Wednesday, 26 November 2008

CD Review - Mike Markey & Nick Jones

Heads of the Valleys

By M.D. Spenser

One hates to be too negative about this album, because both of these Welch sidemen are highly competent players. But competent can be a damning word in music.

The best bluesmen – all of them – have brought something original to the table. Not so here.

Mike Markey & Nick Jones have backed the likes of Water Trout and Zoot Money. Out on their own on this album, they offer typical prewar two-man Blues: One guy on acoustic guitar and slide, the other on harmonica and vocals.

Jones’ imitations of the guitar styles of Robert Johnson and other old-time greats are skilful. Markey’s harp playing is equally so, although his singing sounds deeply rooted in the white experience.

There are fast songs, slow songs, humorous songs and songs where they perform the old trick of having the slide and vocals track exactly. But nothing makes you sit up and take notice.

They do a cover of ‘Fishin’ Blues’, but if you think this matches Taj Mahal’s version – talk about original personalities – you’re mistaken. Not even close.

The music here, while well-played, is indistinguishable from any number of artists on any number of albums. Something’s missing, and it’s this: Markey and Jones have completely neglected to include anywhere in their music something of themselves.

Saturday, 22 November 2008

CD Review - JZ James

The West Memphis Turnaround
Moon Sound

By M.D. Spenser

Listeners who value tasteful musicianship and quiet originality will find much to enjoy on this CD by the German Bluesman JZ James. With his mix of acoustic and electric guitars and his jazzy take on the Blues, James creates mood poems that go down sweet as honey.

The album’s dedicated to the pianoman Eddie Boyd, who fled America and settled in Europe, helping plant the Blues over here. James counts himself among Boyd’s children – metaphorically, we assume. These 11 originals are marked by great chord changes and intricate rhythms that make even slower numbers toe-tappers.

The opening track sets the tone: a gently rolling mix of acoustic and electric guitars topped by mournful harmonica. “I would go home now baby/But I’m a stranger there,” James sings.

There’s a wonderful jazz-Blues tribute to Nina Simone: “But lady why complain/I believe that the songs you sung were not in vain,” he croons. OK, he says “not in wain,” but Bluesmen have always been allowed their idiosyncrasies.

“Ballad of Sallie Mae” tells of the murder of Robert Johnson over up-tempo fingerpicking on one acoustic guitar and percussive strumming on another.

Most songs feature acoustic rhythm, electric lead, tasteful drumming and upright bass, sometimes in a minor key. But the mood varies, as does the tempo; James always keeps our interest. One love song even has an exuberant bluegrass feel.

If you play this when friends are over, sooner or later they’ll prick up their ears and ask, “Who’s that?” Then spread the word.

Sunday, 16 November 2008

Gozo: Mythical Island Of Odysseys Offers Timeless Feel

By M.D. Spenser

SAN LAWRENZ, Gozo, Malta – From the mouth of Calypso’s cave can be seen the spot where the Greek warrior Odysseus washed ashore, in Homer’s telling, 1,000 years or so before the birth of Christ.

Calypso held the warrior captive for seven years, promising him eternal youth if he would stay. Odysseus, who desired the nymph by night but wept for his family by day, declined the offer. At length he was set free on the order of the gods.

The island was called Ogygia then; today it is called Gozo and is part of the Mediterranean nation of Malta. Judging by the age of many of its 30,000 residents, no one since Odysseus has been granted eternal youth, either. Still, Gozo’s quiet blend of eras and cultures – from Phoenician to modern, from Arab to Sicilian – can rejuvenate the weary soul.

The island is small, just nine miles long and four miles wide, and obscure. It offers uncrowded beaches, cliff-top trails and meandering alleyways. The pace is slow. The views are pastoral. Cacti dot the terraced hills; in spots cathedrals rise impressively above it all.

Gozo lies in a strategic narrowing of the Mediterranean Sea, 60 miles from Sicily and 180 from North Africa. It has been ruled over the millennia by many people, Semitic and European; its language, Maltese, is a mixture of Arabic and Italian.

