Sunday, 30 December 2007

CD Review - porterdavis

Live At Eddie’s Attic
Independent Release

There’s a rare magic in music when exceptional players mesh perfectly.

Porterdavis’ music is deeply traditional yet totally new. It is of no genre yet of them all – Blues, folk, jazz, bebop. Before every show, band members pour a drink on the floor in homage to their heroes: Ray Charles, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Elvin Jones, Miles Davis, Townes Van Zandt, Muddy Waters and Little Walter.

This CD captures the trio – a guitarist and drummer, both Americans, and a British harmonica player – live at a club near Atlanta.

Key to their sound is Simon Wallace, who won the U.K. National Blues Harmonica Title at age 17. His harp takes the lead on more songs than not. Sometimes his harmonica and Daniel Barrett’s guitar track each other exactly, an octave apart.

On other songs, Barrett provides rhythm or slide-played bass. The sound is complemented by Mike Meadows’ creative, intelligent percussion. This is a tight, tight band.

Lamentably, there are no credits on the promotional CD, but the album seems to mix covers and originals.

Muddy Waters’ ‘I Can’t Be Satisfied’ is transposed into a minor key, barely recognizable but deeper, blusier, more cutting than the original.

Robert Johnson’s ‘Come On In my Kitchen’ is eerie and true – brilliantly reworked, completely new.

‘Long Legs’, apparently an original, is aching folk, pure poetry: “I could see that freckled, bonesy girl would one day be my world. Would you be my world? … I dare not dream so dangerously. You could be the death of me.”

And ‘Diamond Eyed One’ is a delightful finger-poppin’ ode to desire: “I want to cook your favourite dish. I want to kiss your favourite kiss.”

With heartfelt singing by men who follow their own muse, this album is a revelation. Porterdavis is a band worthy of your attention.

CD Review - Toby Walker

Just Rolled In
Toby Walker

This is a fabulously fun CD, featuring acoustic blues guitar the way everyone should play it – with precision, gusto, and sass. You won’t hear better picking than this.

Walker, a Long Islander, was raised far from the Mississippi Delta. But his passion for blues and rag prompted him to head south. He tracked down musicians from an earlier era, learning from the likes of Eugene Powell, James "Son" Thomas, Etta Baker and R.L. Burnside.

His repertoire, a mix of covers and originals, is, he says, “99.9 percent songs of thieving, lying, stealing, cheating, murder and mayhem” – leavened, thankfully, with a large helping of humour.

Walker’s vocals rarely rise above serviceable, though they grow on you. The thing here is the guitar. Whether it’s blues or ragtime, the syncopation and rhythm make it hard to sit still when he plays.

With his funny between-song patter, Walker is a born storyteller; his guitar is an extension of that. His playing is not frantic and overfull, but still technically astonishing. He senses when the spaces say more than notes, and when a single bent note can move the story along.

‘Blame It On The Bass Player’ – an instrumental paean to those underappreciated musicians – is humour without words. Walker’s thumb gleefully picks out classic bass lines while his fingers tell another story up top.

And when Walker sings, the interplay between his vocal storytelling and that of his guitar is guaranteed to raise a smile.

Most of the album is light-hearted, but it ends with two barnburners – notably the defiant ‘Nobody’s Fault But Mine’, on which Walker’s voice, playing and blues come into their own.

This CD is 98 percent happy and 100 percent blues. If you think that’s a contradiction, just listen a while – and smile.

CD Review - J. Dorsey Blues Band

Worried Blues EP
Independent Release

By M.D. Spenser

Let’s be upfront about it: If you want to buy this CD, it’ll be tough. You won’t find it at HMV, nor on amazon, and the band’s web site on myspace – had, as of late December, not a speck of information.

But that’s OK, because there’s no reason to buy it anyway, unless what you need to fill out your collection is a complete lack of originality.

This CD is not horrible, but it’s not good, either. The five tracks are a melange of styles that don't really mix.

The title track is a droning one-chord version of a song listed as ‘Worried Blues’ and called “traditional”. In fact, the title of the song is ‘Someday Baby’ and it was written in 1935 by Sleepy John Estes and Hammie Nixon. It’s played with some slide guitar and a whole lot of racket.

