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Live Review:

Alvin Youngblood Hart
Charlotte Street Blues 22nd August 2009
Review by Mark Harrison, photo provided by venue

Alvin Youngblood Hart is one of the more interesting and significant artists out there in what can loosely be called the blues world. He first appeared in the mid 90s with the excellent album Big Mamma’s Door, which showed him as an acoustic artist in the Taj Mahal mould and was very well received. In 2002, he put out Down In the Alley, another acoustic album which saw him again interpreting classics from the 1920s and 1930s on what is surely one of the best acoustic blues albums ever made since that long-gone heyday.

But acoustic bluesman is only part of what Alvin Hart does. His musical tastes and abilities are extremely diverse and a big part of what he does is influenced by the kind of rock music he was growing up with in the 1970s. In addition to full-blown rock music, he also does some soul, some country, some reggae/ska, as well as his own take on electric blues. All of these styles were in evidence at Charlotte Street, where the electric Alvin Youngblood Hart took the stage with an Italian rhythm section as the current incarnation of his band Muscle Theory.

The house was pretty full when the band kicked off their first set with the electric version of Big Mamma’s Door, a killer blues number with terrific guitar work that shows something of what you can do with electric blues if you’ve got the originality to wander off the standard menu. This was followed by another original, the title track from his most recent album Motivational Speaker, which came out in 2005. Alvin introduced this number as belonging to a genre he had invented himself and named ‘Hard Americana’. This seems like a decent description of what he does in electric form.

Most of the Motivational Speaker album got played over the course of the two hour-long sets he and the band played, and the numbers were delivered in a pretty no-nonsense way, tight and often quite short, with no endless noodling or embroidery. There were a couple of country tunes from the album, a reggae/ska number, the Otis Redding classic Nobody’s Fault But Mine (which reminds you just how good a vocalist Alvin Hart is), a Free cover and numerous numbers that come under the category of rock (rather than blues rock). These latter included Hart’s own My World Is Round, in which he justifies (if this were needed) his belief that he can play any kind of music he damn well pleases.

Indeed, this is a bit of an issue with Alvin Youngblood Hart, and one or two between-songs chats indicated that there’s a history of being required to justify not being a straight blues artist. He indicated that he found this matter rather irritating, and rightly so in my view. He’s brilliant at straight blues, especially in acoustic form, but his musical enthusiasm encompasses far more than that, so he plays far more than that. He clearly gets a huge buzz out of fronting a very loud rock band and running through all the styles that interest him. Of course, if you turned up to see him expecting the brilliant acoustic stuff, you’d probably have your nose put out of joint by the electric set, but this is an eclectic artist and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Having said that, from a personal point of view I felt that the bluesier material worked best. At root, Alvin Hart is a blues artist, and numbers like In My Time Of Dying, How Long Before I Change My Clothes and his take on Skip James’s Illinois Blues showed him in electric form at his best. These numbers are not standard-issue covers of familiar blues numbers, they are rendered new and fresh by an exceptional artist’s own take on them. I can’t help feeling it would be good if some of his own songs were in this vein rather than being almost exclusively riff-heavy rock numbers. No reason why Alvin Hart can’t write really good new electric blues songs in my view. Perhaps this will happen on his long overdue next album.

Anyway, a good-sized and enthusiastic audience enjoyed a night of varied and high-quality music. Those who like their music dished up at very loud volume indeed will also have been satisfied, especially as the bass was at the kind of level that can cause your vital organs to relocate themselves. Personally I felt that this detracted a bit, firstly as it buried the vocals a bit (and though much of the focus is on Hart as a guitar player, he’s got one of the best voices out there), and secondly because huge volume tends to have the effect of distancing the audience from the band somewhat, blasting them into their own zone rather than fully engaging them with what’s being played.

The last time I saw Alvin Youngblood Hart was a shade over a year ago and he was sitting on a chair at the Barbican, playing acoustic guitar and banjo as part of Otis Taylor’s excellent Recapturing The Banjo project. This time he was fronting what could be called a ‘power trio’. Though many people are likely to strongly prefer one of these guises to the other, they are both equal facets of him as an artist. Keep an eye on Alvin Youngblood Hart – whatever he’s doing, it’s always interesting.