What We’re Listening To This Week
JEFFREY ST. CLAIR
Charley Patton: Screaming and Hollering the Blues: the Complete Recordings (Revanant)
Along with Son House and Skip James, Charley Patton is one of the three great well-heads of the recorded blues. Patton’s raw voice, abetted by the fact that his throat was partially slashed by an jealous man one night in 1933, has never been equaled. His frantic guitar-playing and showmanship are what the young Robert Johnson offered to sell his soul to emulate. Patton’s songbook, which ranges from hard-edged country blues to gospel laments to love ballads to hip-hop-like rants against plantation masters and brutal cops, is one of the most extraordinary in American music. Patton’s blues are unique. These are not songs of defeat and despereration, but songs of rage, anger and the thirst for justice. They are the sound of the blues as Nat Turner would have sang them. This lavish collection by the late John Fahey’s Revanant Records was 20 years in the making. Yes, it’s pricey, but worth it. After all, you’d be out more money buying two tickets to a Springsteen concert and end up not nearly as well-nourished.
Otis Taylor: Truth is Not Fiction
The Colorado bluesman Otis Taylor is Charley Patton’s true descendent. His songs are rough-edged, uncompromising and dark as the times. His guitar and electric banjo playing has a brutal and menacing quality. This is the blues as Stokley Carmichael or Robert Williams might’ve sang them.
Sunnyland Slim and JB Lenoir: Live at Nina’s Lounge, Chicago, 1963
If you want to get a sense of what it was like to spend a Friday night in a West Side blues club as the Chicago blues was being reborn in the early 60s, this is the record for you, featuring piano-player Sunnyland Slim and JB Lenoir, the most militant blues singer of his generation. Slim and Lenoir banter back and forth and rip through about 20 songs, getting help along the way from a young Michael Bloomfield and an aging St. Louis Jimmy Oden, who at the time was sleeping next to the water-heater in Muddy Waters’ basement. Oden was one of the great piano players of the 1940s, taking up where Leroy Carr left off. But here Oden is relegated to harmonica. Apparently, Slim feared that if he gave up his bench at the key, he’d never be able to reclaim it. Tell me that Lenoir’s voice isn’t the model for Chris Tucker’s speedball falsetto in "Rush Hour."
Various Artists: Tulare Dust: a Songwriter’s Tribute to Merle Haggard
Generally, I don’t have much time for tribute albums, particularly when the tributee is still around kicking ass. But I’m a sucker for almost any CD featuring Iris Dement, which is why I picked up Tulare Dust. Iris’s cover of Big City is wonderful, but the real virtue of the cd is to remind us of just how great and varied Haggard is as a songwriter, mastering everything from lush country ballads to driving rockabilly. It also reveals for all those humorless Hippies who didn’t get the joke in "Okie from the Muskogee" that Merle has always been on the side of justice. I don’t think a white person has ever written a better civil rights song than "Irma Thomas", sung with soul here by Barrance Whitfield. And Dave Alvin’s cover of the haunting "Kern River" will make you cry. At least my eyes welled up. Then again I crumble at the mere thought of the final scene of "Old Yeller".
Danilo Perez: Pannamonk
The talented young Panamanian piano player Danilo Perez infuses and revitalizes Monk standards with Latin American rhythms. Perez’s blazing version of "Bright Mississippi", one of my favorite Monk compositions, rivals the master’s own recording.
Hugh Masekela: Lasting Impressions of Ooja Booja
When Hugh Masekela was six years old, a package arrived at his home in South Africa from Louis Armstrong. Inside was a present for the young prodigy: one of Satchmo’s trumpets. Armstrong had an unerring ear for genius. This CD combines Masekela’s brilliant first two albums recorded shortly after he arrived in the states and a decade before he went "pop". Here’s the joyful sound of Zulu rhythms meeting New Orleans R&B and siring a love child all their own. Ooja Booja, indeed.
The Everly Brothers: Roots
Imagine Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks disappearing into the studio with two tons of hash — and coming out six months later with a country album.
