Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Bo Diddley found his identity early in his career and didn’t hesitate to flaunt it. On this 15- track, 60- minute CD, Hey Bo Diddley - A Tribute! (Evidence Music), you hear plenty of the infamous and easily-identifiable Bo Diddley beat. Evidence has brought together today’s most popular blues artists to pay homage to the classic repertoire (1955-1962) of the Father of Rock and Roll, as produced by Carla Olson. Each track retains the beat, humor and menace that resulted in Bo being revered by numerous generations. All numbers are performed with the drive and stamina of a teen playing to a wild teenage audience. Charlie Karp (guitar) was the bandleader for the studio group. He states, "my philosophy was not to annoy the purists … but to make the sound new enough that a generation who didn’t necessarily know Bo could turn onto it." Other core band members include Michael Merritt (bass) and James Wormworth (drums). Any decent late ' 50s/early ' 60s Rock and Roll record requires rollicking piano. Peter Fish and guest Barry Goldberg handle this by making their 88s shake and quake. The innovative and hard to label Taj Mahal does an astounding rendition of "Bo Diddley." It is the finest that the disc has to offer. Mahal plays acoustic guitar with a kick. Walter Trout’s scratchy vocals and flame-throwing fretboard are well suited for "Road Runner." Fish’s hustling keyboards pave the highway for this speed-racer. "Ride On Josephine" is cutting and grooving. Here, Eric Sardinas successfully plants a plethora of cruising images to the listener. The song is definitive proof that Rock and Roll is an American art form. Tommy Castro’s sandy vocals infuse soulful R&B into "I Can Tell." The latest single from Coco Montoya is a Motown cover tune. Here, he lavishly does justice to "Pills." Is there any style of music Coco cannot do?! Sugar Blue’s "Mona" sounds similar to "Hey Bo Diddley." The song’s relaxed pace means you can actually keep up with all the notes that Blue blazes from his harp. Otis Rush’s voice confidently sings out praises on "I’m A Man." Charlie Musselwhite’s wizened voice can’t keep up with the pounding band on "Hey Bo Diddley," but his harmonica sure does. "Don’t Let It Go" gets Guitar Shorty rocking and rumbling. No one will confuse Son Seals for Bo Diddley. Son lays his sharp, quick note picking atop Bo’s autobiographical "My Story." Other tunes feature Joe Louis Walker, Corey Harris, Kris Wiley, Michael Burks and Roy Gaines. Minimally, this retrospective disc, made to resemble a well- worn 45" single, will force listeners to conclude that Bo has rightfully been acknowledged as one of Rock and Roll’s forefathers. Ideally, this contemporary disc will convert a few listeners to the blues. Truly, this modern-day flashback disc is sure to turn some new people onto Bo by bringing yesterday to tomorrow. For further information, contact Evidence Music Inc., 1110 E. Hector Street, Suite 392, Conshohocken, PA 19428 USA, Tel: (610) 832-0844, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
--- Tim Holek
Lamar, Mississippi is a tiny town just six miles south of the Tennessee state line. If you were driving through, you might not even notice it if you blinked. This was the birthplace of singer Floyd Lee, who has a stunning new release on Amogla Records, Mean Blues. Lee was raised in Mississippi, picking cotton in the summer, attending school in Memphis during the winter, and listening to his father, known as Guitar Floyd, sing and play the blues. He was eventually sent by his family up north, which resulted in much travel from Chicago (where he shined shoes), to Flint, Michigan, and to Cleveland (where he once won a contest to be a batboy for the Indians for two weeks the year they won the World Series). In Cleveland, he sang in his church choir and took up the guitar, making a name for himself around town as a performer at various clubs and parties. He even sat in for Eddie Taylor occasionally when Jimmy Reed came to town (Lee also played rhythm guitar, though he received no credit, on Reed’s “Honest I Do”) and later opened for Wilson Pickett (later playing guitar on “I Found A Love”). Lee moved to New York and worked as a doorman for nearly 30 years, always playing the blues on the side. Now that he’s retired, he’s playing the blues on a full time basis. Mean Blues is an excellent album, one of the best I’ve heard this year. Though Lee doesn’t play guitar here, his vocals sound great and he is able to go from a hushed whisper to a feral growl with ease. There are some forays into Chicago Blues (“How Low Can You Go,” “Hard Working Woman” and “High Maintenance Woman”), a lively “Lose My Number,” and the spooky opening track, “Down In Lamar,” which is the only track written by Lee. It recounts a tale from Lee’s youth about a father who killed his young daughter and then himself, and opens the album on a sober note. The title cut is another standout, with Lee’s growling vocals, George Papageorge’s somber B-3, and guitarist Joel Poluck’s delicate fills and a stinging solo. Oddly enough, there’s an instrumental, “Pea Patch Blues,” where Lee is nowhere to be found. That’s okay, though, because this track features Poluck, Lee’s regular sideman, who wrote 11 of the 12 songs, produced and helped mix the record, played lead guitar and lap steel, and probably parked cars in front of the studio in his spare time. Judging by his efforts here, Lee is in very capable hands. Also appearing is guitarist Zach Zunis, who previously worked with Billy Boy Arnold and William Clarke, and provides some tasty licks himself. The entire band is first-rate, giving Lee all the support he needs. This CD has the total package, great performances, excellent songwriting, fine production, and a top notch front man. Run on over to www.amoglarecords.com and pick this one up. You won’t be disappointed.
