Tinsley Ellis: Speak No Evil

The title might be a fake-out for jazz fans. No this is not a Wayne Shorter tribute. Tinsley Ellis's Speak No Evil is fervid electric blues with plenty of soul. Then again, given the evolution of the genres, it is sometimes hard to determine the dividing line between electric blues and rock. Often the giveaway is the gray hair of the musicians—rock celebrates youth while blues venerates its elders—and some telltale signs of superior musicianship and maturity. When I hear music of this sort, I sometimes think this is how rock music should sound: raw but real; happening now but built on the tradition; hot but not mindless. If you put it on the radio, people would get the message immediately. But for the time being, music of this sort circulates like samizdat on the fringes of our culture. You are invited to take a taste, but be forewarned, you may not want to go back to those teenage bands after a dose of this.

November 09, 2009 · 0 comments


Woodbrain: Shake 'Em on Down

When Booker Washington ('Bukka') White had a hit with this song in 1937, it immediately inspired a host of imitations. Blues fans soon were hearing recordings, by an assortment of artists, with names such as "Break ‘Em on Down” or “Ride ‘Em on Down” or “Truck ‘Em on Down.” The craze didn't quite last until "Waltz 'Em on Down" or "Polka 'Em on Down," but if you added up all the royalties White lost by not controlling the copyrights of all the knock-offs, it must have amounted to a pretty Depression-era penny. So it is all the more unfortunate that this recording attributes the tune to Joe McMurrian (and due to some publishing mix-up on the booklet puts down White as the composer of another song on the CD).

Mistaken identities aside, White would have enjoyed this lava hot version of his most popular song. He never cared much for being a traditional blues artist, and was always looking to take his music into the future. And that is just what the high energy Portland band Woodbrain does in this track from their impressive debut on Yellow Dog Records. Woodbrain (formerly the Joe McMurrian Quartet) is one of the best electric blues bands on the scene. They play loose and tight. The energy level starts out a fever pitch and never lets up—and the band brings in just enough of a rock flavor to appeal to younger fans without losing the Delta edginess of their music. Think of Woodbrain as the North Mississippi Allstars of the Pacific Northwest. Certainly this band has enough dynamite in its sound to blow up a small bridge. With the right exposure, Woodbrain could attract a sizable audience.

August 29, 2009 · 0 comments


Fiona Boyes: Howlin' at Your Door

An aptly named artist! If there were ever a lady blues singer/guitarist ready to mix it up with the boys, it is this amazing gal from Australia. Hard to say which is more raw: her vocals or her electric guitar work. But put them together, and Boyes will prove that the raw can also cook. So much for Claude Lévi-Strauss and his binary oppositions! Boyes brings in a number of well-known guest artists elsewhere on this CD (Pinetop Perkins, Marcia Ball, Watermelon Slim), but this track is just a pared-down trio. They really project their sound, however, despite their modest headcount, and remind me of Cream, Clapton's turbocharged electric blues-rock band from the 1960s. Boyes has been recording since the early 1990s and has picked up more than a few awards and accolades along the way, but she proves here what I've always suspected . . . that the great blues artists just get better with age.

August 29, 2009 · 0 comments


Babe Stovall: Big Road Blues / Careless Love

"I ain't the best in the world," Babe Stovall modestly proclaimed at performances, "but I'll do until the best git here." For years, Stovall entertained passersby on the streets of New Orleans, and little did they know how deep ran the blues roots of this spirited showman of the pavement. Here he delivers a moving version of "Big Road Blues," a song that was handed down from guitarist to guitarist in the early decades of the twentieth century, and ismost closely associated with the legendary 1920s-era bluesman Tommy Johnson. This piece is more syncopated than your typical early blues and the guitar part is a timeless bit of Americana, worthy of its own corner in the Smithsonian. The Mississippi Sheiks later adopted the essentials of this song for their "Stop and Listen Blues"—a borrowing which led to that anomaly in the blues field: copyright litigation from Johnson's record label. Stovall's version sounds strikingly like Johnson's, and well it should—he learned this song directly from him, and even knows some additional lyrics that Johnson never recorded. This is the real stuff in the blues world, as authentic as moonshine straight from the still. Blues scholar David Evans has even studied this tune as a sort of African-American equivalent of Homeric aural-oral history, and Mr. Stovall sits in the center of it all. The tourists in the French Quarter never knew that the real historic monument in their midst was that old gentleman with the guitar in his hands.

