There is a thoughtful post on No Depression regarding B.B. King, whose 88 years of living the blues has really started to show in recent years. The man is a living testament to American music history and a national treasure, but I have to agree with the gentle suggestion of the post’s author — that B.B.’s inner circle should be nudging him toward retirement from the road. The first time I saw King in 2002 was inspiring; the man electrified the house with an extended set of his signature urban blues, coaxing syrupy bends from Lucille and commanding a first-rate road band. By stark contrast, the last time I caught B.B. in 2010, he only barely made it through a forty minute headlining set, at times rambling through tired schtick and only strangling a handful of halting notes from his Gibson. I walked away from the show with a sad realization that it was probably the last time I would hear King in person; it was like seeing a family member slowly fading, and wishing you could have one more opportunity — however brief — to experience their former self.
At the same time, it’s pretty clear that B.B. truly loves the life he lives, and it must be exceedingly difficult to set that passion aside, no matter how much your body and mind resist. At the end of the day, the decision is his to make — I just hope B.B. opts soon for some well-earned rest and relaxation, before the road life finally catches up with his health.
On a more uplifting note, a series of short interview clips with jazz guitar legend Ed Bickert recently cropped up on Vimeo; the clips appear to be previews of a larger project in progress. Bickert, now 81, retired from the jazz scene more than a decade ago. Interviews with the tele-wielding master of harmony are rare, and much of his catalog is now out of print. In the clips, Ed discusses his development as a player, technique, career highlights, and even spends a little time with his signature guitar in hand. It’s reassuring to see that someone is collecting some oral history from Bickert, who has quietly inspired the comping of many a jazz picker.
Photo: Daniele Dalledonne
Blues guitarist and songwriter Jeff Jensen closes Road Worn and Ragged with “Thankful,” a funky/soulful ode to a musical life well-lived; it’s a sentiment not often associated with the angsty 3-chord art form that is the blues. But we should all be so thankful for what the blues has given American music, despite its roots in some dark chapters of our country’s past. Jeff seems to get that, delivering an album that manages to be heartfelt without being overwrought, respectful of the form without being self-consciously reverential.
Attention-grabbing contemporary blues acts — bands that really encourage listeners to pull classic albums out of rotation — can be hard to find. Fair or not, it usually takes something special to pique my interest; exceptional tunesmithing and musicianship, a unique instrumental lineup, or a sound that draws from diverse traditions. Blues and Trouble, the new album from Kansas City-based Grand Marquis, manages to score on all three counts. By contrast to the six-string foundation of most modern blues acts, the sound of Grand Marquis is rooted in its brass players — Bryan Redmond on saxophone (and lead vocals) and Chad Boyston on trumpet. Bass player Ben Ruth even takes up the sousaphone in a throwback to the pre-electric days of Dixieland swing (perfect counterpoint to the washboard rhythm of drummer Lisa Mackenzie). The group’s sound does justice to the rich blues and jazz history of Kansas City, a musical crossroads often unfairly eclipsed by glitzier northern metropolises.
The blues is first and foremost a vocal tradition, but the guitar has played a prominent role in defining the genre’s sound. Recent instrumental releases from Tinsley Ellis and Ronnie Earl put the instrument front and center.
Get It! by Tinsley Ellis
Tinsley Ellis is known for high-octane blues rock, so long-time fans may be a little surprised by the more restrained vibe of Get It! Not that this is a bad thing; by holding back on the pyrotechnics and focusing on a more melodically-informed approach, Ellis harkens back to a time when instrumental tracks occasionally broke into the radio mainstream. It doesn’t seem much of a stretch to suggest that Get It! is an album tribute to Ellis’s 6-string heroes. It’s implied by tracks like “Front Street Freeze,” in which trebly bends summon the Iceman himself (Albert Collins); “Freddy’s Midnight Dream,” a King-approved slow blues; and the double stop shuffle of “Berry Tossin'” (as in Chuck). Rather than loosely conceptualized jam tracks, Ellis manages to deliver ten distinct tunes — no small feat given that the primal 3-chord structure of the blues isn’t necessarily the easiest format for creating musical variation. Get It! is a fun album that demonstrates how Ellis has managed to not just learn from those who came before, but channels them in making his own musical statement.
