Brill Report: New Blues Recordings To Savor
“I’m a bluesman moving through a blues-soaked America, a blues-soaked world, a planet where catastrophe and celebration- joy and pain sit side by side. The blues started off in some field, some plantation, in some mind, in some imagination, in some heart. The blues blew over to the next plantation, and then the next state. The blues went south to north, got electrified and even sanctified. The blues got mixed up with jazz and gospel and rock and roll.”
In following Cornel West’s journey through a “blues-soaked America,” a journey to New Orleans was made last Fall to attend the 7th Annual Crescent City Blues and Barbeque Festival. (A report of the musical highlights of this free blues festival appeared in a March edition of hpSOUNDINGS). In addition to the heady blues and great pulled pork sampled at the Crescent City Festival, one could also browse tables (set up under the trees of New Orleans’ leafy Lafayette Park) that contained tasty offerings of new blues recordings. One of these tables was organized by Living Blues Magazine, America’s first blues publication. [Living Blues was founded in Chicago in 1970 and is now published bimonthly by the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi (www.livingblues.com)]. In the latest issue of Living Blues Magazine there appeared a tribute to Michael “Iron Man” Burks, who died tragically of heart failure at the age of 54 in 2012. Hailing from Arkansas, Burks was a brilliant gunslinger of a guitarist with a baritone voice of molten honey. Burks recorded four albums on the Alligator label, and his last, entitled Show of Strength was released posthumously in late 2012. Show of Strength features Burks with his standout road band including Wayne Sharp on organ and keyboards; Terrence Grayson on bass and Chuck Louden on drums.
The tunes on Show of Strength range far and wide, from swaying gospel-tinged ballads like “Take A Chance on Me, Baby” and “Since I Been Loving You” to blistering Chicago blues in “Valley of Tears” and the Muddy Water’s influenced “Little Juke Joint.” Each of these tunes illustrate how Burks effortlessly combined a volatile electric guitar style with a robust and expressive voice that was a special match made in blues heaven. For an example of his craft, listen to “24 hour Blues” and hang on Burkes’ special way with slow twisting guitar licks entwined perfectly with deep inspired vocals. Another highlight of Show of Strength is Burks’ version of the classic “Can You Read Between The Lines.” This number features a sprawling, soulful rock groove riding upon Burks’ mellifluous voice and pounded down by chugging drum and bass lines. The only downside to Show of Strength is its recording quality. It suffers from an unnatural pumped up volume, treble harshness and excess dryness. Still, even with these shortcomings, this recording is a testament to an indomitable blues talent taken too soon. It deserves an audition, along with Burks’ other discography, if only to explore Burks’ exhilarating guitar style and perfectly matched raw, vital vocals.
Another new blues recording picked up at the Living Blues table at the Crescent City Festival was a stunner entitled Delta Time [Blue Groove] from blues stringers Terry Evans, Hans Theessink and their spirited cohorts, including background vocalists Arnold McCuller and Willie Greene Jr., along with guitarist Ry Cooder on several cuts. In contrast to the Burks recording, Delta Time is superbly recorded to ensnare all of the deep emotional depth of this (mostly) acoustic blues set, tinged with the solar warmth of exquisite gospel harmonies. This is an audiophile gem, offering great image dimensionality, a deep and layered soundstage and best of all, a limpid capturing of each human breath and intonation, (and graceful nylon string strike) which is a joy to behold.
Delta Time comes out of the gate firing on all cylinders on the title cut that rides a deep groove oiled by radiant guitar work and bass vocal harmonies that leap from the back of the deep soundstage. Acoustic guitar solos sparkle and fly as they do elsewhere on the sardonic “I Need Money” and the hard driving classic, “How Come People Act Like That.” In contrast to these rollicking cuts, Delta Time also offers the sweet, lilting simplicity of “Build Myself A Home” and “Honest I Do,” both impeccable in their unfolding of vocal harmonies accompanied by spare wisps of guitar strums. Delta Time also contains some of the most searing blues ballads you will hear in some time. “Blues Stay Away From Me” pits Theessink’s craggy vocals against Evan’s honeyed soulful harmonies, all wrapped up in glowing guitar vestments. And “Down in Mississippi” delivers a slow-burning condemnation of racism that quietly explodes in Evan’s elegiac and angry vocals and the accompanying spare, dignified guitar hits. The crispness of the guitar attacks; the beautiful thickets of vocal harmonies entwining blues and gospel influences – its all here on Delta Time in one glorious burst of blues glory.
And speaking of blues glory, there’s another guy plying his trade whose artistry is second to none in today’s blues rambling science. We’re talking about Doug Macleod, whose past classics on the (Joe Harley produced) Audioquest label are barnburner audiophile gems (including my favorite: Whose Truth, Whose Lies [Audioquest 1054] with Terry Evans lending some background vocal magnificence). Macleod has recently rambled over to Reference Recordings and through their Fresh! Label imprint recorded his 2011 Brand New Eyes (“Brand”)[FR 703] and now, on the Reference Recordings label, has recorded There’s A Time (“Time”)[Reference Recording 130]. Both titles are superb in their sonic ensnaring of the musical drama taking place in these individual recording spaces and the special chemistry between Macleod and his compatriots: Denny Croy on acoustic bass and drummers Dave Kida (on Brand) and Jimi Bott (on Time).