August 19, 2009 · 0 comments


John Primer: Moanin' at Midnight

This song was such a big hit for Howlin' Wolf back in 1951 that he even recorded his own knock-off version (the oxymoronically-entitled "Morning at Midnight") a short while later. The Wolf, it seems, was signed to two record companies, and both wanted this particular number. Now John Primer contributes his own version to the tribute double-CD Chicago Blues: A Living History. But Primer is no mere imitator, rather a master of Chicago blues in his own right who puts his personal stamp on a song that is not easy to cover. Primer learned his craft under the mentoring of Muddy Waters, and here he shows off his big, deep vocals over a throbbing vamp that just gets gnarlier and gnarlier as the track progresses. This is blues of raw power, with no room for tasty fills and banter, and a good reminder why a whole generation to rockers looked to Chicago blues for their inspiration. This is a fine tribute, indeed but even better, it reminds us that the real Chicago sound is still with us, and not just on the old records.

August 17, 2009 · 0 comments


Etta James & Eddie Cleanhead Vinson: Please Send Me Someone To Love

No truth in advertising here. James and Vinson sing together on just one track on each of the two CDs drawn from a live club date in 1986. Perhaps that was for the best, because Etta is in magnificent form and Eddie, through no fault of his own, can't quite match her. In their careers, both artists proved comfortable performing R&B, blues, and jazz, and here they unite for a priceless version of Percy Mayfield's R&B classic, "Please Send Me Someone to Love." The live atmosphere is electric, as the supper club crowd is obviously psyched.

After a transfixing blues guitar intro by Shuggie Otis, James and Vinson alternate verses, and Etta's more intense style contrasts nicely with Eddie's much more laid-back delivery. James' quavers, melismas, and biting inflections seem to elicit a greater reaction from the audience than Vinson's vocals, which sound like a combination of Billy Eckstine and Arthur Prysock. Unfortunately, "Cleanhead" doesn't play his boppish alto on this track, but Red Holloway's tenor solo more than makes up for that, offering a soulfully unrestrained lesson in blues saxophone eloquence. For two nights in May of 1986, James and Vinson gave those in attendance at Marla's Memory Lane Supper Club a time to always remember, even if they only rarely shared the bandstand.

August 13, 2009 · 0 comments


Joe Bonamassa: The Ballad of John Henry

In a famous folk song, John Henry is the steel-driving man who battles against the steam hammer, and wins—but only at the cost of his life. A similar battle takes place on this track, and for a while I thought the machines would enjoy a quick victory this time around. The opening "notes" sound like a high voltage electric fence being torn to bits by Godzilla. But the intensely, electrified vamp is replaced by a roots-oriented acoustic sound less than a minute into the action. The contrast sets up a powerful hook, and the contrast between plugged-in and unplugged continues throughout the song. Bonamassa is a gripping performer, mixing lowdown blues and high-octane rock in a musical hybrid vehicle that goes from zero to sixty in seconds. This may be the sound of 21st century blues, with British rockers venerated as influential past masters just like the Delta pioneers. Hey, its all part of our aural heritage now. If you like Otis Taylor or the North Mississippi Allstars, this is an artist you will want to get to know.

