when I say that I’m here for you, never will make you blue, I’m with you my whole life through, yes I am, my-my-my darling, I will take care of you…”—on The Alabama Love Man, Jackson more than makes good on his promise and music fans everywhere are better off for it.
Delmark - DE 823
Delta Bound, Mississippi Heat’s fourth album for Delmark and eighth overall, marks the 20th anniversary of Israeli-Belgian-Canadian-American harmonica virtuoso Pierre Lacocque’s brainchild that started out as a sort of cooperative featuring the vocals of band members like Robert Covington, James Wheeler, Bob Stroger and George Baze, but has since evolved into more of a backing unit for a succession of female vocalists from Deitra Farr to Katherine Davis and, since 2001, the immensely talented Inetta Visor.
In its latest iteration, Mississippi Heat is made up of Giles Corey and Billy Satterfield on guitars, Chris Cameron on keyboards, Joseph Veloz on bass, and Kenny Smith on drums. Aptly for an anniversary celebration, the band revisits its past by bringing back Farr to sing on three tracks and ex-member Billy Flynn to play guitar on four, with Carl Weathersby reprising a previous guest spot by adding his guitar on three more and added variety coming from the Louisiana accordion of Chubby Carrier on New Orleans Man. Except for Visor’s soulful take on Nina Simone’s Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood, the songs are all originals, with Visor and the band displaying their range on material as diverse as Granny Mae, which opens the set like a train rolling down the tracks, the lightly swinging Padlock Blues, and the atmospheric Goin’ to St. Louis, with a vibraphone solo by Kenneth Hall.
Like all Mississippi Heat albums, Delta Bound is an exemplar of the benefits of recording a self-contained working band over the pitfalls inherent in assembling a pick-up group, and it is highly recommended for both Heat freaks and those who have yet to sample the band’s virtues.
CD REVIEWS OCTOBER 2012
MICHAEL “IRON MAN” BURKS
Show of Strength
Alligator ALCD - 4951
It’s hard to imagine a bluesman with a more powerful spirit than Michael Burks had. His death at age 54 on May 6, 2012, tore a hole in the heart of the blues community that may never entirely mend, but all it takes is a listen to this, his final CD (which was never intended to be posthumous), to know that his blues were about strength, healing, and refusing to admit defeat.
Burks was a master at combining fire and taste. He summoned intensity with the focus of his attack and the unerring directionality of his leads, rather than by piling on the notes or the effects (he used a wah-wah as a second voice with textures and nuances of its own, not a gimmick for the cheap seats). His trademark screaming tone sounded as if it was emanating from his heart, not just his fretboard, and he applied his physical prowess to his playing with muscular precision—that “Iron Man” moniker was no empty image. The obvious point of reference was Albert King, another heart-and-sinew bluesman whose music and persona reflected a no-nonsense, blue-collar approach to both life and art.
Burks’ vocals were likewise subtle yet straightforward. He conveyed deep passion by softening his husky baritone. He delivered love songs with the hard-won sensitivity of a soul survivor, and even when calling out a wrong-doing woman (Count on You, Valley of Tears, the wracked Since I Been Loving You) he let his anger simmer, conveying anguish more than macho belligerence. His celebrations of the blues life (e.g., Little Juke Joint, with some jubilant harp squalls from Scott Dirks) sounded both rootsy and contemporary.
This disc closes with a cover of the Charlie Rich classic Feel Like Going Home, featuring Roosevelt “Mad Hatter” Purifoy’s churchy piano. It showcases Burks conveying a characteristically meditative, but uncharacteristically morose, mood (“Cloudy skies are closing in, and not a friend around to help me” sings this dedicated family man whose actual life was an ongoing celebration of love and friendship). Even here, though, he summons the timeless gospel/blues continuum of wrenching hope from despair, the “home” he sings about sounds as real and inevitable as the trials that have made its promise such a blessing.
Few spirits will remain “in the air” as indelibly as that of Michael “Iron Man” Burks.
MAGIC SLIM & THE TEARDROPS
Blind Pig - BPCD 5147
In a recording career that has spanned nearly half a century, Magic Slim (born Morris Holt in Grenada, Mississippi, in 1937) may well be approaching a record for releasing albums on different labels—at a minimum, his discography includes entries on MCM, Black & Blue, Candy Apple, Blue Dog, Isabel, Rooster Blues, Delmark, Alligator, B.L.U.E.S. R&B, Plymouth House, and Wolf. Since 1990’s Gravel Road, though, Slim has settled in with San Francisco–based Blind Pig, and Bad Boy marks his tenth release on that label.
The latest edition of Slim’s Teardrops, with Jon McDonald on second guitar, Andre Howard on bass, and B.J. Jones on drums, has by now evolved into a skin-tight unit, and there continue to be few experiences in the blues that are as compelling as Magic Slim and company at full tilt, as they are here on such as Detroit Junior’s I Got Money and Slim’s own Gambling Blues. The rest of the well-chosen covers include the Eddie Taylor title track, Roy Brown’s Hard Luck Blues, Muddy Waters’ Champagne and Reefer, J.B. Lenoir’s How Much More Long, Denise LaSalle’s Someone Else Is Steppin’ In, Albert King’s Matchbox Blues, and Lil Ed’s Older Woman, while Slim also contributed Sunrise Blues and the closing instrumental romp Country Joyride. Not only is the band thoroughly together, but Slim’s own singing and playing seem to be just as tough as ever despite his 75 years.
There really aren’t any surprises here—that’s not what Magic Slim is all about, and it’s not what his fans want. Instead, the man continues to be true to himself, and Bad Boy joins its predecessors as another exemplar of quintessential Chicago blues in the groove.
Catfood Records - CFR-15
Johnny Rawls is indeed a Soul Survivor. As a teenager, the Columbia, Mississippi, native began backing performers such as Z. Z. Hill and Joe Tex and eventually served as bandleader for both O. V. Wright and Little Johnny Taylor before embarking on his solo career. On the title track of his latest album, the veteran musician pays tribute to his late mentors, while assuring us that he’s “still here to carry on.” And this he does, as sweetly and soulfully as ever.
Several members of the Texas-based band the Rays—Rawls’ protégés and frequent collaborators—join him once again on Soul Survivor. Johnny McGhee tastefully handles most of the fretwork; Rawls plays guitar on the gently swinging Yes and also contributes bass to this track and the instrumental J. R.’s Groove. Most of the songs deal with the complexities and trials of love—literally in the case of O. V. Wright’s Eight Men, Four Women. Rawls’ cover is stylistically faithful to the original, down to the harmonies of backing singers Jessica and Jillian Ivey. Nodding to modern times, he takes a moment to advise the listener on Don’t Need a Gun to Steal to “hide your money before it’s too late” from the white-collar thieves “in every town.”
The production is polished, with well-balanced instruments and vocals; no single element stands before the others demanding the ear’s attention. Even so, Rawls’ smooth, warm voice is the star here. He sounds fresh and strong throughout, his tone seasoned with only a touch of grit. “60 years old, and I’m still going strong,” he declares on Soul Survivor. Indeed; if the strength of this album is any indication, Rawls has many more grooves left to lay down.
Telarc - TEL-33199-02
“I don’t put myself in a box,” Shemekia Copeland told me in a 2005 interview. “Too many people—I call ’em blues Nazis—they focus so much on whether or not you’re playing a shuffle or a slow blues [or they say], ‘Keep it blues!’—which it keeps it in a box so we can’t evolve, we can’t grow. And I refuse to let that happen.”
Copeland’s output over the last few years has exemplified this attitude. She has learned to temper her high-intensity vocal delivery, which at one time seemed almost unremitting, with enough interludes of tenderness and dynamic shifts to allow her entire musical personality to shine through. Her backing these days may be a bit more rocked-out than some LB readers would prefer, but it provides a perfect foil for her voice—here, she and her accompanists often sound as if they’re locked into a no-holds-barred call-and-response signifying contest, with the only “winner” being the listener.
