Friday, September 26, 2014

Ten Questions With......Tim "Too Slim" Langford

(Photo by Dean Davis)

If you've been following the blues even a little bit over the past thirty years, you've probably heard of Too Slim and the Taildraggers or actually heard them.  Tim Langford (a.k.a. Too Slim) has been wowing crowds since the mid 80's.  He was based in Spokane, Washington for around 25 years and won just about every blues award that could be won in the region for Best Guitarist, Best Blues Band, Best Album, Best Song, and even won a Lifetime Achievement Award and was inducted in the Hall of Fame in the Washington Blues Society and The Cascade Blues Society.

About four years ago, Langford moved to Nashville, where he has teamed up with producer Tom Hambridge to release some of his finest recordings to date, including his 2013 studio effort, Blue Heart.  He continues to be not only one of the standout guitarists in blues/rock (especially on slide guitar), but he's also one of the best modern songwriters on the blues scene today, whether he's touching on current events, personal experience, or just raising the roof.  Over the years, his musical palette has grown to include blues, rock, roots, soul, country, folk, Americana, and even Latin influences.

This summer, Langford released Anthology on his own Underworld Records.  The two-disc set captures 31 of the Taildraggers' finest moments from the past fifteen years, plus three excellent new songs, with Disc One representing the harder, more rock-edged side of the band and Disc Two focusing on the more acoustic blues and roots side.  There are also guest appearances from singers Curtis Salgado, Jimmy Hall, and Lauren Evans.  If you're a newcomer to Too Slim and the Taildraggers, Anthology is the best place to start, but after that, you will definitely want to check out Langford's other releases with the band, 18 in all, plus a couple under his own name (check out 2012's Broken Halo for starters).

Mr Langford was kind enough to sit down with Friday Blues Fix for Ten Questions With......last week and we truly appreciate his time and patience.  When you're done here, I strongly encourage you to seek out more information and recordings from this great artists.  I guarantee that you won't be disappointed with the results.

Ten Questions With.......Tim "Too Slim" Langford

(Photo by Dean Davis)

You have been at this for nearly 30 years non-stop…..what is the secret to your longevity in the business?

Well, I don’t know if I have any big secret other that I love what I’m doing. It takes a lot of hard work to keep a band rolling. As long as there are people out there who are interested in seeing the band, I’ll keep on doing what I’m doing. I have a lot of support from my wife Nancy and that’s very important. Being on the road is not the easiest of lifestyles. You have to have good people surrounding you. The business part is the hardest part of keeping a band rolling. I try to give my best at every show. You’re only as good as your last show and you’re only as good as the people that you surround yourself with.

Your new release, Anthology, showcases 31 of your previous classics over the past 15 years with Underworld Records.  How hard was it for you to go through and pick and choose what to put on the collection? 

That was very difficult. I put a list together and kept changing it for about two months. I also wanted to put some new material on Anthology, so I had to write some songs. I collaborated with Tom Hambridge who I worked with on Blue Heart, which was my first CD I recorded after my move to Nashville. I wanted to present a package that represented my influences as a musician. I like all kinds of music and I have always tried to incorporate those influences in the music I write. I also wanted to feature some of my acoustic music and instrumentals on Anthology.

Are there any songs that you had a hard time leaving off Anthology?

Oh, yes!! I guess we might have to do Anthology Volume Two!!! I actually would like to do a compilation of the music I recorded for Burnside Records. Those masters are owned by a company called Allegro music now.  That would consist of music from my albums, ElRauncho Grundge, Swamp Opera, Blues for EB, Kingsize Troublemakers, and Wanted: Live. Those were recordings from the 1990’s. I guess maybe that will be a project for the future.

You draw from a number of different musical styles besides the blues…..who were some of your influences when you were starting out?

When I was learning to play guitar I listened to The Allman Brothers, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, BB King, Freddie King, ZZ Top, Jeff Beck, George Thorogood, JJ Cale, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Led Zeppelin, Kenny Burrell, Link Wray, Hank Williams, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, T-Bone Walker, Robert Johnson, Santana, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Elmore James, Charlie Musselwhite, Neil Young, The Band, Bob Dylan, Buddy Guy, Johnny Winter, Elvin Bishop,….. well, the list goes on and on but quite a wide range of styles. So this is all represented in Anthology.

