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CD/DVD/BOOK Reviews - November 2009

Indian Reservation Blues and More - Various Artists
(Dixiefrog)
Review by Mark Harrison

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This beautifully presented 3CD set, with detailed booklet and video extras, is dedicated to what, among earnest folk and on many a college course, is probably described as ‘the Native American experience’. Well, the Native American population of today, just like its ancestors, doesn’t seem to get much of a look-in when it comes to discussions on who’s been shafted and keeps on getting shafted. There’s a bit of token hand-wringing, but they don’t seem to have elbowed their way centre-stage to say their piece. Well, they have their say here and, in a great variety of musical guises, it’s a powerful and compelling tale they have to tell.

The overriding impression I got from repeated listens to all the tracks was of a diverse bunch of people linked by one particular thing – how pissed off they are by the situation of their people right now as well as by the historical atrocities that led to this position. These are not strident people, they’re more sad than shrieking in anyone’s face. But boy are they pissed off. The message is: ‘Nobody’s paying any attention to our plight, but it’s real and it’s big. Nobody’s interested in our situation, but we’re living it.’

Straight away, I must add that this is no way a downer of a CD collection. It’s not a lot of po-faced hectoring or miserablist wailing. Far from it. It’s a gutsy, spirited collection of all kinds of music, including blues, folk, rock, rap, country, and some spoken word. In such a wide-ranging set, there will of course be tracks you don’t like and tracks you prefer to return to, but I certainly recommend listening to it all as a whole, because even the tracks in styles you may not care for add something to the picture and your own experience of spending some time with these people. For example, a track that isn’t right up your alley music-wise may have a powerful message or tell you something interesting you hadn’t known before.

This is the story of some people who, if not completely forgotten, seem to have been largely overlooked. In their music, they celebrate their traditions in a number of tracks involving chants and traditional Native American songs, they tell the story of their history from their own perspective, and they both lament and express anger at their current situation. It’s perhaps the tracks in this latter category that stay with you the longest, as they bring the Native American story right into contemporary American life. There is no flinching from ‘telling it like it is’, and the absence of any tendency to wallow in self-pity increases the effect on the listener – the facts hit home and there’s no hint of mawkish sentimentality.

This hugely varied and very high-quality collection is something quite unique. There’s lots of excellent roots music on it that stands up perfectly well in its own right and a lot of genuine talent on display. But it’s also, at least for those of us well on the outside of what’s being described, an education, and you come away from it with respect for a neglected bunch of people who aren’t jabbing fingers at you but telling you in a moving, forthright and sometimes humorous way, what’s been done, and continues to be done, to them.

Henry's Funeral Shoe – Everything's For Sale
(Alive)
Review by Will Bray

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Cardiff isn’t necessarily the place that you would associate Alive Records’ usual source of ass-kicking punk blues but in this case, it is. The Welsh brothers, Aled and Brennig Clifford make up the duo that on this rare occasion has led Alive out of the United States.

There is absolutely no treading on egg shells with this record. Gritty, overdriven guitar riffs, gravely deep vocals and saw-off, pump action drumming in abundance. Simple, straight forward punk blues which draws on early Black Keys and a slight grunge undertone. The tracks are built on catchy guitar intros such as self-titled Henry’s Funeral Shoe, Down The Line and Coming On Through which are nailed home by Brennig’s terrifyingly punishing drumming style. A gentle hint of dynamics does lend itself to the album but it doesn’t stray far. Leading out, Second Hand Prayer takes on a dirty bite of Rock ‘n’ Roll and the final surprise of Mary’s Tune, a pretty acoustic ditty. After all the thunder that is Henry’s Funeral Shoe, they leave the record with a tuneful harmonica and something a little bit country.

Just because this record was recorded in just a few days doesn’t mean anything has been missed, infact the raw power of a punk blues duo, driven by passion has been captured in its entirety. Everything’s For Sale certainly carries the heavy punch that you would expect from any Alive release and of course Henry’s Funeral Shoe wear their influences on their sleeve. This is a band that proves the nu-blues movement in the U.K is very much awake and raising the bar.

