Saturday, 26 April 2008

Mavis Staples -- The Barbican, London, 15/4/08

By M.D. Spenser

Ill with a throat infection, Mavis Staples, a consummate entertainer, pranced across The Barbican stage, lifted people up, inspired them and left them yelling until their own throats were sore.

Staples found her greatest fame as lead singer of the Staples Singers in the ’60s and ’70s. But, even as she approaches her 69th birthday, she’s no oldies act.

The bulk of her set was from her 2007 release, “We’ll Never Turn Back”, an album of funked-up civil rights songs produced by Ry Cooder. And great stuff it is – heavy on the bass, heavy on the beat, topped by Staples’ superlative R&B phrasing, which is guaranteed to get you out of your seat.

Still, the announcement that she was sick caused concern. But no need.

“They tried to make me stay in the hotel,” Staples hollered. “I said, ‘No! I want to see my people!’

She had a mission: “We want to bring you some joy tonight, inspire you if you’re feeling down, give you a reason to get up in the morning.” And that’s just what she did.

Her material doesn’t plumb the loneliness of the inner self; it’s about facing life with faith and happiness.

“Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me round,” she sang as the bass pounded and the three backup singers made a joyful noise.

Staples looks wonderful – handsome face, immaculate hair, broad smile, great moves.

At first, her voice was barely audible. But as the evening progressed, she drew strength from her audience; her voice, far from fading, grew into its normal self. My goodness, she gives the impression she’s having a good time.

She did a couple of old Staples Singers numbers – ‘Respect Yourself’ and ‘I’ll Take You There’ – and there’s something moving about hearing Mavis herself perform them in person.

But she’s immersed in the present and looking toward the future. “We’ve been taking you there for 58 years,” she shouted. “Five-eight! And we ain’t tired yet!” Then she kicked off her high heels, danced up a storm, sang her heart out, and proved it.

Monday, 21 April 2008

Bettye LaVette -- Jazz Café, London, 13/04/08

By M.D. Spenser

No one can put over a song like Bettye LaVette, the greatest unheralded soul singer in the world. And the incomparable Ms LaVette proved that again at the Jazz Café.

Slinky in black silk pantsuit, she strutted and danced, her songs a defiant assertion of who she is. “So proud I was built this way,” she sang in ‘The Battle Of Bettye LaVette’, a song about how, uncompromising as she was, she sang 40 years “before the money started rolling in.”

She sang of triumph and tragedy, but with not an ounce of self-pity. In ‘Choices’, she took the blame for all that’s gone wrong: “I’m living and dying by the choices I’ve made.”

The song had this reviewer near tears _ and apparently LaVette, as well.

She feels a song totally, emphasizing each word, her soulful voice cracking with emotion.

But this is soul, performed with a hard-driving band, and lots of dancing by LaVette. Man, can she get an audience worked up.

She makes eye contact with a listener, gestures, pleads, then writhes away across the stage. She is one of the few 62-year-olds who can get away with pelvic thrusts.

And her voice is one of the most expressive instruments in soul, conveying victory, despair and love. On “You’ll Never Change”, another defiant expression of self, she dropped the microphone and filled the room with her voice.

She makes no attempt to hide her age. Noting that she was finally nominated for a Grammy this year, she joked that she was older than the award itself.

She first recorded in 1962, at 16, scoring the hit ‘My Man’. But major success eluded her until the 2005 album, “I’ve Got My Own Hell To Raise”.

To say LaVette has lost nothing over the years would not be right. On the contrary, she has gained.

Her records, fabulous as they are, cannot convey the emotion she does in person. All her life experience is poured into each word. She can put over a song down to her silver-painted toenails.

Everyone should see a Bettye LaVette show at least once.

Sunday, 20 April 2008

The Fried Okra Band – From Denmark To Mississippi And Back

By M.D. Spenser

It’s a mighty long way from Denmark to the Mississippi hill country. But if you think that’s far, consider the distance between Whitney Houston and Robert Belfour.

But Morten Lunn, the lead singer of The Fried Okra Band, has covered both.