Whether denouncing social inequality in the hard-pounding rocker Lemon Pie; fleeing an abusive lover in the harrowing, noirish Ain’t Gonna Be Your Tattoo; calling out a fire-and-brimstone hypocrite on Somebody Else’s Jesus; evoking the hard-edged humor of her late father, Texas blues legend Johnny Copeland, in the ironically up-tempo death threat One More Time; or crooning a babygirl-with-brio endearment on Dylan’s I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight, Copeland reveals herself to be in command of an emotional spectrum that encompasses erotic heat, righteous outrage, vulnerability, and even despair, without ever sacrificing the womanly confidence and sassy assertiveness that have long been her trademark.
This isn’t a disc for the timid (or the purist-minded), but for big-eared adventurers it’s a bracing journey into the musical heart and soul of a gifted vocalist who continues to declare her independence—as a stylist, as a singer, as a woman—in ways that long-time listeners and newcomers alike should admire.
JOHN LEE HOOKER JR.
All Hooked Up
Steppin’ Stone Records – (No #)
John Lee Hooker Jr.’s fifth CD, and first for his own label, is quite remarkable. He may not be the greatest blues singer—his baritone voice has drawn comparison to Lou Rawls’, but his range is somewhat limited—but he sure writes terrific tunes and puts them across with punch. And he doesn’t sound much like his famous father, although he does borrow his dad’s trademark “how how” for the bouncing Mardi Gras–like number Listen to the Music, following it with the line “make a dog wanna bow wow.”
The production by Larry Batiste, a songwriter, arranger, and background vocalist best known in blues circles for his work with E.C. Scott, is first-rate. The rhythm section, comprising on most selections drummer Michael Rogers, bassist Frank “Tebo” Thibeaux, keyboardist Will “Roc” Griffin, and guitarists John Garcia and/or Jeffrey Horan, negotiates a variety of grooves, from slow blues, shuffles, and swing to New Orleans second-line and Johnny “Guitar” Watson–inspired funk, with firmly locking aplomb. And, unlike many tunesmiths who seldom acknowledge in their copyrights the session musicians who help shape the harmonic and rhythmic structures of their compositions, Hooker shares songwriting credits with his sidemen on all but two of the disc’s dozen tunes.
“My heroes back in the day were Batman and Robin, but you the ones who caught Hussein and killed bin Laudin,” Hooker sings on You Be My Hero, his blues shuffle salute to U.S. forces fighting overseas. Guest guitarist Lucky Peterson solos on that one. And Miami soul queen Betty Wright joins Hooker vocally on I Surrender, an up-tempo four-on-the-floor soul tune written by Hooker and Batiste. Batiste’s Hot Sauce Horns, harmonica blower Dave Barreette, and a backup vocal trio make notable contributions to some selections.
The most gripping song of all is Dear John, a slow, four-minute blues that makes up the DVD accompanying the CD. The hauntingly innovative animated film noir, created in France by Laurent Mercier and Xavier Semen, finds a despondent Hooker trapped by the downsides of drug addiction. “I wish mom had stayed a virgin; I wouldn’t be in the shape I’m in. I wish I could be a fly on my ex-wife’s wall; I’d commit me a major sin,” he sings on the final chorus. Fortunately, Hooker has conquered his demons and is now making a real mark for himself in the blues world.
MIGHTY SAM MCCLAIN
Too Much Jesus (Not Enough Whiskey)
Mighty Music - (No #)
The provocative title of Mighty Sam McClain’s new release is guaranteed to turn some heads—and, one suspects, that’s exactly what he wants. After giving up alcohol 18 years ago, McClain realized that some of his old acquaintances no longer came to visit him. In his passion to share the faith that had enabled him to become sober, he surmised that he “may have brought too much Jesus to the party for some folks!”
On Too Much Jesus (Not Enough Whiskey), McClain draws materially from these experiences. The album does not herald a return to his wilder days, but is an attempt to spice up his life-affirming soul-blues mix by adding elements of classic funk—and it works. The upbeat, mid-tempo Wish You Well and the slinky-slow Missing You are good-natured, heartfelt messages to lost loves. Use Me is a Marvin Gaye–esque ballad to the Lord, while the second-line horns on Feels So Good and Chad Owens’ George Porter Jr.–style bass on Wake up Call evoke McClain’s Crescent City roots. His longtime guitarist and album co-songwriter Pat Herlehy scatters spiky funk licks throughout, especially on the hip-shaking Hey Baby; Herlehy’s strings and Scott Shetler’s saxophone elevate McClain’s fervent declaration of devotion to his wife Sandra. The titular song is a moody self-reminder of the hard path he chose when he quit drinking: “You don’t care what they say/Because you know Jesus is the only way.”
“Can you feel the mighty love?” McClain urges in the ’70s throwback Can You Feel It? If you can’t, then your senses might need a tune-up. Too Much Jesus (Not Enough Whiskey) blends a positive message with get-down grooves into a righteous sound that anyone can move to—or be moved by.
Been There Done That
Delmark - DE 822
The title is appropriate for Chicago journeyman Linsey Alexander, who’s “been there” on the Windy City scene since the ’60s but has never released a CD on an established label until now (his previous recorded output has consisted of self-produced discs sold mostly at his shows). It appears to have been worth the wait. Backed by a hard-grinding, versatile crew of Chicago stalwarts, Alexander purveys a set that ranges from the booty-kicking funk of Bad Man through the deep-soul meditative languor of the title tune (with its echoes of Eddie Floyd’s I’ve Never Found a Girl) to the juke-joint rootsiness of Raffle Ticket (seasoned by Billy Branch’s Deep-South [Side] harmonica warbles). Alexander’s guitar style showcases his lively improvisational imagination, his solid chops, and—perhaps most important—his good taste: he avoids the temptation to overplay, preferring instead to let each note tell a story. Having admired vocalists as diverse as Muddy Waters, McKinley Mitchell, and Bobby Day as a young man, he struts a highly emotional vocal style that’s equally effective in downhome and uptown settings.
Especially notable are Alexander’s gifts as a songwriter. He’s in command of a lyric vividness that makes his stories come alive (Saving Robert Johnson, his antic take on the Crossroads myth, is nothing less than a full-scale theatrical vignette set to music). On My Mama Gave Me the Blues, again spiked by Branch’s Little/Big Walter-seasoned harpwork, he throws down a vigorous riposte to naysayers who’d say that “when you play the blues . . . when you die, you’re going straight to hell.” The sole non-Alexander offering here is a cover of the late Willie Kent’s Looks Like It’s Going to Rain, on which keyboardist Roosevelt “Mad Hatter” Purifoy summons liquid rainbows and falling water.
It may seem anachronistic that a new blues “discovery” has been recorded at this late date, but this disc makes it clear that with the right support (both in the studio and on the bandstand), a heretofore obscure artist like Linsey Alexander can still have a lot to offer.
Blues Stains on My Hands
Boogie Cat Productions - (No#)
Louisiana-born guitarist/vocalist Norman Sylvester has been gigging around Portland, Oregon, since the mid-’80s, and he was recently inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame. His style, though, carries strong echoes of his Gulf Coast roots. The title tune is a swampy 6/8 ballad; elsewhere he alternately showcases a sophisticated jump-and-jive elan (the topical Outsource At the Top) and a funk-flavored strut (Senior Moments, Fine as Frog Hair); his guitar work invokes T-Bone, toughened by an Albert-Collins-by-way-of-Gatemouth aggressiveness.
Sylvester’s ballad work is equally convincing. On Bad Weather, he summons a deep, clear-toned baritone croon to sing about the disaster wreaked on New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina If You Didn’t Want Me to Have the Blues features an extended guitar solo that highlights Sylvester’s finely honed melodic sensibility and tonal suppleness. In Please Lie to Me, he lays his Charles Brown–like ruminations over Bill Rhoades’ atavistic harp squalls as Frank “Funk Master” Redding contributes some moody after-hours organ work.