Did you always want to be a musician?  What do you think you would be doing if you weren’t a musician?

Yes, I did. I was drawn to music at a very early age. Once I started to play guitar, there was no looking back. I can’t imagine what I would be doing if I was not a musician. I don’t think I have ever thought of ever doing anything else.  I vaguely remember of wanting to play professional baseball when I was a kid.

What has been the most memorable thing to happen to you during your long career?

Well something that sticks out in my memory is an encounter with Charlie Musselwhite. I had opened a show for him very early in my career with Too Slim and the Taildraggers. He was very nice to me and complimented the band. The next day he called me at my home and told me how much he liked the band and told me that I could use him as a reference at clubs when I was trying to get gigs. I have never forgotten that act of kindness on his part. He certainly did not have to do that, but went out of his way to help me. I was very surprised when I got that call from him.

Is there anything musically that you haven’t done yet that you would like to do?

I still have big dreams about the things I want to do. I’d like to jam with BB King, for one! Buddy Guy, too!! Jim Suhler (Guitarist with George Thorogood) and I have been talking about doing a project together and I’d like to do that.

You relocated to Nashville several years ago…….how has that affected your creativity, your songwriting, and your style?

When I was getting out of high school, my goal was to move to Memphis to go and play the blues. I guess I had some vision that I would meet people like BB King and the Allman Brothers and be able to absorb all the culture that I had read about. I did not make the move then, but I guess I got down south eventually. Nashville has a very different vibe from where I grew up. The talent level in Nashville is set at a very high bar. It makes you step up your game for sure. We mostly moved here to get more centrally located to tour, but I have met a lot of good people and it’s a great networking town. There’s definitely something in the air down here. There’s a lot of collaboration in Nashville songwriter-wise, so I think that has an effect on what comes out creatively. 

Your last few releases have been produced by Grammy-winner Tom Hambridge….what does he bring to the proceedings that’s different from what you previously had?

Tom is a great musician and a great producer. He likes to get in there and capture the moment. You all get in a room together and knock it out. You just go cut the songs live till you get it. In Tom’s world that’s usually the first or second take!!

What music do you listen to in your spare time…..when you’re not working and trying to unwind?

I always go back to the Lightnin’ Hopkins stuff. I can’t get enough of it.  I mostly listen to the stuff I grew up on….Allman Brothers , Neil Young, ZZ Top . The new bands that I listen to are Drive-By Truckers, Black Keys, Jason Isbell, Rival Sons to name a few.

What’s next for Too Slim and the Taildraggers?

I, of course, would like to record a new CD, so I better get writing. I also want to try and build more of a following east of the Mississippi, so I guess it’s out on the road again. I also got a great new band of Nashville musicians, Jeff “Shakey” Fowlkes on Drums and Eric “Stretch” Hanson on bass.  I just want to keep evolving as a musician and songwriter, so it’s just back to working hard on trying to grow as a musician. That part never stops and you never stop learning. I just hope to stay healthy and feel grateful to be able to do what I do. I am thankful that I have the support of my family and hope the people who enjoy Too Slim and the Taildraggers keep showing up.

Friday, September 19, 2014

My Favorite Things - Folkfunk

When I started to work back in the mid/late 80's, I heard some of my co-workers talking about Bobby Rush.  They would tell me, "You need to hear Bobby Rush.  He's like nobody you've ever heard!  Seriously!"  I listened to a few songs on the radio, but at the time, I wasn't into the synthesized sound of music.  Also, what I didn't know at the time was that the stations didn't always play the stuff that my friends at work were talking about.  Anyway, I sort of moved on from Bobby Rush at the time.  Even though I didn't listen to him, I continued to hear about him, his songs, and his live performances, which were the stuff of legend.  I would see his albums in the store, but just never picked one up.

Around 2002 or 2003, I received a copy of Rush's Live at Ground Zero DVD for review at Blues Bytes.  One night, after everyone had gone to bed, I plugged it into my DVD player and in about an hour, I found out nearly everything I needed to know about Bobby Rush.  He was just as my friends described.....a master entertainer and showman with a wicked and ribald sense of humor, which came out in the lyrics to his songs, in his interaction with the audience, band, and the four ladies of various shapes and sizes who danced in his band.

