Friday, February 24, 2012

Ten Questions With Beth McKee

Whatever you might be doing on February 28th, you need to stop at some time during the day, and either make a drive to your local record store or jump on the internet and get a copy of Beth McKee's new CD, Next To Nowhere.  Trust me when I tell you that if you're any kind of music lover at all, especially of blues and roots, you will be glad that you did.  McKee's an outstanding composer and performer, and this release is a potent mixture of blues, R&B, rock, gospel, and soul.  The Jackson, MS native spent the early part of the 90's with the New Orleans country band, Evangeline, whose song, "She's a Wild One," later became a hit for Faith Hill.  When the band broke up, she eventually relocated to Orlando with drummer and future husband, Juan Perez, who has continued to serve as a collaborator on both of her solo releases.  Ms. McKee was gracious enough to sit down with Friday Blues Fix and answer a few questions.....ten of them, in fact.  Enjoy!  

1. Your music encompasses blues, rock, Cajun, zydeco, and R&B.   This obviously developed over a period of time, so who are your musical influences and why? 
It’s a long and varied list so I’ll answer chronologically. Growing up in Mississippi my roots are blues, soul and country so let’s start out with names like Son Thomas, Little Milton, Al Green, Etta James and Charlie Rich. After I got out of school I moved to Austin, Texas and discovered Doug Sahm, who mixed rock & roll, rhythm & blues, Western Swing and Tex-Mex. I really liked that. Flaco Jimenez and Steve Jordan ignited the accordion lover in me and I’ve always loved Buckwheat Zydeco and Clifton Chenier. I was honored to play shows with Buckwheat in Florida recently. During my Austin time I was also inspired by the songwriting of guys like Butch Hancock, Guy Clarke and Townes Van Zandt. Later when I moved to New Orleans I immersed myself in its piano players; Professor Longhair, Fats Domino, Dr. John, Huey Smith and Art Neville. Bobby Charles is a huge influence as a singer and songwriter, so much so that I recorded an entire CD of his songs as a tribute a couple of years ago. My husband of 15 years, Juan Perez, plays drums and writes with me. His musical sensibilities are incredibly strong and he’s probably been the biggest influence of all.

2. What kind of music did you grow up listening to? 
Whatever was around the house; my dad had a bunch of old 78s that I enjoyed - Jimmy Rodgers, Hank Williams, Roy Acuff and Patsy Cline. I also loved Bessie Smith, Memphis Minnie, Fats Waller and Eubie Blake. Old music was a time machine that just carried me away. My mother had records by artists like Glen Campbell, Bobbie Gentry and Peggy Lee and my older sister had all the cool 70s music.
WZZQ was a cool radio station in my hometown of Jackson, MS that played stuff like The Faces and Sly and the Family Stone. Jackson State University had a station that played great blues and soul but on Sundays it was strictly gospel. I loved Sundays. I think that combination of all types of Southern roots music; rock and roll, gospel, country and funky rhythm and blues is responsible for my sound.

3. When did you decide that you wanted to be a musician? 
Deep down I always wanted that and at 14 I had my first steady gig playing the piano at church. Later, as a naïve young woman, I was afraid to commit my life to music. My family was very academically inclined and I felt that was what was expected of me. I studied accounting and dabbled with some gigs in college but it wasn’t until I went to Austin that I really starting entertaining the idea of music as my life’s work. I went out to hear live music almost every night at places like Antone’s, Hole in the Wall and the Continental Club and all I could think about was how much I wanted to be up on that stage. I think it was my time in Austin that revealed to me that music was my undeniable vocation.

4. For most of the 90’s, you were part of the group Evangeline.  How did your time with that group shape your musical vision as a solo artist? 
The Evangeline experience was special and the end of it was sad for me. I'd poured my heart and soul into it, as did the others I'm sure. I honestly think if we'd been around a little later on, we would have enjoyed greater success. Back then we were fighting an uphill battle because the music business was structured in such a way that bands needed to fit into one of a few categories and we simply didn't. We weren't the typical Nashville country act, nor were we a traditional Cajun band and we certainly couldn't be considered a rock or blues group, but there were elements of all those styles. I wanted to celebrate the fact that we had such a wide range but it was perceived as a disadvantage by some of the label people, so our diversity was reined in somewhat. The advent of Americana as a musical genre has done wonders for opening things up and with iTunes and digital downloading, people discover music on their own, now and don't rely as much on record labels to tell them what to listen to anymore. I believe that the unfortunate requirement for artists to fit into a handful of categories caused a lot of good music to slip between the cracks.
On Next to Nowhere I didn't consider trying to fit into a particular musical category for one minute and it was so liberating. When I wrote, I let myself go all over the place and trusted that my voice would tie it all together and I think it does.

