So we all know (or maybe not) that I took some time off to chill on the hot and sunny shore of South
Carolina recently. I had planned on getting some work done, and did – but not in the ‘traditional’ sense of what I do.
Meeting new people and getting better acquainted with others led to some interesting discussions about the ‘mysterious’ Blues genre. Such things as, “it’s Jazz right”, “it’s always depressing”, “what are the real Blues”, “you should write more for the novice, so we can learn more” – - - all these things played out before me as I tried to explain the differences, the subtleties, the glorious oxymoronic nature of it, and goodness knows what else to everyone and anyone who was interested. Yes they were interested, that’s a good thing. From seventeen year old Michael, who plays a little guitar wanting me to show him some Blues licks and patterns, to a new member of the half century club, Judy, wanting to really understand what makes the Blues the Blues and how she could learn more without feeling overwhelmed.
While there I had a good supply of CD’s that I had planned on listening to and reviewing, and was glad I did. I gave them out to these good folks – carefully selecting styles that I felt would compel them to learn more about the mother of American Roots Music. Thanks to the various publicists, record companies, Sirius/XM Bluesville 70 and all the artists who have allowed me to hear and spread the music in reviews or by word of mouth. So what I will do here is to offer up, for them and others – not a stale, word-smithing version of what the Blues are – but a sampler of music that in some respects illustrates how wide ranging and complex the genre is. These are newer releases, I chose them because of the familiar feel and production values that they contain, no need for trying to listen over scratchy vinyl.
I hope that you enjoy it and maybe pass it around and also hopefully pick up some of these discs and add
them to your collection. It is by no means being stated as a de facto standard. It is just the evolution of what went on in South Carolina and my attempt to help clarify and educate friends of all ages to the greatness that is the Blues.
K.K. Martin: Naked Blues, Vol. II (Ranell Records) www.kkmartin.com
What better way to introduce someone to the traditional aspect of the Blues than with K.K. Martin’s ‘Naked Blues Vol. II’. While there are many choices, I was looking for something that was fairly current and featured the songs of artists that may be known to the casual fan. And, oh yes, it needed to be really, really good.
Here we have a man and his guitar – that’s it, copping to the title ‘Naked Blues’ it is that personal and that private a release here.With the first cut ‘Rattlesnake Shake‘, a cover of the Peter Green tune, Mr. Martin revels the true nature of this song with some slithering slide guitar and gritty ‘c’est la vie’ vocals that reiterate the inevitable outcome of shakin’ that rattlesnake. Next up is a Rev. Gary Davis tune, ‘Slow Motion Daddy‘, done with justice featuring excellent finger picking and slide work here.
On this ten track release Mr. Martin covers both past and modern era greats. From one of the sweetest versions of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s ‘See That My Grave Is Kept Clean‘, to a dark interpretation of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ song, ‘Alligator Wine’ which allows us to rusticate in that swampy, unctuous bayou with the moon burning bright at midnight.
Moving to a more modern master, Johnny Winter, K.K. states that Johnny is a true hero – responsible for bringing the Blues to young rockers worldwide. Mr. Martin’s cover of ‘Dallas‘ is a slide filled, grit encrusted wrangling of Mr. Winter’s musical tribute to the big D. Included also on this release are two Tom Waits tunes. Mr. Waits may not be thought of as a Blues artist, but what Mr. Martin does with these tunes leaves no doubt that with a skilled interpreter amazing results can be accomplished. While we are drawn to Mr. Martin’s guitar playing, careful listening to his voice shows a depth and sincerity that is paramount in the Blues world.
What the listener will get from this release is the authentic true feel of acoustic blues played by a man whose love of the music coupled his own superior talent and confidence shine through, and in doing so make for one compelling release that will appeal to hard core Blues fans as well as the new members of our congregation. The figure of the solitary blues artist with their guitar is almost symbolic of the genre itself. Robert Johnson, Mississippi Fred McDowell, John Lee Hooker, to more recently Rory Block, Fiona Boyes , Guy Davis and Eric Bibb, these individuals are a true link to the past.