Allen Toussaint – The Bright Mississippi
(Nonesuch)
Review by Mark Harrison

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This is a jazz record and I’m no expert on jazz, but it sounds great to me. It’s not that cerebral kind of jazz with lots of busy playing and some notes you’re convinced sound dodgy, it’s what I guess you might call ‘straight’ jazz. This is because it is a tour through the various styles of New Orleans jazz conducted by the peerless musician/arranger/writer Toussaint, a man who reflects the musical soul of that unique musical city.

There’s a wide variety of instrumental music here (and one vocal track) and the record never gets samey. The production gives a solid but not rigid sound to everything, and some crack musicians do what they’re good at under the direction of the maestro. Toussaint is a very serious musician with a smile, a man who has written lots of fun music and at the same time is a ‘real musician’ who knows everything that can be known about his music (mind you, he invented some of it). Here he’s doing a labour of love, branching out into a field he’s always loved and been a student of but never focused on in his own career before.

There are arrangements of music by such luminaries as Sidney Bechet, Duke Ellington and Django Reinhardt, as well as trad tunes such as St James Infirmary and Just A Closer Walk With Thee. Toussaint’s arrangements bring a freshness to everything, and the whole thing is held together by his wonderful, flowing piano style. Toussaint has always looked for new corners to discover in familiar music, and he does this here, showing what a distinctive pianist he is.

The whole thing has a feel-good vibe, and it’s mostly light and airy, with clarinets and trumpets wafting about and plenty of tasty acoustic guitar playing. The unique light-touch style of New Orleans drumming shines through from start to finish, lifting things rather than deadening them with the leaden hammering of stick on snare. The New Orleans marching band sound is never too far from the foreground, while a stately, dignified character permeates much of what’s here. I hope it isn’t too pretentious to say that this is music that paints pictures in your mind, and quite nice pictures too.

Not that keen on jazz but love blues? Get this.

Cyril Neville - Brand New Blues
(Dixiefrog)
Review by Mark Harrison

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Now this is a wonderful modern blues record that shows a lot of what’s out there today the way to go home. It oozes atmosphere and energy, feel and soul. It’s got great, mostly new, blues songs, many of them written or co-written by Cyril. And it’s beautifully produced but not over-produced, keeping a live-type edge and just the right amount of smoothness.

Cyril Neville is of course one of the legendary Neville Brothers, a New Orleans institution since their days as The Meters back in the 70s. Blues hasn’t hitherto been his prime style, but for this he’s got together with producer and multi-instrumentalist Brian J to bring the Nevilles’ New Orleans groove to the blues. The result is a funky, soulful blues record that refuses to sit in the background.

Cyril Neville is a terrific singer, with a powerful, rich voice that doesn’t seem to require much effort to get into top gear. He’s been a reggae singer for some years and he’s a soul singer who can do gospel, as well as proving here what a great blues singer he is. He’s a natural, doing what he was born to do. He’s also someone who has always been interested in social and political issues, and these aspects are present in tracks such as Cheatin’ And Lyin’, which slinks along with a wonderful, sultry groove and Mean Boss Blues, which tackles what consultants might call ‘the workplace experience’ from the point of view of someone on the receiving end. It’s as good a new blues song as I’ve heard in quite some time.

Musically, the album is packed with wonderful tight but full of feeling playing. All the pieces fit together just right, but there’s nothing studio-synthetic here. It sounds like a bunch of great musicians doing their thing in top form, but astonishingly, it’s all done by Brian J. He is a quite brilliant guitarist, showing all those chaps blasting out 500 notes per second solos just what blues guitar playing is all about. His guitar contributions are full-on when that works, taking a back seat and subtle when that’s what suits. He’s got the full armoury and I haven’t heard a better lead guitar performance on an album for donkey’s years. Particularly in terms of how to deliver up a real blues guitar solo, it should be obligatory listening for anyone from the hobbyist to some of today’s most well-regarded pros.

As if that wasn’t enough, he does a masterclass in drumming too, bringing the whole New Orleans drummer package to play, from the syncopations that sound off-the-wall for a few bars until you realize just how great they are, to that every-beat-a-roll thing. The drumming is inventive and it catches the ear for all the right reasons – it’s lifting the song and the music all the time.

