Monday, 25 February 2008

CD Review - Taj Mahal

Oooh So Good’n Blues/Recycling The Blues & Other Stuff

By M.D. Spenser

Taj Mahal is one of the great Blues revivalists. The two early ’70s albums collected here capture him in peak form, devoted to reviving – literally, giving new life to – country Blues.

Taj’s interests over a 40-year career have ranged from reggae to Hawaiian music, from West African to R&B – all in his own inimitable style. But underpinning his music at all times has been the Blues.

Mahal is the progenitor of a whole generation of Bluesmen, from Eric Bibb (right down to the hat) to Keb’ Mo’, Guy Davis, Corey Harris and Alvin Youngblood Hart. Those of us who love the Blues today owe him an immeasurable debt.

This CD is primarily acoustic – simple yet intense, traditional yet unmistakably Taj Mahal. On many tracks he is backed by the then-unknown Pointer Sisters – loosely and raucously, for example, on ‘Little Red Hen’, one of the originals that fit perfectly beside songs by Robert Johnson, Willie Dixon and Mississippi John Hurt.

Much of “Recycling The Blues,” the second album on this CD, is live. Few performers excite a crowd like Taj.

He opens by playing the conch, of all things. On the second track, he plays kalimba, an African thumb piano. Then on to the 12-bar Blues of ‘Bound to Love Me Some’. Then a tune on the banjo. He follows that with an a cappella gospel number that really gets the house rocking. Darn few people in this world can rock the house with just a voice, no instruments.

Purists have sometimes turned up their noses at him, but like the great Bluesmen before him, Mahal is an originator, an irrepressible creative force. Purists be damned, nobody does Blues better than Taj Mahal.

This is a fine place to start a Taj collection, and a welcome addition to an existing one. Highly recommended.

Sunday, 24 February 2008

CD Review - Jimmy Blythe

Messin’ Around Blues: Enhanced Pianola Rolls

By M.D. Spenser

Jimmy Blythe was one of the originators of boogie-woogie piano. Hats off to Delmark for producing this amazing and valuable album of his work.

Little is known of Blythe’s life other than that he was born in Kentucky around 1901, moved to Chicago in his teens, and died of meningitis in 1931.

An esteemed sideman, he accompanied Louis Armstrong and Ma Rainey, among many others. He also had a solo career, part of which involved producing player piano rolls.

Early piano rolls were crafted by hand. But the more advanced method used for Blythe’s rolls involved a pianist actually playing on a special piano that reproduced the notes for the rolls.

Because a collector, Mike Montgomery, had some of Blythe’s rolls, Delmark was able to record Blythe’s playing on modern equipment. Through the miracle of antiquated technology, we hear Blythe’s playing as if it were recorded today, without the hiss of recordings laid down in the 1920s.

The result: a unique opportunity for a high-fidelity listen to original Jazz Age music.

And what fun. The 19 cuts are mostly ragtime or its relative, boogie-woogie, a genre that relies on a repeated walking bass pattern together with a lively right-hand lead characterized by syncopation and triplets.

Some tracks are credited to Blythe, some to other writers, and the origin of the rest is unknown. No matter. This is about as entertaining as piano gets. A fine recording.

Monday, 11 February 2008

CD Review - Warner Williams and Jay Summerour

Down ’N’ Dirty

By M.D. Spenser

This is an enjoyable and good-humoured CD, featuring low-key acoustic Blues interspersed with low-key acoustic country.

The album is based entirely on a singer with a guitar backed by a guy with a harmonica: think
Cephas & Wiggins. This may be the Blues, but there’s no anguish, no intensity – just laid-back good times.

Williams, a retired government official, is a dexterous if conventional fingerpicker with unpretentious vocals. Summerour, far younger, adds bouncy harmonica, contributing to the general aura of fun.

It would be an understatement to say the album includes old chestnuts. After starting with a very Bluesy ‘Black Cat Bone,’ the duo work their way through such standards as ‘My Blue Heaven’ (a song recorded not only by Fats Domino but Bing Crosby), ‘I’m Gonna Move Way On The Outskirts Of Town’ and ‘Blueberry Hill’.

‘Georgia On My Mind’ is surely a song that has been recorded often enough – not to mention definitively – but the duo manage a nice version, with Summerour’s harp sounding gentle and mournful over Williams’ slow, melodic picking.

Mixed in with the Blues are country numbers – a Hank Williams tune, a song made famous by Loretta Lynn, even one popularized by Billy Ray Cyrus.

And the album concludes with a lively Blues with plenty of instrumental breaks to give both players a chance to show off their skills.

This stuff would sound fantastic played live in someone’s living room. As a CD it’s quite pleasant, but it’s not the most ground-breaking album you’ll ever buy.

Sunday, 10 February 2008

CD Review - Blind Willie Johnson

Nobody’s Fault But Mine: Original Recordings 1927-30

By M.D. Spenser

Blind Willie Johnson recorded just 30 songs over three years, yet his influence remains pervasive. Twenty-three are collected on this fine CD.

They’ve been covered by people from Ry Cooder to The Grateful Dead, Taj Mahal and Chris Thomas King. Johnson’s gruff, agonized singing surely influenced Howlin’ Wolf, who in turn influenced others – including, perhaps, Corey Harris, another modern artist who’s covered Blind Willie.

Johnson perfected bottleneck slide; the slide plays lead while his percussive strumming provides the rhythm. Johnson used, it is believed, a pocket knife for a slide, at least initially.

On all songs, he is accompanied only by his guitar and, occasionally, a background singer thought to be his wife.

The songs are pure Blues but with unremittingly religious lyrics. “His blood makes me whole,” he growls in ‘Church, I’m Fully Save Today’.

