Friday, November 26, 2010

New Blues For You - Louisiana Swamp Stomp

A few months ago, Friday Blues Fix discussed the great southern record label, Excello.  With it's great roster of stars (Slim Harpo, Lazy Lester, Lightnin' Slim, etc...) and the marriage of country and urban blues (with a shot of southern soul mixed for good measure), the label had a large following among many fans and future musicians.  Many contemporary musicians were influenced by the sounds of the swamp from the late 50's and 60's and the label has been missed greatly since its demise in the early 70's.    

Buddy Flett
Fans of the sound will be excited to hear about Louisiana Swamp Stomp, a collection that celebrates Louisiana's rich musical heritage.  The CD is part of a project designed to bring attention to a newly-created organization, the Northern Louisiana Brain and Spinal Cord Injury Foundation (NLBSCIF).  Louisiana guitarist Buddy Flett contracted encephalitis in 2008, which left him in a medically induced coma.  When Flett awoke, he had lost the ability to walk, talk, and play guitar.  Over time, he regained his strength and abilities (to the point where he was able to play guitar at his own benefit a few months later).  For those of you unfamiliar with Buddy Flett, check out the title track from his most recent solo CD release, Mississippi Sea

Proceeds from the sales of Louisiana Swamp Stomp will go to benefit the NLBSCIF for the purpose of funding neuroscience research in Louisiana.  For more information on the center and it's goals, you can visit their site here.  All of us know someone in our group of family and friends who have suffered a stroke and had difficulties recovering, so this is a cause that everyone can relate to.

Carol Fran
As for the disc itself, it consists mostly of Louisiana-born or based musicians doing what they do best.  In addition to Flett, who does a great acoustic, seemingly autobiographical track, "Livin' Ain't Easy," another pleasant surprise is the presence of Carol Fran.  Ms. Fran suffered a stroke in 2007, but has recovered sufficiently to resume her singing career.  On Louisiana Swamp Stomp, she shines on two performances, both remakes of songs that she previously recorded for Black Top Records in the early 90's with her late husband, guitarist Clarence Hollimon.  Accompanying her on these versions is singer/songwriter/piano man David Egan.  While Fran's voice is not as powerful as it was a few years ago, she still retains that sassy, playful quality.  The new versions of these older songs are slower and funkier, and better for it.

Speaking of David Egan, one of the many highlights of the disc is Percy Sledge's live version of a song written by Egan and Flett that Sledge originally recorded on his 1994 Blue Night disc.  Though Sledge is originally from Alabama, he's lived in Baton Rouge since the late 60's and this performance was recorded at a festival in Louisiana.  His track is deep Southern soul at its finest.  There's more deep soul contributed by Charlene Howard, who penned her own track, "Send Me Someone To Love."

Larry Garner
Larry Garner brought two brand new tracks to the proceedings.  "Ms. Boss" is a lighthearted effort that closes the disc, a fresh take on the "henpecked by the right hen" other words, Mr. Garner at his best.  However, "It's Killing Me," an intense look at a lost relationship, ranks up there with some of his finest work.  Garner brings a lot of fire and passion to the vocal on this track.  His backing band is top notch as well, with Stanley "Buckwheat" Dural on organ, Lee Allen Zeno on bass, Lil' Buck Sinegal on guitar, Gerard St. Julien on drums, and Lloyd Richard on piano.  Here's Garner performing an unplugged version of "Ms. Boss" for a French radio program.

Paul "Lil' Buck" Sinegal
Paul "Lil' Buck" Sinegal has been playing music for over fifty years, performing and recording with Clifton Chenier, Buckwheat Zydeco, Katie Webster, Henry Gray, Lazy Lester, and has appeared on hundreds of recordings since the 1950's.  In recent years, he has branched out on his own a bit, recording a couple of solo CDs.  He gets ample opportunity to shine on Louisiana Swamp Stomp, both as a frontman (Tampa Red's "Don't You Lie To Me") and with slide guitar phenom Sonny Landreth on the sizzling instrumental title track.

Other artists joining in the fun are New Orleans bluesman Little Freddie King, whose "Can't Do Nothing Babe," mixes the best of the Crescent City with the Mississippi Delta, 85-year-old Henry Gray (former piano man for Howlin' Wolf), who reprises a song he previously recorded in the late 50's ("How Could You Do It") and the timely "Times Are Getting Hard," and Dwayne Dopsie, son of the late Rockin' Dopsie, who performs the outstanding Zydeco track, "Traveling Man," with his band, the Zydeco Hellraisers.

Chicago resident and harmonica player Omar Coleman also chips in, with help from Billy Flynn on guitar, Kenny "Beedy Eyes" Smith on drums, and Bob Stroger on bass.  The Windy City quartet tears through Slim Harpo's standard, "Scratch My Back," and Lightnin' Hopkins' "Mojo Hand," like they've been in Louisiana all their lives.  Kenny Smith also served as co-producer for the disc, along with Dr. Paul McCarthy, founder of the NLBSCIF. 