5. You’ve played with a lot of great musicians over the years… do you have any cool stories about your playing with all these musicians, either in the studio or onstage? 
Some of my favorite memories date back to a summer, in the mid-90s, when Quint Davis (the founder of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival) assembled a tour called Festival New Orleans. A slew of Louisiana acts played amphitheaters all over the country, with multiple stages, Louisiana food vendors, strolling brass bands, art and crafts that you would expect see at the French Market. It was like the New Orleans Jazz Fest on the road and we had a blast. Evangeline was on that tour and each day, after our set, I sat in with the subdudes on a stage across the way. My band mates saw how much fun I was having and soon they were singing with the Zion Harmonizers during their set. When tour management heard of it, they thought it was a great idea and arranged for us to sit in with Buckwheat Zydeco for his headlining set and with the Radiators, too. Soon everybody on the tour was jamming with each other, it was a real Louisiana hoe down and I kinda felt like I had started it. Legendary New Orleans drummer Herman Ernst played with us for that tour and making music and hanging out with him was a highlight, too. All in all, it was not a bad way to spend the summer.

6. Your previous album, I’m That Way, was a tribute to Bobby Charles, the great Louisiana songwriter who passed away soon after its release. What was it like working with him and what did you learn during your time working with him
Juan and I self-produced I’m That Way and sent Bobby a copy. He loved it and instantly became a friend and mentor. He even asked me to sing on his last album “Timeless,” which I was thrilled to do. Recording Bobby's songs was cathartic and a bridge out of the creative rut I'd been in. Charles is known for his songs, but largely unknown even though he is a great recording artist in his own right. Taking on the challenge of celebrating his music closed the circle on the things I'd hoped to do with Evangeline. See, when Buffet first signed Evangeline to Margaritaville/MCA he wanted to find a Bobby Charles song for me to sing on our first album. I had just joined the band and hadn't developed any original material with them yet. I was stoked about doing a Bobby Charles song but other band members weren't so it didn't happen. We settled on Van Morrison’s “Carrying a Torch” and Jesse Winchester's "Rhumba Girl" for me to sing instead. All those years later, recording I'm That Way felt like taking care of unfinished business and I am so glad I did it.


7. Your newest release, Next To Nowhere, has some great songs on it.  Can you tell us about a few of them?  
Thanks, I’m proud of these songs. I chose “Next to Nowhere” as the title track because it best tells the story of the whole album. A story of hindsight and foresight, regret and hope for the future. I was full of fear and self-doubt for way too long, but had all this music welling up inside of me and I just had to get it out. “On the Verge” echoes that sentiment with an air of cautious optimism. When I traveled around the South, promoting I'm That Way, I met lots of female fans that soon became a group of friends. I started calling them my Swamp Sistas and I keep in touch with them on a regular basis, be it at my shows, online, or on the phone. They are one determined bunch of women who inspire me every day and in particular they inspired “Next to Nowhere” and “On the Verge.”
Rhonda Lohmeyer (from Evangeline) and I wrote “Not Tonight Josephine” from the perspective of Napoleon Bonaparte on the eve of his demise. It’s very tongue-in-cheek and fun. I wanted to honor my New Orleans roots so I played with a Professor Longhair piano style. “River Rush” is a nostalgic trip back to the Pearl River of my childhood days. I’m really proud of the country soul vibe we captured on that track.

8. Do you have any special projects in the works? 
Yes I have lots of things going on and that’s how I like it. I’m songwriting and already look forward to recording the next album. I'm also working on a short story and accompanying song collection with one of my Swamp Sistas, writer Sherri Phillips. The working title is Perdido and it is set on the Alabama and Florida state line near the Perdido River.
I'm planning shows in the upcoming months for our CD release tour and I want them to be special events. I'm enlisting the Sistas to help pull it all together. They inspire me to make my shows about more than music. I want each show to be an experience that shares a sense of roots and culture as well. There's tons of talent in the group, so I am going to designate some space at each show for a "Swamp Sista Swap Meet" and have them bring their creative efforts to share. I'm very excited about bringing them into the events since they are such a big part of my music and my life.

