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CD Reviews - June 2008
This is the debut album for Johnny Halifax's Honkey Finger and the first album release from Hoarse Records. HR's aim is to only put out music from one man bands, and Honkeyfinger is the most innovative of their artists. He uses a lap steel guitar as a base instead of a guitar - although it sounds nothing like might be expected it to sound, not a smooth twang - more of an over driven fuzz. He also uses a a lot of bass harmonica and any number of pedals to arrive at this unique sound.
Probably due to his background he has so far been kept within the confines of the blues scene - although he is just as well suited to rock and even heavy metal. The first half of the album is made up of tracks which are recognisable from his live set and single releases. Which is useful, as live HF can be erratic, so now the originals have been made - even the ones which were previously recorded as singles have a better opportunity to show themselves - you'll know what to listen for. Almost acting as 'the story so far', because it's not until the second side - or track 9 - that hours spent alone in the studio come to fruition.
The bass harp comes out with the loop station thingy and images of trolls jumping around in the mud - or more appropriately - swamp come to mind. The thing sounds like a Dijeridu - or weird rubber engine. There's no describing it - and it would be pointless as you may as well just listen to it.
It's an utterly home made journey in to the sludgy pits of HF mind. There's a lot of over dubs - I can't imagine how he would hope to perform this stuff live. No matter - as I can't imagine how the live show could have the same effect if it was recorded. So this is the other half of the experience.
The Juke Joint Pimps - Boogie The House Down
The JJP are a drums and guitar duo. Which is the natural combination for blues. They are Mighty Mike on singing, blowin’, beatin’ & The T-Man on pickin’, spankin’, hollerin’.
The covers featured on the album are nothing out of the ordinary – Rollin’ & Tumblin’, Dust My Broom, I Can’t Be Satisfied. In fact, covering Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters is the dullest thing in the world.
The original compositions could have been written at anytime from 1955 to today. In fact, they are complete rip off’s. When, back in the day, Chicago blues was firing on all pistons there is no way it sounded as half-baked as it does today. It was hard hitting. Somewhere down the line it lost it’s balls – and the old recordings wore out. Drug addled pretension of 60’s rock stars bled its integrity and country blues has lasted better. Some imagination in the song writing would not have gone unnoticed. Damn, the track Money Honey is straight plagiarism of Manish Boy. Clearly they have been listening to Chicago blues for far too long.
Which is fucking fortunate for us. The album's like an electric bolt in the back of the neck. Since when has blues been about being original? It’s ALL about the playing, and if a couple of fellas can make old dogs sound like this – or even have the balls in the first place to attempt something as close to the original and have the skills not to sound like utter berks we should take our hats off to them.
Reverend Beatman - Surreal Folk Blues Gospel Trash Vols 1 & 2
Voodoo Rhythm records set out with an eclectic approach to the rock n’ roll roots sort of music. Over the past 6 months or more the releases have nearly all been blues. Or trash blues as the proprietor, Beatman, likes to call it. But it’s just blues that doesn’t seer to badly.
Voodoo Rhythm is also my favourite record label, because the releases are mostly from Europe, although only one from the UK. Which acts as a reminder that we Europeans can play blues. And we can be a lot better and cooler than those inward looking ‘mercans. Now, thanks to Blues In London, I’ve completed my collection of their releases.
This one does exactly what is says on the can. By extension, the folk is very dark, usually with loads of reverb on BM’s huge and bellowing Popeye like voice. The gospel is a kind of horror anti-gospel, and has the continuing theme of blood and murder and general misfortune. Jesus Christ Twist is the get down track on the album. The rest is blues and it stands head and shoulders above the competition. Which there isn’t much of.
The Beatman is an insane one-man band with bleeding lungs. Honestly. In the Slow Boat documentary about the label he tells how he sold his soul to the devil. Which listening to these hellish recordings it’s all utterly believable. It’s a dog raping, father murdering hell that he’s been sent to. So, welcome to heaven.
"And my grand father is the mother of my other sister, my future my girl friend, my girl friend and my boy friend live in the same house together. and we have sex together. We have 24 children - who are all my brothers..."
