Category: Blues


Watch how things take shape as Sassparilla’s The Darndest Thing. “New Love” walks in as a pulled back neo-swing blues carrying with it echoes of Tom Waits and Squirrel Nut Zippers (in a quieter moment). “Same Old Blues” picks up with an almost Dixieland trombone as the eclectic instrumentation circles around the blues, bluegrass, and swing. Accordion and harmonica create the lazy river feel for “Bone Colored Moon,” as if the sunnier side of a Greg Brown song painted over with some Mississippi Delta jazz hints.

“Overcoat” and its slide guitar brings back some more Tom Waits dark corners played through that Greg Brown folk and a sultry Norah Jones jazz. Banjo leads into “Confession” as the swing feel of the earlier tracks recedes into the background and lets an Appalachian blues rise up from the foggy hollers. “Fumes” works right into a finger-picking folk that starts heading out of town on the train, slowly swaying side-to-side into the pitch black Texas night.

Then you arrive at “My First Lover.” It’s a frank, adult-language kind of reminiscence of the speaker’s first girlfriend—seemingly an older, more experience woman who led him down the wrong? path. Perhaps it’s a good memory, but the language makes it seem like just rebellion and far from love as if boredom just led to experimentation. The song goes back to that time with energy and rock ‘n’ roll, but with an air of melancholy hanging over the whole thing.

“My First Lover” could easily be edited like Mumford & Sons’ “Little Lion Man” so that it could get airplay, capitalizing on the track’s blend of rock and everything from earlier in the album: blues, folk, and bluegrass. The haunting harmonica drenches the song with suffocating kudzu as the lyric says,

Lock up all your windows
Shutter all your doors
Burn bright that porch light
Because my lover’s in your town
Yes, she’s in your town
Devil’s in your town.

The album closes with “You’ve Got It Bad,” almost a return to the swing of the early tracks, which makes it an odd choice to end the album. All the other tracks seemed to point towards the combination of rock and warning on “My First Lover.”

Meanwhile, as I contemplate The Darndest Thing, I return to track 3, “Bone Colored Moon,” as the lyric delves into the spiritual and foreboding. Picturing what it might mean to get left behind by Jesus and those headed for eternal life, the song begins: “She said, ‘Where were you when the saints left town?’/ ‘I was standing on the corner with my hanging down/’neath that bone colored moon, child of God passing time/The devil don’t want much, but he surely wants he’s owed.’” There’s hunger to be a rescued child of God, lifted out of the devil’s schemes to bring us down. Follow that up with a Gospel tune, and you’ve got quite the liturgical folk punch.

Sassparilla
Fluff and Gravy Records

2011’s version of “Lookin’ for the Truth” begins with a guitar riff straight out of the Rolling Stones before sliding into a rootsy groove akin to John Hiatt in a growly, bluesy mood. Written about 30 years ago for his band Moonbeam, Michael “Murch” Powers’ song delivers two quick stanza bursts of stories about teenagers seeking something more in their lives. Powers returned to the song, rerecording it for the rock ‘n’ rolling Revolutionary Boogie, and the song hasn’t lost its connection. Teenagers are still looking for a higher truth beyond dying from drugs or getting pregnant while still too young. Actually, the song’s chorus about American youth looking for the truth aches with a spiritual search that stays with us long beyond those teenage years.

In December, Powers will be inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame as part of the Local Blues Talent of New York. Such an induction recognizes the 40 years that Powers has contributed his talents to the blues world. Being first influenced by the porch blues of the South, but then later lapping up all of the British blues rock bands, Powers brings his wide-ranging talents to two New York City residencies: an acoustic show each Mondays and a full-on electric band show on Fridays. That is, when Powers isn’t traveling to blues festivals and shows around the globe.

“Lookin’ for the Truth” reflects not only the dual sides of Powers playing—the electric blues and rootsy folk blues—but it also points towards his faith in God. In a phone interview, Powers said that the song reflects a deep spirituality “like when you’re driving on the highway, looking for some city, find out you’re on the wrong road, and you turn around and find the right road. Finding the truth—that’s what you’re really put here for. We all go through different stuff to find that.”