The foundation held a fundraiser last Friday (November 19) in Shreveport, LA, with Flett, Egan, Fran, and Lee Allen Zeno appearing, and took in about $13,000.  Be on the lookout for another fundraising event in 2011.

Carol Fran and David Egan perform at the Nov. 19 NLBSCIF Fundraiser in Shreveport
Louisiana Swamp Stomp is a fantastic way to contribute to a worthy you get to take in some great music in the process.  For more information about this cause, visit the foundation's site at

Friday, November 19, 2010

Essential Recordings: Albert Collins, Robert Cray, Johnny Copeland - Showdown!

Way back in 1986, I was a college student, working toward my engineering degree at Mississippi State, looking for something different to listen to. As I mentioned in an earlier post, my musical tastes were all over the map, ranging from 80's pop to 70's funk to rock and roll to jazz to soul and R&B. While I enjoyed all of it, I had sort of hit a wall as far as music went. Nothing really grabbed me or kept my attention for very long, which bothered me just a little bit. After all, music had been a big part of my life for so long (only as a listener though, I have no musical ability whatsoever.....just ask anyone who sits next to me in church), so I really wanted to find something interesting.

I decided to go with a couple of my buddies to nearby Columbus, where there was a mall....and a music store, Camelot Music. I had been there several times and had picked up a few records here and there, but nothing really memorable. On this day, I was thumbing through the jazz cassettes and came across an intriguing-looking album with three guys standing in a huddle, all with guitars slung over their shoulders, and the word "SHOWDOWN!" in big red letters across the bottom of the cover. I looked at the names of the artists.....Albert Collins, Robert Cray, and Johnny Copeland. I had heard of Robert Cray from a music magazine that I had read, but didn't know what he sounded like. I didn't know any of the songs listed on the back cover either. This was the epitome of an impulse buy. I didn't know what I had, but I had the feeling that I was going to like it when I unwrapped it and popped it into my tape deck.

I did enjoy it, repeatedly. For about two week, the only tape that I listened to was Showdown! The sound was what I had been waiting for…..the fierce guitar, the soulful and gritty vocals, the songs…… was my favorite things from other musical styles wrapped up into one package. Of course, now I know that what I was doing was climbing down the musical tree. You see……all these musical styles that I already liked were branches of the same tree. All of those styles of music could trace their origins to the blues. The blues was the trunk of the tree and funk, jazz, soul, R&B, rock and roll, and pop were the branches. Of course, I wasn’t thinking that deeply when I listened to it for the first time. I was just wondering where I could find some more music like it.

Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown
Showdown! was first envisioned as a triple header between Collins, Copeland, and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown. The trio had played at the Chicago Blues Festival in 1984 and had impressed the audience.  Copeland's management had contacted Alligator head man, Bruce Iglauer, with the idea of making an album.  Unfortunately, the tempestuous Brown never got on the same page as the other musicians and was removed from the project altogether. Enter Robert Cray, who had idolized Albert Collins from the days when the Iceman played a high school dance at Young Bob’s school in Seattle, and one of the finest blues records of the 1980’s was well on the way to fruition.

The trio actually only played together on two songs, the opener, a rousing version of T-Bone Walker’s “T-Bone Shuffle,” and the torrid closer, Ray Charles’ “Blackjack.” On “T-Bone Shuffle,” a regular song in Cray's set at the time, each man got to sing a verse and take a solo, which was great fun and showed that while they played guitar similarly, each had his own individual style that colored his fretwork. Vocally, they were all different……Copeland’s vocals were fierce and fiery, Collins’ were someone laconic and self-effacing, and Cray’s were reminiscent of the 60’s soul belters like O. V. Wright. On “Blackjack,” Collins was the only singer, but each pulled out all the stops for their solos…..but then, this was how the ENTIRE album was…..pulling out all the stops, no holds barred from start to finish. Check out the opening cut of the disc, with all three getting a turn at the mic and on guitar……”T-Bone Shuffle," followed by their grand finale, "Blackjack."

Even though the disc was basically an Albert Collins album (he was the only actual Alligator artist), Collins graciously stayed in the background for the most part, offering up vocals on the opener and closer, on the funky, “The Moon Is Full,” and sharing guitar leads with Cray, one verse of Hop Wilson’s “Black Cat Bone,” with Copeland, and the groovy instrumental, “Albert’s Alley,” also with Copeland. Even though he stays back and lets the others have the spotlight for the most part, there’s still that distinctive, piercing guitar all over the place that you recognize immediately when you hear it.