Gozo seems a place that is neither here nor there, neither now nor then. The capital city was renamed Victoria in 1897 in honor of England’s queen (and Gozo’s), but residents still use its former name, Rabat.

The island is reached by flying into Malta International Airport on the country’s main island (also called Malta). From there, Gozo is a 15-minute helicopter ride away.

Or, for a fraction of the price, the visitor can take a taxi to the other end of the island of Malta and hop a 30-minute ferry. The dark blue of the sea highlights the light gray of the volcanic cliffs that jut vertically from its waves.

On Gozo, one finds more history than just the volcanic crevice billed as Calypso’s cave. Visitors also clamber through the ruins of the Ggantija Temples. Built about 5,600 years ago, the two temples predate Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids of Egypt by hundreds of years.

They are impressive more for their antiquity than their current appearance. They are today little more than roofless rooms defined by walls of huge volcanic stones, bleached by the sun, eroded by time and as full of holes as Swiss cheese.

Nearby, a vendor relaxes on a folding chair, his wares displayed atop an old stone wall. Among other potions, he sells homemade carob syrup – “good for cold sore throat and asthma,” announces his hand-written sign.

Atop Victoria – or Rabat, if you will – sits the old walled city: a citadel, actually. It is worth a visit, even if getting there does involve a steep hike. One can tour the old jail, with its horrifyingly small cells with tiny windows through which captives must have been tormented by the twittering of free-flying birds.

Along the old city’s narrow, curving alleyways lie a number of museums devoted to folklore, natural science, archaeology and other themes.

The old city (current population: fewer than 10) is dominated by the Gozo Cathedral. Its ornate interior features huge crystal chandeliers, massive candle holders, and graphic statues of Christ stumbling under the weight of the cross and then nailed to it. The walls and ceilings of this echoing vastness are painted, carved and gilt; the floors are of marble.

Facing outward on the cathedral steps stand statues of two popes – Pius IX and John Paul II – alongside two cannons. The Maltese have always protected themselves with both faith and guns.

The island, like any self-respecting tourist destination, offers water sports such as parasailing, snorkelling and diving. There are first-class resorts, too: During my visit, I stayed at the Kempinski Hotel San Lawrenz, which features various pools, restaurants and waving palms, but there are others.

But the essence of Gozo’s considerable charm lies not in the water sports or the resorts, nor in the Roman ruins, the Ggantija Temples, or even Calpyso’s cave. It lies more in the walking trails and in the narrow, Italian-influenced alleyways of Victoria.

Here, the visitor wanders among 100-year-old houses of chipped masonry or stone. Religious icons are affixed to the doors. Geraniums protrude in unruly fashion from second-floor balconies.

Cats curl in sun-splashed doorways; nearby, women make lace, their nimble fingers enlacing 28 or more strands of thread into a coherent pattern.

Over the course of history, Gozo has been ruled by the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Arabs, the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, the French under Napoleon Bonaparte, the British and, since 1964, the Maltese.

But time has woven these strands together gently and seamlessly: the 5,600-year-old temples, the 3,000-year-old citadel and the century-old houses seem all of a piece.

And the charm lies, too, in the island’s serenity. When Europeans want a quiet vacation, they go to Malta. When the Maltese want a quiet vacation, they go to Gozo.

Thursday, 30 October 2008

CD Review - Seasick Steve

I Started Out With Nothing And I Still Got Most Of It Left
Warner Brothers

By M.D. Spenser

What a wonderful album.

Seasick Steve, the former hobo with the gray beard and soup-strainer moustache, burst into national consciousness with his ebullient 2006 appearance on Jools Holland’s Annual Hootenanny. His first solo album, “Dog House Music,” was good. This one’s better.

It’s laced with Steve’s addictive, syncopated Blues playing – single notes serving simultaneously as rhythm guitar and lead. The slide rocks, the hobo references ring true: “I can’t lose what I never had/And you can’t take what I ain’t got,” he sings on the title track.

But the delight is the love songs. Steve seems all rough edges and overalls, yet inside lives a gentle poet and musician.

