Friday, December 31, 2010

Best of 2010 - Top Discs You Might Have Missed

Since we're at the end of 2010, you can expect to see many different Top 10 lists for the year's best blues releases.  My own list will be forthcoming in the January issue of Blues Bytes.  Here at FBF, I decided to post my Top Sleeper releases.......these are a few discs that I heard this year that really grabbed me, but may have slipped between the cracks for many listeners.  Here we go......

Solomon King - Under The Sun (Blue Skunk Music) - The L.A.-based King mixes blues with R&B and funk....some well-chosen covers combined with imaginative original songs.....backing musicians include Ray Parker, Jr. on guitar......a couple of songs here have been featured on the HBO series True Blood.....very good guitar and vocals.....definitely worth a listen.  Here's the title track from the disc, the very first live performance of the tune.

Phil Gates - Addicted To The Blues (Setag Music) - Gates counts as his influences guitarists like Albert King, Buddy Guy, Carlos Santana, and Jimi Hendrix.  He's been doing session work for years and releasing his own discs periodically.  This disc features a variety of styles....highlights include "Sexy Little Cool," with Gates showcasing his slide guitar playing, the country flavored "Evening Train," and the title cut, which looks at its subject in a unique manner. Here's Gates and his band recorded on Memorial Day at the Santa Clarita Blues Festival, performing the Junior Wells standard, "Messin' With The Kid."

The Vincent Hayes Project - Reclamation (North 61 Records) - I really liked this one.....some diverse guitar work on here and some outstanding songs, like "Thank You," the ultimate kiss-off song, and "Hit Me High, Hit Me Low," plus the wonderful T-Bone Walker-influenced "I've Got A Right To Change My Mind," one of two great slow blues tracks.....a powerful and confident release.  "Insecurities" is another cool track from the disc....check out a sample below.

Cee Cee James - Seriously Raw (FWG Records) - Ms. James actually had two releases this year, but this live set (recorded at the 2009 Sunbanks R&B Festival) is just a cut above her Blue Skunk release, Low Down Where The Snakes Crawl.  The live disc is loaded with crowd-pleasing covers and several originals as well.  Ms. James is often compared with Janis Joplin, but after one listen, you will see that she is very much her own woman and one that we will be hearing from often in the future.

Rick Holmstrom, Juke Logan, and Stephen Hodges - Twist-O-Lettz (Mocombo Records) - A stellar throwback disc that reminds you of the classic rock and blues of the 50's and 60's.....but despite the echoes of the past, it's a throughly modern production that will definitely get your toe of Chess and Excello recordings will want to get their hands on this one.

Son Jack, Jr. and Michael Wilde - Walk The Talk (self-released) - Focuses more on electric blues than his previous releases, but Son Jack Jr is still all about the Delta blues.  Wilde's harmonica is a perfect complement to Jack's guitar and vocals.  As I stated in the Blues Bytes review last month, even though it was recorded in Washington State, it's as authentic as anything you hear coming out of the Mississippi Delta. 

Chris Antonik (self-released) - a surprising debut release from the young Canadian guitarist/songwriter....some very  nice originals ("The King of Infidelity," "More To Give," "If We Start From Here," "Almost Free," "Persevering Kind") mixed with familiar covers ("Double Trouble," "She's A Burglar")'ll be hearing more from this guy, too.  I couldn't find any video online, so check out this track from his new disc, "The King of Infidelity."

Barbara Blue - Royal Blue (Big Blue Productions) - If you haven't experienced Ms. Blue, this is a great place to start.  She currently holds court at Silky O'Sullivan's in Memphis and is a Bluff City favorite.  On this disc, she takes on many of Memphis' finest blues and soul tunes.  The late Willie Mitchell was originally slated to produce this effort, but his declining health forced him to bow out and his son, Lawrence "Boo" Mitchell, stepped in admirably, along with a stellar band.  Not that BB needs much help, mind you.  If Memphis Soul is your bag, you'll want to check this one out.

2010 was an outstanding year for blues releases.  There were a lot of excellent and diverse recordings this year that I really enjoyed listening to.  It will be very hard to settle on a Top Ten list this year.

One more thing.......

If you're looking for something to do after recovering from your New Year's Eve festivities, why don't you take a little trip down south to Lafayette, LA on January 2nd, to hear some Louisiana Blues, R&B, and Zydeco.  Just check out that line-up on the poster below.  Lots of familiar names on that roster, so this one looks like a whole lot of fun!

Here's one of the names on the marquee that FBF'ers will be familiar with, Mr. Larry Garner, with one of my favorite tunes, "The Road of Life."

