Friday, July 30, 2010

Feel Like Going Home - Essential Reading

One of the first books about music that I ever read was Sweet Soul Music, by Peter Guralnick. I was heavily into 50's and 60's soul music during that time and it was manna from Heaven. With chapters devoted to soul pioneers like Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Solomon Burke, Otis Redding, James Carr, and Dan Penn, I read it through three times. What came through more than the details about these musicians' lives was Guralnick's passion for the music and the artists. I've read many books about music by many different authors, but few captured the artists' stories and personalities (warts and all) so well, while being able to convey their own personal observations without interfering with the story.

Since I enjoyed Sweet Soul Music so much, I wanted to read more of Guralnick's work. Little did I know that there was a music that he was even more passionate about than soul music, and it was a genre that I was just getting into. I found a couple of books by Guralnick at Roundup Records (THE mail order music source for blues and soul back in the 80's and early 90's), so I ordered them. One of these books was the subject of today's post........Feel Like Going Home.

Guralnick had written about music for several magazines in the late 60's, such as Crawdaddy! and Rolling Stone, and this book is set up similarly to his articles written at the time.  The subtitle of the book is Portraits in Blues and Rock 'N' Roll, and that's basically what Guralnick does, short profiles on a wide-ranging group of musicians.  He also gives a short history of the blues (with an emphasis on country blues artists like Robert Johnson, Tommy Johnson, Charley Patton, etc..) as well as the development of rock & roll from the blues, which basically serves as background for the profiles. 

The blues profiles range from familiar subjects (Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf) to a few lesser known artists, who played an important role in the development of the blues.  Johnny Shines traveled extensively with Robert Johnson and later was an invaluable source for Guralnick's essay, Searching for Robert Johnson.  At the time the book was originally published, there were no photos of Robert Johnson known to exist.  In Guralnick's brief history of the blues, Shines describes Johnson as having a bad eye and bearing a strong resemblance to Buddy Guy.  He was a source of information about many of the early musicians that had passed on by the time the 60's rolled around, but as a musician, he was as good or better than many of them.  He had a strong, highly emotional voice and was a master guitarist.  In the 70's, 80's, and 90's, he also recorded albums with Big Walter Horton, Robert Lockwood Jr., and Snooky Pryor.  Here's a clip of Shines, originally broadcast on public television in the 70's, performing "Ramblin' Blues."

The chapter devoted to Bentonia, MS native Skip James is essential reading for any fan of country blues.  This was my introduction to James and I quickly tracked down his "rediscovery" recordings for Vanguard Records in the mid 60's.  These are some of the most beautiful country blues ever recorded, with crystal clear sound.  Though over 30 years had passed between the Vanguard recordings and his legendary 1931 sessions for Paramount, James' performances were wonderful.  Unfortunately, he was ill when he was rediscovered and died only a few years after restarting his career.  Guralnick presents James as he was, a unique talent in the blues (with his haunting vocal style, understated guitar, and idiosyncratic piano playing) with a sometimes difficult, even arrogant personality.  He didn't suffer fools gladly and was not above lecturing his audience for not truly appreciating his talents.  It's a fascinating character study.  One of my favorite Skip James songs is "Hard Time Killin' Floor Blues."  It was originally recorded during the 1931 session and you might have heard it on the movie, O Brother, Where Art Thou? (even though it was being played by the character Tommy Johnson, played by bluesman Chris Thomas King).  James re-recorded it for his 1964 Vanguard session and it was the first song I ever actually heard of his.  Below is the original version.

The other blues artist profiled is Louisiana bluesman Robert Pete Williams.  Guralnick was enthralled by Williams' totally original music.  Williams never made a living off of his music and his unique style was something of an acquired taste for many listeners, but his lyrics were so brutally honest that you couldn't help but listen.  Guralnick was one of the first to bring attention to Williams and his music.  Otherwise, he might have faded into obscurity.  He was able to record several albums and played enough festivals to acquire a small, but loyal fan base. 

There are also a couple of other profiles, one of rock and roller Jerry Lee Lewis which had to have left Guralnick exhausted upon its completion, and one of the amazing Charlie Rich.  For most fans of Charlie Rich, those only familiar with his countrypolitian hits of the 1970's, he would seem an unlikely subject in this book, but Rich's roots run deep in the blues. He got his start recording for Sun Records, recording songs like "Lonely Weekends" and "Life's Little Up's and Down's," but never really hit it big at the time.  Later recordings for RCA leaned more toward jazzy settings, then he hit gold with Billy Sherrill and Epic Records.  Unfortunately, Rich was his own worst enemy at times.  He struggled with inner demons and alcohol and eventually hit rock bottom.  Shortly before his death in 1995, Rich recorded the album he always wanted to record, Pictures and Paintings.  It was produced by Guralnick and featured Rich playing blues, jazz, and the song, "Feel Like Going Home," the inspiration for the book's title.  Here's the Pictures and Paintings version from 1991.  The song was also recorded as the "B" side to his smash hit, "The Most Beautiful Girl In The World" in 1973, but the later version has more of a Memphis soul feel than the Nashville sound of the '73 version.