Twisted and inverted blues trash boils Beatmans brain. Satan, poor fella, no doubt has the man's soul and is probably a little worried what he can do to make it more fucked than it already is.
Obviously, this is follows on from vol.1. It is more of the same, should you have not got enough of it already - which, unless you hold things like Tesco's and new cars close to your heart - you won't have.
To those people who haven't noticed that every high street in the country looks the same and has noticed that the price of basic human needs is rocketing out of control - but hasn't bothered ask why. To those that believe that politicians have anything else but their own self serving motivations behind everything that they do. The end is coming, and IT'S GOING TO BE A LOT WORSE THAN YOU CAN POSSIBLY IMAGINE... As you lose everything that you hold dear to you, as war, famine and hell fire is all around you, look to the Rev. Beatman. He will be smiling and laughing as he tries to look down a Nuns top.
Moreland & Arbuckle - 1861
The title refers to the date in which the Kansas became recognised as a state, and where the boys have lived mostly. Aaron “Chainsaw” Moreland is the 33 Yr. old guitarist, and his 26 Yr. old partner Dustin Arbuckle is the singer and harp player. Moreland’s guitar sound has that raw Maxwell Street cum juke joint uncompromising primitiveness. These guys were solo/duo category finalists at the 2005 International Blues Challenge in Memphis organised by the Blues Foundation.
The overall sound they have is an amalgam of mainly Mississippi hill country with some Hound Dog Taylor, a single resemblance to the melodic Patrick Sweany, Lynyrd Skynyrd meets Cecil Gray and the Red Dawn blues band/ The Rounders, folksy/country, a Robert Lucas-esque like tune. They also tip their hats briefly to Jimmy Reed and John Lee Hooker boogie influence, a hint of Ry Cooder. There sounds like a lot of variety, but it all has their stamp on it too.
The guys are augmented with other players, this isn’t a duo project, and they play in both plugged and unplugged guises. The drum beat is strong throughout with some great loping tunes to sway to, all in a stomping retro-rework. The songs become recognisable favourites the more you play them, with plenty of original songs containing distinctive stories. Like Nathan James and Ben Hernandez these young men have a depth an understanding of Blues at its core, old Blues getting a new coat ‘o’ paint.
Blind Boys of Alabama - Down in New Orleans
It’s an interesting thought that the Blind Boys were doing their first gig just around the time that Hitler was on his way into Poland. They’ve been doing their gospel thing in various incarnations ever since, and in the last decade or so, they’ve had some commercial success to show for it. This latest CD shows them in fine form, and as the title suggests, it’s a New Orleans album in flavour.
Astonishingly, one of the originals is still there, Jimmy Carter, and another, Clarence Fountain would have been if he wasn’t laid up in the hospital. In terms of longevity, this is roughly like discovering that Bill Broonzy and Robert Johnson are still out there doing their thing. And Jimmy can still more than pull his weight in the band, whatever improbable age he may have attained.
Some of the Blind Boys’ success in the area usually described by the ill-boden word ‘crossover’ has been apparently in part due to the guests that have appeared on some of the more recent CDs. This is often a fraught business, with well-known and well-off but slightly irrelevant artists appearing on the records of people infinitely better than them. Doubtless there’s a record company suit somewhere who could tell me that there are indeed people who will buy CDs by underrated blues artists purely because one of the tracks contains a guitar solo by an overrated 70s rock star. I hope I never meet any of those people, their entire collection of CDs consisting of ones with stickers proclaiming guest appearances by Clapton or, the ultimate horror, Elvis Costello.
Anyway, no such problem here with the guests, who all have something to do with New Orleans, who are all really good artists in their own right, and who all have something relevant to bring to the project. They include the great Allen Toussaint (himself a victim of the ultimate case of sticker syndrome – he got to see his whole repertoire mangled by one of the above while he took second billing), one of the best of the new breed of Crescent City brass bands, The Hot 8 Brass Band, and the current line-up of one of the oldest of those, The Preservation Hall Jazz Band. They all have something good to add to what is a fine CD.