--- Graham Clarke
Projects like Earnest Davis' new CD, Real Soul (Sims Records), should be recorded, reported and then awarded. Well, obviously the first has done, and now we are doing the second. The only things missing are the awards which will surely come. This is the finest soul CD by a new artist (or at least new to me) that I have heard in quite some time. Earnest Davis is a great singer and fine songwriter. This release showcases his country/soul leanings, and once again focuses on the parallel roads that Southern Soul and Country Music travel. The CD opens with the beautiful ballad "Two Wrongs," which could have easily opened a Travis Tritt or Tim McGraw CD and been a contender on the country charts. That song has been buzzing around in my head since I first heard it. The second track, an upbeat track titled "Nobody Told Me," with it's funky horns and twangy guitars, blends the best of C&W and soul. "Too Late, She's Gone" is a finely crafted ballad about lost love and certainly one of the album's choice tracks. The use of live musicians throughout adds to the perfection of this release. The horns are tight just like those early Stax releases, which allows a fine cover version of Otis Redding's "These Arms of Mine" to blend perfectly with the nine original tunes here. "Big Belly Blues" is a fun song about getting old, with its classic lines "...I got the big belly blues, cause it's been ten long years since I've seen my shoes..." That track is followed by my favorite cut on this CD, the wonderful "I Wish Yesterday Had Never Come." It's a great vehicle for both Davis' fine vocals and the band to strut their stuff. In summation, this is a great new release that deserves all the possible support it can get. CDs like this are few and far between. There are too many companies that take the easy way out, using programmed instruments and inexpensive production. This release, Real Soul, is indeed just that, giving it the highest recommendation. Order yours from SIMS Records 4100 Murfreesboro Rd. Franklin, TN. 37067.
Those lucky enough to have seen Little Milton at Blues Blast 2002 here in Arizona were treated to a great performance by one of the true icons of the blues. Now we have Little Milton's newest release and we are being treated once again. Guitar Man (Malaco Records) is a superb CD without a weak track. From the autobiographical title song which opens the CD, to the funny "Still Some Meat Left On This Bone," to the touching ballad "I Could Have Saved Our Love," you are led down a path of finely crafted well written and produced songs with Milton's voice as smooth as a sip of Hennessey. The years have been kind to Milton, as he looks and sings like a young man. In the wonderful David Whiteis feature article on Artie "Blues Boy" White in the recent issue of Living Blues, he noted that White's career reminiscences were punctuated with respectful nods toward mentors like B.B. King, Little Milton and Bobby Bland. The reason I am mentioning an article about White in a Little Milton review is that White says too many of modern blues/soul artists rely so heavily on synthesizers, but as White points out, "You take me, Bobby Bland, Little Milton, we don't use them. I want live musicians. I get my soul, my feel from live musicians." Therein lies part of the strength of this new Little Milton release. It was recorded at Muscle Shoals Recording Studio and at Malaco Recording Studios in Jackson, Mississippi with some of the finest session men around today, such as David Hood, Reggie Young, Jimmy Johnson, Larry Byrom and Clayton Ivey. They add to the professionalism of this release, making it one of Milton's finest efforts to date, and perhaps his finest in his long tenure at Malaco. One only has to listen to the great George Jackson song, "You Were On The Right Street," or the great duet with Karen Brown on the old Candi Staton tune, "Mr. And Mrs. Untrue," both of which are getting heavy airplay in the southern regions of the country. He has chosen to close the CD with the evergreen "My Way," and Milton makes this Sinatra classic his own. When he sings "I did it my way," you know he is speaking from his heart. This is one of this year's finest releases and will no doubt get many accolades. This is a must for everyone's Christmas list. Treat yourself and those you love to Guitar Man. Listening to Little Milton on Christmas day ... how sublime.
