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CD Reviews - April 2008
Son of Dave - 03 >>
Son of Dave - 03 (Kartel)
Well, Son of Dave - aka Ben Darvill - is back, and whilst this time he's lost the "Crikey! I've never heard anything like it before" advantage that '02' had, '03' doesn't disappoint.
It feels less stripped down than before - you might even say that it was 'lush' in places - and it seems to show a growing confidence in what he's doing. Certainly, War's 'Lowrider' might not initially seem like an obvious cover for a harmonica-loopin'-shaker-shakin'-one-man-band, but he's all over it, as he is the rest of the mostly original songs.
The whole thing wears it's blues less prominently than before, and overall it's vaguely reminiscent of Beck I suppose... but not that much really - SOD's his own man and such comparisions are fraught with difficulty, no matter how tempting for a lazy/untalented journalist.
Son of Dave has written bemoaning reviews which never say whether a record is any good or not, so I'll round this one off buy saying his record is... good!
Check out the Son of Dave Blog here: http://sonofdave.blogspot.com/
Here's the interview we did a while back:
And here's a lavishly produced video of the single...
Naughty Jack - Good Times
From the beautiful photo of a dobro on the cover to the last few seconds of the last track on Good Times, Naughty Jack impresses throughout.
Good Times is due for release 19th May
Tom Mansi & The Icebreakers - Love On The Rails
"Anchor chains, plane motors, and train whistles" says George Bailey in It's A Wonderful Life, explaining the three most exciting sounds in the world. Love On The Rails captures some of that excitement, as well as some of the terror that accompanies getting on a dodgy looking fairground ride. It's a reminder of the thrill I got from watching Tom and the Icebreakers recent set at the Son of Dave album launch a while back. I'll be the first to confess I do too much chin-stroking at gigs but watching them was the damndest most exciting thing I'd seen in ages.
The rightly prominent double bass give the proceedings a satisfying lush bottom. Underneath it all though beats a big ol' heart and an optimism that never seems out of place. Truckin' Along and Old familiar Song offset the somewhat stoical When You're Dead You're Done and Disorientated In The Darkness. There's a fair dose of Waitsyness to some of the tracks tracks but it's ok because it never seems like the point. Besides, influences are weird; and Waits is one that means more or less depending on who has being influenced and to what extent - but these aren't the droids you're looking for, move along...
If I was being harsh, I'd perhaps say the production was a bit tame, but that's only on the back of being blown away by them live. I think it misses a bit of the sheer hair-raisingness of their set. I'm going bald though so what do I know. I suggest you check them out at the earliest opportunity and make up your own minds.
John ‘Juke’ Logan - The Chill (Re-chilled)
This is a re-release which has been unavailable for a few years, and re-mixed and re-mastered. Amongst the guests includes David Hidalgo, Conrad Lozano of Los Lobos, Denny Freeman, Junior Watson, Rick Holmstrom and Janiva Magness. You get a chunky and very informative CD booklet with this recording. This disc’s original score was written by Logan, except for four collaborations, amongst which are two unreleased bonus tracks. The majority of the material owes far more to ‘50’s rock ‘n’ roll rather than blues with a smattering of ska and zydeco beats thrown in. Apart from the title track, “The Chill”, “She’s Cool People”, and “Soul Stroll” that is a cross between Jimmy Reed and Little Walter, and maybe “Rumblin’ Reeds” there is little to get stirred up about this release. The music is played well, and there is interesting lyrics, but it does not have that big impact that pricks back your ears.
Tom Shaka - Deep Cut
Tom Shaka (Sciacca) is so far below the radar that it is truly incredible. This is the third CD that I have had the pleasure to review from this Connecticut born guy, with Sicilian ancestry who lives and works out of Germany. Armed only with his gritty voice, acoustic and resonator guitars and rack harp he is a complete Blues entertainer. Only two song titles are cover tunes, and the guy who plays with Louisiana Red and Steve Baker in Germany, also comes over several times like John Lee Hooker on his boogie tunes. Amongst the straight ahead Blues, A Spanish gypsy styled instrumental, plenty of social conscience material concerning American conflicts and politics. There are some well written songs within the recognised Blues medium, Tom Shaka is in his later years, and his music shows such a lived in and finished product. A touch of humour, a rag instrumental, Tom Shaka is out there because he feels and loves his Blues that is self evident!
