John’s Blues Picks
January 2011 – Vol. 27. No 1
Angel Forrest Come Alive Wonderland/Select
Quebec vocalist Angel Forrest has received much acclaim for promoting the music of Janis Joplin, culminating in the album Sings Janis Live. She has moved on from that now to release several other albums, including Wonderland, a recent Christmas disc. On this CD, she’s on a mission. She wants us to stop dwelling on our difficulties and ‘come alive’, preferably through music. Song titles such as “Tell My Why (you won’t come alive)”, “Courage”, “Move On” & “Breakdown” give you the idea. The songs are all written, arranged & produced by Angel with Denis Coulombe & Rob MacDonald, her guitarists. The trio has done a remarkable job: the songs have memorable lyrics & melodies and avoid preaching. The best example is the title song, which takes the rather unusual perspective of the singer telling her audience how much she enjoys singing for them, especially when they’re singing along with her. And her singing is especially attractive, a voice of obvious power used in an understated way. The arrangements are attractive as well, using acoustic and electric guitars to maintain that understated quality. The rest of the band deserves mention as well: Sly Coulombe on drums, Alec McElcheran on bass and Bernard Quessy on keyboards. For the most part, the songs were recorded live off the floor, and hence a good indicator of how we’ll hear these songs at their Blues Summit V Showcase. The web site is www.myspace.com/angelforrest.
Fraser/Daly Fraser/Daley Self
As the cover suggests, this is Old Time music, in the best sense. It can be seen as an extension of Broken Joe, a band that MBA-winning bassist Alec Fraser was a part of for a few years. He’s the same Alec Fraser who’s the MBA-winning engineer & producer of many of the CDs written about in this column. Mike Daley is a member of the early jazz group, The Hogtown Syncopators, and is the guitarist in the band that does the Classic Albums series, although he refers to himself as simply a professional musician. They met while both were members of Jeff Healey’s Blues Band. They both sing, often with ‘uncannily close vocal harmonies’. Daley plays various guitars, acoustic & electric and Fraser adds banjo & mouth trombone. The beauty of this album lies in their success at incorporating that Old Time feel with contemporary subject matter and in blending these new songs with some fine country blues performances. Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “Bad Luck Blues” opens the program with a duet vocal & Daley on electric. On listening you realize how many other songs sprang from this one 78. This one’s also a lot easier to listen to. “(Driving) 140 on the 401” is the first of several fine trucking songs. Fraser’s “The Relentless Gambler” features some fine dobro from Daley – the gambler is unrepentant, of course. Jesse Fuller’s She’s No Good” gets a rousing treatment as does Charley Jordan’s “Keep It Clean”. The enjoyment these two get out of playing together shines through here. Daley’s “Put It In Writing” is a masterpiece, the singer being a bitter, unemployed fisherman dealing with a bureaucrat who thinks money can replace a livelihood. “Turn This Rig Around” channels Johnny Cash in a tale of a truck driving man with a wife who has a drinking problem. “My Girl Sadie” is one of a couple that adds some humour to what may seem to be a rather dour set list. We go rocking out with “Homesick Daddy”. It’s a good example of Fraser’s ‘brushbass’ technique, which allows him to play bass & drums at the same time. The CD Release Party is at the Rex on Saturday, Jan 8th from 3.30pm till 6.30pm. No cover. They are also playing the Electro-Fi party at the Silver Dollar on the Summit Weekend, Saturday the 15th.
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