Friday, May 25, 2012

Wastin' Away

Your humble FBF correspondent is recharging his batteries this week, but please don't think there was any intention of leaving you empty-handed this weekend.  Check out the cool blues videos below and be sure to stop by next Friday for our regularly-scheduled edition of Friday Blues Fix.

Today, I'm going to share a few of my favorite things....songs and/or artists that put a little hop in my step whenever I hear them.  I know everybody has their own favorite tunes or performers, but maybe you will nod your head in agreement when you see these.

First up is Mr. Larry Garner.  Garner just returned from touring over in Europe and last week won a local BBQ competition.  Now that is a well-rounded bluesman if I've ever seen one.  This is one of my all-time favorite Garner songs....."The Road of Life," a tune from his Baton Rouge CD encouraging us to work through those hard times, get up, dust yourself off and get back on the road.....sound advice for sure.  If this guy is ever in your town, or near your town, go see him.  You will be glad you did.

Taj Mahal always puts a hop in my step, and a smile on my face. I found this clip on YouTube this week. I had not seen it since the late 80's, when it was broadcast on the late night weekend show, Night Music, which from what I remember was kind of a fun show with an eclectic lineup. This particular version of "She Caught the Katy" features Taj Mahal with an interesting band that includes Todd Rundgren, Night Music host David Sanborn, and bass player Marcus Miller (with the show credits marring the last half of the song...sorry about that). The best thing you can say about Taj Mahal is that he makes whatever he does fun for everybody. You won't be seeing a lot of frowns at a Taj Mahal performance.

One of the highlights of the recent documentary, We Juke Up in Here, was Louis Arzo "Gearshifter" Youngblood.  He combines country blues with urban blues and even some old school R&B.  He's a talented guitarist and a charming performer.  He's also a rarity in that he's as talented on acoustic guitar as he is on electric, as viewers of We Juke Up in Here will surely testify.  Here's a great example of Gearshifter in action from a 2009 performance in Hattiesburg, MS.

Finally, here's one more clip of the late Michael Burks, performing one of my favorite songs, Dion Payton's "All Your Affection is Gone."  It must be a good song, because it's been covered by several blues artists over the past twenty-five years.  A veteran of Lonnie Brooks' band and also leader of the 43rd Street Blues Band, Payton released this song as part of Alligator's anthology of young Chicago Blues artists, The New Bluebloods, in 1987, later signed a record deal with Virgin Records, but soon disappeared from the scene, a victim of drug addiction.  Recently, Payton has returned to the Windy City blues scene, albeit irregularly.

In the late 90's, Carl Weathersby covered the tune on his incredible debut release, Don't Lay Your Blues On Me.  Finally, Burks' scorching version kicked off his I Smell Smoke CD.  Listening to the three versions, it's hard to pick a favorite.  Sadly, we lost Burks a couple of weeks ago, and Weathersby is slowly bouncing back after battling health problems in recent years.  I sure wish Dion Payton had fulfilled his early promise as a performer and a songwriter, but hopefully, there's still time for him.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Bluff City Bottom

Booker T. & the MG's (L to R) Donald "Duck" Dunn, Booker T. Jones, Steve Cropper, Al Jackson

I first heard Booker T. & the MG's on the American Graffiti soundtrack.  I was probably sixteen or seventeen and had started getting into 50's and 60's rock & roll, then rhythm & blues.  It was next to impossible to hear any of it where I lived except on Sunday nights, when WLAC out of Nashville would play an oldies show for a couple of hours.  One day I found the Graffiti soundtrack in the budget rack at my favorite record store.  There were plenty of great old school songs on there, but my favorite of them all was the MG's ultra-smooth, ultra-funky "Green Onions."

From there, I found a Booker T. & the MG's cassette tape with that song and many others on it.  From there, I started getting into the Memphis soul sound that the band was such a large part of developing.  If you've listened to anything recorded in Memphis during the 60's, chances are that Donald "Duck" Dunn played bass on it (although, ironically, he didn't play on the actual single release of "Green Onions"....Lewie Steinberg played bass on that track and was the bass player for the band during their beginnings until 1965).

