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CD/DVD/BOOK Reviews - February 2009
The Jim Jones Review
Ball up Little Richard with the MC5, stick them through a giant fuzzbox, and you kind of arrive at the sound of this record. It's like Jerry Lee decided to re-record The Stooges' Raw Power... and if, like me, the original Tutti Frutti still gives you chills when you hear it, you'll appreciate that this is really quite an incendiary combination.
That's not to say that this is just pure 50s Rock 'n' Roll-inspired punky mayhem, well actually it is mostly that, but somehow pummelling through the anarchy and chaos, there's clearly some very tight and accomplished playing going on. Maybe it's because of the rollicking piano, but as the album progresses, there's also a hint of The Faces at their noisiest best, but mainly it's the sound of Gene Vincent having a ruck with The Meteors.
The only real issue I have with this record is the unwavering tempo. The ten tracks clock in at a pointed sideburn over 30 minutes, and while this velocity probably works well in a live setting, it's an utterly relentless onslaught over a whole album - and definitely not for the faint-hearted or the hung-over! The 'slower' numbers are still ear-bleedingly in-your-face, and it'd be good to hear a tune that really slows the vibe or adds another dimension to the band's sound. Still, hats off to The JJ Revue for pulling off such a stonkingly raucous debut.
Mike Henderson released a short string of country albums in the 90s on the Dead Reckoning label and then he released 'First Blood' by his blues band the Bluebloods who held a residency in Nashville's Blue Bird Cafe. It was so good it made my personal Top 5 Blues Albums list a while back.
Henderson chops at the mandolin while similarly esteemed Nashville songwriter Chris Stapleton startles us with his very bluesy singing style. Long-haired, beardy and bespectacled, Stapelton looks about as far removed from the clean-cut country type as you can get, and that voice - it's remarkable. They are joined by Richard Bailey on banjo, Tammy Rogers on fiddle, and Mike Fleming on bass. All are Nashville veterans but this band apparently formed quite naturally around a clutch of very excellent songs that suited the simplicity of a basic bluegrass combo rather than a slick modern country one. The fiddle, mandolin and banjo alternate and share breaks fluidly and the absence of dobro allows the sound to remain very open.
The Felice Brothers
A few weeks ago, our editor and myself – feeling a bit jaded and in search of new musical adventures – made a lunch hour pact to buy a random record apiece. So we prowled the shelves in the Rough Trade shop around the corner, and as I strayed from the 'New Folk' section into 'Americana', I picked up this album - proof positive that judging a book by its cover can sometimes work, because it's bloody great. Okay, so maybe it's not strictly speaking a 'blues' record (but since when did that matter at Blues in London Towers?). If I had to give it a label, I guess it's more of an alt-country, folk-blues crossover kind of thing.
Initially, I could hear echoes of Blonde on Blonde or Planet Waves-era Dylan in some of the meandering folk-adelica. But upon further listens, The Band were the band that kept coming to mind. That's not to say they sound too much alike, but the Felices seem to have that same otherworldly ability to insinuate a timeless quality into their songs. It genuinely feels like they could have been written 100 years ago, but also yesterday, and that's part of their appeal. In my mind, the songs turned into long lost but recently unearthed traditional ballads, especially as they contain plenty of pistols, whisky, medicine shows, name-dropping of iconic locations like Gettysburg, and dames like that damned Lucille...
The Felices don't fit neatly into any contemporary category, but also ride stubbornly free of obvious references to the past. There's also plenty of great piano, banjo, accordion and even some horns in there, but all delivered in a simple understated way, and always in the service of the individual song, which is pretty refreshing these days. Ma, fetch my horse, time to mosey on outta here.
Watermelon Slim & The Workers - No Paid Holidays
NorthernBlues are taking Bill Perkins Homans aka Watermelon Slim to a wider audience, but let us not forget his manager/co-producer Chris Wick who released Watermelon’s early stuff, and continues to serve him well today. Bill is one of those artists you hoped, and wanted to get greater exposure, and though sadly that is not always the case with every talented artist I am pleased a few get to shine. Strong songs, a believable Blues delivery with a well-suited clipped vocal, downhome sound with a contemporary outlook and heavy touring where the band put on a helluva show have paid dividends.