Macleod sings with a expansive range of intonations and vocal expressions that range from bitter to whispering sweet; vocals fitting each one of his songs like a soft, weathered boot around a foot. His skills as a songwriter encompass a comic and sardonic side as well as a tender side (like a young, green shoot of grass in the Spring Time). He can glisten with irony, firing off sly and biting lyrics like on “The Nature of the Man” (from Brand) or “The Entitled Few” (from Time). His compositions can also be slow brewing and pungent like smoke on the wind, as in “One Eyed Owl” (from Brand) or “Black Nights” and “Ghost” (from Time).
His guitar prowess is also vividly on display on these two stellar recordings. Macleod can pull out all the stops with furious guitar licks on cuts like “Welcome In Your Home” (from Brand) or in contrast, spin delicate filigrees of notes with such sweetness as on “Rosa Lee” and the gospel affirmation of “The Up Song” (both from Time). Macleod’s band mates are sympathetic partners, whether it be the shimmering sounds created by Bott’s soft mallet work on cymbals to create the haunting background for “Black Nights” or the quicksilver acoustic bass lines provided by Croy to anchor the kinetic grooves of “A Ticket Out” (both from Time). There is a directness of feeling and delivery of acoustic blues on these two recordings that is as fine as you will hear. When Macleod arches up his voice to sing the anthem, “Some Old Blues Song” (taken from Brand) – “so damn much that the blues can do”- his resonant guitar and plangent vocals transport the blues from their origins right to the present moment. In Macleod’s hands, it’s Soul music, through and through.
Directness of feeling and delivery of fine acoustic blues is also the hallmark of other stellar blues recordings collected from the Living Blues table at the Crescent City Festival. The first is from Rory Block, playing her Tribute to Mississippi Fred McDowell [Stony Plain Records 1344]. From the opening cascade of acoustic guitar colors (that spill out and over from Block’s signature Martin guitar) in “Steady Freddy”, there is that prickly soulfulness that has marked Rory Block’s blues artistry for years. This particular recording of Block’s is a heady stew of great blues tunes from McDowell mixed with the bladelike articulation of Block’s guitar concatenations and her frisky vocal style. Cuts like “Kokamo Blues”, “Shake ‘Em On Down” and “Worried Mind” are bright and propulsive, with Block hemming and hawing with spirited vocal calls and slippery slide guitar licks. Her work up high on her guitar neck is marked by terse metallic hits accompanied by percussive swipes to the wooden body of her guitar. Block can also drown in the blues muck with the best of them, as illustrated by “The Man I’m Lovin’” and “What’s The Matter Now.” Block’s vocals soar and collide next to her intricate flinty note selections, breathing tumultuous force into these McDowell slow burners. There is condemnation and anger here too, highlighted by “The Breadline,” Block’s gritty composition that utilizes the scalpel of McDowell’s searing guitar rifts to full effect. The recording, although slightly lean and sibilant on Block’s highest ranges of vocal and guitar, does convey nicely the air and space around her vocal and guitar presence in this recording space. The recording offers a close up and personal perspective on Block’s kinetic energy; she’s a blues gale-force to be reckoned with.
Gale force blues power is also on display in two blues recordings from masters of that proverbial metallic engine of the blues: the harmonica. We’re talking about the dual harmonica aces of Province Hatch Jr., (better known as “Little Hatch”), and Kim Wilson. Chad Kassem of the venerable Acoustic Sounds label produced Little Hatch in a bright and gutsy acoustic session (in duet with guitarist extraordinaire Bill Dye) entitled Going Back [APO 2007]. In classics such as “You Don’t Have To Go,” “Fannie Mae”, Rock Me Baby” and “Buzz On,” Hatch and Dye deliver searing and soulful blues, captured in all of their exuberant textures and tones. Hatch’s voice can be shadowy or spirited next to his shimmering harmonica, which expresses every drop of its metallic glory. The recording is as good as it gets, with beautiful image dimensionality; a deep and airy soundstage and best of all, timbres and textures exposed at every effusive turn.
Such beautiful capture of musical fervor is also evidenced on another recent recording from a totally different direction: that cinematic storyteller and brilliant guitarist, Mark Knopfler. What was Knopfler’s latest recording, Privateering [Mercury] doing on the Living Blues table at the Crescent City Festival you ask? Well, grab a copy of it and dig into it for blues treasures, particularly when Knopfler joins forces with the sly harmonica ace, Kim Wilson. When these two get together with their band mates there is nothing to stop them. From the effusive stomps of the blistering “Got To Have Something;” “Hot Or What” and “Today Is OK” to the shimmering acoustic beauty of “Bluebird” and “Blood and Water” this band is on a roll. Wilson propels with his sparring harmonica, weaving in and out of Knopfler’s warm guitar lines, Tim O’Brien’s mandolin and Jim Cox’s spanking piano solos. On launching the volatile “I Used To Could,” Wilson’s harmonica is a revelation as it plows deep in an ostinato rising pattern that lubricates the slither and shake of this great swinging blues tune. Here, Wilson “chases after Little Red Riding Hood”, out of breath, with his harmonica shimmering and shaking till the last big blast of drum and bass.
Knopfler sputters on a few forgettable numbers on this two-CD recording, but the gems far outweigh those, especially when he pairs with Wilson or when he delves into his cinematic bag of tricks, such as on the elegiac “Kingdom of Gold” (that could be the theme song for HBO’s wondrous series “Game of Thrones”). Knopfler’s plunging and huge slow blues tune entitled “Don’t Forget Your Hat” is a good place to close the door on the Crescent Blues Festival. With this haul of new blues gem recordings, its time to head out (with your New Orleans style brim hat properly aligned) and continue the eclectic journey through this “blues soaked America.