Halifu Osumare makes an interesting case for a connective “musical arc” within the African diaspora in her new book, The Hiplife in Ghana: West African Indigenization of Hip-Hop. Hiplife, a portmanteau of hip-hop and highlife both in name and in sound, is a rich Ghanaian hip-hop culture. The Hiplife in Ghana is a thoroughly academic book, but scholars and serious fans with interests in the globalization of hip-hop will find their knowledge base enriched as Osumare explores hiplife economically, ethnographically and through the theoretical lens of cultural studies. While the heady text might be challenging, it is the kind of challenge that is worth pursuing, as The Hiplife In Ghana is an eye-opening and paradigm-shifting look into cross cultural music creation within a diaspora.
It seems that Heather Headley wanted to summarize her music career with her latest album, Only One in the World. The Trinidadian-American singer started her career in 1997 as a Broadway singer in the role of Nala in Lion King. Since then she’s shown a wide range of musical skills in two R&B and one gospel-oriented albums. On her new release, Headley showcases the vocal abilities that impressed her legions of Broadway fans, yet she continues to explore other dimensions as well.
In the promotion video for the album, Headley explains she wanted to record the songs she’s grown to love performing over the years. This includes a number of iconic covers, such as Hoobastank’s 2004 hit single “The Reasons.” Headley’s rendition definitely surprises, as she completely changes this rock song into a majestic ballad with her deep, strong voice, but fans will surely understand her choice. It is also refreshing to hear her interpretation of Brian McKnight’s “One Last Cry,” as she creates a more theatrical atmosphere for this well-known song. And since Headley’s currently starring in a musical adaptation of the Whitney Houston film, The Bodyguard, it’s only fitting that she’s included a cover of “Run to You.” She concludes the album with “Home” from The Wiz, once again returning to the Broadway stage for inspiration.
The album is also interspersed with new original songs, including “Hey Mama” and the title track, which reveals another side of Headley as a contemporary R&B singer:
Heather Headley’s Only One in the World is an indefinable album, lacking clear focus, but should still appeal to longtime fans.
Jonathan Butler, the South African-born contemporary urban jazz artist, has been creating gospel music with his jazz guitar since his 2004 release The Worship Project. The tracks “Brand New Day” and “Falling in Love with Jesus” are much loved by worshipers. Now his new album, Grace and Mercy, will surely be added to worshipers’ lists of favorite music, with R&B-driven songs such as “You’re All That I Need,” “Who Is Like the Lord,” and “Grace and Mercy.” Butler proves the power of his simple lyrics for prayer in “I Stand on Your Word,” as he sings “No matter what the situation, I believe, I believe. No matter what the circumstances, I believe, I believe:”
The second half of the album will take listeners deeper into a worship atmosphere with ballads like “Lay My Head On You” and “I Know He Cares.” The true masterpiece of the album is the medley “Moments of Worship,” with Butler blending three older worship songs. His vocal improvisations flow over a simple guitar and keyboard/organ accompaniment, lending a unique voice to his storytelling.
Butler’s simple but emotional, heartwarming melodies help us absorb the messages in each song. As he explains: “Through living you come up with stories to talk about and songs to write. These songs are personal experiences. I’m hoping these songs will affect people in a positive and wonderful way.” Certainly, Butler’s strong, warm voice will reach a lot of people who listen to this album seeking happiness and encouragement.
The first release from the new reggae/dub/dancehall reissue label Hot Milk aims to be a big one with Keith Hudson’s Torch of Freedom. Initially released alongside other Hudson classics such as Pick a Dub (1974) and Flesh of My Skin, Blood of My Blood (1974), Torch of Freedom (1975) fell into relative obscurity as the forgotten gem of the Jamaican producer/singer/songwriter’s solo career. Maintaining that dark, sinister sound that only Keith Hudson could conjure up, the album finally gets the reissue treatment that it so greatly deserves.
Listening to Torch of Freedom, it’s hard to comprehend just why it took so long for it to be reissued, as the album contains a wealth of signature Hudson creations. With the famous Soul Syndicate, along with Robie Shakespeare and Candy McKenzie, among others, providing their limitless talents, the haunting instrumentation meshes with Hudson’s often hard-to-decipher, yet elegant lyrics to create an emotional, hard-hitting album. For a more thorough understanding of his music, take a listen to the track “Turn the Heater On” (track 8) and compare it to the dub version, “So Cold Without You” (track 9).
