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David Whiteis · A Blues Top 10 · Dec 8th

With the caveat that I have fallen grievously behind on my listening, and thus have no doubt missed some sparkling and irreplaceable diamonds along the way, here are ten disks — listed in no particular order — that provided me with inordinate listening pleasure in 2004.

Kenny Neal, Billy Branch
Double Take (Alligator ALCD 4894)

Guitarist Neal and harpists Branch take a vacation from their usual contemporary electric blues sounds for a one-off acoustic duet project. Rootsy as hell, but there’s nothing quaint or “retro” about the stylistic, emotional, and thematic immediacy these two bring to blues themes both venerable and recent. “Billy And Kenny’s Stomp” masterfully invokes the classic postwar harp-and-guitar duet sound (the ghosts of both Big and Little Walter permeate Branch’s harp work); the ballsy machismo Branch breathes into Muddy’s “Mannish Boy” serves to remind us of the link between the cocksure strut of earlier blues eras and the street-tough pose of modern rappers. Neal and Branch re-cast “Going Down Slow” as a defiantly ebullient back-roads boogie; “Don’t Start Me Talking” and “Just Keep Loving Her” hew more closely to the original versions, but the duo’s sprightly energy and irrepressibly exploratory musical imagination is such that even these standards are reborn ( Branch’s impish mix-and-match harp solo pays homage to mentors and role models like Big Walter, Rice Miller, and Sonny Boy Williamson No. 1). Then, inserted into of all this Southern-fried jollity is “The Son I Never Knew,” a wrenching tale of familial discord set to a minor-key contemporary pop-blues framework. Neal sings it in a harrowing, cut-to-the bone vibrato as Branch’s harp wails, moans, and scurries over the top, sounding alternately like a man crying wringing desperate new beauty out of heartbreak. Which, of course, is the very essence of blues expression — and, as such, an appropriate centerpiece to a masterful outing by two of today’s most important and consistently innovative blues artists.

Various Artists
The Sue Label Story, Vol. 2: Sue’s Rock ‘n’ Blues
Intersound 5770

Various Artists
The Soul Of Sue:
The U.K. Sue Records Story, Volume 3
Kent CDKEND 235

Guy Steven’s Sue label was a labor of love that lasted from about 1964 to 1968. During that time the imprint leased masters from the better-known U.S. label of the same name, as well as from other R&B, blues, and soul diskeries both famous and obscure. It’s obvious that neither Stevens nor his customers cared for stylistic distinctions or other theoretical esoterica — blues guitarists (Homesick James), soul screamers (O.V. Wright, young Tina Turner, James Brown), white rockers (Ronnie Hawkins), uptown R&B hipsters (Dr. Horse), churchy soul/jazzers (Jimmy McGriff) — males and females of all stripes and persuasions ??? share the roster with jubilant, genre-busting ecstacy. It’s an approach that a lot of people could still learn from today: as author Francis Davis reminded us in The History Of The Blues (Hyperion, 1995): “Anything that was American and made a lot of noise was all right to the first great British postmods and rockers, and maybe they had the right idea.”

Various Artists
Stompin’ At The Savoy:
The Original Indie Label, 1945-1961
Savoy SVY 17446

Savoy Records founder Herman Lubinsky was the prototypical mid-century record industry hipster-entrepreneur, a man who was as sincerely enamored of African-American culture as he was of the almighty American dollar. The records hislabel issued from its inception in 1942 through the early ‘60s trace the trajectory of U.S. popular music from the so-called “jazz era” through jump-blues and into R&B. This four-disk set is not a comprehensive mining expedition into the Savoy vaults; rather, it’s a savory and tastefully executed overview of some of the imprint’s finest moments (which doesn’t necessarily mean its biggest-selling records), as well as a nostalgic and deeply satisfying triptych through an era when pop music could be bluesy, good-timey, and sexy without sacrificing either its intelligence or its artistic integrity. This is one of those compilations where you can set your CD player on “random,” sit back, and let the delights wash over you.