The single ‘Walking Man’ is acoustic guitar and affecting vocals: ‘If you want me to stay I’ll stash my sleeping roll under your bed/That says more than anything in my life I ever said,” he sings.

‘Happy Man’ starts with acoustic Blues guitar. ‘Oh this life has knocked me down to my knees/And I think it’s time I get a little bit of that promised land,’ Steve croons above a quiet churchy chorus. Then Ruby Turner suggests he put his arms around her – and the song turns into stonkin’ gospel-soul, the backing vocals raucous and joyful. Happy man, indeed.

The transfer to a major label has done no harm. There are drums, backing vocals and guests – Turner, Nick Cave, KT Tunstall. But Steve retains the fierce originality that’s at the core of all good Blues.

And damn fine Blues this is.

Sunday, 26 October 2008

A Hungarian rhapsody in steamy-hot spa waters

By M.D Spenser

BUDAPEST, Hungary — A hint of snow chilled the air as half a dozen men clustered around a chessboard, frowning, wearing nothing but swimsuits.

Two of them were playing. The rest were watching. And all were up to their necks in the mineral-filled hot water that bubbles up from 4,000 feet below the city of Budapest.

The water, th
ought to cure arthritis and known to cause relaxation, is a source of pride to Hungarians.

"It is our treasure," Eszter Szaniszlo, a guide at the Szechenyi spa, told me. "We don't have sea. We don't have mountains. We have thermal water."

The Szechenyi spa, on the Pest side of the city — the east side of the Danube — is one of the largest bath complexes in Europe. Around one of the many spots where the water emerges from the depths, the Hungarians early in the 20th century constructed a huge, ornate yellow building in the neo-baroque style — all balconies, balustrades, cupolas and statues.

The building — an oval surrounding the main outdoor baths — houses many amenities. You can rent a locker and a swimsuit, lift weights, do aerobics, enjoy a mud pack, take a sauna or get a bite to eat.

The center of the complex is open. It is here that you can bathe your aches away as snowflakes settle in your hair. Much of the clientele is local. The place is famous for chess players, who unfurl plastic chessboards and concentrate their minds while their bodies relax.

The waters are laden with sodium, calcium, magnesium and other minerals. Hungarians place such stock in the healing properties of the water that, if your doctor writes a prescription — so many soaks for this many minutes at such-and-such a temperature and mineral concentration — the government (which owns the Szechenyi spa) will pick up the tab.
But plenty of tourists come as well, just for a good hot soak. Amid the mist that rises where hot water meets cold air, you'll hear many languages — Italian, French, German, Spanish and a smattering of English.

Not being one to neglect firsthand research, I rented a suit and strode, cold and goose pimply, out of the building and toward the pool, where the chess players were immersed in concentration.

There are three outdoor pools. At one end of the complex, a pool with an array of jets provides a more exciting experience. In the middle is a lap pool — the coolest of the three. Preferring to start right in on the stress relief, I headed to the third, the warmest, where the water is a comfortable 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit.

I waded in and let out an involuntary moan. The water was deeply relaxing. So was the rather cinematic experience of gazing up through the mist at the building's flourishes and scrollwork.

After a time, I waded to the foot of a nude Venus. From the base of the statue, jets of hot water arced through the air, pummeling my back and kneading my muscles.

It was daytime, midweek. Besides tourists, local retirees were in evidence. Around me paddled elderly Venuses — clad, thankfully — with figures more robust than the statue's. Beside them stood stoic men with bodies like Humpty Dumpty and faces like Leonid Brezhnev's.

Fully relaxed, I decided to go for a little excitement. In the pool at the other end of the complex, a series of jets swept swimmers around in a circle. This was moderately entertaining, but not greatly so.

In another spot, jets shot up straight from the bottom of the pool. They were so powerful that you could actually bend your knees and sit on them. Around me, six or eight other people were doing the same thing, and virtually every one wore a foolish grin.

Indoors are the many therapeutic pools. Unlike the outdoor pools, which are constantly filtered and look quite clear, the indoor pools are filtered less often so the minerals can build up to the concentrations doctors prescribe.

