Friday, August 1, 2014

New Blues (To Me) - Disc, Page, and Screen

What you see when you Google "Blues Birthday Cakes"
So I had a birthday in June.  Obviously this slipped past most of you, but that's okay.....there's always next year.  As we discussed here last year, one of the best birthday gifts for the blues lover in your family, is a good ol' Amazon gift card.  With Amazon's vast catalog of blues items, CDs, books, DVD's, the huge list of individual sellers who work through Amazon, the sky is the limit on what you are able to find and purchase.  This year, I've been able to find some previously hard-to-get, out-of-print items at very good prices.  Let's take a look at a few of these items that are definitely worth checking out for other blues fans.

For several years, I have been trying to replace some of my albums on CD that I originally purchased on cassette.  A few of them have been pretty hard to replace because they went out of print years ago and used or new copies can run pretty expensive.  Sometimes I buy the occasional mp3, but I'm one of those old-school cats who like to hold product in hand when I buy it (apparently a dying breed).  This year, I was able to track down a couple of long-sought albums that I'd always wanted on CD, a couple of DVDs I happened to find while searching, and a long-sought reference book.  Since I listen to so much blues during the year, I sometimes venture into other genres when shopping for CDs and this year was no exception.

In the 80's, I listened to a lot of reggae music.  Around that time, there were a lot of reggae influences creeping into popular music, and being the inquisitive soul that I am, I decided to delve deeper into the source music.  I liked most of what I heard from artists like Bob Marley (of course), Jimmy Cliff, Peter Tosh, Dennis Brown, etc.....  Much later, I found out that one of my favorite blues guitarists, Donald Kinsey,backed Bob Marley (and was present during the assassination attempt on Marley) and Peter Tosh prior to forming the Kinsey Report.

Anyway, one of the finest singers in the reggae genre is Toots Hibbert, whose band, Toots and the Maytals, was one of the most successful.  Hibbert's vocals show an obvious affinity for soul music, particularly the brand played in Memphis via Stax and Hi Records.  In the late 80's, Hibbert released Toots in Memphis on Mango Records, and the reggae legend tears through an incredible set of 60's and 70's soul classics from the likes of Al Green, Otis Redding, James Carr, Ann Peebles, Eddie Floyd, and J.J. Malone.  Hibbert does a wonderful job on these songs, and he's assisted by a phenomenal group of musicians representing the best of reggae (killer rhythm section Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare) and some of Memphis' finest (Teenie Hodges, Eddie Hinton, Jim Dickinson, Andrew Love of the Memphis Horns).  One of Hibbert's biggest hits was "Reggae Got Soul," and this disc proves it once and for all.  Whether you like reggae music or not, this set deserves a spot in your collection...and you may end up being a fan before you're done listening.

Speaking of Hi Records, I also decided to delve into that outstanding label's catalog while I was at it, picking up several "Best of's" that I had wanted to pick up for a while.....from Syl Johnson, Ann Peebles, and the hard-to-find Definitive set of Al Green, which includes several hits released after his initial Greatest Hits set (which only had ten songs), plus his first-ever hit from the mid 60's, and a couple of tracks from his comeback with Blue Note Records in the early 2000's.  I plan to write more about the Hi Records and their blues and soul recordings in a few weeks, so we will revisit this area in more detail soon, but if you've not ever experienced the wonders of Hi Records and the man behind the music, Willie Mitchell, you really should give it a shot.  One music critic called it "a fantastic introduction to recorded sound."

Speaking of Syl Johnson, we've discussed him and his brother, blues guitarist Jimmy Johnson, in a previous FBF post.  While I was listening to Syl Johnson's greatest sides for Hi Records, I decided to go back and check out some of his pre-Hi recordings for Twilight and Twinight Records from the late 60's/early 70's.  These 18 tracks represent some of Johnson's best work and some of his most familiar......"Dresses Too Short," "Different Strokes" (one of the most sampled soul tunes), and "Come On Sock It To Me."  He also handled topical themes, such as "Concrete Reservation" and "Is It Because I'm Black" with ease.  Johnson has had a long career that's spanned both blues and soul.  He's often visited both genres equally on his later releases in the 90's and early 00's with Delmark and Antone's.  This is another great artist who deserves to be heard, and this set, along with his Hi recordings, is a great place to start.

