Blues in '97

What's tops in Texas (and elsewhere)

Words of Wisdom, Homesick James (Icehouse/Priority). Chicago's blues mavens have always dissed Homesick for his erratic timing and debauchery. Homesick doesn't care. At 83 (or so), the sly old minstrel's keening bottleneck and moaning voice can still thrill and chill. "Pawn Shop Blues" is stark and bitter, while "12 Year Old Boy"--in which our cranky protagonist laments a tyke relieving him of his woman--is both funny and fierce.

And now, to Texas:
In '97 the labels House of Blues, JSP, and Rounder all released Texas blues compilation CDs. Guitar Player and Blues Revue magazines did Texas blues editions.

It was a banner year for Fort Worth's blues cabal. Robert Ealey did I Like Music When I Party (Black Top), which should be the most accessible recording of his career. The annual Robert Ealey Festival in Cowtown's Sundance Square in September was well attended. Some acts were lame, but U.P. Wilson was great. U.P. (who's become quite the rage in Europe) has become one of the most fiery, exciting guitarists around, employing a plethora of unorthodox, right-handed playing tricks that make him sound like a mix of Albert Collins, Eddie Van Halen, and a velociraptor.

Dallas blues heavyweights Smokin' Joe Kubek and Tutu Jones are "between CDs" this year, but Jones has one in the can. It's a self-produced CD consisting entirely of his compositions and is tentatively called Staying Power. Ty Grimes, who's drummed for Tutu, Robert Ealey, Joe Jonas, and U.P. Wilson--touring Europe four times with the latter three--relocated to Amsterdam in January.

"All of a sudden, I was current over there because of something I did 22 years ago," says Grimes, referring to a 1974 tour of Europe he undertook with Captain Beefheart. Videos of the tour are on European MTV, and a CD has come out as well. Jimmy Carl Black (Texas-born drummer of the original Mothers of Invention) presently lives in Germany, and the two reunited for some double-drummer gigs.

The remarkable guitarist Andrew "Junior Boy" Jones' I Need Time (first released by JSP in '96) came out on Bullseye early this year, and he's toured tirelessly behind it. He's one of the few Texas bluesmen who routinely plays Chicago, this year holding forth at the clubs B.L.U.E.S. (where Windy City staple Magic Slim joined him on a jam) and Legends, where proprietor Buddy Guy uncharacteristically stayed in attendance throughout the performance.

The bane of feral swine in Elmo, Texas, is Henry Qualls, who put up his Mauser long enough to play some dates with Hash Brown at Muddy Waters. Qualls came to light with Blues From Elmo, Texas, a 1994 Dallas Blues Society CD that's just gone into its second pressing. This year's DBS triumph is A Tone For My Sins by Denny Freeman, who--although somewhat unsung--is one of the most respected Texas guitarists of 'em all. Freeman was excellent in a rare Dallas performance in October at the Blue Cat, backed ably by Jim Suhler and Monkey Beat. (Suhler kicked in a killin' version of the Hendrix classic "Are You Experienced" on--of all things--a National steel guitar.)

Far less attended was a Blue Cat date by piano whiz Mitch Woods, who--backed by standup bass, drums, guitar, and a huge-toned tenorman--was so good that it was sad so many missed him. The Deep Ellum blues stronghold also staged good shows by Johnny Dyer (backed by Hash Brown), Long John Hunter, Bobby Patterson, and Johnny Copeland.

Copeland (who died on July 3) was here in April on the same night that the Holmes Brothers did one of the greatest shows of the year at Poor David's Pub. It also was shockingly underattended, as was a Kenny Neal show, but the Pub did better with Bob Margolin, Joe Jonas, and Pub perennials Anson Funderburgh and the Rockets featuring Sam Myers.

Mitch Palmer, Smokey Logg, Texas Slim, Gregg Smith, 420 Blues, Bobby Sherhorn, Mark May, and Marcia Ball all did CDs that were engaging but far from essential. Ditto the new Robert Ealey: It just doesn't capture the boozy, ragtag Ealey of bars and juke joints nearly as well as If You Need Me, a '96 Black Top CD that was initially released on Dallas-based Topcat. Shawn Pittman's Blues From Dallas, Texas was great, but Cannonball will release a superior version--augmented by such cuts as "Give Me Back My Wig," a Hound Dog Taylor tune Pittman does with incredible vigor--in early '98.

The Texas Top Seven of '97 are (in no particular order):

A Tone For My Sins, Denny Freeman (Dallas Blues Society Records). This all-instrumental CD has a couple of speedy blues-jazz items ("Rhythm Method"; "Swing Set") that are smorgasbords of tasty, smart fretwork. It's no problem for Freeman to get lowdown with cryin' bottleneck (the slow blues "Cat Fight") and then segue into the eloquent funk lite of "It's A Love Thing." Many of the selections have thematic airs to them, and since Freeman has moved to L.A., he may well be writing with an eye toward getting his work in the movies; but there's always been a filmatic feel to his music. Maybe the movies have started sounding like him.

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