Hot Milk Records has come out swinging with this amazing reissue of an album that, until now, had been an almost unattainable commodity. Keith Hudson is really on top of his game, and fans of “The Dark Prince” can finally rejoice. I eagerly await what this new label has in store for 2013.
Throughout much of the 1970s, Charley Pride garnered hit after hit for RCA Records, earning several number one spots and becoming only the second African American country artist to be inducted as a member of the Grand Ole Opry. His first full-length gospel album, Did You Think to Pray, led to Grammy Awards for Best Gospel Performance as well as Best Sacred Performance in 1972. Now, Music City Records has finally released this Charley Pride classic on CD, completely remastered and with the bonus track “Wings of a Dove,” produced by Chet Atkins.
Did You Think to Pray mixes traditional Southern gospel songs with contemporary fare. Some of the great classics include “Angel Band” (composed 1862), “Did You Think to Pray” (composed 1876) and the 1930s hymn “I’ll Fly Away,” while songs like “This Highway Leads To Glory” and “Let Me Live” are more recent creations. But whether from the mid-19th century to the late 20th, each song is brilliantly arranged and sung by Charley Pride. Another bonus for country and roots music fans is the participation of The Jordanaires, who provide the vocal accompaniment on “Angel Band” and “This Highway Leads to Glory.”
If you’re a fan of Charley Pride, or if you’re interested in learning more about African Americans in country music, or if you simply wish to hear more recent renditions of Southern gospel classics, Did You Think to Pray is highly recommended.
Following her last studio album, Unexpected (2009), Angie Stone has come back to the soul music scene with a new album, Rich Girl. In the liner notes, Stone confesses that she has been somewhat unsatisfied after her collaborative works with many musicians and producers over the past few years. She explains, “I shaved a lot of my originality off when merging with so many other people. Fans weren’t getting Angie Stone. … I knew I had to get back to my own music and skills. It’s time for Angie to do Angie.” Indeed, Rich Girl was born from Angie Stone’s strong desire to be herself with her music, and every song in this album allows us to hear her true voice.
I’m sure that listeners will agree with Stone as soon as they start playing this album. “Music’s in my heart and it’s in my soul. There’s nothing you can do, no, ‘cause I’m in control,” she sings in “Intro: Real Music.” This leads into the first single, “Do What You Gotta Do,” which is my favorite and also a perfect presentation of the album’s concept. I can’t help smiling every time I listen to this song and watch its music video because I can tell that Stone really means and feels what she is singing about and the music is setting her free:
On the slow and mellow “Proud of Me,” she expresses a woman’s relief from a difficult relationship with a man, singing “I’m proud of me. … I made the best decision of my life.” Her second single from the album, “Backup Plan,” represents a strong female figure, declaring every woman’s in control and can decide to leave the relationship anytime because we’ve got a backup plan always. These songs address the empowerment of women not only in the face of difficult relationships, but in life’s many challenges. Stone closes the album with the song “Sisters,” featuring Tweet, Y’Anna Crawley, Danetra Moore, and Stone’s daughter Diamond Stone. It’s a beautiful conclusion to the album, making the listeners feel loved and safe with sisterhood.
By gaining the space needed to express herself freely, Angie Stone is able to represent what a strong woman and musician should be. She continues in the liner notes, “I wrote this album from a real place. It’s not about money, it’s about being rich in everything you do, in your spirit, your purpose, and your giving to others.” Her songs in this album certainly tell us the importance of being true to ourselves, and they will surely lead us to enrichment.
The first on the list of Indiana funk bands to see reissues in 2012 is the Indianapolis outfit Rhythm Machine. Founded by former members of the Highlighters (bassist James Boone and guitarist James Brantley), Rhythm Machine released their self-titled debut LP in 1976. The album itself veers toward more of a softer sound, delving into periods of laid-back, soulful melodies through the likes of “Brenda and Me” and “Put a Smile On Time.” Even the most energetic tracks on the album, “You Got Action, You Got Me” and “Lil’s Place,” still exhibit a preference for slowing things down and taking a more “romantic” stance. In fact, tales of romance comprise the entirety of Rhythm Machine’s works; the political is removed in favor of songs that bring people closer together and provide an optimistic view on love and relationships.