Below are Watermelon’s own words and explanations of the songs exclusively to Blues in London.
"Hope this finds you well in dear old England, and I hope we'll meet when I'm there in less than three weeks! Check our schedule-- Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle, London, others. I'm pumped.
I know what you're asking, so I'll just give you a couple of examples of what inspired the songs on No Paid Holidays. No problems mate!
First of all, one thing that this album is another collection of statements in the blues that go way beyond and away from, "Ooooh, my baby left me, but I gotta half a pint in my pocket and I feel all right..." A lot of things give me the blues, or any sensitive person.
For instance, "The Bloody Burmese Blues." I was in Sydney, Australia last year when the Burmese authorities put down the protests, which were led by the Buddhist monks, with shooting in the streets. The headline of the day's Sydney Herald was a quote from an English couple who happened to have been in a hotel in Rangoon (Yangon) looking down on the suppression. I have often stated that I am a journalist in the blues. I began writing that song under that headline, with a Sharpie, on the newspaper. My manager has preserved it. The song took no more than 20 minutes to write. It popped right out, like good journalism needs to.
"Blues for Howard", which leads off the record, is in honor of the eminent American historian Howard Zinn, an old, old friend and a colleague in the Vietnam era antiwar movement. Howard's recommendation helped me get into graduate school, and we remain close. I am just glad to be able to create something tangible (or at least audible) to honor this great American, who for 50 years has spoken truth to power in our society.
"Bubba's Blues" actually was the result of a long dialogue I had with a fellow Vietnam vet, a fellow from Phoenix, Arizona, on a political discussion board I frequent sometimes, when I have the time. He's an irascible Latino, but a very smart fellow and we have numerous clashing positions, yet unlike many right-of-centre folks, he is capable of reflection and movement on positions.
"Dad In The Distance" is a song about me and my daughter, my only child, from whom I now have been separated for 6 1/2 years. I have underwritten her complete preparatory-school and college education, God be thanked that I could, and she is permanently in the custody of my brother and his wife, who have raised two trophy children, so she's falling through no cracks.
My wife, the blueswoman Honour Havoc, one of the original shapers of the first Punk-Rock movement in the U.S. (If you fancy punk, she'd be a great interview! I could put you on to her), has battled substance-abuse issues for many years, and lost custody of our child in 2006. She is sober now, and we are the best friends we have been since before we were married 19 years ago. But I am husband In The Distance too now, and that's what this song is about-- distance from the ones you love, in time, space, and in just not having lived those years together.
The song is not in a blues form. But it's as deeply steeped in the blues as anything I have written. Like all my material, I take it personally."
- Watermelon Slim
ALABAMA GRAVY SOPPERS - Yellowhammered
All the talk of the, “Death of the Blues or Rhythm and Blues” always gets my goat, alarmist headline grabbing stuff. Classical music forms don’t die, they may go out of fashion, their popularity and sales plummet, but they are never grubbed out. Today with the expanse of the internet with its cyber encyclopaedic capabilities there is something for all, and surprisingly there is far more out there than you ever realised. In the area of string bands, and jug bands young musicians have unearthed some fun roots music to explore from an era way before their own. Some as Moreland and Arbuckle use it as a jumping off point where as the likes of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, and here the Alabama Gravy Soppers prefer to stay rooted within the traditional.
There seems an amalgam of jug and string band music with a hint of bluegrass to A.G.S. What is immediately apparent is that it is all played aplomb, no fumbling chaos here. In fact they are a spacious ensemble who never step on each others musical fingers, and come across sharp and well executed. A.G.S. consists of Ashley Carr lead vocals, guitars and kazoo, Ford Boswell mandolins and vocals and Warren Colter stand up bass and vocals. Ford Boswell’s mandolin playing is refreshing in that Ford fingerpicks a lot rather than the oft constant strumming, he fairly makes his instrument ring out too. The singing is well accented, and really fitting to the music played.