June 29, 2009 · 0 comments


Otis Taylor: Country Boy, Girl

There may be more technically accomplished guitarists than Otis Taylor, but no one—and I mean no one—plays a meaner vamp. Here he moves to the banjo (which he featured prominently on his previous release Recapturing the Banjo) and gets some serious locomotion out of this countrified instrument. But the real question raised by this new CD is: how does Taylor's take-no-prisoners approach to rhythm match up with a jazz contingent headed by Jason Moran and the "World Music" flavor provided by West African percussionist Fara Tolno? With only four beats in each bar, is there enough pulse for everyone to share? Not to worry! As this track makes clear, this band is as well blended as Johnnie Walker Black, with twice the kick. Even if Otis Taylor is already well represented on your iPod, you need to make room for this performance.

April 22, 2009 · 0 comments


Ramblin' Jack Elliott: Falling Down Blues

Somewhere in the Bill of Rights, American citizens must have been granted the right to complete self-reinvention. How else could Elliott Charles Adnopoz, raised as the son of a respectable Brooklyn doctor, abandon all conventional ties, run away with the rodeo, and end up as Ramblin' Jack Elliott?

That was an eternity ago, and Jack is still ramblin'. Fortunately his travels include (all too rare) stopovers in the recording studio, where he leaves the rest of us a digital taste of what Americana is all about. Elliott is perhaps best known as an influence on Bob Dylan or as an heir to the legacy of Woody Guthrie. But it isn't fair to this artist to see him primarily in terms of those he influenced and those who influenced him. His sound is his own, raw and beautiful, and exists outside of the orbits of Dylan and Guthrie.

On the 2009 album, A Stranger Here, recorded a few days before his 77th birthday, Elliott covers a wide range of traditional songs, but my favorite track is this reinterpretation of a sweet old Furry Lewis tune "Falling Down Blues." Elliott captures the traditional Memphis blues sound perfectly here, with its contradictory combination of lamentation and celebration. This was a style that both recognized the blues as a lover's complaint, but also knew that it was meant to entertain an audience. And Ramblin' Jack Elliott certainly knows how to do just that. May he keep ramblin' forever.

April 06, 2009 · 1 comment


Sippie Wallace (featuring King Oliver): Every Dog Has His Day

After Louis Armstrong had come and gone from King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band, and after the band had collapsed, Oliver branched out. He brought an expanded group—the Dixie Syncopators—into Chicago's Plantation Café. He also recorded with the first of many blues vocalists he would accompany over the next five years.

Blues shouter Sippie Wallace (born Beulah Thomas) came up singing in the Baptist Church and in Texas tent shows. On the arms of her two musical brothers, George W. and Hersal Thomas, she moved into 19-teens New Orleans. Brother George gigged in the Storyville red-light district, where he apparently met Joe Oliver. Ten years later in Chicago, George Thomas likely brought Oliver into this session with his sister, now married and renamed Sippie Wallace—the "Texas Nightingale." Along with Oliver, brother Hersal accompanied Sippie on piano.

The recording is worn and scratched. But perhaps due to the ease between sister-brother Sippie and Hersal, or perhaps because Oliver still has most of his teeth (he would later lose them), his blues accompaniment here is dramatic, thoughtful and lyrical—among the finest of his recordings in this genre. His approach often sounds like that of Armstrong, who would cut similar sides with Bessie Smith.

In the 1970s and '80s, Sippie Wallace toured and recorded with Bonnie Raitt, whom she had inspired to start singing the blues.

March 25, 2009 · 0 comments


Jimmy Smith: Midnight Special

“Midnight Special” may be the tastiest recording Jimmy Smith ever made. Recorded at a session that produced both the albums Back At The Chicken Shack and Midnight Special, this medium blues (an original, not the rock/blues classic) moves along at an absolutely perfect tempo and completely captures the mood of a slow-moving midnight freight train. It’s a groove you could ride all night, and while this cut comes in at just under 10 minutes, you get the feeling that the quartet played on it for another half-hour or so after the recording faded out. In fact, maintaining that groove seemed to be the primary goal and each soloist (most notably Smith) knew how to express himself without losing the mood. And in that regard, it’s important to note that there’s never the feeling of the soloists holding back. It’s just that wonderful skill of playing together to create something bigger and better than its individual parts.