Sylvester can also call forth images of Mississippi. S-E-N-D, a cyber-age updating of folksy aphorisms (“don’t e-mail what you heard, only what you know”) is couched in a Delta-fried boogie. Blues Is in Control echoes a stripped-down Smokestack Lightning; Sylvester’s lyrics are rife with images of erotic betrayal, guns-and-whiskey mayhem, and “a new big-leg woman” who sounds as if she’ll either help Sylvester’s protagonist get over his earlier travails or create new ones of her own.
If Sylvester’s storylines occasionally get a little arch (he invokes “the blues” pretty often, and some of his high-tech references sound like self-conscious attempts to be contemporary), he remains a first-rate storyteller with vocal and instrumental chops that do justice to his unique lyric vision. Judging from what’s here, it seems likely that one of the Northwest’s better-kept blues secrets won’t be a secret for much longer.
EDDIE SHAW & THE 757 ALLSTARS
Still Riding High
Stringtown - (No#)
This isn’t Eddie Shaw’s usual Wolf Gang, but a rotating assembly of no fewer than 14 artists, along with bandleader/saxophonist/vocalist Shaw. According to the liner notes, this group came together “during a grassroots effort to revive the blues scene, encourage musicians to carry on the tradition of the blues, and build a growing community of music & live entertainment lovers in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia.” Specific composer credits are not given, although it appears that these songs are Eddie Shaw originals except for the “bonus track,” I Need a Pretty Woman, which was written by Chicago guitarist/harpist Fernando Jones.
Shaw’s sax style, which owes equal debts to the bar-walking honkers of the ’50s and tough-toned jazzers like Illinois Jacquet, is at the forefront, as is his somewhat weathered but still-potent baritone bellow. Musically, the fare ranges from jump-blues jubilance through deep-pocket Chicago shuffles to deep-blues balladry. Vocalist Jackie Scott, who wrote the liner notes and played a major role in putting this project together, is showcased on two tracks; her supple-toned melodicism contrasts effectively with Shaw’s gruff forcefulness. Overall, the musicians (too many to list here) comport themselves well, especially considering that most of them hadn’t worked together as a band until this disc was recorded (an article in the Newport News, Virginia, Daily Press, dated September 16, 2011, reported that Scott was organizing a benefit to cover the costs of this recording, as well as to “help find the performers who will play” on it).
Unlike a lot of similar one-off projects, this set holds together as a solid blast of vintage-style blues delivered with a modernist, up-to-date panache. It’s an admirable and worthwhile addition to Eddie Shaw’s recorded legacy.
ERNEST LANE & THE KINGS OF RHYTHM
The Blues Piano Man
Archtone - 4-1012
It’s astounding that Ernest Lane’s name isn’t better known than it is. With a career extending back to the 1940s and a resume that included stints with such legends as Robert Nighthawk, Earl Hooker, and Ike Turner, pianist Lane was a pivotal figure in the evolution of postwar blues into R&B and, eventually, rock ’n’ roll. Tragically, Lane died on July 8 of this year, not long before the release of this disc and about a week before he would have been able to see Living Blues’ long-overdue feature on him in LB #220.
From the first rollicking notes of Lanes Shuffle, the opening cut here, it’s obvious that the man’s powers were undiminished to the end. The Clarksdale-to-Helena piano style that Lane and his lifelong buddy Ike Turner absorbed early on from masters like Pinetop Perkins—tinged with jump-blues sophistication but still juke-joint raw—is on display throughout. Lane unfurls skittering runs, galloping boogie-woogie bass, and raucous wide-fingered splays, and he overlays everything with his coruscated but still-potent vocals. Guitarist Seth Blumberg is fiery and on-target; drummer Billy Ray both digs into the pockets of his shuffles and punctuates them with slam-bam rimshots; bassist Rick Jones lays down an unerring groove. There’s also a skin-tight horn section on hand, brawny but unobtrusive.
Lane mines a rich lode of emotional textures, ranging from the After Hours–like moodiness of the waggishly titled After Dinner through the uncompromising macho of the boogie-charged Watching You. What Kind of Love finds Lane and the band in a funk-driven two-chord street groove; they later move uptown to take on the soul-jazz classic Mercy Mercy. Mr. Goodbar, with its booting tenor sax line, exemplifies the link between vintage-era R&B and modernist rock-tinged blues. What I Saw finds Lane spinning off some Fess-like curlicues before digging into a grinding swamp-blues groove.
Joyful, shot through with soul-baring honesty, buoyed by impeccable musicianship from all concerned, this disc is a fitting memorial for a blues giant who may at last—ironically, as always—begin to garner some of the mainstream recognition he deserved for so long.
CD REVIEWS AUGUST 2012
MILTON HOPKINS & JEWEL BROWN
Milton Hopkins & Jewel Brown
Dialtone – DT0024
Two of the most talented musical vets in Houston—guitarist Milton Hopkins, 78, and singer Jewel Brown, 74—have teamed up to make an absolutely terrific CD. Hopkins played with Little Richard’s Tempo Toppers and the post-Richard Upsetters and was B.B. King’s rhythm guitarist from 1971 to ’79. Brown recorded singles for Duke (1955) and Liberty (1962), performed with organist Earl Grant, and was Louis Armstrong’s female vocalist from 1961 to ’68. Drawing on their extensive professional experiences, they’ve created one of the most musically varied sets of songs to be released in some time by a blues-oriented label.
It’s polished, yet laid-back, and each song is unique in terms of structure, instrumentation, and especially rhythm—from the Caribbean bounce of Jerry, a calypso number about a mule that was a show-stopper for Brown during her Armstrong days, to the downhome lope of J.B. Lenoir’s The Whale Has Swallowed Me. Two Rudy Toombs tunes sung by Brown—the Ruth Brown hit Daddy Daddy and Little Willie John’s I’m Shakin’—are rendered as a mambo and in swinging stop-time, respectively.
I’m Shaking also utilizes a mid-song key modulation, a device employed too infrequently by blues bands these days. Cry Me a River, a title Brown gives to a medley of classic blues lyrics associated with Leroy Carr, Joe Turner, Jimmy Rushing, Louis Jordan, and Ella Johnson, is given a swinging shuffle groove, while the Hopkins blues instrumental Tater Tots is treated to a hard-driving Texas double shuffle. The guitarist unplugs as he and Brown serve up a heartfelt slow country blues salute to Lightnin’ Hopkins, Milton’s late cousin, on I’m Leaving You Now. Milton moans as he picks, and a drummer, using brushes, supplies the only other instrumental support. Milton and the drummer then switch to a two-beat shout pattern while Brown delivers the church song How Can I Lose.
Hopkins never shows off, instead picking prickly solos and fills that are models of musical intelligence and understatement. Brown’s robust contralto tones retain much of their earlier power and elasticity, and she uses precise enunciation to drive lyrics home. The rhythm section, comprising pianist Nick Connolly, guitarist Mike Keller, bassist Johnny Bradley, and alternating drummers Corey Keller and Jason Moeller, negotiates each of the different grooves with remarkable aplomb, and saxophonist Kaz Kazanoff adds horn-section parts to some selections though overdubbing and contributes a warm tenor solo to the Hopkins-penned jazz instrumental ballad Evening Breeze.
THE MANNISH BOYS
Delta Groove - DGPCD153
This is the sixth outing on Delta Groove for the Mannish Boys, a group that, according to the notes, “was conceived as an all-star showcase for the cream of the West Coast blues crop.” Not surprisingly, the group’s membership has evolved over the years, and the only members left from its 2004 debut are singer Finis Tasby and guitarists Kirk Fletcher and Frank Goldwasser, and harp player/label owner Randy Chortkoff.
