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.