A native Dane, like the other three members of the band, he came of age listening to what everybody else was listening to: Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Dire Straits, a bit of heavy metal, a lot of Bruce Springsteen.

Now he and his band mates play music that is so far out of the mainstream as to be unheard of by most of his countrymen. Not to mention most Americans, as well.

Fried Okra plays primarily Mississippi hill country Blues. On its most recent release, “This Is Your Chance France Baby!”, the band covers unvarnished, gritty hill country artists like Robert Belfour, R. L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough, as well as people like Corey Harris, Tom Waits and Robert Johnson.

An acquired taste

Hill country Blues is an acquired taste. Either you get it or you don’t. The melody is almost irrelevant. Don’t wait for the killer chord changes, because they won’t come. Many of these are one-chord songs. What’s important is the beat, the drone, the trance, the hypnosis.

This music is as rough as an old board that’s fallen off a weather-beaten shack with the nails sticking out.

For some people, it’s monotonous – literally, monotone. But for others, the lack of polish lays bare the raw emotions of the heart. And, even in Denmark, this music is finding an audience.

“I think the fact that the hill country style is different attracts some Blues lovers to it,” Lunn said, “because, in my view, it might help cut away the clichés that some people among the rock and mainstream audience associate with the Blues.”

Different backgrounds

The members of the band are Lunn on vocals and guitar, Thomas Foldberg on guitar and harp, Kare Joensen on bass, and Thomas Crawfurd on drums. They came to this music through different routes.

Lunn started out in a children’s band, playing rock ’n’ roll, Beatles and even 'Hoochie Coochie Man', though Lunn didn’t have the vaguest idea at the time who Muddy Waters was. Later, after his Whitney Houston period, he got into The Rolling Stones and Chuck Berry; an interest in Bluesmen naturally followed.

Foldberg is the band’s co-leader, second to Lunn. (The bass player, Joensen, calls him the vice sheriff.) He grew up on British invasion music: The Animals, The Stones, The Beatles, and so on, along with a bit of Jimi Hendrix.

But the Blues?

“My first encounter with the Blues was Elvis Presley’s ‘Blue Christmas,” Foldberg said. “Not exactly a Blues song, but almost. I was blown away and thought the piano work and the groove was amazing.”

But it’s still a long way from Presley to Kimbrough. For both Lunn and Foldberg, the journey had a couple of significant turning points.

Trip to U.S.

Most important, perhaps, was a trip they and two other friends made to the United States in 2000. They visited New Orleans, Memphis and Clarksville, Mississippi. Clarksville bills itself as “Birthplace and World Capital of the Blues” – not to mention the location of the Crossroads of Highway 61 and 49 where Robert Johnson is said to have sold his soul to the devil in exchange for musical genius.

In New Orleans, Lunn went to hear R.L. Burnside live.

Talk about raw. Burnside farmed most of his life, had slept-in hair, a hung-over look, and titled one of his albums “A Ass Pocket Of Whiskey” – likely in honour of what he carried around in his own ass pocket.

Burnside claimed to have been convicted of murder once and sentenced to six months in prison. His boss, it is said, used connections to keep the sentence short because he needed Burnside to drive a tractor.

“I didn’t mean to kill nobody,” Burnside said later. “I just meant to shoot the sonofabitch in the head. Him dying was between him and the Lord.”

After a heart attack, Burnside’s doctor told him to him to stop drinking. Burnside complied but said the change left him unable to play. He died in 2005.

In Memphis, on the same trip, Lunn met a guy who showed him the remains of Junior Kimbrough’s famed juke joint, which had burned to the ground earlier in 2000. And the guy drove him around the North Mississippi hill country, where this hypnotic, one-chord trance Blues originated.

A star does hill country

That trip piqued the interest of Lunn and Foldberg in hill country Blues. But, just as it took Elvis to open the ears of many listeners to black music in general, it took a relatively famous artist to bring prominence to the obscure hill country style.

That artist was Buddy Guy. In 2001, the year after Lunn and Foldberg’s trip to the United States, Guy released “Sweet Tea,” his hill country album, on which he covered two of Kimbrough’s songs.

And Lunn and Foldberg’s interest grew more intense.