As the disc’s title suggests, the Mannish Boys’ latest effort is a two-disc set, the first titled “Atomic Blues” and taking on a distinct Chicago cast from the presence of harmonica on eight of its 13 tracks, and disc two billed as “Rhythm & Blues Explosion” and utilizing a horn section on most of its 13 selections. Tasby takes the vocals on seven cuts, including covers of Little Walter (twice), Frank Frost, Albert King, Jimmy McCracklin, T-Bone Walker, and Willie Headen, while newbie Sugaray Rayford [featured in LB#219] proves his versatility by taking on King, Son House, Robert Nighthawk, Otis Spann, James Cotton, and James Brown (thrice). Band members Goldwasser and Randy Chortkoff also take their turns at the mic, as do guests Mud Morganfield, Jackie Payne, James Harman, Mike Finnigan, and Cynthia Manley. A fourth Brown cover, Cold Sweat, provides an instrumental showcase for Fletcher, while the extensive cameo list also includes guitarists Elvin Bishop, Kid Ramos, Junior Watson, and Nathan James as well as pianists Rob Rio and Fred Kaplan. Throughout, the rhythm duo of bassist Willie J. Campbell and drummer Jimi Bott supplies a solid foundation regardless of style.
If Double Dynamite has a weakness, it’s the shortage of original material—the only contributions from the band itself are Chortkoff’s Please Forgive Me and You Dogged Me on disc one. Still, when the covers are as well chosen and as well played as they are here, the complaint is a minor one indeed.
Keep the Fire Burning
Catfood - CFR-16
Although a lot of listeners may associate Barbara Carr with contemporary soul-blues, her career extends back to the ’60s, when she worked with fabled St. Louis saxophonist-bandleader Oliver Sain (she also cut a few sides at Chess); for this set, co-producers Johnny Rawls and Bob Trenchard (who also owns the Catfood label and plays bass for the Rays, the studio band here), have returned her to that kind of horn-laced, propulsive R&B/soul, with nary a synth or programmed beat in sight.
Carr’s coruscated vocals, as usual, heighten both the erotic and emotional intensity of her sound; although most of the songs are credited to either Rawls or Trenchard, she inhabits them effortlessly; such is the fiery commitment she summons that even the occasionally labored rhymes and meandering melody lines can’t slow her down. She’s toned down the “bad-bitch” pose that has long been her calling card; on the title song, for instance, an eros-charged demand for satisfaction, there’s no double-entendre provocation. Instead, the set is heavy on pop-brightened R&B (Moment of Weakness), deep-soul testimonials to the redemptive power of love (We Have the Key), and hard-won life lessons (Hold On to What You Got, a close-harmony duet with Rawls that evokes classic gospel-soul testimonials to love and perseverance).
Does all this mean that Barbara Carr has decided to forego her erstwhile target demographic and shoot for the predominantly white “crossover” old-school soul audience? It’s hard to tell, and it probably doesn’t matter: this veteran is at the top of her game, still bursting with creativity, and showing no signs of tiring or slowing down.
Funkin’ the Blues
Rizing Sun – (No#)
ColdtrainBlues’ 2010 debut, The Party Train, won praise for the Los Angeles–based group and its frontman, singer-guitarist Jeffrey Lynn Colbert. Now, however, Colbert has left the band that bears his nickname, leaving his former mates with some big shoes to fill.
As it turns out, it ended up taking three men to replace Colbert, as Vincent LaBauve takes over on guitar and keyboardists Will Leavy and Big Daddy Payne split the vocal chores, with a third keyboardist, Duane Laskey, bassist Eric Ward, and drummer Earl Siler in support. All doubts about the unit’s continuing vitality are quickly dispelled by the hard-driving opener Buck Wild, with Leavy’s scorching vocal bringing Roman Carter to mind. As on the first disc, Payne, under his given name Earl Foster Jr., contributed most of the songs, showing a nice original approach on such as Crabs in a Barrel, Her Boyfriend’s in Jail, and Dead Meat. The songbooks of executive producers Miles Grayson and Melvin Alexander provided the classic stuff of Don’t Make Me Pay for His Mistakes (Z.Z. Hill), Everybody Knows About My Good Thing (Little Johnny Taylor), and Who’s the Fool (Little Joe Blue), and there are cameo appearances by guitarists David T. Walker, Ray Bailey, Doug Scott, Z’Andre Yarborough and, on Crabs in a Barrel, Colbert. The set concludes with the title track, which unexpectedly proves to be a breezy shuffle rather than a funk beat.
Despite the presence of three keyboards, the group’s sound is neither shrill nor jangly, but, as the title says, bluesy with a touch of funk. If anything, ColdtrainBlues’ sophomore effort surpasses its acclaimed debut and, though somewhat off the radar, should not be ignored by fans of contemporary blues.
Still Called the Blues
Delmark - DE 821
Quintus McCormick’s voice is syrup-sweet, thick and soothing; his guitar work, even when he affects a fiery tone reminiscent of his early rock ’n’ roll heroes like Hendrix and Jimmy Page, is shot through with the harmonic and melodic tastefulness he absorbed from Albert King and other blues role models like Little Milton. He also has a winning pop sensibility, as evidenced by the sunshine-daydream leads he unfurls on What Am I Gonna Do?, one of this CD’s standouts. He summons a grizzled rasp on the wronged man’s warning It Won’t Work (even as his leads soothe things with their delicate tone and intricately picked precision); his take on Bobby Rush’s What’s Good for the Goose is appropriately sardonic, as is his reading of the old Little Johnny Taylor hit Everybody Knows About My Good Thing. He even takes on the Beatles (the doo-wop throwback Oh! Darling) with surprisingly effective results.
McCormick sounds most at home, though, with his trademark blues/funk/soul-blues fusions, whether on the title track (his Bensonesque take on the Johnnie Taylor standard) or the jaunty, neo-Tyrone Davis What Am I Gonna Do? He piles on the irony in That’s My Baby (“She’s a whiz with complex equations /Yet with common sense she turns all thumbs / On the streets, she’s straight Mary Poppins /In the sheets, a diabolical freak”) as a tubular-toned flute warbles behind him, but the overall feel is affectionate and sincere.
Although he’s still not very well known outside his home turf of Chicago, Quintus McCormick is building an impressive recorded legacy at Delmark. Here’s hoping that his style, which combines the best of straight-forward blues—emotional honesty, roots-rich guitar lines, eloquent lyric storytelling—with plenty of influences drawn from soul-blues, funk, and R&B, becomes more widely appreciated as his recordings garner the listenership they deserve.
All My Best
Wolf - 120.827 CD
The story on Jimmy (or Jimmi) Mayes in LB’s recent drum issue (#213) served as something of a revelation—though not as well known as guys like Fred Below, Sam Lay, or Willie Smith, the native of Jackson, Mississippi, has had a fascinating career in which he beat for Little Walter in 1960s Chicago, went east with singer Tommy Hunt, and, once in New York, played alongside Jimi Hendrix (who was then known as Maurice James) in Joey Dee’s Starliters. He recorded in New York both on his own and behind Hendrix (My Friend, Georgia Blues) before returning to Chicago, and in more recent years toured with Pinetop Perkins and Willie Smith.
Wolf’s 13-track collection (Chicago Blues Session Vol. 79!) spans nearly 45 years, including three of Mayes’ New York recordings from the late ’60s, all of which are dance-based novelty numbers and two of which feature Sam Taylor on guitar. Back in Chicago, Mayes waxed a cover of Lowell Fulson’s Tramp b/w the bizarre mariachi-funk of El Funky in 1973, and 14 years later coupled the strutting Something About You I Like with the sweet ballad Substitute for You. From bassist Kenji Juravic’s studio we get 2008’s appealingly funky Love Trap plus a cover of Sweet Home Chicago, and finally Mayes returns to his blues roots with his interpretations of three Jimmy Reed songs and Junior Wells’ Messing with the Kid from a date earlier this year that features the estimable Billy Flynn on guitar and Mayes himself playing drums and singing in a sly, laid-back style that’s far removed from the youthful exuberance of earlier efforts like The New Monkey Shine.
While the music here covers a pretty broad range, so has Mayes’ career, so this disc should provide an apt soundtrack to the autobiography that Mayes hopes to publish in the near future.
