Friday, May 31, 2013

My Favorite Things - Creole Crossroads

One of the great things about going to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival is that you are invariably drawn to new styles of music.  For my first Jazz Fest in 1987, I was starting to enjoy the blues, but was also familiar with New Orleans-based R&B.  Naturally, these were the type of acts that I gravitated to on that trip, but while roaming from stage to stage, I was lucky enough to hear some great jazz (from Alvin "Red" Tyler, the great Crescent City sax man) and some outstanding gospel (some of the finest singers you'll ever hear sing gospel music in New Orleans), in addition to some wonderful New Orleans blues/R&B (from the great Earl King, backed by the Roomful of Blues horn section), and, of course, the blues (courtesy of the Fabulous Thunderbirds and Robert Cray).

Boozoo Chavis
What I was not prepared for, in the least, were the various Cajun and Zydeco bands that were also playing that day.  I don't remember the name of the Cajun band that was playing, but the legendary Boozoo Chavis was laying down some of the grooviest Zydeco music I'd ever heard.  Up until then, my only real experience with Zydeco had been Rockin' Sidney's "My Toot Toot," which had been a hit a few years earlier, and had spawned several country and R&B versions, nearly to the point of oversaturation.  While that was a fun tune in itself, Boozoo Chavis was a totally different animal.  His music was pretty basic and simple, but it made you shake your tail feathers.

It also inspired me to hear more, but as you could probably imagine at the time, east central Mississippi wasn't exactly overrun with music stores carrying this style of music.  Most record stores had a couple of rows of blues recordings and that was it, so for several years, my Zydeco experience was pretty much limited to what I heard each year at Jazz Fest, plus a set from Buckwheat Zydeco, who opened for Eric Clapton during Slowhand's 1989 American tour.

Fortunately, relief came in the form of Walmart (where America shops).  My local Walmart, probably due to the surge in popularity of the music (it was starting to show up on commercials, various movies, and even on some mainstream pop recordings by people like Paul Simon), received a shipment of cassettes of Cajun and Zydeco music, and ended up with a nice, varied selection.  I was able to hear a lot of great music from artists like Boozoo Chavis, Clifton Chenier (the King of Zydeco), Lynn August, BeauSoleil, Zachary Richard, and a group called Nathan and the Zydeco Cha Chas.  I think I was probably the only person that ever even bought any of those tapes, but buy them I did.

Nathan Williams
Nathan and the Zydeco Cha Chas were my favorites.  While they were heavily influenced by Chenier's blues-based brand of Zydeco, they were also comfortable mixing funk, R&B, and even Caribbean rhythms into their sound....something that Chenier also did, but frontman Nathan Williams was poised to carry Chenier's sound forward to the next generation.  His recordings were just a lot of fun and guaranteed to get you on your feet.  Williams'  band was a family affair, with his brother, Dennis Paul Williams, playing guitar, and cousin Mark Williams playing rubboard.

Michael Doucet
The main differences between Zydeco and Cajun music is that Cajun music incorporates the fiddle a lot more and sometimes has more of a country feel than Zydeco, which also uses rubboard, electric guitars, and the occasional horn section.  That being said, the music styles mesh together pretty well, so when I found out about a joint venture between Williams and Beausoleil's frontman, fiddle player Michael Doucet, in the mid 90's, I got pretty excited.

Creole Crossroads is a lot of fun, even if you're not into Zydeco and Cajun music.  You can't help but like it.  The toe-tapping is contagious from the opening track,  The band and Doucet didn't even play together until the day they started recording, but obviously they shared a musical bond.  The lively opening cut, "Zydeco Hog," was written by Williams, and is a Creole cousin to Chuck Berry's "Rock and Roll Music," with Williams declaring his love and devotion to his music.  "Festival Zydeco" is a similar tune, singing the praises of the music and the culture surrounding it, and "Alligator" is a fun song full of wise sayings ("A lot of money will make you lazy").