As a member of Stax Records' house band, Booker T. & the MG's, Dunn started out with his friend, Steve Cropper, in the band, the Mar-Keys, playing clubs all over the Memphis area, influenced by all the great R&B being played in the Bluff City.  Later, he backed soul legends like Otis Redding ("Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay"), Wilson Pickett ("In the Midnight Hour"), Sam & Dave ("Soul Man"), Eddie Floyd ("Knock on Wood"), and, of course, dozens of Booker T. & the MG sides that sound as great now as they did back then.

Booker T. & the MG's, circa 1970 (L to R) Jackson, Jones, Dunn, Cropper

Dunn also provided the groove for blues master Albert King's Stax recordings, including "Born Under a Bad Sign," "Crosscut Saw," "Laundromat Blues," and many others.   He remained with Stax until the label folded in the mid 70's, moving on to be an in-demand session player and producer.

Most blues fans also recognize him as the pipe-smoking bass player in the Blues Brothers band and movies and he did play with them for many years, but he also appeared on recordings by Rod Stewart, Eric Clapton, Muddy Waters, Bob Dylan, Stevie Nicks (on her duet with Tom Petty, "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around") and many others during the same time.

In more recent years, Dunn had still been playing with Cropper.  The two of them reunited with Booker T. Jones to serve as the house band during Clapton's 2004 Crossroads Guitar Festival.  The three of them continued to perform (with drummer Steve Potts) as Booker T. & the MG's.  He was in Japan as part of a tour with Cropper and Eddie Floyd when he died in his sleep after finishing a show.  He was 70 years old.

One thing I always remembered about Dunn, and the rest of the MG's was the economy in which they played.  All of them were believers in the "less is more" theory of music.....why jam every note possible into a song when a few well-placed one will say just as much and say it more effectively.  The music collection of any blues fan should include at least one Booker T. & the MG's recording, and Donald "Duck" Dunn is a big reason why.

I've had a lot of excellent new CDs cross my path over the past few weeks, some of which you can read about in the upcoming May edition of Blues Bytes.  FBF will look at a few of these new arrivals over the next few posts.

Over the years, there have been lots of "all-star" bands, consisting of members of other groups who collaborate to make music that may be a bit different from what they usually produce.  While many times, the results can be less than stellar, in the case of the Royal Southern Brotherhood, everything falls right into place.  RSB consists of Cyril Neville of the Neville Brothers, rock/blues singer/guitarist Mike Zito, singer/guitarist Devon Allman (Gregg's son), bass player Charlie Wooton of the Woods Brothers, and drummer Yonrico Scott of the Derek Trucks Band.

Their debut release, on Ruf Records, is a first-rate set of tunes.  Neville, Zito, and Allman take turns behind the mic and the twin-guitar attack of Zito and Allman is awesome.  While I was very familiar with Neville and enjoyed Zito's recent Pearl River CD, Allman was a pleasant surprise and hopefully, this appearance will get him some much deserved attention.  If you like Southern blues/rock and the New Orleans funk so prominent in the Neville Brothers' sound, this CD offers both in healthy doses.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Iron Man

Like everybody else, news of Michael Burks' death knocked me for a loop.  He had just returned to the states after touring throughout Europe and died in Atlanta from a heart attack shortly after arrival.  I have to admit that it had been awhile since I'd thought of him.....he had not recorded in a while (though he has an album on Alligator slated for release soon) and I don't think he had performed around here lately.  He was a regular in Jackson, MS for a number of years at the 930 Blues Club, but after he signed with Alligator, I think his appearances were not as frequent.  I never made it over to see him.  I certainly wish that I had now.

I first heard Burks when I picked up his debut CD, From the Inside Out.  It was released by Vent Records, a small label out of Alabama in 1997 and fortunately, the record store I used to frequent was only about half an hour from Alabama, so they carried most of Vent Records' catalog.

There were several things that grabbed me about his first release.  Vocally, he sounded like Albert King and while King would never be mistaken from Perry Como (vocally or physically), he did have a gruff, distinctive style.  Burks sounded just like him at times.  He also played guitar a lot like King did, but really, what modern-day blues guitarist didn't borrow just a little bit from King??!!  He retained King's style, but also brought a sharper edge to King's muscular style, resulting in some amazing solos.