While not exactly presenting anything new or groundbreaking, Rhythm Machine nonetheless created an entertaining album that was all but forgotten until its rediscovery by producer Egon Alapatt at Now-Again Records. Fortunately, Alapatt also dug up as much information as possible on the group, documented through extensive liner notes with many great photos as well as three bonus tracks. For those interested in Indiana or, more generally Midwest funk bands, the reissue of Rhythm Machine is definitely one to check out.
The Circle City Band, also from Indianapolis (the “circle city”), emerged several years after Rhythm Machine, though “band” is something of a misnomer. Local musician Paul “P” Thomas, previously affiliated with the groups Rapture and LTD, wrote and performed all of the songs using synthesizers and drum machines, then brought in outside musicians to overdub selected tracks. Though Thomas recorded an entire album in the early 1980s for Circle City Records (an off-shoot of the gospel label Tyscot), only three 12” singles were actually released. When Thomas noticed the recent interest in the Circle City Band by deejays and fans on YouTube, he dug out the masters and hooked up with the folks at Ubiquity, who enthusiastically agreed to release his “debut” album, which combines the three singles with six previously unreleased tracks. The master tapes were carefully transferred by Paul Mahern and the resulting sound is superb.
Circle City Band opens with “Magic,” Thomas’s biggest hit, which was popular with roller skaters and even better known as BET’s station identification theme song. The album then switches from a classic funk groove to the absolutely ridiculous and futuristic “Gladiators” and “Time Tunnel”—electro-funk songs reminiscent of Grandmaster Flash or Afrika Bambaataa—before closing with the soulful “Hold On” and the recently recorded bonus track “Hello Stranger.”
Compared to Rhythm Machine, the Circle City Band offers a harder brand of funk that’s combined with electronic and growling voices to create something truly magical. The songs are richly layered and textured; heavy bass and distorted guitars combined with drum machines, synthesizers, and every other kind of musical electronic innovation. Using the new technologies that signified the ’80s, the Circle City Band will have you laughing and dancing throughout its entirety. Thanks to Ubiquity, we can finally boogie down to the music of another overlooked but not forgotten Indiana funk outfit.
Artists: Hiromi Uehara with Anthony Jackson and Simon Phillips
Label: Telarc International
Release date: October 9, 2012 (US release in 2013)
Hiromi Uehara, a Japanese pianist/composer who creates powerful works of jazz fusion, has released her 9th original album entitled Move. Hiromi debuted in the jazz world in 2003, and she started the Trio Project with Anthony Jackson (a Grammy-nominated electric bass guitarist) and Simon Philips (an English jazz, pop and rock drummer) after her last album, Voice (2011). As her radiant performance of the title track in the following video demonstrates, Hiromi has crowd-pulling charisma, with expressions emanating from her face and entire body, as well as the piano. She states, “When I play music, I realize that it really filters emotions.” Clearly, this album is filled with the performers’ emotions, unique sounds, and interpretations.
As Hiromi explains in the liner notes, “Move” represents the sounds of an alarm clock and the bustle and rush of the morning. It’s the beginning of the trio’s storytelling about a day in the life of a person. “Brand New Day” starts with light and beautiful flows from the piano, reflecting motivation to start a new day. Then, electric keyboard sounds catch our attention in the beginning of “Endeavor,” which I imagine to be the subway coming towards us. The speed of this track represents the rush hour in the station and maybe the confusion and irritation of the commuters. Quiet rain starts falling with “Rainmaker,” eventually becoming a heavy downpour. But “rain starts without notice and stops without notice,” because “rain always moves on, just like anything in life” (from the liner notes).
The next section of the album features the three part “Suite Escapism.” “Reality” with its whirls of sound expresses our difficulty in coming to terms with reality and our determination to fight it. What follows is a beautiful representation of a dreamy and abstracted mind in “Fantasy.” The final section, appropriately titled “In Between,” attempts to find the middle ground. Hiromi explains, “Because you dream, you can live in reality. Going back and forth, and in between.” That’s exactly what the music in the suite conveys to our ears.
After this existential workout, the funky “Margarita!” allows everyone to dance and have fun! The final track, “11:49 PM,” concludes the album perfectly. Reflecting upon the day brings excitement, and then we finally drift off to sleep.
Move definitely teaches us that imagination brings enjoyment, as does the creativity of this fabulous jazz trio. They move, they tell stories together… until we finally fall asleep, hoping that tomorrow will move in us in new ways.
