Friday, March 26, 2010

Mississippi Flavor

There's very little argument that Mississippi is the home of the blues, right? Other places like Memphis or Chicago might try to claim it, but most of their musicians came from Mississippi. Actually, lots of other styles of music could claim roots in the Magnolia State, but since this blog is called Friday BLUES Fix, we'll focus on the blues. Let's look at a few of the current artists that are keeping the blues alive in Mississippi.

Grady Champion was one of the big winners at the IBC (Best Band) in Memphis back in January. Champion, one of 28 children, was raised in Canton, MS.  He started out as a rapper but switched to the blues, a fine decision on his part.  He recorded a couple of discs for Shanachie in the late 90's as well as a disc on his own Shady Grady label, before taking a brief sabbatical in the early part of the decade to study music. He re-emerged with a live disc recorded in Jackson, MS at 930 Blues that also featured his friend Eddie Cotton on guitar, with whom Champion had been gigging for awhile in the Central MS area. This clip was taped in Natchez, MS sometime last year and features Champion with his band performing the blues standard, "Baby, What You Want Me To Do."  As you can hear, he blows a mean harp and his vocals have that perfect mix of gritty blues and sweet soul. 

Eddie Cotton has made a name for himself in the Magnolia State as well over the past few years. The Clinton, MS native has wowed audiences with his Albert King-influenced guitar and the most soulful vocals this side of Al Green.  He's recorded two incredible live discs at Jackson's Alamo Theatre and a couple of impressive studio recordings in between (Extra! and Mississippi Cotton Club). There's not a lot on YouTube with Cotton yet, but this clip is a taste of his talent on acoustic and electric numbers. You can get the full effects by checking out his discography at CDBaby.

About 30 minutes northwest of Jackson lies the city of Bentonia, home of the Bentonia blues.  For years, there were only a couple of people around who played in the Bentonia style.  Now, I'm sure lots of folks could describe this style of music much better than I can, throwing out  words like tonality, tuning and chords, but I know more about flying the space shuttle than I do about music theory, so all I can say is that if you ever hear it, you'll know what it is.  There have only been a few musicians who played in this highly unique style.  Skip James is probably the best known.  He recorded in the early 30's and later in the mid 60's, he was "re-discovered" and made a few more records.  All of his work is excellent, but the early recordings can be a bit of a challenge due to sound quality.  Jack Owens, a contemporary of James, also recorded, but less frequently and lived into his 90's.  Both supposedly learned from an unrecorded musician named Henry Stuckey.  Currently, there is one man keeping this branch of the blues alive......Jimmy "Duck" Holmes

Holmes owns the Blue Front Cafe, a true blues landmark located in Bentonia, and has recorded three discs for Broke and Hungry Records over the past few years.  While he plays in the Bentonia style, his vocals are a bit deeper than both James' and Owens'.  Here's a clip of Holmes playing on the mock porch at the Delta Cultural Center in Helena, Arkansas during the Mother's Best Festival in the mid 2000's, around the time of his first release, Back To Bentonia.

Finally, we have McComb, MS native Vasti Jackson, who has played with just about everybody who's anybody in the blues world.  He's appeared in movies, documentaries, served as a session musician and toured with several musicians, including a lengthy stint with the Swamp Boogie Queen, Katie Webster as part of her road band and as co-producer of several of her albums.  He spent a lot of time in Jackson, playing with local legend Jesse Robinson and with many of the gospel groups in the area.  He also served as session guitarist on Malaco recordings from Lattimore, Denise LaSalle, and Bobby Rush.  More recently, he's played with Cassandra Wilson, Michael Burks, Harry Connick, Jr., and Henry Butler.  I saw him several years ago when he was playing with Katie Webster and he just blew the place away.  Here's a 2005 clip of Jackson in Natchez (I've got to make a pilgrimage down there sometime to catch some of these blues) playing "Let Me Love You Baby."

Of course, there are many other Mississippi blues musicians keeping the faith.....people like Jesse Robinson, Super Chikan, Pat Thomas, T-Model Ford, Terry "Big T" Williams, and Terry "Harmonica" Bean.  We will be checking out all of these folks and many others in upcoming weeks.

Friday, March 19, 2010

YouTube Blues

This week, I thought I'd browse around YouTube and see what I could find.