One thing that Williams and Doucet found that they had in common was an affinity for the music of Clifton Chenier.  There are three Chenier tunes on Creole Crossroads ("Black Gal," "Hard To Love Someone," and a medley of "Black Snake Blues" and "I Can't Go Home").  There's also a lovely tribute to Chenier, penned by Doucet ("La Nuit De Clifton Chenier").  Williams received guidance on playing the accordion from Buckwheat Zydeco, who once played in Chenier's band.  With the Chenier tunes, you can definitely get the blues feel in the music....a lot of Chenier's tunes were adaptations of blues tunes.  If you're a fan of Guitar Slim, you will probably recognize "Hard To Love Someone," from one of Slim's Atco releases.

Nathan and the Zydeco Cha Chas play a couple of songs without Doucet, the Z.Z. Hill soul/blues tune, "Everybody's Got To Cry," and a funky take on the traditional blues, "I Wanna Be Your Chauffeur."  Williams and Doucet also face off on a couple of acoustic duets, "Hey Yie Yie" and "Ma Femme Nancy," Williams' love song to his wife based on the melody of the  old tune, "Eunice Two Step."  Closing the disc is "Jolie Noir," a reworking of the old Zydeco hit, "Jolie Blonde," with Williams' brother, Sid Williams (owner of the legendary club, El Sid O's, in Lafayette), strapping on the accordion and stepping behind the mic.

Creole Crossroads is one of my all-time favorites. For newcomers to Zydeco music, it's a perfect introduction to the genre.  For longtime fans, it's a great opportunity to check out two of Louisiana's finest musicians working together with an almost telepathic rapport.  I certainly hope that the two of them can join forces again one day.  I'll certainly be listening.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Just In Case.......

Your humble correspondent is traveling south for some rest and relaxation this week.  The last time I was in this area a couple of years ago, there was very little internet access.....I ended up having to write up the blog in a  McDonald's parking lot about five miles from where I was staying.  With that in mind, here's an emergency stand-by substitute post that will go live on Friday, if that's the case this time around......never let it be said that I wasn't thinking of you, faithful readers.

As I start writing this, I have no idea where it's going to end up.  Let's see what happens.......

Carlos Santana
To start things off, here's Santana from one of their 1968 Fillmore appearances.  The band didn't release their first album until 1969, so this performance was one of their earliest.  Carlos Santana is one of the most distinctive guitarists you'll ever hear.  His style is almost instantly recognizable.  As a musician, his style took in many genres, most notably rock and jazz, but Santana always paid, and still pays, homage to the blues in everything he plays.....his first incarnation of Santana was actually called The Santana Blues Band.  I have to admit that I've been a huge fan and one of the best concerts I ever saw was when Santana played at the New Orleans Jazz Fest in 1989.  I've been listening to him a good bit this week and was pleasantly surprised to find this song, a gorgeous cover of "As The Years Go Passing By," with vocals from keyboardist/co-founding member Greg Rolie.

"As The Years Go Passing By" originated in the late 50's, from the "pen" of Deadric Malone.  As we discussed awhile back during our look at Duke/Peacock Records, "Deadric Malone" was a pseudonym used by label chief Don Robey.  Robey had a crew of songwriters, most of whom would sell him their songs for $25 to $50 upon completion.  Robey then attached the Malone name to them and kept the royalties for himself.

Fenton Robinson
It is widely believed that guitarist Peppermint Harris was the actual composer of the song, writing it for Fenton Robinson, who released the original version of the song in 1959.  "The Mellow Blues Genius" went on to enjoy some success with his easy-going jazzy blues, even playing guitar behind Larry Davis on the original version of "Texas Flood."  Here's a later live version of "As The Years Go Passing By," from Robinson during a 1976 performance.

Albert King
Of course, Albert King's version is considered one of the definitive versions.....just one of many classics from his incredible Born Under A Bad Sign album.  King recorded the tune several times over his long career, but this version, backed by Booker T & the MG's and the Memphis Horns, is my favorite Albert King version.  King's tenure at Stax Records was his most productive, and the above-mentioned album is loaded with classic blues tunes that you've heard reproduced over and over by other blues and rock artists.

Jeff Healey
Next, here's Jeff Healey's version of this blues classic.  Healey lost his long and courageous bout with cancer in 2008.  His unique style of playing (with the guitar in his lap) gave him an amazing versatility, and he was gifted in a variety of styles, which made him a fan favorite in blues and blues/rock circles.  Though most of his albums focused on more mainstream rock-based blues, his live appearances were almost always blues-oriented, and ear-opening and he really blossomed onstage.  This track is no exception.

