John’s Blues Picks
December 2010 – Vol. 26. No 12 (download issue)
Porkbelly Futures The Crooked Road Cordova Bay/Universal
Paul Quarrington Paul Quarrington Cordova Bay/Universal
This quirkily named supergroup was formed by four close friends: Canadian Brass trumpeter Stuart Laughton, novelist Paul Quarrington, veteran drummer Martin Worthy & classically trained bassist Chas Elliott. Hanging out at the yet-to-be-renovated Gladstone Hotel, they performed songs that drew on their diverse backgrounds, calling themselves ‘a thinking person’s bar band’. Rebecca Campbell joined as a vocalist for the self-titled second CD. Meanwhile, Quarrington had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and, as was his fashion, went into overdrive mode, recording his solo CD among his diverse other projects. Many of his new songs were too personal for a Porkbellys album and most of them are outside the scope of this column as well, although you’ll enjoy the fishing song, “Big Ol’ Bass”, with Colin Linden on dobro and “Hey Hollywood” will stay with you for days. Quarrington had been the lead vocalist for the band and wrote many of their songs. One gap has been filled by Worthy & Campbell, who now share vocal duties. As for the writing, Quarrington and his passing dominate the disc. Three songs were written by him, three were written with Worthy and another about him. The CD opens with Worthy’s rollicking tribute. He had been with Quarrington on the day the diagnosis was delivered. They were sitting in the back yard and Quarrington brought out a lot of wine. The song is “I Ain’t Leaving (‘Til The Wine Is Gone)”. Two of Quarrington’s are excellent rockers, “Nothing Costs A Nickel” had been on the set list for a long time but never recorded and “It Deals With You”, which came to him after watching a game show. Martin Worthy and longtime producer/collaborator David Gray contributed “BooCatDo”, which all cat lovers will relate to. It and the opening song point to Worthy as the one picking up the torch. He has big shoes to fill. He does have help, though, and that includes the full band: Teddy Leonard continues on lead guitar and Chris Brown replaces the late Richard Bell on keyboards. The concluding song is by Quarrington & Worthy. “The Crooked Road” is the route to the journey’s end, gently & beautifully sung by Worthy & Campbell over a couple of acoustic guitars. No other song would have sufficed. There’s lots more at www.porkbellys.com.
Bill Johnson Still Blue (Self)
Mr. Johnson jumped into view as a nominee for Guitarist of the Year in 2006. This Victoria-based bluesman jammed onstage after the Awards Show and left behind a couple of impressive CDs. This new one is even better. Johnson leads a unit that should be far better known. Rick Erickson is on bass & vocals, John Hunter on drums & vocals and Darcy Philips is on keyboards & vocals. They perform working class blues at its best, starting with some advice set to a most infectious groove, “Don’t Go Fishing With Your Boots On”. “Habitual Survivor” is a fine soul blues chronicling the life of a woman on the streets, sung with much more sympathy than one hears elsewhere. “Worked To Death” takes the perspective of someone who cannot afford to rest. This one’s straight ahead Chicago blues. “Experience” is about life experience, from someone who’s seen his share, with a storming slide guitar. “Another One” sees him at a bar in Mexico, saying ‘Charlie, here’s my keys, hand me that glass’, over a T-Birds rhythm. He can do a slow blues too: ‘If what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, why am I “Half The Man” I used to be’. Powerful stuff. “Old Les Paul Guitar” may be closer to home than the others, it being about a struggling musician. He takes on some standards to conclude the program and does them up very well. He has song samples at www.billjohnsonblues.com so you can check these songs out for yourself. The Victoria Blues Society is sending him to Memphis for the International Blues Challenge in February, maybe he can arrange a stopover so we can catch him live.