9. What is your favorite part about playing music for a living? 
The rapport I have with an audience when I am performing. I love connecting with them, seeing what they respond to and identify with. If I can touch someone with music, especially if it’s one of my own songs, that just makes my day. I also love to see people connect with each other over the music at our shows. I’ve seen people form long and close friendships after running into each other consistently at our gigs.

10. What are some of your favorite albums…. the ones you keep playing over and over? 

Sweetheart of the Rodeo by The Byrds is one I have bought a few times. I just love it and I find it fascinating that Gram Parsons grew up not far from where I live today. For my 21st birthday a friend gave me a copy of James Brown’s Live at the Apollo. What a great live album. Other favorites are Thelonius Monk’s Solo Monk,  Isaac Hayes’ Hot Buttered Soul, Dusty in Memphis and Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach’s collaboration Painted From Memory.

Friday, February 17, 2012

The Blues of the Magic Man

Of all the blues artists I've listened to in my twenty-five-plus years of listening to the blues, Magic Slim has to be the most unwavering.  For over forty years, Slim has done one thing and done it very well...he's has played genuine houserockin' music all over the world.  Nothing fancy, no bells and whistles (for the most part), just rough and ragged, down and dirty, strictly blue collar blues. 

He has one of the largest repertoires of any blues musician.......he's a veritable human juke box......and the uncanny ability to take anybody's song and transform it into his song.  Over the past twenty years, he has gone from being "seldom recorded" to one of the most prolific of recording artists, with a ton of releases both domestically and overseas.  His band, though having undergone some big changes over time, is still one of the very best in the Windy City and is the epitome of the classic blues band.  As I stated a few months ago on this blog, if you don't like Magic Slim, you don't like the blues.

Magic Slim was born Morris Holt in Grenada, MS in 1937.  He started out on piano, but lost his little finger in a cotton gin mishap.  Unable to play piano, he took up guitar, making his first by taking the bailing wire from his mother's broom and nailing it to a wall ("My Mama whopped me when I Tore up her broom, but she let me keep using it.  My Mama said later that if she had know what I'd be into later, she wouldn't have given me a whopping.")

A Young Magic Slim
In 1955, he made his first trip to Chicago and encountered another Grenada native, Magic Sam.  Magic Sam gave him tips on playing the guitar and even gave him his nickname.  At the time, Slim was tall and slim, so the name fit pretty well.  Sam encouraged him to develop his own style, which Slim eventually did.  Unfortunately, he wasn't quite ready at the time, even though he landed a spot with Robert Perkins' band, Mr. Pitiful and the Teardrops.  He eventually moved back to Mississippi to work on his sound.

When Slim returned from Mississippi in the mid 60's, he brought his brothers, Nick and Lee Baby, with him, to serve as his rhythm section.  Upon his return, he more than ready to compete on the tough Chicago Blues scene.  He inherited the Teardrops, and recorded a few singles, beginning with "Scufflin'," in 1966 and going on into the mid 70's.  He also recorded  couple of albums for a French label in 1977 and '78.  His first big break came in 1978, when he was given the opportunity to appear on the second volume of Alligator's superlative anthology set, Living Chicago Blues.  After that, he recorded for several labels, including Rooster Blues, Isabel (later reissued by Alligator), but after the early 80's, the recording opportunities dried up.

John Primer
Slim never slowed down though, touring relentlessly.  Over time, he developed a powerhouse band with his brother rock steady on bass guitar, Alabama Jr. Pettis on second guitar, and a revolving door of excellent drummers.  In 1982, guitarist John Primer joined the group and remained for thirteen years.  Primer provided a new dimension to the group, adding more of an R&B/soul edge to Slim's sound with his occasional vocals.  Slim often gave Primer and other members the spotlight, allowing them the opportunity to sing some tracks.