Track 2 is the only original, a one-chord number so slow it sounds like an LP played at the wrong speed. It is topped by Jimi Hendrix-like vocals and descends into distortion. Clocking in at 8:22, it’s about eight minutes too long.

From Hendrix territory we jump improbably to Nina Simone: the cover of her ‘Do I Move You’, slinky and sexual, is the EP’s one high point.

Then we hop to a dreary Chuck Berry cover. Chuck Berry with the fun taken out? What’s the point?

The CD closes with a Fred McDowell number, which is fun in a Fat Possum, Mississippi hill country sort of way. The song has a driving rhythm, but there is still a tendency to confuse cacophony with musicality.

The verdict? Twenty-three minutes of mishmash.

Saturday, 24 November 2007

CD Review - Fried Okra Band

This Is Your Chance, France Baby!

By M.D. Spenser

Think of this fine CD as Denmark does Mississippi – or, more specifically, as Fried Okra does Fat Possum. Four of the first five cuts are from artists featured on Fat Possum, a label that has single-handedly brought deserved attention to blues performers from the Mississippi hill country.

That rough, raw, rural and determinedly unpolished style is captured well by this quartet from Copenhagen. Don’t look for the standard blues progression. These songs have one chord – two, if you’re lucky. The thing here is the relentless rhythm and the unvarnished emotion.

“I been working seven days a week/Still can’t make ends meet,” Morten Lunn sings on R.L. Burnside’s “Poor Black Mattie” (misspelled on this CD cover as “Maddie”). The sound here is noisier and more electric that on the Fat Possum originals (Junior Kimbrough and Robert Belfour are also covered), but the slide stings, the drums clatter, the vocals are gruff, and the gritty feeling is exactly the same.

The tracks were recorded live, but have some overdubs. The result is the best of both worlds – the immediacy of live performance combined with the discipline of the studio.

Other songs by Corey Harris, Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson and Tom Waits fit right into the mix. “I was stirring my brandy with a nail,” Lunn growls on Waits’ “Get Behind The Mule” – and he sounds like the kind of guy who would do just that.

The album ends with a brilliant, slowed-down reading of Johnson’s “Crossroads.”

This album goes to show that Americans have no monopoly on the blues. You can create a genre but you can't own it. No spit, no shine, no polish – this is 100 percent real blues.

CD Review - Pura Fe'

Hold The Rain
Dixie Frog

By M.D. Spenser

The album begins the beat of the human heart, or at least a solitary drum that sounds for all the world like it. On top of the heartbeat a chorus builds, Soweto-like. Then the voice of Pura Fe’ keens high over the chorus, wordless, emotional, and you know this album is going to be something different.

It is challenging – and rewarding in a way that only that which challenges us can be. Pura Fe’ is an American Indian, and an artist courageous enough to tread her own path.

She wrote, in whole or in part, 10 of the 13 tracks. They defy genres: folk, blues and hints of jazz combine to make pure Pura Fe’. Suffice it to say that the songs rely heavily on Fe’s acoustic lap-slide guitar – and on her voice, a beautiful and mellow instrument.

She is backed by a fine coterie of musicians. These songs are not instant toe-tappers – they are richer fare than that – but with repeated play they reveal themselves and grow on the listener. They deal with desire ('If I Was Your Guitar'), love ('Follow Your Heart’s Desire'), and even child abuse ('Little Girl Dreaming').

And the covers? Gorgeous. They include a moving five-minute-plus version of Rogers and Hammerstein’s “Summertime.” A duet with Eric Bibb on his song “People You Love” is just a gem, to die for.

One quibble – on a couple of occasions, Fe’s voice, normally full and expressive, rises to a screech. Following your own path is fine, but so’s a little discipline, whether from a producer or your wiser self.

This album is rich and challenging, one that will stay with you far longer than instantly accessible toe-tappers ever will. The songs work their way inside you until, at last, they become one with the beating of your heart.

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

CD Review - Marie Knight

Let Us Get Together: A Tribute to Reverend Gary Davis

By M.D. Spenser

Some pairings sound doomed to failure.