Besides the song’s focus on the search that youth go through, Powers talked about the spiritual search he’s seen in the blues world. “I started out with really raw blues cats who had a big battle, battling on Saturday night, but then on Sunday, they’d be singing Gospel.”

I asked Powers about that battle and how he has maintained his faith, and he admitted, “Friday night, sometimes it’s hard. It’s a dark night.”

Overall, though, Powers keeps his perspective: “Music is a great thing, but what’s greater than music is the person who created it. God. Put the Creator first, and everything else will follow.” Powers credits jazz musician George Benson for that insight given during a conversation thay had years ago.

Meanwhile, Powers keeps growing as a musician—as well as a Christian. He plans on developing an album done in the style of Chess Records where it’s “real simple, no overproducing, everyone in the same room.” That might best describe the spiritual vibe I get from Powers also: real simple—focused on God, no overproducing—humble before God, and everyone in the same room—accompanied by the Spirit.

Michael Powers
ZOHO Music

The title tells you everything. Jook Joint Thunderclap aptly describes this country, swampy, funky blues send up by multi-instrumentalist John-Alex Mason. They’re the kind of songs that make you do a funky dance, imagining yourself right into that jook joint on a Saturday night. The thunder booms, the guitar wails, and Mason’s one-man band rig stirs up the rhythm. After the thunderclaps, the rain pours in—more going on in this music than you realized, it just pours down on you as Mason and the band pick up djembe, bolofon, fiddle, mandolin, harmonica, bass and flos, letting it rain cats and dogs all over town.

Mason is joined by a great cast here. Lightnin’ Malcolm lays down that blues strut with his guitar (Malcolm also impressed me recently on tour with Big Head Todd’s “Blues at the Crossroads” Robert Johnson tribute shows). Gerry Hundt’s urgent harmonica, especially on “My Old Lonesome Home,” really kicks up that funk dust. Perhaps best here, though, are the contributions from R.L. Burnside’s sons, Cedric and Cody. On a number of tracks here are the marching funk drums of Cedric Burnside—another Big Head Todd guest that delivers jumps up the blues just right with his drumming. Cody Burnside, meanwhile, steps up on two tracks to lay out some blues-inspired raps that make the jook joint swagger.

Of course, I shouldn’t really stop there, because the fiddling of Lionel Young really countrifies things. “Diamond Rain” rides out on the range, a bluesy gallop down the country lane as Young swings on the rhythm.

Meanwhile, while it’s not the last track, let “Free” take you on out of here with another jumped up blues that could be the song of the Israelites as they left their exodus across the wilderness, celebrating in that bluesy sort of way:

I went to the mountain top
and I could barely breath
I walked through the red desert
until I burned my feet
And kept on walking
to soak them in the sea
then caught the wailing winds
and swore they’d be the death of me…

We’re gonna fly
because we’re free
Gonna fly
see what we can be
We’re gonna fly
because we’re free
Gonna fly
to the shining
.

John-Alex Mason
Naked Jaybird Music
Cedric Burnside and Lightnin’ Malcolm

When Big Head Todd (Todd Park Mohr) took the stage at Northern Lights Theater (Potawatomi Casino) in Milwaukee, and commenced to sing “John the Revelator” a cappella, you knew it was going to be good night. A night of music dedicated to the 100th birthday of Robert Johnson, the “Blues at the Crossroads” tour featured Big Head Todd and the Monsters, plus many special guests, working in different combinations throughout the evening to deliver some fine, fine blues work, conjuring up the man who supposedly sold his soul to the devil in order to play the guitar the way he played it. However, it wasn’t just a redelivery of the blues; those songs were played through the influences of many, many generations.

After Mohr played another solo on steel guitar for “Stones in My Pocket,” he was joined on stage by Lightin’ Malcolm on guitar and Jeremy Lawton on keys to take that country blues walk through “Kind Hearted Woman” where Mohr really hit a heartaching falsetto. All of the Monsters plus Malcolm then came on stage for “When You Got a Good Friend” with guest Cedric Burnside adding his flavor on drums for a song that’s electrified and jammed up.