Beyond his showmanship, however, you could really tell that he was a great singer and musician.  The stage persona was what his fans loved and wanted to see, and he accommodated them for sure, but even then he was working to maybe reach a wider audience beyond his soul/blues fan base.  Part of that was accomplished when he appeared on an episode of Martin Scorsese's The Blues:  A Musical Journey miniseries in 2003.  While, I didn't care for all of the series, I really enjoyed the episode that Rush appeared in, "The Road To Memphis."

Based on how much I enjoyed the Live at Ground Zero set, I went back and picked up a collection of Rush's hits, Instant Replay:  The Hits, on Ichiban Records, which was a great collection of his 80's hits, though still heavy on the synthesizers, even though I preferred the live set because it was rawer and, well, you can't beat hearing Rush live.....unless you happen to hear the subject of this week's post.

Not long after the documentary aired in 2004, I received a copy of Rush's latest album, Folkfunk, in the mail for review.  Rush had started his own label, Deep Rush, a couple of years earlier (the live Ground Zero set, then available as a CD/DVD combination package was the first release on the label), which sort of freed him up to make a few musical adjustments if he wanted.  For this release, Rush eschewed the usual keyboards and synthesizers, opting for stripped-down sound with a tight three-piece band that included Alvin Youngblood Hart on guitar, his regular guitarist Steve Johnson (you may have heard him as Stevie J in recent years) on bass, and Charlie Jenkins on drums, with the man himself playing guitar and harmonica.

Rush has always called his brand of the blues "Folk Funk."  He's always mixed the blues with soul and funk and his songs have always been fresh, modern takes on traditional blues subjects, some a little fresher and modern than radio was willing to play at times and for some blues fans to really take seriously.  On Folkfunk, however, Rush keeps it relatively tame, most likely in an effort to appeal to a broader base of fans who didn't ordinarily want the usual ribald material.  He also wanted to record an album that would remind of the music he grew up listening to in Louisiana and Arkansas.  Whatever his reasons, he made the transition without a hitch, turning in possibly the best recording he had ever done up to that point in his career.

Most of the songs are variations of familiar blues songs or themes.  The opener is a viciously funky John Lee Hooker-styled boogie called "Feeling Good" that actually bookends the album and really sets the tone.  "Uncle Esau" is a tribute to one of Rush's childhood musical influences (the second verse is similar to an old nursery rhyme that my grandmother used to sing to me way back when).

Alvin Youngblood Hart
Rush does a slight variation of Sonny Boy Williamson II's "Ninety-Nine" that features some of Rush's harmonica and guitar work from former Rush bandleader Jesse Robinson.  This is one of my favorite tracks because of Rush's vocal and the relentless rhythm.  Next is a remake of the Rush classic, "Chicken Heads."  Initially, Rush and Hart played this song together during a jam and Hart's fretwork reportedly inspired the sound of the album.

"Voodoo Man" is a swampy variation of Junior Wells' "Hoodoo Man Blues," and "Ride in My Automobile" is a nice slice of Chicago Blues.  Rush also does a funky reworking of Percy Mayfield's "River's Invitation."  Coolest of all is Rush's exuberant medley of a pair of gospel standards, "When The Saints Go Marching In" and "You've Got To Move," re-titled "Saints Gotta Move" that will light your fire even if your wood is wet.

Steve Johnson

Rush is his usual irrepressible self, vocally and on guitar and harmonica.  He's one of the most underrated harmonica players, but he really stretches out on Folkfunk.  It's easy to see how Hart's guitar work inspired the session because he is just on fire for all of these tracks, and the rhythm section of Johnson and Jenkins is just outstanding, playing some of the funkiest rhythm that you will hear.

Bobby Rush has been making some fantastic music for well over half a century now, but Folkfunk is my favorite of his recordings.  Since its release, Rush has returned to his irresistible brand of funky soul/blues for several albums, but he's also continued to release more traditional fare as well, including an acoustic outing a few years after Folkfunk, called Raw.