Evangelist C. Scott
God’s Got The Last Word
Style Records 1000

Evangelist C. Scott is better known around Chicago as Little Scotty, a veteran and enigmatic bluesman, street hustler, social activist, and jackleg preacher who’s a legend in his own South Side community but remains virtually unknown among most whites. Produced by fabled entertainer/hustler/promoter August “Mr. Wiggles” Moon, this disk supports Scott with live, in-studio instrumental and vocal backing (from “The Babylon Sisters” &@#8212; Tanya, Michell, and Monica), over which the Evangelist delivers a set of fervent gospel testimonials with sinewy grace, ranging from breathy pleas to salvation-wracked screams. Most of the second half is taken up by the title track, which segues into a coda entitled “Your Grace And Mercy.” It’s a remarkable, even astounding, performance. Scott was severely disfigured in a house fire when he was in his early teens — it left third-degree burns over much of his body — and in this sermon he relives, with uncompromisingly graphic imagery, the physical and spiritual anguish he endured during his long recovery. The rest of the disk, while not of the same fervid intensity, is musically and spiritually satisfying as well. The Style label can be reached at PO Box 27864, Richmond VA, 23261.

Bobby Rush
FolkFunk
Deep Rush DRD 101

“Folk funk” is a term Bobby Rush has used for years, in one form or another, to describe his music and his stage act. But the term has never seemed more appropriate to him than it does here. Along with guitarist Alvin Youngblood Hart — another renegade roots man and shape-shifter who likes to pay homage to tradition by tweaking and challenging it — Rush has come up with the rawest, most backwoods-sounding disk he’s ever recorded, yet the groove is pure chitlin’ circuit funk, and the lyric themes are drawn from Rush’s usual repertoire of borrowed, tweaked, found, and invented tales, bromides, and aphorisms. Only Percy Mayfield’s River’s Invitation, a rare Rush cover of another artist’s song, doesn’t quite work: the perennially ebullient Rush simply cannot summon the pathos to sound suicidal. Everything else, though, finds the indefatigable Jackson, Mississippi-based blues trickster at the height of his modern-day powers. An added treat is his harp blowing, which was little more than a gimmick for a long time, but has been getting more assertive and imaginative in recent years.

Mavis Staples
Have A Little Faith
Alligator AKCD 4899

Chicago’s resident Queen of Soul and Gospel has recorded in virtually every imaginable pop, gospel, soul, and R&B context over the course of her career; here she alternates between sanctified funk, smooth-sheened pop-gospel, and a blues-tinged sound that invokes her late father’s Mississippi roots while simultaneously taking on today’s retro alt-country aesthetic on its own terms. Her voice has coarsened over the years, but that only adds resonance to the prophetic resonance of her musings as she warns, cajoles, encourages, and challenges us in a voice both rich with wisdom and redolent with the light of faith. Mavis knows that faith is most meaningful when it’s hard-won: she humbly admits her own spiritual shortcomings on “I Wanna Thank You”; her careworn murmur on “God Is Not Sleeping”sounds like the meditation of a battle-scarred soul nestling in the glow of blessed sanctuary. In “Ain’t No Better Than You” she laments the harsh realities of a fallen world blinded by hate, even as she staunchly insists that a change is, indeed, bound to come. Even on a fire-and-brimstone sermon like “There’s A Devil On The Loose” she avoids sectarian self-righteousness in favor of a heartfelt admonition to humanity to stand stalwart against satanic forces like intolerance and violence. Mavis didn’t write most of these songs, but she inhabits them so effortlessly they seem to emanate from her very core. That kind of dedication is timeless, as are the gifts Mavis Staples continues to bestow.