--- Alan Shutro
Once again the fantastic and ever growing roster of blues artists on the Telarc label are assembled en masse to form a powerful outing on that always important subject matter --- love and all it's trappings --- in it's newest compilation CD, From Matrimony to Alimony: Blues for Good Love Gone Bad (Telarc). Most blues purists usually state that the blues is a good feeling done gone bad, and it's proven wholeheartedly here. All extremes of the emotional roller coaster one may experience in the arena of love are beautifully rendered throughout this disc, woven by today's and yesterday's most endearing blues players. Kicking off in grand style is Kenny Neal (of the all-talented Neal family out of Baton Rouge, La.) belting out his ultimatum "No More One More Chance," backed with his solid lead guitar and harp playing. Following Neal's lead, we're treated to great harp histrionics laid down by Sugar Ray Norcia, surrounded by a wonderful vocal by none other than Charlie Musselwhite, who we usually hear with his mouth wrapped around a mouth organ himself, in the tune "Life will be Better." Lyrically this song is very to the point in its narrator's "love talk." Other highlights include a somewhat funny approach to handling love matters in Sam Lay's "I'm Gonna Shoot Her." Hopefully this expression is not to be taken literally (though you never know). Tab Benoit's boogie bopping tune, "Her Mind is Gone," examines the "mental" side of things. From Joe Louis Walker's latest comes the lowdown acoustic funk of "Strangers in Our House." Charlie Musselwhite surfaces again with a classic, soulful tune, featuring his vocals that are eerily reminiscent of the King (not B.B., but Elvis) in the song "Faithless Lover." The three-pronged guitar attack of Debbie Davies, Kenny Neal and Tab Benoit inform us to "Deal With It." Super stuff all the way through, no surprise considering the label. Even the cover rates high in concept, with a split photo of a wedding cake with the groom figurine stuffed upside down in the cake. Just one minor suggestion to Telarc, if I may. Only the catalogue number is referenced in each credit breakdown, without the CD title offered, which if included would help the newcomer or novice find the individual CDs easier at their local music stores. As always you can easily find this CD and all the artists' efforts at www.telarc.com. Happy listening.
Recorded live at the House of Blues in Los Angeles, just down the road from the Downey neighborhood where they first came together nearly 25 years ago, this reunion set of The Blasters serves as testament to the power of American music. The Blasters were a roots band before the term was coined. One of the most powerful live recordings I’ve ever heard, Trouble Bound (Hightone), captures the veterans in stellar form. Having lived in San Diego for most of the 1980s, I was lucky enough to have seen the Blasters in the prime half a dozen times at outdoor concerts and clubs. Along with X and Los Lobos, the Blasters ruled Southern California. Legendary blues guitarist Hollywood Fats had just joined the band when he died in 1986. His manager told me at the time that Fats was ecstatic, even though he had already played in Albert King’s band. That’s how major the Blasters were in Southern California. It’s always been difficult for me to gauge what kind of effect they had beyond the state line. Friends in Detroit are aware of the Blasters. They just don’t seem to be as in awe as I am. The folks in attendance for the March and June 2000 shows at HOB were well aware of who they came to see. These were incendiary performances cheered on by an equally fired-up audience. The elements were as in-place as a rock and roll script writer could imagine. You can hear the sweat in the room. Opening with “Red Rose,” from their 1983 Non-Fiction album, they set the stage on fire; it damn near melts for the closing “Marie Marie” nearly 70 minutes later. In between is 100% classic Blasters. This is the live album they meant to make 17 years ago. The EP that they cut in their prime just wasn’t very interesting. What’s so impressive about this is that they sound every bit as good as they did lo those many stages ago. Dave Alvin has always been a superb guitarist. In the day he was one of the best in the West. This recording proves that the chops have gotten tighter. He’s just jaw-droppingly awesome. Brother Phil’s vocals are as good as ever. As frontman he’s still a wall-shaker, even though there are a couple of notes that don’t come as easily. Bassist John Bazz, drummer Bill Bateman and the great Gene Taylor on piano blow the roof up a few feet throughout. The crowd favorites are here: “Long White Cadillac,” “I’m Shakin’,” “Common Man,” “Hollywood Bed,” “So Long Baby Goodbye,” my personal fave “American Music,” and “Marie Marie.” There are also a few new numbers in the mix: Junior Parker’s “Crying For My Baby,” Sonny Burgess’ rockin’ “Sadie’s Back in Town” and Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson’s great “Too Tired.” The good news, outside of this 27-star live recording, is that the original lineup of the Blasters is on the road. Watch the local paper. If they get anywhere near your home town, go see them. Everyone deserves a chance to see a great band, and this is merely one of the greatest bands of all time. Whew!