To truly appreciate Charlie Rich, you have to look beyond the syrupy strings and twang of his most popular hits and listen to the heart and grit of his performances. The blues was there for all to see and hear in everything he ever recorded.

The book closes with a look at Sun Records (and its eccentric owner, Sam Phillips, who played a major role in the development of rock and roll and has long deserved a book of his own) and the legendary Chess Records (with the equally eccentric Chess brothers).  The Chess chapter takes place around the end of the label's run, so at times, it's depressing to see that time and trends had passed the label (and many of it's artists) by.  Feel Like Going Home is probably one of the most personal, insightful, and ultimately rewarding books you will read about music of any genre.      

As I mentioned last week, Phillip Walker passed away from heart failure on July 22 at age 73.  Walker took up guitar as a teenager in his native Louisiana, and was influenced by guitarists like T-Bone Walker and Gatemouth Brown.  At 17, he began a two-year stint backing the King of Zydeco, Clifton Chenier.  He later played with Memphis R&B singer Rosco Gordon and also with Long John Hunter before relocating to California.  Once there, he recorded for labels like Fantasy, Joliet, and Playboy (the magazine's short-lived record label).  Many of these recordings are still available, although from different labels.  During this time, Walker fell in with Bruce Bromberg and Dennis Walker.  Brombert produced and Dennis Walker wrote or co-wrote many of Walker's songs, and both later played a big role in the early development of Robert Cray.

Walker recorded for Rounder Records for a time, then joined back up with Bromberg on his Hightone label, where he released the album, Blues, a sizzling disc that was much more than it's generic title indicated.  While at Hightone, Walker was able to reissue several of his earlier albums (Someday You'll Have These Blues and The Bottom Of The Top) on Hightone to much acclaim.  He also recorded a couple of solid discs for Black Top in the mid 90's.

In the late 90's, Walker teamed with Lonnie Brooks, Ervin Charles, and Long John Hunter for the essential Alligator Records release, Lone Star Shootout, as good a disc of modern Texas blues as you'll ever hear.  In 2002, Walker put together a big band and released Live at Biscuits and Blues.  His last release was for the Delta Groove label, called Going Back Home, in 2007.

Throughout his career, Walker recorded many classic tunes, such as "Hello My Darling," "The Bottom of the Top," "Hey Hey Baby's Gone," "Brother, Go Ahead and Take Her" (later recorded by Joe Louis Walker), my favorite tune "Tough As I Want To Be" (later recorded by Lowell Fulson), "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark" (later recorded by Robert Cray), and "I Got A Sweet Tooth."  Check out one of Walker's earlier recordings for Fantasy, a reworking of Sam Cooke's soul classic, "Laughin' and Clownin'," which really showcases his guitar playing and soulful vocal style.

If you're not familiar with Phillip Walker's music, do yourself a favor and check out a couple of his discs. He didn't record nearly enough, but all of his releases are excellent and each offers a variety of styles. He could play deep soul as well as deep blues. My personal favorites are The Bottom Of The Top and Working Girl Blues.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Technical Difficulties

Well, as the great Lee "Shot" Williams once sang, "if it was raining soup, I would have a fork."

The old computer crashed this week (hopefully, just a network card).  I'm doing this mini-post on a borrowed computer.  Hopefully, Friday Blues Fix will be back next Friday.

A quick word of tribute to the late Phillip Walker, who passed away on Thursday morning at the age of 73.  Walker was a highly underrated singer and guitarist who could play everything from zydeco to swamp blues to urban blues to big band blues. Next week, we will devote more time to Walker. See you next week....hopefully.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Red Hot Blues

The temperature is not the only thing that's hot these days.  There's plenty of red hot blues out there, either on stage or on disc.  Let's take a look at some new live releases and see what else we can find along the way.