Johnny Copeland had been recording since the late 50’s when Showdown! came along (highlighted by two wonderful albums for Rounder Records…..Copeland Special and Texas Twister) and he came on like a force of nature (despite a mid-session bout with his stomach that slowed him for a couple of days) on all of his songs with guitar work that would seemingly melt steel and righteous, ragged vocals on tracks like “Lion’s Den” and “Bring Your Fine Self Home.” To me, this was some of the best work he ever did, just burning with intensity. On “Bring Your Fine Self Home,” Copeland is accompanied by Collins, who plays harmonica. Both men raise the rafters with their solos.

For Cray, this was sort of a coming-out party. While he had received some attention for his Hightone release, Bad Influence, he was still not the household name in the blues world that he is now. Both of his songs are a bit different from the rest of the disc. Muddy Waters’ “She’s Into Something” is a quirky song anyway as part of the Waters catalog, but Cray’s version is actually more definitive to me. “The Dream” is one of the highlights of Showdown! This moody masterpiece is a showcase for Cray’s intense vocal, along with Collins’ jagged guitar solo. Both are stellar performances.

You can’t talk about Showdown! without giving some major props to the folks behind the scenes, producers Bruce Iglauer and Dick Shurman (who reminisced fondly about the album in the most recent Living Blues), along with longtime Cray producer Bruce Bromberg, bass player extraordinaire Johnny B. Gayden, keyboardist Allen Batts, and drummer Casey Jones.

Showdown! won the Grammy for Best Blues Album in 1986 and all of the artists went on to better things over the next few years. Collins made a memorable cameo appearance in the movie, Adventures in Babysitting (“Nobody gets outta this place without singin’ the Blues.”), made one more recording for Alligator, Cold Snap, then signed a major deal with PointBlank Records, releasing a couple of albums before his untimely death from lung cancer in November of 1993.

Copeland signed with Verve Records and released a couple of fine discs in the 90’s before developing heart problems. He underwent a heart transplant and seemed to be recovering well before complications set in about a year later, and he passed away in the summer of 1997.

Everybody knows about Robert Cray’s meteoric rise following the release of “Smoking Gun” and the album Strong Persuader. He’s managed to parley that hit into a very nice career with over twenty releases and worldwide tours over the past twenty-five years, mixing the blues with deep southern soul.

Although Showdown! was a major blues release of the 80’s and is still a favorite of most blues fans, it will stand out the most to me because it was my very first blues album.  After nearly twenty-five years, I still pull it out every month or so and give it a listen......and it sounds just as good now as it did in 1986.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Blues For The Budget-Minded

If you're like most people, you're suffering from a condition that's all too common these days.....them No Budget Blues.  For most folks under tight financial conditions, one of the first things to go might be that spare change you used to allow to purchase the occasional blues CD.  One of the best ways around this condition for blues fans is the compilation CD.  Most blues labels put out collections of their best recordings on a regular basis, usually at a bargain price.  Not only is it an inexpensive way to get your hands on some quality blues music, but it also offers the possibility of exposing you to new artists that you might not have heard otherwise.  I have been picking up budget compilations for years and have discovered many of my favorite artists along the way.  Today, Friday Blues Fix will look at a few of the collections that opened my eyes and ears to some great music, and we'll throw a few samples your way while we're at it.

When I first started listening to the blues, MCA was reissuing a lot of the old Chess Records.  Most of these records originally done in the 50's or 60's were relatively short, about ten songs lasting about thirty minutes at most, so MCA released them at pretty low prices.  I knew a lot of the artists for Chess by name only and it was so overwhelming that I didn't know where to get started.  Fortunately for me, MCA had also reissued Chess' classic The Blues five-volume series.  These albums featured tracks from the entire line-up of Chess artists....Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Willamson, Buddy Guy, Jimmy Rogers, and countless others.  Within a few weeks, I had all five volumes and my blues vocabulary had expanded a hundredfold.  Unfortunately, these are hard to find now, but MCA (and now Universal Music) has repackaged the Chess catalog several times over the years and most of these songs are still easy to find, though not quite as low-budget as previously.  In the early 90's, Chess released a Volume 6 with nothing but rarities on it.  If you can find this series, it's a great, inexpensive place to build up your collection of Chess blues.  They can be easily found on Ebay or on Amazon in used condition for small change, and are well worth the hunt.  Here's the first song I ever heard by Buddy Guy, courtesy of The Blues, Volume 1......"First Time I Met The Blues."