Friday, December 24, 2010

Bright Lights, Big City - The Music of Jimmy Reed

If someone were to ask you who sold the most blues records or who had the most charted blues singles during the 1950's, most of you would be inclined to say B. B.  King or Muddy Waters or Howlin' Wolf or Little Walter or maybe even Elmore James or Lightnin' Hopkins.  If you submitted any of those names, you would be wrong.  The correct answer would be a guitarist named Jimmy Reed from tiny Dunleith, MS. 

Jimmy Reed
Some newcomers to the blues may not know who Jimmy Reed was, but you certainly are familiar with at least one or two of his songs.  Songs like "Baby, What You Want Me To Do," "Bright Lights, Big City," "Going To New York," "Honest I Do," "Big Boss Man," and "Ain't That Lovin' You, Baby" are standard tunes in most blues bands' repertoire even today, and Reed was a primary influence on artists like Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones, Hank Williams, Jr., and a large number of the Excello Records roster.

Reed's style was pretty straight-forward, simple, and easy to imitate.  Anyone who picked up a guitar had a passing chance of learning one of his tunes.  Consisting of a simple boogie shuffle pattern with country-flavored harmonica (played on a neck-rack), and a lazy, loping rhythm, Reed enjoyed hit after hit in the 1950's on the R&B charts (and the occasional venture into the pop charts) and his music was enjoyed by both black and white listeners.  Joining him on nearly all of his recordings was his lifelong friend and musical partner, Eddie Taylor, whose steady rhythm guitar provided the glue that held everything together.

Eddie Taylor
Jimmy Reed was born in Dunleith, MS in 1925.  As a teenager, he learned to play guitar and harmonica basics from his friend, Taylor.  He relocated to Gary, Indiana and worked at a meat packing plant while paying his dues on the blues circuit in Gary and in Chicago.  He also worked with John Brim, playing harmonica on a couple of Brim's recordings (including his classic, "Tough Times").

Reed also auditioned for Chess Records, but was rejected.  Soon afterward, Brim's young drummer, Albert King (yes, THAT one) pointed Reed to Vee-Jay Records, where he recorded his first sides, reuniting with his friend, Eddie Taylor.  The hits started coming one after another, much to the chagrin of the powers that be at Chess.  Here's a couple of Reed's classic tracks for you to enjoy......"Baby What You Want Me To Do" and "Big Boss Man."  As I said earlier, nearly anybody can play a Jimmy Reed tune.  I've heard more blues bands at all levels of development play at least one of these songs than any other blues standards.

Early Promo Shot of Jimmy Reed
Though Reed had lots of chart success over the 50's, he was not what you would call well suited for it.  Basically illiterate, the constant rugged touring schedule he faced compounded an already serious alcohol problem.  His drinking problem was so bad at times that he was barely able to stand and even walk to the microphone.  Despite this, he enthralled audiences from coast to coast.  In 1957, he began to be stricken with epileptic seizures, although it was years before it was diagnosed.  Since he drank so heavily, and was usually going through the DT's, most people didn't realize that he had worse problems.  Reed once recalled a show where he remembered going on stage, but not coming off.

Taylor once told how he had to sit in front of Reed during recordings and let him know when to sing and play his harmonica.  Reed's wife, Mary (also known as "Mama") often had to sit beside him during recordings to whisper the lyrics in his ear, even the songs he wrote himself (this was the inspiration for the title to the early 90's compilation, Speak The Lyrics To Me, Mama Reed).  To the record-buying public, none of this mattered.  In all, Reed charted 11 songs on the Billboard Top 100 Pop Charts and 14 songs on the R&B Charts.  No other blues artists could match that.

When Vee-Jay went out of business, so did Reed for the most part.  A few releases were forthcoming in the  60's and early 70's, but none of them really measured up to his Vee-Jay sides.  Eventually, his epilepsy was diagnosed and treated and he quit drinking.  He was attempting a comeback when he suddenly died in 1976, a week shy of his 51st birthday. 

Though Reed's story is not a pleasant one, with lots of pitfalls that could have been avoided with a little bit of good fortune, his music continues to be an inspiration, both in its simplicity and in its joy.  Even now, over thirty years after his death and nearly fifty years after the peak of his career, Jimmy Reed continues to influence blues artists.  One of the best-selling, most popular albums of the past couple of years was Omar Dykes' and Jimmie Vaughan's tribute disc, On The Jimmy Reed Highway.

Nobody sums up Jimmy Reed's music better than the man himself did a few months before his death.
"I just do my one straight thing.  But it seems to work out pretty good like it is."