Jackie Johnson: Memphis Jewel (Catfood Records) www.catfoodrecords.com
The eternal discussion as to the relationship between Blues music and church music is an interesting one. We have had Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Aretha Franklin (daughter of a preacher man), Reverend Gary Davis and Son House among countless others, male and female, who have straddled that fine line between Gods’ and the Devil’s music. Looking for something that would incorporate these qualities – while being familiar we find Ms. Jackie Johnson.
Opening with ‘It Should Have Been Me‘ which was originally done by Gladys Night & the Pips back in 1968, we find Ms. Johnson displaying her gospel roots and giving palpable distress to the bridesmaid’s situation as her ‘man’ weds another woman. Give her voice a listen to (ignore the groove if you can) and you will hear all the joy and grief that comes from such a situation as well as it’s roots in the cold comfort of the church where the ceremony is taking place.
Another superb cover is the Smokey Robinson & The Miracles signature piece ‘Tears of A Clown’. Featuring Ms. Reba Russell on background vocals and an enticing mix of instrumentation, they work together to help Ms. Johnson perform a musical act of eminent domain (not an uncommon occurence in music). While it might still be Smokey’s, Jackie has claimed a piece of it for her own. What follows this track is an absolute killer duet with Memphis legend Mr. Johnny Rawls. ‘Love You Still’ harkens to the days of such classic duets as Otis Redding & Carla Thomas in the hey-day of Stax Records. The pure force of these two vocalists makes you sit up and take notice on this Johnny Rawls penned song. One other familiar track is Betty Wright’s ‘Clean Up Woman’ a true Southern soul classic.
Ms. Johnson gives undeniable verity to what the human voice can do and the range of options that a quality artist possesses. With this release we can also remember that back in the day – yeh THE day – the Blues were ruled by female singers, Ida Cox, Memphis Minnie, Ma Rainey, Mamie Smith. With releases such as this one I have to attest that, to me, they still run the roost.
Lubriphonic: The Gig Is On (Lubricated World, Inc.) www.lubriphonic.com
It is said that ‘the Blues are the Roots , and everything else is just the fruits’….if this is so, then we should having no problem in accepting R&B as part of the Blues world. Rhythm & Blues incorporates Funk, Soul and whatever else industry moguls spuriously devise to keep us divided. R&B, Soul, Funk and yes, Hip-Hop are consanguine with the Blues.
Please allow me to introduce one of the funkiest, greasiest bands around currently. Lubrophonic. Based out of Chicago (the Northern home of the Blues where Muddy Waters went and turned it electric, as well as Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon to modern day apostles such as Buddy Guy, Nick Moss, Liz Mandeville, Billy Branch, and The Brooks Family all reside) this band is busy keeping the world lubricated and dancing in the aisles and living rooms across America.
With a drum roll, reminiscent of a circus intro, which turns into a spanking solo, quickly joined by such impertinent horns that we have no choice to listen up at the ‘Rhino‘ coming down the track. If you can get thru this cut without banging on the table or dancing – then as the old Blues adage goes – “Jack, you’re dead”. With trumpet, sax, trombones intermixed with keyboards, bass and filthy guitar licks and rhythms we feel much at home and in familiar company here. Sly Stone, Tower of Power and Curtis Mayfield amongst others. But they are current not regurgitated rhythms and music.
At times the vocals remind me of Anthony Kiedis from Red Hot Chili Peppers, with their rapid fire staccato delivery on such tracks as ‘Under The Line’ by band leader Giles Corey. Then they move to a hip-hop feel with lyrics that speak of hot summer nights, punks on the train, and dope men hangin’ on the streets. ‘The Getaway’ is a prime example of such vocal treatments, with piercing lyrics to add to the gritty inner-city urban feel, then they break off into an organ riff laced with acid jazz overtones which then gives way to the ghost of Terry Kath on guitar.
We hear the influences of Rock, Latin, and Soul which come together with such musical authority that it effectively proceeds to abrogate the artificial boundaries that separate the musical styles from one another. This is most apparent in the title track ‘The Gig Is On’ which starts out with a steady groove and soft wah-wah effects from the guitar and picks up force and speed much like a ride in the express track of a runaway subway train. Bolstered by two sizzling sax solos and searing guitar work it is truly a fast paced drive thru the bands world and leaves no room for the weak hearted or for fools.