When I reviewed Folkfunk for Blues Bytes back in 2004, I wrote:

Whatever your personal idea of the blues may be, this is a disc you need to hear, traditional and reverential at its roots, but definitely with a funky vision of what the blues may yet be. If that pitch doesn't work, try this one: If you’re able to listen to this disc and not move something, whether it’s tapping your finger, your foot, or shaking your moneymaker, you’re ready for the undertaker.

If you're a newcomer to Rush's music, you'll want to hear his hits and pick up a copy of the Ground Zero performance DVD, but your collection will not be complete until you get your hands on Folkfunk. You can thank me later.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Mount Harpmore

Friday Blues Fix has explored the "Mount Rushmore" topic several times with various subjects over the past couple of years, including a Mount Rushmore of Slide GuitaristsChess Records,Swamp Blues, and one featuring the four greatest blues pioneers (in our opinion).  This week, we will look at the Mount Rushmore of harmonica players.  Since there have been so many greats over the years, FBF will focus on pioneers....the most influential players over the years.  It was pretty hard to narrow it down to four, but if it was easy, everybody would do it, right?  Anyway, look over our list and if you have a better foursome, we'd love to hear from you.

Sonny Boy Williamson I (John Lee Williamson):  The first Sonny Boy took what he learned from artists like Hammie Nixon and Noah Lewis and advanced blues harmonica to the point where it became a worthy lead instrument.  He was the first to use the classic call-and-response style, alternating vocals with his sharp harmonica blasting in response.  Never done before he did it, it became Standard Operating Procedure after he did it.  He influenced scores of harmonica players like Billy Boy Arnold (who actually took lessons from him), Junior Wells, Little Walter, Snooky Pryor and many others, as well as non-harmonica players like Muddy Waters and Jimmy Rogers (whose first recording featured him playing harp).  He was one of the most prolific recording artists of the pre-war era, recording over 120 sides for RCA, many of which have become blues standards ("Good Morning School Girl," "Sugar Mama Blues," "Shake The Boogie," "Bluebird Blues," "Stop Breaking Down," "Sloppy Drunk," "Early in the Morning").  Tragically, Williamson was murdered during a robbery in 1948, but his legacy continues to be heard today by Arnold and many who followed after his death.

Sonny Boy Williamson II (Rice Miller):  We discussed the whys and wherefores of the two Sonny Boy Williamsons in the early days of the blog.  Even though Rice Miller performed under the name of John Lee Williamson, he mostly worked in the south while his namesake was in Chicago.  Though he shared the same stage name with Williamson, Miller was a distinctively different harmonica player, and recorded for multiple labels, most notably with Trumpet and Chess Records.  Some of his hits are also standards today ("Don't Start Me To Talkin'," "Nine Below Zero," "Eyesight To The Blind," "Help Me," "One Way Out," "Fattenin' Frogs For Snakes"), and he was influential on many harp players like Junior Wells, Billy Branch, Paul Butterfield, Van Morrison, and many others.  His harmonica playing was as distinctive and clever as his songwriting.

Little Walter:  Little Walter Jacobs took what his predecessors developed to a new level, playing a harmonica with a small microphone cupped in his hands and plugging into a guitar amp or P.A., so he could be heard.  In his hands, the harmonica was transformed into an almost-saxophone instrument on hundreds of recordings he did as a solo artist and with Muddy Waters.  Some of his instrumentals have an almost jazz-like quality to them.  His work basically changed what blues fans could expect from the harmonica.  Before he came on the scene, nobody played like Little Walter.  Soon, it was hard to find a harmonica player who didn't play like him.  He influenced many of the great future stars of the instrument, like Junior Wells, James Cotton, Carey Bell, Charlie Musselwhite, Paul Butterfield and left a phenomenal footprint on blues music that's still felt today, over forty-five years after his death.

