June 19th, 2007
Title: Stone Cold Ohio
Artist: Little Axe
Catalog No.: CDRW 140
I must confess that I stumbled upon this recording purely by accident, having been attracted by the title. Since we try to feature regional (i.e., Midwest) artists on Black Grooves, I was curious to see just how Ohio figured into the mix. What a pleasant surprise to discover that Little Axe is actually Skip McDonald, a native of that “hotbed of funk” otherwise known as Dayton, Ohio.
McDonald is an extremely versatile musician who learned blues guitar quite literally on his father’s knee in the ‘50s and then honed his vocals in various doo-wop and gospel quartets while in high school. Moving to New York around 1971, he hooked up with bassist Doug Wimbush (who later joined the band Living Colour) and drummer Keith LeBlanc to form the house band for the Sylvia Robinson’s newly minted Sugarhill Records. After three years at Sugarhill, which included appearances on some of rap’s earliest hits—Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message,” and Melle Mel’s “White Lines”—the trio moved over to the Tommy Boy label, where they formed a relationship with innovative British producer/mixologist Adrian Sherwood. Sherwood moved the group to London, home of his On-U Sound label, where they were christened Tackhead (New Jersey slang for “homeboy”) and provided back-up for Sherwood’s various dub reggae, funk and rock projects. Though Tackhead basically disbanded in the early ‘90s, its members have been hugely influential, having played, produced and remixed for a wide range artists ranging from James Brown, Tina Turner, B.B. King, and George Clinton to Mick Jagger, R.E.M., Depeche Mode, and Bomb The Bass.
For Skip MacDonald, the break-up of Tackhead provided an opportunity to return to his blues roots. Since 1992 he has performed under the name “Little Axe”—a combination of Bob Marley’s “Small Axe” and gospel singer Willmer “Little Ax” Broadnax—which perfectly fits with MacDonald’s blending of Delta blues, gospel, rock, and dub reggae into a “21st century experimental blues band.” His masterful debut album, The House That Wolf Built (1995), was said to have had a significant influence on Moby’s Play. The second Little Axe album, Slow Fuse, was released on the Wired label in 1996 but was not as widely acclaimed. After a hiatus spent working on other projects, MacDonald re-assembled his Tackhead bandmates and broke new ground with Hard Grind (2002), Champagne & Grits (2004), and his latest effort, Stone Cold Ohio (released in August 2006- see some great clips and interviews on the Realworld site).
Stone Cold Ohio, with its broad mix of influences and collage of samples, is one of those album’s that is impossible to categorize. Opening with the anti-war song “If I Had My Way,” which incorporates the chorus section from the gospel classic “Samson and Delilah,” the album continues to blend wholly original works (penned by B. Alexander aka Skip MacDonald) with bits of classic blues and gospel. Several covers are included as well, such as Allen Toussaint’s “Same People” and a fabulous reworking of Skip James’ “Hard Times.” Overall, this is a fascinating album, one which deserves far greater attention. Co-produced by Adrian Sherwood and MacDonald and recorded at the On-U Sound Studios, the album features MacDonald on guitar and vocals, with back-up provided by Keith LeBlanc and Nick Coplowe (aka Mutant Hi Fi), drum programming; Will Calhoun, live drums and percussion; Paget King, keyboards; Doug Winbush, bass guitar; and Ghetto Priest, Madeleine Edgehill, Valerie Skeete, Carlton Ogilvie, and Denise Sherwood, vocals (there’s also a great harmonica player who is not credited in the liner notes).
As summed up by MacDonald, “Little Axe is the blues, the deep blues channelled through time, dubbed, tweaked, sampled, processed, explored, refreshed—surfing the present, from the past, into the future.” What other musician can weave in and out of so many genres while providing a direct link to Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaata, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, James Brown, Robert Plant, Mark Stewart & The Mafia, Sinead O’Connor, and Megadeth. I, for one, definitely plan to seek out all of Little Axe’s previous releases.
Posted by Brenda Nelson-Strauss
Review Genre(s): Blues