Thursday, 30 October 2008

CD Review - Seasick Steve

I Started Out With Nothing And I Still Got Most Of It Left
Warner Brothers

By M.D. Spenser

What a wonderful album.

Seasick Steve, the former hobo with the gray beard and soup-strainer moustache, burst into national consciousness with his ebullient 2006 appearance on Jools Holland’s Annual Hootenanny. His first solo album, “Dog House Music,” was good. This one’s better.

It’s laced with Steve’s addictive, syncopated Blues playing – single notes serving simultaneously as rhythm guitar and lead. The slide rocks, the hobo references ring true: “I can’t lose what I never had/And you can’t take what I ain’t got,” he sings on the title track.

But the delight is the love songs. Steve seems all rough edges and overalls, yet inside lives a gentle poet and musician.

The single ‘Walking Man’ is acoustic guitar and affecting vocals: ‘If you want me to stay I’ll stash my sleeping roll under your bed/That says more than anything in my life I ever said,” he sings.

‘Happy Man’ starts with acoustic Blues guitar. ‘Oh this life has knocked me down to my knees/And I think it’s time I get a little bit of that promised land,’ Steve croons above a quiet churchy chorus. Then Ruby Turner suggests he put his arms around her – and the song turns into stonkin’ gospel-soul, the backing vocals raucous and joyful. Happy man, indeed.

The transfer to a major label has done no harm. There are drums, backing vocals and guests – Turner, Nick Cave, KT Tunstall. But Steve retains the fierce originality that’s at the core of all good Blues.

And damn fine Blues this is.

Sunday, 26 October 2008

A Hungarian rhapsody in steamy-hot spa waters

By M.D Spenser

BUDAPEST, Hungary — A hint of snow chilled the air as half a dozen men clustered around a chessboard, frowning, wearing nothing but swimsuits.

Two of them were playing. The rest were watching. And all were up to their necks in the mineral-filled hot water that bubbles up from 4,000 feet below the city of Budapest.

The water, th
ought to cure arthritis and known to cause relaxation, is a source of pride to Hungarians.

"It is our treasure," Eszter Szaniszlo, a guide at the Szechenyi spa, told me. "We don't have sea. We don't have mountains. We have thermal water."

The Szechenyi spa, on the Pest side of the city — the east side of the Danube — is one of the largest bath complexes in Europe. Around one of the many spots where the water emerges from the depths, the Hungarians early in the 20th century constructed a huge, ornate yellow building in the neo-baroque style — all balconies, balustrades, cupolas and statues.

The building — an oval surrounding the main outdoor baths — houses many amenities. You can rent a locker and a swimsuit, lift weights, do aerobics, enjoy a mud pack, take a sauna or get a bite to eat.

The center of the complex is open. It is here that you can bathe your aches away as snowflakes settle in your hair. Much of the clientele is local. The place is famous for chess players, who unfurl plastic chessboards and concentrate their minds while their bodies relax.

The waters are laden with sodium, calcium, magnesium and other minerals. Hungarians place such stock in the healing properties of the water that, if your doctor writes a prescription — so many soaks for this many minutes at such-and-such a temperature and mineral concentration — the government (which owns the Szechenyi spa) will pick up the tab.
But plenty of tourists come as well, just for a good hot soak. Amid the mist that rises where hot water meets cold air, you'll hear many languages — Italian, French, German, Spanish and a smattering of English.

Not being one to neglect firsthand research, I rented a suit and strode, cold and goose pimply, out of the building and toward the pool, where the chess players were immersed in concentration.

There are three outdoor pools. At one end of the complex, a pool with an array of jets provides a more exciting experience. In the middle is a lap pool — the coolest of the three. Preferring to start right in on the stress relief, I headed to the third, the warmest, where the water is a comfortable 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit.

I waded in and let out an involuntary moan. The water was deeply relaxing. So was the rather cinematic experience of gazing up through the mist at the building's flourishes and scrollwork.

After a time, I waded to the foot of a nude Venus. From the base of the statue, jets of hot water arced through the air, pummeling my back and kneading my muscles.

It was daytime, midweek. Besides tourists, local retirees were in evidence. Around me paddled elderly Venuses — clad, thankfully — with figures more robust than the statue's. Beside them stood stoic men with bodies like Humpty Dumpty and faces like Leonid Brezhnev's.

