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September 2000

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Larry Garner
Once Upon The Blues
Ruf Records

Larry GarnerLuckily for us, Europe has always had a love affair with Larry Garner. When he was deemed "too blues" for a recording contract in the States, he was quickly signed to London-based JSP Records, and released two critically acclaimed albums, Too Blues and Double Dues. When a subsequent agreement with Verve fell through and Garner was left with no record label, he went back to Europe, this time signing with a German company, Ruf Records. 

His difficulties to find proper support in his homeland have never prevented the Baton Rouge native from writing amazing blues songs. In fact, if there is one writer in the blues field nowadays that comes close to the perfect songwriting of Percy Mayfield, it's Larry Garner. His latest release, Once Upon the Blues, is further proof of that. 

The CD opens with "Where Blues Turn Black," a beautiful parable. In the song, Garner advises someone who's reached a certain point not to continue further, as he'll never be able to come back. Even though it's never spelled out in so many words, it could be construed as an advice to someone about to commit suicide, though the imagery recalls something of the wondrous nature of the magical world in Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings

That song is a real masterpiece, but even the "minor" themes are worth your attention. For example, Garner writes a song about gambling ("A Real Gambling Woman"), which in blues lore is about the most written-about subject ever, apart from drinking and doing horizontal contact with someone of the other sex. But even if the theme isn't new, Garner's treatment of it is fresh. He chooses the realistic approach, focusing on the effects of gambling addiction on the life of those involved. 

Hey, I might be looking too hard, but even simple fun songs like "Slower Traffic - Keep Right" (a hilarious diatribe against slow drivers) and "That Was Her Dance" (a funky dance tune) manage to throw in a couple of comments about road rage and the right to be different, respectively. 

Other highlights include "The Muddy River," Garner's tribute to the Mississippi, and "Nothing But Life," his definition of what is 'The Blues'. 

What makes Garner absolutely essential is the fact that, as good a writer as he is, he's just as adept at singing and playing his guitar. 

Still not sure whether you should buy this record? Then let me tell you about the players behind Larry Garner. The rhythm section of Joe Hunter and Lester Delmore is as tight as can be, enabling the soloists to do their stuff. Even if Garner takes the brunt of the solo work, always tasteful and never overdone, we do get to hear plenty of piano, Fender Rhodes, Hammond B-3 and other rich keyboard sounds by Ernest Williamson. Then there's Seiji Yuguchi on harmonica, who's got everything needed to become a star in his own right. 

I might not always agree with Garner (I feel his stand on firearms in "Edward Had a Shotgun" is untenable), but I'll tell you one thing: this album is a must, and you owe it to yourself to grab it.

 --- Benoît Brière

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