Sam ‘Lightnin’ Hopkins was one of a small handful of the most influential and popular blues artists in the genre’s history. He was certainly one of the most prolifically recorded. He and John Lee Hooker seemed to be having a contest for a while. The proliferation of recordings notwithstanding, new material from the master is cause for rejoice in Bluesland --- certainly at my house, at any rate. The 18 tracks collected on In The Key of Lightnin' (Tomato) are outtakes and alternate takes from a 1969 session that became Lightnin’, a two-record collection issued on Poppy that year. Though I prefer his solo acoustic work, the electric guitar that rears its frisky head here is mesmerizing. Francis Clay joins on drums for 10 tracks, usually as sparse foil to Hopkins’ guitar. The concept of just Lightnin’ and a drummer probably seemed novel at the time. Strangely enough, it usually works. Big Moose Walker sits at the piano for an interesting take on Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say” and a reprise of Lightnin’s first hit, Katie Mae.” He’s joined on these by guitarist Paul Asbell, bassist Geno Scaggs and harpist Jeff Carp. The Charles tune is played as a laid-back shuffle and his vocals are riveting. He shines, though, on “Katie Mae,” a song he must have performed thousands of times. Not surprisingly, the strongest performances are those unadorned and unobstructed. “Baby, Please Lend Me Your Love,” “One for the Gamblin’,” and “I Once was a Gambler” are strong samples of Hopkins' strengths as a guitarist and troubadour. That there are so few included may be cause for alarm with hard-core fans. Perhaps the better attitude with which to approach this wonderful collection, though, is that it’s an unusual treat to find him in a variety of settings on one disc. However you approach it, it’s new material from the great Lightnin’ Hopkins, and me and my CD player are just thrilled!
Nick Moss is a white guitarist/vocalist/songwriter who has assimilated black Chicago blues more completely than anyone this side of Mike Bloomfield-era Butterfield Blues Band. Time on the road with the Legendary Blues Band and Jimmy Rogers certainly notched his chops up a rung or three, but nobody can lay claim to the heart that he brings to Got a New Plan (Blue Bella) more than young Mr. Moss. His guitar lines are lickety clean and crystal clear, and he’s a decidedly powerful vocalist. That he writes songs imbedded in the tradition that sound like they’re straight out of the 1950s and ‘60s adds to the impressive package. The opening “When It Rains It Really Pours” is dead out of the classic 1950s Chicago book. “Ain’t Got That Time” is a superb harp mic vocal number enhanced by Bill Lupkin’s first-rate harp work, and the instrumental “Arrowater Pass” is one of the finest guitar workouts to pass these ears in a long while, pointing exquisitely to his major league talent. “Let’s Try This Plan Again” is a heart-stopping slow blues on which Moss digs deep. His cover of Muddy’s “My Love Strikes Like Lightnin’” is well done, as are takes on “Boogie Man,” “Poison Ivy” and “(Kind of) Ghetto,” the other non-originals on this 14-tune collection. This is solid, straight-ahead Chicago blues by a man who knows what he’s talking about.
--- Mark E. Gallo
Derek Trucks is the nephew of long-time Allman Brothers drummer Butch Trucks, so it should come as no surprise he chose the blues as his primary inspiration. However, to label Trucks as a “blues” musician would be too restrictive, as his slide guitar wizardry takes him into limitless genres of the musical spectrum. Derek Truck’s influences range from Elmore James’s straight ahead blues, John Coltrane’s avant-garde jazz, Jeff Beck’s fusion, and Jimi Hendrix blues/rock to Wes Montgomery’s crossover jazz. Joyful Noise (Columbia), Trucks' third release, and his debut for Columbia, finds the young virtuoso taking his music into uncharted territory in contrast to traditional blues. Besides the heavy fusion and jazz for which he has become known for, Derek incorporates world music this time out. In the company of Panamanian singer Rubén Blades, a salsa timbre manifests on the track "Kam-ma-lay." Trucks expands his repertoire even further with the help of Pakistani vocalist Rahat Nusrat Fateh Ali Khanto’s chanting on Middle Eastern flavored "Maki Madni." Despite his refreshing departures, Derek Trucks always returns to the blues. Solomon Burke lends his soulful voice to two cuts, "Home In Your Heart" and "Like Anyone Else," while Trucks’ wife, Susan Tedeschi, rips through the mid-tempo shuffle, "Baby, You're Right." Even though Derek Trucks has yet to capture an extensive audience in comparison to other young blues guitarists, such as Kenny Wayne Shepard or Jonny Lang, his talent, range and style far outweighs any Stevie Ray Vaughn wannabe.