Les Lãutari de Clejani: "Cîntec: ‘Lelitã Circuimãreasã’"
Haunting gypsy music by … actually, I have no idea who these guys are. At some point I downloaded this track off the Internet, and it seems to have found a spot on my Mac’s playlist right after the Everly Brothers. For half a minute I thought I was still listening to Roots , and that the Everlys had been a bit more experimental than I’d remembered.
Henry Townsend: The Real St. Louis Blues
I don’t know much about Townsend either, except that he was one of the leading guitarists and pianists in the St. Louis blues scene of the ’20s and ’30s. This disc was recorded much later, in 1979, but it has the same vivid, mysterious, earthy yet ethereal feel as the best prewar acoustic blues.
Cassandra Wilson: Belly of the Sun
There’s a deep strain of blues in Wilson’s jazz singing as well. Indeed, along with James Blood Ulmer, Jon Spencer, and not many others, she’s one of the few widely recognized musicians taking the genre in new directions. That’s clearest when she sings songs by Robert Johnson and Mississippi Fred McDowell, but it comes through as well in her pop covers: "The Weight," "Wichita Lineman," even "Waters of March."
The Kinks: Everybody’s in Show Biz
I’ve been pulling out a lot of my old Kinks albums since Ray Davies released a solo CD last month. I won’t bore you by reeling off all of them, but I’ll put in a good word for this underrated effort from 1972. It’s a double LP, with the first disc recorded in the studio and the second recorded in concert. Aside from the famous "Celluloid Heroes" and the not-so-famous "Sitting in My Hotel," the studio half stays in the same country-and-jazz mode as the group’s previous release — Muswell Hillbillies, still their best record — but now the New Orleans influence includes some Meters-style funk along with the more traditional sounds heard on the earlier album. The live half is sloppy fun, with the horn-enhanced band breaking into "Baby Face" and "The Banana Boat Song" as well as some the familiar Kinks material.
The Sensational Guitars of Dan and Dale: Batman and Robin
I don’t know who Dale is supposed to be, but there is a guy named Dan playing a guitar on this mostly instrumental Batman album for kids. The real news, though, is who’s on organ: It’s jazz legend Sun Ra and white bluesman Al Kooper, doing a little anonymous hack work while members of their usual bands sit in on the other instruments. No, really.
Michael Jackson: Off the Wall
Every year it gets harder to remember it, but back in the ’70s the Hakim Bey of pop was pretty good. Stop, Michael; we’ve gotten enough.
Since I just spent three days on a riverboat with a few of these artists, I thought I’d give some of their CDs a listen, starting with one I’ve already included in a previous playlist, and ending with something so far out of right field it might have landed in left.
Charles Neville and Diversity (LaserLight)
The coolest man on earth, with a smile for everyone he meets, stepping out on a fabulous solo project, with mellow but brilliant versions of Charlie Parker’s seldom-heard "Diverse" and my all-time favorite version of Fats Waller’s "Jitterbug Waltz."
Charmaine Neville, Queen of the Mardi Gras, Up Up Up, and It’s About Time
Charmaine is Charles’ daughter, and in terms of sheer talent she may be the Neville-est of them all. Whether deconstructing "Yellow Submarine" (in a performance that would have dropped Sun Ra’s jaw open), or subversively re-inventing Mardi Gras standards, or getting in the face of people who think it’s enough to be "sympathetic" with the plight of the down and out (on "Can You Tell Me"), she’s in a class all her own.
Most people have no idea what she went through during Katrina, since only the London Times and perhaps no more than one American paper carried her story in depth, and she was also subjected to some right-wing "swift-boating." Every American needs to read the story of her experience ("How We Survived the Flood" [http://www.counterpunch.org/neville09072005.html]). A nation in bad trouble would do well to listen to this woman. If I were Michael Moore, or Ken Burns, I would make sure it did.
I’m going to suggest that you buy all three of these CDs directly from Charmaine’s web site, where you’ll also find links to sax player Reggie Houston’s solo CDs.