The Blind Boys are in the smoother, more accessible gospel bracket, though they’re certainly not beyond letting it rip when the spirit’s really with them. They kick off with an excellent, attention-grabbing version of the spiritual Free At Last, with a great New Orleans second-line groove, do an excellent job on some familiar tunes like Down by the Riverside and I’ll Fly Away, and include a brilliant version of Mahalia Jackson’s If I Could Help Somebody, which features just vocal and the peerless Toussaint’s piano work. It’s a fine collection and, oddly enough, considering that the Blind Boys are now just about up to 70 years of existence, it’s a very good place to start with them.
Music Maker: Various Artists - Slavery, prison, women, God and... whiskey
This beautifully presented CD is issued by the Music Maker Relief Foundation, a heart-in-absolutely-the-right-place organization that promotes and supports local musicians in the Deep South who otherwise might never get heard. You can banish straight away the suspicion that any unheard-of and unsigned blues artists in the South are unheard-of and unsigned for very good reasons when it comes to this one. It’s a terrific collection, ‘authentic’ by most people’s definitions of that troubled term, and rough in many places, yes, but not beset by lack of talent or, indeed, lack of variety.
There are 11 artists in all on the 18 tracks, and they cover a pretty broad spectrum of styles and approaches. Little Pink Anderson, who gets three tracks, is a pretty polished performer, with a fine voice and excellent Piedmont-style guitar work (his father was of course rather good at that sort of thing too). Adolphus Bell gets two tracks, his Hooker-ish electric guitar playing backed by drums, and he gets your attention with his heartfelt take on modern-day life in Child Support Blues, which contains the line ‘She told the judge all I did was smoke dope.’ This is the blues as expressions of people’s lives right now, not a bunch of people going through the motions with old standards done much better years ago.
John Lee Ziegler gets one track, but what a track it is. Love My Money, Let Me Lose sounds like vintage-era Furry Lewis and is as good a piece of acoustic blues as you could hope to unearth. There’s even a guitar evangelist in the line-up, in the form of Elder Anderson Johnson, who contributes the fine, enervated My Lord and I.
Star of the show for me, though, is the extraordinary Rufus Mackenzie, who starts and finishes the record and has another track in the middle. He sings accompanied only by his own harmonica, and he does a cappella telling-it-like-it-is that ought to make you sit down and think for a bit. His, and the CD’s, opening track Slavery Time Blues will simply take your breath away. It’s a short story, autobiographical, and sung as his own modern-day field holler. The ending got me straight out of slouch and straight into bolt upright – I won’t say what it is here because I think you should hear it.
The items listed in the CD’s title all get covered one way or another, and plenty more besides. The booklet gives biographies of all the artists and their struggles in life, and the project can definitely be filed under ‘worthwhile’ rather than just ‘worthy’. Get it and remind yourself, should you need to, why ‘the blues is all right.’
Beverly ‘Guitar’ Watkins – Don’t Mess With Miss Watkins
This was originally another Music Maker release, and now it’s out in a version that includes some live footage on a video ‘extra’ of Miss Watkins and her band demonstrating just how good an electric blues band can be if it’s actually playing blues and hasn’t got any stodge in its make-up. The album itself fully fits that description too.
Beverly Watkins, now at an age that might have most women just settling for the kindly grandma gig, looks pretty formidable on the photo on the front, which certainly suggests that the advice in the title would be best adhered to. A photo inside, however, suggests that she might actually be a kindly grandma, who also happens to be a kick-ass blues singer and lead guitarist. Now that is an interesting combination, and I think it makes Beverly a role model.
As a singer, she delivers a series of strong and feisty performances on a set of mostly up-tempo blues, R&B and gospelish numbers, mostly originals. The vocal sound and delivery resembles Rosetta Tharpe’s, and the numbers are mostly inviting you to get up off your ass and forget your troubles for a while. It’s mostly celebratory music, it’s meant to make you feel good and it oughta. The lyrics mostly inhabit the world of the club/juke with sweaty dancers on the floor, although there are deviations – there’s the topical Baghdad Blues and a really interesting atmospheric song called Late Bus Blues, which tells a personal anecdote about a bus journey, the kind of thing people tell their mates about but wouldn’t expect anyone else to be interested in; more songs should be written about this sort of thing in my view but people don’t usually think of doing so. Beverly has, though.
