How often do we observe an artist improving in his advanced years? Rarely, given the inevitable effects of aging and burnout to which most succumb. Even in blues music, where senior citizenship is revered, many old-timers fall short of their former verve and glory. But, as his latest CD eloquently attests, spry septuagenarian Texas Johnny Brown just gets better with age.
Brown is the widely respected guitarist who first recorded with Houston's Amos Milburn in Los Angeles in 1946 before cutting his own singles in New York in 1949. From there he went on to perform, on tour and in the Duke-Peacock Records studio, with some of the top blues talent of his generation. He also penned "Two Steps from the Blues" for Bobby "Blue" Bland. More recently he's emerged as bandleader and released his first CD, Nothin' But the Truth, a 1998 W.C. Handy Award nominee for Comeback of the Year.
Now, with Blues Defender, Brown has raised the bar another notch. Comprising 11 tracks, including ten new compositions, this album showcases his remarkable craft as a songwriter, singer and guitarist.
"Handy Man" is a brightly jumping shuffle fueled by the jazzy bravado of a crackerjack horn ensemble and the B3 organ of William Hollis. Along with a crisp rhythm section, they lay the foundation for Brown's tasteful guitar licks. The lyrics -- about a fellow who services the needs of neighborhood housewives -- are witty, and Brown's voice is confident and strong.
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That bedrock of organ interplaying with full complement of horns characterizes much of the album. And the guitar soloing throughout is brilliantly spare and eminently melodic, avoiding frivolous pyrotechnics and focusing instead on clean tones and cool sounds.
For instance, on "Runaway Girl," longtime bandmate Donald Owens lays down a funky bass groove punctuated by inventive organ riffs. Meanwhile, Brown delivers precise guitar leads that communicate like the voice of a disciplined singer -- not some blustery screamer. And here, as elsewhere on Defender, Brown's vocalizing is his most effective on record, conveying passion and depth of insight.
Other noteworthy tracks include "Quality Blues," a moody instrumental featuring guitar lines that are simultaneously elegant and down-home, artfully smooth but visceral. The title track kicks off in march rhythm propelled by vibrant horns. Jubilant and sassy, its message is apt: For over half a century Brown has carried the blues banner with style and grace. The closer, "Rained Out," features Brown alone on guitar, a mellow outpouring of six-string brilliance performed over the sound of a steady rainstorm. The instrument and the rhythmic rain fuse organically.
With Blues Defender, veteran Texas Johnny Brown entertains and inspires, proving that Houston blues is joyously alive in the 21st century.