In the early 90's, Slim's recorded output began to skyrocket, as he began recorded overseas with the Austrian label, Wolf, and domestically, he began a long, productive relationship with Blind Pig Records.  He's still going strong, releasing discs for both labels regularly.....each one as solid a set of Chicago Blues as its predecessors.  Primer left in the mid 90's for a solo career, and Nick Holt passed away a few years ago, but the band is still as strong as ever, and Slim continues to allow talent room to blossom under his tutelege.

Now, Magic Slim's catalog consists of nearly two dozen albums, a mix of live and studio recordings, and even a live performance captured on DVD.  He has been cast as the lead on a motion picture, called We Be Kings, which is currently seeking funding, and he even got a Blues Marker in his native Grenada last year.  Soon to be 75 years old, Magic Slim shows no signs of slowing down, which is something we should all be grateful for.

Selected Discography.......

Sorry, but picking just a few of Magic Slim's releases as favorites is an impossible task for me.  Instead, let me recommend you listen to ANY and ALL of his recordings.  The early recordings for the French labels are raw and ragged and worth finding.  The Highway Is My Home, on Evidence Records, is a nice place to start.  His release for Rooster Blues, Grand Slam, is one of his best, and included a couple of his earlier singles when it was finally released on CD in the late 90's.

The Wolf catalog is a dynamite mix of live and studio recordings.  Some of my favorites from the Wolf label include his five volume Live at the Zoo Bar series, recorded over the late 80's and early 90's, featuring his early band through the Primer era.  Not only do you get a sampling of most of Slim's earlier bands, but you also get a sampling of his huge repertoire.  There's also a Teardrops Blues Jam CD, that features tracks with other band members taking the spotlight, another great live set called 44 Blues, and several excellent studio albums, like The Blues of the Magic Man.  You can't go wrong with any of the Wolf albums.

The Blind Pig recordings are easier to find in the U.S., and represent Slim and the Teardrops' continued development over the past twenty years.  Primer appears on the first Blind Pig release, Gravel Road, taking center stage several times.  The remainder of these releases included a trio of fantastic Dick Shurman-produced efforts (Scufflin'Black Tornado and Snakebite) that rank with his best ever, plus a Papa Chubby-produced release (Blue Magic) that attempted to update Slim's sound a bit (with mixed results), a live CD/DVD set (Anything Can Happen), the requisite guest star-laden affair (Midnight Blues), to his latest release (Raising the Bar), which is as good as anything he's ever done.  See what I's nearly impossible to pick a favorite because they are ALL great. 

Of course, you can't forget the classic Live at B.L.U.E.S. that I mentioned a few months back (which is unavailable, but would be in a just world).  If you don't have any Magic Slim in your collection, you need to exit this blog right now and pick up a few tracks or albums online or in a record store (if you can find one).  You will thank me later.

Friday, February 10, 2012

A Few Items of Interest

This week marks TWO YEARS since Friday Blues Fix was launched. To everyone who stops by on a weekly (at least) basis to see what's going on, a great big thank you for your continued support. I have really been amazed at how many folks from all over the world stop by every week. I will do my best to continue to make this a worthwhile stop for blues fans.

Last week marked the 28th annual Internation Blues Challenge (IBC), a huge talent competition where blues acts from around the world converge on the city of Memphis. Past IBC's have seen performances from current artists like Grady Champion, Eden Brent, Barbara Blue, Micheal Burks, Albert Castiglia, Fiona Boyes, Larry Garner, Delta Moon, Zac Harmon, the Homemade Jamz Band, Jason Ricci, Super Chikan, Watermelon Slim, Teeny Tucker, Susan Tedeschi, the late Sean Costello, Joe Moss, the late Robin Rogers, and Tommy Castro. Pretty impressive list, eh?

This year's lineup included 200 different acts playing all over Beale Street and other neighboring clubs. Each act was sponsored by a blues foundation, from points all over the world. The winner of the Band Competition was The WIRED! Band, sponsored by the Washington Blues Society, and the winner of the Solo/Duo Competition was Ray Bonneville (sponsored by the Ozark Blues Society of Northwest Arkansas). Congratulations to both acts and all the others who competed.