Bo Carter’s, “My Baby” is taken at a quickened pace with a little less syncopation than the original, but is a success as a more orchestrated piece. This is foot tapping, dancing music, and the kind that put smiles on country folks, and brought couples on to the floor. The material was recorded in the historical civil rights towns and cities of Bessemer, Montgomery and Birmingham around March, Sept. and Dec. 2007, and March 2008. Though the guys play stuff from public domain, and penned by legends Charley Jordan, Blind Willie McTell, Blind Blake and Fats Waller their own compositions sit comfortably within the halcyon day songs.
Andy Grant - Hole in The Sky
Into the throng of sensitve singer-songwriters so prevalent over the last few years comes British-born – but apparently very well-travelled – Andy Grant. This is Andy's second album but on this evidence, I'd be tempted to track down his 2003 album of 'tripped out' guitar instrumentals (Spirals).
No disrespect intended to Mr Grant, but often the issue with the geezer 'n' guitar combination is whether the quality of song-writing and vocal delivery can sustain interest over a whole album. Thankfully, the answer here is mostly yes. Okay, it's not remotely what you'd describe as a blues record (purists take note!), but there are definitely worse ways to pass 45 minutes... The album starts off in fairly familiar 'gravelly, soulful vocal plus drone-y acoustic guitar' territory, but you only have to wait until the second track before there is some additional double bass and subtle percussion.
The album's title track kept giving me aural flashbacks to BiL fave Bob Meyer, but maybe it's just the way they both sing the word 'sky'... Anyway, on to track four, Come On Strong, and there's a great central elliptical acoustic riff, complemented this time by bass, drums and also bottleneck. The next tune, Move On has a more upbeat jazzy feel, with some great support from Pete Maxfield on double bass.
The band then takes a short break before coming back to add their mellow groove to the catchy Prioritise. Your Smile features Andy plinking away on Tenor Ukelele, and has a noticeably sunnier vibe.
The guitar playing throughout is accomplished with some nice drone / wonky tuning action, and some hooky riffs. Andy's vocal style is very reminiscent of that bloke out of Gomez, with hints of Ray Lamontagne and perhaps a sliver of John Martyn.
Andy Grant and his band aren't out to grab you by the balls, but if you appreciate a riff-heavy acoustic groove, chilled vocals and a mellow vibe, they're definitely worth checking out.
Jake Lear - Love and Charm
As a designer and BiL's resident photo-monkey, it's in my nature to wade through the new releases and judge them solely by their covers. So when I flipped this one over, and saw New Yorker Jake Lear pictured playing his Strat behind his head, my heart sank. Here we go again I thought, more ear-scorching blues-rock in the usual style. Despite this, I took a deep breath and setting prejudices aside, stuck it on the stereo.
Somewhat surprisingly, I warmed to it pretty quickly. The album's opener is a pretty standard up tempo chug-along blues in a vaguely SRV style. Two minutes in and I braced myself for the obligatory guitar pyrotechnics, but they didn't come. Okay, yes there were chunky chops and fills akimbo, but no real searing or wailing...
On to track two, and there was harmonica and no guitar solo at all! Prejudices now in tatters... on to the title track, and admittedly it was mainly back to groove-heavy chugga-chugga blues fare. However, the next track, Trouble in Mind / Trouble in My Soul is great and a definite nod back to electric-blues-era Highway 61 Dylan. Track five, the self-penned Early in the Morning was the stand-out tune for me, it's slower-paced, with a well-delivered but relaxed sounding vocal.
There are further Dylan-esque interludes with Elmore James' Sure Enough I Do ending up sounding like an out-take from Blonde on Blonde. And of course, a Dylan cover Lord Protects My Child, which brings a welcome change of pace later on. Another cover (Richard Rabbit Brown's James Alley Blues) concludes the album, and is another highlight. There's an acoustic guitar for a start, and some laid-back bongo action.