As a lead guitarist, she is simply great. Aspiring practitioners of the instrument would do well to get this CD and study it. They won’t find anything very flash there and they won’t be bludgeoned by volume. Beverly plays with the band, rather than falling prey to that habit of cranking up the volume so that the other musicians are relegated to the volume of a watch ticking. This is not to suggest that she’s a laid-back player. No, she’s a proper, full-on lead guitarist playing real deal blues lead guitar. She’s in the tradition of proper blues players like Buddy Guy, not rock players.
Beverly Watkins has been a blues performer in one capacity or another since the 1950s. Over the years she’s worked every sort of menial job while keeping on playing. Not long before she made this CD, she was playing on the streets of Atlanta. For someone this good to be that obscure is just another example of the ‘there ain’t no justice’ thing. Get this: not only will you enjoy it, you’ll have added just a drop more justice to the world.
Carolina Chocolate Drops – Heritage
Now this is a really interesting band who’ve latched onto a perhaps lesser-known area of pre-war American black music and revived it into a living, breathing thing. Not only that, in doing so, they’re attracting attention, doing gigs all over the place, and getting people excited about something they probably would never have heard of otherwise. And they’re a trio of African-Americans in their twenties, with lots of poise, lots of ability and a genuine love for what they’ve found and what they’re doing with it. This is just the sort of thing that gives the lie to any notion of the blues being on the mortician’s slab.
The kind of music they’re introducing people to is string band music, the get-up-and-dance genre from the 1920s and 1930s that featured banjo as the lead instrument and fiddle as the back-up. Otis Taylor and his excellent troupe just about sold out The Barbican with their Recapturing the Banjo project, so all in all it’s been a good year for that much misunderstood antecedent of the guitar-based music that most people think is the only game in town.
Actually, there’s quite a bit of resophonic guitar on here too, and various bits of percussion (including bones on one track), not to mention the welcome appearance of a jug here and there. The basic line-up sees Rhiannon Giddens on lead vocal (she plays some banjo and fiddle too), Justin Robinson on fiddle and vocals and Dom Flemons on banjo and guitar. The CD kicks off with an excellent a cappella rendition of Another Man Done Gone, and Rhiannon also sings a fine solo version of Po Lazarus later on. Elsewhere, the 19 tracks include rousing, foot-stomping numbers like Don’t Get Troubled in Your Mind, Black Eye Blues and Cornbread and Butter Beans, and sing-a-long numbers like Jack O’Diamonds and Sittin’ On Top of the World. This latter song is maybe the best-known song in the genre, having been a ‘hit’ for The Mississippi Sheiks back in the 1930s (Cream did it too, though I suspect they may not have kept the bones and jug on the final mix).
Do not get the impression that this is any way a kind of ‘novelty’ act. It isn’t that at all. It’s three young Americans who can play and sing very well indeed showing just how good some ‘old’ music can sound. It’s fresh, it’s confident and they sound completely on top of their game. Nobody thinks it odd these days if young British musicians are doing traditional English folk music, and bringing something fresh to it. The Carolina Chocolate Drops are doing the same thing with a branch of American music and it would be nice to think that they may be part of a trend.
It’s interesting to think that you could get this and, say, Joe Bonnamassa’s latest CD on the same day and you’d have bought two blues CDs. Polar opposites maybe, but both of them under the broad umbrella of blues. As long as you don’t think the blues can only be one thing, there’s a lot out there for you.
The Mannish Boys – Lowdown Feelin’
The mercurial changing outfit that is The Mannish Boys have come up with a mostly covers recording. Not only is the outfit bedecked in top quality musicians, but the guests are also impressive too. David Z has been brought in to record and engineer the project, and Scott Dirks, Randy Chortkoff and Jeff Scott Fleenor trip out superlatives in the CD liner. There are no less than six main vocalists, with Chicago veteran Bobby Jones getting the lion’s share of seven showcases.