March 15, 2009 · 0 comments


Shemekia Copeland: Black Crow

Popular music has begged, borrowed and stolen from the blues over the years, but rarely pays back in kind. Yet blues music would benefit from a closer relationship with the more creative currents of pop-rock. Here Shemekia Copeland takes on a Joni Mitchell song, and shows what new dimensions emerge when a leading blues diva puts her personal stamp on a poetic pop song. Joni Mitchell's compositions are notoriously resistant to "cover" versions—although many have tried—because her original statements of these songs are so married to her idiosyncratic vocal delivery. Yet Copeland cuts through the difficulties, and unlike so many others, does not try to channel Mitchell's persona while interpreting her music. Shemekia has her own style and sound, and it commands the center stage whether belting out a big blues to the back row or, as in this instance, probing the emotional interstices in a winsome ballad.

March 12, 2009 · 0 comments


Jimmy "Duck" Holmes: Gonna Get Old Someday

Back in the 1920s, record labels scoured the South for blues and roots musicians, undertaking dozens of field trips into remote locations where few industry scouts had previously ventured. Today, the Fat Possum label of Oxford, Mississippi, is still following that recipe, and its commitment to seeking out neglected blues talent off the beaten track has resulted in some of the most exciting CDs of the last decade-and-a-half.

This recording of Jimmy "Duck" Holmes is raw and heartfelt, and is a worthy addition to the Fat Possum stable . . . and your CD collection. Holmes hails from Bentonia, Mississippi, and as such is often linked to Bentonia's most famous native son, bluesman Skip James (1902-1969). But this dark and throbbing track has more stylistic affinities to Northern Mississippi icons R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough (two past masters linked to the Fat Possum label), dearly departed guitarists who proved that a one-man band could dig deeper grooves than the latest model tractor from the John Deere dealership . Holmes does the same, and his plaintive wail here makes Skip James look like an aesthete by comparison. If you like your blues al dente, without a lot of polish and producer "enhancements," this music will fit the bill.

March 04, 2009 · 0 comments


Eddie Lang & Lonnie Johnson: Hot Fingers

"Hot Fingers" is an appropriate title for this track, as these two ultimate masters of jazz and blues guitar in the 1920s take this member of their remarkable series of duets at a fast pace, with a lively, energetic feel and dancing fingers. This is one of those wonderful recordings where the listener with a good ear appreciates the instrumental mastery and superb musical creation, and comes away with spirits lifted and feet dancing along.

With bright, spangly-sounding strums on his uniquely tuned 12-string guitar (as in another gem from the duet series, "Midnight Call Blues"), Lonnie Johnson starts this track, leading into the catchy, rollicking main theme, played with Johnson's extraordinarily nimble fingers. Eddie Lang provides his usual fine harmonic and rhythmic foundation for Johnson's instrumental acrobatics, in this case a rolling, deep-toned foundation. At several points, the two guitarists jibe so perfectly at the rapid tempo in their respective roles—while improvising through the basic prearranged structure—that they seem to have a mystical connection. This is sparkling stuff.

February 04, 2009 · 0 comments


Neil Haverstick: 667 Shuffle

Some people don't like the blues. Can you imagine? I have this friend whose music-freak level almost rivals mine, but blues doesn't make his list. He's been known to joke, "Yeah, I heard that blues record once." Right, they all sound the same. Well, my friend needs to hear Neil Haverstick. While his first love is obviously the blues, he's also heavily involved in microtonal music. To the uninitiated ear, microtonal compositions (where the scale is built on an octave subdivided by a number other than twelve) can be somewhat unsettling. I've likened the experience to the aural equivalent of looking diagonally through an aquarium. Personally, my ears like it, partly because it's a step away from the Western norm. Anyhow, "667 Shuffle" takes a blistering walk through blues changes and then slathers them with some of the most passionate and twisted lines imaginable. It's like, well … OK, maybe it's not like anything you've heard before.

January 30, 2009 · 0 comments


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