Put another way, they're green.

I tried one nevertheless. I soaked for a bit, but my health, which was fine to start with, did not seem to improve, and I headed out for the more satisfying experience of bathing outdoors in the winter.

When it was time to go, my limbs were like spaghetti. I felt my skin aglow.

I was thirsty, though, and went to buy a drink before leaving. Szaniszlo, the guide, had told me about the spa's wonderful thermal water.

"It's good for the joints, for the bones, and you can drink it as well," she'd said.

And just think — only 23 forints, 13 cents, for half a liter.

I settled for a Diet Coke.

Sunday, 19 October 2008

CD Review - James Booker

The Lost Paramount Tapes

By M.D. Spenser

These tapes may have been lost but thank God they were found. This is as entertaining a collection of New Orleans style Blues piano as you’ll ever hear.

James Booker was ebullient, drug-addicted, erratic and alcoholic. But he was in peak form when this 1973 set was recorded.

He’s supported by an all-star New Orleans band, some of whom backed Dr John, so you know there’s some funky stuff comin’ down. But Booker is the reason for these recordings.

At the forefront is his astonishing boogie-woogie keyboard – rhythmic, syncopated and danceable. His soulful singing is icing on the cake.

Here’s betting you’ve never heard ‘Goodnight Irene’ played like this, run through Booker’s funkified filter, with impassioned singing over a rolling piano. He plays ‘Feel So Bad’, made famous by Little Milton, with the treble notes tripping over each other in a waterfall of funkiness. In ‘Junco Partner’, Booker is every bit the equal of Dr. John on both vocals and piano.

Sometimes Booker lets his piano do the talking. His laid-back playing on the original instrumental, ‘Lah Tee Tah’, is so beautiful that, even at 5:43, you’re disappointed when it ends. Don’t put ‘African Gumbo’ on your iPod on public transport because you’ll make a spectacle of yourself. And Booker’s moody piano on Brownie McGhee’s ‘Hole in the Wall’ will bring joy to your heart.

Booker died of liver failure in 1983 at age 43. Nine years later, these tapes, missing almost 20 years, were found.

Hallelujah. This is genius.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

CD Review - Pete Gavin

Blues Respect

By M.D. Spenser

Don’t be put off by the ridiculous orange mohawk Pete Gavin wears in the album photos. This is a fine album featuring mostly Blues with a bit of country thrown in, all propelled by Gavin’s excellent electric slide and harmonica.

But first things first: This Pete Gavin should not be confused with the drummer of the same name. This one is a former physicist who cut his teeth as a musician on the streets of London and is now based in Germany.

There’s some classic Blues on this album, with Gavin’s slide moaning over a bass and drums.

The promotional CD includes no credits, so it’s impossible to tell how many songs are originals. But there’s a mournful and effective reworking of Little Feat’s ‘Willin’’, the truck-driving song.

And Gavin’s version of Leadbelly’s ‘Midnight Special’ is acoustic, but rolling, driven and rhythmic.

Not everything works. The title cut, which opens the CD, is heavy, lugubrious, almost ominous bass-heavy rock – not an auspicious start.

And Gavin shows a few signs of too much club work and not enough time in the studio. Jokey novelty songs – the originals? – can slay a live audience but fail to fully come across on disc. And a fake American southern accent in a spoken bit can convulse a club of beer drinkers but not bear up on repeated listenings.

But that’s a minor cavil. Gavin’s version of ‘It’s My Life’, is all Blues, with hard-ass electric slide, and it alone is worth the price of admission.

Sunday, 12 October 2008

CD Review - Ai! Si! Si! Mambo And Latin Flavoured Rhythm & Blues

El Toro

By M.D. Spenser

Don’t be misled by the title: This CD has little to do with rhythm and blues.

In the mid-’50s, Americans went nuts over the mambo. All across the country, people were gyrating wildly to the strains of Cuban music that presaged today’s salsa. Most songs had the word “mambo” in the title: ‘Mambo Boogie’, ‘Niki Niki Mambo’, ‘Mambo Baby Tonight’ and even ‘Mambo Santa Mambo’.