First up is Robert Nighthawk, slide guitarist extraordinaire. Born Robert Lee McCollum, he started out as a harmonica player, but learned to play guitar from his cousin, Houston Stackhouse. He traveled through the South, beginning in the early 30's and played at Muddy Waters' first wedding reception. He and Stackhouse once accompanied Mississippi's Singing Brakeman, Jimmie Rodgers when Rodgers played at a Jackson, MS hotel (collecting $42 in tips, which Rodgers let them keep).

He eventually migrated to St. Louis and changed his name to Robert Lee McCoy (because he was wanted by the police for his part in a shooting). He recorded as McCoy for the Bluebird label in the mid 30's. After 1940, he took a break from recording and worked in Helena, AR at station KFFA doing a radio show sponsored by Bright Star Flour. He changed his name to Robert Nighthawk during this time and began merging bottleneck guitar with the new sounds of electric guitar.

Robert Nighthawk rates as one of the most influential slide guitarists of the electric blues era and played a major role in the development of other great slide guitarists like Earl Hooker, Elmore James, and Muddy Waters. He was also one of B. B. King's favorite guitarists and the King of the Blues recorded Nighthawk's "Sweet Little Angel" in 1955. Night Hawk passed away in 1967 and has been underappreciated by many blues fans mainly because of his lack of recordings. He rarely stayed in one place long and constantly moved between Chicago, St. Louis, and the Arkansas/Mississippi area.

In the early 60's, Mike Shea filmed a documentary on Maxwell Street, the famous market in Chicago that served as a stage for many of the Windy City's greatest blues musicians, who set up and played there every Sunday for tips. The movie was called And This Is Free and one of the performers captured on film was Robert Nighthawk. Here's a clip from the movie of Nighthawk performing "Cheating and Lying Blues," with John Lee Granderson on second guitar and Jimmy Collins on drums. Check out the amazing slide work.

This song and several others from the film were collected into an essential Robert Nighthawk album called Live on Maxwell Street - 1964. Another must-have Nighthawk album is Bricks In My Pillow, which collects his recordings for United Records from the early 50's.

I first started listening to the blues in the late 80's. One Saturday night/Sunday morning, while flipping channels, I stumbled onto a show on Public Television called The Lonesome Pine Special, which featured a lot of different styles of music over the years. Every once in a while they would feature a blues act and on this night, they had one of the best....Junior Wells. I managed to copy the show to VHS and watched it so many times over the years that it nearly fell apart. Imagine my surprise at finding this clip on YouTube of Wells performing "Trouble No More" from that same broadcast. Wells sounded great and had an exceptional band that night.

Watching that clip brought back lots of memories, good and bad. Good in that I remembered that Junior Wells and his music brought a lot of pleasure to me over the years. Bad in that I also remembered that during a six to eight month span in 1997 and 1998, the blues world lost Johnny Copeland, Fenton Robinson, Luther Allison, Jimmy Rogers, Jimmy Witherspoon, Junior Kimbrough, and Junior Wells. Can you imagine another music genre losing so many great artists in so short a span?

For blues beginners, a great place to start is by picking up a collection of songs by different artists. Most of the blues labels release anthologies of their acts on a fairly regular basis, usually focusing on an anniversary of some kind. In recent years, we've seen collections by labels like Delmark, Earwig, Ruf, Electro-Fi, and many others. Alligator Records also does anniversary collections every five years, but for me, and for many others between the mid 80's and early 90's, their Genuine Houserockin' Music series was indispensible.

Like the title indicated, it was wall-to-wall and back-to-back houserockin' music, plus it was available at a budget price, so I was a little more willing to check out an album on which I didn't know most of the artists. Volume 1 was the third or fourth blues album that I purchased back in the day. At the time, I had only heard of a few of the artists on Volume 1, like Johnny Winter, Lonnie Mack, and the trio of Albert Collins, Johnny Copeland, and Robert Cray. This was my first exposure, certainly not my last, to musicians like Fenton Robinson, Koko Taylor, Lonnie Brooks, Hound Dog Taylor, and Son Seals.

The Seals song on Volume 1 was "Goin' Home (Where Women Got Meat On Their Bones)," and I still remember the feeling I had when I first heard his raw vocals and that searing guitar that sounded like it could slice through metal. I hit rewind two or three times to take it all in again. I was hooked.

The first Son Seals set I was able to find in the store was Live and Burning, which, to me, is one of the best live Chicago blues collections of all time. It was the first live recording I'd ever heard where I wished that I could have been there to see it in person. In fact, his first three discs (The Son Seals Blues Band, Midnight Son, and Live and Burning) rank with the best blues recordings of the 1970's.