Fully relaxed, I decided to go for a little excitement. In the pool at the other end of the complex, a series of jets swept swimmers around in a circle. This was moderately entertaining, but not greatly so.

In another spot, jets shot up straight from the bottom of the pool. They were so powerful that you could actually bend your knees and sit on them. Around me, six or eight other people were doing the same thing, and virtually every one wore a foolish grin.

Indoors are the many therapeutic pools. Unlike the outdoor pools, which are constantly filtered and look quite clear, the indoor pools are filtered less often so the minerals can build up to the concentrations doctors prescribe.

Put another way, they're green.

I tried one nevertheless. I soaked for a bit, but my health, which was fine to start with, did not seem to improve, and I headed out for the more satisfying experience of bathing outdoors in the winter.

When it was time to go, my limbs were like spaghetti. I felt my skin aglow.

I was thirsty, though, and went to buy a drink before leaving. Szaniszlo, the guide, had told me about the spa's wonderful thermal water.

"It's good for the joints, for the bones, and you can drink it as well," she'd said.

And just think — only 23 forints, 13 cents, for half a liter.

I settled for a Diet Coke.

Sunday, 19 October 2008

CD Review - James Booker

The Lost Paramount Tapes

By M.D. Spenser

These tapes may have been lost but thank God they were found. This is as entertaining a collection of New Orleans style Blues piano as you’ll ever hear.

James Booker was ebullient, drug-addicted, erratic and alcoholic. But he was in peak form when this 1973 set was recorded.

He’s supported by an all-star New Orleans band, some of whom backed Dr John, so you know there’s some funky stuff comin’ down. But Booker is the reason for these recordings.

At the forefront is his astonishing boogie-woogie keyboard – rhythmic, syncopated and danceable. His soulful singing is icing on the cake.

Here’s betting you’ve never heard ‘Goodnight Irene’ played like this, run through Booker’s funkified filter, with impassioned singing over a rolling piano. He plays ‘Feel So Bad’, made famous by Little Milton, with the treble notes tripping over each other in a waterfall of funkiness. In ‘Junco Partner’, Booker is every bit the equal of Dr. John on both vocals and piano.

Sometimes Booker lets his piano do the talking. His laid-back playing on the original instrumental, ‘Lah Tee Tah’, is so beautiful that, even at 5:43, you’re disappointed when it ends. Don’t put ‘African Gumbo’ on your iPod on public transport because you’ll make a spectacle of yourself. And Booker’s moody piano on Brownie McGhee’s ‘Hole in the Wall’ will bring joy to your heart.

Booker died of liver failure in 1983 at age 43. Nine years later, these tapes, missing almost 20 years, were found.

Hallelujah. This is genius.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

CD Review - Pete Gavin

Blues Respect

By M.D. Spenser

Don’t be put off by the ridiculous orange mohawk Pete Gavin wears in the album photos. This is a fine album featuring mostly Blues with a bit of country thrown in, all propelled by Gavin’s excellent electric slide and harmonica.

But first things first: This Pete Gavin should not be confused with the drummer of the same name. This one is a former physicist who cut his teeth as a musician on the streets of London and is now based in Germany.

There’s some classic Blues on this album, with Gavin’s slide moaning over a bass and drums.

The promotional CD includes no credits, so it’s impossible to tell how many songs are originals. But there’s a mournful and effective reworking of Little Feat’s ‘Willin’’, the truck-driving song.

And Gavin’s version of Leadbelly’s ‘Midnight Special’ is acoustic, but rolling, driven and rhythmic.

Not everything works. The title cut, which opens the CD, is heavy, lugubrious, almost ominous bass-heavy rock – not an auspicious start.

And Gavin shows a few signs of too much club work and not enough time in the studio. Jokey novelty songs – the originals? – can slay a live audience but fail to fully come across on disc. And a fake American southern accent in a spoken bit can convulse a club of beer drinkers but not bear up on repeated listenings.

But that’s a minor cavil. Gavin’s version of ‘It’s My Life’, is all Blues, with hard-ass electric slide, and it alone is worth the price of admission.

Sunday, 12 October 2008

CD Review - Ai! Si! Si! Mambo And Latin Flavoured Rhythm & Blues

El Toro

By M.D. Spenser

Don’t be misled by the title: This CD has little to do with rhythm and blues.