Burnside stepped up to the guitar for “Ramblin’ on My Mind” which started off with a real country feel only to land into a funk thing when Monster Brian Nevin kicked in the drums. With Burnside back on the drums for “Walking Blues,” things took on a funk march feel leading to a double drum solo by Burnside and Nevin. A country blues and funk combo would show up again later on “If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day.” “Come On In My Kitchen” was organ drenched with Mohr’s guitar solo really making it dirty.

Other treats in the evening, though, were clearly when the 95-year-old David “Honeyboy” Edwards came to lay down three songs with his guitar, including “Sweet Home Chicago.” Despite coming out using a cane, once the man was seated, you could see that he still had all the energy needed to play them blues. Then Hubert Sumlin came out to play guitar as well. Needing oxygen wasn’t going to stop this blues legend either.

Despite all of the personnel changes, the show never felt like it was just a revue—spotlights on various acts without sense of unity. What the Big Head Blues Club delivered was a show that brought together masters at their trade, playing songs together in such a way that unified them around the great music of the legend Robert Johnson.

The show closed out with everyone on stage doing “Dust My Broom” and a tag of “Sweet Home Chicago.” All in all, it was one of those concerts that I could only wish could go on for a lot longer.

Fortunately, the spirit and music of the night is well-captured in the Big Head Blues Club album, 100 Years of Robert Johnson. Featuring many of these same guests, plus others like B.B. King, the album does more than dusts off these songs like an antique Victrola on display; the band cranks up that record player, drops the needle, lets the songs play out, and adds some intense wattage.

Big Head Todd & the Monsters
Cedric Burnside and Lightnin’ Malcolm

Among the Americana gems on Amos Lee’s soulful Mission Bell is the Gospel-fueled “Jesus.” Handclaps and dirty guitar lead the way into the call-and-response chorus. It’s as pointed as any of the complaint Psalms, the Psalms of the Old Testament that take the pain right up to the throne of God. The chorus is a cry for God’s help, even while the verse admits to feeling wild and free, feeling as if life could go on without acknowledging the divine. But then the speaker admits that his heart “was a skipping stone/But now the world has jaded me/Oh, corrupted and defeated me.”

Then the turning point of faith:
You know I never felt you hated me,
But I never felt so alone.

As much as the speaker is feeling alone, feeling separated from Jesus, feeling as if he’s alone in a world that’s left him “corrupted and defeated,” still he senses God’s love. Jesus doesn’t hate him. There’s still hope. There’s still some way in which he can be restored to God.

This psalm of complaint closes out with the cries for Jesus’ help while the instruments clang and challenge the present state of affairs. It’s as bluesy as the album gets, and it’s a deep-seated blues ripe for prayer vigils, counseling, meditation, and preaching inspiration for days when we need to know that we can walk right up to the throne of God, approach Him through Jesus, and call upon Him in every kind of trouble.

Amos Lee
Blue Note Records

Three-Chord Lectionary is a series of posts that connect songs with readings from Scripture, seeing how music can send us to the music of the Bible.

Eric Bibb’s Booker’s Guitar begins with the haunt sing-speak country blues of the title track played on the great Bukka White’s own guitar. A poem-song tribute comes from Bibb like something by Keb’ Mo’ while also recalling the storytelling of Peter Mulvey and a chorus right out of folkster David Wilcox’s book. The song sets the stage for this trip down dusty roads, sticky floor bars, and the spiritual experience which is the blues.

For “With My Maker I Am One,” Bibb is said to have been inspired by the writings of Deepak Chopra—the self-help guru focused on Eastern spirituality. However, in the bluesy tones, I hear plenty that may resonate with Christian spirituality.

Accompanied by Bibb’s lone guitar, he walks through descriptions of all kinds of people, all who are one with their Maker, and by extension, all people are one.

I am the preacher – shoutin’ out the news
I am the juke stomper – playin’ the blues
I am the Holy Roller – givin’ Jesus my cares. . . .

After all is said an’ done – with my Maker I am One

Now Christianity never goes down the more Eastern path of equating people with God or saying that somehow there is “God in each of us” as if God didn’t retain His own distinct personhood. If that’s what Bibb’s song leads you towards, then, perhaps it’s best to let the song walk on by.