TEDESCHI TRUCKS BAND
Masterworks - 88691 95983 2
Susan Tedeschi, husband Derek Trucks, and their nine sidemen have created what is perhaps the most perfect fusion of blues, southern rock, jazz, and soul music ever. Trucks even adds some raga for the slide guitar introduction to Tedeschi’s soulfully sung Midnight in Harlem, borrowing from his stylistic mentor Duane Allman’s Little Martha and also extending a multicultural concept introduced by the Butterfield Blues Band on the title track of the 1966 album East-West.
A follow-up to Revelator, the band’s brilliant June 2011 debut CD, the new double-disc album finds the group stretching out four months later during concerts in Toronto, Washington, D.C., and Bridgeport, Connecticut. Only two of the 11 selections are less than eight minutes in length, and a jamming, energy-charged treatment of Stevie Wonder’s Uptight lasts 16. With no playing-time constraints, Trucks and Tedeschi are able to solo in lengthy guitar flights of imagination, with solo space also afforded to tenor saxophonist Kebbi Williams, trumpeter Maurice Brown, trombonist Saunders Sermons, organist (and flutist) Kofi Burbridge, and his brother, bassist Oteil Burbridge. Oteil locks tightly with drummers Tyler Greenwell and J.J. Johnson throughout the proceedings, and the ensemble’s use of contrasting dynamics couldn’t be more perfect, dropping from a scream to a whisper in the blink of an eye.
Rollin’ and Tumblin’ (credited in the booklet to Elmore James, not to Muddy Waters, as is usually the case) is the only straight blues in the program, and Tedeschi’s vocal delivery of it is somewhat overwrought, as is her rendition of Pearl Woods’ That Did It, a blues-based tune once recorded by Bobby Bland. Trucks and other band members contributed five of the songs, including the deliciously funky Love Has Something Else to Say, on which Sermons blows a trombone solo and then vocally interpolates Bill Withers’ Kissing My Love. Other selections include John Sebastian’s Darling Be Home Soon, an arrangement of the traditional Wade in the Water credited to Sam Cooke and J.W. Alexander, and a particularly winning version of Everybody’s Talkin’, the Fred Neil song that was first popularized by Harry Nilsson.
VJM Records – VJM4544
Named for onetime Metropolitan Opera star Patrice Muncel, Meridian, Mississippi–born vocalist Patrice Moncell Gathright has performed spirituals at the Vatican, sung Mozart at Carnegie Hall, contributed background vocals to a Cassandra Wilson album, and recorded a gospel CD. Now billed without her last name, she has been belting blues and soul songs around Jackson, Mississippi, with former Z.Z. Hill guitarist Vasti Jackson’s band for over a decade. She and Jackson also appeared together in the short 1999 student film Robert Johnson: Stop Breakin’ Down and in the 2003 documentary Last of the Mississippi Juke Joints.
Moncell has one of the most powerful sets of pipes of any singer performing today, and she applies her rich contralto with earthshaking passion to much of the nicely varied material on Woman Enough, her long-overdue blues-and-soul debut CD. Her treatment of It Hurts Me Too (Elmore James’ adaptation of Tampa Red’s When Things Go Wrong) is particularly inspired, with Moncell digging in with throaty growls to help drive home the lyrics and to match the intensity of producer Jackson’s blistering guitar and the slow-shuffling punch of his rhythm section. Other winning blues numbers on the disc are Willie Dixon’s Built for Comfort (a playful vocal duet with Steven Johnson of the Robert Johnson International Blues Revue), T-Bone Walker’s Stormy Monday (a showcase for Moncell’s sustains and imaginative scat-like use of word and syllable repetition), and a medley of Down Home Blues, Baby What You Want Me to Do, and Stoop Down Baby. Of the blues songs, only the Jackson-penned dance ditty Blues Booty is a disappointment, mainly because Moncell did it better with just piano accompaniment in the Robert Johnson film than with a rhythm section.
Of the disc’s five non-blues tunes, Moncell’s reading of the soul ballad Second Chance, a minor 1971 hit for Z.Z. Hill that was written in part by Jerry (Swamp Dogg) Williams Jr. and Gary (U.S.) Bonds), is especially strong. Rounding out the program are It Ain’t Cheaper to Keep Him (her “answer” to Johnnie Taylor’s It’s Cheaper to Keep Her), Clarence Carter’s Strokin’ (complete with a long, salacious monologue), and two originals by Jackson, obviously aimed at the southern soul-blues market, on which he plays most of the instruments himself. One of them, the title track, has “hit” written all over it.
EllerSoul – (No#)
There seems to be a resurgence of interest in Nashville’s long-neglected African American music scene. Marion James—known locally as Nashville’s Queen of the Blues—has long been one of that scene’s leading lights. [James is featured in LB #219.] She was a mainstay on the city’s now-defunct Jefferson Street African American nightlife strip in the 1960s and ’70s; she’s recorded several discs that are now considered collectors’ items (especially That’s My Man, which she waxed in 1966 for Excello), and she’s toured overseas to ecstatic acclaim.
The fare here includes everything from self-penned originals through time-tested blues and soul standards. Belying her home town’s good-ol’-boy reputation, James delivers most of her songs backed by sophisticated, jazz-seasoned arrangements. Although individual credits aren’t given, it sounds as if she and producer Tod Ellsworth took care to recruit the best session musicians available—the ensemble horn work is smooth and mellifluous, the soloing imaginative, and the modernist touches (a reverb-haunted keyboard on Ray Charles’ I Believe to My Soul, various excursions into funk, pop, and rock-tinged stylings) are made to fit easily into the overall old-school mood. For her part, James’s voice sounds weathered but still potent; her grainy timbre heightens the urgency of ballads like her haunting Corrupted World, and on up-tempo numbers she summons a raucous, bacchanalian energy.
This is an admirable outing from a veteran who is legendary in her own city and highly respected by aficionados outside of it, but who nonetheless deserves to be better known.
Do Not Disturb
Gunsmoke - GUN - 6427
Jesse James’s voice has lost none of its soulful ache: it’s especially effective on pleading ballads like I Never Meant to Love Her and Johnny Heartsman’s Are You Gonna Leave Me, which is enhanced here by a moody, midnight-in-the-rain film-noir aural dreamscape. If He Can’t Hold His Pants Up—How Can He Hold You Up calls out the lost souls of the ’hood (and warns women not to get taken in by their putative macho allure); God Got Your Back manages to sound both resolutely faith-driven and relaxed, as James summons his most laid-back croon to deliver his message of hope over a lightly bouncing pop-soul cadence. A Change is Gonna Come mashes up excerpts from some of Dr. King’s most famous oratory with a lurching, synth-heavy backing track; James delivers the Sam Cooke classic in a coruscated full-gospel wail.
James scores on more light-hearted fare, as well. He reprises his best-known hit, 1987’s I Can Do Bad by Myself, as a sassy “he-said”/”she-said” dialogue with vocalist Synethia, re-titled I Can Do Bad by Myself—You Were Doing Bad When I Met You. It sounds as if James simply took his original version and laid Synethia’s vocals over it, but it’s still fun. On It Just Don’t Feel the Same, Millie Jackson weighs in with a spitfire riposte to James’s ironically wounded-sounding kiss-off; Let’s Get a Room Somewhere, also featuring Millie, is an imaginative take on the standard soul-blues themes of stolen love and dance-floor intrigue.
It’s been a while since we’ve heard from Jesse James, but judging from what’s here, this soul-blues veteran still has a lot to offer.
CD REVIEWS JUNE 2012
BILLY BOY ARNOLD
Billy Boy Sings Big Bill Broonzy
Electro-Fi – 3430
Billy Boy Arnold, who once tried to get Big Bill Broonzy to play on one of his early recordings, has never lost his boyhood excitement for his musical heroes and their music. Arnold pays wholehearted tribute to yet another of the giants of his youth with Billy Boy Sings Big Bill Broonzy, a collection of Big Bill Broonzy compositions in the vein of his earlier Electro-Fi release, Billy Boy Sings Sonny Boy Williamson.