In the mid-’50s, Americans went nuts over the mambo. All across the country, people were gyrating wildly to the strains of Cuban music that presaged today’s salsa. Most songs had the word “mambo” in the title: ‘Mambo Boogie’, ‘Niki Niki Mambo’, ‘Mambo Baby Tonight’ and even ‘Mambo Santa Mambo’.

All the songs collected here were recorded between 1954 and 1957; this CD documents a craze. And as with any craze, it attracted a lot of artists looking to capitalize by superimposing a bit of mambo over their true styles.

Many had not a drop of Cuban blood in them. A number of these songs are doo-wop covered with the thinnest of Latin veneers.

There is some stuff here of interest to Blues fans: Ivory Joe Hunter does a nice job with ‘I Got To Learn To Do The Mambo.’ The Street Singers offer ‘Caldonia’s Mambo’, giving a Cuban flavour to one of B.B. King’s signature tunes.

The great Ruth Brown weighs in with ‘Mambo Baby’, though it’s not her finest moment. The Platters and The Drifters make welcome appearances, too.

A lot of these songs are fun; you can see how the craze developed. But a lot of these songs are similar, too; you can see why the craze petered out.

And the CD is long: At 28 tracks, thatsa lotta mambo.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Chris Smither -- The Luminaire, London, 6/10/08

By M.D. Spenser

The guitar looks small in his hands and he plays it with the casual ease of a Vegas card dealer doing complex shuffles while chatting with a friend.

Chris Smither is one of the most delightful fingerpickers ever to pick up an acoustic guitar; his folk-Blues stylings are at the same time as intricate and as laid back as any you will hear. That in itself would be reason enough to see him but, as he showed at the Luminaire in October, it’s only the beginning of what he has to offer.

His immense catalogue of songs, written and polished over the course of his 40 years on the road, are jewels, all – each adorned with little pearls of weathered wisdom.

Take for example ‘Father’s Day’, a song he wrote recently for his own father. The concluding lines – these from a man in his 60s – are heartbreaking in their insight and their kindness: “Ain’t I done good? I needed that from you/And all I’ve got to say is, by the way, you done good too”.

And then there’s his voice, smoky and atmospheric. He seems to sing to each member of the audience in turn; you understand the songs – their pathos and their wisdom – in more richness that can be communicated by CD alone.

He’s contemplative, but he can rock, too: He did a rollicking version of his most commercially successful song, ‘Love You Like A Man’, covered as ‘Love Me Like A Man’ by 15 singers from Bonnie Raitt to Diana Krall.

He finished with ‘Leave The Light On’, about how at 64 he still has more to do. He was just one man with an acoustic guitar but when the last chord died the audience rose of one accord and roared.

For an encore, Smither ended where he began, with his laid-back picking to the fore. He did Blind Willie McTell’s ‘Statesboro Blues’, played as a guitar piece of dazzling complexity that seemed as easy for him as humming a tune down by the riverside on a lazy summer day.


Saturday, 4 October 2008

CD Review - Taj Mahal

Heads up

By M.D. Spenser

The incomparable Taj Mahal, who celebrated his 40th anniversary in the business last year, remains as inventive and lovable as ever, as this highly enjoyable album shows.

It opens with ‘Scratch My Back’, the 1966 Slim Harpo hit – upbeat Blues, rowdy and bawdy, with a great beat, killer horns and salacious lyrics. When his baby hits the right spot, Taj squeals with delight, “Oh, you gonna get you a new car! Ooh, you ’bout to get you a new house!”

Then his restless intelligence ranges over a magnificent array of styles – West African, reggae, Blues, New Orleans – never losing his raucous sense of fun.

Guests include Ben Harper, Ziggy Marley and Angelique Kidjo. The backing bands are superb: his own Phantom Blues Band, Ziggy Marley’s Band, Los Lobos and the New Orleans Social Club.

Never one to limit himself, Taj plays guitar, harmonica, ukulele and banjo, all well. ‘Slow Drag’ is an original Blues with Taj playing the melodic lead on banjo – very pleasing.

‘I Can Make You Happy’, another original, is lascivious hard-ass Blues. It doesn’t get any greasier than this: ‘I’m coming over Saturday night, baby/Now you know just what your daddy wanna do’

The Fats Domino song, ‘Hello Josephine’, and the album’s closer, ‘Diddy Wah Diddy’, by Bo Diddly, are joyous stomps.

No one’s done more than Taj over the last half-century to keep the Blues alive. Yet he’s never been bound by genre. If you think that’s a paradox, you just don’t get it.

Maestro indeed.