All of this, added to Cyril Neville’s commanding and dynamic vocal and some really good and original material, makes for one of the best blues albums of recent times. And it ends with one of the great tracks – a lengthy version of Bob Marley’s Slave Driver that’s an absolute knockout. Marley’s great reggae protest song is transformed into a slow, soulful, brooding blues. Cyril adds his own contribution to the song, a section dwelling on the still-astonishing fate of the citizens of New Orleans during and since Katrina in 2005. Cyril’s good and mad about what happened then, and what hasn’t happened since then, and ‘somebody got to pay’. The way in which the terrible fate of his hometown is linked up with Marley’s slavery song is extremely effective, and the result is a track that takes some beating.

J. J. Cale - Roll On
(Because)
Review by Mark Harrison

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J. J. Cale’s been ploughing his own furrow for some decades, and this latest collection of 12 original songs shows that there’s plenty left to plough. He’s living proof that simple is best.

The tracks all display his trademark languid style – nothing gets busy, there are no complex chord changes, the arrangements are all spare (and he plays most of the instruments himself). It’s a style that’s quite deceptive, because after a couple of listens, many of the songs get up and grab you with their dangerously catchy tunes and feel-good groove.

The up-tempo numbers on here, such as ‘Cherry Street’, ‘Where The Sun Don’t Shine’ and the totally outstanding title track (which includes Clapton fitting in respectfully and playing tastefully), should bring a smile to your face and a tap to your foot, at the very least. As a singer, he’s never straining himself, but somehow he propels the thing along much more effectively than any shouter. In fact his vocal style may be the real definition of cool. And he can really write songs too – a number like ‘Strange Days’ might even have been a hit years ago.

J. J. Cale is an artist who does things his own way and on his own terms, and he’s a true original. This album shows a master craftsman at work. You might start off thinking it’s just a bunch of simple tunes, but you’ll find yourself getting attached to them. The sum is greater than the parts because the parts all fit together just right.

Levon Helm - Electric Dirt
(Dirt Farmer Music/Vanguard)
Review by Mark Harrison

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I think it’s probably fair to say that anyone who doesn’t like The Band has got something pretty seriously wrong with them. That quite unique outfit, whose classic albums still stand up as well as when they first came out, had many strengths. There was of course Robbie Robertson’s songwriting, Garth Hudson’s multi-instrumentalist genius, the three great singers – the whole package was a thing of joy. But it may be true to say that the lynchpin was Levon Helm. With his one-off drumming style, memorable vocals on some of the best-known numbers, and mandolin playing, he made a major contribution to the band’s unique style and sound. And, partly because he was the only American in it, and partly because of the kind of bloke he was, and is, I think it’s true to say he was the soul of The Band.

Since they called it quits in the late 70s, he’s been in various reincarnations of it (without Robertson), he’s done some acting, he’s written a terrific book (This Wheel’s on Fire), he’s made some solo albums, and he’s been running his very successful studio enterprise in Woodstock, a stone’s throw from the Big Pink house where it all kicked off in 1968. He’s also had, and recovered from, throat cancer, and in the last couple of years he’s made two excellent albums.

Levon brought to The Band his love of and feel for all kinds of American roots music, principally country and some blues, and it was the injection of those elements into what had hitherto been a rock’n’roll band that transformed them into the great thing they became. Levon’s 2007 album Dirt Farmer was at the country end of things and it went down very well, winning a Grammy. This latest one is a very varied collection of just about every kind of ‘roots’ music – there’s blues, country, gospel, folk, New Orleans – linked by Levon’s trademark vocal sound and style, remarkably back to something approaching its best.

Standout tracks include the folk/gospel Golden Bird, Muddy’s You Can’t Lose What You Ain’t Never Had (one of two Muddy covers), the gospel number Move Along Train (by Pops Staples) and Randy Newman’s Kingfish (a New Orleans-type thing). These fine tracks are, however, eclipsed by two absolute classics. Growin’ Trade, about a farmer obliged by economic circumstances to take up dope growing, is a rare outing for Levon as a songwriter. It’s true to say that this one would not have been out of place on any golden-era Band album. And then there’s the opening track, Tennessee Jed, originally by The Grateful Dead and here given a terrific New Orleans groove added to a fantastic shuffle-type rhythm and a singalong tune. If this track doesn’t put a smile on your face, you are indeed clinically dead. Best thing I’ve heard in ages.