Otis Rush
Finally, here's my favorite version of the song, from Otis Rush.  Rush's guitar style was influenced quite a bit by Albert King and that's pretty obvious on this recording of the song, taken from Rush's 1994 release, Ain't Enough Comin' In.  While Rush's guitar work was always noteworthy, his powerful and soulful vocals take him to another level on most of his recordings, and they do so on this tune as well.  This is just a great performance all around.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Evidence of Excellent Blues

When I started buying CDs about fifteen years ago, I suddenly found that I had access to much more music than before....yes, I realize that CDs have been around for 25 years and, yes, it took me ten whole years to make the conversion.  I've never said that I was on the cutting edge of technology.  I basically don't make a change until I have no other choice, or in this case, very few blues cassettes were available anymore.

One of the great sources of good blues, at a very reasonable price, was Evidence Music.  Evidence was a Pennsylvania-based label that had a massive catalog of old blues and jazz recordings.  The label had bought the rights to several European record labels, such as Black and Blue, which had recorded many of the blues artists who had toured overseas during the 70's, doing various blues festivals.  The blues was much more popular overseas during that time period, so if a blues man, other than B.B. King, wanted to make any money back then, they had to do the European festivals.

During those festivals, a promoter named Didier Tricard recorded many of these acts between appearances, usually in single-day sessions, basically live in the studio for his labels Isabel (named after Buddy Guy's mother) and Black and Blue. Tricard actually recorded Buddy Guy and Junior Wells' Pleading the Blues and Guy's Stone Crazy! on the same day!!!!!  All of these albums were released overseas and for years, were only heard about by most blues fans until Evidence began reissuing them stateside in the early 90's.

Most of these CDs were sold for about 2/3 of the regular CD price at the time, and Evidence label head Jerry Gordon tacked on alternate takes or extra tracks on many of the recordings, so some of them were a good bit longer than the regular albums of the 70's period.  It was a GREAT deal, because the music was fantastic and you often saw artists paired together that you wouldn't see otherwise.

Naturally, when I started buying CDs and was looking for the most bang for my buck on blues releases, I gravitated toward Evidence.  I had heard about many of these CDs previously and really wanted to hear it for myself.  Today, we will look at five Evidence reissues that no blues fan should be without and, don't worry, we will revisit this topic again soon......

Jimmy Rogers - Sloppy Drunk:  Rogers had been basically inactive since the early 60's, with only a recording for Shelter Records a couple of years earlier, when he recorded this session for Black and Blue in 1973.  He's backed by a fantastic band, which includes the ultimate blues band (David Myers on bass, Louis Myers on guitar, Willie Mabon on piano, and Fred Below on drums).  Most of the songs on this set were old Rogers favorites, and the mix is a bit muddy at times, but Rogers is in really good form here.....his vocals are strong and his guitar work, always underrated to me, is equally strong and well-complemented by Mabon's piano and the tight rhythm section.....just a great, relaxed session by a group of seasoned pros.  It's hard for me to pick a favorite Jimmy Rogers CD....they're all great.....but this one is hard to beat.  This song, "Slick Chick," always puts a smile on my face.

Jimmy Dawkins - Tribute To Orange:  I didn't even know about this one prior to seeing it in the record shop, but check out that marquee (With Gatemouth Brown AND Otis Rush).  I guarantee you that a lot of blues fans did a double-take when they saw that line-up.  Before you get too excited, please know that Brown appears on eight of the thirteen tracks (from 1971) and Rush appears on five (from 1974).  That being said, it's still a wonderful listen.  Both Brown and Rush good-naturedly battle with Dawkins throughout and it makes for some interesting interplay.  Dawkins' usual serious subject matter and his terse vocal style are also in place.  This is a typically excellent Jimmy Dawkins release that many fans might have missed when it was reissued in the mid 90's.