Just for Today by Ronnie Earl and The Broadcasters
Ronnie Earl is the rare bluesman who has managed to forge a career primarily as an instrumentalist, and his output over the years has reflected a great deal of stylistic diversity, blending in elements of jazz, R&B, and even world music. Earl is a more cerebral and introspective player, reflected in his preference for slow blues — which honestly is the weakest link of his latest live album. Just for Today would benefit from the omission of a couple slow burners and the addition of a few more high-energy romps — see “The Big Train” and “Robert Nighthawk Stomp” for examples of how the man can tear through a roadhouse beat. That said, few can deliver like Ronnie Earl on a down-tempo number, as evidenced by the soulful tribute of “Blues for Hubert Sumlin” and a Latin-flavored interpretation of John Coltrane’s “Equinox.” Just for Today may not be quite as satisfying as some of the guitarist’s studio albums, but it’s certainly instructive on how to squeeze every ounce of soul from a Fender Stratocaster.
It was the blues, laden as it is with guitars and angst, that initially drew me to roots music. 2013 has seen a bumper crop of solid blues recordings, including these three highlights.
“Out of My Mind” by Cassie Taylor
The contemporary blues scene is crowded with young talent. All too often, these young men and women are prematurely catapulted into the limelight as the next big thing; with no time to really develop their own voice, their talents wind up hard to distinguish from every other act in the genre sporting three chords and a feeling. Fortunately, vocalist/bassist/songwriter Cassie Taylor has spent time being mentored by one of the most original blues performers on the scene today — her father Otis Taylor. Like Otis, Cassie isn’t content to be pigeon-holed by a particular genre. The tunes on Out of My Mind run the creative gamut from the Stax-era soul of “Out of My Mind,” to the hard rock Yardbirds groove of “No No,” to the acoustic guitar and horn funk of “Forgiveness” (the track that probably betrays the strongest imprint of her father). More modern traces of neo-soul and even hip-hop are evident throughout. Taylor’s rock-steady bass and soulful voice are accompanied by a top-notch band that includes Larry Thompson on drums and Steve Mignano on guitar; the latter offers enough electric pyrotechnics to keep discriminating six-stringers engaged. A solid album from an artist poised to stand out from the rest.
I grew up in New Mexico, where the history and culture are permeated by the proud legacy of America’s native peoples. The darker legacy of Native American removal and oppression – including grinding poverty, lack of economic opportunity, and social marginalization – is also on vivid display if you bother to venture out of the major cities into New Mexico’s rural areas. On My World is Gone, Otis Taylor laments that America’s well-to-do “ain’t never been to the reservation.” Sadly, this lament applies not only to the 1%, but probably to the vast majority of Americans – including many middle class New Mexicans like myself – who too rarely give the reservation a second thought.
I’m a big Bob Dylan fan and would be remiss if I didn’t devote some space to his latest studio album, Tempest. That said, plenty of intellectual energy has already been spent dissecting the lyrical content of the disc; I really don’t have anything new or innovative to add. Moreover, I’m the proprietor of a guitar-themed blog. I thought it would be more appropriate to offer my guitarist’s assessment of Dylan’s musical backing on Tempest, particularly by comparison to the rest of his output over the past decade.
Stevie Ray Vaughan was the first guitar player that really inspired me; shortly after buying my first SRV album in high school, I saved cash for a Fender Stratocaster and invested countless hours trying to master his tunes. By college, I was also spending countless hours and dollars trying to capture a piece of his tone through gear acquisition and endless tweaking. However, this clip of the Fabulous Thunderbirds with the brothers Vaughan reinforces the fact that it’s the player, not the gear.
SRV appears to be rocking on borrowed gear in this video, including a Telecaster (I’m guessing it belongs to his brother, as Jimmie has been known to occasionally wield a Tele). And guess what — SRV still sounds like SRV. The Tele is usually associated with treble and twang, but the tone in this clip is pure Stevie Ray. The fluid, muscular bends and hard-hitting double-stops are virtually indistinguishable from what you would hear if he were picking a Strat. Back to the woodshed friends.
An important measure of a band’s dedication to their craft – and especially their fans – is the show they put on in an empty venue. This past Saturday (August 4th), I had a chance to catch local blues act Mr. Nick & the Dirty Tricks at Smoken’ Joe’s BBQ in Brighton. It was a slow night at Joe’s, probably owing to a weekend of sweltering heat in the northeast. Despite the small crowd, the band delivered a great show, playing a mix of blues standards and tunes from their latest album, Oh Wow.
Last summer, I went on on a short vacation through Mississippi and Tennessee, which included music-themed stops at Sun Records, the Stax Museum, and the Country Music Hall of Fame. I’ve been on a southern music kick ever since, and have recently been scratching the surface of gospel music. In particular, I’m intrigued by the interplay between blues and gospel – music forms considered by some to be at odds. If I understand the southern music tradition correctly, gospel tunes were what you sang on Sunday to praise salvation and the good Lord, while you howled blues the rest of the week in praise of the debauchery and sin that required your salvation in the first place.