Paul Reddick - Revue
Reddick is a Canadian singer, harmonica player and bandleader, but just as much as any of that, he’s a very, very good songwriter, and he’s doing something fresh with blues music.
This CD is a compilation of his most recent work and older recordings, going back to the early 1990s. It doesn’t go chronologically, but about half the tracks are from his most recent albums, Rattlebag (2001) and Villanelle (2004). It shows that he’s getting better and better, and more and more interesting, and suggests that his next batch of new material will be well worth waiting for.
Of the older tracks, the three with the Rhythm & Truth Brass Band are the most interesting and effective, showing a nice combination of blues and New Orleans marching band music. The combination is a success, and indicates that Reddick has been for some time keen to do something new. The other six older tracks are at the better end of the conventional blues spectrum, suggesting that they were done before he found his ‘voice’, his own individual approach and sound.
Things start to get really good with the material from Rattlebag, and then he really takes off with Villanelle. Rattlebag is in the main a band album, featuring his excellent band The Sidemen. Reddick’s unbounded enthusiasm for prewar and classic blues is apparent, not just in terms of the material but also the production. An attempt is made at a kind of distorted, ‘old’ sound associated with the scratchy nature of old 78s and field recordings. This may sound distinctly unpromising and gimmicky, but actually it works extremely well, and gives a highly individual quality. Reddick cites the Lomax field recordings and the music of people like Sleepy John Estes as main influences on him, and those influences are clear on this material (indeed, there is a wonderful track called Sleepy John Estes on the album but not on this compilation).
When Reddick made Rattlebag, he worked with Colin Linden as producer. Linden is a major figure in the Canadian blues/roots scene and a very fine artist in his own right (check out his 2006 album Southern Jumbo, for example). They obviously work very well together and Linden clearly has a lot to bring to the table, both in terms of production and his own playing on a variety of guitars and mandolin. One of the outstanding tracks from the album, I’m A Criminal, a hard blues tune that manages to be both rough and catchy, kicks off this compilation. Another highlight of the album, Trouble Again, featuring a mandolin-driven rhythm track and quotes from Sleepy John Estes lyrics is on here too, and two further excellent tracks from the album.
When it came to the next and most recent full album, Villanelle, it was very much a partnership between the two of them. Reddick is the artist and writes all the lyrics, Reddick and Linden co-write the music, and a variety of musicians play bass, drums and keyboards with them. There’s more of an acoustic element to it than on the previous album, though most tracks feature a full band. What helps to make it a really outstanding album is that the songwriting has gone up a notch or two and it’s got a number of fantastic songs on it.
There are five really excellent original songs from Villanelle on this collection. The title track from the album has a lovely folk/blues melody, a real middle 8, a nice combination of acoustic guitar and percussion and some subtle violin. Big Not Small sounds like it’s coming out of a 1930s radio set with its distorted, field recording-type vocal and features some nice harp and mandolin. Round This Time Of Year is a top-quality, classic-sounding tune, with just vocal, reverb-drenched, finger-picked electric guitar and harmonica, and Reddick puts in a particularly moving vocal performance here. Winter Birds features an extremely catchy and rhythmic riff that’s both hummed and played on top of a great shuffle beat, and is another excellent song. And Hook’s In The Water is a straight down the line winner of a folk/blues song with a hugely memorable melody. These songs are a kind of ‘heavy’ acoustic music, with bite and balls and attack. And it’s a feature of them that you feel someone really good and really well-known must have written them a long time ago.