All the songs collected here were recorded between 1954 and 1957; this CD documents a craze. And as with any craze, it attracted a lot of artists looking to capitalize by superimposing a bit of mambo over their true styles.

Many had not a drop of Cuban blood in them. A number of these songs are doo-wop covered with the thinnest of Latin veneers.

There is some stuff here of interest to Blues fans: Ivory Joe Hunter does a nice job with ‘I Got To Learn To Do The Mambo.’ The Street Singers offer ‘Caldonia’s Mambo’, giving a Cuban flavour to one of B.B. King’s signature tunes.

The great Ruth Brown weighs in with ‘Mambo Baby’, though it’s not her finest moment. The Platters and The Drifters make welcome appearances, too.

A lot of these songs are fun; you can see how the craze developed. But a lot of these songs are similar, too; you can see why the craze petered out.

And the CD is long: At 28 tracks, thatsa lotta mambo.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Chris Smither -- The Luminaire, London, 6/10/08

By M.D. Spenser

The guitar looks small in his hands and he plays it with the casual ease of a Vegas card dealer doing complex shuffles while chatting with a friend.

Chris Smither is one of the most delightful fingerpickers ever to pick up an acoustic guitar; his folk-Blues stylings are at the same time as intricate and as laid back as any you will hear. That in itself would be reason enough to see him but, as he showed at the Luminaire in October, it’s only the beginning of what he has to offer.

His immense catalogue of songs, written and polished over the course of his 40 years on the road, are jewels, all – each adorned with little pearls of weathered wisdom.

Take for example ‘Father’s Day’, a song he wrote recently for his own father. The concluding lines – these from a man in his 60s – are heartbreaking in their insight and their kindness: “Ain’t I done good? I needed that from you/And all I’ve got to say is, by the way, you done good too”.

And then there’s his voice, smoky and atmospheric. He seems to sing to each member of the audience in turn; you understand the songs – their pathos and their wisdom – in more richness that can be communicated by CD alone.

He’s contemplative, but he can rock, too: He did a rollicking version of his most commercially successful song, ‘Love You Like A Man’, covered as ‘Love Me Like A Man’ by 15 singers from Bonnie Raitt to Diana Krall.

He finished with ‘Leave The Light On’, about how at 64 he still has more to do. He was just one man with an acoustic guitar but when the last chord died the audience rose of one accord and roared.

For an encore, Smither ended where he began, with his laid-back picking to the fore. He did Blind Willie McTell’s ‘Statesboro Blues’, played as a guitar piece of dazzling complexity that seemed as easy for him as humming a tune down by the riverside on a lazy summer day.


Saturday, 4 October 2008

CD Review - Taj Mahal

Heads up

By M.D. Spenser

The incomparable Taj Mahal, who celebrated his 40th anniversary in the business last year, remains as inventive and lovable as ever, as this highly enjoyable album shows.

It opens with ‘Scratch My Back’, the 1966 Slim Harpo hit – upbeat Blues, rowdy and bawdy, with a great beat, killer horns and salacious lyrics. When his baby hits the right spot, Taj squeals with delight, “Oh, you gonna get you a new car! Ooh, you ’bout to get you a new house!”

Then his restless intelligence ranges over a magnificent array of styles – West African, reggae, Blues, New Orleans – never losing his raucous sense of fun.

Guests include Ben Harper, Ziggy Marley and Angelique Kidjo. The backing bands are superb: his own Phantom Blues Band, Ziggy Marley’s Band, Los Lobos and the New Orleans Social Club.

Never one to limit himself, Taj plays guitar, harmonica, ukulele and banjo, all well. ‘Slow Drag’ is an original Blues with Taj playing the melodic lead on banjo – very pleasing.

‘I Can Make You Happy’, another original, is lascivious hard-ass Blues. It doesn’t get any greasier than this: ‘I’m coming over Saturday night, baby/Now you know just what your daddy wanna do’

The Fats Domino song, ‘Hello Josephine’, and the album’s closer, ‘Diddy Wah Diddy’, by Bo Diddly, are joyous stomps.

