Friday, October 25, 2013

My Favorite Things - Sounds of the Swamp

I'm pretty hard to buy for.....just ask anyone in my family.  So when my birthday rolled around this summer, most of my family members played it safe and bought me gift cards to Amazon.  Now, if you've ever bought anything from Amazon, you're aware that they have the regular purchasing option, where you buy the product from them directly, or you can hit the Amazon Marketplace, where you can find independent dealers who sell new or used products, sometimes at reduced prices.  Until a few years ago, you couldn't use gift cards at the Marketplace, but that has changed in the past couple of years.

This year, I picked up ten CDs via the Amazon Marketplace, some gently used and some new, still wrapped in factory packaging. What I usually will do is try to track down some older, now out of print discs (some of which I've posted about in recent months), a few fairly new ones that maybe somebody bought, listened to, then sold, and some older discs that I owned previously in another format, but never picked up on CD.  This year, I was able to pick up some old, some new, and some revisited discs and this week, we will discuss a couple of long-sought oldie and a repurchase of an old favorite.

Years ago, when I first started reading Living Blues and began looking through mail-order record catalogs, I saw the cover of Swamp Blues and read about it.  I wasn't familiar with any of the artists at the time, but later on, when I started visiting New Orleans and attending JazzFest, I started hearing the occasional swamp blues performance.  As I've mentioned before, I was able to hear a lot of great artists by picking up various compilations on labels like the U.K.'s Ace Records, or various Chess, Delmark, and Alligator collections.  It turned out that Ace did reissue Swamp Blues, but it was only available on LP at the time (which tells you how long ago this was).

Swamp Blues was originally issued in 1970 in the U.K., by Mike Vernon on his Blue Horizon label.  The album was a smash hit.  Many overseas fans were crazy about the Louisiana swamp sound and most especially the Excello recordings of Slim Harpo, Lazy Lester, Lightnin' Slim, and numerous others from the late 50's and 60's.  Most of the artists featured on this release (Whispering Smith, Silas Hogan, Arthur "Guitar" Kelley, Clarence Edwards, and Henry Gray) had recorded or were associated with Excello, and Vernon actually recorded the session in Baton Rouge in August of 1970, so it's no accident that these recordings have that same swampy, sweaty feel of the Excello recordings.

Vernon had also wanted a couple of other Excello stalwarts to record...Lazy Lester and Lightnin' Slim (Slim Harpo had passed away in January of that year), but Lester was out of pocket, either somewhere fishing or visiting family in one knew for sure, and Slim was touring, but things turned out just fine even without those two being present.  Hogan had a nice catalog of recordings prior to his time with Excello and he sounds just as good here.  Kelley previously worked with Slim and Hogan, but seldom recorded on his own prior to these songs.  Smith is outstanding on his songs, but really didn't get the recognition he deserved, probably because of the other two Swamp Blues harmonica players (Slim Harpo and Lazy Lester) who overshadowed him.  Edwards is probably one of the best blues artists you've never heard of and does nothing to discredit that claim on this disc.

Guitar Kelley & Silas Hogan
The session took four days.  The plan was to spend the first two days recording each of the men with a rhythm section, and then focus on solo recordings for the last two days.  The result was a two-record set at the time, which has been combined into a single 24-song CD.  If you've heard these guys before, there will be no surprises.  If you haven't heard them before, I encourage you to do so.  This is a really nice laid-back, enjoyable set that sounds great anytime, whether you're starting out a lazy morning, chilling out late at night, or anywhere in between.  Check out the tunes below (one from each artist) and see if you agree.

The only survivor of the five is Henry Gray, who continues to tour and record today, well into his late 80's.  Hogan passed away in 1994, Kelley in 2001, Smith in 1984, and Edwards in 1993.  Hogan and Edwards recorded pretty regularly after this session until bad health set in.  Edwards was actually on the cusp of greater recognition, having released a successful solo album (Swamp's The Word) and was about to embark on a European tour but developed an infection caused by the varnish on his guitar neck that affected his guitar playing.  He never played again.

As far as Swamp Blues goes, this set is highly recommended, but don't stop with this disc.  It's well worth your time to explore the Excello recordings of the late 50's and 60's as much as you can.

Back in the 90's, Rounder Records was the prime source for Louisiana music, whether it was blues, R&B, jazz, Cajun, or zydeco.  I fell under the spell of zydeco, once again, at JazzFest, where I got to hear artists like Boozoo Chavis, Rockin' Dopsie, and Zydeco Force in their element, playing to devoted fans and newcomers alike.  From there, I tracked down the music of many of the older and newer artists and the more I heard, the more I liked.

While many, like Boozoo Chavis, played the really old school zydeco, others like Clifton Chenier, Nathan & The Zydeco Cha Chas, and Rockin' Dopsie mixed zydeco with blues, soul, and R&B.  There were also newer groups, like Lil' Brian  & the Zydeco Travelers and Chris Ardoin and Double Clutchin', who mixed funk and hip-hop with it.  Though it seems like a fairly straight-forward brand of music, there are lots of ways for different people to enjoy it.  Plus, you can't help but move when you hear it.

Nathan & the Zydeco Cha Chas
Rounder Records assembled Stomp Down Zydeco, one of their usual excellent anthology sets in the early 90's.  The collection featured the cream of the zydeco crop at the time, with tracks by Boozoo Chavis, Buckwheat Zydeco, John Delofose & the Eunice Playboys, Lynn August, Zydeco Force, Nathan & the Zydeco Cha Chas, and Pee Wee & the Zydeco Boll Weevils.  For newcomers to zydeco, it may be the most perfect set for newcomers to the genre.  There's a pretty extensive mix of every different brand, from the traditional to the modern.

Even better, this wasn't a collection of songs taken from their previous recordings.....only one of the tunes on Stomp Down Zydeco had been previously released, which would certainly make a new listener think, "If these tracks are THIS good, and they didn't make it onto their albums, then the albums must be fantastic!!!!"

In the 80's and 90's, Rounder Records had pretty much cornered the market on Louisiana music.  They had blues and R&B recordings from Johnny Adams, Walter "Wolfman" Washington, Irma Thomas, James Booker, and Chuck Carbo.  They had reissued recordings from The Meters, Professor Longhair, Aaron Neville, Eddie Bo, and others.  They even recorded jazz from Alvin "Red" Tyler, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and Willie Tee & Earl Turbington.  Rounder also ventured into the zydeco and Cajun realm in a big way, with recordings from the artists included on Stomp Down Zydeco and others like Zachary Richard, BeauSoleil, Steve Riley, and Bruce Daigrepont.

Rounder also distributed the fabled Black Top Records, who had a boatload of Louisiana and Gulf Coast-based artists of their own, until the late 90's.  Over the past few years though, the label has moved in a bit of a different direction as far as their current artists, but they still keep most of their earlier artists' releases in print, thank goodness.

Although a few of the zydeco artists featured on Stomp Down Zydeco have passed on (John Delofose and Boozoo Chavis), the majority of them are still pretty active and also still record from time to time.  If you've not experienced zydeco music, you are missing a treat, and Stomp Down Zydeco is a great place to get started.

So, as you can see, you can find some pretty fine music at the Amazon Marketplace at bargain prices, if you take the time to search it out.  These two discs (plus several others I've mentioned on previous posts) provided lots of listening pleasure for me during those hot summer months.

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