But if you can see in the song a way in which it calls us to see that we are one with God through Christ, one with Him through the work of the Holy Spirit in us, then Bibb’s song points towards a Christian spirituality that can be celebrated wholeheartedly.

In this sense, the song echoes the high priestly prayer of Jesus, prayed the night of His arrest, the night before His crucifixion. Jesus prays in John 17:

My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

“I in them and you in me.” After all is said an’ done—with my Maker I am one. I am one with God the Father through Jesus Christ. The Spirit of God is in me. No matter what kind of life I’ve lived, and Bibb’s song certainly covers just about every kind of person, no matter where I’ve been, through Christ, I am able to know that I am one with God. This union isn’t so that I become God or can claim to contain God as if to control Him. This union is so that I know that I am His own, His possession, His child, His person to save, renew, transform, raise from the dead, and bring to life everlasting.

So whether I have been the master or the slave, the banker or the hobo, the prisoner or the warden, there’s forgiveness for all of my sins, bringing me back into sweet union with the Father so that I have the promise of life after death.

In that way, Bibb’s song rings true, rings with clear, true tales of Gospel hope from that guitar of his. In that way, Bibb’s song sings for this Three-Chord Lectionary.

Eric Bibb

Three-Chord Lectionary is a series of posts that connect songs with readings from Scripture, seeing how music can send us to the music of the Bible.

Buddy Guy’s Living Proof lays out ample evidence that at seventy-four years young, the man still rocks that guitar right into a blues holler. One song, “Where the Blues Begins,” featuring guest Carlos Santana, settles into a groove as Guy’s voice coos out a deep cry of just what conjures up the blues in our lives. As the guitarists punctuate this sky, the song dives into broken marriages, “hard luck and trouble.”

And while it may be said that the blues begins far from God, far from the hope in God, the blues is found plenty of times in Scripture. Bono called King David, writer of many of the Psalms, the first bluesman. Sure enough, Guy’s “Where the Blues Begins” sounds like a psalm that’s looking at the things that tear us apart, tear us down, tear us away from any sort of hope. The guitars charge the air, rail against the injustices and pain, and meanwhile, you have to wonder if there’d ever be a chance that you could return to God’s side.

Psalm 77 says:
I cried out to God for help;
I cried out to God to hear me.
When I was in distress, I sought the Lord;
at night I stretched out untiring hands,
and I would not be comforted.

Buddy Guy sings:
Where the blues begins
Way down on the bottom,
You got the struggle to survive,
Where the blues begins,
Hard luck and trouble,
Takes it’s toll on the life.

Psalm 77 clings to hope and believes that the Lord will intervene:
I will remember the deeds of the LORD;
yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago.
I will consider all your works
and meditate on all your mighty deeds.

Buddy Guy sings out against the trouble, a way of holding onto hope:
It’s the same old fight,
You know you just can’t win
Oh, oh, this is where the blues begins.
It’s the same old fight,
You know you just can’t win.

While “Where the Blues Begins” doesn’t come to the same definitive conclusion of hope like Psalm 77, they’re both pointed in the same direction: upwards. There’s an upwards movement of the blues, a way in which the blues point you out of the mess that you find yourself in, and even though the songs may not name that hope, there’s a hope present in the music.

Psalm 77 sings of those same troubles and pains, comes from that deep down place, originates in the brokenness of life, and then it points upwards, it points to a hope outside of this present predicament. It names the hope—the Lord our God. It names the hope that’s present in its music.

For me, though, songs like “Where the Blues Begins” help me to see just what ails us, just why we need hope, just why we need God in our lives. For me, hearing Buddy Guy sing and play makes Psalm 77 come alive, makes me run to Jesus all the more. Because when the song concludes that “you know you just can’t win,” I say, “Amen,” and realize that I need Jesus to win, I need Jesus to be the victor, the champion, the One who claims me back from the grave. It’s not about me winning. It’s about Jesus winning, doing the winning for me, giving me a gift of victory over all the blues that threaten my life here and after. That’s what I hear in the music; that’s what I hear in Psalm 77; that’s why I hope Buddy Guy will keep singing and playing a good long while.