Professor Longhair was one of my early favorite blues artists, and is still one of my favorites (see this earlier FBF post for more info).  This set, Rock 'N' Roll Gumbo, has been one of the hardest for me to replace on CD, as it usually was priced out of my range on Amazon, and has been out of print a long time.  Oddly, the week I found it on Amazon, I found it in a record store in the "Used" bin for nearly the same price I paid......go figure.  I think that this may be my favorite Fess album.....the sound is excellent and he works so well with "Gatemouth" Brown, who plays guitar and fiddle.  From what I remember, Fess had lost everything he had in a house fire a few days earlier, but you'd never know it from his performance.  His repertoire was pretty slim, but what he played can only be imitated, never duplicated.  Every blues fan needs some Professor Longhair in their music collection.

Recently, I noticed that JSP Records had released several DVDs of live performances from some of their label's artists that were filmed by Blues Archive.....a team consisting of BBC documentary film cameraman Paul Reed, TV sound recordist Bob Webber, and University of Oxford sociologist Amanda Palmer, who have been collecting blues interviews and performances.  One of them was from FBF favorite Larry Garner and captures a live performance recorded in Oxford, England in late 1997.  Although I've been following Garner since the mid 90's, I've never actually seen him perform live, other than the occasional YouTube video.  This DVD gives you the feeling of actually being there.  Everything about it is just great.....the filming, the recording, the production.  It shows Garner running through an eight-song set and carrying on with his audience during and in-between songs.  There's also an interview and soundcheck included.  Like JSP founder John Stedman, I continue to wonder why Larry Garner isn't a bigger deal.  He's the total package as a singer, songwriter, and guitarist and this DVD provides proof positive of his talents.

The other JSP DVD that I picked up was a real surprise for me.  I had no idea that there was footage of U.P. Wilson performing anywhere.  A few years ago, I posted about Wilson and what a revelation he was for me when I first heard him in the late 90's.  All of his JSP recordings are worth having, but I had always heard how mesmerizing he was as a performer, not just with his guitar work, but with his showmanship and rapport with his audiences.  Wilson's set was filmed at London's 100 Club in the spring of 1998, and he is in great form, working through a set list that features several strong instrumentals and even one track with Wilson playing his patented one-handed guitar.  Like the Larry Garner DVD, this one is impeccably filmed and the sound is wonderful.  There's also an interview and soundcheck included as bonus tracks.  This is a real treat for fans of Wilson's recordings who never got to see him perform live.

One documentary that I had wanted for a long time was Deep Blues.  It was not in print for very long upon it's initial release, or at least it was hard to find in my neck of the woods.  A friend of mine made me a copy several years ago on a VHS tape and I was able to watch it a couple of times, but have wanted it on DVD for a while now.  I finally picked it up last month.  I've posted at FBF about the documentary soundtrack and the book on which the movie was based, but I haven't said much about the movie itself.  It's a look at the current (in the early 90's) Mississippi blues scene and features interviews and performances from R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, Jessie Mae Hemphill, Big Jack Johnson, Frank Frost, Booba Barnes, Jack Owens, and several others.  Deep Blues author Robert Palmer serves as a sort of master of ceremonies, taking us from the Mississippi Hill Country to Memphis to the Mississippi Delta to Bentonia.  Musician Dave Stewart of Eurythmics, who was a driving force in getting the film made, also appears during the early part of the movie, playing with Burnside in a somewhat awkward sequence.  There's also some nice footage of Lonnie Pitchford playing a diddley bow, a mesmerizing performance from Kimbrough, and Palmer's interviews with the artists are interesting.  Deep Blues should be required viewing for all blues fans.

For years, I had been searching for The Listener's Guide To The Blues, by Peter Guralnick.  I first read about it in the 1990 blues issue of Guitar World magazine in their list of essential items for blues fans.  At the time I read about it, it had been out of print for several years and in those days, it was nearly impossible to find.  Thanks to the internet, it has been easier for several years to find a copy, but they were pretty expensive and not in ideal condition.  I finally got my hands on a copy (sadly, no dust jacket as pictured, but otherwise in excellent shape), and I can see what all the fuss was about.  Guralnick breaks it down into fifteen chapters, ranging from ideal sets for new fans to country blues to modern blues of all kinds from urban to Texas to Delta to Chicago and everything in between (oddly, no section on piano blues though).  He does short biographies on key artists for each brand of blues and also gives a list of recordings for interested fans.  Of course, since the book is over thirty years old, a lot of the recordings are either out of print, or maybe available as a different title from a different record label, but it's still indispensable for blues fans as a source of information about some of the pioneers of the blues.  It would be great if one day, Mr. Guralnick would have an opportunity to update this book for the many new fans who have come on board over the past thirty years.

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