John’s Blues Picks
With a lengthy discography culminating with Soul Bender, a charming, infectious Christmas CD may not have been the most obvious choice for David Gogo. It is certainly a welcome choice here. The not-often-heard “Christmas Blues” by Canned Heat opens the program in fine fashion. Fortunately he didn’t choose the other side of this single, the version by Alvin & The Chipmunks. His own “Christmas On The Bayou” sounds a bit like Tony Joe White, with its spoken lyrics and swampy groove. The excellent harp here is by Shawn Hall, the Harpoonist. Freddie King’s “Christmas Tears” has always been one of my favourites and Gogo does it proud – a little serious blues to keep things honest. “Let’s Get A Real Tree” is real gem: a seasonal rocker with a contemporary twist. The familiar is here too, with a notable version of Charles Brown‘s “Please Come Home For Christmas”. Some fine sax work from Phil Dwyer makes it extra special. Leiber & Stoller wrote “Santa Claus Is Back In Town” for Elvis Presley‘s 1957 Christmas Album and Gogo takes a roaring solo. The ‘other’ Charles Brown hit, “Merry Christmas Baby” gets a horn section and more fine Gogo guitar. “Little Drummer Boy” is usually out of place on a CD like this until you hear it: with Gogo on dobro accompanied by Hall over the rhythm section, this instrumental version is as bluesy as you’d want. Mack Rice wrote “Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin'” for Albert King and Gogo makes it the funky closer on this delightful disc. So, all in all, a solid Gogo CD, with lots of guitar, his excellent vocals and song selection, what more could you want for Christmas!
It shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that Ken Whiteley’s Christmas album is primarily a gospel one. What will surprise you is the breadth and range of his musical ideas. From the vaudeville era “Santa Claus Blues” to the jump up ska of “The Baby Leapt In The Womb” to the slide guitars in several of the songs, you’ll not want to put this one away after the holiday season. Ken has assembled a twelve-strong band for the sessions, with Amoy Levy, Ciceal Levy & David Wall as the omnipresent chorus or as the congregation, with Ken as the preacher. “Santa Claus Blues” was in the Canadian Aces repertoire and it gets a similar treatment here with Ken & Wall handling the unison vocal & Ken not wasting time pointing out how a song written in the 1920’s has lyrics about being too poor being all too relevant today. Ken’s mandolin is the featured instrument. “Daily Bread” is a gospel jump blues by Ken led by Colleen Allen’s tenor sax. Ten percent of the proceeds of this CD are going to the Daily Bread Food Bank. “The Baby Leapt In The Womb” tells the story of the baby Jesus from the Book of Luke. Doing it as a ska tune with Ken’s National Steel guitar leading the way was a stroke of genius. Amoy Levy & Ciceal Levy and the horns really shine here too. The other song I want to draw your attention to, among a disc full of good ones, is from the Staples Singers. Ken first heard them perform it at Mariposa in 1965 and this rocking tribute features slide guitar, organ and call & response vocals – you won’t be sitting still. The enthusiasm and dedication that Ken and the band bring to these songs will grab you from the opening of “Oh Lord, I Wonder” and keep you long after “Amen” has faded away.
Electro-Fi continues to record Christmas songs as ‘extra’ songs for that special year-end disc that will add much enjoyment to your holiday season. Shakura S’Aida starts things off as only she can: “Be My Santa Claus”, with it’s spoken introduction and double entendre lyrics, is a treat absolutely no one else could have come up with. The members of Fathead collaborated on “Let’s Have A Christmas Party”, with Al Lerman‘s tenor sax leading the way. Braithwaite & Whiteley came up with a delightful groove for their “Bluesy Christmas”. Their unison vocals, singing about listening to Little Walter together are a delight. Lowell Fulson‘s “Lonesome Christmas” gets a sterling workout from veteran bluesman Finis Tasby – Mel Brown‘s trademark guitar is a lovely Christmas gift! Harrison Kennedy‘s songwriting has always been unique and his “Hot Cider Cinnamon” is obviously the result of some deeply held memories. Paul Oscher did not record enough for a full album for Electro-Fi but they kept this song back. His “Christmas Blues” is not the only song with that title but it is a slab of solid country blues, with shades of Rice Miller in the singing. Julian Fauth also has takes his songs down some unusual trails: “Hallelujah In The Malls”, with guitarist Jay Danley doubling Julian’s piano, deals with the loneliness too many endure. Fruitland Jackson makes his “Fat Santa” into a rollicking dance song. Tyler Yarema and Michael Pickett help out. Morgan Davis used his “Anticipation” on his last disc but hearing it here makes it a double treat. Fathead gets a second song with a funky “Santa’s Drunk” – he’s down on his luck, this is not nearly as happy as their other song. Another veteran bluesman, Johnny Laws, had an album on Electro-Fi a number of years ago – this tasteful version of Charles Brown‘s “Christmas Comes But Once A Year” is a welcome reminder of that CD. The more familiar Charles Brown song, perhaps overly familiar, is “Merry Christmas Baby”, except that this 1999 version is by Mel Brown with his Homewreckers and worth the price of admission alone.