The prolific Eric Bibb released two projects in 2012, bringing his total discography to around 35 albums over a career spanning four decades. Bibb was recently named Acoustic Artist of the Year by the Blues Foundation in Memphis, and the following albums prove he deserves this honor.
Eric Bibb continually digs deeper into the wellspring of American music for inspiration and never fails to delight his audience. For Deeper in the Well, he took his “satchel of new songs” down to Breaux, Louisiana, where he assembled an all-star group of roots musicians including Dirk Powell (of the Cajun group Balfa Toujours) on banjos, fiddle, mandolin, accordion, and upright bass; Cedric Watson (of Bijou Creole) on fiddle and backing vocals; Danny Devillier on drums and tambourine; Christine Balfa on Cajun triangle; and Grant Dermody on harmonica. Additional guests include Michel Pepin and Michael Jerome Browne playing guitar, fretless gourd banjo and mandolin on a cover of Taj Mahal’s “Every Wind in the River,” and Jerry Douglas playing Dobro on “In My Time.”
The opening track “Bayou Belle” sets the scene, with Watson weaving his Cajun fiddle through the melody:
This is followed by a cover of Harrison Kennedy’s blues classic “Could Be You, Could Be Me,” which segues into a rousing string band arrangement of “Dig a Little Deeper in the Well,” which Bibb first heard on a Doc Watson recording. Other highlights are an arrangement of the traditional song “Boll Weevil” by Dirk Powell and Grant Dermody, and Bibb’s “Sinner Man” which allows all of the instrumentalists to shine.
As with many of Bibb’s albums, he sets a modest pace, content to let his music flow from one track to the next. This creates a very cohesive blend, yet it’s far from monotonous. His approach to the music tends to focus listeners’ attention on the subtleties of the performance and the ensemble, without resorting to any overt displays of virtuosity. One would think that the group has been playing together for years, and let’s hope they reunite on future projects! The album is accompanied by a 20-page booklet with song lyrics and liner notes by Bibb.
Habib Koité and Eric Bibb are both products of musical families, and brothers in their commitment to pass on their legacies. In Bibb’s case, his earliest influences were his father, folk musician Leon Bibb, and godfather Paul Robeson. Likewise, Malian musician Habib Koité grew up watching his parents perform and their music “rubbed off on me.” The two first collaborated 10 years ago while recording the Putomayo album Mali to Memphis. Recently, Bibb made his first trip to West Africa to record with Koité in Bamako. Together, they explore roots music from two continents.
The album initially alternates between songs composed and performed by each musician, but by the third track, “Needed Time,” the brotherhood solidifies and a true partnership is formed, with the two creating and performing four songs together in a mix of French and English:
An attempt is also made to match sounds and timbres. Bibb performs on a variety of acoustic instruments: 6 & 7 string guitars, 6-string banjo, baritone guitar, and baritone, soprano and B-string ukuleles. Koité plays an acoustic nylon string guitar, 6-string banjo, and 8-string ukulele. Percussion is added by Mamadou Kone, while Olli Haavisto contributes pedal steel guitar on a cover of Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind.” The result is an intimate coffee house style performance, with the two musicians blending in a way that denotes a general sense of bluesy folk music, but with an underpinning of rhythms and harmonies that are unmistakably West African. Even though Koité performs on banjo and guitar, his use of the pentatonic scale and plucking style are more suggestive of the Malian four-stringed kamale n’goni.
Brothers in Bamako will be enjoyed by anyone interested in world or roots music, especially those who enjoy acoustic string instruments. The album is accompanied by a handsome booklet with song lyrics, photographs, and liner notes by Etienne Bous.
Label: Steppin’ Stone Records/dist. by INgrooves Fontana
Formats: CD, MP3
Release date: September 18, 2012
John Lee Hooker, Jr. has some big shoes to fill. With a famous name and father, he has had both the advantage of automatic cache and the disadvantage of an automatic comparison to his legendary namesake. A childhood spent touring the blues circuit with his father introduced Hooker, Jr. to the blues as a musical form and as a lifestyle, something that would come back to haunt him especially hard during the years spent in his hometown of Detroit wallowing in the hard substances and lifestyles that always brought him right back down.
Tough beginnings like that made Hooker, Jr.’s debut, Blues with a Vengeance, released in 2004at age 52 , easy to root for. The last eight years have produced three more albums, establishing him as a notable bluesman in his own right. His latest release, All Hooked Up, is definitely a 21st century blues album with songs like “Tired of Being a Housewife,” which recounts a woman’s frustrations with Facebook and her husband’s internet porn addiction, and “It Must Be the Meds,” a contemporary tale of woe that is fairly self-explanatory.