Eddie Taylor was without a doubt a more talented guitarist and singer than his good friend was, but his recordings (including "Big Time Playboy" and "Bad Boy") didn't sell nearly as well as Reed's.  Such are the fortunes of the music business.  He settled for being an in-demand sideman for other artists like John Lee Hooker, Snooky Pryor, and John Brim.  He did achieve a measure of success in the 70's as a frontman, recording a couple of fine albums for Advent and Antones before passing away on Christmas Day in 1985.  Here's Taylor performing "Bad Boy" at Antone's 10th Anniversary Celebration in July of '85, just a few months before his death, with an all-star backing band (Luther Tucker and Hubert Sumlin - guitars, Sunnyland Slim - piano, Snooky Pryor - harmonica, Bob Strogher - bass, and Ted Harvey - drums).

Blues Masters: Very Best of Jimmy Reed Blues Masters: Very Best of Jimmy Reed  (Rhino) - There have been many collections of Reed's songs over the years.  This set from Rhino Records offers the cream of the crop, along with a few rarities, with the best sound.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Broke & Hungry Records - Ten Questions With Jeff Konkel

Over the past couple of months, Friday Blues Fix has looked at a couple of important blues labels of the past.  Today, we're going to look at a present-day blues label that's doing its part to keep the blues alive, Broke & Hungry Records.

Jeff Konkel is the founder and driving force behind Broke & Hungry Records, a label that specializes in finding and recording rarely-heard (or never before-heard) Mississippi Delta Blues musicians. Konkel started the label in 2006 with a recording from Bentonia bluesman Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, a disciple of fellow Bentonia natives Skip James and Jack Owens. Since then, B&H has released six other well-received recordings, the most recent being another album by Holmes titled Ain’t It Lonesome. In 2008, the label joined forces with Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art (Roger Stolle) and Mudpuppy Productions (Kari Jones) to release M for Mississippi, the critically acclaimed documentary of the current Mississippi Delta blues scene, and its two accompanying CD soundtracks. 

In 2011, Broke and Hungry will be celebrating their fifth anniversary.  Mr. Konkel was gracious enough to sit down with Friday Blues Fix to answer a few questions about his label, past, present, and future.  We appreciate him taking the time to do so.

Wesley Jefferson and Jeff Konkel during the filming of M for Mississippi

Everyone has a story about how they were first drawn to the blues. What’s your story?

Like a lot of people, I backed my way into the blues. During high school, I was a big classic rock fan. In the spring of 1992, when I was 18, I heard about Robert Johnson and his influence on Zeppelin, Clapton and the Stones. I picked up his Complete Recordings and, frankly, it didn’t make much of an impact on first listen. I just couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. I kept listening and eventually the music really hit me. From there, I began collecting music from other prewar figures like Skip James, Bukka White, Blind Willie McTell, Blind Blake, Mississippi John Hurt and others.

It wasn’t until 1997, during my first trip to the Delta that I became interested in contemporary rural blues. Once I fell for it, I fell hard.

How did the idea for Broke and Hungry Records come about?

October 2005 was not a great time for fans of Mississippi Blues. Rooster Blues Records had folded and Fat Possum Records had moved toward rock. R.L. Burnside had just died as had a couple of other artists from the region. I was at a juke joint called Po’ Monkey’s in Merigold, Mississippi, lamenting the fact that there were still great bluesmen flying under the radar with no one seemingly interested in recording them. I also knew that these artists weren’t getting younger. The beer was flowing that night, and in a moment of “clarity” (read: drunken foolishness), I declared that I was going to start a label to address this need. A couple of weeks later I formed Broke & Hungry Records, and just two weeks after that, we cut our first record.

While Jimmy “Duck” Holmes is a fairly familiar name to a lot of Mississippi blues fans, as are Terry “Big T” Williams and Wesley Jefferson, how did you happen to find out about Odell Harris and the Mississippi Marvel? Those two artists seemingly came out of nowhere.

Frankly, even Jimmy was pretty obscure when I first recorded him. He had only played outside of Yazoo County on a couple of occasions. The dedicated blues hounds knew about Jimmy’s juke joint, the Blue Front Café in Bentonia, but I don’t think many folks had a real grasp of the depths of his talent.

As for Odell Harris and the Mississippi Marvel, I was basically chasing rumors and shadows.

