John’s Blues Picks
June 2011 – Vol. 27, No. 6
Morgan Davis is a bluesman with a penetrating, uncompromising view of his field and not surprisingly, his albums appear infrequently. He provides a useful example: playing Robert Johnson’s “When You Got A Good Friend” on a cigar box guitar, an instrument Johnson may have known well. With only three strings, it forced a simplification of playing that illuminates the song. This disc is not a musicological exercise, but Morgan’s insistence on mostly solo performances does highlight his singular attention to detail and he does not disappoint. He also writes original songs that easily withstand comparison to the classics he’s re-interpreted. His opener, “Sure As You Live”, deals with mortality and self-reliance. The tightly focused recording is mesmerizing. In his notes, he points out he’s opened every set with a Jimmy Reed song and here with “Thank You Mr. Reed” he acknowledges that debt, using no fewer than 27 of his song titles in the lyric. More importantly, he nails the fabled Jimmy Reed rhythm. Seymour Townes aces the signature harp sound. “Anticipation”, another original, is a rather lighter song but with some typically astute observations. A song credited to Lightnin’ Hopkins, “Arlene”, loosens that tight focus, with a slight echo that seems to add distance. The song does not appear to have been recorded by Hopkins and Morgan would know that. It is vintage Hopkins. “The Money Men” continues a theme from Blues Medicine, where Morgan sang about “Easy Money (With Mumbo Jumbo)”. Events since then have given him plenty of new material. There’s even more echo and a couple of overdubbed guitars. “Dissatisfied” is from the Rice Miller songbook and allows Morgan to feature his guitar playing. “Re-break My Heart” adds a new twist to an old theme. “Love Puzzle” was almost the album title and an important composition – it’s a longer, story song with perhaps a specific relationship in mind. Morgan’s notes describe “Look Down The Road” as blues theft: borrowing lyrics to craft a new song. He credits Skip James & Chris Smither and first heard it on a CD by Massachusetts-based Geoff Bartley. However he came by it, I’m glad he did. “Drive My Blues Away” is about as fine a description of what he does as can be imagined: travelling with his eyes wide open, wherever the road leads. The disc concludes with a couple from the archives: “Happy Song” concluded his first LP, from 1981, with a young Colin Linden on slide guitar. The longer version recorded was not used then. And lastly, an even younger Morgan Davis was recorded in his apartment in Rochdale in 1973. The version of Robert Johnson’s “Ramblin’ On My Mind” done then shows dramatically that he was on the right track. This song also appears as a hidden track on his Hogtown Years compilation. Morgan has been traveling, away from his Nova Scotia home for more than a month now and he’ll be using his show at the Gladstone on June 2 as his CD release gathering. You should be there. More tour dates are at www.morgandavis.com. I hope we don’t have to wait as long for the next album, but we’ll be getting it only when he’s ready.
A most fruitful collaboration between superstars continues. Ever since Don Bird arranged for their first meeting on stage at the Owen Sound Summerfolk Festival, the chemistry has blossomed, with tours, guest appearances and now their third joint recording. True to form, they brought some songs in but left the arrangements to be worked out while they played ‘strictly whatever’. By the end of the session, each sang lead on the songs they brought in while the other played lead guitar. But not always, Manx played slide and Breit lead on his “Nothing I Can Do”. “Looking For A Brand New World” finds Kevin at his songwriting best, and Stony Plain likes it too – they’ve made it a free download at www.stonyplainrecords.com, so you can preview before you buy. “Hippy Trippy” is the delightful & appropriate name for Breit’s instrumental conjuring of the psychedelic ‘60’s. Harry transforms John Lee Hooker’s “Mr. Lucky”, making it less a Hooker song and more a straight blues. Kevin solos most succinctly. Perhaps the most ambitious song here is Manx’s setting of a poem by Mary Elizabeth Frye, “Do Not Stand At My Grave and Weep”. It features some wonderfully evocative music from the two of them assisted by what sounds like an uncredited, processed, amplified harmonica but it could be one of Kevin’s guitars. To say that Breit’s “Little Ukelele” is a change of pace is an understatement. Kevin Breit’s “Dancing With Delilah” marks the only appearance of Manx’s trademark Mohan Veena. On most of the other songs, he plays baritone guitar. Art Avalos adds percussion on some songs. There are very few artists who can play ‘strictly whatever’ that you can trust without reservation, the proof is here once again.