Bob Riesman, author of The Life and Times of Big Bill Broonzy, as well as the liners to this release, was on the money when he declared, “It’s hard to imagine anyone better equipped than Billy Boy Arnold to do a Big Bill Broonzy tribute album.”
From among the hundreds of titles in Broonzy’s repertoire, Arnold chose 15 that represent a wide range of his “voices.” And rather than perform them in pure period dressing, he plays them in the spirit of the originals with an emphasis on the lyrics, which Arnold delivers in a relaxed, unembellished manner.
Backing Arnold is the core of old timey blues and jug band extraordinaire Sanctified Grumblers, namely finger-picking guitarist Eric Noden, washboarder and clarinetist Rick Sherry, and double bassist Beau Sample. Also on guitar and mandolin is Billy Flynn, who is becoming renowned for his uncanny and delightful ability to breathe new life into blues obscurities.
Flynn’s lovely Western Swing–tinged leads face off against Noden’s straight picking to provide a symbiotic backdrop for Arnold’s easy vocals and sweet harp lines on such numbers as I Want You by My Side and Rider Rider.
Arnold’s love for the material shines throughout with his lightly swinging harp adding fills and accents in a prewar manner, especially on Girl in the Valley, Looking Up at Down, and on the utopian It Was Just a Dream (which includes a new verse by Arnold).
The moods range from light narrative story blues like Sweet Honey Bee and Girl in the Valley to the humorous, yet still sad and fine Looking Up at Down, to the more ambivalent Going Back to Arkansas, the wistful San Antonio Blues, rueful Cell No. 13 and the confessional blues of Willie Mae Blues and I Love My Whiskey.
The classic Key to the Highway is given a melancholic treatment, which seems wholly appropriate yet is not commonly done.
Living on Easy Street will seem quite contemporary to the listener who recognizes that the narrator glorifies what today would be known as the “playa” lifestyle.
The tightly swinging Just Got to Hold You Tight provides an eminently upbeat coda to this marvelous and lovingly performed project.
Deeper in the Well
Stony Plain Records - 1360
“My daddy used to tell me don’t be fooled by the things you see / If you want to get at the heart of things you got to look way down deep,” sings Grammy nominated multi-instrumentalist Eric Bibb on his latest release, Deeper in the Well. Bibb is not fooled—he looks beyond the surface and digs deep on a wide range of subjects, including homelessness, poverty, and drug addiction. Recorded in Pont Breaux, Louisiana, Deeper in the Well is part blues and folk, framed by Louisiana’s rich musical traditions. The album features the classically trained Bibb and a gang of highly talented musicians, including Dirk Powell (banjo, fiddle, mandolin, etc.) and Grant Dermody (harmonica). With repeated listens, Deeper in the Well reveals its extraordinary depth: thoughtful, honest lyrics matched by a sublime, exquisite sound.
Bibb rarely obfuscates the meaning of his lyrics in clouded generalizations—he confronts problems with unerring frankness and directness. Expressing genuine gratitude about his own relative prosperity, he tackles the epidemic of homelessness in Money in Your Pocket by asking “Do you have money in your pocket, shoes on your feet?” and “Do you have kin that you can call on when you’re in a jam?” In the Harrison Kennedy penned Could Be You, Could Be Me, the answer is, of course, no. The character rests his head on a rock, sleeps on the cold ground with the “night sky for a blanket” and “cardboard for a bed.” With millions still unemployed, with whole families slipping into poverty and homelessness, the words, “Oh, one day, could be me, could be you,” is an uncomfortable truth that is difficult to swallow. Although he rarely articulates the sources to blame for our country’s vast income disparity, on Movin’ Up—a song that ultimately preaches civil engagement and a hopeful future—he fingers the super rich and reckless war spending for ensuring that the “poor stay poor.” Drawing on gospel sources for Sinner Man, Bibb reminds the agents of destruction that neither the “rock” nor the “sea” will hide you or save your soul.
In No Further, Bibb switches topics, warning an adolescent girl whose “eyes are lookin’ funny” to resist peer pressure and drugs because addiction is a prison, the “downward road is steep.” While Bibb tackles serious issues, he also allows for personal introspection (Sittin’ in a Hotel Room) and even throws in a love song (Bayou Belle) for good measure. Appropriately, he closes the disc with a terrific version of Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are a Changin’, a song that blends personal transformation and social protest.
Musically, the release is just as expansive and multi-faceted. The opening song, Bayou Belle, showcases everything that makes the CD a rewarding listening experience. The song opens with rhythm acoustic guitar, immediately followed by a succession of instruments (including percussion, harmonica, fiddle) that coalesce into an indivisible whole. Each instrument is perfectly placed in the arrangement, and Dermody’s harmonica solo is marked by restraint, avoiding any hint of showboating. Bibb’s storytelling singing style is confident and assured, and the band’s sound cannot be easily categorized. The blues can be heard on Boll Weevil, for example, but other musical influences creep into the arrangement, producing a music that is greater than its individual influences.
The myriad of styles found on Deeper in the Well are celebrated in Music, a song that preaches against categories and labels, fashion and fad: “’Cause music is more than rules or tradition / I’ll play what I want, don’t need no permission / If I feel it—that’s good enough for me.” While listening to Deeper in the Well, you will feel it and agree that the music is more than good enough. It’s great.
—Stephen A. King
TAIL DRAGGER & BOB CORRITORE
Longtime Friends in the Blues
Delta Groove - DGPCD150
Tail Dragger (James Yancy Jones) has been considered a Howlin’ Wolf imitator for most of his career, but he has now become a bona fide personage in his own right and lugs his own baggage of incorrigibility. Harmonicist/producer Bob Corritore has known Tail Dragger for several decades and finally gets the opportunity to record and produce a full-length project with him. Dragger’s harp-friendly repertoire proves to be a suitable match for Corritore’s talents.
Of Dragger’s several recordings (on Delmark, St. George, and Wolf), this one may best capture the fervid essence of the man and the play-perilous atmosphere of his live shows. Although a studio recording, this has a densely-layered, wall-of-sound feel of a club setting. But also like a club setting, the tight, take-no-prisoners band threatens to dwarf the still-hearty piano playing of guest artist and former Howlin’ Wolf sideman Henry Gray.
In addition to Gray and Corritore (who seems to be everywhere lately), Dragger is backed by guitarist Chris James, bassist Patrick Rynn, and drummer Brian Fahey, who all work regularly with Corritore in Arizona. Hot Californian guitarist Kirk Fletcher also contributes to this project. The solid Chicago-style blues they all bring to this recording is consistently of the first order with special praise for the bludgeoning rhythm section.
Dragger chants the first few words to I’m Worried before the band explodes into the song with a booming tonic bass note that continues to wallop the emotions throughout the track.
John Lee Williamson’s Sugar Mama is presented as a ferociously chugging slow blues and features alternate verses by Dragger and Gray.
While most of Dragger’s vocals do conjure Wolf, he also taps into his fine approximation of Jimmy Reed on Cold Outdoors, which also provides an opportunity for Corritore to dazzle on the high end of the harp.
Birthday Blues has long been one of Dragger’s regular crowd-pleasers, which he will often sing directly in the face of the honoree. Along similar lines are Through With You and So Ezee, a couple of his preaching blues that may start off as cautionary monologues and develop into surreal sermons sung about any number of topics.
Please Mr. Jailer finds him pleading, not on his own behalf (as those who know his history might assume), but for his incarcerated ladyfriend.
Tail Dragger is credited with most of the titles, but many are reworkings of existing themes with spare lyrics delivered with his unique pacing and peculiar logic (“I know you’re gonna lie, and you’re not gonna tell the truth”).
Luciously fat on groove, Longtime Friends is patent Tail Dragger and a potent earful.