Overall the album has a slightly rough and unpolished sound, but personally I like grungy edges, so that suited me fine. Jake's voice is un-flashy but still very soulful, and thankfully never strays into OTT rock histrionics. The band certainly grooves, and while the slower-paced numbers worked better for me, the faster shuffles certainly rock along too if that's your bag.
On the downside, there's a pretty predictable and lacklustre Dust My Broom in the middle of the album which doesn't really add much, and unfortunately I found Pete Ruddle's harmonica tone a bit thin and reedy, which is a shame when the rest of the band sound so 'fat'. Still, it's a damn sight better than the cover initially suggested.
Keef Hartley Band - Halfbreed
Ah, those were the days. It’s 1969. The British music scene is some way into its heyday. Really good musicians are forming and breaking up bands all over the place. When the cards fall, some of the resulting bands go on to huge fame and success. Some even become legendary. Others make really good records and are quite well-known for a period of time, but when it all turns into rock music in the early 70s, they don’t make the trip. That’s because their starting point is blues, and when the blues element gets left behind, so do they. By choice, usually.
Keef Hartley spent quite some time as John Mayall’s drummer in the 60s. Inevitably, Mayall sacked him, and the phone call sacking him opens this album, his first with his own band. In those days, when there was a fairly ‘small world’ music scene of good players in London, many of whom knew each other, it didn’t take all that long to get up and running. You put your band together, you rehearsed a pretty long set, you went to someone you knew in a record company (remember, this was when some of the people in the music biz actually liked music), you recorded an album (and a single you never expected anyone to buy), you did a load of club and college gigs, and your album came out. From start to finish of that list a period of about four months may have elapsed. In the same calendar year, you might have a second album out.
This was an experimental time in the British music scene. The so-called Blues Boom had just about been and gone, and so had the psychedelic era. People with a blues background were forming all sorts of bands, with all sorts of style and instrumentation mixtures. A generation of musicians who’d already learnt how to play to a high standard (time-wasters and no-hopers need not apply in this self-regulated scene) were bursting with ideas about how you could make original sounds by mixing a bit of this with a bit of that. They were writing their own material and there might be elements of blues, rock’n’roll, pop, jazz and folk in there. Or all of those.
Keef Hartley, encouraged by his friendship with Mike Vernon, who was in the process of founding Blue Horizon and producing the Peter Green version of Fleetwood Mac, put his band together and got a deal with Decca. It had two guitarists, both excellent players, Spit James and Miller Anderson. The latter, having answered an ad in Melody Maker, found himself the lead vocalist too, and a very good one he turned out to be. The band was completed by organ and bass, with Keef of course busy at the back, though not attention-seeking with a fill every four bars. They put together a fine set of mostly original compositions, blues based but as with so many bands at that time, moving away from formulaic blues structures.
Across town, as they recorded their album, bands like Led Zeppelin and Free were making their own debut albums. It was a time for moving on from ‘pure’ blues and into your own individual sound and style, while retaining the blues ‘feel’. This music, aided and abetted by John Peel on the radio, was beginning to get commercial success, to become ‘the scene’. Singles were out, albums were in. The Keef Hartley Band would frequently be on the same bill as Zeppelin and Free and the like, and they might even have been higher on the bill than them. The same year they were formed, they performed at, and acquitted themselves well at, Woodstock.
The ‘big idea’ with the Keef Hartley band was brass. One of the main features of the album is a four-piece brass section consisting of the very finest players on the British scene then and for many years to come. Henry Lowther arranged them and played trumpet and violin, and there’s another trumpet, a couple of saxes and Lynn Dobson doubling on flute. This was an avenue being explored in the States by Al Kooper when he founded Blood, Sweat & Tears and by Chicago – both these bands were having their first successes at roughly this time. However, whereas the American version sprang from pop and mixed that with jazz, the Keef Hartley Band sprang from blues. So it’s a distinctively British style and sound, much more subtle and less in your face.