Big Walter Horton:  Horton is not as well-known as the other three artists previously mentioned.  He was extremely shy and quiet and didn't really have the personality type to lead a band or even a recording session.  He learned his craft from Will Shade of the Memphis Jug Band, and Hammie Nixon, backed legends like Robert Johnson, Johnny Shines, Homesick James, B.B. King, Eddie Taylor, and Honeyboy Edwards, and later played on numerous records by Muddy Waters, Jimmy Rogers, Otis Rush, and many others.  He also took the time to occasionally recorded a single or two of his own.  No less an authority than Willie Dixon called him "the best harmonica player I ever heard."  How good would that look on a resume'?!!  His instrumental single, "Easy," is considered one of the greatest harmonica instrumentals ever put to wax.  Later in his career, he was able to record as a solo artists on sets like Chicago/The Blues/Today! (on Volume 3 with Charlie Musselwhite), and on Alligator's second-ever album release with pupil Carey Bell.  He also appeared as part of Willie Dixon's Blues All Stars, which toured America and Europe during the 60's and 70's, later appeared on one of Muddy Waters' comeback albums in the late 70's (I'm Ready), and an excellent pair of solo albums for Blind Pig Records.  Newer fans who watched The Blues Brothers have seen Big Walter playing during the Maxwell Street scene (see extended outtake of the scene below), backing John Lee Hooker.  If Horton had possessed the right temperament and been able to overcome his shyness and excessive drinking, he could have been a big star, but it was not to be.  However, he's an easy choice for the fourth position on Mount Harpmore.

Two Sonny Boys and two Walters!!  So, who would be the four faces on your Mount Harpmore???

Friday, September 5, 2014

Doin' the Funky Thing

Way back in 1987, I made my first trip to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.  Not only was it my first trip to Jazz Fest, it was also my first trip to New Orleans, so needless to say, it was quite a learning experience for me in more ways than one.  As a relatively new fan of the blues, I was torn in ten different directions, wanting to visit all the stages and tents on the Fairgrounds at the same time, and my friend and I came pretty close to doing that.

However, one of the most memorable performances that I saw that day was from a guitarist whose stinging lead guitar and soulful vocals really got my attention.  We didn't stay at many of the stages for long that day, because there was so much to see, but I lingered a bit longer at this particular stage because of the guitarist's performance and his incredibly tight band.....and I mean TIGHT!  It was a dazzling performance and one I still remember vividly.

After consulting my program, I found out that his name was Walter "Wolfman" Washington.  Soon, I was able to track down his only release available on cassette at the time, Wolf Tracks.  It was the beginning of a beautiful musical relationship, as I have continued to follow his career ever since.  To me, he is one of the most underrated blues guitarists currently practicing and one of the most versatile vocalists as well.  In New Orleans, musicians are exposed to blues, soul, jazz, gospel, R&B, and funk, and most of the best Crescent City sounds combine at least three or four of those styles into the same song.  Washington's recordings are always interesting and adventurous, and all of the above styles come into play.

Washington has had the music in his system since Day One.  He was born in New Orleans on December 21, 1943.  His gospel roots came first, when he performed in the church choir as a child.  He soon became a huge fan of the blues and R&B and learned to play guitar.  By his late teens, he was backing New Orleans R&B legend Lee Dorsey.  Later, he formed his own band, the Solar System, and backed another Crescent City legend, Irma Thomas.  He also backed jazz man David Lastie in his Taste of New Orleans band.

Johnny Adams - The Tan Canary

Washington's longest and most productive musical partnership was with the great Johnny Adams, one of the finest singers New Orleans ever produced.  During his twenty-plus year association with the Tan Canary, Washington worked to develop his vocal style, which is often reminiscent of Adams', and they played many of the Crescent City's clubs over the next couple of decades, and even after Washington formed his own group, he continued to play and record with Adams up until the singer's death in 1998.

While working with Adams, he began leading his own band  in the 70's, the Roadmasters.  They toured Europe in the late 70's and Washington finally recorded his first album in 1981, Rainin' In My Life, on music industry veteran Senator Jones' Hep' Me label in New Orleans.  His debut album showed his versatility pretty well, and he wrote eight of the nine tunes.  The title track is a slow, dramatic tune with a heartfelt vocal and some sweet, stinging guitar.  The album itself is a good mix of blues, soul, and funk.  The disc has been reissued a couple of times on various labels, most recently as Get On Up.

Timothea Beckerman

In the mid 80's, Washington split with Adams and pursued a solo career, performing with the Roadmasters and writing songs with fellow singer Timothea Beckerman.  He signed with Rounder Records, and the label released Wolf Tracks in 1986.  This was my introduction to the Wolfman and it was breathtaking to me, with a wide range of blues (Tyrone Davis' "Can I Change My Mind," "Thinking For Yourself"), jazz (the Wes Mongomery-based instrumental, "Sweet Cakes"), and R&B tunes (the funky "I'm Tiptoeing Through," and the classy duet with Timothea, "It Was Fun While It Lasted").