Hooker, Jr.’s contemporary edge is also seen in his willingness to meld traditional Memphis blues sounds with R&B and soul, as heard most excellently in his duet with Betty Wright on “I Surrender.” Even more modern, however, is Jr.’s acknowledgement that the blues life can wear someone down and that, in his case, avoiding rowdiness and focusing on his faith has given him the opportunity to sing about the hard times while living for the good ones.
Review by Dorothy Berry
Editor’s note: The CD also features a special bonus DVD with an animated film noir video for John Lee’s song, “Dear John.”
Dorothy Moore has been around the block a few times, and reinvented herself in the process. Over a career spanning 40 years, she’s achieved great success as a soul and R&B singer, most notably for her 1976 chart topping southern soul song Misty Blue. Now in her mid-60s, she proclaims in the opening track, “I’m Coming Down With the Blues.” Indeed, Blues Heart is her first full-length blues album, though it still offers plenty of Moore’s signature sound. This is a slower, soft-around-the-edges yet still plenty soulful style of blues befitting a woman on the upper end of middle age who’s reached a more introspective plane and is now reflecting upon life and past relationships. Standout tracks include the gospel-tinged “I Found Someone,” the funk jam “Institutionalize,” and the slow-burner “Let the Healing Begin,” in which Moore demonstrates her skills on harmonica (or in her words, the “Mississippi sax”). Overall this is a very enjoyable album, and if Moore’s voice occasionally wavers a bit, she more than compensates with her wide vocal range and gutsy delivery.
First there was the Blues Brothers, now make way for the Blues Broads. Dorothy Morrison, Tracy Nelson, Annie Sampson and Angela Strehli recently joined forces to create this supergroup which melds styles ranging from blues, country, gospel and rock. Their debut release is a live recording from a November 4, 2011, performance at the Throckmorton Theatre in Mill Valley, CA. The CD is packaged with a DVD (NTSC, 50 minutes) that features a bonus track, “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue,” not included on the CD.
For my taste the CD is somewhat gimmicky, especially in the opening tracks. The blues-rock stylings of Nelson and Strehli don’t always blend well with Morrison and Sampson, and covers of iconic songs like “River Deep” are more miss than hit. There are tracks, however, where everything seems to gel, especially on the latter half of the album when the group is warmed up and firing on all cylinders. By the time the rollicking cover of the Mother Earth song “It Won’t Be Long” hits the speakers, with guest Deana Bogart taking over lead vocals, it’s time to sit up and take notice. Then Tracy Nelson proves she is a blues broad of the highest order on her trademark song “Walk Away,” a terrific rendition that works well with the rest of the grouping singing back-up. The two gospel numbers that close the album are fantastic, including the a cappella “Jesus I’ll Never Forget” and a pew-burner rendition of Morrison’s signature song, “Oh Happy Day,” which brings down the house:
By the end of the concert I was ready to change my opinion of the Blues Broads. When they have great arrangements that carefully consider the vocal timbres and strengths of each member, they are indeed a supergroup!
Shemekia Copeland was declared “Queen of the Blues” at the 2011 Chicago Blues Festival, a well-earned title bestowed after the passing of the previous queen, Koko Taylor. Her latest album, 33 1/3 (a nod to her love of vinyl), is one of the best, if not the best blues recording of the year (and has been nominated for a Grammy). Copeland’s vocal talents aside, props must also be given to producer/guitarist Oliver Wood, of the Wood Brothers, who co-wrote several of the songs with John Hahn and contributes to the backing band, which also includes Ted Pecchio on bass and Gary Hansen on drums.
According to Copeland, “Every one of these songs tells a story about where I am in my life – they all connect to something that has happened to me, both good and bad.” What’s amazing is how well the Wood/Hahn songwriting duo was able to tap into her psyche on songs such as “Lemon Pie,” which addresses the current gap between the middle class and the one-percenters, and the feminist manifesto “Ain’t Gonna Be Your Tattoo,” which features Buddy Guy on lead guitar. These songs are so personal in character I was surprised to learn that Copeland did not contribute to the lyrics.
