Friday, October 12, 2018

Another Blues Fix Mix CD - Volume Two, Track Thirteen

Rooster Blues Records was one of my favorite labels.  I really enjoyed the raw feel of their recordings, basically live in the studio, which obviously made the label's artists most comfortable because all of their recordings were exciting.  Looking back, it's hard to think of even one recording from Rooster Blues that wasn't a favorite at one time or another.  I really need to devote an entire post to the label in the near future, but today I'm just going to talk about one of their recording artists and that artist's song that made its way onto Volume Two of our Friday Blues Fix Mix CD.

James "Super Chikan" Johnson is one of the unique characters of the blues, no doubt about it.  He's played music since he was a boy, like many youngsters in Mississippi during his early years, his first instrument was a diddley bow.  He bought a guitar, an acoustic two-stringer from the Salvation Army store in Clarksdale.  He drove a truck when he reached adulthood, but still worked on his music and songwriting and carving out his own unique style.

His first release was on Rooster Blues, Blues Come Home To Roost, in 1997.  It was one of my favorites that year.  It was raw and funky and had some of the coolest songs.  My favorite was the title track, "Down In The Delta," a sly and slippery funky blues about a regular day in the Mississippi Delta that packs more of a punch than listeners might expect.

The imagery is vivid, painting pictures of peach trees blooming, clothes hanging out on the line, the hum of tractors, cotton blooming, agricultural planes flying, catfish farms, April showers, May flowers, watermelon etc....., but at the end of each verse reflecting on what's perceived as good things about the Delta, Super Chikan drops a line stating that below the surface, thing aren't as blissful as they appear, at least for him.......his shoes are worn out, his front porch is about to fall off the house and his 25 year old car is about to be repossessed.  It's a sobering touch to what would appear to be a celebration of life in the Delta.....and really, life in general.   Not everything is as rosy a picture as one would believe, which is certainly the case in the Delta. 

Super Chikan later re-recorded "Down In The Delta" on his album Chikadelic, which came out about ten years ago, but this original version is still my favorite.  He's maintained a fairly high standard with his recordings and he remains a crowd favorite.  He's also established quite a reputation for designing unique guitar made out of gas cans, toilet seats, and anything else he can think of. 

"Down In The Delta" is a great example of modern Mississippi Delta blues, even twenty years after its original release........I can't believe it's been that long ago.  Anyway, enjoy Track Thirteen!

Friday, October 5, 2018

Tributes

Several years ago, I wrote a post called "This Week...... No One Dies!!!!" During that time, the blues world had lost several stars in a matter of months and, to be honest, it got pretty depressing for blues fans.  As I wrote then, that's one of the risks you take when you become a fan of the blues......a lot of the best known and best loved of the blues world are a bit long in the tooth and, though most of them continue to play to a ripe old age, it's still a jolt when they depart this world, which happens with a lot more frequency than it used to.

That post also focused on six artists that I enjoyed who were still with us nearly seven years ago.......Magic Slim, Daddy Mack Orr, Otis Clay, Eddie Cotton, Bobby Womack, and B.B. King.  Well, as most of you are aware, four of those six have passed away since that post, so as a favor to blues artists everywhere, I'm NOT going to repeat that post's theme this time around, but I will acknowledge a couple of my favorites who recently passed away and pay tribute to them.



Lazy Lester
Lazy Lester died a few weeks ago after suffering from cancer.  The first time I saw Lazy Lester, which I've recounted here several times already....I'm pretty sure, he was playing at the 1987 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.  That had already been a pretty impressive night for me, seeing John Lee Hooker for the first time as he actually opened for the Fabulous Thunderbirds (Kim Wilson/Jimmie Vaughan edition), who hosted an old school revue of sorts with a bunch of blues artists coming on and playing a pair of songs apiece.  There were some great acts there....Duke Robillard, Bonnie Raitt, Dr. John, Katie Webster (who came onstage throwing rubber crawfish into the crowd), and the Roomful of Blues horn section to name a few.

