John’s Blues Picks

Diana Braithwaite & Chris Whiteley Scrap Metal Blues Electro-Fi/Outside

“The Blues Suite”, a TBS commission that Diana Braithwaite & Chris Whiteley performed last October at the CBC’s Glenn Gould Studio was a concert highlight of the year. That music forms the basis of their latest Electro-Fi release. The Suite’s aim was to incorporate their own histories within a survey of blues styles. The commission clearly resulted in some of their finest songwriting and, indeed, of their performances. Diana’s Underground Railroad family history was a part of that show and the album’s title refers to her father’s job as a scrap metal collector, “Scrap Metal Blues” gets an almost a rockabilly setting, with a storming slide guitar part from Chris. “Wellington County” goes back even further, to that first generation here. It gets a solid groove with yet more slide. The CD starts out with “Rockin’ Nubian”, a rocker that goes back to Diana’s first album and rock it does. Part of Chris’s history is revealed in “West Virginia Bound” an almost spoken travelogue of a slow blues. A survey of blues styles this may be but the fresh sound of these songs is the other great strength of this disc. “Hold Me Tight” is Chris’ tribute to Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, a major influence, but again a fine new song. “Hawaii Blues” is another good one, a slow blues, with Dan Whiteley on mandolin and Chris on the lap steel guitar. “Johnny To The Fair Blues” is a duet set over a rhumba beat, this story of two lovers is one of five here that are not on the concert recording, which is still available at http://music.cbc.ca/#/concerts/Chris-Whiteley-and-Diana-Braithwaites-Blues-Suite-2012-10-19. “Big Show” takes us to Chicago in terms of style and lyrically it describes a country boy trying to make a mark in the city. “Sit Down On The Back Porch” is a lovely jazzy duet with the horns brought back in. “Blues Suite”, the song not the entire show, is a horn-laden thumbnail sketch of the blues. “Manitoba Flood” continues the jazzy conclusion to the program. Diana turns in some of her finest singing on this once again topical song. Essentially the same band is on hand here as on the broadcast, the only change being that John Sheard takes over from Jesse Whiteley on keys. They’ll no doubt all be on hand when the CD Release happens at Hugh’s Room on May 31. Check out the concert for Chris & Diana’s spoken introductions to the songs and get this disc, I think you’ll agree it’s their best one yet.

 

Vince Maccarone’s Los Variants jass/blues Self

 

A familiar name & face on our music scene and indeed the drummer on Scrap Metal Blues, Vince Maccarone has slowly been accumulating songs for a CD under his own name. As given by the Los Variants tag, a nod to Los Lobos, an eclectic collection this turns out to be, reflecting both his different sessions as an on-call drummer and his own ideas, some of which include music left completely to chance: musicians that had not met, songs unwritten, everyone following cues from the drum kit. You should check out his web site, www.vincemaccarone.com, to see the impressive list of credentials he brings to this first album. I first met Vince when he was a member of the Sidemen and Paul Reddick is first up on this disc singing wonderfully on Percy Mayfield’s “Stranger In My Own Hometown”. This one is a carefully prepared homage to Mayfield. “Stone Hooker” is a blues rocker with Claire Doyle on very good vocals. It’s a co-write with Steve Marriner and Ms. Doyle is a member of the Nathaniel Dett Chorale among her other credits and is a vocalist to watch. There’s one more blues track before the adventure starts and that’s Charles Brown’s hit “Black Night is Falling” sung by the inimitable John Mays. The CD is sub-titled “Global Blues” and the next part begins with Reddick on vocals again but this time for Vince’s very good country song, “Save My Soul”. “Che Che Toronto” is an augmented and edited for CD version of a Latin jam session, “Syncofunk” perhaps needs no further description from me, “O Passeio” is a string-laden adult contemporary instrumental and “BR Transport” a free jazz workout. I skipped the version of the jazz standard “SunnySide (13th Flight Mix)” as it seems to have had a great deal of attention paid to it. Storm Gordon is the vocalist and co-arranger of this version of “Sunny Side of the Street”, she’s a Scottish singer specializing in alternative vocals and something she calls ‘down-tempo’. The attractive arrangement draws mostly on reggae rhythms. For this second part, Vince’s plan to put student musicians and seasoned veterans together, with cues from the drum kit has drawn amazing results. I think you’ll be impressed. Every song has a different lineup of players, I’ve only listed the vocalist and, of course, Vince but you’ll see a lot of familiar names here. I’m sure he has lots of ideas for his next project and I’m already looking forward to it.

 

Thom Swift The Fortunate Few Self

 

Thom Swift hails from Fredericton NB and while this album is independently produced it is of equal quality to his last one, Blue Sky Day, which had major label distribution. After 12 years as a member of Hot Toddy, his previous three CDs have won a mantel full of awards and this one should follow suit, his baritone voice, intricate guitar playing and well-written roots blues songs continue to make for an attractive package. It’s sort of a lower key affair this time, no rockers, but you’ll like the songs. Swift kindly provides comments on each one and several of them are bluesier than the others. “200 Miles” is the story of a rural community and features harp from Mike Stevens and drums from Geoff Arsenault, who maintains his usual distinctive presence throughout. The title song features Kevin Breit on slide and Bill Stevenson on piano – a further indication, if you need it, of the level of musicianship Swift operates at. “River John” is by Ray Bonneville, a song about a local river and if Swift’s pen ever runs dry he could do more Bonneville songs, they’re a perfect fit for him. “You” is billed as a love song but it may be the bluesiest one here, with Stevens on harp, Breit on slide and Brian Bourne on electric guitar. The love of the lyrics is balanced in the music by the apprehension inherent in any relationship. According to www.thomswift.com, he has a nicely busy touring schedule, mostly in the Maritimes, but he will be here at Hugh’s Room on May 29 as part of a double bill with a solo Steve Marriner.