SOUTH MEMPHIS STRING BAND
Old Times There…
Memphis International – DOT 0227
Twenty years ago this May, Rodney King asked the pertinent question, “Can we all get along?” The month also marked the release of the South Memphis String Band’s sophomore album, which, much like 2009’s Home Sweet Home, delivers a rather subversive cry for racial reconciliation in the United States. The 15-song disc opens with an instrumental rendition, played acoustically on banjo, guitars, and upright bass, of Good Old Rebel, written nearly 100 years ago by Major James Innes Randolph as a salute to his fellow Confederate army veterans. It’s followed by Alvin “Youngblood” Hart, the quartet’s only African American member, singing Turnip Greens, which contains such lines as “the white folks go to college and the nigra goes to field/the white folks learn to read and write and the nigra learn to steal” and “yonder come a darkie with his overalls on, just a-fightin’ about them turnip greens.” The catchy, albeit racist, ditty was written by Sam Chatmon, the son of an ex-slave, and first recorded by the all-black Mississippi Sheiks.
More racist stereotypes crop up in other early selections on the CD, its title drawn from the line “old times there are not forgotten” in the 19th-century minstrel show favorite Dixie that has served as a rallying cry for the Old South. “Could you blame a colored man for makin’ them goo-goo eyes?” the group asks in ragged harmony on a tale supposedly based on Booker T. Washington’s 1901 White House dinner with President Theodore Roosevelt. B-L-A-C-K, another song associated with Furry Lewis, follows. “I know I’m white and I’m ugly, but I gets by just fine,” Luther Dickerson barks, and then mentions that two “high browns” are flirting with him as he walks down a street. Hart repeats the scenario from his perspective.
See the Uncle Sam, the next track, finds co-composer Jimbo Mathus visiting both the Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. monuments and singing Bourgeois Blues, Lead Belly’s famous protest against racism and classism, in front of the White House. The program ends with Hart, Dickerson, Mathus, and new group member Justin Showah delivering a haunting, largely a cappella treatment of the anti-slavery song Oh, Freedom. In their informal performances and juxtaposition of these and other numbers on Old Times There..., the Southern Memphis String Band may not resolve the so-called American Dilemma, but the quartet sure makes a politically daring and musically satisfying attempt.
I Belong to the Band: A Tribute to Rev. Gary Davis
Stony Plain – SPCD1359
Rory Block’s fine new release I Belong to the Band joins a handful of album-length tributes to iconic guitarist Reverend Gary Davis including, in the last decade, Marie Knight’s final album, the stirring homage Let Us Get Together (MC Records, 2007), preceded by distinguished projects from star Davis student Andy Cohen, Oh Glory, How Happy I Am (Riverlark, 1997) and the compilation Gary Davis Style (Inside Sounds, 2002).
Now comes Block’s joyous salutation of a record, released 40 years after Davis’ death. Though she never learned directly from him, she witnessed many a lesson given by Davis to Stefan Grossman, a lasting impression recounted in her autobiography, When a Woman Gets the Blues. Indeed, the mentor-like moments she experienced help explain why Block—an acknowledged master of pre–WWII Delta blues styles—has devoted an entire album to this particular ragtime-infused Piedmont guitarist.
Like many young guitarists during the folk revival, Block got hip to Davis’ brand of blues-blurring holy song after hearing his 1960 Prestige classic Harlem Street Singer, produced by Kenneth Goldstein and engineered by Rudy Van Gelder, a Grammy Trustees award winner this year for his work on classic jazz albums by Miles Davis and John Coltrane, among others. Indeed, the 11 tracks on Block’s album all appear on Harlem Street Singer except Tryin’ to Get Home. Fortunately, Block isn’t interested in a facsimile but brings her own force of personality and particular set of talents to the table, none more compelling than her voice.
Where others are content to learn to fingerpick like the Rev., Block belts out each number with the kind of vocal authority that even the best Davis practitioners rarely muster. Given his jaw-dropping fretwork, it’s easy to forget what a powerful singer Davis could be, especially on the hair-raising high notes he perfected during his many years as a street corner evangelist. Like the late Marie Knight, Block brings due attention to this side of Davis, reminding listeners of the great melodies that fortified his string dazzling (of which Block also displays in abundance).
She opens confidently, in fact, with his signature number, Samson and Delilah, in a faithful arrangement as muscular as the Old Testament figure himself. And she adds her trademark slide guitar on several selections, successfully merging the East Coast and Deep South blues camps in ways that draw more connections than differences between the two (in fact, a Davis–Fred McDowell mash-up of You Got to Move would not have been out of line).
Does she live up to the guitar-picking bar set by such Davis protégés as Ernie Hawkins, Roy Book Binder, Jorma Kaukonen, Cohen, and Grossman? Mostly, although it matters more that she has lived up the potential of Davis the composer and arranger. Block plays—and sings—her love of Davis with authority, bravura, and (importantly) spiritual exaltation.
To that end, the record rings truest when Block gives herself over to the ebullient, cathartic melodies, as in her wondrous reinventions of Twelve Gates to the City, Great Change Since I’ve Been Born (with its overdubbed choir of voices), and the title track, a song with nineteenth-century sacred harp provenance that Davis performed on his 1935 debut for A.R.C. and that Mavis Staples more recently resurrected for her 2010 album You Are Not Alone.
I Belong to the Band is the latest in an ongoing series that acknowledges Block’s many musical guides and heroes. It began with the 2006 award-winning disc of Robert Johnson material, The Lady and Mr. Johnson (Rykodisc), and has continued on the Stony Plain label with nods to Son House, Blues Walkin’ Like a Man (2008), and Mississippi Fred McDowell, Shake ’em on Down (2011). Like the other efforts, Block’s new album is more than mere praise. While she wasn’t a student, she was an eyewitness, and with this satisfying, at times thrilling, tribute, she is now part of the true vine, carrying the Rev.’s musical legacy comfortably into the new millennium.
–William L. Ellis
LIL’ ED & THE BLUES IMPERIALS
Alligator Records - ALCD 4949
After 24 years together, time spent honing their craft and perfecting their chemistry, it’s no surprise to hear yet another set of satisfyingly smoking tunes from Lil’ Ed & the Blues Imperials. But that doesn’t make Jump Start any less gratifying. With his expressive slide and a sly wit, the 13 original compositions and one cover sizzle and sway with style, and that’s always welcome.
Along with the Blues Imperials—bassist James “Pookie” Young, guitarist Mike Garrett, and drummer Kelly Littleton—Ed Williams pilots his way through scorching soulful numbers (You Burnt Me) and lighthearted boogies with confidence. Crafty lyrics impart humor on several tracks, like the clever innuendo of Jump Right In and the dietary declaration No Fast Food. Similarly, the boogie beat of the brash Musical Mechanical Electrical Man is a highlight of the album, as is the amped-up opener If You Were Mine.
These are the tracks where Lil’ Ed and the Blues Imperials shine the most. But they’re more than competent on the ballads too. The slow, sweltering Life Is a Journey shows off Ed’s vocal capabilities, and the one cover song, If You Change Your Mind
by Ed’s uncle and mentor J.B. Hutto, evokes a deep yearning that would make its author proud.
The joyous, stomping, call-and-response album closer Moratorium on Hate, with guest keyboardist Marty Sammon, is an apt conclusion, binding the album together and evoking the camaraderie built over the 12 previous tracks.
With a storied career that includes numerous accolades, consistently solid compositions, and a still-vibrant backing band, Lil’ Ed is in no need of a “jump start”—he’s blaring full-speed ahead.
Stronger for It
Alligator Records - ALCD 4946
Janiva Magness is steadily turning up the creative and emotional temperature with each of her releases on Alligator. Following 2008’s acclaimed What Love Will Do, she introduced significantly more steam on 2010’s The Devil Is an Angel Too. With her recent release, Stronger for It, Magness sets the house ablaze. Luckily, she sticks around to watch the fire burn and let the ashes cool in the company of her most volatile, brooding, and humorous demons yet.