Buddy Guy
Jive Records

The Music Spectrum Notebook Series digs into my handwritten notes and reviews on older releases still getting my attention as 2010 comes to a close.

Go to Northern Blues now and order a copy of Eddie Turner’s Miracles & Demons. Disregard the fact that I didn’t get around to reviewing this album right away, and take it from me that this is some serious electric blues. Turner has always impressed me with his way of channeling Country Blues into his electrified, rocking passion. This album is no less than exhilarating, the way Turner psychedelically transforms the blues guitar into a force to be reckoned with.

Eddie Turner
Northern Blues

Supergroups have all of the promise of becoming something great given the time to truly develop as a group. Sadly, most groups don’t get that chance to mature. For instance, in 2002, the Thorns brought together Matthew Sweet, Pete Droge, and Shawn Mullins in an acoustic-laden, CSNY/Byrds-like foray into three-part harmonies. The resulting self-titled disc showed a lot of promise, but also seemed to suggest that the group was just beginning to discover what they could do together. Unfortunately, the group has not reformed, the principals retreating to focus on their own work.

Here’s hoping that Fistful of Mercy is a supergroup that gets a chance to develop and mature beyond their first album, As I Call You Down. Like the Thorns, Fistful of Mercy brings together three solo artists, in this case Ben Harper, Joseph Arthur, and Dhani Harrison. Continuing the comparison to the Thorns, the album is rich in vocal harmonies while exploring a realm of aching folk blues. (By the way, just to make one more connection, the Thorns and Fistful of Mercy both employed drummer Jim Keltner).

“Father’s Son” is a blistering country blues, railing against the pain of life and yet confessing great crime—and contemplating another more final crime. Yet, like so many blues, it’s also a prayer of sorts—“I’m so down, Lord/Better slow down, Lord.” Despite a closing line that says, “We have a way of saving our own lives,” I really appreciate the pain-tinged “Fistful of Mercy” which lands upon a tremendous metaphor for what it means that God speaks to us with Law and Gospel: “Maybe it’s soft inside of hard/Fistful of mercy.” God speaks with judgment against our sin, but inside, in His heart of hearts, He speaks good news of forgiveness and mercy.

Fistful of Mercy

At a particularly important hour for personalLes Copeland prayer, I happened to be listening to Les Copeland’s “That Needing Time” from his Don’t Let the Devil In. It’s a blues album for fans of Michael Powers, David Jacob-Strain, Martin Simpson, and Kelly Joe Phelps, and “That Needing Time” is the best Gospel blues I’ve heard since Phelps’ Roll Away the Stone.

I was certainly in “that needing time” when the song came on the stereo as I was driving. The people I was thinking about were in “that needing time,” too. And the song are the words of Christ who invites us to tell Him “when that needing time sets in.” A whole range of things could be happening to us, and Jesus invites us to share it all with Him.

It’s an invitation I’ve heard through the words of the Bible, but in that moment when the needing time was really setting in for me, I thank God that He sent Les Copeland to remind me again that I may pray, I may bring my burdens to Jesus, I may trust that He takes my prayers seriously, I may know that He hears my cries.

Don’t Let the Devil In rings with the cries of life in the way that only the blues can. “What’s Your Name” delves into the swamp of recognizing that you no longer recognize yourself because of the hurts you have caused (“What’s the name of the man in the mirror?”). On “How’s That Drummer,” Copeland recounts his own pain, albeit with some humor, of losing his wife to his former drummer.

Copeland plays a mean slide guitar as on the instrumental track “Ry Cooder,” that despite its dedication to Cooder makes me think of Phelps. Tracks like “Distant Train” recall the way Bo Ramsey adds ornamentation to Greg Brown’s deep-down bluesy folk.

The album’s title track ring with an appropriately foreboding country blues, like a good sermon that provides plenty of warning against the wiles of the devil, Michael Frank’s harmonica like a piece of spiritual armor defending the soul with its cries. Only Jesus has gone up against the devil and won, and you’re gonna want Jesus on your side after hearing how the scene that Copeland causes you to experience. It’s that needing time, and Jesus promises to be there.

Les Copeland
Earwig Music

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