So Paul Reddick is someone who is doing new things with ‘old’ music. He’s taking elements of the old sounds and styles and presenting them in a new way. He’s putting his own imprint on ‘classic’ blues (and folk/blues) styles, taking the old music as a starting point for his own ideas and his own way of expressing feelings and experiences. He has a strong voice that is totally suited to the material and the style – it’s not strained or put-on to sound like a blues singer, it’s natural and it’s strong enough to deliver both the full band electric material and the more acoustic material with equal effectiveness. His lyrics are fresh and interesting – seemingly influenced by various poets, they are free of cliché and they see Reddick putting himself into other places and other times, much in the way that the best of The Band’s songs did.
Paul Reddick is doing what people in blues should be doing in this day and age – his own thing, rooted in blues. His next release is one I’m personally looking forward to. Meanwhile, this is a good place to start with him.
Marie Knight - Let Us Get Together
What will you be doing when you’re 82 years old? OK, let’s not go there, except to say that you could be making a brilliant blues record. Marie Knight is 82 and she has.
There’s always been a daft issue around the blues and age. This arose because the blues artists ‘rediscovered’ in the late 50s and early 60s were all pretty old by the time white enthusiasts got to them. This was not their choice. When they did the recordings that so inspired people to go out and find them, they were all young. Their music was just as much a young person’s thing as any form of popular music that came after and exists now.
Mississippi John Hurt, for example, didn’t sit on his tractor for the best part of 40 years after making his great early recordings, keeping out of the way so that when he was old some white college type could ‘discover’ him. He didn’t want to be old before he could do it for a living, that just happened to him. What was extraordinary was that people like him and Son House and Bukka White and Skip James and Furry Lewis and all the others could still do it just as well when they were old as when they were young, despite having barely played at all for several decades. This confused people into associating ‘authentic’ blues with old blokes.
Marie Knight is a dignified and spirited lady whose voice and attitude belie her years (check out the accompanying video on the CD). She is most certainly not going quietly into the dying of the light, or whatever it was Dylan Thomas wrote after he’d had a few. The fact of her age is to some degree irrelevant here – this isn’t some novelty thing set up by awestruck younger people because the artist is both black and old, the kind of project that tries to ignore the fact that the artist is also sadly decrepit and not massively talented. Marie Knight is massively talented and not at all decrepit – her voice and delivery are fresh and vibrant.
She’s a terrific singer and this is a terrific record. Listening to (and watching) her, it’s impossible not to feel a kind of warm glow, a sense of affection for this dignified but also girlish old lady, who could be your grandmother or great-grandmother, but that isn’t really the point. Purely judged on its own merits, this is a fine record and she’s a really fine singer.
The album is subtitled A Tribute to Reverend Gary Davis, and all 12 tracks are covers of some of the best-known songs by that truly great blues/gospel artist, another whose talents were totally undimmed when he was ‘rediscovered’. It’s a gospel album really, because Gary Davis was a gospel artist on the blues side of that genre, perhaps the only one operating as a guitarist/singer during that period. Aficionados will recognize most of the songs here as being those most closely associated with Gary Davis.
Marie Knight used to be Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s singing partner in the 1950s, and she continued recording both gospel and soul/blues music in subsequent decades. You get the impression that she and the mighty Sister must have been quite something as a double act, and as a pair of women. When M C Records made a tribute album to Rosetta Tharpe in 2003, they got Marie Knight in to sing one track. Knocked out by her singing on that, they got her to make this, her first full-length album for 20 years. And they got Larry Campbell to do just about everything else.
Larry Campbell is a multi-instrumentalist (stringed instrument department), producer and arranger with a mass of credits, including being the main man in the band on Dylan’s Love And Theft album, his contribution setting the musical tone on that fine album. He’s run the show on this album, playing all the guitars, mandolin and violin, arranging the songs and producing it (he’s done the same thing on Levon Helm’s excellent new album Dirt Farmer too). Aside from him and Marie, there’s acoustic bass and what could be regarded as ‘acoustic drums’ on some tracks, and Kim Wilson pops up with some harmonica here and there.