One of the first Friday Blues Fix posts was a mini-interview with Larry Garner.  He mentioned an upcoming release with the Norman Beaker Band called Live at the Tivoli.  It was recorded in 2009 at the Tivoli in England and provides a pretty wide retrospective of Garner's recordings, ranging from his early standouts ("No Free Rides," "Shak Bully") to his newer material ("Heavy Pieces," "Raised In The Country") to crowd favorites ("Jook Joint Woman," "Kleptomaniac," "Cold Chills," "The Road of Life," "Had to Quit Drinking").  Of course, you get a sample of Garner's unique rapport with his audiences as well.  Norman Beaker, a longtime member of the UK blues scene, provides some great guitar work and takes the mic for a couple of his own tunes, and his band is first-rate.  This is a great set of blues that is well worth tracking down.  Check out Garner and Beaker in action from a few weeks ago, performing the Henry Gray tune, "Cold Chills."

A few months ago, I received a set of CDs to review for Blues Bytes from Blue Skunk Records.  There was some stellar releases from Los Angeles (Solomon King's urban blues fest Under The Sun) to Cincinnati (R&B local legend Keith Little) and New York (blues/folk artists Michael Packer's Free Beer).  Among those releases was a CD from a young lady named Cee Cee James, called Low Down Where The Snakes Crawl, which was a mesmerizing vocal performance.  Though her singing brings to mind Janis Joplin at times, she is capable of so much more.  If you can find that release, I highly recommend it...along with the rest of the Blue Skunk releases mentioned above, but I wanted to talk about her latest release......a live performance.  Her latest CD, Seriously Raw, Live at Sunbanks, captures James at her very best with a great band in support, playing a mix of original tunes, classic blues tracks, and, yes, a masterful Janis Joplin segment.  You can visit her website to hear song clips and purchase the disc if you're interested.  You'll be glad you did. 

The next live disc is not a new one.  Grady Champion's Back In Mississippi Live at the 930 Blues Cafe was initially released about a year and a half ago but saw fairly limited distribution.  Earwig Records of Chicago has picked up distribution of the CD, which proves that there is justice in the world.  Champion took a bit of a sabbatical from music a few years back, but has resurfaced in Mississippi over the past couple of years, playing many of the local clubs just like Jackson's 930 Blues Cafe.  Joining him for this wonderful set is another local favorite, Eddie Cotton, who's recorded a couple of outstanding live discs himself.  Cotton plays guitar on this set, and Champion takes the spotlight for a memorable performance.  It's easy to hear why Champion won the IBC Best Band competition this year.  He's a powerful and charismatic performer.  Hats off to Earwig for getting this one out there for all to have a chance to hear.  Below is a song from the performance.  "Policeman Blues" also features some sweet guitar from Cotton and an appearance from local rapper Jacktown Swiff (Champion actually got his start in music as a rapper before moving on to the blues).  I'm proud that there are still young guys in Mississippi that are keeping the blues alive.

The third Saturday in July used to be marked on my calendar every year in the late 80's. That was when the Chunky Rhythm & Blues Festival was held, about fifteen miles from my house. I guess it started in the early 80's, but at that time, I wasn't really into the blues.....more into soul and R&B and jazz, so I didn't keep up with it that much. Chunky is a pretty small town, just a couple of stores, churches, a post office, and a great place to eat catfish, but I spent a lot time there in my early 20's, playing basketball a couple of days a week in one of the churches that had a gym. The festival was actually a couple of miles outside of town in a big pasture that was called Richardson's Farm.

The pasture was a natural amplitheatre, with a sloping field surrounded by trees. The sound was pretty good and there was plenty of room to move around. The only hazard was at night, when you walked back to your vehicle, there was no lighting at all once you left the music area, and the parking was a pretty good walk away, so finding your ride could be pretty interesting, even if you were sober.

Despite it's size (or lack of), the festival drew some pretty big acts at the time. I think B. B. King and Bobby "Blue" Bland played it before I started going, at least once, but I never saw them there. The first year I went, the main acts were The Kinsey Report (just before their first album, Edge of the City, was released), Anson Funderburgh & the Rockets (and Sam Myers), Koko Taylor, and Lonnie Mack. Now that wasn't a bad lineup at all.

The Kinsey Report was pretty impressive....I've always loved to hear Donald Kinsey play the guitar and Ron Prince wasn't too shabby either. Their set was short and proud papa Big Daddy Kinsey came out and did a few songs with them, too. I've always been a fan of Funderburgh and Myers and they didn't disappoint either. Funderburgh was so cool playing guitar and Myers' down home vocals and harmonica were the perfect complement to the Rockets' sound.  Oddly enough, by the time Koko Taylor came onstage, a good portion of the crowd had dispersed, so my buddies and I walked right down to the front of the stage to see her. She sounded great and had two guitarists that just took turns kicking butt for a solid hour. When Lonnie Mack came onstage, it was either past his bedtime or someone woke him up from his nap because he was one cranky son of a gun. He eventually warmed up to the crowd though, after performing his classic "Oreo Cookie Blues," and I still remember him tearing through "Wham!" not five feet from where I was standing. That was one of the first blues shows I saw and it was a great experience.

