Out Here

Looking back, forward
Rollin' Blues
The Hash Brown Band
Browntone Records

If rock and roll's stuck in low gear, if jazz is for snobs, if country's gone pop and pop's gone south, if R&B's turned into barber-shop-quartet-soul, then the electric blues is really screwed: This music hasn't changed in decades, hasn't evolved one damned bit since Aaron "T-Bone" Walker plugged in and Jimi Hendrix checked out. Unless you count the deconstructionist blooze of Jon Spencer or the boogie-punk of the Toadies or the so-called "trance blues" of R.L. Burnside, the blues is stuck in a rut so deep a thousand John Deere tractors couldn't get it back on track.

Which is just fine for the purist and the untalented: Attend any of the myriad blues jams that happen all over this city any night of the week and you'll usually just hear so many half-assed guitar slingers who play country or rock to pay the bills but feel compelled to slum around the blues at night. It's as though a few dollar Buds and some A-A-B can turn anyone into Muddy Waters for a night, and it all becomes so two-dimensional and hollow, mere echoes of echoes.

For so many years, Brian "Hash Brown" Calway has earned his keep hosting many of these blues jams, and how he's managed to keep his sanity as their ringleader is anyone's guess. Calway's a few times removed from the Real Thing, but he's a transplanted Yankee traditionalist with a credible resume: He was friends with the late and tremendously great ZuZu Bollin, and he has recorded with the likes of Bollin, local jazz immortal Marchel Ivery, Robert Ealey, Big Al Dupree, and lost-and-found throwback Henry Qualls. He's no innovator, but something of the eternal historian who approaches the music not as living tradition, as one critic once said of Marshall Crenshaw, but as living music--unchanged, perhaps, but not merely there to be copied over and over.

For Calway and his band, there's a certain amount of untapped history between those familiar chords, and Rollin' Blues, Calway's second album, is a laid-back, unsurprising affair populated by the most enduring, if sometimes most clichéd, of blues characters. There's the barbecue-eating "Greasy Pork Pete," the eternally slumbering "Sleepyhead," the spurned lover who's out "On the Prowl." With his voice slurred and sometimes distorted, his delivery so deliberately "authentic," Calway as a singer is one hell of a guitarist and harp player; but the vocal tracks seem like pit stops to and from the instrumental tracks that shuffle along often enough to keep the momentum going.

Unlike the new bluesboys rising to fame on a style that was someone else's substance, Calway has little interest in flash or showing off. He's a more subtle and generous player, willing to let the Hammond B-3 provide the groove ("Cool Breeze") as he slinks around in the background stammering out the rhythm. And the bluesman who'll step out of the way every now and then is, in the end, the bluesman to trust.

--Robert Wilonsky

 
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