Another great indispensible source of blues in a more modern vein came from Alligator Records.  Their Genuine Houserockin' Music series was an incredible introduction to the Chicago label's wide span of  artists.  I had originally picked up a couple of their albums in record stores and enjoyed them, but when I picked up Volume 1 of this set, I knew that I had to dig deeper.  About once a year for five or six years, the label released a new volume that collected recent recordings.  There were five of these, plus a Christmas edition.  These albums included cuts from Johnny Winter, Koko Taylor, Albert Collins, Roy Buchanan, Hound Dog Taylor, Fenton Robinson, Jimmy Johnson, Kenny Neal, Tinsley Ellis, Lil' Ed & the Blues Imperials, Little Charlie and the Nightcats, Lonnie Brooks, and James Cotton.  Going the extra mile for their listeners, Alligator has also, since the early 90's, released an anniversary two-disc set every five years, also at budget prices, of some of their best work.  These have essentially replaced the Houserockin' series over the years and more and more of them feature previously unreleased songs.

Speaking of anniversary releases, several blues labels have turned out some great releases celebrating their years in the record business.  Delmark Records has issued anniversary sets for their blues and jazz catalog every five years since their 20th, the last couple also included DVDs.  The unsung Chicago label Earwig Records released a two-CD 20th anniversary set a few years ago that featured music from many little-heard Chicago area artists.  The German label Ruf Records released a 12th, yes....a 12th, anniversary set a couple of years ago with some of the best of the blues being played by many American (Larry Garner, Luther Allison, Omar and the Howlers, Candye Kane, Bernard Allison) and European artists (Ian Parker, Ainsley Lister, Ana Popovic).  There have been many others, and most of them offer some quality listening because the labels are putting examples of their best material on these discs.  I was able to track down some additional music from artists I'd never heard before after listening to these releases.  The great Jimmy Dawkins released an awesome disc in the early 90's from Earwig and this song, "Beetin Knockin Ringin," was on it and also the Earwig anthology.  Check it out.

Around the time I started buying CDs, Rounder Records came out with their fantastic Easydisc series.  By the mid 90's, Rounder had built a huge catalog of blues, zydeco, Cajun, New Orleans R&B, folk, country, surf, and bluegrass recordings, so they began releasing collections of recordings, usually taking on a particular theme, like Blues Guitar Greats, Zydeco Party, Blues on Fire, etc....).  In addition to their own catalog, Rounder also issued tracks from artists on Alligator and JSP on Easydisc recordings, giving them additional exposure.  Due to some of these collections, particularly Blues on Fire, I discovered the British label, JSP, and their vast catalog of seldom-recorded artists like U. P. Wilson, the Butler Twins, and many other artists that they featured on their own budget-priced collections.

JSP offered anthologies of their current releases that loaded sixteen or eightteen songs on a budget-priced disc.  They also offered two-disc sets on Chicago and Texas blues that brought out a lot of previously unheard musicians and many of them benefitted from the exposure.  Another great collection came from the Dutch label, Black Magic, and had some great tracks as well.  Somehow, someway, JSP and Black Magic collections found their way into a lot of mall music stores in Mississippi, which is where I found them.  Take a break from reading and enjoy these two tracks.....first, from the JSP anthology Chicago Blues (Volume 1), here's Phil Guy, brother of Buddy, playing "Once A Gambler"......then from the Black Magic anthology, Witchcraft: Black Magic for Beginners, here's another highly underrated Chicago artist, the late Andrew Brown, with "I Can Hear My Baby Talking."  Brown was criminally underrecorded and he passed away from cancer at a pretty young age in the late 80's, so few got to hear his soul-based blues.  We'll be discussing Andrew Brown more in a future FBF.

In the 70's, the recording business was basically dead to blues musicians.  Their best bet back then was to go to Europe and tour for the appreciative fans overseas.  While they were there, many of them recorded for various labels, like Black & Blue, Sonet, and others.  In the early 90's, Evidence Records bought the rights to many of these albums and began releasing them as budget discs, with bonus tracks added in most cases.  Most of these are still available from Evidence and offer some great music by nearly every major blues artists during that time, filling a gap in most of their recording careers for U.S. fans.

That covered most of the post-war blues for me.  There was also the outstanding collection of discs from Yazoo Records.  Yazoo collected many of the great pre-war artists of the late 20's and 30's in various collections.  It was on these recordings that I first heard Charley Patton, Sam Collins, Skip James, Kokomo Arnold, Tommy Johnson, and Frank Stokes.  Yazoo Records offered a package deal where you could buy three or four and get one free and they were fairly inexpensive to start with, so I snatched up a well-rounded collection over a short amount of time.  To many blues fans, the pre-war recordings are an acquired taste, due to rough sound in most cases, but modern technology has done wonders for these dusty old recordings.  JSP, in particular, has reissued some of these recordings in budget-priced box sets with excellent sound.  Give a listen to Charley Patton's original version of "Spoonful Blues," from Yazoo's Roots of Rock collection.

There are countless other anthology releases that are also worth seeking out, but what you have here is a good start if you're trying to expand your blues collection in a short time on a limited budget.  A bit of warning though......once you get started listening, it's hard to stop.