The resultant album is as good an example of British music at that time as you could hope to come across. There are lots of lengthy instrumental passages where the band members get to show what they’re made of (if the 10-minute Born To Die came out now, you’d probably think you’d discovered the best blues band of all time); the brass arrangements are well-thought out, fitting in nicely rather than having a tacked-on function; there are some good songs, such as Sinnin’ For You and Just To Cry; and there’s a good live feel to the whole production.
For reasons unknown to me, Keef Hartley had a penchant for dressing up as what would then have been called a Red Indian, and most of the band’s album covers featured something connected with that. This album went down well at the time and, with the inevitable personnel changes, they went on to make several more over the next few years before packing it in by about 1974. By that time, the whole scene had changed and the various manifestations of rock music were the order of the day.
Miller Anderson is still very much going as a solo artist and in a number of bands featuring veterans of the era who’ve kept their music careers going for the simple reason that they’re very good musicians. Keef Hartley left music and set up as a furniture maker. He’s just put out a book about his time in music. All the Keef Hartley Band’s albums have recently been re-released on CD. This is the one to get; then check out the others.
When it comes to that era, there are the legendary bands that everyone’s heard of and that succeeding generations check out. Just below them in status, but not in musical terms, there are a number of bands who were names on the scene at the same time as those legends but are now largely forgotten. The Keef Hartley Band is one of the better bands in that category. There really was an awful lot of good music going on at that point in time, and this is some of it.
I'd Rather Be The Devil: Skip James & The Blues - Stephen Calt
This is an extraordinary book, though not perhaps in the way the author intended. Actually, it’s quite hard to work out what the author intended. Books on the blues generally fall into the ‘labour of love’ category. This one is a labour of sneering contempt.
Stephen Calt didn’t like Skip James. With the exception of three of the songs Skip famously recorded in 1931, he doesn’t reckon him much musically. As a person, he considers him reprehensible in every way. He regards his conduct as having been shabby and his life as having been tawdry in just about every conceivable way. When Skip was ‘rediscovered’ in the 1960s, the author is scathing about just who and what it was that was being rediscovered. Everyone associated with Skip throughout his life gets the thumbs down, and particular venom is reserved for the young white folk at the forefront of the ‘blues revival’ of the 1960s.
What is unclear to me is what motivated Stephen Calt to write a pretty substantial book about someone and something he so evidently views with distaste. What we can glean from the book is that he was a blues fan in his youth, just before the 60s revival and rediscovery of the surviving bluesmen from the 20s and 30s. He knew the circle of enthusiasts who brought about the revival and who were in varying ways associated with the rediscovered artists. He evidently despised all these people and everything they did. Indeed, he denounces them as charlatans on the make. At the same time, he denounces just about every one of the artists they were apparently exploiting, describing them not so much as talentless has-beens but as talentless never-weres.
The air in this book is so foul that you feel like taking a bath after some paragraphs. The only fresh air is provided by the gaping holes in Calt’s arguments. For example, much is made throughout of Skip’s apparently violent nature and deeds, especially in his early life, but there is no evidence to back this up. One or two witnesses indeed attest to Skip’s tendency to avoid confrontation, but these people are swatted aside because they inconveniently fail to back up the author’s assertion that Skip committed multiple murders during his life. Skip is made to come across as a pretty boastful bloke in his conversations with the author (not untypical of course of older bluesmen invited to reminisce about the past by earnest young white ‘researchers’), but even the most boastful Skip makes no claim to killing people. There are accounts of violent episodes when he was working in levee camps and running juke joints but the outcomes of these are not made explicit by Skip.
As regards the people involved in the 60s revival, it is hard to square Calt’s view of them as scheming fraudsters out to make a buck with his apparently factual account of the truly miserable number of sales attracted by any of the albums made by rediscovered bluesmen of the period. The idea that they were trying to get on a gravy train would be more convincing if there had actually been any gravy on that train.
