Monday, April 02, 2007


The blues in 2007: young white guys, old (& dead) black guys

Many African-Americans of a certain age use the term "grown folks' music" to refer to anything predating the hip-hop era, be it the Philly soul of the Delfonics and the Chi-Lites, jazz, or the blues - the latter possibly most of all. Starting at the tail end of the Civil Rights era, the blues fell out of favor with hip, young black audiences. Funk and soul soundtracked the image they had of themselves. Meanwhile, young white fans latched onto the style and began making it their own. Thus, to this day, new blues records are most often the work of young white artists, while black musicians are represented either by reissues or new albums by aging performers. Herewith are a half-dozen examples from two labels, Sunnyside and Blind Pig.

The Sunnyside label is doing yeoman's work this year, reissuing lost but excellent discs from the late '60s and early '70s. T-Bone Walker's Good Feelin', which won him a Grammy in 1970, finds him backed by a band of sympathetic Frenchmen and really letting his guitar soloing come to the fore. This is as much a Memphis soul album (despite its Paris recording) as a blues disc, with tracks like "Everyday I Have The Blues" and "Shake It Baby." This should never have been out of print.

John NĂ©meth's Magic Touch (his Blind Pig debut, following two self-released efforts) is a stomping Chicago-style disc from an Idaho boy with a voice somewhere between Harry Connick Jr. and the Blasters' Phil Alvin, and a powerful harmonica technique. He used to gig with Junior Watson and Anson Funderburgh, and both former bosses help him out here. Watson plays raucous lead guitar, while Funderburgh produces and bends the strings some on "Let Me Hold You." Encompassing raw blues, soul, R&B, and even some jazzy organ swing, Magic Touch is frequently lyrically witty and more than competently played by all.

Tommy Castro's Painkiller, also on Blind Pig, offers a similarly gutsy mix of blues and soul from a Bay Area guitar powerhouse. If Los Lonely Boys ever become men, they might record a track as scorching as this album's opener, "Love Don't Care." The disc repeatedly shifts moods - from blues to soul and back - with lots of energy expended on Castro's part and some excellent horn arrangements, not to mention killer piano work from Teresa James on "Goin' Down South." Still, there's nothing really unique here, despite the Latino Catholic-devotional cover art, a nice touch reminiscent of Jane's Addiction.

Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown's Gate's On The Heat bridges the old-black-guys/young-white-guys divide. It's a Sunnyside reissue of a 1974 album featuring four tracks recorded with Canned Heat - pioneers of ultra-orthodox white blues revivalism - in 1973, and eight cuts from the year before, with a Parisian band and overdubs by the Memphis Horns. Occasionally, the songs date themselves with titles like "Man And His Environment" and "Please Mr. Nixon," but it's a hard-grooving disc for the most part, and the seven-minutes-plus, improvised "The Drifter" is a showcase for Brown's electric violin work.

Southside Reunion, credited to Memphis Slim and Buddy Guy, is the loosest of the Sunnyside discs. It sounds like all involved were playing for their own pleasure, first and foremost. It's Guy's road band backing up Slim's piano and vocals (though Buddy sings a bit, too), and everyone present - Junior Wells, Roosevelt Sykes, A.C. Reed, Phil Guy - is in top form, cranking out hard-charging tunes with plenty of space for stinging solos. As much fun as it likely was to record, it's twice as enjoyable to listen to.

The most innovative of the Blind Pig discs is Wish I Had You by the Rounders. A tight Oklahoma City crew who write all their own material, they've mastered the North Mississippi groove popularized by Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside, among others, but amped it up to suit rock audiences. Some of the songs feel like jams that fade because they couldn't write endings, but the rhythm section keeps an addictive enough pulse that it hardly matters. This disc, more than any other described above, proves that in whoever's hands the form may currently be, the blues is alive and well.

1 comment:

Bill Benzon said...

That's nice writing. Enjoyed reading it.