The WIRED! Band - Winner of 2012 IBC Band Competition

Ray Bonneville - Winner of 2012 IBC Solo/Duo Competition

The Gipson Guitarist Award went to Bart Walker of The Bart Walker Band, who placed second in the Band Competition.  The Lee Oskar Top Harmonica Player was Randy McQuay.  The Best Self-Produced Blues CD was Dave Keller's excellent ......Where I'm Coming From...

There's a nice change of pace in the latest issue of Living Blues magazine.....a focus on blues piano players.  There are some wonderful articles about keyboard wizards like Kenny "Blues Boss" Wayne, Papadon Washington, and the great Jimmy McCracklin.  Naturally, there are plenty of great pictures as well, including several by FBF favorite, Bill Steber.  There are also reviews of new releases from Ruthie Foster, Joe Louis Walker, Sharon Lewis, and many, many more.  There are lots of fine blues magazines out there, but you can't go wrong with Living Blues, which should be available at newstands and bookstores everywhere.

FBF will be talking about some other new releases in the coming weeks, but wanted to mention a new release that is definitely worth a listen from a California duo called Sista Jean and C.B.  Sista Jean has worked as a session vocalist with Cher, Mick Jagger, Tina Turner, and Bobby Caldwell, and she can also be heard on several of Joe Henry's recent blues productions with Solomon Burke, Allen Toussaint, and Hugh Laurie).  She also recorded R&B in the  90's as Pepper MaShay.  C.B. is guitarist Carlyle Barriteau, a native of Aruba, who plays with Caldwell, and is currently making a name for himself on the smooth jazz scene.

Their first release as a duo is called Back to the Root and is a warm, relaxed, intimate set of blues that also mixes R&B, soul, jazz, and gospel.  They wrote all the tunes, which are uniformly excellent.  Sista Jean's vocals are strong, yet understated, which suits this material perfectly and Barriteau's guitar work is fantastic in support (they are backed on several tracks by Troy Dexter, on dobro or Fender Rhodes, and David Vidal, on harmonica or pedal steel).  This is a great set for late night listening or for just relaxing on the front porch.  Here's hoping that we hear more from this team.

I mentioned one of my favorite older releases a few weeks ago, Lil' Ed & the Blues Imperials' Roughhousin'. Frontman Ed Williams is an awesome slide guitarist whose uncle, J. B. Hutto, was a master slide guitarist in his own right who recorded for Delmark and Rounder's subsidiary Varrick in the 60's, 70's, and 80's.  Williams and his band were selected by Alligator Records' head man Bruce Iglauer to be a part of the label's anthology, The New Bluebloods, and during their time recording their selection for the album (with Williams still wearing his uniform from his day job at a car wash), they caught on fire.  Iglauer had time to burn in the studio, so the band more or less started playing their typical live set while he caught it all on tape.  In the process, they ended up recording around thirty second takes and no overdubs.

The results are about as live and raw a studio album as you may ever hear.  It's interesting to note that during the recording session, Ed did his usual stage antics...backbending, duck-walking, tiptoeing, and sliding across the floor....and maybe that gave the set even more authenticity.  Williams had some great original songs, like the outstanding slow blues, "Everything I Do Brings Me Closer To The Blues," "Pride and Joy," and the autobiographical "Car Wash Blues."  The group covered Percy Mayfield's "You Don't Exist Any More," Arthur Crudup's "Mean Old Frisco," and the classic "Walkin' The Dog," which allowed each band member a moment to shine on their own.  The CD reissue also includes their track from the Bluebloods set, "Young Thing."

Williams & the Blues Imperials have recorded several more discs for Alligator over the past twenty-plus years, and though they're all good in their own way, none of them come close to capturing the passion of their debut release.  If you haven't experienced this amazing group, Roughhousin' is a great place to start.  I wouldn't mind hearing the other twenty songs that were recorded during that session sometime in the future.

From Jeff Konkel's Facebook page on Thursday.......

It is with deep sadness that I report the passing of The Mississippi Marvel, an outstanding blues artist and a true gentleman. He was 81 years old. I was fortunate to work with him over the past several years. In 2008, Broke & Hungry Records released his debut CD, The World Must Never Know. Later that year he appeared in our film M For Mississippi. His dual (and conflicting) roles as a bluesman and a church deacon led us to use a pseudonym when discussing him in public. Out of respect for his family and his church, we will continue to honor this request. Farewell to a great artist and a gentle soul.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue #5

It's time once again for one of FBF's favorite topics.  As always, Something Old brings you a real blast from the past, Something New brings you an up and coming talent, Something Borrowed features a blues man playing a rock tune (or vice versa), and Something Blue showcases somebody who is the epitome of the Blues.....a person whose picture might appear in the dictionary next to the definition of the Blues.  Let's get started, shall we.....