When Kim Wilson introduced Lazy Lester, I had no idea who he was, but Wilson recognized him as one of the band's greatest influences.  At this point, I was a fledgling blues fan and knew next to nothing about the history other than the Chess Records reissues I'd found in a local record store.  When Lester came out, he was wearing a tank top, work pants, and a baseball cap of some kind (I think it said "Louisiana Yard Dog" or something like that) and looked like he'd just gotten off work and walked over to the show.  However, when he started blowing that harmonica and singing in that swampy drawl, I was hooked.  I wanted to hear more than two songs (I think one of them was "Sugar Coated Love," but my memory has faded), but it was next to impossible for me to find any of his recordings.

Lazy Lester - Late 80's
A few months later, Alligator released Harp & Soul and I tracked it down as quickly as possible.  Not long after, I found Lazy Lester Rides Again, his "comeback" album from a few years ago (which I wrote about here).  Those two recordings were played quite a bit around my house and later on, my girlfriend (now wife) enjoyed them as well.  Lester was all blues, but the Louisiana swamp blues had a nice mixture of blues, R&B, and country, which meant it appealed to a wide variety of people back when Excello Records (Lester's first home) was active.  It wasn't until the late 90's that I found any of his Excello recordings and I still listen to them all the time (along with his labelmates Slim Harpo, Lightnin' Slim, Lonesome Sundown, etc.....).

Around that same time, Lester signed with Antone's Records and released a couple of new albums that showed he had plenty of fuel in the tank in his 60's.  In fact, he was still pretty active up until the months before his death and I was so excited to see him in that Geico commercial (which they've sadly quit running since his death).

I strongly recommend Lazy Lester to any blues fan.  His Excello recordings are the place to start, but everything he recorded is worth checking out.  Trust me, if he's not a favorite now, he will be once you start listening.



Otis Rush
I read about Otis Rush passing away on Saturday afternoon.  Dick Shurman wrote a very nice tribute to him.......he did a lot to try and help Rush over the years, probably as much as anyone did.  I talked to Shurman several times over the years about Rush and he was always very gracious and very honest about him.  Rush had some really tough breaks over his career (I wrote about his career here), so it sometimes made him a little leery of dealing with people and sometimes he wasn't able to capitalize on some opportunities because of it, which is unfortunate.

While Rush didn't record a lot of albums over his 40+years as a musician, nearly all of it is excellent.  If he'd never recorded anything after those fantastic Cobra sides in the late 50's, his place in blues history would be secure.  They are simply astonishing........his guitar playing was so distinctive (he played guitar left-handed, but didn't restring it for a left hander) and his vocals would send chills down your spine......the original recordings of "Double Trouble" and "I Can't Quit You, Baby" are just amazing.

While he didn't record a lot of studio albums (the Cobra sides, several sides for Chess Records, one appearance at Duke Records, a handful of sides for Vanguard's Chicago!  The Blues!  Today! series, and several studio albums in the 70's and 90's (netting him a Grammy Award), over the years, he had several live albums released that revealed that as good as he was in the studio, he was even better as a live performer.  While some are better than others, the best ones are fantastic.  I recently heard the early 70's performance from Cambridge and it's very good.  I wrote about the rest of Rush's live albums here, if you want to check them out.

Otis Rush at his 2017 Blues Marker Dedication, Philadelphia, MS
I never got to see Rush perform live.  I did get to see him when Mississippi dedicated a Blues Marker to him in his native Philadelphia, MS in 2007.  It was clear that the honor really moved him and he enjoyed seeing some old friends and relatives while he was there.  I wish I'd had the nerve to go and speak to him, shake his hand, and tell him how much I enjoyed his music.  What really amazed me more than anything was that one of the most influential blues guitarist in the world, not only in blues but also rock music, was born about 20 miles from me and he's hardly even known in his home county, other than by relatives, a few friends, and a few blues fans.

The night I heard he passed away, I plugged in his Live in San Francisco DVD and just watched it.  It's the closest I ever got to seeing him live.  If you'd like to see or hear more from Otis, you can check out my recommendations here and here.


While it's sad to see these two blues legends go, blues fans can take comfort in the fact that there is a whole younger generation doing their part to keep the blues alive.  Every week, I hear new releases from young musicians who have taken what Rush and Lester did and expand upon it, adding their own unique flair to keep the music fresh and interesting.