Sometime during the early 90's, I wasn't able to sleep one night, so I got up and turned on the TV. While flipping channels, I stopped on WGN, Chicago's big cable station. It was probably three or four o'clock in the morning and after the requisite five-minute block of commercials from Sister Cleo and Thigh Master went off, the program came back on. It was a hour-long show on the Chicago blues scene, and guess who was playing? Son Seals.....that's who. I actually found the performance from that show on YouTube, so here's Son Seals playing "Arkansas Woman."

Seals continued to play his fiery brand of Albert King-influenced blues (he played drums for King on King's classic Live Wire/Blues Power album from the 60's and got his start in music drumming for Robert Nighthawk) for another decade. He survived losing a leg to diabetes and being shot by his wife, but eventually succumbed to complications from diabetes in 2004. There's a great documentary DVD out about Son Seals called Journey Through The Blues: The Son Seals Story that even has a few live performances on it.

So to make a long story short (probably too late for that), if you're just starting out listening to the blues, check out the Various Artists section of your local record store or your favorite online shopping site. You'll find some real gems for a small amount of cash if you look hard enough.

Let's travel a little bit for our last clip today, across the Atlantic. I met Tim Lothar via the internet eight or ten years ago on a message board. He was a drummer for the Danish band, Lightnin' Moe. We got into a discussion about legendary drummer Fred Below and I sent him a Below interview I had from an old copy of Living Blues. He asked me to check the English in their liner notes for their upcoming disc. I did so, and he was nice enough to include me in the Thank You section of the notes upon release. Several years ago, he decided to learn to play guitar and embarked on a solo career. He apparently is a quick study because he has become an amazing guitarist in a very short time and specializes in acoustic pre-war Mississippi delta blues. In 2008, he was chosen Danish Blues Artist of the Year and his disc, In It For The Ride, won Danish Blues Album of the Year. He has a great new release with Danish harmonica ace Peter Nande called Two For The Road. Check out this clip of Tim playing an old Leadbelly song during a gig in Germany. Looks like the blues is doing just fine overseas.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Coming Attractions

This week, I've spent most of my spare time listening to new discs and writing up reviews for the April issue of Blues Bytes, which comes out in about a month or so. Because the last issue was a two-month combined issue, I now have two months' worth of great blues CDs to listen to. That, my friends, is a nice problem to have. I thought I'd give you a sneak peek at what's hitting music stores very soon.

Blue Bella Records is releasing FOUR CDs next week, including one from the label's founder, Nick Moss. Moss and his band, the Flip Tops, had one of the best CDs of 2009, volume 2 of a live set at Chan's in Rhode Island. Moss is considered to be one of the best blues guitarists out there right now, and the Flip Tops have been dazzling audiences for over a decade with their own brand of Chicago blues. Here's a video of the band performing Freddie King's "I Love The Woman," that was recorded the Kalamazoo Blues Festival in 2007.

Moss's new set, called Privileged, moves just a bit from his usual Chicago-based blues into blues/rock territory. It also features some nice original songs from Moss and some inspired guitar work.

The other new Blue Bella releases are from the Kilborn Alley Blues Band, the Cash Box Kings, and an instrumental album from Charlie Musselwhite guitarist Matthew Stubbs. The Stubbs CD is cool and features a variety of genres and styles from blues to jazz to surf. The Kilborn Alley Blues Band and the Cash Box Kings both play straight-ahead, no-frills blues, mostly of the Chicago variety with the occasional venture into southern soul. Look for all of these stellar releases coming your way on March 16. While you're waiting for them, check out this live clip of the Kilborn Alley Blues Band from their 2009 UK tour. This song, "Bluesville" is on their newest CD.

Another new release, The Bluesmasters Featuring Mickey Thomas, features a performer that many people that are in my age group may remember. Mickey Thomas has served as lead singer of Jefferson Starship/Starship since the mid 70's and was the voice behind such big pop hits as "Jane," "We Built This City," and "Sarah." Of course, he first gained fame as the vocalist for Elvin Bishop's 1974 surprise hit, "Fooled Around and Fell In Love." Thomas returns to that format on this release with the Bluesmasters on this March release. Thomas does an excellent job on a nice set of familiar blues songs from artists like Muddy Waters, Etta James, Willie Dixon, and Dave Bartholomew.

