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.

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