The difficulty confronting anyone trying to cover the Reverend Gary Davis concerns his guitar style. The Rev was by no means a straightforward player and he certainly wouldn’t have liked anyone to think he was. There’s no question of ‘deceptively simple’ being a tag anyone could pin on him. He was a total virtuoso in the areas of blues, gospel and especially ragtime acoustic guitar playing, and it could be said that he wrote the book on all that. On being ‘rediscovered’ and embraced enthusiastically by the US coffee house and festival crowd in the 1960s, he certainly had no intention of hiding his light under anything. One of the greatest musicians of all time in this genre, he seems to have been glad to have been ‘discovered’, and more than anyone of the rediscovered lot, he was massively integrated into the scene, in the sense that he hung out with and, crucially, gave lessons to, many of the young white folk embarking on careers in the folk/blues world.
But the impression I get from many of his recordings of that era, some of which were made with enthusiastic audiences/disciples present, is that he wanted to make it clear that he was in a class of his own, way ahead of anything else anyone else could do, including the people he was teaching. There’s a sense of him non-maliciously marking everyone’s card – ‘I can do stuff nobody else can do and I want you to know that every time I play and with everything I play’. This happened to be true, and in no way an inflated view. The result was that whenever he played every bar was an event. Something complex was happening all the time; there are no instances of simple repetition or patterns and shifts accessible to the merely competent. It’s very, very busy playing and entirely his own thing.
Wisely, Larry Campbell has chosen to go for the ‘straight’ versions of the songs on this record. He’s an excellent player and what he does isn’t simple. But it delivers the songs as songs to be sung, not as complex instrumental pieces with singing on top. This of course has the considerable advantage of laying the emphasis firmly on the singing, which is the point of the exercise. But the playing is very impressive too, and this helps to make the album the exceptionally good one that it is.
Of course, it’s Marie Knight’s singing that the whole thing stands or falls on, and what a voice it is. Whatever it may have been like when she was younger, she’s now got a blues voice rather than a soul one. Her age is present in her voice but it doesn’t define it. There’s a lot of experience in that voice, but it’s not just experience of life, it’s experience of being a high-quality professional singer too. The timing is impeccable, the delivery subtle, and the songs are brought to life by this combination of great feel and great technique. The big notes really hit you, but they’re always sung, never shouted. The occasional falsetto shows no loss of power. The singing sounds spontaneous, but it’s the kind of spontaneity that only the best technicians can do. It soars when it wants to, it cracks when it wants to, it belts it out when it wants to, and it wrenches the heart when it wants to.
Between them, Marie Knight and Larry Campbell do full justice to the Rev’s songbook. These are not tired old reworkings of standards, they are fresh interpretations of them (rather in the same way that Mavis Staples’ latest record works). They are full of energy, spirit and class. The majority are up-tempo and uplifting. Highlights among the guitar and vocal only tracks include Let Us Get Together, with its forthright, needs-saying message and the sound of Marie’s spontaneous handclaps coming in and out, the brisk Samson & Delilah, with some great bass string business, and the optimistic ragtime of Lord I Feel Like Goin’ On. Highlights among the band tracks include the loping, hot-afternoon-in-the-fields vibe of 12 Gates, the slow, contemplative take on Death Don’t Have No Mercy, with its excellent harp solo, and the totally outstanding version of I Belong To The Band. I imagine it goes without saying that you don’t have to be a believer to be just as moved and exhilarated by this music, and get just as much from it, as any committed churchgoer.
I Belong To The Band is a prime example of how this album works – surely a band line-up of vocal, acoustic guitar, bass and drums can seldom have kicked up such a storm. It’s got wonderful New Orleans marching band-style drumming and a syncopated groove that’s a testimony to how a simple arrangement can work to produce tremendous music. Nobody overplays, the song has breathing space but it really cooks. It’s an old song, done by an enormous number of people, but it sounds new. It’s moving and it’s fun. Very few people have the wisdom or the technique to do the simple things so well, so that the end product is all of a piece, singer and musicians all working together. The pieces themselves aren’t complicated – it’s knowing which pieces to use and fitting them together in the right places that’s the hard bit. It’s a stand-out track and the record would be worth buying if that was the only thing on it.
Will today’s young’uns be doing things like this when they’re 82? Sadly, I doubt it. But there’s nothing to stop them if they really want to. Meantime, here’s what an 82-year-old has done. Listen and be glad.