A bit of research tells me that Dick Waterman, who managed and promoted many of the rediscovered bluesmen, sued the author when this book came out and I can see why. It’s reasonable to contend that without Dick Waterman, most people then, and now, would not have heard of or had the opportunity to hear people like Son House in their later lives. In the book, Waterman, who would probably roar at the notion that he got rich out of this actual labour of love on his part, gets portrayed with such bile and straightforward insult that one searches in vain for what his offence really was. He lost his court case, I think, though I’m not sure why. But he’s in pretty good company anyway, and the list of people who’d like to give Calt a good slap for his gratuitous and not-backed-up insults is probably rather a long one. And that’s only the living.
Calt is the very definition of judgmental from start to finish. This actually makes the book compelling reading and highly entertaining. It is certainly not some dry and worthy tome, it’s a thumping good read. After a while, I began to look forward to the judgments and I was seldom disappointed by the lack of one. You read a very well-researched passage that’s of genuine interest, and maybe some quotes from Skip, and then you think ‘OK, so what’s going to be wrong with all that?’ And then, bang on cue, Calt tells you what’s wrong with it, and you have to suppress a fit of the giggles. No action can have had good intentions, or even no real intentions; no behaviour, whatever the circumstances, can be deemed acceptable. It’s a riot.
Quite what Calt’s criteria are in making these judgements is hard to fathom. That Skip was involved in violence in the dire environments of levee camps and other manual jobs seems unremarkable - it was par for the course; Calt judges him as if he’d thumped an executive at an investment brokers. That Skip may have slightly faked a religious conversion so that he could live a slightly more comfortable life with his preacher father doesn’t seem such a crime; Calt condemns him for not being able to quote extensively from the Bible. That Skip seems to have ‘played the system’ so as not to get the worst of deals as a black man in the Deep South seems like a pretty intelligent approach to life in the most trying of circumstances; Calt casts aspersions on that. That Skip liked to think of himself as cleverer than most because he knew a lot of big words that his people didn’t, but that he often got these words wrong, seems rather sad to me; for Calt, there is a sinister reason behind Skip’s vocabulary. In all of these cases, Calt compounds the felony by his irritating and grammatically dubious use of the word ‘likely’ to make highly contentious assumptions that wouldn’t stand up in a bar let alone a court (as in ‘He likely did this because …’).
The greatest mystery to me concerns Calt’s relationship with Skip. He befriended Skip and must have agreed with him that he would record their conversations. There were seemingly a great many of these, and verbatim quotes from Skip link together the bits in which the author takes a swipe at him. Skip must have felt OK doing this, and it seems unlikely that he got paid. We don’t know what he thought the conversations would be used for, but he probably didn’t suspect he was going to get comprehensively slagged off. Skip died in 1969. This book originally came out in 1994 as far as I know, and has just been re-printed. Why the 25-year gap? Was the author originally planning a ‘straight’ biography? Did he then, all those years later, take a different slant on everything? We are not told.
Do not be put off reading this book. Whatever your view of the judgements, it has a great deal to offer and it’s not like any other I’ve come across. I thoroughly enjoyed it and found it hugely entertaining. It’s very well-researched and there’s a lot of interesting information in there, which enables you to build up a detailed picture of Skip’s life and times. It’s also very well-written – the informational parts are very clear and well-constructed, and the opinion parts are a masterclass in how to write with a sneer on your face. If you’re interested at all in the history of blues and of its world, you should get it. It’ll keep you riveted and you’ll learn a lot. And Calt’s opinions will at the very least amuse you. It’s a very good book with a peculiar slant.
The last time I read a book that adopted this tone and standpoint was Kitty Kelley’s famed hatchet job on Frank Sinatra many years ago. Maybe Sinatra had it coming. He was one of the most well-known entertainers on the planet at the time, and a squillionaire too. Some of his actions may well have merited exposure and condemnation. The same cannot be said of an obscure and utterly penniless bluesman with no advantages in life. I felt a bit sorry for old Skip when I read this, and nothing that was said in it diminished my view of him as one of the genuine blues greats. So for this reader at least, Calt’s quite barmy aim wasn’t achieved.