The other thing I noticed was that Burks wrote all eleven tracks on this release, which was almost unheard of for a new artist on their debut release.  Not only did he write the songs, they were good songs, too.  From the Inside Out was a surprisingly good debut release (which is now, naturally, out of print).  I decided to keep an eye out for this Michael Burks guy, thinking he would end up being somebody special.

Burks was born in Milwaukee, but his family moved to Arkansas when he was a teen.  Burks had learned to play guitar at an early age.....his father would offer him a dollar for every song he learned from beginning to end.  His father also played bass guitar, sometimes sitting in with Sonny Boy Williamson II, and his grandfather also played the blues in the Delta style, so the blues was in his blood.  His dad opened a juke joint shortly after moving to Arkansas and Burks ended up leading the house band, backing the various blues and R&B performers that came to play, until the club shut down in the mid 80's.  Burks put his music on the back burner for awhile, going to work for Lockheed Martin, but he still managed to play the blues on the side at different venues and festivals.

From the Inside Out was a complete Michael Burks production....he wrote all the songs and even produced the disc.....and it received rave reviews.  In 2001, Burks signed with Alligator Records and released Make It Rain.  His Alligator debut was produced by head 'Gator Bruce Iglauer and legendary producer (Luther Allison, Santana, Stevie Ray Vaughan).  There were some nice moments, with the appropriately-titled opening tune, "Hit the Ground Running," "Got a Way With Women," and the moody title cut.  There was also a nice Albert King-like tune, "Everybody's Got Their Hand Out," one of several written or co-written by Burks.....another was "Don't Let It Be A Dream."  All in all, it was a nice start for Burks, and for Alligator, they added a blues guitarist on par with Luther Allison, whose passing in 1997 had left a huge void for the label and for the blues in general.

Burks continued to improve with each release.  His second disc for Alligator, 2003's I Smell Smoke, is probably his best.  While he still retains a touch of Albert King in his vocals, he really starts to expand his range on this disc.  His guitar work is incredibly intense, even on the slow blues tunes.  On this disc, he mostly handles cover material, such as Dion Payton's "All Your Affection's Gone," Jon Tiven's funky title track, and Benny Lattimore's "Let The Doorknob Hit You."  The three songs he did have a hand in writing ("Time I Came In Out of the Rain" "Miss Mercy," and "I Hope He's Worth My Pain") are all first-rate.  Though the intensity is high for the most part on these tracks, he does settle down a bit for the album closer, "Snake Eggs," a duet with Burks and Memphis harmonica ace Billy Gibson.

Burks' next release was in 2008.  Iron Man featured Burks with his band instead of the Memphis musicians he used on his previous two discs.  Despite their absence, the disc still has a greasy soul feel, thanks to Wayne Sharp's work on the Hammond B3.  There are some strong songs here by Burks, including "Love Disease," "Strange Feeling," and "Icepick Through My Heart," and "Changed Man" (the last two co-written with Iglauer).  I also liked the Jimmy Johnson cover, "Ashes in My Ashtray," and the crunching cover of Free's "Fire and Water."  Burks' vocals continued to develop and improve and his guitar work was as awesome as ever.  Have you ever heard a musician who amazingly continues to improve when he actually was as great as anyone you'd ever heard the first time you heard him?  Does that make any sense whatsoever?  That's the feeling I always had with Michael Burks.

Alligator released a "Best of" collection in 2010, that gathered the cream of his three releases.  Burks had also just completed recording his fourth Alligator disc, which is slated for a July release.  It's depressing when these guys pass away too early.  Most blues fans figured Burks had a long career ahead of him.  From what I've heard from those who saw him live, Burks' stage performances put his recordings to shame, which had to be something else, based on the intensity of his work on the above mentioned discs.  Hopefully, somebody has a live performance in the can that we will get to enjoy one day in the near future.