All of the tracks have stellar arrangements and instrumentals, with Wood charting the course of the album through many styles, from the traditional to the contemporary, making sure it never grows stale. One of the ways he accomplishes this task is to draw from musicians outside the Chicago blues clique, such as JJ Grey of the southern soul/funk/rock band Mofro, and Blackberry Smoke lead guitarist Charlie Starr, who adds a countrified pedal steel on Copeland’s covers of JJ Grey’s “A Woman” and Bob Dylan’s “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight.”
There are no weak tracks on this album, so it’s hard to pick highlights. Certainly Copeland’s cover of “One More Time,” penned by her father, the late Johnny Copeland, which shows great emotional depth, and “Hangin’ Up” featuring the dueling guitars of Wood and Arthur Nielson (a regular in Copeland’s band). Copeland even pulls off a cover of Sam Cooke’s “Ain’t That Good News,” sung as an ode to her husband. As with her previous albums, Never Looking Back (2009), also produced by Wood, and The Soul Truth (2005), produced by Stax’s legendary Steve Cropper, Copeland seems committed to producing blues for the 21st century with 33 1/3.
Title: Plug It In! Turn It Up! Electric Blues, 1939-2005: The Definitive Collection
Label: Bear Family
Format: CD box set (4 volumes, issued separately)
Release date: 2011 (2012 U.S.)
There are many, many blues compilations, but what sets this outstanding collection apart from the rest are the definitive liner notes that accompany Bear Family’s collection of electric blues. Bill Dahl, the producer of the compilation, also wrote the notes for all four volumes and each of these well-illustrated booklets runs over 150 pages. Each volume also includes 3 CDs, for a total of 12 CDs if you purchase the entire series.
Dahl aptly sums up the collection in the introduction to part one: “Before this series of three-CD sets concludes, the listener will be guided through all the permutations of electric blues: Swinging jump numbers, lowdown slow grinders, ‘50s rock ‘n’ rollers, the hard-charging British and American blues-rock of the ‘60s and beyond, soul-blues of the ‘70s, and right on up to the contemporary blues of today, where the electric guitar continues to reign as almighty king.” He goes on to apologize, somewhat, for the selection process: “There’s no way to include every deserving landmark of the genre on this series―that would require a virtual mountain of discs and an accompanying avalanche of words―but by the time you listen to the dozen jam-packed CDs that comprise this series, you’ll have a pretty fair idea of how electric-blues progressed, and who the important players were (not to mention a raft of unsung heroes).” So essentially, you’re getting a course on the history of electric blues, courtesy of “Professor” Dahl. Can’t get any better than that!
Part one takes us from the beginnings in 1939 through 1954. The honor of the first example of electric blues guitar on record goes to Andy Kirk and His Twelve Clouds of Joy for “Floyd Guitar Blues,” recorded March 16, 1939 (Decca 2483). Close on their heels was T-Bone Walker, universally considered the “father” of electric blues, with his “Mean Old World” from July 1942. Over the course of this volume are more examples from Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers, Louis Jordan, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Sonny Boy Williamson, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf and many other luminaries, as well as regional phenoms such as Louisiana’s “Bon Ton” Clarence Garlow, and blues women including Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Big Mama Thornton, and Memphis Minnie. For many blues enthusiasts, or those eager to learn about the roots of electric blues and rock, this volume will likely be a favorite.
Part two, featuring post-war recordings from 1954-1967, covers an era when blues had become “electric, loud, and in-your-face” while “lonesome southern bluesmen stroking acoustic axes” were a dying breed. This era also saw the rise in manufacturing of electric guitars, the amplification of harmonicas, and of course the dominance of rock ‘n’ roll. Dahl refers to this period as the “golden age,” with blues recordings emanating from all corners of the country. Major figures included in this set are B.B. King, Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Sonny Boy Williamson, Jackie Brenston, Hank Ballard, Jimmy Reed, Little Milton, Earl Hooker, Memphis Slim, Ike Turner, Albert Collins, plus many more.
Part three covers 1960-1969, notable for the “concept of the blues guitar hero” and the emergence of a new generation of bluesmen and women, including British groups who pioneered a new form of blues-rock. Dahl attempts to showcase “that tumultuous decade’s electric blues highlights” over the course of the next three CDs in the series. Featured musicians on the first two discs include Buddy Guy, Freddie King, Junior Wells, Elmore James, Aretha Franklin, Mable John, Etta James, Koko Taylor, Albert King and Taj Mahal, while disc three is devoted to blues-rock with Johnny Winter, The Animals, Fleetwood Mac, and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, among others.
