While the mainstream culture of America explores new trends in various genres of music, following the evolution of hip-hop, pop and the folk/singer-songwriter styles, blues-related music chugs along with modest markets and a narrow niche. Here are some of the best blues recordings I’ve heard lately.
I Say What I Mean by Jim Liban & The Joel Paterson Trio, Ventrella Records – Jim Liban has played blues harmonica for almost 50 years, based in the Milwaukee, Wisconsin area. He came to San Francisco in the late 60’s, where I saw him in a band called A.B.Skhy.
It was the best unknown opening band I saw throughout those years, but Liban left and returned to the midwest when the “psychedelic” influence began to crowd the blues out. He has remained a purist over the years, and this album was sparked by the interest of Chicago guitarist Joel Paterson, who got his first paying blues gig with Liban over 20 years ago. Paterson’s another traditionalist, with a mastery of jazz, rockabilly and country music as well, and has worked with legends from Deke Dickerson to Dave “Honeyboy” Edwards. Paterson pulled his old boss out of a flat spell to make this album, and it is spring-loaded, an explosion of tough-toned guitar meshing with acoustic bass and vintage-sounding harmonica. It’s more than a blues album, with other influences giving added dimension and polish, while Liban’s lyrics (11 of the tracks are originals) resonate in the heart and the head. The music invites dancing, and is interesting on many levels, so one would also enjoy it in the car stereo. Paterson’s renown as a recording guru gets ample demonstration here, with great tube-driven sound equipment providing a warm presence, yet still giving a raw, edgy feel. There’s so much to like here. I Say What I Mean is a rich collaboration, a delicate artistry of swing and sophistication that’s also sturdy, and a just a little dirty.
Southside Blues Jam by Junior Wells, Delmark Records – Delmark has been reissuing extended-length versions of their classic Chicago blues albums for some time, and this one is going to be hard to top. Southside Blues Jam never received the critical acclaim of Junior’s 1965 Delmark release, Hoodoo Man Blues, perhaps because it was a loose affair, a little undisciplined. Like Junior. The album was recorded in December of 1969 and January 1970, anchored by the great Chicago drummer Fred Below. Louis Myers played guitar on a few tracks, but mostly Buddy Guy is at the lead, and the sweet giant of the blues, Otis Spann, made his final studio recordings at these sessions, a few months before his death in 1970. Well’s signature harmonica stylings punctuate his vocals with staccato rhythms and pops, unique and cocky. Over forty years later, the relaxed session sounds almost regal, or stately.
These men had been making music together for a long, important time, and there was nothing cheap or clichéd to a note they played. The song “Blues For Mayor Daley” brings the 60’s social upheaval into focus, and Junior Wells lights up the lengthy number with his penchant for improvisation and pithy asides. “Lend Me Your Love” is another wonderful track, with Otis Spann’s sparkling introduction and thrilling solo matched by Buddy Guy in his prime. The real discovery on this reissue is the seven previously unheard tracks. Two are snippets, around a minute long, but they do shine with Guy and Spann weaving perfection through their interplay. The other five are wonderful additions to the recorded legacy of blues music. On the original release, “I Could Have Had Religion” was a little under four minutes; the newly released version is over seven minutes and showcases Otis Spann in a final, triumphant exposition of artistry and soul. Louis Myers, the guitarist who backed up Junior as leader of Junior’s great band The Aces (with Louis’ brother Dave on bass and Fred Below on drums), doesn’t get much mention when great blues guitarists are discussed, but the bonus track “Got To Play the Blues” gives him the blues spotlight for seven minutes. And there’s a back-and-forth between Spann and Wells on the song that is a treat for all lovers of virtuoso piano and harmonica.
There are a couple of artists who have just released both an acoustic and an electric album simultaneously.
S.E. “Steve” Willis plays piano in Elvin Bishop’s band, and has the acoustic Turtle Dove Bounce out on Mister Suchensuch Records, playing piano and harmonica along with his vocals. Here are readings of classics by Big Maceo Merriweather, Little Brother Montgomery, Jimmy Yancey and others, rendered with whimsy and quite a bit of skill. The band recording, Live at the Poor House, features the Elvin Bishop band, with some of Elvin playing and singing, as well as a couple turns by his great trombonist, Ed Early. They’ve added Nancy Wright on sax and pretty much blow the roof off. Willis is a fine singer and grooves wildly in the New Orleans way.
Nathan James has a similar dual release, one acoustic (Hear Me Calling) and one with a full band (Natural Born That Way), on his Sacred Cat label. Nathan makes his own guitars, though he’s a been master on Gibsons, Telecasters, Epiphones and the rest for decades, backing up uncompromising bluesmen like James Harman.
Taking a small washboard and incorporating a Fender fretboard, the WashtarGitboard is Nathan James’ home-made guitar, as he employs finger picks to strum the washboard, as well as blinking lights. It’s eye-catching, and sounds like a scratching kind of rhythm. Hence his band, The Rhythm Scratchers. Again, the spirits of New Orleans are invoked, and the traditions of raucous revelry and music to mirror the festivity.
Blues music has never found commercial viability for very long, as the various revivals and upswings in the music always withered in a few years, most noticeably after the death of Stevie Ray Vaughan. But as David Mac says in his current Blues Junction editorial, “Blues music...remains timeless and outside of the sensibilities and constraints of pop culture. Its value isn’t tied to any social movement. The music only represents that place deep in our souls we reserve for ethereal things that are so precious, so special and so beloved that no amount of time can penetrate that sanctuary.”
Derral began hosting Rollin’ the Blues on JPR’s Rhythm & News Service in 2004, soon joining Paul Howell alternating weekends on Late Night Blues. When he’s not spinning discs at JPR or writing for the Jefferson Monthly, Derral can be found playing sax in The Blues Rollers, hiking in the northstate wilderness with his camera to take shots for his yearly nature calendar, and supplying the JPR Redding studios with the bounty from his vegetable garden.