John’s Blues Picks
The movie documents Rita working with the inmates at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola and this disc has the performances that are excerpted in the film. The history of Rita’s ten-year journey and the resulting Bruce MacDonald film was our feature story last October and it’s at our web site if you’d like to re-read it. Having somehow managed to miss all the various screenings of the movie, I’ll just tell you about the soundtrack. After a brief opening, “Rita’s Journey”, the music program begins with a song that alone is worth the price of the CD: “These Four Walls”, recorded here with Papa John King on slide guitar. It serves, I think, as Rita’s summation of her efforts – her empathy for the inmates, their crimes acknowledged, is laid bare here. With that song as a breathtaking introduction, the Angola concert begins and the talent shown in these songs will amaze you. “Mississippi Boy” is a stunning down-home blues performed by one of the three bands of inmates, The Jazzmen, who despite the name, are a straight ahead blues band. Another grouping, Pure Heart Messenger, do “Don’t Let Him Catch You (With Your Work Undone)” featuring Ray Jones on lead vocal. This song is written and originally performed by the Jackson Southernaires and this wonderful version shows how gray the line is between gospel and blues. “Mercy Blues” is a fine slow blues, a duet of Rita with ‘Ross’ and the Messengers. “Harvest” has the Messengers doing a gospel quartet rendering of the James P. Kee song. Rita’s “Rest My Bones” from Sweet Paradise does not make this disc but a rehearsal sequence does, underlining the rapport she established on these visits. She then joins Messengers once again for a stirring “Glory Glory (Hallelujah)”. Ray Jones returns for “Rain On Me”, another fine gospel performance. Rita contributes a fine country tune that everyone enjoys before closing the program out with Leadbelly’s “Midnight Special”. The DVD will apparently be released early next year. Her web site is www.ritachiarelli.com.
John Mays has been the voice of Fathead from the beginning and many fans have asked during that time that he do a solo CD. Here it is. Born in Georgia, he sang gospel as a child and later, doo wop on the street corners of New York in the 50s. He first recorded a 45 for ABC Paramount there with a group called The Jive Tones, and recorded again as a member of the Gospel Group The Christian Soldiers in Houston, Texas for Songbird, a subsidiary of Don Robey‘s Peacock label. He toured extensively in the south with them in the mid to late 60s before joining the Rochester, NY R&B band The Dynamic Insiders who toured as an opening act for James Brown in 1970 and 1971. It was with this band that he first visited Toronto. After deciding to move here in the late 70’s he sang with Bleeker Street for a few years. Their claim to fame gig was playing Elizabeth Taylor’s Birthday Party while she was filming in Toronto. All of this is reflected in I Found A Love. His Deep Soul voice has now been recognized six times with the MBA for Male Vocalist of the Year and if you want to know where it comes from, check out this disc. John has chosen some R&B and Gospel gems that are a delight to listen to. The opening and title song goes back to The Falcons, which featured Wilson Pickett & Robert Ward. “People Sure Act Funny” was a hit for Lee Dorsey & Arthur Conley. “Your Good Thing Is About To End” finds him at his soul blues singing best. “Have Mercy Baby” goes for that down home blues sound, reuniting him with Jack de Keyzer, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith & Bob Stroger. “Jesus Is On The Mainline”, “99 And A Half” and “Standing By The Bedside of a Neighbour” have the gospel corner covered and covered well. “Think” is his nod to the funk era and his touring with James Brown. John is in award-winning form throughout and the members of Fathead are joined behind him with Lance Anderson & Denis Keldie on keyboards, Al Cross on drums and Alec Fraser on bass & percussion. Al Lerman, Omar Tunnoch, Bucky Berger & Alec Fraser are superb as a gospel quartet. Teddy Leonard shines on every one of those guitar parts. With Fraser, Lerman & Tunnoch producing, we have a disc with Fathead that is not a Fathead album but a John Mays solo album. Congrats to all. John celebrated his 70th at the Dollar on April 23rd, getting this CD is a fine way to help him celebrate.
The prime mover of Black Hen Records, a double JUNO winner this year, and the man behind the hugely successful Mississippi Sheiks Tribute CD/DVD is a major recording artist in his own right. And this is in addition to playing various stringed instruments on his artists’ CDs. His producer credits have led him to be billed as the ‘T-Bone Burnett of Canada’. His discography begins with the legendary roots duo Zubot & Dawson and its offshoot, the contemporary jazz group Great Uncles of the Revolution and Nightshade is his fifth solo album. The last couple of discs consisted largely of instrumentals but this one has more fully realized songs and quite a lot of blues, beginning with the opening rocker, “Torn and Frayed”. “Walk On” was on the Blues JUNO winning Everywhere West by Jim Byrnes and his own version is here. It’s a very good song, based loosely on one by Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee. He also adds to his Sheiks project with a fine rendering of “Gulf Coast Blues”, the song he performed on the concert DVD. Other highlights include the slide work on “Darker Still” & “Fair Weather Friends”. His vocals remind me very much of the laid back, laconic style of Corb Lund and it rather suits his dark lyrics. He is first and foremost a guitar player, though, and the variety of instruments and styles he presents on these songs should delight guitar fans everywhere.