Part four features recordings from 1970-2005. According to Dahl, blues music was at a crossroads by 1970, a victim of the natural ebb and flow of musical tastes. Likewise, out of the four volumes, this one is the most likely to cause enthusiasts to quibble over the content. The first two discs span the 1970s, beginning with Ted Taylor, Al Green, B.B. King, Otis Rush, and Hound Dog Taylor, and slowly branching out to explore various permutations of folk-blues, blues-rock, and R&B through artists such as Ann Peebles, Denise LaSalle, Syl Johnson, Betty Lavette, ZZ Top, and Bonnie Rait. The final disc covers the ‘80s and early ‘90s through performers such as Stevie Ray Vaughan, Lonnie Brooks, Robert Cray and Buddy Guy. The final track fast forwards to a 2005 recording by Nick Moss, who Dahl hails as “a savior of traditional Chicago blues,” fully conversant on guitar, harmonica and bass, and capable of changing up his sound at regular intervals to keep things interesting, and to keep the blues alive for another generation.
Regrettably, this magnum opus is an import and thus will set you back about $60 per volume. However, there aren’t many really authoritative sets being manufactured these days, and an education does not come cheap. Since the volumes are issued separately, you can take your pick if your budget is limited. This set is highly recommended for college and conservatory libraries, and would serve as a fine resource for courses on the blues.
This grab-bag of blues albums, all issued in 2012, paint a good picture of the genre today. There are competing trends: the onward march of electric blues, sometimes tending toward a slick sound close to modern R&B or electrified gospel; and a blues-centric version of the current “roots” fad, acoustic-centered music that draws more from the 1930s than the 1950s.
Harrison Kennedy’s Shame the Devil sits in the middle of these two streams. The singer and multi-instrumentalist, from Detroit, is equally comfortable with songs like “Hound and the Rabbit,” which could come right off a 1932 Paramount 78 (instrumentation: accordion, banjo, bones, acoustic guitar), and “Snakes Lie,” which is a straight-forward semi-electrified blues (the guitar is acoustic, and Kennedy doesn’t amplify his harmonica). Kennedy’s song writing is clever and he and his band are very good musicians, so this album does well with repeated listening, something new pops out each time. All the more impressive, the album was recorded over 4 days in mid-2011, and much of the playing clearly took place together, boding well for those wishing to catch Kennedy and his band live.
Smokin’ Joe Kubek has in the past been associated with the most heavy of electric blues. He came up in a time of loud, somewhat plodding blues from fellow Texans Johnny Winter and Stevie Ray Vaughn, guys who were more about guitar pyrotechnics than the traditional blues elements and themes. But, since pairing with Bnois King, Kubek has moved toward the “roots” stream, and Close to the Bone finds the two veterans completely “unplugged” (this is clearly considered a selling point, it’s printed right on the front cover of the CD). The interesting production, by Delta Groove president Randy Chortkoff, features Kubek’s guitar in the left channel, King in the right, King’s vocals in the center, and a variety of guests filling in the sound spaces around them. One of the better combos is putting Kirk Fletcher’s snappy acoustic guitar solos in the center. Another neat trick is stacking up three harmonica players― Bob Corritore in the right channel, producer Chortkoff in the left and Pieter “Big Pete” van der Pluijm in the center―on “Keep Her Around.” Net-net, the guys keep it varied and interesting, so the album justifies its hour length. Further kudos to Chortkoff for avoiding the temptation to over-compress things; the album has nice dynamics and that makes it more dramatic and interesting.
Following is a recent clip of the duo performing an acoustic set interspersed with an interview:
Reverend K M Williams is, in and of himself, a blues irony. Robert Johnson’s myth revolves around the devil leading him to blues stardom. Son House was pulled back and forth between the blues and the church. Howlin’ Wolf’s mother considered his choice of the bluesman’s life as sinful and never forgave him. So what to make of a man described in the CD liner notes as “a bona fide ordained minister in the Holiness Church” who “has been performing his unique brand of earthy gospel blues” in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area for the past two decades? Well, the man can play, and his sound harkens back to earlier electric blues. In fact, When I Rise was produced in monophonic sound, as noted in full-sized type on the back of the CD insert. Rev. Williams plays a homemade cigar-box guitar and sings. His bandmates’ stage names hint at the humor found throughout his music: Washboard Jackson on drums and washboard, Hash Brown on guitar and harp, and Blue Lisa and Andrea Dawson on background vocals. The Rev. Williams’ blues definitely carry gospel themes and songs are paced more like church music than any kind of slower blues. So Rev. Williams doesn’t fit neatly into any category, but he sure can raise the roof and bring down the house.
