John’s Blues Picks
Little Miss Higgins is back with a stunning set of new songs and a new band. Fear not, however, for her distinctive sound is very much intact. On earlier albums, the arrangements were sometimes rather too different; here she has assembled a wonderfully coherent program without sacrificing anything. You will also marvel at her vocals, which are richer and warmer than ever. “Heavy Train” is classic LMH, with her bluesy vocals over a strummed acoustic guitar until the band joins in, with harmony vocals and a thudding bass drum. It’s also the first single. “(I Wanna go to) Your House Tonight” opens with cello & guitar and then some banjo and muted trumpet. Her request is sung in a charmingly direct fashion. Fats Waller’s “Keep A Song In Your Soul” adds that classic jazz sound she does so well. Her sense of humour is still intact as well, as “Chateau Poulet” will attest, with its depiction of rural life in French & English. The tender ballad, “Barns You Used To Dance In” laments a bygone era most effectively. The arrangement features a pedal steel guitar along with that muted trumpet. An “Early Morning Thief” steals her dreams away as the boys do a Sons of the Pioneers thing. She can write in a more sophisticated style as well, with “Restless Heart” a jazzy ballad, as exhibit A. A quick return to form is “Dead Cow Hill”, a rollicking tale of a party place in the country. “I Was At An Auction” is another keeper, with lots of room for her sly spoken asides. “Moonlit Picnic” has another classic LMH melody along with more harmony vocals & muted trumpet. Look out for the video of this one. The set ends with a road song, “Blue Moon Behind Me” with a euphonium taking the place of the trumpet. Her ability to take a rural moment and turn it into a song that anyone can appreciate remains undiminished. The Winnipeg Five deserve all the praise they get in the press release: Jimmie James McKee played that trumpet & euphonium; Eric Lemoine, pedal steel & banjo; Blake Thomson, guitar; Patrick Alexandre Leclerc, upright bass and Evan Friesen on drums. They helped so much they received co-writing credits on some of the songs as well as coming up with those wonderful arrangements. The web site is still www.littlemisshiggins.com and it shows that the CD launch tour will be at Hugh’s Room on Nov. 21 and in Hamilton at the Pearl Company the next night.
Paul is of course the guitar playing half of Dawn & Paul, the popular Quebec duo. On those albums, the guitar playing is mostly subdued, in the service of those excellent songs. Here he gets to show us his chops. His playing partner is Anwar Khurshid on sitar and what a duo they make. On some earlier such collaborations the guitar has had to accommodate much more to Eastern styles but this is very much a joint effort, including a ‘Western’ rhythm section with a full drum kit instead of a tabla player. First up is the title song and the trading of solos is simply superb. From a quiet beginning and with some memorable basic materials, by the end of eleven minutes it has built up to a fair head of steam. “Enter The Gate” serves its purpose very well. “Midnight On Dorion” leans more on the sitar, with Khurshid getting a short vocal and it is almost as long. Their version of “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” shows what they can do with traditional material. DesLauriers handles the first portion with a vocal that builds to a powerful crescendo helped along with some incredible slide guitar, then after a slight pause, the sitar joins in with some marvelous rapid string picking. Paul then gets another slide solo before the song ends. DesLauriers proves here also that he is at least as good a singer as he is a guitar player – so dramatic is his vocal. The next two songs are a pair: “When in Brome…” is mostly Anwar while “Do As Bromans Do” is mostly Paul, again with remarkable soloing from both. “Anwar G” is a flute solo by Anwar with a lovely melody but a bit out of place, I thought. “Norwegian Wood” was, I believe, the first appearance of a sitar in a pop tune. It gets no heroics here but the song does get a strong vocal from Paul. The concluding improvisation is the place to mention Sam Harrison on drums and Greg Morency on bass as they get well-deserved solos and they must be given kudos for their work throughout. Harrison’s contribution is especially important to “Enter The Gate” and “Nobody’s Fault” and he should be seriously considered for Drummer of the Year in the Maple Blues Awards. Every lover of stringed instruments should hear this CD. The web sites are www.pauldeslauriers.ca & www.anwarkhurshid.com.