Otis Rush - Live In Europe:  When people ask me about my favorite Otis Rush live albums, this 1977 set has is in the top two (for me, just behind the Wise Fools Pub set from a year earlier).  Recorded in France with rhythm guitarist Bob Levis, bass player Bog Stroger, and drummer Jesse Green, Rush tears through an inspired set of old favorites....if you're a fan, you've no doubt heard most of these before, but Rush is really in the zone for this set, with some of the best guitar playing I've heard from him.  Some of his live sets are marred by inconsistent backing or a perceived lack of interest on Rush's part, but this release stands with his best live recordings from start to finish.

Robert Lockwood, Jr. - Plays Robert & Robert:  This may be one  of my all-time favorite blues recordings.  Robert Lockwood, Jr. has always been one of the most fascinating characters in the blues.  For starters, his stepfather was Robert Johnson.  Most of the stories I've heard about him, and interviews with him (particularly the Living Blues interview from the late 90's.....classic) demonstrate that he didn't suffer fools lightly.  He was definitely his own man as a performer as well.  He often played 12-string guitar (as on this set) and he was as much into jazz as he was the blues and didn't compromise for anybody.  On this outstanding set from 1982, he plays a mix of Robert Johnson's songs and his own songs, solo on his twelve-string and it's absolutely fabulous.  If you only own one Robert Lockwood, Jr. album (and I strongly recommend against doing that), this is the one you must have.

Buddy Guy and Junior Wells - Live In Montreux:  Recorded in the Summer of 1977, this set teams the original Blues Brothers with Jimmy Johnson (guitar), Dave Myers (bass), and Odie Payne (drums).  Wells and Guy are in top form.....Wells' vocals and harmonica are spot-on, and   Guy's guitar work is powerful and to-the-point.  To me, this is their best live set from start to finish.  As an added bonus, the Evidence reissue included five extra tracks from artists appearing at the same performance using the rhythm section of Myers and Payne.  One track features Johnson with Hubert Sumlin, and the other four feature vocals from Johnson, Eddie Clearwater, Myers, and Andrew "Big Voice" Odom respectively.  Sounds like it would have been a fun show to attend.

That's all for now, but we will be revisiting the Evidence Music catalog in the near future.  There are plenty more great reissued recordings from Black and Blue and other labels that are just as good as these, and can be had for a very nice price.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Good Gravy!!!

Tom Carson
A little over a year ago, I posted about the history of one of the blues' classic songs, "Sweet Home Chicago."  The inspiration for that post came earlier that week when the local community college concert band, The Collegians, held their annual Spring Concert.  Last year was really special because their instructor, Tom Carson, was retiring at the end of the school year to focus on his ongoing battle with cancer.  Mr. Carson always played guitar with the group and the Spring Concert was no different, and it was made even more special because his kids, all former or current Collegians, joined him on stage and they sang "Sweet Home Chicago."

Tom battled cancer with fierce determination.  He was not going to let "the alien" win the war.  His daughter helped him start a page on Caring Bridge and he posted nearly every day about how things were going, pulling few punches and leaving out few details in the battle, making us all a part of his daily adventures (if you happened to know Mr. Carson pretty well, or read his posts on Caring Bridge, you'll understand today's post title).  He rallied support for his war by starting The Army of Tom and soon, t-shirts were printed, wrist bands created, a Facebook page was created and people from all over the country were soon posting pictures in all sorts of locations, wearing their Army of Tom t-shirts, pledging their loyalty and support for the help Mr. Carson battle cancer.

Many of his supporters helped drive him to his various chemo and radiation treatments, they cheered for him when the news was good from his doctors, and offered encouragement when the news was not so good.  A benefit was held late last year, with Country Music superstar Randy Houser (another former Collegian) as the headliner, and, yes, Mr. Carson played guitar with the band.  In addition to his semi-retired status at the college (he stayed on to work with The Collegians this year), he was also a guitarist in the local band, The Deluxe Southern Impalas.  He did all this while undergoing surgeries, chemo and radiation treatments, and battling fatigue on a regular basis, his enthusiasm, sense of humor, and determination never wavering.

Randy Houser with the Carson family (Photo by Lisa Jay)

Tom &  Jamie Nance - Deluxe Southern Impalas in action (Photo by Lisa Jay)

Unfortunately, in recent weeks, he ended up having to go to the hospital and spent the last three weeks there.  More cancer had been found and he was undergoing more treatments.  Still, he was determined to have this year's Spring show as scheduled.  It was moved and then re-scheduled for this weekend, but finally had to be cancelled.  However, Tom was determined that he would be returning home on Monday and said so on his final post at Caring Bridge.