Naturally, there’s a follow up to the well-received first collaboration with Graham Guest. And naturally is a useful term to describe Harpdog’s effortless journey through different styles. Jump Blues, the popular music of the 30’s & 40’s, as in songs by Louis Jordan & Fats Waller, predominate: “Blue Light Boogie”, “Saturday Night Fish Fry & “Ain’t Misbehavin’” get remarkably fresh performances in this acoustic duo/trio setting. Harpdog has also found songs by contemporary songwriters that fit right in: Brandon Isaak of The Twisters contributed a couple, “I’ll Make It Up To You”, from the Twisters’ Come Out Swingin’ CD and one that doesn’t seem to be recorded by the band yet, “I Only Gamble On Love”. The guitarist in Harpdog’s electric band, Wayne Berezan, contributed two as well and proves himself a writer to be reckoned with. His “Fine Little Girl Rag” is a delight. An obscure Willie Dixon song from his early Big Three Trio days, “Tell That Woman” is a nice find. Brian Coughlan contributes thoroughly appropriate clarinet for a fine period sound. More traditional blues fare is represented by the opening St. Louis Jimmy-penned “I Had My Fun” and the closer, the solo harmonica piece recorded by Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller) during one of his European visits, “Movin’ Down The River Rhine”. The web site is www.myspace.com/harpdogbrowngrahamguest.
A warm reception greeted this blues duo at their CD Release at Hugh’s Room and it was most deserved. Based in Thunder Bay, Tracy K, on vocals & harmonica & Jamie ‘Snakeman’ Steinhoff, on vocals, guitar, dobro & banjo, provide a program of pre-war blues and originals highlighted by excellent rapport & expert playing. Their vocals are assured & confident. The pre-war songs open the disc, with special mention going to Barbeque Bob’s “Atlanta Moan”, a tribute to Big Dave McLean, whose status as role model & mentor cannot be overestimated. I think he would be pleased with this version of his signature tune. Jamie’s hokum-styled “Diddy-Wah-So” belongs in this sequence. The sequence of originals that follows is more contemporary: Tracy’s love song, “Tailor Made” and “Cowboy Blues”, about a lost love. Contemporary or not, they are excellent songs, sung beautifully. They sell homemade jelly & salsa at their shows as well and lighten the mood a bit with the tale of getting the ingredients in “Stolen Apple Jelly”. Tracy was asked to sing at an aunt’s funeral and wrote a song for the occasion. She unfortunately has had to sing it a couple of more times since and here, ending the disc on a somber note, she sings it with her daughter, Emily. They’ve called themselves Canada’s Paul Rishell & Annie Raines and I for one like to think they’re at least as good as that veteran duo. The web site is www.tracyk.ca.
This set arrived before it happened but a good way to help after the worst flood since the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 is to support the artists who live there. Broke & Hungry Records has released seven CDs devoted to Delta artists, plus a DVD survey and two soundtrack CDs to make the music of current Delta performers available to everyone. That they still have a sense of humour after five years is evident in the title. What you get in this two-disc anthology is a selection from those discs plus fourteen previously unreleased songs. Label prez Jeff Konkel proved that there is still blues in Bentonia after the passing of Skip James & Jack Owens – Jimmy “Duck” Holmes has been recorded three times in these five years. Pat Thomas is the son of the late bluesman/sculptor James “Son” Thomas. Another major find is LC Ulmer, profiled in the current issue of Living Blues, who at the age of 82 will have you scratching your head as to why he hasn’t recorded more often. Just listen to “Rosalee”. R.L. Boyce has recorded before, but mostly on drums. He’s also guested with the North Mississippi Allstars. He’s from Como and his Hill Country boogie, “Ain’t It Alright”, recorded at one of his house parties, is a standout. Those of you who caught Terry “Harmonica” Bean at the Southside Shuffle will know what he sounds like but if you didn’t, he has two new songs here. Broke & Hungry Records concentrates on Mississippi artists, most of them non-professional. They aim to prove that the blues is alive and well in it’s homeland. The web site is: www.brokeandhungryrecords.com.