Sunday, 29 June 2008

CD Review - Magda Piskorczyk

Blues Travelling

Magda Live

By M.D. Spenser

Nouveau Blueswoman Magda Piskorczyk is on the right track, as these two innovative CDs illustrate.

She chooses from a wonderfully eclectic array of sources – from Sister Rosetta Tharpe to Jacques Brel – and has the courage to use new instrumentation.

The better of the two CDs is “Blues Travelling,” the studio set. It’s a spare affair. Some songs have only two musicians: Piskorczyk on acoustic guitar, often playing more single notes than chords, with either an electric fiddle or sax noodling over the top. Sometimes, light percussion is added.

On Sonny Boy Williamson’s ‘Help Me’, Piskorczyk opens with a standard blues progression, single notes on the bass string. The fiddle joins in, at first pizzicato – plucked rather than bowed – before soaring over the bass like a bird over a valley. It’s new yet deeply traditional.

‘Darkness On The Delta’, is sparse, old-timey acoustic blues, relaxed and melodic. During a break, whistling over the thump of the double bass creates a delightful mix of textures.

“Magda Live”, though, is weighed down by audience participation and Magda’s screams. It’s more fully instrumented – two guitars, sax, drums and double bass.

There are successes: a fine cover of Tracy Chapman’s ‘Crossroads’, punctuated by unusual and intricate rhythms; and Brel’s ‘Hearts’, a smoky lament, jazzily arranged.

But there are a few duds, as well. ‘Fever’ is inexplicably stripped of its bass line, one of the best in pop music, the spine of the song.

And Piskorczyk, a Pole, doesn’t always emphasise the right word in English phrases. Also, both albums, with songs counts in the upper teens, smack a bit of self-indulgence.

Despite these failings, Piskorczyk has guts, taste, an adventuresome spirit and a deep sense of the Blues. One gets the feeling of the feeling of a significant talent waiting to fully refine itself.

Sunday, 15 June 2008

CD Review - Brad Wilson

Blues Alive
Cali Bee

By M.D. Spenser

This album of live electric Blues would be great fun to blast into your backyard while you’re having a party, but if you haven’t heard these songs before, you haven’t been listening to the Blues.

Brad Wilson is a California act; he pretty much confines his touring to that state. He’s a good guitar player, in the show-off, amps-up style where you grimace constantly as you play. And he’s a competent singer, too – just not blessed with much imagination.

Let’s see – ‘Born Under A Bad Sign’ has already been on more than 175 different albums. ‘Sweet Home Chicago’, about 220. ‘Mojo Workin’’? About 300.

And that’s to say nothing of ‘Stormy Monday’, which has already appeared on more than 500 recordings. Obviously, Wilson is reluctant to play a live audience songs people haven’t heard before.

That said, this is not a bad album. All the players are decent. There’s some nice organ here, some fine horn work there.

There’s not much variation in pace: Almost all these songs barnburners, though ‘Last Call’, one of the album’s highlights, does slow things down a bit to good effect.

Wilson, like any number of technically good players whose egos sometimes overcome their musicianship, is subject to sudden spasms where he plays way too fast just to show he can.

Still, it’s good, rollicking stuff, proficient players wailing on all instruments, quite tight. But people considering adding it to their collection should realize that it’s meant mostly as a concert souvenir.

Sunday, 8 June 2008

Eric Bibb -- Birmingham Town Hall, 31/5/08

By M.D. Spenser

There is something about Eric Bibb that cannot be captured on record, as he proved again with this extraordinary concert at Birmingham Town Hall.

Yes, his albums are good. But he’s one of the greatest live musicians in any genre.

And as for genres, Bibb is a master of many.

He began with a spine-tingling rendition of ‘Goin’ Down Slow’, the old Blues about a man anticipating death. Standing alone, the band not yet on stage, Bibb exhibited his extraordinary skills as a guitarist and singer.

From there, he moved to a cover of ‘The Cape’, by the great folk writer, Guy Clark.

Then he toured his own stellar catalogue, which is replete with Blues – he’s a Bluesman at heart – folk, and house-rockin’ gospel.

“Let’s raise the roof,” he exhorted as he sang the spiritual ‘Needed Time’. And the audience eagerly complied.

His show is perfectly paced, with just the right ebb and flow, a kaleidoscope of tone and texture.

He whoops and hollers, and through his special kinship with listeners inspires them to do the same, particularly on the gospel numbers. Then he drops down to beautiful, shimmering folk.

His singing is so wonderful, his songwriting so accomplished, that his guitar gets short shrift. But he’s a masterful acoustic player, making the difficult seem easy and graceful.

He sang a few duets with his daughter, Yana Bibb, a fine singer as well. There wasn’t a duff number in the set.

At one point, Bibb sang the spiritual he called ‘Hold On’, which is known by most people as ‘Eyes On The Prize’. He heard it done by The Weavers long ago. When a Blues musician does a jazzy take on a spiritual he learned from a folk group – well, you start to understand Bibb’s genius in melding many styles into one.

At the end of the show, he left ’em yelling for more. He’s a former busker who built his career one listener at a time. Go to one of his shows – don’t miss it, whatever you do – and give him a chance to work his magic on you.

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

CD Review - Congregation


By M.D. Spenser

This alternative, post-punk album is a very dark affair but a musically inventive and exciting one, too.

Congregation is two Brits – Benjamin Prosser and Victoria Yeulet – collaborating on an album that is based largely on 12-bar Blues yet is quite experimental.

Prosser plays slide guitar and bass drum. Yeulet sings and, oh, yes, that’s her on the leg bells.

The sound is very spare – just Prosser’s guitar, sometimes augmented by a thump of the drum hammering on the beat and only on the beat. Above it soars Yeulet’s voice, which owes something to Peggy Lee and something to Neko Case, all bright red lipstick, brassiness and beckoning finger – except that Yeulet is usually sending her lover away and preparing to wallow in despair.

“Too bad your loving was like a dose of hell,” she sings on the opening cut. “I ain’t never seen someone so awful,” she continues in another song, ‘Never Forgive.’

Let’s say it straight out: There’s a passing, if remote, association with mental illness here.

Prosser began his artistic career after a bout of severe depression. Yeulet came to attention in The Television Personalities, a group whose primary member, songwriter Dan Treacy, struggled with addiction and illness.

There is something honest and unprotected about such darkness, something that allows us to see into corners of ourselves we normally keep covered.

The music is inventive, ranging from the slow and mournful to up-tempo Blues and even what sounds like an updated version of ’60s rock. Original, and beautifully done.