Washington's follow-up album, Out of the Dark, actually improved on its predecessor.  Washington and the Roadmasters (Jack Cruz - bass, Wilbert "Junk Yard Dog" - drums, both holdovers from the Solar System, and Tom Fitzpatrick - sax) were like a well-oiled machine, and Jon Cleary  and Kermit Young (keyboards) and a great horn section provided excellent support.  Most of the songs were covers (Johnny "Guitar" Watson's "You Can Stay But The Noise Must Go," Jimmy Hughes' "Steal Away," the Bobby Bland classic "Ain't That Loving You."), but Washington made them his own, or nearly did anyway.  He and Timothea penned the title track, a nice, mellow soul ballad.

My favorite Washington album is his third Rounder release, 1991's Wolf at the Door.  To me, this is where he came into his own as a vocalist.  The opening track, Doc Pomus and Dr. John's "Hello Stranger," is worth the price of the disc.....seriously.  I don't think anybody could do this song better than Washington does here.  He just blows the song out of the water.  There are several other fine moments with the lovely "It Doesn't Really Matter," the funk workout "Heatin' It Up," and "Peepin'" a cool jazz instrumental with Washington channeling George Benson.  This was an extremely impressive effort.

Around this same time, Washington and the Roadmasters hooked up with new management and recorded two excellent albums over several years.  Sada, released on Pointblank Records in 1991, concentrated more on soul and funk than his previous efforts with soulful tracks like "I'll Be Good," featuring some cool vocal dynamics from Washington, a redo of the Ohio Players' "Skin Tight," that rivaled the original, the bluesy "Ain't No Love in the Heart of The City," and the fierce "Southern Comfort."  Blue Moon Risin' was intially released in Europe only and is probably his most blues-focused release.  The J.B. Horns (Maceo Parker, Pee Wee Ellis, and Fred Wesley) back Washington and the Roadmasters to great effect.

In 1998, Washington reunited with Rounder, on their Bullseye Blues subsidiary, and released Funk is in the House.  As might be deduced from the title (or tracks like "Funkyard," "Wolf Funk," and the title track), the focus is on New Orleans funk and R&B with the blues mixed in.  On previous releases, Washington covered the occasional Ray Charles song (his version of "I Got A Woman" on Sada....see marvelous), and on this disc, he covers "Mary Ann." and even tackles the Teddy Pendergrass classic, "Close the Door."  Best of all is a vivid homage to his hometown, "The Big Easy."


 In the late 90's, Rounder moved away from its New Orleans/Louisiana catalog, and Washington went ten years without recording.  During this time, Hurricane Katrina hit, and basically wiped out New Orleans and the music scene as well.  Washington evacuated to Ohio during the storm, but was one of the first, if not the first, musician to return to the Big Easy, and served as an inspiration for other musicians to return and his determination and perseverance helped get the music scene cranked back up.

Washington's 2008 release, Doin' the Funky Thing, was released on the Zoho label, and is probably overall his best release to date.  It's an almost perfect mix of blues, funk, and fun.  "Tweakin'" is one of his best uptempo tracks, with Washington doing his patented wolfman "howl" repeatedly and the band grooving relentlessly.  There's also a track called "I'm Back," on which Washington recounts his Katrina experiences to a funky backdrop.  Of course, he really shines on the ballads, as always.  If I was introducing Walter "Wolfman" Washington to a new listener, this would probably be the disc I chose.  Another good choice would be the Bullseye Blues compilation, On the Prowl, which captures the best moments from his first three Rounder releases.

Though Washington has only released one solo disc since Doin' the Funky Thing, a live disc, he's kept busy performing both with the Roadmasters and with the jazz/funk trio, Triple Threat, which teams him with keyboardist Joe Krown and drummer Russell Batiste, Jr.  The group has release two albums to date, both of which show Washington's amazing versatility as a performer.  If you've never experience Walter "Wolfman" Washington and you're a fan of blues, soul, R&B, or jazz, you need to make up for lost time by checking out one of his recordings.