Blues in '97

One of the reasons blues stays great is that so few people support it. Unfortunately, a small, picky audience can ensure a scene where little abject bilge is marketed but it can't stop the bland, mannered albums that were the norm this year. The market is dominated by thoroughly dispensable talents like Tab Benoit, Tinsley Ellis, Coco Montoya, Tommy Castro, and Jimmy Thackery. And they get younger every day. Jonny Lang and Kenny Wayne Shepherd? If Sabrina the Teenage Witch does a blues episode, they will be perfect. There were, however, some notable releases in 1997:

Dirty Pool, Melvin Taylor (Evidence Records). Taylor's a hardened member of the blues community in Chicago, yet he includes three songs here by the Doyle Bramhall/Stevie Ray Vaughan songwriting partnership. The music is scathing, three-piece power blues, roiling with wah and Echoplex; his bassist and drummer propel but don't overplay. The title cut and Otis Rush's "Right Place Wrong Time" are tense, thrillingly portentous slow blues, while the Bramhall-penned "Too Sorry" rocks with sneering abandon.

Live The Life, Otis Spann (Testament Records). Spann is the doomed piano virtuoso who accompanied the two ultimate blues warlords, Mud and Wolf, on some of their most thunderous recordings. Left on his own, he sang wistful, low-key blues of a sort you just don't hear anymore: The live (unaccompanied save for acoustic guitar and bass) version of "Worried Life Blues" is so gentle and introspective that it brings tears. Another Spann specialty was the near-vaudevillian piano intro he gave to the steelworker's lament "Five Long Years," reprised here by Spann and Muddy Waters' band. After the intro, Waters' inimitable voice chants the lyric with incantatory power. Bonus cuts feature Spann and old-time mandolinist Johnny Young.

Fish Ain't Bitin', Corey Harris (Alligator Records). At the helm of the cadre of young African-Americans emulating pre-war acoustic blues stars, Harris plays National steel guitar and sings in a low voice that's deeper than its years should permit. This sophomore effort reprises songs by patriarchs Son House, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Willie Johnson, done excellently; Harris contributes seven fine originals as well. There's delicious archaism to songs like "High Fever Blues," with oompah-tuba backing that seems like it drifted in from a Depression-era New Orleans nocturne. But it's unstilted and vital, proof yet again that in the right hands, real art defies time.

Good Luck Man, Carey Bell (Alligator Records). For years a sidebar on a harmonica scene dominated by James Cotton and Junior Wells, Bell achieved primacy through tireless invention on harp. The mighty Walters (Big and Little) schooled him, but surprisingly he doesn't sound like them. He has their "bigness" of tone that's just a starting point for his own improvisation. Singing in a voice as droopy as Robert Mitchum's eyelids, Bell's at home with cookers like "Love Her, Don't Shove Her" and "Hard Working Woman," the latter as haunting a bit of blues noir as you'll want to hear unarmed.

It's My Turn Now, Toni Lynn Washington (Tone-Cool Records). Washington's no screamer (thankfully), but sings in the controlled, warm-toned way that Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughan did. No bloozebangers in this band! Her accompanists play in a suave, '40s R&B/jazz mode but are refreshingly up to date. Thumbs erect for saxist Paul Ahlstand's crisp horn charts. In a world rife with filibustering instrumentalists, a voice like Washington's is more than welcome.

Extra Napkins, James Harman (Cannonball Records). Harman has vast harp chops and the tendency to surround himself with top-shelf sidemen. His cronies here include guitarists Hollywood Fats and Junior Watson (main men of the fat-toned "tube amp sound"), Fort Worth piano pounder Gene Taylor, and legendary soundman Jerry Hall. The precision musicianship doesn't blunt the thrust of this beery, raucous blues, heretofore available only on vinyl. It's a welcome reissue on newly formed Cannonball.