--- Tony Engelhart
First, new releases. I used to think that John Mayall was well past his prime. His Silvertone records in the '90s were absolutely and perfectly average in every way, even though I had to recognize that once in a while the man picked good modern songs to cover. Recently, I’ve come to change my mind; last year’s Along for the Ride, credited to John Mayall and Friends (reviewed in July 2001), featuring a stunning who’s who of blues and blues/rock, was a rare example of such star-studded affairs that didn’t drown under the weight of all the star power. And now, with absolutely no guest whatsoever, John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers’ Stories album (Eagle Records) shows that the man can do it on his own. The difference from the Silvertone records? More variety! The generic modern blues/rock approach is kept to a minimum, there are nice touches of Afro-Cuban percussions here and there (thanks to Lenny Castro), plenty of Hammond B3 (some courtesy of Mayall himself, some thanks to his keyboardist Tom Canning) that give the songs a '60s British R&B feel, and the songs are all strong. Again, there is one cover that seems out of left field (Buddy & Julie Miller’s “Dirty Water,” from the couple’s eponymous album released last year). There is also strong original material from Mayall himself (including his tribute to Leadbelly, titled simply “Oh, Leadbelly,” but also a post-9/11 statement called “Pride and Faith" and the boogie-based “I Wished I Had,” one from band member Buddy Whittington (“Romance Classified,” an ironic look at the “Couples” section of the classifieds), as well as from Mayall’s wife (the marimba-derived “The Witching Hour”). Oddly enough, even Mayall’s voice, never his strongest suit, seems improved here; or rather, after close to 40 years performing the blues, John Mayall has learned to avoid going where his voice can’t follow him. You’ll note the total absence of the clichéd 12-bar, AAB-structured “classic blues” form, and you’ll notice the all-important (but so-often neglected) spread of the sonic palette (harsh elctric guitars to the front here, acoustic 12-string guitar there, organ to the front and guitar to the back on “Demons in the Night”). In a word, you’ll find that this was actually conceived like an album, designed to stand repeated through and through listenings, and not like a collection of mostly disparate songs. And in the end, the blues, roots and rock fans should all find pleasure with this CD. Now, that’s mighty rare. Too bad the cover art is so awful.
I don’t know if there is one blues reviewer who doesn’t like Larry Garner; his songs are better written than almost everything else in the field nowadays, he’s got a smooth/gritty voice that can pleasantly sing a soul song and yet sound deep enough to sing a slow blues as if it came from a darker place of his soul, and his band is polished and versatile. Embarrassment to the Blues?, his latest on Ruf Records, was recorded live in Siegen, Germany. It also features one lesser-known strength of Garner’s --- his onstage banter. In fact, there is maybe a little too much of that, but that is a matter of taste. (By the way, the title comes from a line in the funny “Had to Quit Drinking,” which does a lot towards establishing Pennsylvanians as the world’s hardest drinking people on earth). Except from the light R&B fluff of “Somebody,” which you can happily and safely skip over, this comes pretty close to the ideal live blues record, where songs are stretched as long as needed yet never feel overdone, and with nice audience/artist interaction, some humor, tasty solos and perfect sound. Nothing revolutionary, just the blues, nothing but the blues, ma’am.
The young NorthernBlues Music company, up in Toronto, is one of my favorite record companies in the 21st Century. With major releases from Otis Taylor and Archie Edwards, and strong outings from JW Jones Band, Harry Manx and Paul Reddick and the Sidemen, it has achieved more in not even two years of existence than most blues labels have over the last 10 years. Its latest release, Saved!, is a first for the small company --- a gospel record. Dubbed the NorthernBlues Gospel Allstars, it features an ad-hoc group of vocalists put together by coproducers Frazier Mohawk and keyboardist Michael Fonfara: sweet-soul voiced John Finley, gruff-voiced singer and songwriter Danny Brooks and powerful Hiram Joseph, as well as female vocalist Amoy Levy, each taking turns at lead singing, each participating in the five-voice strong chorus (along with Amoy’s sister, Cecille Levy) that plays the part of the congregation. Although I’m not impressed by either Levy nor Brooks as vocalists, ultimately I think this album’s greatest shortcoming is to be found in the music behind the singers. Never, except on Bob Dylan’s title song, do you feel the musicians (among them Tim Drummond on bass) really letting loose, free to interject their own “voice” when the spirit moves them. I only felt goose bumps once, at the beginning of the impromptu vocal-only rendition of “We Shall Overcome” (before Levy ruins the feeling with one too many too-cute curlicues), which, in the end, is not a good sign for a gospel album. Maybe the label would do better with an established gospel choir.
I was even more disappointed by The Nighthawks’ newest release, Live Tonite! (Ruf Records). The Nighthawks are a bar band, nothing more than a bar band, but they are excellent at what they do, which they’ve been at for 30 years and going. Normally, a bar band should be absolutely smoking in a live recording, since this is what it does for a livelihood. Well, I’m sad to report that this live recording (happily, it’s not the Nighthawks’ first, so you can form a better opinion based on other examples) falls squarely flat on the floor with a big thud. Mark Wenner is not known as a particularly supple singer, but here, he’s not even approaching his own standards, and on the low end, his voice comes close to a painful croak. Drummer Pete Ragusa, who normally handles soulful vocals, is also quite flat here (but life is tough for a singing drummer), and most songs are played as if settling into a groove meant treading in molten lead. The few high points (an obscure Howlin’ Wolf tune called “Who’ll Be The Next One” that rolls along mighty fine, and a fun Elvis-styled “Baby Let’s Play House,” that features the only exciting guitar solo of the night from Pate Kanaras) are simply too few to redeem this CD. Wait until you see this in the cut-out bins.