Tom did go home on Monday, but to his eternal home.  He passed away on Monday morning.  The outpouring of love and support on Facebook was huge.  He touched so many lives during his thirty-plus years in this town, working with thousands of college students from throughout the state via the marching band and his concert bands.  He also was an inspiration to so many of the non-performing students that crossed his path.  His quick wit and ready smile were always apparent.  Finally, during the last couple of years of his life, as he battled cancer, he was a source of inspiration to so many people with his boundless enthusiasm, his determined faith, his sense of humor, and his courage.

Tom was a regular visitor to Friday Blues Fix.  One day, I saw him and his wife, Brenda, at the post office and we talked while Brenda went in to get the mail.  He said that without the blues, you wouldn't have any of the other music that young people listen to today.  He let the kids he taught over thirty-plus years know that, too, letting them know that the blues was all right.  He did his part to help keep the blues alive by sharing it with all those young folks, who shared it with their friends, and so on.......

We local folks will miss Tom Carson, a have no idea how much.  Please keep his family in your thoughts and prayers.

Friday, May 3, 2013

The Blind Owl

Alan Wilson
This year, Alan Wilson would have been 70 years old.  Now you may not know who Alan Wilson was......he wasn't around very long (sadly, he's a member of the infamous 27 Club), but he made quite a mark during his brief stay.  He is considered to be the voice of the Woodstock Generation.  He helped to found one of the greatest blues/rock bands ever.  He was recruited to re- teach one of the rediscovered living legends of the blues how to play his old songs.  John Lee Hooker once said that "Alan plays my music better than I knows it myself."  He was regarded by many music critics of the time as being one of the best harmonica players of that era.  Despite those accolades, and many others, for Wilson, life was a daily he gave up on far too early.

Alan Wilson was a singer/songwriter/guitarist/harmonica player in the band Canned Heat.  Several songs that he wrote, or adapted from earlier blues songs, are considered classics today.  If you've watched or listened to any form of mass media over the past 20 to 25 years, you've heard at least two of the songs he's best known for.  His song "Going Up The Country," adapted from an ancient song from the 1929's from Henry Thomas ("Bulldoze Blues"), became the unofficial anthem for the Woodstock Generation.

Alan Wilson was born in Boston and studied music at Boston University.  From a young age, he immersed himself in the blues, playing old 78's in his room and reading books about early blues artists.  He became a talented guitarist and harmonica player, and became a regular on the Cambridge folk/blues circuit.  He earned the nickname "The Blind Owl," due to his nearsightedness (almost to the point of blindness).  His bandmate, drummer Fido de la Parra, said, "Without the glasses, Alan literally could not recognize the people he played with at two feet."  Once, while rehearsing with Canned Heat at the Presidential Palace in Mexico City, he laid his guitar on the bottom layer of a wedding cake, mistaking it for a table.

In the mid 60's, Dick Waterman was able to track down Son House.  House, who influenced legends like Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, and nearly every other blues man in the Mississippi Delta, had not played in over twenty years and had basically forgotten his own songs.  Wilson had grown up a huge fan of House's, and knew all of his music, so Waterman recruited the 22-year-old Wilson to re-teach the veteran his songs from the early 30's.  Wilson was then invited to accompany House, playing guitar and harmonica, at the Newport Blues Festival in 1964 and also on House's "rediscovery" album (now called The Father of Delta Blues:  The Complete 1965 Recordings).

Canned Heat - Wilson is second from right
Also around this time (1965), Wilson and Bob Hite formed Canned Heat, taking the name from Tommy Johnson's "Canned Heat Blues," a 1928 tune about a alcoholic so desperate that he turned to drinking canned heat (the name used for Sterno).  The band was well received from critics and fans alike.  Wilson and Harry Vestine were considered a formidable combination on guitar, and Wilson was generally regarded as one of the finest harmonica players at the time.  Throwing Hite's powerful vocals into the mix made Canned Heat one of the best interpreters of traditional and modern blues of the 60's.

