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CD/DVD/BOOK Reviews - September 2009
Sister Mary & The Choirboys
From the opening rump-moving bass notes, the self-titled debut by London's Sister Mary & The Choir Boys impresses and entertains throughout. The production is lush but never-ever bland and all the songs form a cohesive, confident whole. These guys have their own character and plenty of soul.
Singer Ermine Pirhasan's vocals range from sexy 'come hither' to a genuine blue-eyed soul sound. She co-writes the songs with guitarist Fred Thomas and together they have produced a catalogue of tunes documenting modern woebegone love-done-gone life. On the up-tempo numbers they pull off that 60's vibe of the best UK R n' B from the era without directly aping that sound (Cry Baby, 10,000 Years From Now) but the band always sounds much fatter and funky. The lyrics are smart but never smart-alecy.
The arrangements range from the contained sex of Al Green's days on Hi to the abandon of, say, Janis Joplin, but without sounding so over the top. Then there are the times where Pirhasan's delivery deserves comparison to Madeline Peroux (Beautiful) or maybe Angie Stone (People Like Us), which is more remarkable when you consider this is self-produced album not a slick major label release.
I'm always a sucker for double bass and this record provides plenty of examples why it's sonically superior (Can't Help It, Beautiful) to its electric counterpart. Yet while the sound shifts around its essential character remains intact. There are moments of levity throughout (Boogie, I Love Your Money), times when its playfully skewed, and others when its convincingly straight. I doubt many bands could go from a Cow-Cow Davenport boogie-woogie to Wurlitzer-drenched soul without it jarring, but here you go. This has been on my portable Victorola since I got it.
Agnostic Mountain Gospel Choir - Ten Thousand
Choir boys they ain’t. This is more evidence to prove how blues reaches and influences the far corners of the world. Hailing from Calgary, with their third record Agnostic Mountain Gospel Choir have produced a perfect combination of traditional folk and raucous, gothic blues.
The opening tracks Go Back Home, The Boig and Dumb It Down drag you along the dusty roads of Tennessee being worked by the sweat and strain of a chain gang. Building the songs from the back with a haunting thump then throwing in creepy slide guitars and a slice of dirty Cajun banjo makes this a brilliant foot stomping record. This starts as it means to go on, although hitting with a surprise bit of bluegrass on You Got It Wrong, the record drives on with one great hollering, authentic folk, blues track after another.
As raw as this album comes across it still has a gentle hint of polish. Not too much, just a pinch of a whiskey breathed trombone and whispering harmonica which lay nicely nestled between the solid stamp and stringy slide. Keelaghan and Palmer's beautifully sounding, southern gravel toned vocals really add the feel of a hot summer on a porch in Tennessee.
The passion of southern American folk music is not the only thing that is in abundance here but also the workings of naturally talented musicians. The basic punch of the clattering drums, intricate guitar and banjo parts with under lying trombones and piano is an awe inspiring mixture to deliver a pure example of a fantastic blues record. The Agnostics are certainly true believers.
Sean Taylor - Calcutta Grove
A wonderfully sparse, sophisticated album of songwriter blues from an artist of obvious depth. There's a melancholy that is really quite beautiful for all its darkness and, ultimately, the feeling is one of redemption and hope.
There is an obvious blues influence throughout, but just as evident is a folk sensibility - there's a sparkling re-working of Richie Havens' re-working, 'Freedom', and John Martyn and Martin Simpson are acknowledged, as are 'Desert Blues' types Ali Farke Toure and Tinarawen. It seems Taylor is perfectly comfortable with the idea that it's not necessary to adhere rigidly to a genre to produce music that can nevertheless work within it, and it's as easy to imagine him playing to a 'Blues' audience as to a 'Folk', or 'Indie' one.
There are no 'Look at me!' histrionics, the playing is subtle and restrained throughout, and the lyrics are finely wrought pieces of abstraction which fit the music perfectly. There's a space around the whole thing that leaves the listener room to respond in their own way, and there's a cohesion to the songs which makes it work as an album.
Black Diamond Heavies- A Touch of Someone Else's Class
Another brutal blow. Straight out of Tennessee comes a roaring, punk-ass duo of John Wesley Myers and Van Campbell with this, their second record that thunders down the rails at you like a high speed locomotive.
Opening with a cover of Nutbush City Limit with a machine gun like drum solo followed by a seriously growling Fender Rhodes really gets this record moving. This couldn't be further from its original but the Heavies certainly re-create this as their own. Even with slick production from Dan Auerbach (The Black Keys) the smoky, back bar room, whiskey drenched sound of Black Diamond Heavies that we are so accustomed drives through this record from start to finish. The pace is slowed slightly for Bidin' My Time and the throat tearing vocals from Myers are tuned to a deeper, soulful husk. The momentum soon picks up and punches on through Smooth It Out and Make Some Time leaving you very satisfied with a belly full of passionately delivered, firmly rooted blues.
Again this fantastically charismatic duo have produced a big bucket load of punk ass blues. Myers is an awesome talent who taunts his Rhodes to produce a severely overdriven, low end grunt (you can imagine Gerry Lee's piano sounding just the same after he'd set fire to it). Throw in Campbell's solid, explosive drumming and this gives you a perfect example of a band doing what they do best.