 

Various Artists The Walter Davis Project – A Tribute to a Giant of 20th Century Music Electro-Fi/Outside

 

On this CD’s back cover Sunnyland Slim asks “How come people don’t know nothing ‘bout Walter Davis?” The answer seems to be that while the pre-war pianist was an excellent and prolific lyricist, he was a somewhat limited musician whose recordings tended to all sound the same, especially at LP or CD length. We should remember though, that they were originally 78rpm discs, to be listened to one song at a time. Producer Christian Rannenberg and Electro-Fi mean to let you know something of his songs, keeping those comments in mind. Rannenberg is a German fan & pianist who organized the sessions with his band over the past several years and invited some guests who would lend the project the kind of gravitas it deserved. Electro-Fi recording artist and blues veteran Billy Boy Arnold takes most of the vocals, with Henry Townsend, Jimmy McCracklin, Keith Dunn and Charlie Musselwhite contributing as well. Townsend, who learned from and often accompanied Davis starts things off with an original, “Nothin’ But Blues”, recorded in 1993, when Townsend was just 84 years old. Singing strongly and very much in Davis’ style, he’s accompanied by Bob Corritore on harp, a testimonial to continuity in the blues and a perfect lead in. Billy Boy Arnold, with albums devoted to Davis’ contemporaries John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson and Big Bill Broonzy is a perfect choice for these songs. “Oh! Me! Oh! My! Blues”, “Just Can’t Help It” and “Move Back To The Woods” are my favourites here. The variety of voices and instrumentation handles the problem of similar tempos very nicely. Jimmy McCracklin’s father and Davis were best friends and he learned to be a blues man at Davis’ knee. You can hear his reminiscences at the end of the disc. Rannenberg went to California to record him in 2008 at the end of a long career and the two songs receive spirited performances. The album is dedicated to him. Keith Dunn is an American now living in Europe and his songs serve as a good introduction. “Just Can’t Help It” shows he and Rannenberg’s band did their homework. I can’t think of a better way to discover a blues giant, you can do that now at www.electrofi.com.

 

James Cotton Cotton Mouth Blues Alligator/Fontana North/Universal

 

James Cotton is, of course, a giant of the blues world and of blues harmonica. He has also been a major influence on our scene, both through his many albums and through his many visits here over a long career. A new album is thus a major event and its genesis makes for a good story too. Producer extraordinaire Tom Hambridge has perfected a method of interviewing his artists and turning their memories into songs, very good songs, as Buddy Guy will attest. Hambridge approached Cotton to do the same. Since his throat cancer, Cotton has let others do the singing and when word got out, people lined up to offer their services: Gregg Allman, Keb Mo, Warren Haynes, Ruthie Foster and Delbert McClinton made the cut – what a list! Darrell Nulisch, his regular vocalist, is here too, with the Cotton band but Joe Bonamassa and Chuck Leavell sit in and Noel Neal pays a return visit on bass. Hambridge is also an excellent drummer and takes the drum stool throughout. With everything now in place, let’s turn to the music. Hambridge had already come up the title song as his calling card and Cotton loved it. With Bonamassa on lead guitar and Nulisch on vocals, you will love this unabashed tribute too. “Midnight Train” is another rocker, with Allman on vocals and Cotton playing some amazing, distorted harp. Keb Mo resents being pigeonholed as a blues singer but his vocal on “Mississippi Mud” shows why it happens so often. “He Was There” chronicles Cotton’s tenure with Muddy, with Nulisch half-speaking the story over some trademark Muddy music. Ruthie Foster is another eclectic singer but many listeners to “Wrapped Around My Heart” might want her to do a straight ahead blues album and she no doubt would want Cotton to play harp on it. Delbert shuffles beautifully on “Hard Sometimes” and the Cotton Band by itself gets the rhumba-flavoured “Young Bold Women”. They also excel on Muddy’s “Bird Nest On The Ground”, taken at a blistering clip. The dangerous life of a travelling bluesman is the subject of “Wasn’t My Time To Go”, handled wonderfully by Keb Mo. Hambridge always leaves the star up front and Cotton’s harp playing is beyond superlatives, even after 69 years. He was having so much fun he even took a turn on vocals, singing “Bonnie Blue” over Colin Linden’s slide guitar. It was the name of the plantation where he was born and this music might well have sounded the same back then. Cotton’s personal view of his career, even more touching in his raspy voice, is a magnificent way to close. For a more detailed version of that history check out David Whiteis’ feature in the current issue of Living Blues magazine, #224.

 

-John Valenteyn

jvalenteyn8724@rogers.com