One last new release this week (we'll look at a few more in coming weeks)......One of the best releases of 2007 was a joint effort on Broke & Hungry Records by Terry "Big T" Williams and Wesley "Junebug" Jefferson called Meet Me In The Cotton Field. Williams is a familiar face to most Clarksdale and Mississippi Delta blues fans. He's played with several of the local musicians over the years and has even taught classes on the blues at the Delta Blues Museum. Williams has a new CD called Jump Back, Big T's In The House, which veers from the more traditional sounds of the Broke & Hungry set, and focuses more on the funky side of the blues. Here's Big T at the Hayward/Russell City Blues Festival in 2008.

Dennis Jones' latest CD, Pleasure and Pain, came out last fall, but you might have missed it. If so, you missed a treat. Jones' rock-fueled blues attack is reminscent of artists like Stevie Ray Vaughan, the Rolling Stones, and Jimmy Page. The Baltimore native first gained fame as the frontman for the L.A. funk/rock band, Blackhead, but turned to the blues in the early 90's. Check out this clip of his song, "Big Black Cat," and you'll agree it was a sound decision on his part.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Some Unsung Bluesmen

Last weekend, I picked up the Music issue of The Oxford American (which has only been on sale for about four or five months….okay, so I don’t get out that much). I enjoy reading every issue when I can, but the annual music issue is always special because that particular issue always includes a CD of music from southern musicians and always has a good blend of blues, soul, country, funk, zydeco, rock & roll, and roots music. It’s a fairly easy way to become acquainted with new acts of all genres that you might have missed otherwise. The issue also features short profiles on the artists featured on the CD. It’s definitely worth seeking out every year.

This year, The OA has started including an additional CD with music from a particular southern state, which makes it an even better purchase. For their inaugural year, the magazine focuses on music from Arkansas. Unfortunately, even though there have been a fair number of bluesmen who were born in Arkansas (Luther Allison, Robert Lockwood Jr., Sonny Boy Williamson, Louis Jordan), none of them are represented on the disc. Of course, other artists like Johnny Cash, Charlie Rich, Al Green, and Glen Campbell were left off, too. Apparently, the intent was to focus on lesser known musicians, but it’s not like the aforementioned bluesmen are household names.

Anyway, that’s not the reason I’m posting this. The reason is because of one of the bluesmen who did make the grade on the CD……Larry Davis. Davis is known as the original performer of the song, “Texas Flood,” which Stevie Ray Vaughan made his own in the early 80’s. A lot more people have heard SRV’s version than Larry Davis’, but the original was a pretty strong number in its time. Fenton Robinson, a longtime friend and associate of Davis, played lead guitar on the original, which was released on Duke Records in 1958. Here's one of those photo/videos from YouTube of Davis' version of "Texas Flood."

Davis was regarded by many, including himself, as one of the best blues singers there was. He was certainly not lacking in self-confidence. In the short profile on Davis in The OA, Jim O’Neal recounts a story from Willie Cobbs (another Arkansas bluesman), who remembered that in Memphis one time, Davis needled B. B. King, “Everybody in this town tells me I can sing better than you,” to which B. B. replied, “Well, I'm taking my non-singing ass over to do a show at the auditorium tonight. Where are you going?" Despite that exchange, Davis was the first artist to release an album on King's short-lived Virgo label, an album which featured a large number of B. B. King covers. King also spoke highly of Davis in the notes on the back cover of the album.

Over time, Davis also developed into a fine guitar player. He recorded somewhat erratically over his career, but all of his releases that are in print are excellent. His last recording, Sooner or Later, was released in 1992, about two years before his death from cancer, and features some of his best performances. "Goin' Out West" was one of the best tracks on the disc and showcases his guitar as well as his vocals. If you're not familiar with Larry Davis, you owe it to yourself to check him out.

While we're here, let's catch a video of Davis' friend Fenton Robinson from the 1970's. Robinson was dubbed "The Mellow Blues Genius" by his Japanese fans and his jazz-tinged blues guitar was wonderful to hear. Robinson, like Davis, never really caught a break though he did record a bit more (including a three-disc stint with Alligator). His signature song, "Somebody Loan Me A Dime," was done by Boz Scaggs in the late 60's and Scaggs ended up with composer credits, resulting in a long legal battle. He also ended up doing some time in jail for vehicular manslaughter in the 70's. He passed away in the late 90's, one of the more underrated bluesmen of his time, but "Somebody Loan Me A Dime" is widely recognized as a blues standard today, and has been covered by dozens of artists.

Closing things out today is a track from that famous non-singer, B. B. King. This is an instrumental, "Blues Boy Tune," from his Blues on the Bayou CD of the late 90's. Who knows how far he could have gone if he had only been able to sing as well as Larry Davis.