I knew a handful of folks who had heard Odell, and they all told me he was incredible. They also told me he was utterly unreliable and impossible to track down. My friend Lightnin’ Malcolm knows Odell pretty well and was able to find him. I realized I might not have a second shot at recording him, so I set up a session on the Gulf Coast without ever having heard him play a note of music. I guess you’ve figured out by now, I’m a pretty impulsive guy. Anyhow, the session was grueling. It kicked off at around 11 p.m. one Saturday night in August 2006. It dragged on throughout the night, but the first several hours were pretty brutal. Odell was in a sour mood and the locals in the club were in even lower spirits. At several points, I considered just shutting it down and cutting my losses, but shortly before dawn, everything came together. In just a couple of hours we had what we needed. Good thing, too, because Odell has once again vanished. I talked to him by phone shortly after the session, but I haven’t seen him again and he seems to have fallen off the map completely.

As for the Mississippi Marvel, I had heard about him for a couple of years before I met him. Since he’s chosen to stay anonymous, I can’t tell you much about the circumstances behind meeting him. What I can tell you is that when I finally did hear him, I was immediately bowled over. I called my buddy Roger Stolle and held up the phone so he could hear. At the end of that phone call I told Roger, “I guess I know who I’m recording next.” Of course, making that happen proved a little difficult. After several months of trying to talk him into recording, the man we now call the Mississippi Marvel informed me that his fellow congregants at church were not fans of blues music and he feared he would be alienated from his community if he cut a CD of secular music. Eventually we came up with the idea of issuing the CD under the pseudonym and with no photos or details that might compromise his anonymity.

I’m really proud of both of those records. They’re totally ragged and raw in the best possible way. Needless to say, it’s hard to make your money back on CDs where the artists won’t do media or play any shows, but I’d do it all again.

Any standout moments with B&H so far that you’d like to remember?

Too many to count. And the highlights greatly outnumber the lowlights.

One obvious highlight was winning the Blues Music Award for our film M For Mississippi in 2009. I’d like to say that such things don’t matter, but that would be a lie. When you put your heart and soul, not to mention your savings into a big project like that, you want people to appreciate it. It was really gratifying to know that audiences connected with the artists in the film.

But at the end of the day, it’s really the little moments that make it all worthwhile. I enjoy spending time with the artists we record, getting to know them as people, developing friendships. Jimmy “Duck” Holmes and I drove out to the East Coast for a short tour earlier this year, and while there were a few bumps along the way, I wouldn’t trade experiences like that for the world.

Jimmy "Duck" Holmes
Any moments you’d just as soon forget?

A few, but even the worst experiences usually make for a good story later. The Odell session started terribly but ended up resulting in a great record.

Looking at my bank account is usually an experience I’d just as soon forget. They don’t call us Broke & Hungry for nothing.

The M For Mississippi documentary is fantastic… of the best at covering its subject, blues musicians…..not as a specimen under a microscope as many of these docs do, but as living, breathing human beings. What made you guys decide to do such a film and how long did you bounce the idea around before jumping in with both feet?

Thanks. We had a blast making the movie. The week we spent on the road was amazing. Exhausting, but amazing.

The idea for the film evolved over time. Since starting Broke & Hungry Records, I’ve become great friends with Roger Stolle of Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art in Clarksdale. We’ve spent a lot of time hanging out together in jukes and in the homes of bluesmen across the region. We knew we wanted to collaborate on a major project that reflected those experiences and eventually we decided a film was the best way to do that.

We agreed right away that this couldn’t be another dry, academic treatise on the history of the blues. Those films have already been made a thousand times over. Besides, that just isn’t how we approach the music. If you’re not having fun at a juke joint or a house party, you’re doing something wrong. We wanted the film to reflect that attitude. The movie is intended to be fun and entertaining. We want people who see it to hop in their cars and head down to the Delta for a road trip of their own.

(L to R) Roger Stolle, Jeff Konkel, and Terry "Harmonica" Bean during the filming of M for Mississippi
We started talking about the project sometime in 2006, and spent the next two years mapping it out, assembling our team and raising money. We shot the film in just a week during the spring of 2008 and we released it a mere six months later. It was a pretty exhausting process, but we wanted to release the film quickly so that it could benefit the artists while they’re still alive and able to take advantage of the exposure. Sadly, that concern has proven well founded. Two of the artists in the movie – Wesley “Junebug” Jefferson and Wiley Foster, better known as “Mr. Tater the Music Maker” – have since passed.

There are a lot of memorable moments in the movie, sometimes poignant, sometimes hilarious. Give us a few of your highlights from filming the documentary, some things that really stand out in your memory?

Well, the day at R.L. Boyce’s house in Como, Mississippi was a blast. The weather didn’t cooperate, but the house party was great. As you can see on the film, there was a lot happening in the house. We laughed a lot that day. Actually we laughed a lot throughout the entire filming. We really enjoyed the experience. Most of the artists in the film are guys we know well both personally and professionally, so the atmosphere was usually pretty relaxed.