A Touch of Someone Else's Class is a brutal blow of Black Diamond Heavies’ howling, raucous flare kicked home by the heart and soul. Is this one for the record collection?... Every damn time!
Chris Barber Presents... The Blues Legacy, Lost & Found Volumes 1-3
During the recent (excellent) BBC documentary “Blues Britannia” , veteran British jazz bandleader Chris Barber described his motives for persuading black American blues artists to cross the Atlantic and play in front of UK audiences.
“We wanted to get in with the real folk. They were helping us to play the blues better.
“We wanted these people to help give us the ingredients we know about. But we weren’t sure we were getting it right – we wanted to get it righter.”
Starting in 1957 with Big Bill Broonzy, followed by gospel singer Sister Rosseta Tharpe, Sonny Terry and Brownie Magee, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, Howlin’ Wolf and Jimmy Witherspoon, virtually every member of the US blues pantheon came to the UK to play on tour with the Chris Barber band.
Blues is now fixed as part of the familiar fabric of our very existence, and it’s difficult to imagine our musical lives without it.
But fifty years ago, to hear this wonderful, strange, music live in the raw was a life-changing experience for white audiences only accustomed to live performances of (European) jazz and second-hand, slightly dodgy, British rock-and-roll.
Like Barber, who wanted musical authenticity to rub off on his successful trad-jazz band, true blues fans craved the real thing.
Having heard it, partly thanks to far-sighted impresarios like Barber, many then went on to form the mass-market for the 1960s British blues explosion and - better still - adapt it for themselves.
The world-wide paradigm shift in musical tastes that followed can in no small part be attributed to British B&B bands like the Rolling Stones who re-introduced American audiences to their own music, having heard it for the first time in the late 1950s.
This valuable three-CD archive does its best to convey the flavour of those revelatory times.
Here are live performances – many first broadcast on the then BBC Light Programme – of the Barber rhythm section accompanying Sister Rosseta, Sonny Terry and Brownie Magee, Otis Spann, Champion Jack Dupree and Louis Jordon (CD1); Muddy Waters & Otis Spann, Champion Jack Dupree and Louis Jordan (CD2); Sonny Boy Williamson, Jimmy Witherspoon, Howlin’ Wolf & Hubert Sumlin (CD3).
The collection gets its title from Barber’s chance discovery of the 1/4inch tapes which preserved those historic gigs.
Some of Barber’s posh-voiced (and slightly incongruous) live stage introductions are included, as are his (subsequently recorded) enthusiastic reflections on the music for which he still feels an undiminished passion.
There are also recollections of life on the road with the greats of American blues.
For example, we learn that the first time Barber’s band played with Muddy Waters, they had never rehearsed together before..
And as we can hear on this collection, it’s testament to the skills of the Barber rhythm section that Muddy felt able to dive into a great rendition of Hoochie Coochie Man with a band he had never played with..
The CD sleeve notes are well worth a read: most notably a description of the cynical British press, who after thinking they had a “story” in gospel singer Sister Rosetta being paid to spread the word of the Lord, then backed off after hearing her sing at an impromptu news conference.
Recollects Barber: “They concluded that she was a sincere character …and therefore of no interest to the media.”
Innocent times indeed!
Here are performances of real quality – and with a line up like this, how could there not be?
Sonny Boy Williamson’s unaccompanied “Your Funeral and my Trial” (recorded the year before he died) stands out, as does Howlin’ Wolf and Hubert Sumlin’s version of Dust my Broom.
This is a treasure trove of great performances, a reminder of a revolutionary musical experience and a record of the start of something we now take so much for granted.
Left lane Cruiser - All You Can Eat
Bar brawling blues. Scampering out of Fort Wayne, Indiana comes a seriously hard punching, punk blues duo. Freddie J Evans IV and Brenn 'Sausage Paw' Beck make up the engine and driver of Left Lane Cruiser with their third release.
The record hits the ground running opening with Crackalacka. Jumping straight into a crisp, fast electric slide guitar and firecracker drumming makes up a perfect intro to this album. Heavily overdriven boot stamping riffs, growling hoarse vocals and leaving nothing to the imagination is exactly how LLC lead on. Each track brings its own edginess to the table. Hillgrass Bluebilly, a bottom lip biting stomp, Ol’ Fashioned, a classic, gritty, finger picking guitar which has inherited a fantastically authentic buzz and Hard Workin Man is a big kick of dirty, power blues which makes you drive your car fast. The whole record is just as it should be. High velocity, vicious, thumping, ass-kicking punk blues delivered with passion and depth. This is an out of control locomotive which is about to run off its rails.
Freddie J's vocals are frighteningly raw, mixed with his rampant guitar playing style puts him at the top of the pile of charismatic front men and with Beck’s machine gun drumming makes this an awesome pairing. An image of a smoky, whiskey stained basement and a bunch of stolen equipment is undoubtedly the setting for the recording of this album. A good full on record, no messing, in your face head splitting punk blues. This would be a great soundtrack for a cage fighting medley and is definitely not something for the faint hearted.
Left Lane Cruiser tick all the boxes from the relentlessly hard hitting sound to their cool names. This is not something for the faint hearted. Rest assured this is more than you can eat!