John’s Blues Picks
It opens with a simple graphic and Dan Aykroyd announcing the band over a darkened stage, Donnie Walsh & Chuck Jackson begin the show with the dueling harps of “Soaring” and the celebration has begun. The culmination of a cross-country tour, this evening masterfully combines history and, in showcasing an entire album of new songs, the future. Aykroyd was a big part of that history, the Blues Brothers comedy skit that began by them watching Donnie & Hock, has grown into a blues empire for Aykroyd and its spinoffs contributed mightily to the longevity of Downchild. Aykroyd is the emcee for the evening and he acknowledges the Blues Brothers with a performance of “Soul Man”. He also guests on “(I Got Everything I Need) Almost”, the big hit and one of three Downchild songs on that famous Blues Brothers LP. And he’s not the only guest: Quebec’s rising star, blues rocker Jonas introduces himself to a new audience and returns the favour with a solid vocal on Donnie Walsh’s “Rendezvous” from I Need A Hat. Seven of that CD’s songs form the core of the show, the live versions of the new songs honed to perfection by the end of the tour. Stax Records’ star trumpeter Wayne Jackson of the Memphis Horns only guested on the CD but plays all night here, soloing brilliantly. Old friend James Cotton may have been seated for his two songs but in an evening full of highlights he brought smiles to everyone’s faces with his harmonica duels with Donnie. These were also Donnie’s vocals, “What Was I Thinking” and “A Garden In Her Front Yard”. Colin Linden came on to play guitar. Colin James reprises his lead guitar spot on “Somebody Lied” as the final guest. For all the guests, the evening really belonged to Donnie & the members of Downchild: Chuck, Pat Carey, Mike Fonfara, Gary Kendall & Mike Fitzpatrick and occasional trumpeter Pete Jeffries. The adoration from the audience is palpable. Joel Greenberg, who also produced & directed Flip Flop & Fly, last year’s documentary, does a fine job here, especially on the between songs patter – keeping things moving along smartly. The DVD is in stores now and a CD is promised. You can discover much more at www.downchild.com.
Piggyback was such a success that a follow up was inevitable. As in that one, the music could not have been more spontaneous: a time was found in two busy schedules, the occasion being an invitation to an artist’s retreat at the Banff Centre. The songs were written, recorded and mixed all within a week. And as before, the result is a delight. The vocals are by Matt but all the songs are collaborations and I want to include in the collaborations the beautifully recorded sound on this disc, for which, it seems, ‘sound supervisor’ David Gleeson gets the credit. Sometimes, in the haste, the songs tend to the light side: on Piggyback, the disc opened with an analogy to a float plane, this time we get “Snow Plow”. Rather better is the rag “She Loves It All”. “Pawnshop”, though, is a keeper, a tale of an owner accepting a ring from a failed relationship. With sensitive accompaniment on acoustic slide and harmonica, Andersen’s vocal captures the moment. “The Mountain” is cut from the same cloth as “Coal Mining Blues” and is almost as good. Andersen’s ‘voice of the working class’ role continues with a poignant, a capella tale of a farmer whose health has finally failed with the stress of providing for his family. “Last Letter Home” has only Stevens’ mournful harmonica for accompaniment. “Canadian Winter Blues” is what it seems but has some nice images: ‘I’ve got icicles in my coffee and there’s a Narwhal in my chair’. Stevens revels in his role as accompanist through these songs, soloing memorably when called upon, but the closing instrumental is his: “Push Record” catches a studio jam for a full seven minutes – you won’t be disappointed. This may not be quite to the level of Coal Mining Blues, but the music making is spectacular – a worthy addition to the discographies of both.
This is a solo outing by the Twisters’ guitarist/vocalist, who now bills himself as Yukon Slim. And it is a solo outing, with only his brother Chris helping out on drums, when he’s not running the recording console in his studio in Whitehorse. It is not, however, a solo guitar disc, Brandon Isaak adds guitars, bass & harp as necessary and includes various sound FX. It is also not a Twisters disc, he sings originals in various styles before concluding the disc with some new songs that are not beholden to a particular style and these are very good indeed. He opens with just his slide guitar and foot. “A Bluesman’s Plea” uses traditional country blues licks combines with a very effective lyric to get the girl – a most welcome set opener. “Hard Workin’ Woman” gets a band treatment, a lament about a wife who’s constantly flying off on business trips, complete with on-board stewardess announcements – a subject not often covered but certainly timely. The acoustic “Tell Me Why” channels Howlin’ Wolf, but Isaak thankfully uses his own voice instead of trying to imitate the famous growl. “A Little Wine” uses snippets of news reports to embellish a series of vignettes on the perils of too much drinking. Something a little different and well thought out. “Take My Message” and the earlier “You Gotta Pray” show a remarkable facility for writing gospel songs, including as well a snippet from a recorded sermon. I guess a working songwriter will always have ideas that don’t necessarily fit the current working context. The opportunity arose to record some of them and we should be thankful for that. I’m sure he has more on hand for the next Twisters CD.