It’s exciting to hear Johnson on the original versions of so many songs that have become classics: ‘Dark Was The Night (Cold Was The Ground)’, ‘Mother’s Children Have A Hard Time’ (usually rendered ‘Motherless Children …’), ‘It’s Nobody’s Fault But Mine’; ‘If I Had My Way I’d Burn The Building Down’ and others.

Little is known of Johnson’s life other than that his step-mother blinded him with lye when he was 7, and he died of pneumonia at 45 after a house fire left him homeless. But this CD, with excellent liner notes and a stellar collection of songs, offers a wealth of knowledge for those wanting to understand the origin of the Blues.

Friday, 8 February 2008

CD Review - Dennis Binder

Hole In That Jug
Earwig Music Company

By M.D. Spenser

The basic structure of the 12-bar blues is so rigid that it imposes on the performer special demands of individuality. And this is where Dennis Binder fails.

You want to like the guy. His album’s got a snappy title. He wears an even snappier green jacket. He sounds like he’s having a good time.

But something’s missing – namely anything that would distinguish this from, oh, a thousand similar releases over the past 60 years.

This is standard 50s electric blues, pleasant as far as it goes, with Binder tinkling happily on the piano, and sidemen adding decent guitar and sax work.

Most of it was recorded in 2006, though two songs – tracks 7 and 9 – were laid down a mere 46 years earlier. No matter. It all sounds the same. All 13 songs written and arranged by Dennis Binder (and anyone else who ever recorded the blues).

The CD comes complete with boringly detailed liner notes, name-checking everyone for whom Binder ever opened a show or with whom he ever shared a studio. The names roll on and on: Freddie King, Lowell Fulson, T-Bone Walker, B.B. King, Al Green, ad infinitum.

Binder has been on the fringes for a lifetime. And there’s a reason he’s been on the fringes. He’s competent, but there’s nothing that sets him apart.

He turned 79 in November; his web site reports he’s taking a break. If he resumes touring and comes to a venue near you, it might make a fun night out. But in a decent blues collection, this CD would just get lost.

Monday, 4 February 2008

CD Review - Root Doctor

Change Our Ways
Big O

By M.D. Spenser

Root Doctor’s web site declares that the band offers “Blues for what ails ya!” And it’s true.

This enjoyable album offers ’70s-era Blues, soul, R&B and bit of funk – mostly designed not to make you feel blue but to make you feel better.

Root Doctor is not a person, by the way; it’s the name of the band. The album features the vocals of Freddie Cunningham who, though long in the tooth, still sings a soulful song.

But the band’s sound is defined largely by the funky Hammond B3 organ of Jim Alfredson. Add to that some fine guitar, cool backing vocals and a tasty horn section – two trumpets, a trombone and a sax – and what more could you ask for?

Most of the cuts are originals, but there’s nothing very new about them. They include lots of familiar riffs, but they’re great ones, well-played.

And the lyrics don’t break new ground, either. The first cut namechecks Muddy Waters and Freddie King. On cut 2, ‘Root Doctor’, the band namechecks itself. But that’s OK. Root Doctor is better uptempo with conventional lyrics than when it slows things down and reaches for meaning.

‘Keep Our Business Off The Streets’, for example, is a fine song, good beat, great backing chorus, highly danceable – a guy’s ultimatum to his girlfriend to keep things private or the relationship is through. You almost have to sing along.

Root Doctor might not be cutting edge but, gosh, it’s good fun.

Sunday, 3 February 2008

CD Review - Swingadelic

Another Monday Night
By M.D. Spenser

This is not a proper album; it’s a sampler for a high-class wedding band, helpfully arranged for easy browsing – all seven instrumentals first, followed by the five vocal numbers.

It’s mostly big-band jazz – think Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Tony Bennett. The web site says the band “adds just the right dose of some swingin’ Sixties grooves to come up with the most listenable and danceable music for your wedding, party or special event.” By “swingin’ Sixties,” they seem to mean the occasional James Bond-like progression.

All of that said, these are impressive musicians. The songs feature tight horn arrangements and 10 or 11 musicians. On track one, for example, it’s eight horns along with bass, keyboard and drums.

These guys are good enough; it’s a shame they didn’t put out a real album. Some of the stuff does swing.

If you’re going to have a retro cocktail parity, with men in tuxedos drinking martinis, this CD could be just the thing. But be sure to put it on random play to mix up the vocals and instrumentals.

Saturday, 2 February 2008

CD Review - Jon Bickley

House Carpenter

By M. D. Spenser

Unfortunately for Blues lovers, this album owes as much to traditional English folk as it does to Blues. And that adds a touch of dreariness that makes this album a chore to listen to.

Bickley styles himself a poet as well as a songwriter. But he should take to heart an observation by the poet Ezra Pound: “The poem fails when it strays too far from the song, and the song fails when it strays too far from the dance.”

Most of these songs, believe me, are a hell of a long way from the dance.

Take the lugubrious five-minute number called, ‘She Moved Through The Fair’ – a traditional song that is boring beyond all measure: The couple plan to get married. She walks off through the fair. Then she dies.

The tale is punctuated by ultra-slow, self-important strumming, conveying the idea that there’s deep meaning in there somewhere. But it’s an emperor’s new clothes type of thing.

Throughout the album, Bickley accompanies himself on guitar and mandolin; he’s a competent player. And the Blues numbers offer some relief from the tedium.

‘Wolf Mountain Blues’, an original, features a very slow-stepping base line. “Well, tonight I am as lonely/As a wolf prowling in the trees,” Bickley sings. “These teeth keep people/Away from me.”

Man, that’s deep. And the song only gets deeper from there, but I’ll spare you.

Blues fans might want to give this one a pass.