Guy Davis & Fabrizio Poggi – Sonny & Brownie’s Last Train: A Look Back at Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry

Brownie Train
Title: Sonny & Brownie’s Last Train: A Look Back at Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry

Artist: Guy Davis & Fabrizio Poggi

Label: M.C. Records

Formats: CD, MP3, Vinyl

Release date: March 24, 2017

 

Blowing past the mouthpiece and producing train whistle-like chords, Fabrizio Poggi masterfully creates a sonic image on his harmonica of a train blowing steam as Guy Davis boldly strums on his acoustic guitar during the introduction of “Sonny and Brownie’s Last Train.” This original composition by Davis pays homage to the great mid-twentieth century Piedmont blues duo, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. Terry and McGhee drew inspiration from early folk-blues figures such as Lightnin’ Hopkins, Josh White, and John Lee Hooker and were also associated with the left-wing folk movement.

This 12-track album of acoustic blues studio sessions was recorded live in Milan, Italy and features songs written by McGee and Terry including “Walk On,” “Evil Hearted Me,” and “Hooray, Hooray These Women are Killing Me.” Davis and Poggi also cover a number of blues greats from Jimmy Oden’s “Going Down Slow” to Elizabeth Cotten’s “Freight Train,” as well as familiar traditional songs like “Take This Hammer,” “Shortnin’ Bread,” and “Midnight Special.”

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Special attention should be paid to the technical musical nuances during these live recordings. Of particular interest is Poggi’s emulation of Terry’s whooping and hollering between harmonica riffs for an added soulful effect. As well, Davis embraces the storytelling tradition in his performances inspired by the work of Blind Willie McTell and Big Bill Broonzy.

After a music career spanning over two decades, this commemorative album marks Guy Davis’ 14th recording. Reflecting on this latest work, Davis explains, “Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry were two musicians whose work will not be surpassed, let alone improved on. This musical opus was produced by Fabrizio Poggi. It features our combined musical talents, and is not meant to compete with the originals. It’s meant to be a love letter to Brownie and Sonny signed by the both of us. They were two of my favorites.”

Sonny & Brownie’s Last Train is certainly worth giving a listen, not only to hear expertly executed blues techniques on the harmonica and acoustic guitar, but to witness an excellent and historically significant collection of standard blues and traditional music.

Reviewed by Jennie Williams

Maestro


Title: Maestro
Artist: Taj Mahal
Label: Heads Up International
Catalog No.: HUCD3164
Release date: September 30, 2008

Maestro, Taj Mahal’s newest album, celebrates the fortieth anniversary of his self-titled debut with an exciting assortment of guests, including Los Lobos, Ziggy Marley, Ben Harper, and Toumani Diabate. Their collaborations account for the more eclectic tracks on this album, including the reggae-infused “Black Man, Brown Man” (penned by Taj Mahal and previously recorded for his 1976 album, Satisfied ‘N’ Tickled Too), and “Zanzibar,” which features the kora, a West-African harplike instrument. “Never Let You Go,” on which Taj Mahal plays the ukelele and is backed by Los Lobos, recalls certain soulful rock and R&B tunes from the 1960s, such as “When a Man Loves a Woman” (Percy Sledge), “A Whiter Shade of Pale” (Procol Harum), and “Maybe” (Janis Joplin).

Roughly half of Maestro, however, comprises uptempo songs based on the standard twelve-bar blues format. These blues-based numbers are often laced with humor, and may deviate from expected harmonic patterns. The opening track, “Scratch My Back,” features a rhythmically jaunty musical arrangement and playfully suggestive lyrics; these qualities remind me of another famous “humorous” blues song, Bob Dylan’s “Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat.” In “Dust Me Down,” written by Ben Harper, the twelve-bar blues format illustrates its capacity for endless reinvention; quirky chord substitutions contradict, but do not undermine, the expected harmonies, yielding an edgier musical construction to complement the heavily distorted guitar that drives the song.

In my opinion, “Strong Man Holler” is the strongest selection on Maestro. It is the only slow twelve-bar blues (more or less) on the album, and is remarkable for the poignant vocal timbres Taj Mahal achieves as he moans in the lowest part of his register. The verses of this song, moreover, are remarkable for treading the boundary between singing and heavily rhythmicized speech.

The biggest pitfall of Maestro is in its production. Although several individuals shared production duties, the sound they achieved is too homogenous. Distorted guitars and the Hammond B3 organ dominate the sound, leaving the other instruments to coalesce quietly in the background. Thus, Toumani Diabate’s virtuosic kora playing on “Zanzibar” sometimes gets lost in the texture, as does some of Taj Mahal’s banjo playing throughout the album. In all, I recommend listening to Maestro, but I fear that its overly homogenous sound, as well as its occasionally generic songwriting, may cause its allure quickly to become used up.

Posted by John Reef

Promo video featuring an interview with Taj Mahal provided by Heads Up International: