Monday, 21 July 2008

CD Review - JT Ross

South Side Records

By M.D. Spenser

If you’re looking for an album of hard-driving guitar-and-harmonica Chicago Blues, this is not a bad one to pick up.

JT Ross was born in Chicago; his father, Michael Trossman, painted portraits of Blues and rock stars, including for Rolling Stone magazine. JT claims to have got his first harmonica as a baby, to have met Howlin’ Wolf and Hound Dog Taylor as a kid, and to have learned the harpist’s art from such luminaries as James Cotton and Junior Wells.

He blows a distorted, hands-cupped-around-the-mike style of harmonica, like Little Walter – with a bit of jazzy California flavour added, a la Rod Piazza or William Clarke.

No credits on the promo-tional CD, but it appears to be a mix of covers and originals. It’s an ordinary batch of songs, with pedestrian lyrics: “What is going on/In the world today?/Kids are shooting each other/People murdered day by day.” They’re generic 12-bar fare – the kind where someone could just shout, “Key of E!” and everyone would join right in.

Ross is an ordinary singer, too – certainly not the first Bluesman to play well but fall short of Caruso in the vocal department.

But none of that matters much, because he is a good harpist, and this is a good band. The lead guitarist is excellent, and some tracks are augmented by fine boogie-woogie piano. When they’re all wailing at full blast, makes you want to turn it up.

There’s not much original in this album. But it cooks.

Monday, 14 July 2008

CD Review - Tim Lothar

In It For The Ride

By M.D. Spenser

This engaging set of Delta stylings just might be the best acoustic Blues album you’ll buy this year.

Deftly mixing fingerpicking with slide, Lothar creates that rarest of gems: a Blues album that’s deeply traditional yet utterly fresh.

It’s done with such seeming ease that you wonder about the secrets of its charms, yet hesitate to deconstruct something so graceful. But start with this: Lothar is a former drummer, and his guitar playing exhibits a sense of the intricacies, allure and endless possibilities of rhythm.

His singing, mellow and evocative, is never over the top, always in service of the song.

Though he’s Danish, Lothar has deep knowledge of the Blues: He unearths old Delta gems and brightens them with his infectious tempos. But his cover of Robert Johnson’s ‘Stones In My Passway’ is slow and haunting, carried by understated guitar and affecting vocals – an achievement.

And Lothar’s own songwriting is so good you have to read the credits to discover whether a song’s an original or yet another from Sleepy John Estes or Charley Patton.

The best lyrics, Lothar knows, hint rather than bludgeon. “A traveller I am by heart/The wind will lead my way,” he writes. “Please don’t ask me when/But I’ll be home again.”

Another original, ‘Da Boogie’, is a jaunty instrumental ornamented with hammer-ons and trills.

Nothing on the album seems forced, contrived or imitative. Lothar really is in it for the ride. And we’re lucky to be able to come along.

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

CD Review - Reverend Gary Davis

Manchester Free Trade Hall 1964

By M.D. Spenser

Reverend Gary Davis was pushing 70, a good 35 years past his heyday, when this live set was recorded in the UK. But his voice was still powerful, capable of roaring with religious fervour.

And his skills on “Miss Gibson”, his jumbo acoustic guitar, remained impressive – making for a show that delighted the audience then and holds pleasures for listeners today.

Davis, born in 1896, pursued music, one of few careers available to blind American blacks. He worked often on the streets, not recording until he was 58, and was one of the best ragtime guitarists of the early 1900s. His performance here of Scott Joplin’s ‘Maple Leaf Rag’ attests to that ability.

He was ordained in 1937, after which he often refused to play the Blues – though religion didn’t separate him from the bottle. This set is primarily gospel, performed with feeling, shouts and whoops. Davis had been rediscovered by the folk revival; the audience in Manchester was in heaven.

Joined onstage by blind harmonica player Sonny Terry, Davis relented and played some Blues, cry-singing ‘Oh Sally, Please Come Back to me (Worried Blues)’.

His guitar dexterity inspired many followers. He alternates rapid riffs with chords; he talks with the guitar; he plays with syncopation and humour on ‘Cincinnati Flow Rag’.

But on ‘Children of Zion’ the guitar is nearly overwhelmed by hiss. Even on better numbers, the recording can sound shrill instead of heartfelt. Still, this CD is one of the better places to hear Davis’ moving music.