The unlikeliest of blues circuit stars, and the co-founder of Sapphire — the Uppity Blues Women, who proved that not only do middle-aged white women get the blues, they can sing them with credibility and play them with class. Rabson’s own credibility comes not only from her deep knowledge of blues history (is there ANY piano player whose work she doesn’t know?), but from her rock solid sense of time (thus making it no surprise when she tells you
The Texas roadhouse song-writer par excellence, a fine, fine drummer, and the vocalist Stevie Ray Vaughan modeled himself after. But let’s face it: no one sings Bramhall like Bramhall.
By the way, if you ever want to know how good a drummer is, try taking him to the paddlewheel lounge on a riverboat, sit him over in the corner, behind not much more than a toy drum set, with one working cymbal and no bass player, and ask him to play songs he’s never heard with people he’s never really met. Bramhall is the heart and soul of that good old Texas shuffle, but who knew he could second-line so fine!
His "Change It" is the most memorable song to come out of that whole Texas movement fronted by Stevie Ray and his brother Jimmy with the Fabulous Thunderbirds. Might as well hear it by the guy who wrote it, if you haven’t done so already. And Bramhall’s covers of John Lee Hooker songs (how come no one ever calls John Lee a "singer-songwriter"?) come as close as anyone to absolutely nailing what the Hook was all about. Add a "Forty-Four" that actually gets the shambling groove right, unlike almost any other version since Roosevelt Sykes laid down his guns, and you’re feeling mighty fine.
The Original Blackwood Brothers, The Final Curtain, Live Concert June 29, 1954, Gulfport, Miss
"Feeling Mighty Fine" was one of the house-wrecking numbers associated with arguably the best of the early 50s white Southern gospel groups. This performance was recorded the night before a plane crash killed half the quartet in Clanton, Alabama. As far as I know, this isn’t for sale anywhere. I found a well-worn cassette copy on eBay a while back. The sound is dreadful by almost anyone’s standards, at times like trying to hear a ball game on a Cub Scout project radio. But for me, the opportunity to relive the experience of seeing these guys many times in concert was worth the primitive audio.
The highlight of the concert is R. W. Blackwood’s four encores on "I Want To Be More Like Jesus Every Day," sung — and evidently received — with what can only be called abandon.
Why even listen to this music, other than for reasons of personal nostalgia? Because the failure of nerve (and heart, and conscience) exhibited by white Southern gospel singers just a few years later, during the Civil Rights movement, was as tragic as it was despicable. Faced with the necessity of practicing what they preached, or turning their backs on the source of their best material, most of them proved white gospel music a fraud, by running off to Nashville and associating themselves with modern "country" music. Thus they became the true vanguard of Nixon’s "Southern strategy."
In 1954 it was still possible, just barely, to hope for better from them. Who knows what the Blackwoods would have done, had that plane landed safely. Would they have embraced their many black fans, who couldn’t even get into their shows, and locked arms with them in their struggle for justice, or would they have searched like all the rest of their peer group for a still-segregated corner of the hideous treacle now known as "contemporary Christian" music?
Their contemporaries, the Statesmen, once a great group themselves, sank all the way from an RCA Victor contract to the level of recording an album called "God Loves American People" — and singing backup for Lester Maddox, the Georgia ax handle peddler. Whereas the Blackwood Brothers, by the time this concert took place in segregated Mississippi, had performed and recorded more songs by black composers than any other white gospel group of their day, enough to allow a tantalizing glimpse of a road not taken. However imperfectly, The Final Curtain documents one last wild show by these doomed legends.
On July 2, in Memphis, according to Charles Wolfe’s essay in the Bear Family box set, Rock-A My Soul, the 5,000 mourners who filled Ellis Auditorium at a memorial service for the two dead members of the group included "a young, heartbroken Elvis Presley" and, "strictly segregated from the white mourners … a number of black fans of the group."
David Vest’s newest CD is Serves Me Right to Shuffle.