Who’d put an elderly gospel singer who hadn’t recorded in 25 years together with Bob Dylan’s lead guitarist? But this album, with 78-year-old Marie Knight backed by Larry Campbell’s guitar, is fabulous. If you have any feelings for gospel, ragtime or blues, if you appreciate incredible acoustic guitar, then buy this CD.

Knight, who sang with Sister Rosetta Tharpe half a century ago, and Campbell, who has backed B.B. King, Roseanne Cash, Lyle Lovett and others, breathe life into the songs of Rev. Gary Davis, the blind bluesman who turned to gospel as his life wore on.

Knight and Campbell wisely chose not to honour Davis through slavish imitation. Knight, who, unbelievably, had never heard of Davis, sifted through his songs, rejecting some, embracing others. Though she changed no words, she sometimes altered the melodies to suit her. She remains in fine voice; her phrasing should be studied by younger singers.

She chose mostly from Davis’ gospel works rather than his blues. But it’s gospel without preachiness. And when she does sing the blues – like ‘You Got To Move’ (a blues with gospel words) – there’s no trace of sadness. This is an exuberant record.

Davis was one of the best ragtime guitarists ever. And Campbell, too, opted not to copy every note, but instead to put some of himself into the record. He captures the intricate syncopation of Davis’ guitar, but it’s the feeling that makes this album what it is.

A couple of tracks are augmented by the harmonica of Kim Wilson, one of the best harpists working today.

Some combinations work wonderfully well: Gospel with exuberance, blues with joy, two artists injecting the work of an old master with new vitality. A better tribute to Rev. Gary Davis could not be imagined.

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

An American Abroad - Becoming a British Citizen

By M.D. Spenser

LONDON – I was taught as an impressionable schoolboy that monarchs, all them, were bad. George Washington, our national hero, turned up his nose at any suggestion that he become king of America.

So it is shocking to the wide-eyed boy who still lives within to realize that this week I will swear allegiance to Queen Elizabeth and become a British citizen.

The obvious question is why.

First of all, I’m not turning my back on the country of my birth, any more than I turned my back on Vermont when I moved to Florida. Nor am I fed up with American politics.

I’ve been alive a while now, and I’ve enjoyed some political eras more than others. But the thing to do is vote. I’ll retain dual citizenship and continue to vote in the U.S., just as I always have.

So why?

There are practical reasons, of course. I like living in Britain. Last spring, my family and I took a four-day weekend to the Loire Valley in France. You can’t do that from the U.S.

And taking British citizenship guarantees that, if I accept a journalistic assignment out of the country for a couple of years, I’ll retain the right to come back here.

Besides, my wife and step-daughter are from Moldova, in Eastern Europe. By becoming a British citizen, I’ll make it possible for them to do the same in the near future. Then we’ll be able to travel visa-free to huge swaths of the world. They can’t do that now on their passports; recreational travel can be extremely difficult.

All those things are true. But citizenship is a big thing. The thought of it sent me scurrying to read some of Winston Churchill’s histories, big books I’d carried around for years without reading. There’s more to it, really, it than just the practical.

Part of it is that the analogy of moving from one state to another, while not exact, is not that far-fetched in today’s world. There are a number of international marriages among the small team of editors in my office – a Brit married to an American of Venezuelan heritage, an American married to a Spaniard, me, and others. These unions occasion little surprise, just as few would raise an eyebrow at a marriage between people from Massachusetts and Minnesota.

Are we exceptions, because we are journalists who have traveled a lot? Perhaps. But in London, where I work, more than 300 languages are spoken every day.

In the United States, there is talk of building a wall.

And this, I think, is at root why I choose now to become a British citizen: I have trouble recognizing the world as seen through American eyes.

If I go to the home pages of the BBC or British newspapers, I usually see news of the whole world. There is coverage of Britain, of course, and of the U.S. – an important country, to be sure – but detailed, ongoing, fascinating and important coverage of the rest of the world, as well.

But if I go to the web sites of CNN or many major metropolitan American newspapers, their default home pages, most days, are likely to focus primarily – sometimes exclusively – on American news. You can find international news, but less than I wish, and you have to root around for it.

I realize that on occasion focus groups tell editors they don't want to hear all that much about the rest of the world. And that in turn forces difficult business decisions to be made.