In later years, I saw Lil' Ed & the Blues Imperials (though I never got a good look at Ed since he never stopped moving), Lonnie Brooks (who unfortunately had to follow Ed that night), Omar and the Howlers (always entertaining), and Buddy Guy (who was a bit frustrating as he kept throwing in Hendrix riffs right in the middle of his tunes for no good reason.....Dadgum it, Buddy, I didn't pay to watch you play Jimi Hendrix....I wanted you to play Buddy Guy!). As you can see, the festival was able to attract lots of the bigger names (Junior Wells, Lucky Peterson, Kenny Neal, and lots of others also appeared there). The festival was underwritten in part by the University of Mississippi (who publishes Living Blues and also has a huge Blues Archive), so that probably helped a lot with attracting performers. In the early 90's, all the fun stopped for some reason. I don't know what happened, but I figure that by that time, there were a lot of other blues festivals getting started, in locations worldwide that were probably more appealing to musicians than Chunky, MS was. Money probably was an issue as well, as far as paying the musicians went....expenses got more expensive.

They tried to move the festival to nearby Meridian for a few years and even had the artists from Fat Possum Records appear one year, but it never really caught on as well. It was fun while it lasted though, and gave me the opportunity to see some great blues artists close up and close by.

Happy 79th birthday to Long John Hunter.  Hunter made some fine recordings for Alligator in the 1990's, including a collaboration with Lonnie Brooks and Phillip Walker called Lone Star Shootout.  He got his start playing the blues in Juarez, Mexico on the Texas/Mexico border way back in the 50's, after hearing B. B. King play a gig at Beaumont.  He bought a guitar the next day and was soon playing at the same club in Beaumont.  After that, he was the main attraction at the Lobby Bar in Juarez for thirteen years.  He's still active today, having released a CD last year for Blues Express that was well-received.  Happy Birthday, Long John!

To close things out this week, please enjoy one of my favorite Long John Hunter tracks.....from his Border Town Legend disc......the slow burner, "Ice Cold."  Have a good weekend, Blues lovers.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Curmudgeon Time

When I was just getting into the blues in the mid 80's, I would go about once a month to either Jackson or Meridian, MS and hit a couple of shopping centers. I wouldn't be shopping for clothes or anything like that though.......I would hit the record stores (nearly all the shopping centers and malls had at least one) looking for blues recordings. Yes, I am a who would probably have no clothes in my closet or shoes on my feet if it weren't for the love and patience of others, but plenty of things to read and listen to.

In the beginning, I was usually very successful at finding good music (of course you're successful in the don't have anything of your own to start with, so everything is a find!) and would sometimes bring three or four cassettes of new, to me, blues home. I found great collections like Chicago! The Blues! Today! and Drop Down Mama and Sweet Home Chicago and The New Bluebloods this way.  Later, when I grudgingly moved from cassettes to CDs, I not only got to find new music, but also repurchased an occasional disc that I had originally owned on cassette (Thank you, Ebay).

By doing this, flipping through stacks and stacks of recordings, I was able to discover and buy some great music that I would not have even tried otherwise. Had it not been for me flipping through stacks and stacks of discs and cassettes, I would not have discovered artists like Larry Garner, U. P. Wilson, Chico Banks, Eddie King, Ray BaileyGrady Gaines, Eddie Cotton, Jimmy "Duck" Holmes, and many, many others. Indeed, the first blues music purchase I ever made (Showdown!) was strictly an impulse buy that I stumbled onto while browsing in a music store., not so much. As I got older and added duties to both family and job responsibilities, my visits to record stores started slowing down to maybe five or six a year. When I did go, I started noticing that a lot of the stores I used to frequent were not updating their blues sections as much, if at all. There would hardly be any new releases other than many of the soul/blues acts who released albums locally (some I liked, some I didn't) and maybe a new Alligator release or two. In the past few years, several of these stores have either closed up or done away with their blues sections, sometimes combining it with another section like R&B or Jazz, so it was like an Easter egg hunt trying to sniff out a blues disc. It was quite a change from days gone by when you sometimes had to choose between several possible options to buy.  Now you were doing good to find maybe one blues CD that you wanted to purchase.