No one’s done more than Taj over the last half-century to keep the Blues alive. Yet he’s never been bound by genre. If you think that’s a paradox, you just don’t get it.

Maestro indeed.

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

CD Review - Jeremy Spencer

In Session

By M.D. Spenser

Some fine acoustic resonator slide graces this album, but there are clunkers among the high notes.

Jeremy Spencer is best known as the guitarist who deserted Fleetwood Mac in the middle of a tour in favour of a cult. His musical obsessions – now, as then – are rockabilly and Elmore James.

Four of the album’s 14 tracks are by James, the great Bluesman, and they are by far the best. ‘Red Hot Mama’ features Spencer and his relaxed, easy slide, backed only by a fine Blues rhythm guitar. Great stuff. At 60, Spencer remains in good voice.

Then there are some 50’s numbers – ‘Sea Of Love’, for example, or Carl Perkins’ ‘Pointed Toe Shoes’ – sung rockabilly fashion, with “huh-uh-huh-huh!” inserted in the middle of words.

The album’s worst numbers are the originals, which are preachy. ‘Bitter Lemon’ is about taking misfortune and making – you guessed it – lemonade. Then there’s the overly defensive song, ‘You Don’t Have To Be Black To Be Blue’. If you want to sing the Blues, just throw back your head and sing ’em – don’t explain why. Let your Blues explain themselves.

Still, the slide is nice, the musicianship good.

Two words of warning. First, six of these 14 songs also appeared on Spencer’s last album, the 2006 Blind Pig release, “Precious Little”. Apparently, Spencer didn’t feel that album sold enough and thought he’d give it another try.

Second, those who care where their money goes should google Spencer. The music’s good but what you’ll find is disturbing.

Saturday, 27 September 2008

CD Review - Walter Jr.

The River Club

M.D. Spenser

What begins as an album of minimalist swampy funk has some entertaining tracks – and some you’d want to permanently program your CD player to skip.

Louisiana guitarist Walter Jr. opens this album of 11 originals with the Bluesy, funky title track about a guy who sees a woman “dressed in red oozin’ high-heeled sin” and knows she’s ready for love by how she dances. It features bass, drums and two sparse guitars that concentrate on the staccato more than the sustained. Mix in tasty guitar solos, and it’s a track that augurs well.

But Walter starts to stumble on track four, ‘Never Make It Up’, about how you can’t make up for infidelity. It’s an absolutely gorgeous slow Blues and I would die to hear Etta James sing it. But Walter, whose growl is effective when he bites the words and spits them out, just doesn’t have the voice to carry the song’s sustained, mournful phrases.

The album returns then to enjoyable swamp rock.

But it closes with two egregious religious tracks, just awful. “Jesus Say” begins with a portentous spoken intro, then veers into charitable Christian lyrics like “Jesus say, blessed are the meek/For they shall inherit the earth/Everybody else can just go to hell”. The closing track expounds on how “He holds the lightning in his hand” for six minutes and 20 long seconds.

Bottom line: this CD has eight pretty good songs, one great song poorly sung, and two absolutely horrible ones. Program your CD players accordingly.

Friday, 26 September 2008

CD Review - Irma Thomas

Simply Grand

M.D. Spenser

New Orleans soul singer Irma Thomas was renown in the ’60s for her infectious good humour, not to mention as the woman from whom the Rolling Stones swiped ‘Time Is On My Side’. Now 67, she offers this sweet and mellow album tinged lightly with the regret age brings.

The concept: pair Thomas with some of the best piano players around, including Henry Butler, Norah Jones and Randy Newman.

Her voice sounds wonderful – deep and rich – and she sings within herself: She never did cut loose like Aretha anyway.

The songs range from a new John Fogerty tune all the way back to ‘If I Had Any Sense I’d Go Back Home’, from the Louis Jordan catalogue. Dr. John’s piano on that number is among the CD’s highlights.