And now, reissues. Lightnin’ Hopkins had a wonderful career; he’s one of the most-recorded post-war bluesmen, cutting albums for any company that wanted to put some money and alcohol forward, and almost never in his life recording anything below the level of “pretty good.” Like so many blues and R&B artists, he saw his career come to a complete stop on account of the advent of rock’n’roll. Contrary to the vast majority of these, his career was revived a mere four years after coming to a halt, thanks to the suddenly popular folk/blues (or country blues) genre, a surge in popularity that was brought about by the sudden interest of white folk singers and their fans for solo acoustic “real folk” blues (considered at the time as purer, less commercially motivated than the electric blues). In 1959, the first book-length study of the blues (Samuel Charters’ The Country Blues) appeared in print. That same year, Charters found and recorded Hopkins (legend has it he paid the singer in gin), sparking a renewed interest in the ad-libbing artist that was to last for more than 20 years. Almost coincidentally, folklorist Mack McCormick convinced Hopkins to record a down-home solo LP for folk and blues oriented Tradition Records. That album, Autobiography in Blues, and its successor, 1960's Country Blues (with Hopkins’ friend from Houston, Long Gone Miles, helping out on vocals on two songs), have now been reissued together on the two-CD release The Tradition Masters, part of Rykodisc’s Tradition Master Series. The first LP is entirely contained on CD1, the second on CD2, meaning that if you already own 1996’s separate reissues of Autobiography in Blues and Country Blues, you can safely discard them, unless you want to keep Mack McCormick’s liner notes, reprised from the original LP releases, which, truth be told, are more dry, but also more informative, than Joe Nick Patoski’s on this new release. Though not the absolute greatest recordings from Lightnin’ Hopkins, these two LPs contained every example of Hopkins music (some life-long themes, some made up on the spot ruminations and some very personal adaptations of standards), except that you won’t hear his wonderful electric guitar playing. (For an example of that style, in a very relaxed environment, see Mark Gallo’s review of In the Key of Lightnin’, elsewhere in this issue). Generally speaking, the first LP was a little more upbeat, the second featuring longer meanderings, with some instances of sound distortion, as in “Baby!,” where Hopkins and Miles are simply singing too close to the mike. The reissue of these two albums together in one package makes perfect sense, and every fan of acoustic music should consider buying this set.
Rykodisc’s Tradition Master Series includes two other releases bearing the title The Tradition Masters. One is a release by black folk singer Odetta, who occasionally sings blues and church-based material, though in a very theatrical, opera-inspired voice that may not appeal to every blues fan. Again, this entry is a two-CD reissue of two distinct LPs, which in this case were Odetta’s first releases in her career, 1956’s Sings Ballads and Blues and 1957’s At the Gate of Horn, each LP neatly reproduced in its entirety on its own CD, just as in Hopkins’ case. On the first of these LPs, Odetta sang accompanied only by her own guitar, or, on her re-creation of old work songs, a cappella with rhythmic hand clapping ... the original title tells it all. Among the blues, pay particular attention to her fantastic rendition of Jimmie Rodgers’ “Muleskinner Blues” – yes, that’s country singer Jimmie Rodgers, not Chicago bluesman Jimmy Rogers. The second LP (or CD2) finds Odetta accompanied by jazz bassist Bill Lee (Spike Lee’s father), and it includes fewer material of interest to blues fans.
Interestingly, even at this early stage in her career, Odetta was a big fan of Leadbelly (read a review of her tribute to Leadbelly, Lookin’ for a Home, in the December 2001 issue), covering “Easy Rider” and “Alabama Bound” on the first LP, and then “Gallows Pole” (renamed “Gallows Tree” here) and “Midnight Special” on the second, four songs that were popularized by the ex-bad man turned performing star. This same Leadbelly is the third artist with a The Tradition Masters release in this series. Again, two Tradition LPs are packed into one package, except this time they fit into one CD. This time, though, they were recorded before Tradition even existed, before the mere concept of LPs came into existence. 14 of the 23 titles included herein were released two years ago by Fuel 2000 Records on the 15-song Leadbelly – Absolutely the Best (the only song on the latter album not reprised on the Tradition reissue being “Midnight Special”). According to Ed Ward’s liner notes, these songs were recorded in 1942 and 1944, at a time when Leadbelly needed money to pay the lawyers who prepared his defense in a case of self-defense. But if we are to believe Living Blues contributor Bill Dahl, who wrote the liner notes for the Fuel 2000 disc, and who is generally acknowledged as one of the more knowledgeable writers in the field of blues and soul music, some of these songs were also recorded in 1939 and 1943. As usual with Leadbelly, songs run the gamut from blues to ballads and old folk tunes, with a couple of children’s tunes and even a cowboy song (“When I Was a Cowboy”, a.k.a. “Western Plains”). Note that Sonny Terry’s harmonica is heard on a version of Leroy Carr’s “How Long,” while Josh White duets with Leadbelly on one of the two versions of “Pretty Flower In Your Backyard” (it’s this duet version that was used on the Fuel 2000 album, though White’s name was to be found nowhere).