Magness’ voice remains incredibly rich and soulful, and her delivery is expert—tattered or raw or robust in all the right places—but her choice of songs and fighting attitude on Stronger for It leaves little doubt that Magness came through one hell of a heartbreak before stepping into the studio this time around.
Magness is known for her outstanding interpretations, but this album features three original songs that punctuate its raw, heartfelt energy. One of those originals, There It Is, opens the album with a memorable kick. The song is an angry and defiant confession, but there’s an infectious groove behind it, and Magness channels a vibrant and tough R&B attitude.
I Won’t Cry and Whistlin’ in the Dark were also penned by Magness. The former smolders with the singer’s dark resilience as she croons, “I get cut, and I might bleed, but I won’t cry.” Conversely, Whistlin’ in the Dark’s appeal lies in Magness’ vulnerability. The song rocks along gently as she sways in a delicate cloak of denial. It is here that Magness is her softest and most personal.
The songs she chose to cover are superb. Two come out of the R&B catalogue: Ike and Tina’s fiery You Got What You Wanted and Gladys Knight’s soulful I Don’t Want to Do Wrong. The seven remaining songs come from a range of genres, from pop to alternative country. Magness’ rendition of Tom Waits’ biting and redemptive Make It Rain is one of the most unforgettable tracks, and she injects a downright venomous blend of sensuality and scorn into Buddy and Judy Miller’s Dirty Water.
Magness also covers songs by Matthew Sweet, Shelby Lynne, and Ray Wylie Hubbard. The standout is Grace Potter’s Ragged Company. It’s a poignantly crafted song, and while Magness holds on to Potter’s simple, gospel-inspired intentions, she fills up the track with the glow of her own sorrowful clash with the human condition. As she lays life’s inescapable isolation bare, it’s hard to listen without a surge of emotion.
The fact that Magness can approach a variety of genres, recognize good songwriting, and turn all sorts of tunes into personalized blues proves her intelligence and her appreciation of the stylistic power of the genre.
Stronger for It exceeds the already great expectations of this bonafide blues powerhouse. It is a cathartic and personal album with a unique and potent healing potential. And as Janiva Magness is well aware, that is the most important quality of the blues.
Dynotone Records – DYN-0711
Ryan Shaw is the most sensational ‘60s-style soul singer to have come along since, well, the ’60s. Raised on gospel music in Decatur, Georgia, he emerged in 2007 with a brilliant album titled This Is Ryan Shaw on the Columbia-distributed One Haven label. Save for some rave reviews, it received little attention. Urban radio ignored it because it was way too retro to qualify as neo-soul, and it was far too slick for roots or blues formats. Along with treatments of oldies, some of them rather obscure, by Chairmen of the Board, the Combo Kings, Wilson Pickett and the Falcons, Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers, Jackie Wilson, and Bobby Womack, that album included a couple of Shaw originals that were thoroughly steeped in the Motown and Stax traditions.
Blessed with ringing tenor pipes and breathtaking octave-leaping virtuosity, the now-31-year-old vocalist does not sound like any of his aforementioned heroes. He does, however, recall Carl Hall, a largely forgotten vocal pyrotechnician who began recording gospel music in the late ’50s with the Raymond Rasberry Singers and later appeared in a number of Broadway musicals. Shaw’s galvanizing reading of You Don’t Know Nothing About Love, a Jerry Ragovoy soul ballad originally recorded by Hall in 1967 and later covered by Lorraine Ellison, Howard Tate, and B.B. King, among others, is the highlight of Real Love, the singer’s long-awaited follow-up to This Ryan Shaw.
Shaw also delivers gripping versions of Lennon and McCartney’s Yesterday and Pam Sawyer’s mid-tempo Blackmail, a little-known Motown tune recorded in 1970 by Bobby Taylor. The remaining eight selections were written by the singer in collaboration with drummer Jimmy Bralower, guitarist-bassist Johnny Gale, and keyboardists Karen Manno and Phil Gladston, all of whom play on the Bralower/Gale-produced disc. Multi-instrumentalist Al Kooper, bassist Will Lee, and pedal steel guitarist Robert Randolph make guest appearances. The songs, including the Motown-style stompers Karina and That Is Why, the gospel-drenched ballad In-Between, and the Latin-tinged, Sam Cooke-like The Wrong Man, are consistently first-rate. Shaw brings to all of them an uncanny combination of technical polish and unbridled passion. Should Real Love reach enough welcoming ears, Shaw is almost certain to be recognized as one of the truly great soul singers of the 21st century.
I Can Make That Happen
Sly Dog - SLY301-1
They don’t come much classier than Johnnie Bassett: even at his funkiest, the Detroit-based veteran exudes the kind of elegance—“discipline and style”—that the late Johnny Otis once lamented had all but disappeared from popular music.
Bassett’s smooth-toned guitar leads, based on ides pioneered by T-Bone, the Moore brothers, and other avatars of uptown blues sophistication, epitomize the old cliché about the musician whom you can “hear thinking” as he solos: he limns deep emotion with lines and phrases that are as impeccably thought-out as they are unfettered. His voice is a bit gruffer than it used to be, but it’s the perfect instrument for the sardonic storylines he favors (not since Good Morning, Little School Girl has a blues song proclaimed such a delightfully wicked fusion of pedagogy and seduction as Bob Codish’s Love Lessons, one of the highlights of this set).
Bassett may be old-school, but he’s no purist. Proud to Be from Detroit extols “that Detroit sound,” among other Motor City joys, and if its boogity-funk rhythmic line doesn’t solely evoke the spirit of Motown (it calls forth Billy Preston, among others, as well as Stevie Wonder), it’s clear that Bassett’s love for the classic soul groove runs deep. Meanwhile, his take Jimi Hendrix’s The Wind Cries Mary is a revelation: both his guitar work and his reading of Hendrix’s lyrics are heartfelt, laced with tragic resignation, and profoundly soulful. He’s no less effective reaching back into the classic soul canon and retrieving Solomon Burke’s Cry to Me, which he delivers with an appropriate blend of sincerity and erotic jubilance.
Backed by crisp horns and a no-nonsense rhythm section (dubbed “The Brothers Groove”), with a special guest appearance by Thornetta Davis on the vintage-sounding R&B ballad Teach Me to Love, Bassett again proves himself one of our premier (if under-recognized) blues stalwarts, still at the height of his powers.
Pickin’ in High Cotton
Stackhouse – SRC-1915
Chester Chandler, who appeared on the cover of LB #199, recorded this album while he was still recovering from a serious back injury he suffered after falling 35 feet out of a pine tree in College Park, Maryland. Chandler had been working as a professional tree trimmer for decades when he wasn’t thrilling live audiences with his vocals and guitar work, and despite a grim prognosis (his doctors weren’t sure if he would ever walk again), the artist better known as “Memphis Gold” has made a dramatic comeback, evidenced by his return to the stage and this deeply moving back-to-roots project.
Pickin’ in High Cotton opens boldly with How You Gonna Play the Blues?, a statement about “keeping it real” in the blues. “I am the blues,” boasts Chandler (a la Willie Dixon), before warning posers to put down their guitars and throw their “pianos out the window.” “If you ain’t never had to pull no corn/If you ain’t never had to slop no hogs/If you ain’t never had to pick no cotton,” he tells us over a tough one-chord guitar progression, then “you don’t know what the blues is all about.” This message is reinforced on the title track, a song whose lyrics are born out of a similar appeal to experiential authenticity (he picked cotton in Mississippi alongside his mother as a child). He drives home the point with Howlin’ Wolf–like cries, punctuated by jabs of slide guitar from Robert Lighthouse.
Chandler is equally at home delivering knife-edged North Mississippi–style instrumentals (Back Po’ch Tennessee), burning slow blues (Homeless Blues, Don’t Take My Blues Away), as well as more danceable material such as Standin’ By the Highway, a song whose electrified funk groove would sit right at home in a busy nightclub. Pickin’ in High Cotton showcases a more contemplative side to Memphis Gold than we’ve seen in previous releases, and the results speak for themselves.