Sandy Bone was the drummer with the Twisters for a decade or so before tendonitis made him give up the sticks. He decided to switch to guitar but in Mr. Isaak, they already had a guitarist/vocalist, hence SandyBone & The Breakdown was eventually born. To the West Coast Swing style of his former band, he’s added a quite attractive & bluesy Hank Williams slant and on several occasions, a rockabilly flavor. “Anything For You”, “Worried In Mind”, “Move On (Down The Line)” and “Highway Of Hopes & Dreams” form the strong centre of the disc, with “Worried In Mind” being a particularly fine blues. “Move On” has a train motif that is very well done. “Highway Of Hopes & Dreams” is a rocking but moving tale of a young blues singer hitchhiking across the country and her descent into ‘the land where no one smiles’. The closing “Lookin’s Free” is a slide feature for Bone and he doesn’t disappoint. The players behind him are mostly not familiar to me, although they do a fine job. Particular mention goes to Dave Webb, whose contributions on piano jump out. His own web site seems to be under construction but you can get info at www.myspace.com/sandybone.
Boogie Patrol is led by Rotten Dan (Shinnan). Apparently quite the character on the Edmonton music scene, he reminds me a bit of Peter Wolf, the jive-talking front man for the J. Geils Band in their heyday. Their blend of blues, funk, soul and R&B has been rocking western stages for four years now. Rotten Dan plays harp to go along with his vocals and he’s got some very good players behind him in Sean Grieve on keys, Yuji Ihara on guitar, Nigel Gale on bass and Jeff Lisk on drums. The sound is heavily keyboard-based, although Ihara turns in some excellent solos and Rotten Dan plays less harp than I expected. His vocals are the driving force of this band and here he shines. “Cool Under Fire” is an excellent opener and perhaps the best song on the disc. It’s a bluesy rocker of a love song. The keyboard solo gets a little jazzy here and the second song is an instrumental whose jazz leanings seem to interrupt the flow of the program. “Taking Time” is a soul-flavoured power ballad. “The Bird & The Boy” has some nice slide playing and, rather unusually, a trombone solo, played by Ethan Markwart. “Hey Barber” is a harp feature for Rotten Dan. “Bathe With Your Woman” is straight ahead Chicago blues, with some group vocals thrown in and a very nice solo from Ihara. A bit of repartee towards the end of the song questions the subject matter turning it into a bit of a joke, but the groove is good. Many of the songs here are a bit long, something reflected in the CD title, I guess. A bit of editing would be a good thing for them to contemplate. It sounds as though they would be entertaining to see live. The web site is www.boogiepatrol.com.
David Maxwell & Otis Spann Conversations In Blue Circumstantial/Vizztone
Otis Spann played on hundreds of recordings but not many as a leader. He was still in Muddy’s band when he and Robert Lockwood Jr. went into a New York studio in 1960 for Candid Records for the first of these. The result was the famous Otis Spann Is The Blues. In 1972, another album was released from these sessions, called Walkin’ the Blues. Everything from the session was issued on a long-since vanished Mosaic Records box set – so famous were the proceedings. David Maxwell first saw Otis perform in 1963 and got to know him well after that as Muddy visited Boston frequently. Maxwell cites Otis as one of his main inspirations. As he could now be considered the modern day equivalent of Otis as a session player, this timely tribute from the disciple to the master is a welcome one. With the permission of the label, Maxwell has chosen four Otis songs and recorded a second piano part. There is one Otis song from the first album and ten solo Maxwell songs all interspersed for a blues piano extravaganza. “Otis In The Dark” is considered the masterpiece and those of you wondering what Maxwell could contribute to it needn’t worry. Albeit done posthumously, the result sounds like two masters having a conversation on two pianos, with Spann on the right and Maxwell on the left. Never once does Maxwell get in the way, with a sensitivity that never falters. The same can be said for “Walking The Blues”, “Get Your Hands Out Of My Pocket” and “Spann And Bob”. That last one is, of course’ a song that includes Lockwood and the new contribution is especially intricate as a result. “Otis’s Great Northern Stomp” is just Otis, and Maxwell’s solo tracks are no less welcome: the CD leads off with “Marie”, a Spann composition from a couple of years later, and “David In The Dark” builds on the new contribution that I began with. “Cow Cow Boogie” is the kind of knuckle buster that both excelled at. This disc has already been honoured with a Blues Award nomination for Acoustic Album of the Year. Just one listen and you’ll know why.