Of course, there are lots of reasons why this happened. Many of the record labels specializing in blues went under in the late 90's for various reasons, like Black Top, King Snake, and Ichiban. Also, the advent of the internet took a toll, with all the websites that sold CDs, many that were hard for us to find locally, usually for lower prices. The economy has also played a big role in decreasing the number of stores (see Tower Records). There are lots of other reasons, too, but iTunes and other digital download sites were what put the final nail in the coffin for many record stores. For the younger generation, this was a great way to get their music in a short amount of time with little trouble (for them). For us older types, who enjoyed reading the liner notes to the discs (even when it went to microscopic type on CDs), looking at the album covers, and enjoyed flipping through stacks of old records, tapes, or CDs, it has taken some getting used to.

It's probably safe to say that the majority of blues listeners still prefer to hold their product in their hands as opposed to downloading it off the internet, but that majority is decreasing rapidly. As I get older, I find myself thinking back to how things used to be done. Some things I remember were a lot more fun than the way they're done now. I still miss stopping by a record store and just seeing what was new and maybe coming out with a tape or disc I wasn't expecting.

I'm sure that twenty years from now, some blues fan in their mid 40's will be talking about how great it used to be to download their blues music off the internet as opposed to inserting a microchip of blues songs into a storage unit at the base of your skull.  Or maybe those large, round, black discs called records will be all the rage again in 2030 (or maybe reel-to-reel will make a comeback).  Still, as long as the blues are available in any format twenty years from now, that will be a good thing.

Anyway, I've griped enough and most of you have probably moved on to another site by now. For those of you who stuck around, let's look at some new releases.  As always, these reviews will soon appear in fleshed-out form in future issues of Blues Bytes.

You always know what you're getting with a Magic Slim album......hard rocking, good time, Chicago blues.  Slim's latest, Raising The Bar, is no exception to the rule.  There's nothing earth-shattering here, but Slim is the absolute best at playing the music he plays.  Best of all, he never settles into a rut with his performances.  He puts 100% into every performance, whether it's on stage or in the studio.  My favorite track is the spectacular slow blues take on Roosevelt Sykes' "Sunny Road Blues," five and a half minutes of blues heaven, but picking one favorite track on any Magic Slim CD is a daunting task.  We will be taking a closer look at Magic Slim and his catalog in upcoming weeks.  Meanwhile, here's a clip of Slim performing "I'm A Bluesman."

RoadsongsReportedly, The Derek Trucks Band will be going on hiatus as Trucks teams up with his wife, Susan Tedeschi for a while.  If so, Roadsongs is a fine sendoff.  It's a two-disc set, priced as one, showcasing performances from their most recent tour.  There are many things to like about this set, but the sound is just outstanding.  My favorite performances are "Down Don't Bother Me," one of the highlights or their previous release, Already Free, which features an outstanding vocal from Mike Mattison, the blues standard, "Key To The Highway," and the nearly ten-minute reworking of Clapton's (via Derek & the Dominos) "Anyday" that's almost as good as the one on the Crossroads Guitar Festival DVD. Check out this DTB performance from several years ago. This is their version of O. V. Wright's classic soul tune from the 60's, "I'd Rather Be Blind, Crippled, and Crazy."

Last, but certainly not least, there's Super Chikan.  His latest release is Chikadelic and if you think he's basically a blues novelty act, you're sadly mistaken.  He is one of the most vibrant blues musicians out there right now.  He's incredibly talented on guitar and you should hear him play his electric one string guitar (homemade, of course).  His discs are a mix of traditional blues with elements of soul, funk, even jazz gets thrown in as well sometimes.  He's definitely one of the most original songwriters in the genre, with great tunes like "Bad Ass Bass," which can best be described as "the rest of the story" behind the blues standard "Catfish Blues," and songs like "Down In The Delta," which is the sneakiest blues tune you'll ever hear.  Tracks like "School In The Field," describe the "school of hard knocks" that every Delta bluesman has to go through, and "Front Porch Boogie" recounts Chikan and his diddley bow on his porch watching the train go by.  Best of all is "Fred's Dollar Store" (listen below), which has led the franchise to adopt Super Chikan as an unofficial spokesman and even carry some of his merchandise (in fact, I picked up Chikadelic in my local Fred's a few weeks ago).  Please don't underestimate the Chikan.....he's the real deal.

We'll look at more new releases in coming weeks.  This weekend, make a point to check out some live blues, or pick up a blues CD, or download some blues tracks (legally, of course).  Do your part to help keep these blues alive!