As I mentioned last week, I attended the last performance of the Soul Salvation tour at the Riley Center in Meridian, MS.  The tour featured singer/songwriter Paul Thorn and blues/soul/folk singer/songwriter Ruthie Foster.  At first, the pairing might seem a bit odd, but both artists have deep roots in soul and gospel music.  Thorn's father was a preacher and Foster grew up singing and playing piano in her church.

Thorn took the stage first, playing a solo acoustic set of seven or eight songs.  The acoustic setting allowed Thorn to be a little more personal with his audience....probably about 80% of the crowd was there to see him.  He has a great easy-going, self-depreciating personality and it feels like he's talking to you personally.  His songs are funny ("Burn Down the Trailer Park," "I Guess I'll Just Stay Married"), sad ("I Have a Good Day Every Now and Then"), and inspirational ("I'm Still Here"), sometimes within the same song ("That's Life," a song about his mother).  He invoked his preacher father when, at the conclusion of his show, he told his audience that if they didn't go buy his CDs out in the lobby, "you'll go to hell."  He has a great soulful voice and I couldn't wait to hear him and Foster together.

Foster was backed by keyboards (Scottie Miller), bass (Tanya Richardson, who also played fiddle...sorry, can't call it a "violin" when they're playing the blues), and drums (Samantha Banks).  Foster played acoustic guitar.  I have to admit that I wasn't as familiar with Foster's recordings, though I have heard her before.  She's a magnificent singer, sometimes reminding you of a mix between Roberta Flack and Aretha Franklin.  From what I've heard about her (she appeared at the Riley Center a couple of years ago), she puts on an energetic show.  The first few songs were really good, but they sort of fell into a rut about midway through and a lot of the songs sounded alike.  Part of the problem was that there was no lead guitar, so the Hammond B3 took most of the solo spots and, even though Miller did an excellent job, the solos started sounding the same after a period of time.

There were some great moments though.  "Smalltown Blues" was a nice opening tune, the cover of Mississippi John Hurt's "Richland Woman Blues" was a highlight, as was the a cappella version of "The Titanic," and a jazzy version of "Ring of Fire."  Foster also did a tribute tune to Sam Cooke, called "Another Rain Song."  Foster was great interacting with her audience, telling stories about Jessie Mae Hemphill and about her time as a songwriter in NYC.  She said Cooke was a major influence on her as a youngster and, listening to her, you could hear a lot of Cooke's phrasing and delivery.  Overall, it was a good, solid set, but oddly, it lacked the energy of the Thorn solo set.....maybe due to the largely pro-Thorn audience, or maybe because it was the last night of the tour.

Sadly, Thorn only came out for one song, wearing a blonde wig.  The song, "Up Above My Head," was okay, but it would have been great to hear more of them together.  Oh well, maybe each of them were able to introduce the other to their groups of fans.

By the way, congratulations to Ms. Foster for winning two BMA's last night, one for Best DVD (Live at Antones) and the Koko Taylor Award (for Best Traditional Female).

Friday, May 4, 2012

A Few Items of Note

You may not know who Charles "Skip" Pitts was, but if you've listened to any music over the past fifty years, there's an excellent chance that you heard him play guitar.  Pitts, who passed away on May 1 after a long battle with cancer, was considered a master of the "wah wah" style of guitar, most notably on Isaac Hayes' funk classic, "Theme From Shaft," one of the baddest songs of all time.

That song was but the tip of the iceberg for the musical career of Skip Pitts. Pitts first learned to play guitar on the street corners of his native Washington, D.C. and landed an appearance on a recording at age 17 (Gene Chandler's "Rainbow '65").  He then worked for Wilson Pickett as guitarist/bandleader for his band, the Midnight Movers, before joining the Isley Brothers in 1969 and creating the funky riff for the Isley's big hit, "It's Your Thing."

Pitts moved to Memphis in 1970, working for Stax Records and serving as guitarist and bandleader for Hayes until Hayes' death in 2008.  In addition to "Theme From Shaft," Pitts appeared on Stax tracks for Rufus Thomas, the Soul Children, Albert King, and many others.  In 1998, he helped found the Memphis soul/jazz group, The Bo-Keys and recorded two well-received albums (The Royal Sessions and last year's Got to Get Back! which featured soul/blues legend Otis Clay on the title track).