Following is a live performance of the closing track, “My Lord Knows Just What to Do”:
The following trio of Delmark albums encompass more traditional notions of modern-era blues, all electrified and Chicago-style. This music has evolved since the post-WWII migration of rural black musicians to Chicago’s streets and clubs. Delmark Records has been involved in the Chicago scene since the 1960s, so these albums and artists are latest in a long line.
In 2010, Delmark reissued Willie Buck’s 30-year-old first album. Now here’s a new album from Buck, Cell Phone Man, recorded over two days last June. Buck still hones very close to his prime influence, Muddy Waters. The album includes several covers of Waters’ tunes, and Buck’s originals spring from the same sector of the blues universe. But, as noted in my review of Buck’s first Delmark album, the man plays Muddy’s music well, and he’s backed up by a solid band. So, while this isn’t anything radically new, it’s a comfortable rendition of a very fine tradition.
Mike Wheeler is something new and somewhat different. Wheeler’s electric blues is related to the slicker, faster style that was rampant in Chicago in the 1990s, but he’s more soulful and concentrates on his lyrics and singing as much as his guitar playing. It’s also nice to hear a modern blues keyboard player stick to acoustic piano and Hammond organ sounds, and stay away from cheesy 80s-ish synth fills, which were a plague on too many ‘90s Chicago blues albums. The album’s title track, “Self Made Man,” sums up Wheeler’s approach―punchy and fast beat, retro-soul elements like a wah-wah pedal on the rhythm guitar, Hammond organ and nice harp runs by Omar Coleman behind Wheeler’s vocals. Wheeler’s guitar solos are more liquid than blistering, he’s nimble but not super-fast, and so he’s wise to create the thicker instrumental textures present throughout the album. Self Made Man is a very impressive debut on a national label (Wheeler previously self-produced a CD sold mainly at his live shows).
Linsey Alexander is the most in-the-box Chicago bluesman of this lot. He’s been involved in the local scene, first as a fan and then as a professional bandleader, since the early 1960s. Like Wheeler (who plays guitar on 4 tracks), Alexander’s Been There Done That is his first album for Delmark and the first not self-produced and sold only regionally. Alexander is a mainstay in the tourist-oriented blues clubs in Chicago, and thus his music is the most mainstream of electric blues. He plays well, befitting a veteran performer, but don’t expect to hear sounds you haven’t heard plenty of times before. That said, Alexander is likely very appealing to casual blues fan, his songs (such as “Bad Man“) are punchy and there are plenty of nice guitar hooks and clever rhythms.
These six CDs show an impressive depth and variety of current blues, proving the genre is not tired nor out of new sounds and ideas. The “back to the roots” trend is refreshing and is forcing some of the guitar kings to unplug, which will expand their horizons and appeal. There is much to look forward to in 2013.
This tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was released last spring, too late for 2012 celebrations, so we’re putting it at the top of our list for 2013. The four track EP is a compilation of inspirational songs on themes of freedom, composed by Linda Tillery and performed by a pick-up group appropriately called the Freedom Band (Linda Tillery, Calvin Tillery, and Nicolas Bearde, vocals; Rico Pabon, spoken word; Danny Armstrong, trombone; Tammy Hall-Hawkins, keyboards; Camilo Landau, guitar; David Belove , bass; Paul van Wageningen, drums). Tillery, who is perhaps best known in recent years as the leader of the Cultural Heritage Choir, brought these musicians together to play a special concert honoring Dr. King in Oakland, CA. In her words, “the performance was so magical that the band had to be recorded.”
All of the tracks maintain a distinctive ‘70s jazz/soul vibe―not surprising considering Tillery was lead vocalist for the San Francisco band The Loading Zone from 1968-69 and also worked as a studio musician throughout the ‘70s. “Freedom Time” was actually composed in 1978, but updated in 2011 to include a spoken word section, in this case featuring socially conscious Bay-area rapper/musician Rico Pabon (a member of Tillery’s Cultural Heritage Choir). The title track, Celebrate the King, will no doubt become a fixture at many future celebrations. Highly recommended!