Pyeng Threadgill
Sweet Home: The Music Of Robert Johnson
Random Chance RCD-16

Yes, this is Henry’s daughter, here leading an eclectic ensemble that melds influences ranging from early 20-Century blues through contemporary R&B to free jazz. It’s especially appropriate to revisit Robert Johnson in this kind of “high art” context, as part of the ongoing reassessment of the Delta blues legend and at his contemporaries as the artists they were, instead of the “folk” primitivists of stereotype. As Ms. Threadgill’s liner notes tell us, she sees this music as “global blues,” rooted in specific historical and social conditions — as well as a particular culture — but imbued with meaning that speaks to the struggles, hopes, and dreams of all humanity. One might wish she’d confronted some of Johnson’s legendary demons and taken on such fare as “Cross Road Blues,” “If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day,” or “Hell Hound On My Trail.” On the other hand, by emphasizing less-canonical works, along with standards such as “Come On In My Kitchen” and “Sweet Home Chicago” (which she lays over a street parade beat featuring an Armstrong-tinged trumpet line from Ryan Scott that sounds a lot like what was going on in Chicago in the ‘30s when Johnson originally sang the song), Threadgill reminds us of the depth and breadth of Johnson’s artistic vision. She also shines some welcome light on material that has often been overlooked by his more romantically obsessed advocates. As a tribute to one of the blues’ most gifted purveyors, this disk is a valuable addition to the still-amassing Robert Johnson legacy. As an introduction to a young and extremely talented vocalist and arranger, it’s important on its own terms as well.

Lucille Bogan
Shave ‘Em Dry: The Best Of Lucille Bogan
Columbia/Legacy CK-65705

Technically, this should probably be called the “Latter-Day Best” of Bogan, since it’s culled entirely from her post-1933 output on ARC (on which she was billed as “Bessie Jackson”). Thus, earlier gems like “Sloppy Drunk” and “Tricks Ain’t Walkin’ No More” aren’t here. But what is here should add fuel to the argument that much earlier-era blues was, for all intents and purposes, the hip-hop of its day — subversive, threatening to middle-class respectability, unabashedly celebratory of what might now be called the “gangsta” lifestyle. Singing in a hard-edged wail that sounded as if it were transplanted directly from a whorehouse juke, Bogan boasted openly of cocaine use, promiscuity for fun and profit, and the joys of Lesbianism (then considered a sexual perversion). In a stance that predicated ‘70s-era radical feminism by about 40 years, she even hinted that Lesbianism was women’s revenge against male oppression: “Comin’ a time, B.D. [‘Bull-Dyke’] womens ain’t gon’ to need no men / ‘Cuz the way they treat us is a low down and dirty sin.” The two unexpurgated, riotously profane takes of the title tune, as well as ”’Til The Cows Come Home,” can stand proudly alongside anything being generated by today’s most hard-core rappers. “Watcha Gonna Do” is an acerbic give-and-take among Bogan and no less than two of her equally no-good men (Sonny Scott and pianist Walter Roland); on “Walkin’ Blues,” a street-weary Lucille vows to a trick (or possibly her pimp) that “you can mistreat me now, but you can’t when I go home” — claiming ownership of her life and her body, doing what she has to do to survive, refusing to let mistreatment break her. This set confronts topics that continue to resonate through popular music and culture, “street” and otherwise — and as such, it’s timeless.

Sam Carr’s Delta Jukes
Down In The Delta
R.O.A.D. RDBL-42

In the summer of 2001, producer Fred James brought some portable recording equipment into the City Market Building in Helena, Arkansas, and recorded drummer Sam Carr with a band that consisted of James himself on guitar along with guitarist/vocalist Andrew “Shine” Turner and bassist/vocalist Dave Riley. It was, as James has put it, a “modern day field recording,” minus the condescending “folklore” trappings that have sometimes accompanied such projects in the past. The joy of creativity and the pleasure of finely-honed craftsmanship resonate through everything here. Riley’s “I’m Tired” is a Jimmy Reed lope goosed by a Texas-tinged guitar break; the molasses-slow “I’m Hungry” also invokes Reed, but this time vocalist/composer Turner invokes John Lee Hooker with his tremulous baritone, and the rhythm guitar pattern quotes from the well-known “Rock Me” riff. “I Got Love” and “I Cried” sound closer to Northern Mississippi “trance boogie” than anything associated with Chicago, Memphis, or even modern-day Helena. “Better Take It Slow,” by contrast, is no less rootsy, but it’s cast in a contemporary-sounding mold — a joyful mix of upbeat-accented Memphis-to-Houston shuffle, vintage rock & roll guitar patterns, and whiskey-scented juke joint raucousness. Blues like this is beyond criticism — it’s to be savored, danced to, and celebrated.

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