But that’s a shame, because that ignorance is going to come up and bite people at some point. And it's too bad, also, because exciting things are going on that some Americans don't know about.

We are witnessing, in this era of globalization, one of the stimulating movements and mixing of people in history. A Bulgarian just cut my hair. One’s dentist in Britain is likely to be Polish. My step-daughter’s piano teacher is South African. Her best friend in school is from Hong Kong.

And it’s not just London. My wife and I live in the countryside. A woman who answered our questions at a local school today was from Latvia. The guy who leads yoga classes at the gym in our village is from Zimbabwe.

It’s interesting and educational and, yes, in some ways dangerous – no one, after all that has happened, can deny the challenges – and exhilarating and moving.

But the point is that, in the end, it's unstoppable, no matter now many walls are built or fingers are put in the dyke. It’s the future.

And I just want to participate.

Monday, 22 October 2007

CD Review - Zoot Money's Big Roll Band

Full Circle
R&C Music

By M.D. Spenser

Full Circle is in some ways a fun CD but I can’t recommend you go out and buy it.

It incorporates many weaknesses common to live albums. The songs, clocking in at five, six and even seven minutes, are overlong. There’s the requisite segment where each player is introduced by name and does a solo. There’s some jamming that was cool live but boring on CD.

Zoot was in his early 60s when this was recorded; his voice shows the miles, particularly on ballads. And this is not a blues CD, though there is a bit of blues, which uses Zoot’s voice to better effect.

OK, having said all that . . . to the good parts.

Zoot – original name, George – is a talented guy. He was around at the beginning of British R&B, having formed the first version of the Big Roll Band in 1961. One of the original members was Andy Summers – later, of course, of The Police. Over the years, Zoot made a living acting, performing, writing songs. Now he’s formed a new version of the Big Roll Band – hence the album title, Full Circle.

The musicianship is stellar – swinging sax, great guitar, Zoot’s exciting keyboards. Though his regular voice is ragged, Zoot’s falsetto remains intact.

The songs are a grab bag of generic rock from various eras, some sounding like early Doug Sahm. Chestnuts like Robert Parker’s ‘Barefootin‘’ and Rufus Thomas’ ‘Walking The Dog’, are done as a medley. Makes you want to get up and dance.

Which brings me back to where I started. Zoot’s web site is His gigs are listed. Go see him. You might buy the CD as a memento. He’ll probably sign it for you.

But the CD on its own? Naah. Not worth it.

Sunday, 21 October 2007

CD review - Percy Mayfield

The Voice Within: The Specialty Singles 1950-55
By M.D. Spenser

A song as fine as ‘Please Send Me Someone To Love’ almost defies description.

You could talk about the vulnerability. ‘If it’s not asking too much . . .’ the singer pleads gently. You could talk about the melody, or the wistfulness.

Or you could realize that it’s been recorded by as many as 200 artists – big names, too, from Count Basie to Fiona Apple, from T-Bone Walker to Odetta, from Dinah Washington to B.B. King, from Ruth Brown to Luther Allison to Maria Muldaur to Peggy Lee to Irma Thomas to Paul Butterfield to Etta James to … you get the idea. That must be a song with a lot going for it.

And here it is, track one, performed by the man himself, with his inimitably sweet vocals and immaculate timing.

The album has 29 cuts from the same era, most nearly as good, as sweet, as plaintive as the first. Mayfield was a giant.

These songs are from his heyday, when he recorded for the Specialty label, before going on to become Ray Charles’ chief songwriter (‘Hit The Road, Jack’). Stylistically, they are of a piece. An upright bass keeps time; a tinkling piano adds colour, two saxes act as the rhythm section. All tracks have one guitar credited but on most, dang, it’s hard to hear.

And above all, Mayfield’s intimate vocals are well up in the mix.

Mayfield belongs in any collection, and these are the songs you need.

One quibble: There is too much hiss on some of the tracks. These were big hits. The originals were recorded with more fidelity than this. After 50 years, the songs are doubtless in the public domain. Too bad Rev-Ola couldn’t – so it seems – get its hands on the masters. These songs deserve better.