In recent years, Pitts also appeared on Al Green's secular comeback CD, I Can't Stop, and Cindy Lauper's Memphis Blues.  Over the years, he has influenced many guitarists (anybody who's ever made a guitar go "waka waka" should have mailed him a royalty check) and his guitar work has been sampled by dozens of artists like Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, and the Beastie Boys.

Skip Pitts was 65 years old.  If by some astounding chance you've never heard him, please do yourself a favor and check out either of his Bo-Keys albums to find out what the fuss was about.  Trust me, you will want to hear more.

Over the past couple of weeks, FBF has been looking at some must-see DVDs, past and present.  Let's continue looking at a couple of other recent releases that are worth seeing.

For many, the highlights of each Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise are the late-night "pro jams" that take place on the aft pool deck.  Filmmaker Robert Mugge (Deep Blues, Gospel According to Al Green, Last of the Mississippi Jukes, etc....) documented the October, 2010 cruise's pro jams, along with other jams taking place during the week.

In addition, a number of musical participants (including  Tommy Castro, Elvin Bishop, Marcia Ball, Kim Wilson, Johnny and Edgar Winter, Larry McCray, Lee Oskar, Coco Montoya, Rick Estrin, Jimmy Thackery, John Nemeth, Sista Monica Parker, Vasti Jackson, and Eden Brent), along with Sirius XM's Bluesville program director Bill Wax and blues/jazz historian Bob Porter, offer their thoughts on the history, techniques, and even proper etiquette of  blues jamming.  

The DVD captures a lot of great performances during the jams and also during a series of demonstration sessions featuring guitar, piano, and harmonica.  This is a fun video to watch and can be had for just the cost of shipping ($5.95) by ordering it from the LRBC website.  Not a bad deal for nearly 90 minutes of great blues music by some of your favorites (see below).

Mugge has another recent release, Big Shoes: Walking and Talking the Blues, which documents the travels of Scissormen, which features the incredible slide guitar of Ted Drozdowski (who won the Keeping the Blues Alive Award for Journalism in 1998 and has served as consultant for several films, including Scorsese's The Blues mini-series) and drummer R. L. Hulsman (who has been replaced by Matt Snow since the movie was filmed).  Scissormen mixes Delta Blues, Hill Country, and a dash of psychedelic rock and Drozdowski's scorching slide work combines the best of Elmore James with Sonny Sharrock.

Mugge hoped to show how the group pays tribute to past masters like R. L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, and Jessie Mae Hemphill, while doing their part to continue the music to appeal to new and future fans.  The band's performances are mixed in with discussions about the music with Charlie Noble, owner of the Key Palace Theatre (where the CD portion of this set was recorded) in Redkey, Indiana, Hal Yeagy, owner of the Slippery Noodle in Indianapolis, and Cindy Barber, owner of Beachland Ballroom and Tavern in there's a visit to Gennett Records in Richmond, Indiana, where Charley Patton and many legendary blues and jazz artists were recorded in the 20's and 30's.  Drozdowski is a perfect host with his narrations during the drives, his rapport with his audience and the club owners, talking about his influences, and never taking himself too seriously.  It's obvious he's having a big time, because he's as much a fan as he is a musician, so he gets to experience it on both sides, something we, as fans, would love to do.

As I've told you before, I don't get to attend many festivals or concerts these days, but I seldom pass up a chance to see anybody perform at the Riley Center in Meridian, MS.  This Saturday night at the Riley Center offers the Soul Salvation tour with Ruthie Foster and Paul Thorn.  Many blues fans will be familiar with Foster.  Her latest CD is Let It Burn, but her previous effort, The Truth According to Ruthie Foster, was nominated for a Grammy.  Thorn has a new release, What the Hell is Goin' On, that I haven't heard yet, but his previous release, Pimps and Preachers, was outstanding and stayed at the top of the Americana charts for nearly a month when released in 2010.  Both artists have roots in gospel, but their music also mixes blues, soul, and R&B as well, so I can't wait to hear them together.  Naturally, I'll tell you all about it next week.