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.

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Tim Schuller