“I think it took some time before the music really got to me because it in some respects differs from other Blues styles”, Lunn recalled. “I have always liked the first recordings Burnside made in 1968. Listening to the live CD, ‘Burnside On Burnside’ (also released in 2001), made me think that it was the sound I wanted.”

He hauled out a Junior Kimbrough album he had bought on the trip, listened some more, and was hooked.

Foldberg, too, acquired the taste slowly rather than overnight.

“Morten started to talk about these guys,” Foldberg said. “I didn’t really understand the stuff at the time. But a few years later, I couldn’t avoid these great artists. And suddenly it seemed so obvious to me. Hearing those guys gave me the same feeling as hearing Muddy for the first time.”

Lunn and Foldberg formed The Fried Okra Band around 2004. The other two band members had backgrounds in different styles. The bassist, Kare Joensen, had played with a variety of Danish rock bands. The drummer, Thomas Crawfurd, has experience in Balkan, Gypsy, jazz and ethno pop.

Unique covers

Fried Okra does not attempt to replicate the hill country originals exactly as performed by the original artists. So the diverse backgrounds of the band members – including those with no background in hill country Blues – adds to the flavour of Fried Okra’s covers.

Finding their own version of the song usually starts with just a riff or a beat. Then the band jams, each member adding something, until the final version emerges.

“It sometimes takes a while,” Lunn said.

“Regarding this band, I see the hill country style as a starting point and a base,” Foldberg said. “Me and Morten had this idea of how we wanted the band to sound, but the influences from Crawfurd and Kare have obviously made it different. I mean the hill country style is still there, but mixed with other sounds and influences.

“And important to note is that, since we’re not from Mississippi, we’re not playing the hill country style right as it should be”, he said. “It’s our interpretation, and we don’t have the roots to do it like Mississippians, no matter how hard we try. I try to see this band as a band rooted deep in the Blues, but it should develop its own sound.”

Most recent album

The opening of the album “This Is Your Chance France Baby!” sounds like something wild coming at you from inside a cave. There’s a throbbing drum, a feral guitar, then an explosion of hill country Blues.

Through the individual contributions and the jamming, the band has come up with a sound that is noisier and more electric than on the hill country originals. But the slide stings, the drums clatter, Lunn’s 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. It’s a fine album – and about as far from Whitney Houston as one can imagine.

“I really like music raw,” Foldberg said. “I think that too clean and flawless music is uninteresting. For me, Burnside plays flawlessly. It goes straight to the heart. I get so mad when people think Steve Vai is god – and he is very skilful – and a guy like John Lee Hooker can’t play. I know it’s a cliché, but for me the Blues is about a lot more than only technique.”

Interest growing

Gradually, the audience is catching on. But music like this not the route to stardom, in Denmark or anywhere else.

“The audience for hill country Blues is not very big and it is not like we sell a lot of records,” Lunn said. “No Blues albums do in Denmark. But still, in Mojo Blues Bar in the centre of Copenhagen there is a crowd all week listening to the Blues.”

“They’re getting used to us slowly,” Foldberg said. “But for a lot of Blues puritans, I guess were just four people making noise.”

The band plans to release a new album next year – recorded, band members hope, in the United States. They’ve already begun talking to different producers. And the new album, in contrast to the last, will include a lot of originals and perhaps only one or two covers.

In the meantime, the band plays gigs in Denmark. On good nights, people in the audience listen in silent concentration, showing that they’re into the music. Sometimes, even better, they dance and yell.

“To quote Mr Burnside,” Foldberg said, “Blues ain’t nothing but dance music.”

And little by little, the word is spreading. People are starting to understand.

“The ones we talk to, most are also Blues fans, so they know about the music,” Lunn said. “But I don’t think the audience in general, on any given Saturday night, is familiar with Kimbrough or Belfour. But that doesn’t matter if the music makes them feel good.”

And with that good feeling comes an appreciation of this obscure but hypnotic musical style.

“Even though it gets zero attention from the mass media,” Foldberg said, “I guess a lot of youngsters have discovered that it’s so much more than guys with pony tails, beer bellies and 30-minute-long guitar solos.”