Thursday, 29 September 2016

Jake Calypso and Archie Lee Hooker

Archie Lee Hooker
Vance, Mississippi . . .

By M.D. Spenser

There are plenty of reasons to be sceptical about this CD.

 It relies too heavily on Archie Lee Hooker’s familial relationship with blues great John Lee Hooker rather than letting the music speak for itself. The words to track one, which mention Archie’s acquaintance with just about every bluesman who ever became famous – John Hurt, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and others – read more like a CV than song lyrics. 

And the song mentions the word ‘boogie’, of course – John lee Hooker having been known as the king of the boogie. 

Then, in case anyone has still somehow failed to get the point, the music stops suddenly in mid-song so we can clearly hear Archie announce, ‘My uncle, John Lee.’ 

Jake Calypso
Beyond that, the pairing of an elderly Mississippi bluesman and a middle-aged French rockabilly singer would seem ill-fated from the start. And at 18 tracks – most of which have perhaps two chords -- the album’s just too long. 

Yet one is reminded of Mark Twain’s quip: ‘Wagner’s music is better than it sounds.’ That’s the case here, too. 

Archie Lee Hooker is genuinely steeped in the blues experience. There’s a song about all his father had to do to keep the family fed – and another about how, later, the father took off, leaving his wife and children with nothing to eat and no place to sleep. 

These songs ring true. The beat is propulsive, like John Lee’s, and Archie even imitates his uncle’s stutter: “The blues is in my bones, in my bones.” 

Calypso makes no attempt to inject rockabilly into the proceedings, which would have been discordant. 

These songs are deeply informed by growing up poor in the Delta. Some of them will probably grow on you over time. 

But if you want to hear stuff that sounds like John Lee Hooker, your best bet is to buy a John Lee Hooker album. True, this CD is better than it sounds. But still, Archie can’t hold a handle to John Lee.

Ed Deane

Wireless set

Audiophiles who appreciate variety and musicianship should make space on their shelves for this eclectic and deeply satisfying CD. 

Ed Deane
Deane, a Dublin-born guitarist, has been kicking around as a session player and sometime frontman since the 1960s, so he must be pushing 70. Still, his musical intelligence ranges over a variety of styles: every cut on this album feels fresh and innovative. And Deane’s voice somehow sounds like that of a teenager. 

Some of the cuts have a carefree, radio-friendly feel. Deane’s age notwithstanding, I Need a Holiday, written by Dan Penn and Chuck Prophet, should be a hit today – people should blast it out as they cruise in their convertibles with the tops down. Just feel-good stuff. 

The blues are here, too, in the form of covers of Muddy Waters’ I Can’t Be Satisfied and Taj Mahal’s Queen Bee. 

Half of the 12 songs on the album are instrumentals, and Deane’s impeccable musicianship shines – from tasty slide to fluidly picked leads to wonderful chord changes. (He is, by the way, one of those weirdos who plays the guitar left-handed and upside-down – weirdos whose number also included the great guitarist Albert King.) 

It’s For You, with its flamenco feel, was influenced, Dean says, both by Robert Johnson and Francisco Tarrega, a Spanish classical guitarist and composer who died more than a century ago. 

And Nick Lowe, with whom Deane toured in the 1990s, probably influenced the opening cut, Vampire. Harlem Nocturne, sounds bluesy but eerie. 

And Deane describes the mellow closing track, an instrumental in which his relaxed yet emotive guitar ranges over a rich backdrop of instruments, as “the nearest I’ve managed to get to playing with a string orchestra.” 

Always impeccable, always fresh, always innovative, this is a CD you’ll return to over the years. This one will stand the test of time.

M.D. Spenser

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Jason Rosenblatt
Wiseman's Rag

First things first: Whatever the sales force  might try to convince you, this CD is not blues, it’s jazz. 

That said, it’s a fine album that will add joy and depth to any collection that embraces variety. 

Jason Rosenblatt, a Canadian, plays harmonica and keyboards, the primary instruments heard here. Other players contribute guitar, drums and bass – including jazz bass solos, one of which, if I may say so, sounds much like the next. But the album is driven largely by harp and piano. 

It’s a happy album. The harmonica dances lightly above the keyboards, which sometimes anchors the proceedings with an enjoyable ragtime beat. Even songs about break-up and loss bounce right along. No slow weepers here. Nor is this the kind of esoteric, free-form jazz that eschews melody, rhythm and sense. It’s good fun. 

Seven of the 13 tracks here are instrumentals. The other six feature Rosenblatt’s pleasant, androgynous vocals. 

True, two of the songs do feature the word ‘blues’ in their titles – Modern Life Blues and C Harp Blues. But calling a song the blues doesn’t make it so. 

In fairness, it must be said that the next-to-last track, You’ll Take The Highway, could be considered blues, but that’s the only one. 

Bottom line: People who listen to nothing other than pure blues should give this CD a pass. Audiophiles with diverse tastes will find this to be a pleasing addition to their collections.

Sunday, 25 September 2016

Brassy, blue and bold

Lex Grey
Like big, brassy, strong women singing the blues? Tune into this week’s Big Fat Wide Americana Hour!

New stuff, old stuff – Marcia Ball, Candye Kane, Lex Grey, Etta James and so much more.

Plus blues from around the world, with country, bluegrass and soul stirred in, as well.

It’s a rollicking good time! See you there!

Your friend, M.D.

Etta James

Grey, Lex, and the Urban Pioneers

Lex Grey
Heal My Soul

By M.D. Spenser

If you like your blues sung by bold, strong, brassy women, add this CD to your collection at once. 

Lex Grey’s vocals are high-octane and top-notch. And the band, the Urban Pioneers, support her well, with rockin’ guitar, swingin’ clarinet and tasty sax, as the song demands.

Grey and the band are based in New York, and the 10 songs here are mostly reflections on city life and the urban landscape. 

The opening cut, Factory, seems to be the fantasy of someone living in a cramped apartment and longing for more space. Grey sings that she wants to live in a former factory, where all the rooms are big, no one can call her kitchen small, there’s a train set on the floor – “and urinals hanging on the walls.” 

Well, OK, whatever floats your boat. 

Other songs, such as Hobo Soup and Junkman, offer stark portraits of the cityscape. 

Not every cut works as well as the others. Black Stallion – which, yes, is a song about a horse – apparently stayed in the vaults a long time. And there it should have remained. 

But the real thing here isn’t the words. It’s Lex Grey’s hard-edged, oestrogen-fuelled vocals, which follow the in the footsteps of blues belters like Candye Kane, or Shirley Bassey doing Hey Big Spender, or even – dare we say it? – the great Etta James doing almost anything.

Unabashed sexuality infuses every note. You get the feeling Grey could sing from the phone book and make you get up and dance in a way you wouldn’t want your granny to see. 

It appears that so far the band’s audience is primarily regional. It should be global. She’s that good.