Jones’ voice shows the West Side of Chicago’s influence of B.B. King upon it, but he is more than that, and one of the best Blues voices around regardless of what Blues awards might want to put forward. Another veteran classy singer, Finis Tasby who is excellent when in T Bone Walker mode, while yet another fine singer Johnny Dyer is in Muddy Waters’ style. Label boss Randy Chortkoff comes over with a hip accented vocal on, ‘Rude Groove’ that tips hat to ‘Help Me/Green Onions’. Little Sammy Davis’ voice has lost its quality it once was. That leaves the one vocal outing by Frank ‘Paris Slim’ Goldwasser that isn’t bad, but being on the same disc as Jones, Tasby and Dyer sounds minor league I comparison.
On guitar Kirk Fletcher has that piercing Iceman tone; Kid Ramos is also drenched in a rich tone while Junior Watson epitomises what the disc is all about the right sound at the right time in the right measure. Paris Slim has a lovely Earl Hooker-esque slide solo that is worthy of repeated listening. There are super harp performances from Al Blake, Randy Chortkoff and Lynwood Slim. This review has to draw up sometime as there is just so much to tell, great albums infuse so much as they inspire. The whole project gels tremendously, with an air of solidness and class throughout. This has to be included in 2008 best of Blues lists, irrespective of what is released from here on in.
Little G. Weevil – Southern Experience
Gabriel Scuz aka Little G. Weevil owes somewhat in style to John Lee Hooker, mixed with a slice of Robert Lucas and Ian Siegal. Little G. was born in Budapest, Hungary, though he has spent time in South London, and the Southern states of the US.
There is nearly 43 minutes of music which is about the right balance to maintain listener attention while still giving value for money. Talking of which there are not a lot of releases where are really like six of the songs, here being tracks 2, 3, 4, 7, 9 and 10. This is vibrant music from a passionate musician at the height of his creativity, and he is obviously enjoying what he is doing. There is both acoustic and electric guitar from Gabriel, usually in a five-piece, but there are also a solo and duo tracks. Billy Gibson the harp player who has a residency in the Rum Boogie Café on Beale St. in Memphis is on one cut; with his trademark maracas-like delivery.
Little G. puts such spin on John Lee Hooker’s style of playing that it extends the Boogie King’s lineage rather than trading merely on his legendary sound. There is a guy on here that plays harp who I have never heard before, but that deserves kudos – Matyas Pribojski. There is a song that has a section of the, ‘Got my Mojo Working ‘ riff Probably why this disc is so strong is that it is almost a ‘Best of’, in that it has been culled from tapes recorded in years – ’05, ’06, ’07 and ’08; the first year producing the initial track (with Elvis riff) only with Billy Gibson guesting.
Mr. G. has none of the European accent that used to spoil the sound for English speaking listeners in the past, in fact on pure listening alone there isn’t any of his roots showing at all, it is a deep Blues immersion. His solo cut has a delta feel with Robert Johnson coming to mind at parts. There is also some light jazz, and a Chicago styled song with a similar feel of Andrew ‘Big Voice’ Odum’s, ‘I Don’t Know’. A solid release, and thoroughly recommended.
Possessed By Paul James - Konrad Wert
PPJ is yet another one man band. He's not right - I've seen the youtube videos. It's certainly powerful. Another tormented soul from Voodoo Rhythm he is indeed. Although it's not aggressive - it's deep and moving. And a bit disturbing.
Here is some truth about about PPJ from the VR website: "One-man band Konrad Wert grew up in a Mennonite family, raised by preacher father and a piano player mother, which accounts for both the baptized-in-fire-soul and musical versatility heard in his gritty Old World music. Wert's mix of blues and vintage folk howls with a sense of explosive freedom and latent rage-not unlike an Amish kid emerging from the wilderness to discover America - that instills his simple guitar/fiddle/stomp-box arrangements with unusual passion."
He's similar to CW Stoneking, also on VR, whom I wrote a review for a few months ago for this (fantastic) magazine. They are both obscure personalities who are products of obscure up bringing's. It shows a very serious musical depth of soul which is very much at home with VR.
Miss it if you dare - there are some wonderful things in the world. Not much, but this is one.
People are getting excited about the Ting-tings. I know it's wrong to compare genres, but they are a sack of piss and shit and puke in comparison to this.