Lonnie Johnson

For Something Old, let's go back to the 1920's, to perhaps the most influential guitarist of all time.  Lonnie Johnson influenced the influences.  When you hear artists like B.B. King, T-Bone Walker, Robert Johnson, Robert Lockwood, Jr., and just about anybody else that ever slung a guitar over their shoulder play the blues, chances are you're hearing a riff originated by Lonnie Johnson somewhere in one of their solos.

Johnson was not years, but decades ahead of his time, the first guitarist to play single-string solos and enjoyed a highly successful and prolific career that spanned five decades.  He played blues, jazz, and popular ballads with such fluidity and grace that even today's jaded listeners are still subject to goose bumps when hearing him.  He recorded jazz tracks with white guitarist Eddie Lang (as Blind Willie Dunn) and Louis Armstrong, and recorded hundreds of blues tracks well into the fifties. 

After a dry spell in the late 50's, he was rediscovered, working as a janitor in Philadelphia and was able to restart his career during the 60's, one of the high points being an appearance at the 1963 American Folk Blues Festival, where this video (complete with an introduction for the ages from Sonny Boy Williamson) was taken.  As you watch, please note that as good as Lonnie Johnson sounds here, he was simply a force of nature nearly forty years earlier.  Every blues fan needs a few Lonnie Johnson recordings in their collection.  After all, they've heard most of his guitar work from his disciples already.

Gary Clark, Jr.

For Something New, let me just say that there's still time to get on the Gary Clark, Jr. bandwagon, but it's taking off soon.  The Austin, TX guitarist has already had ample face time recently on projects like the 2007 John Sayles motion picture, Honeydripper, and on the most recent DVD of Eric Clapton's Crossroads Guitar Festival, but with a new release in the works, previewed by last year's Bright Lights EP, word is getting out fast.  With dynamic guitar work that brings to mind SRV and Jimi Hendrix, Clark is definitely turning heads.  If he chooses to do so, Clark could redefine the blues for the next few generations, taking it to a new level.  Thing is....he could easily move from the blues to other genres, so cross your fingers that he sticks with the blues and enjoy the ride.

Elvis Presley & B.B. King
For Something Borrowed, let's go to the King of Rock & Roll, Elvis Presley.  Everybody knows that Elvis covered lots of blues and R&B tunes over his career and did very well with them.  Not only were they hits, but he did a great job interpreting them.  Presley was raised around this type of music during his early years in Mississippi and during his coming-of-age years in Memphis, where he was a regular visitor to Beale Street.  Presley got sidetracked during most of the 60's, with the new popularity of the Beatles and his management's determination to corner the market on cheesy movies, but he managed to reinvent himself with his intimate 1968 TV special, featuring him and several fellow musicians on a stage surrounded by adoring fans.  Presley reached way, way back to his roots, to the music that he first embraced as a teenager, during this set.  One of his chosen tunes was an old reliable, Jimmy Reed's "Baby What You Want Me To Do."  Just watch as Elvis slips into this song like he was slipping into a pair of house shoes.  It was an easy fit for him, obviously.

Honeyboy Edwards (seated) with Homesick James, Henry Townsend, Robert Lockwood, Jr.

For Something Blue, I don't think we can sum up the Blues any better than with this clip, featuring over 250 years of blues experience on the same stage.  Robert Lockwood, Jr., Honeyboy Edwards, Henry Townsend all played the music well into their 90's, and were witness to many events and changes to the genre over the years.  We've discussed the merits of Honeyboy Edwards here before, and Lockwood will be the subject of his own FBF post in the coming months.  Henry Townsend was the only blues artists who recorded over NINE decades, from the late 1920's to his last recordings shortly before his death at 96 in 2006.  He was also as indispensible as Edwards as far as being a source of the music's history, especially regarding the St. Louis scene, where he spent most of his life.