Doug Watson was born in Chicago, the son of the noted pianist Eddie “Lovie Lee” Watson, whose many accomplishments included a stint in Muddy Waters’ last band. He is a member of the extended Bell Harrington clan – the late Carey Bell was a stepbrother. Having relocated to Kitchener, he won our Talent Search in 2007. That Revue, with Watson playing bass, is still together: Chris “Mr. Sweetness” Latta on guitar, Maciej “Mr. Magic” Lukasiewicz on drums, and partner “Mississippi” Pete Temple on harmonica. They mine the same soul blues vein as Calgary’s Donald Ray Johnson and they do it very well. Watson has written a couple of solid originals on this six-song disc and treats us to fine versions of Latimore’s “Let’s Straighten It Out” and Z.Z. Hill’s “Down Home Blues & “Please Don’t Let Our Good Thing End”. Bobby Bland’s “When You Got A Heartache” rounds out the non-originals but those two new ones show promise. “Broken Hearted Man” and “The Best Way I Can” belong in this company and I hope there’s more to come. With a voice as good as his, a lack of strong new material is the only thing holding him back. Helping out at the recording session was Junior Reggan or John Lee on organ & John MacMurtry on sax. They’ve scheduled a CD Release night at Hugh’s Room on June 2. Their web site is www.douglaswatson.com.
Another five years has gone by and in what has become a welcome tradition, Holger Petersen gets to troll through his vault for a new compendium of excellence. Once again, we have in hand a disc of mostly singer/songwriters; a disc of blues, R&B & jazz and a disc of videos to enjoy and sample and perhaps even lead you to search out a performer you might not otherwise have heard. As before, this is not just a ‘best of’, it’s a goldmine of rare and unreleased gems, beginning with the remaining four tracks from the lost-for-40-years session that the legendary Robert Nighthawk recorded here in 1965 (one song was on the 30th Anniversary package). This session isn’t even in the official postwar discography. There’s an unreleased King Biscuit Boy song and a preview of Kenny “Blues Boss” Wayne’s new Stony Plain disc, An Old Rock On A Roll. Harry Manx & Kevin Breit’s new collaboration won’t be available until the end of the month but “Looking For A Brand New World” is here to entice you. The DVD is, of course, all previously unavailable at retail and leading off the list is Mako Funasaka’s special tribute to Jeff Healey, blending video of Jeff performing with guests from Kim Wilson to Downchild’s Donnie Walsh and Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan, plus some rare in-studio footage, all set to Jeff’s version of Neil Young’s classic “Like a Hurricane”. An excerpt of Downchild’s “Bop ’til You Drop” was used in Flip, Flop & Fly, the recent documentary. The whole thing is here. Long John Baldry’s video for “Shake That Thing”, from It Still Ain’t Easy must also be added to the highlights. Just pick one up, turn it over to see the contents and you’ll know it belongs in your collection. Go to www.stonyplainrecords.com for more info.
Those of you who think that major label box sets don’t happen in blues are in for a big surprise. Robert Johnson, born in Hazelhurst, Mississippi, would have been 100 years old on May 8th and Sony has prepared a major anniversary celebration. Twelve 78’s were released in his lifetime or shortly after and these twelve are now available as 10″ LPs, at 45rpm, each with the original A & B sides and label. Packaged as a vintage, hardbound 78rpm album, it also includes a new essay by Delta Blues author Ted Gioia updating the RJ story with photos and a completely new piece by Steve LaVere, replacing his essay in the Grammy-winning 1990 box. This essay has lots of new information. There are important bonus items as well: a 2 CD set contains all 29 different songs plus all the remaining alternate takes for a total of 42. It also collects the alternate takes at the end of each disc, addressing a major complaint about the earlier set. A second 2CD set has one disc of Rare Victor Blues from the era: 12 78s, A & B sides, some of which are easily available elsewhere but many not and one never before issued, by Samuel “Fat” Westmoreland. The other disc, Also Playing, contains songs by other artists who were recorded during the same days on those recording field trips to San Antonio in 1936 and Dallas in 1937. This disc may be of less interest as it includes Mexican string bands and country artists but it does give you an idea of the wide range of music recorded during those field trips. Last, but certainly not least, there is a DVD, 1997’s Peter Meyer film, Can’t You Hear The Wind Howl: The Life and Music of Robert Johnson, the excellent documentary on RJ’s life, narrated by Danny Glover and featuring Keb’ Mo’ as RJ with Johnny Shines, his travelling companion, Honeyboy Edwards, who was with him as he was dying, Robert Jr. Lockwood, his only student, as well as modern performers acknowledging their debt: Robert Cray, John Hammond, Eric Clapton and more. The really important part of this review and why you should consider this purchase seriously is that the recorded sound is dramatically improved. All the music has all been completely remastered to the highest standards – the earlier Columbia CDs sound flat and lifeless by comparison. Ever since the release of RJ’s King of the Delta Blues Singers LP in 1961, his music has been the cornerstone of the blues revival, influencing pretty much everyone in one way or another, this box set will be the definitive way to remember that. This set, in a numbered, limited edition of 1000, will only be available online at www.completerobertjohnson.com for about $350.00. The newly remastered 2CD set of all the songs and the alternates should be in the shops by now if this big package is more than you need.