When they released their second album in 1968, Boogie With Canned Heat, one of the songs recorded was the hard-rocking "On The Road Again," which was inspired by blues man Floyd Jones.  This song became their first break-out hit, soaring to the top of the charts, a rarity for a blues track.  The band ended up at the Newport Pop Festival that year, and then moved to a month-long tour of Europe, the band's first overseas exposure.

Later in 1968, Canned Heat released their third album, Living The Blues, which included their biggest tune, "Going Up The Country."  It was taken almost note for note from Henry Thomas' original tune, "Bulldoze Blues," only Thomas' part played on quills was duplicated on flute for the modern version.  The song was a worldwide hit and became the unofficial theme song of the Woodstock Generation after it appeared on the 1970 documentary about the festival. You heard the Canned Heat version's the original inspiration, from Henry Thomas.

Canned Heat - Wilson is second from left
Wilson continued to develop as a songwriter and performer.  Musically, he was phenomenal on guitar and harmonica, but as a vocalist, he continued to develop and improve, and his high-pitched vocal style was ideal for blues songs, as it perfectly conveyed pain and vulnerability.  Socially, he was awkward and uncomfortable, especially with the opposite sex.  He was able to relate this in his songwriting, on songs like "My Mistake," "Change My Ways," "Do Not Enter," and "London Blues."

His songwriting was deeply personal, and he dealt with his various battles with depression ("Pulling Hair Blues," "Human Condition," "My Time Ain't Long") and also his concerns about the world around him, particularly environmental issues ("Poor Moon"), his relationship with his father ("Get Off My Back"), and even friction within the band (the classic, "Time Was").

Through it all, Wilson retained his incredible musical virtuosity.  On Living The Blues, the band assembled an incredible nine-part musical adventure called "Parthenogenesis," where each band member had his own part of the song where he could do or play whatever he wanted without interference from the other band members.

In 1969, the band recorded their most famous live set at Woodstock.  They performed "Going Up The Country," though their performance wasn't featured in the movie itself, it did appear on the original 3-record(!) soundtrack.  They were very prolific in the studio, releasing two studio albums and what would later be two live recordings in 1969 and 1970.

Also, during this period, Canned Heat recorded with John Lee Hooker.  Hooker and the band had a chance meeting in an airport in Portland, Oregon and discovered they had a mutual respect for each other's music, so they decided to make a record together.  The format featured Hooker performing some of his songs solo, Hooker and Wilson performing together, and then Hooker with the full band in support.  They recorded enough songs to make a double album, Hooker 'n Heat.  Hooker loved Wilson's musical talents, saying that he was "the greatest harmonica player ever."

Canned Heat
Unfortunately, Alan Wilson didn't get to see Hooker 'n Heat released.  He had previously tried to commit suicide by driving his van off the road near Bob Hite's house in Topanga Canyon, where he lived with Hite's family.  He continued to be depressed over concerns for the environment, his struggles with women, and just relating to the world and people in general.

On September 3rd, 1970, manager Skip Taylor found Wilson outdoors behind Hite's house, dead in a sleeping bag.  The band was about to embark on a European tour.  Taylor found an empty gin bottle and a bottle of Seconal on the ground.  Wilson's death was listed as an overdose, but his friends were convinced that the depression finally caught up with him.  Wilson was 27 years old, the same age as Hendrix, Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, Brian Jones, and Robert Johnson when they died.  Canned Heat continued on without Wilson, even forging on after Hite passed away in 1981, and are still active today.

Recently, Severn Records released a two-disc retrospective of Wilson's music with Canned Heat, called The Blind Owl.  If you're not familiar with Alan Wilson's recordings, this is an excellent place to get started.  The hits that Wilson sang lead on ("Going Up The Country," "On The Road Again," "Time Was") are here, as well as some of his incredible instrumental performances, including four parts of the "Parthenogenesis" suite.  Also worth hearing are several of Wilson's interpretations of classic blues tunes (Sonny Boy Williamson's "Help Me," Charlie Patton's "Shake It And Break It,"  Little Walter's "Mean Old World").  If you've missed out on this gifted blues musician, you can still give it a listen since most of Canned Heat's early work is still in print.