This album features Ivan Neville playing organ on three cuts as well as the clavinet on one. His appearance solidifies the wide range of urban influences that paint the grooves of this release as they travel from inner cities up and down the Mississippi as the forefathers of the Blues did. We sometimes forget that music is energy and it expresses desires, deep inner feelings and a drive to transcend the current situation of the artist, whether it be in a simple song or a rave up of epic proportions they are all about life. This release captures these dynamics and lays them out for all to hear.
Lee Pons: Big Boogie Voodoo (Mind Balm Records) www.leepons.com
Can you believe that just as women once ruled the Blues scene – that the piano was king. Yeah, long before the guitar became the rattlenake that shakes the blues world the trusty 88′s were the driving force in the blues. Such luminaries as Amos Milburn, Leroy Carr, Meade ‘Lux’ Lewis up through ‘Champion’ Jack Dupree, Memphis Slim to Ray Charles, Pinetop Perkins and Otis Spann. These names resonate with the soul of the Blues – piano blues.
Lee Pons is out of Florida, but his soul is in New Orleans. He comes from a family of accomplished, even famous musicians. In the 1930′s his dad played upright bass in big bands and was in the Danny Kaye film ‘A Song Is Born’ which featured a jam session with Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton and Benny Goodman (that was Lee’s dad on the bass). But the bass wasn’t for Lee, he found his calling one night seeing the good Dr. John on Don Kirschner’s Rock Concert – it was all over for him.
Opening the release with ”The Voodoo Boogie‘ we jump the train down to new Orleans and never look back. Showing some serious left handed bass runs and joyous right handed fingering we are treated to a showcase of ivory and we are now, hooked. The third track is titled ‘Blues for Nawlins’ and it is a moody pace enhanced by loving lyrics for his adopted home. His vocals sit deep in the chest and rasp like the long black line still hanging over the fifth ward and other areas forgotten by America, but underneath is the undying hope that it will return to its ol’ self.
With the Professor Longhair song ‘Her Mind Is Gone’ Lee pays tribute to one of the great Nawlins pianists. A full tilt boogie woogie with a solid walking bass line and enough triplets to make even octomom happy Mr. Pons shows a deep respect and understanding of the classic music of New Orleans and ‘Fess to inspire anyone to learn more about this style.
The love song here would be ‘Me Minus You’ as Lee pines the loss of his lover and how ‘me minus you equals lonliness’. With a sideways nod to Leon Russell this track is a nice change from the up tempo collection that he offers us. Slow, heart felt and with a sincerity that might scare other men away he does a fine, fine job of relating the situation and where it stands. Not to get too hung up on ‘real feelings’ Lee proceeds to ‘Radiate the 88′s’ in true piano man boogie fashion, then hits us with an cleverly titled ‘BoogieRobics’. I can see all the ladies at Zumba class shaking their money makers to this, well actually I can see everyone dancing to this at his shows – a solid boogie which holds a mirror of reverance to Pinetop and Sunnyland Slim.
This release will open up the cupboard and allow many folks to listen forward while looking back at the piano greats that once ruled the jook joints and chicken shacks. People like Art Tatum, Jellyroll Morton, Roosevelt Sykes and even the current crop such as Dr. John, Mitch Woods, Eden Brent and Marcia Ball – all worthy torch bearers of the radiatin’ the 88′s legacy.
As I set off to accomplish this simple task of revealing used mysteries, I realized that it was taking on a life of it’s own. It already has experienced shape shifting and directional movements that I had not foreseen. That being said, I like the way it is working on the many different levels, I believe that new fans will gain insight into the disarmingly reassuring world of Blues music, and will return for more. For the experienced readers they will, no doubt, have their hackles raised by some of my choices. But since this is a ‘friendly cactus’ of sorts it is meant to start conversations, or perhaps to open eyes. It is that exact jinxed charm that flows in the blood of the Blues and sometimes makes it hard for outsiders to grasp. So with your kind allowance I will make this into a multi part blog and hope you are looking forward to part II with sulky optimism.
Until next time,
Love, Peace & Chicken Grease,
photos: courtesy of artists.
The Blues: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blues
Female Blues Singers: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Classic_female_blues
Piano Blues: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piano_blues
by no means comprehensive but it’s a start, just Google Blues, The Blues or some of the names above and sit back and relax as the world opens up to ya.