Sures in Yiddish is ‘son of trouble’, the press release says. Not a bad title for a long time folkie who has always stayed close to blues and who has now applied his quirky songwriting to that purpose. Alberta-based Sures has also brought along some old friends in Paul Reddick and Ken Whiteley. Quirky is going to be an over-used word here as some of the song titles will show: “Love Will Kick Your Ass” & “Eat Drink And Make Babies”(with Ken on piano and ‘blues holler’) to name but two. “I Could Be Your Man” has some of the most outrageous rhymes you’ll ever hear. “The 99” is about Wayne Gretzky. Sures is also the guitar player and his blues work is an absolute delight throughout. A song by Malian guitarist Boubacar Traore and a nicely arranged and impressively performed version of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” add an element of seriousness to the proceedings. Traore has had some of the strongest connections to blues in his songs and this version reinforces that nicely. Reddick shines on harp and harmony vocals and it occurred to me that if Sures wanted to do a less quirky blues album, he could do a lot worse than collaborate with songwriter Paul. If that performance of “Grave” is any guide, it would be something to look forward to. His web site is www.bensures.com and it shows only western dates at the moment.
A straight up CD of traditional electric blues next and a good one it is too. The 2008 winners of the MBA for Best New Artist debut their fifth disc on September 17th. The Waterloo-based quartet has certainly found a sweet spot here with what they call their ‘garage blues’. Mike Elliott is the guitarist and vocalist, Chris “Junior” Malleck is on harp, Steve Toms on bass and Jeff Wagner on drums. Elliott is an excellent singer & guitarist, with Junior’s harp as a co-lead, often doubling the guitar part, a bit different from the norm. Their mix of ‘hard-drinking house rockers and heart-wrenching soul searchers’ is programmed very well indeed, with the title song, a solid rocker, leading off – short & sharp. The soulful “Lonely” shows they’ve got the second part well covered too – good melody & arrangement, lyrics sung with conviction. “Borrowed Time”’s infectious groove makes it a highlight and it has a nice guitar solo too. “40 Hours” covers the hard drinking part, with help from “Get Drunk And Be Someone” & “Half Pint”. Overdone perhaps but bands do play in bars, don’t they. “Dug My Own Grave” turns the wattage down a bit for a slow blues that concludes the disc nicely. It’s a particularly good example of the band’s ability to tackle the usual subject matter in non-hackneyed ways. Some unadorned bar band blues, no guests, no extra instruments, it’s exactly what you’ll hear when you see them next. Check out www.daddylonglegs.ca to find out where and when.
The veteran Calgary soul bluesman Donald Ray Johnson released his first solo CD in 1994 after many years in the trenches. There have been four more since then and a career retrospective that gathers together his compositions from them is a very good idea. Each of his albums contained favourite songs by others and a couple are here, like Al Green’s “Ain’t No Fun To Me”, Johnny Taylor’s “Last Two Dollars” and Hazel Dickens’ “Working Girl Blues”, but the ten he wrote belong in this company: “These Blues”, “Here To Stay”, “Me & Jack (Daniels)” and “It’s Time” to name just some. If you haven’t yet heard Johnson’s rich, warm baritone, you’re in for a treat. The recording sessions involved many of the best musicians in Calgary and points west and all are unreservedly recommended. He gave me an earlier version of this disc at the last Blues Summit and it had an excellent, live version of Lightnin’ Hopkins’ “Hello Central”, I hope there’s more where that one came from. I’d also like to draw your attention to another project he’s involved with and that’s The Ray Charles Tribute Orchestra, for which he’s the vocalist. Calgary’s John Gray, a former member of Ray’s band, is the bandleader. There are audio samples at www.raycharlestributeorchestra.com. As a drummer & vocalist, he also still tours with Chicago’s Maurice John Vaughan, www.donaldray.com shows that band just finished a Quebec tour, pity it didn’t stop here.