Alan Black Happy As A Monkey (Self)
This DVD is intended as a companion to the Tribute CD, Things About Comin’ My Way, from last October. Producer/bandleader Steve Dawson assembled many of the same performers for a live concert in Vancouver this past March, who perform a completely different set of songs than is on the CD. After an introduction consisting of interviews establishing the background and history, the concert DVD begins with Jim Byrnes reading a text written by original Sheik Sam Chatmon while the band quietly plays “Sitting On Top Of The World”. The veteran actor & bluesman knows just what to do here and it is the first of many highlights. Oh Susannah sings “Things About Comin’ My Way” and quite differently than Ndidi Onukwulu’s on the CD. Colin James wasn’t on board for the CD but he is sure on board here with a solid acoustic blues “Keep On Tryin’” with John Hammond guesting on harp. Bob Brozman follows with another, “Church Bell Blues”. Veteran arranger/performer Van Dyke Parks, a Mississippi native he tells us, contributes a rather unusual (for the Sheiks, not for him) “It’s Backfirin’ Now”. This song was also on the CD but by the North Mississippi Allstars, so you get some indication of the musical variety at work here. Daniel Lapp, the Victoria-based virtuoso on fiddle & trumpet is a very important part of this variety. Jim Byrnes’ concert performance here is good time performance of “Tell Me What The Cats Are Fighting About”. Lapp switches to mandolin for Alvin Youngblood Hart’s performance, with Hart on lap steel. “Livin’ In A Strain” is another fine blues. John Hammond’s own chosen song was “Kind Treatment”. There’s probably more blues on this DVD than the Sheiks ever did live. After an old time country “Who’s Been Here” from Dave Alvin & Christy McWilson, the whole cast returns for “Sitting On Top Of The World”. Jeff Bonner’s cameras did a good job of capturing what was clearly a labour of love for everyone. If you have the CD, you need this DVD, if you haven’t – get ’em both! What we need and soon is the eighty some odd Mississippi Sheiks 78s in one box.
Arsen Shomakhov On The Move (Blues Leaf)
This relatively recent addition to Vancouver’s blues scene made his name in Russia, quickly rising to the top of that blues scene. Trips to the International Blues Challenge in Memphis and The Arkansas Blues and Heritage Festival preceded his move here. This is his second release for the New Jersey-based Blues Leaf label and his fourth overall. He’s a far better guitar player than he is a singer and his songs reflect that, with “Sweeter Than Honey” especially giving him a showcase for guitar pyrotechnics based on tunes from his homeland. The others stay closer to the blues tradition but are none the poorer for that. The main difficulty with the vocals seems to be his less than perfect command of English, an easily solved problem. According to his web site he was a hit at festivals across the country this past summer and his appearance at the 2009 Labatt Blues Festival in Edmonton is linked through his site to the Concerts On Demand at the CBC’s site. Not too surprisingly, he operates in a trio format, with Adam Drake on drums and Bruce O’Neill on bass. He has more help on the CD, including Willie McCalder on piano. He favours the West Coast jump blues sound, with “Jenny Q” being a prime example. It has lovely fluid guitar work with some nice horns & piano (McCalder). “Swingy” is an impressive instrumental and he turns in a fine performance of “Georgia Slop”. “On The Move” is also the fine closing instrumental. Mr. Shomakhov is nominated in the New Artist of the Year category in the Maple Blues Awards, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if he was nominated in Guitarist next year. His web site is www.arsenshomakhov.com and it has samples from all his CDs.
Donald Ray Johnson It’s Time (Self)
Calgary’s singing drummer returns after a too long absence. He’s been based in Calgary for many years and every so often puts out a soul blues disc that deserves much more exposure than it gets. It’s Time is a collection that features four originals among a set of covers that shows off his talents as a singer, songwriter & arranger. I’m sure Old Timey singer Hazel Dickens would not recognize her “Working Girl Blues” in this arrangement but I’m also sure Johnson captured the intent of the song. Dan Penn’s “Heavy Love” is another highlight. “Girl Friend Blues” is the story of the singer arriving home and finding his wife in bed with her girl friend. “Louisiana Country Girl” is an original about a woman who has raised four children in the city and now wants to return home to the life she once knew – an excellent song, with a funky rhythm and nice accordion work. All in all a worthy showing from a man we don’t hear much about in the east. His web site is www.donaldray.com.
– John Valenteyn