This relatively young bluesman from Vancouver has teamed up with one of his mentors for a solid debut CD. Tom Lavin, of Powder Blues fame, has come up with a slate of songs that are thoroughly within the mainstream blues tradition musically but with some rather attractive new lyrics. The title song is the opener and a good example. It’s a tribute to Albert King, down to his signature lick but the theme of loneliness is well conveyed. “I’m On The Road Again” trots out a shopworn subject but is a treat – the groove is excellent – kudos to drummer Ivan Dubin and watch that gas pedal. “Sweet Little Girl” could be from the Robert Cray songbook but is no less attractive for that. It’s about a relationship with a much younger girl. “Guitar Sue” channels Chuck Berry for a song about an assertive guitarist. The next highlight, a Rogers/Lavin co-write, was released as a single: “Dawg” was written to get airplay on DAWG- FM and it worked – not too surprisingly, perhaps, given that it’s a funky paean to the network’s programming. Rogers is a very good singer and guitar player with an excellent group of musicians behind him, something more people are beginning to realize as this disc is climbing well on the Roots Music Report charts. His web site, www.jamesbuddyrogers.com will keep you informed.
Mr. Bélanger‘s contributions to the new Bob Walsh album were noted in the last column and now we have his own new one, his fourth. Dusty Trails shows the nominee for the Maple Blues Award in the harmonica category brushing off his past for a more eclectic journey. There are several creative harp instrumentals beginning with the opener, “Morning Lights”. It has some lovely harp work to go along with Rob MacDonald’s guitar. Keb Mo’s “Am I Wrong” uses Adam Karch’s dobro playing to good effect along with Bélanger’s very effective harmonica. Bélanger’s singing is more assured & confident but he has brought in some guest vocalists anyway. One of the disc’s highlights is courtesy of one of these, Nanette Workman, who does a star turn on O.V. Wright’s “I’d Rather Be Blind, Crippled and Crazy”. Quebec pop star France D’Amour is not far behind, duetting with Bélanger on country singer Colby Caillat’s “Bulletproof Vest”. Breen LeBoeuf takes the vocal on Alex McElcheran’s “Don’t Touch That Dial’. “High Heels Crocodile” & “The Swamp Stomp” are excellent band instrumentals with lots of harp. Generally, Bélanger uses different players on his albums but two of his band mates in the Bob Walsh band are here, Bernard Deslaurier on drums and Jean Fernand Girard on keyboard & arrangements. The standout guitarist from the previous album, Gilles Sioui is back. Eclectic it may be but there’s a lot to like here.
Second only to performing, musicians seek out other musicians to jam with. Eric Bibb & Habib Koité are no different in that respect but their respective backgrounds make this meeting much more than that. Bibb’s childhood included Pete Seeger and Paul Robeson and Koité comes from the Malian griot tradition. This meeting of minds is every bit as exciting as you might have hoped. Firstly, it is not a jam session, this collaboration was allowed to take its time, with songs co-written and instruments discussed. They both play a variety of guitars and a percussionist was on hand. Bibb uses an African sounding melody for a delightful opening “On My Way To Bamako” in Mali where the album was recorded. The song reminded me of Harry Belafonte at his finest. It was Belafonte after all who introduced the concept of international folk music in North America and was no doubt a frequent guest in the Bibb household. One of the collaborative efforts is a song about Timbuktu, a town in Mali. Koité is worried about what might happen to that storied city and the blues melody is unfortunately all too appropriate. “Foro Banu” is for me the disc’s highlight, sung in Koité’s native language to a gorgeous melody. Social commentary is another strong tie between them and it shows up several times here, most prominently in their version of Dylan‘s “Blowin’ In The Wind.” Bibb’s convincing vocal rides over his banjo & pedal steel and Koité’s khafole. It’s a beautiful performance. The one overt blues is the closer, the traditional “Goin’ Down The Road”. Bibb takes the vocal and plays banjo with Koité playing some lovely, subdued solos on electric guitar.
And subdued might be a good word to end on, as the entire disc has that light, lilting, African feel to it. The other tunes, be they folk or traditional Malian, only add to the overall enjoyable effect – you just might leave this disc in your player for a while. They plan to tour in North America in January & February, when it’ll be nice to have some warm, sunny music to take in, indoors.
– John Valenteyn