Blues music is very much a live art form, making it difficult if not outright impossible to truly capture on recordings. It's not just the music, it's the smoky haze that hangs in the room, the sweat that drips off the drummer's face, the shuffle of high heels on a wooden dance floor. All of it comes together for an experience that is more than just melodies and lyrics. Even live recordings sometimes can't capture the magic. Sometimes an artist does deliver in the studio the way he does onstage. Here's our look at five new releases that try.
From the opening "Heeeeeeeeey" on "Piece of Man" to the last moan on "Young Fashioned Ways," Koko Taylor is, as the title implies, old school. The first release of new material by Taylor in seven years, Old School was inspired by the blues musicians Taylor saw in Chicago in the 1950s, many of whom she later went on to perform with. (The liner notes include a photo of a young Taylor with a group of friends in a nightclub, circa 1954, with Muddy Waters seen performing in the background.) Taylor wrote five new songs for the CD and picked from Lefty Dizz, Willie Dixon and Magic Sam tunes for the rest of the CD's 12 selections.
While these are definitely Chicago-style blues, Taylor manages to have a solid variety. All grit and growls on "Money is the Name of the Game," Taylor turns around and swings on "Better Watch Your Step." On "Don't Go No Further," Taylor menaces "I'm got to love somebody / Somebody gonna love me." Taylor acts as not only singer/songwriter on Old School, she produced as well, with Bruce Iglauer and Criss Johnson. A Grammy Award winner, Taylor has earned Grammy nominations for seven of her last eight Alligator releases. Better make that eight out of nine; we'll see Old School come the next round of nominations.
Into the Blues
Blues fans might not recognize indie pop singer/songwriter Joan Armatrading's name, but they'll recognize her guitar playing it's true blues. Unfortunately, Armatrading's voice doesn't make the transition as easily as her guitar playing does. She lacks the growl or barely-on-key laments that other blues artists have made their signature. Instead, what we get with Into the Blues, an album Armatrading says she has been promising herself for a long time to do, is a controlled pop/ballad voice. Even over her authentic blues guitar playing, her singing lacks the emotional whomp of Koko Taylor or Shemekia Copeland, and Armatrading, for once, leaves listeners unmoved.
Chris Whitley & Jeff Lang
Of the group reviewed here, this CD is the most stripped down musically, sounding bare at times, depending on lap steel guitars or a fretless electric guitar for the melody, an upright bass for the beat. This also tugs at the traditional blues format the most. While Houston-born Chris Whitley's voice is as worn and aching and his resonator guitar as sorrowful as they should be, he sometimes approaches an ambient structure (that is, almost structureless). No surprise there; Whitley was supposedly an avid John Coltrane fan. So is Dislocation Blues really just jazz with a heavy blues sensibility? No, Whitley and Lang tug and pull at the blues format, but they never leave it completely. For example, Whitley's "Rocket House" has ambient music under prophetic blues vocals: "I've been living in the rocket house / empty buildings go flying by / I got trapped above the atmosphere / Got no time to say goodbye." Lang and Whitley recorded Dislocation Blues (which was almost called Road Dog Shall Inherit the Earth) in 2005, just months before Whitley found out he had lung cancer. Seven months after finishing the CD, Whitley was dead. Indeed, no time to say goodbye.
Tony Vega Band
Red Onion Records
Tony Vega has long been a Houston roots music favorite, and Glorybaby is an example of why: Vega plays like there's still swampland mud on his boots. While all of his recordings have been respectable, GloryBaby takes Vega to a new level. His voice here is in fine form, fuller than before, with more nuances, more want. His playing's dirty and down home, fat chords zinging everywhere.
Vega flirts with Southern rock from time to time, like on "High Expectations," but for the most part he is straight Gulf Coast blues. Two highlights are "Dixieland" and "Send Me." Starting off with just Vega on guitar and vocals, "Dixieland" easily overcomes the constraints of a recording studio and is as haunting and moving as a blues recording can be. "Send Me" is a tailor-made last song of the night: "Send me an angel / One I can hold / Send me an angel / I'm feeling so cold / Please send me someone / to sit right beside me / when I'm alone."
This is easily Vega's best recording to date.
(Full disclosure: Tony Vega thanks both the Houston Press and assistant music editor Olivia Flores Alvarez in the liner notes to Glorybaby.)
Born in the Honey: The Pinetop Perkins Story (DVD/CD)
Born in the Honey chronicles the life of piano legend Pinetop Perkins, who has been playing the Mississippi Delta blues for eighty-plus years. Called the greatest living blues pianist, Perkins was born in 1913 and learned to play piano from his stepfather. As a young man, he sometimes ran a moonshine still, sometimes worked in the cotton fields, sometimes played behind other bluesmen like Sonny Boy Williamson and a young Ike Turner (whom Perkins taught to play piano). By the late 1920s, Perkins was already performing regularly.
Though the documentary is mostly a straight biography, there are glimpses into the changing America Perkins lived in. The pre-civil rights South was a different place for blacks back then, no matter how talented they were. When Perkins almost lost the use of his left arm after a woman cut him, white nightclub owners had to arrange for Perkins, who is African-American, to be seen at the all-white hospital. His arm was saved but never returned to full strength.
The DVD isn't without filler. Bobby Rush tells a story about Pinetop and Rush letting a bandmate chat up a transvestite. When the poor guy finds out he's spent all night talking to a man, he's momentarily stunned and then decides he's spent too much money on "her" to call it quits. Pinetop is a blues piano legend and the only story Bobby Rush can think of to tell viewers is about a tranny working girl.
Much more interesting are the stories by Perkins himself. Humble and prone to underplay his importance, he discusses his accomplishments as if every piano player can claim to have a career that spans nine decades.
Ninety-three at the time of the filming, Perkins, who continues to tour, is still in fine form, as the clips of his recent performances show. The DVD comes with a CD, Pinetop Perkins on the 88's, Live in Chicago. The tracks include several written by Perkins, such as "Rather Quit Her Than Hit Her."
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