So Levon’s made an album with two tracks that could have been on albums by The Band. Nuff said.

Sonny Boy Williamson 1 - The Later Years 1939 - 1947
(JSP)
Review by Mark Harrison

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I don’t think John Lee Williamson, the original Sonny Boy, ever gets anything like his due. I think he’s every bit as important in the history and evolution of blues, and therefore popular music, as Robert Johnson, Muddy or any of the ‘big names’.

This, the second of two 4-CD box sets from JSP that cover his entire recorded output, shows just what he brought to the party. Having come up from Jackson, Mississippi to Chicago and started recording in 1937, by the time of these cuts he was well established on the Chicago scene.  Here, we have all his output from 1939-1947 (he was killed in 1948 aged 34), as well as sessions he played on for other fine artists such as Big Joe Williams and Yank Rachell. The CDs go along chronologically, with other artist’s sessions that featured Sonny Boy interspersed with his own.

The collection enforces three major claims that could, in my view correctly, be made on behalf of Sonny Boy. Firstly, it was really Sonny Boy who invented the harmonica as a viable lead instrument, capable of great subtleties and dynamics. Secondly, way before the actual transition, it was Sonny Boy who was bridging the gap between rural blues, urban electric blues and rock’n’roll (Muddy didn’t get to Chicago until 1943). And thirdly, Sonny Boy was really there first with the swaggering showman lead vocalist fronting a band thing.

Lyrically, he’s not all cliché either – and remember, this was a time when the clichés were actually being invented. In his songs, images of the Delta rub shoulders with the gritty imagery of the city, as he covers a range of the trials and tribulations, and the joys and celebrations, of the kind of life he and his people were living at the time. The male/female battleground is extensively explored with a range of inventive couplets that put later standard-issue ‘my baby left me’ songs to shame. The struggle of everyday life is described in a way that makes it wholly concrete – it’s personalised so that you get a view of a life from someone actually living it. And there are plenty of straightforward good-time songs, celebrating a life of carousing and drinking and generally putting yourself about.

Vocally, Sonny Boy is the very epitome of ‘character’. His vocal sounds and stylings bring everything to life with sparkle and fire in the eyes. Legend has it that he stuttered when speaking and only lost the stutter when singing. Every emotion from deep sorrow to couldn’t-care-less elation is delivered up with total naturalness – there’s nothing forced, nothing done just for effect, it’s all coming out of him just as he’s feeling it. The performances are tight and polished, the atmosphere is fun and loose. It’s definitive blues music.

The singing’s full of life, and the harmonica breaks and fills are full of inventiveness and energy. Sonny Boy makes the harp sing, he makes it cry, he soars up high, he broods down low. He’s the first true virtuoso of blues harmonica, reeling off stunning solos that never seem to get samey or predictable, laying down subtle rhythms, making the instrument sound ‘big’. He’s writing the book on blues harmonica playing, pulling things out of his extensive bag of tricks all the time – but it’s all in the service of the music, never leaving the band behind to strut just for the sake of it. It must have beggared belief at the time, showing people the full range of what this seemingly humble instrument could do.

As with all JSP releases, the sound quality is excellent. The set-up is usually Sonny Boy, plus guitar, bass and drums, with sometimes piano in there too. Great names such as Big Bill Broonzy, Tampa Red, Blind John Davis, the bassist Ransom Knowling, Big Maceo and Walter Davis are in the band for various sessions. Under the auspices of the Bluebird label in Chicago, these people were inventing the band set-up that became the norm for most popular music from then on – it’s worth remembering that it hadn’t been done before then.

If you wanted to sum up what the Blues really is, as well as what it was, it’s all here. Just play a song like Shake the Boogie, for example, and be glad.  If you like blues of any kind, this is absolutely essential.