Every Shade of Blue, Roy Roberts (Kingsnake Records). This is so well rounded and rich a CD, you'd think singer-guitarist Roberts was a worldly vet, when in fact he was virtually unheard of outside South Carolina until this year. He's got a deep, hot-butter voice that serves him well on this potpourri of self-penned songs, harkening back to Albert King in his Stax heyday.

Promised Land, Holmes Brothers (Rounder Records). Not blues but bluesy, this R&B trio supplants taut musicianship with gorgeous singing, replete with robust, close-knit harmonies. The Brothers are in fine form for a number of styles, from gospelesque to grittily soulful. Sherman Holmes plays guitar; his brother Wendell's bass work is like a mix of Duck Dunn and Phil Lesh. Honorary bro' Popsy Dixon plays drums and lends his creamy falsetto to an ephiphanic "Train Song" (penned by Tom Waits). Don't miss.

Pressure Cooker, Kid Bangham/Amyl Justin (Tone-Cool Records). These guys don't use decaf. They rock with an abandon that'll make you think of Brit Invasion bluesbangers like the Pirates and Pretty Things. Bangham (long a member of Sugar Ray's Bluenotes) plays skanky, fervid guitar, and Justin sings like a Rust Belt version of Darrell Nulisch--only punkier. He's just as credible on challenging soul standards as on flat-out rockers.

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.

Company Man, Gary Primich (Black Top Records). Primich is a great harp blower who covers an attention-keeping range of material not with studied eclecticism, but with natural enthusiasm and confidence. Primich blows through vintage crystal mikes to help get that fat '50s sound exemplified by the delectably lowbrow "Dry Country Blues." This is an excellent effort, and a delight to boot.

Half Past The Blues, Vernon Garrett (Ichiban Records). The soul-blues subgenre has some of the earth's best singers, though gooey production negates many of their CDs. Seek solace with this hard-hitter from Garrett, whose he-man pipes are paired here with irresistible rhythms, worthy material, and a blastin' horn section. Slap this puppy on at a party, and if the dancing doesn't heat up in a hurry, choose new friends. (Garrett presently bunks in Dallas, but word is he's relocating to California.)

Gate Swings, Gatemouth Brown (Verve Records). Brown is a vexing artist--one of the most sublime, artful blues guitarists in history, but also wont to whip out a fiddle and play hillbilly hokum cornier than pone. This is the real Gate, playing with deft zest on "One O'Clock Jump," "Flying Home," "Take The A-Train," and other blues-jazz items that suit him to a T. He's backed by a strong, big band here, just like in the old days when he cut his masterpieces for Duke. He's been in the biz for 50 years, so his fretwork isn't as fluid as in days of yore, but he's still a genuinely magnificent guitarist. We could live without "River's Invitation" and the old Lenny Welch ballad "Since I Fell For You," which Gate tries to croon but instead croaks. Nonetheless, it's the crotchety old hemphead's best release in years.

Super Blue & Funky, Pat Boyack: (Bullseye). Some said Boyack got signed too soon, but his first two Bullseye CDs were well reviewed and this one's the best of the lot. His explosive but controlled guitar playing makes standouts of his four instrumentals; he also works here with two singers, Austin fave W.C. Clark and Spence Thomas (formerly of the Solid Senders). The latter lends a mellow slant that's a nice counterpoint to Boyack's turbulent guitar work.

Blues Across America/The Dallas Scene, Various artists: (Cannonball). Among the labels that have looked to Big D's talent font, Cannonball here gathers works by Henry Qualls, swanky singer-pianist Big Al Dupree, and the R&B-flavored team of Andrew "Junior Boy" Jones and Big Charles Young.

That's Why They Want, Anson Funderburgh and the Rockets featuring Sam Meyers (Black Top). You got into blues determined to never settle for less than the real deal and think most of the acts touted for "pushing the envelope" are pushing crap. You buy this CD by the world-renowned harp/guitar tag team of Sam and Anson. You're happy.


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