Nevertheless, nonstop filming for a week is completely exhausting. By the final day – when we shot the L.C. Ulmer segment – we were basically walking zombies, but even then we managed to have some fun.

You basically started Broke and Hungry with no previous experience in the music industry. Did that help you or hurt you? Is there anything that you would have done differently if you had the chance?

From an artistic standpoint, I think my inexperience helped. I started the label as a fan, not as a seasoned producer. As a result, I’ve tended to make records that I would want to hear as a fan. These aren’t just “products” to be deposited in the marketplace. They’re true labors of love, and hopefully that shows. I don’t get hung up on what others consider the “right” way of doing things. We’re going to keep on marching to the beat of our own drum.

For a taste of the Broke & Hungry approach, check out this truly unique, atmospheric version of the Delta classic, "Catfish," courtesy of Terry "Big T" Williams and the late Wesley "Junebug" Jefferson, from their Meet Me In The Cottonfield amazing combination of the best of the past and the present of Delta blues

What can we expect from Broke and Hungry Records in the future?

In early 2011, we’ll be issuing a two-CD collection called Mistakes Were Made: Five Years of Raw Blues, Damaged Livers & Questionable Business Decisions. It pulls together some of the best music from our catalog along with a whole lot of great, never-before-heard recordings.

The set will include 30 tracks, of which a full 15 have never before been released. The unreleased tracks include contributions by Jimmy "Duck" Holmes, Wesley Jefferson, Pat Thomas, Terry "Big T" Williams, Bill Abel, The Mississippi Marvel and Terry "Harmonica" Bean.

Here's a previously unreleased song (courtesy of Mr. Konkel) that will be included on the upcoming collection from Terry "Harmonica" Bean, called "Pretty Baby."

Pat Thomas
I’m also planning to reissue our debut CD, Back to Bentonia by Jimmy “Duck” Holmes next spring. This remastered version will feature new artwork, new liner notes and several unreleased cuts from the session.

Additionally, we’re hoping to finalize a project for Three Forks Music, the new cooperative organization that reunites the labels responsible for M For Mississippi: Broke & Hungry Records, Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art and Mudpuppy Recordings.

What are your top ten indispensable recordings?

Tough question. Ask me tomorrow and you’re likely to get an entirely different bunch of records, but here are some of my favorite postwar blues records (in no particular order):

- Fred McDowell – First Recordings (Rounder Records)

- Lightnin’ Hopkins – Lightnin’ And The Blues: The Herald Sessions (Buddha Records)

- Furry Lewis, Bukka White & Friends – Party! At Home (Arcola Records)

- Cedell Davis – When Lightnin’ Struck The Pine (Fast Horse Records)

- David “Honeyboy” Edwards – I’ve Been Around (Trix Records/Savoy Record)

- Various Artists – I Have To Paint My Face: Mississippi Blues – 1960 (Arhoolie Records)

- Junior Kimbrough – Most Things Haven’t Worked Out (Fat Possum Records)

- Jack Owens – It Must Have Been The Devil (Testament Records)

- Big Joe Williams – Shake Your Boogie (Arhoolie Records)

- Lonnie Pitchford – All Around Man (Rooster Blues Records)

The Broke & Hungry Records Catalog

Back to Bentonia

Jimmy “Duck” Holmes – Back To Bentonia

Searching For Odell Harris

Odell Harris – Searching for Odell Harris

Meet Me In The Cotton Field

Terry “Big T” Williams & Wesley “Junebug” Jefferson – Meet Me in the Cotton Field

Done Got Tired of Tryin'

Jimmy “Duck” Holmes – Done Got Tired of Tryin’

The World Must Never Know!

The Mississippi Marvel – The World Must Never Know

His Father's Son

Pat Thomas – His Father’s Son

Ain't It Lonesome

Jimmy “Duck” Holmes – Ain’t It Lonesome

M For Mississippi - A Road Trip Through The Birthplace Of The Blues M For Mississippi: A Road Trip Through The Birthplace Of The Blues (More Music From The Motion Picture)  M For Mississippi - A Road Trip Through The Birthplace Of The Blues (Music From The Motion Picture)

M for Mississippi - A Road Trip Through The Birthplace of The Blues (DVD & 2 CDs) – a collaboration between Broke & Hungry, Cat Head, and Mudpuppy)

To see FBF's post from April on M For Mississippi (and an interview with Roger Stolle, go here.)