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.