The album is graced by hard-earned wisdom lightly worn. ‘Too Much Thinking On My Mind’ is a catchy soul-flavoured number about having too much on her mind to worry about the little things – like bills and the rent.

‘Same Old Blues,” with Marcia Ball, is the Blusiest piece – slow, melancholy, nicely done. A few jazz numbers leaven the mix.

Despite the different players, the album is all of a piece: Thomas’ voice is well to the fore, backed by fine piano sometimes punctuated by upright base and tasteful drumming. On occasion, a fine backing chorus fills out the sound.

These songs don’t grab you by the lapels, but they sure grow on you. This album is subtle, stately, poised – and quite lovely.

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Little Toby Walker -- The Anvil, Basingstoke, 14/09/08

By M.D. Spenser

The fine American Blues guitarist Little Toby Walker brought his entire band to the show in Basingstoke and, as musicians do, he introduced the members to the audience.

There was his thumb, the bass player; his middle two fingers, the rhythm section; and his index finger on lead guitar. And an excellent band it was – one of the best one-hand bands you’ll ever see. Walker’s picking is quick, rhythmic, Bluesy and most of all great fun.

He is more than anything a highly skilled entertainer. He leavens his show with hilarious anecdotes and knows how to involve an audience: a crowd that started out quiet and wary soon found itself singing lustily. “Oh, I just turned you into Blues singers!” Walker exclaimed.

And his repertoire, a mix of classics and sparkling originals, is heavy on amusing sexual innuendo. ‘Big Meat Shakin’ On The Bone’ celebrates the joys of larger women. And ‘Your Buggy Don’t Ride Like Mine’, a traditional number, doesn’t have much to do with going down the road: “Don’t get mad/Your buggy don’t ride like mine/I got an easy ridin’ buggy/It makes me go baby all the time”. Suffice it to say that the singer rides his buggy at every opportunity.

His instrumentals are every bit as entertaining: Walker mixes a walking bass, sassy fingerpicking and a delightful slide to great effect.

He covers artists from Fats Waller to Hank Williams, from Muddy Waters to Rev. Gary Davis, but makes each song his own.

At times, Walker’s voice can seem a bit one-dimensional, though his singing is always exuberant. But his finale, a highly personalised version of Blind Willie Johnson’s ‘Nobody’s Fault But Mine’, was movingly sung – bone-chilling in its acceptance of life’s choices and their consequences.

Walker is a master showman; by the end of the night, the audience was not just watching the show but had become part of it. And that suited Walker just fine.

“Music”, he explained, “is far too important to be left in the hands of professionals”. An evening with him shows you just how right he is.

Sunday, 7 September 2008

CD Review - Missippi Marvel

The World Must Never Know
Broke & Hungry

By M.D. Spenser

This is a half-decent CD buried under the weight of an insulting publicity campaign.

The album features an elderly Bluesman singing in the Delta style, accompanied mainly by just his electric guitar in the manner of Lightnin’ Hopkins. Some tracks include drums; on the best, the Marvel is accompanied also by a second guitar and harmonica.

Besides traditional tunes, the Marvel covers a song by Muddy Waters, after whom he patterns himself vocally; one by Little Walter, a Muddy sideman; and one by Hopkins himself.

The Marvel’s vocals are powerful if a tad grandfatherly. His playing is pleasingly rhythmic, although he hits, as the producer happily observes in the liner notes, “the occasional bum note.”

One can debate what constitutes raw versus polished, but it’s condescending to Blues performers to say that authentic equals bum notes. As John Hammond Jr. told Guitar World when Muddy Waters died: “Muddy was a master of just the right notes."

Speaking of condescending, the publicity campaign claims the Marvel is a 78-year-old who’s never reconciled his Blues with his religion. Fearing rejection by his church friends, he agreed to record this debut only if his identity was never revealed. The label has arranged at least one live performance in which the Marvel played concealed by a makeshift tent.

Sure, I believe that. And Paul is dead.

If you’re hankering for authentic – and skilful – Delta Blues, better to fill your shelves with Hooker, Hopkins and Muddy. The bottom line is that this CD is so-so.