As noted in the last few months, Kevin Eggers’ Tomato Records has recently been reactivated, and as a result some previously unavailable material has finally seen light of day. Tomato has also started reissuing some of its now-deleted CDs from its brief rebirth in the early '90s, including Elmore James’ Dust My Broom, which came out in 1991. Aside from some minor page-setting adjustments, no changes have been made to this 15-song collection culled from James’ late '50s, early '60s stay at Fire/Fury. Included are “Person to Person,” “The Sky is Crying,” “Shake Your Moneymaker,” and the obligatory reprise of “Dust My Broom,” with full band backing, including saxophones.This is highly entertaining music, and an absolute must in every record collection. If you don’t already own this stuff (available in a multitude of formats), then go and get this CD. Period.
From the same source comes The Tomato Delta Blues Package, a 16-song collection that, although more focused than the similarly titled The Great Tomato Blues Package (reviewed here in September 2002), is not exactly the perfect primer on Delta blues, simply because it basically includes … no Delta blues! Which is not to say that the music is not great, but John Lee Hooker, Lightnin’ Hopkins (a wonderful live performance, with very funny spoken intro of “Big Car Blues,” a reworking of “Black Cadillac”), Little Walter, Otis Rush, Leadbelly, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee and Howlin’ Wolf, though all true giants of the blues, are generally NOT considered Delta blues practitioners. (Neither are, technically, Mississippi John Hurt and Mississippi Fred McDowell, who are associated with the North Mississippi Hill Country music.) I don’t know if some of this music was previously unreleased (no discographical information, alas!); the Mississippi John Hurt and Big Boy Crudup songs were recently included on these artists’ recent Tomato issues, while Leadbelly’s “John Hardy” is to be found on his Tradition Masters release, discussed above. All in all, a pleasant but far from essential release.
And finally, some interesting non-blues records. Chris Whitley is not a typical blues singer. He might not even be one, in fact. Yet, his favorite setting, on record and especially live, is to perform solo, with acoustic National guitar and foot stomping, his own songs about crazy mixed-up lives, endless drifting and homelessness, and broken hearts. His voice sounds at times strangely out of control, as he will unexpectedly switch to a falsetto voice, depending how deep he is lost into his song. Granted, his songs don’t adhere to a recognizable blues format, and, yes, he likes to experiment in the studio --- he’s recorded two solo albums, two more with a grunge-rock or new wave backing band, and his latest is heavily into digital sounds. Still, somehow, there is more real blues to his music than there is to, say, Jonny Lang’s. Should you care to sample his music, you should consider the new Long Way Around – An Anthology 1991-2001, on Columbia/Legacy.
On the other hand, Eric Bibb is an acclaimed bluesman, one of the top acoustic blues singers in the world right now. What has largely been forgotten now is that his father, Leon Bibb, was a successful folk-singer in the '60s, before choosing to concentrate on an acting career. On A Family Affair (Jericho Beach Music), credited to Leon & Eric Bibb, the music is decidedly on the side of soft folk ballads, with nary a blues tune (Leadbelly’s “Sylvie,” the traditional “Let Me Fly” and the work song “Look Over Yonder” over some blues nutrients). There is even (gasp!) a smoothie cover of Sting’s “Fields of Gold” herein. But, no matter what you think of the musical orientation, you have to bow down to the quality of the singing.Golden voices truly run in the Bibb family.
--- Benoît Brière
The Heart And Soul of Bert Berns (Universal Music Group) is a compilation of ten classic tracks written and produced for the most part by the legendary songwriter/producer/label executive Bert Berns, who died prematurely in 1967 at age 38. Although his name may not be of the household variety, Berns' place in rock music history is assured through his involvement in the early careers of Van Morrison (both during and immediately after Van's tenure with the Irish rock group Them), the McCoys (Berns wrote "Hang On Sloopy," which was issued on his Bang label), and even Neil Diamond (whose first hit records also appeared on Bang); fortunately for readers of this newsletter, this disc focuses entirely on the soul/R&B aspect of his legacy, which was indeed considerable--herein you will find a few of of the greatest recordings by some of the greatest soul singers and vocal groups of our time, including Solomon Burke, Garnet Mimms (the original, pre-Joplin "Cry Baby"), Freddie Scott, Erma Franklin (Aretha's sister, with the original, pre-Joplin "Piece Of My Heart"), the Isley Brothers (the original, pre-Beatles' "Twist & Shout") and the Drifters. Much of Berns' material has long been available elsewhere, mostly on reissues from the vaults of the Atlantic label, which presumably explains the short length of this CD (that's the only negative comment one can offer concerning this collection ---hopefully it's on sale at a budget price!). Berns also led a pretty interesting, if tragically short life, which would probably make for a good movie script. For more information on his career, check out this website (www.BertBerns.com).
--- Lee Poole
The latest CD, Mean Little Poodle (Say Mo), from Ernie Hawkins is here and it's the best that he's done yet -- - no mean feat when you listen to his previous recordings! Ernie has a style all of his own, but he draws on a lot of influences from blues of long ago -- - blues artists like Blind Boy Fuller, Lightnin' Hopkins, Blind Willie McTell and, of course, Rev Gary Davis, all show up in Ernie's playing, and this mixture is rich. Ernie opens up this album with Freddie King's "Hideaway," done in a Lightnin' Hopkins style; you just know that the rest of the CD is going to be good. Amongst the covers of tracks by Blind Blake, Blind Willie Johnson, Blind Boy Fuller and Rev. Gary Davis are some great Ernie Hawkins originals, tracks like the title of the album, "Mean Little Poodle," which put me in mind of some old Muddy Waters compositions. When this man covers a song he doesn't just copy it, he adapts it to his own style and makes his own arrangement of it. This makes a lot of difference to the way that you hear this music. This is acoustic blues at its best, and you only have to listen to "The Soul Of A Man" to know it. Ernie's version of this old Blind Willie Johnson number is full of feeling, and the guitar break in the middle is what acoustic guitar blues should be like all of the time. Buy this CD, buy it now!!
Possibly one of the last places that you could imagine a blues band springing from would be Belgrade in the former Yugoslavia. However, there is a very accomplished blues band down there and they are producing their own CDs. The band first formed loosely in 1983 with an American, Timothy Davis, and an Australian, Michael Sulc, being recruited by Dragoljub Crncevic-Baki (no, I can't pronounce it either!) and put together with Dragan Markovic to play bottleneck and Chicago blues. They recorded a couple of albums, during which time drummer Michael Sulc got homesick and returned to Australia, followed a while after by Timothy Davis returning to the USA . However, the other band members pulled together and completed a 1986 mid-European tour which culminated in Dragan Markovic leaving to form his own band. As if these upheavals weren't enough, in 1991 came the Yugoslavian political crisis and the band fell apart. It reformed as a trio in 1995 and recorded a rather disappointing third album, Southern Comfort. Various band members came and went, another album was recorded in 1997, and finally towards the end of 1999 the band found itself settled at last as a rejuvenated four-piece. A lot of rehearsing by founder member Dragoljub and keyboards player Darko Grujic, together with Zoran Milenkovic on bass and drummer Jovan Pejcinovic found them ready to start recording again. The new name of the band is Point Blank, and the first album to be reviewed here is Blue Deal. Recorded in December 2000, this CD featured Pointblank with a guest artist, the British harmonica player John O'Leary (ex- Savoy brown). 12 of the 13 tracks are originals written by band leader Dragoljub Crncevic-Baki, and the last track is co-written by Dragoljub and Darko Grujic. For someone writing in a language which is not his own, these are good, well-written blues. There is a good mixture here of tempos and styles. Keyboard player Darko stands out and carries the music along really well. The album opens with "I'm Alright," a medium tempo number which bubbles along and gives the listener an idea of what the band can do. It's followed by "I'll Be Your Loving Man," with Darko showing up with some some electric piano work, highlighting superb guitar playing by Dragoljub (or Dr., as he prefers to be called) showing that he can stand and be counted. However the highlights for me are the three instrumentals: "Behind The Curtain," "We're Just About To Leave" and "Hear Me Knocking." "Behind The Curtain" really cooks, and it had me tapping my foot the whole way through. There was only one track that didn't do much for me --- the slow ballad "C Minor Troubled Blues" (it put me in mind of British band "The Stranglers"), but like anything else it's a matter of taste. Pointblank's next album, Eight Blue Balls, is due for release later this year. This CD marks the second recording by the reformed, and now settled, line-up of the Belgrade- based band. The album opens with a curious 50 second rendition of "By The Way" before settling into some wonderful solid blues, showcasing Dr.'s excellent guitar work. As per the band's last CD, one track is co-written by Dr & Darko Grujic (a superb instrumental, full of changes called "Blue Ball"). The others are all penned by Dr. -- - 15 tracks in all. Again, like the previous album, there is a well balanced selection of tempos and styles -- - something for everyone, as the saying goes. This album really shows that Dr. & Darko have been together for a long time; they are so tight and seem to play instinctively with, and against, each other. This shows up really well on "Some Other Place," where Darko plays some lovely, jangling electric piano. As a matter of personal taste I much prefer their up-tempo numbers, but the ballads are well- written and well- executed, although they tend to reflect more country music than blues. If I have to pick a favourite, then it has to be "It's All Right," which puts me in mind of a John Lee Hooker boogie and could well have been recorded by the man himself. I have played this track over and over again, and I just can't sit still while it's playing. I would buy the CD for this track alone! The CDs are available direct from the band's web-site, www.pointblank.co.yu, at 10 Euros each, which is superb value for such good blues.
--- Terry Clear
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Revised: October 31, 2002 - Version 1.00
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