Sunday, August 26, 2012

Some Good Men and Women Feelin' Bad: Recent Blues Albums

Two guys named Anthony, at Buddy Guy's Legends in Chicago  (Photo by D. Kidney)

I spent the week before last in Chicago, on vacation with my wife and another couple. We stayed at a beautifully appointed boutique hotel in the Gold Coast, easily within a short taxi ride from most of Chicago’s feature attractions. There’s the Shedd Aquarium, home to thousands of examples of sea life; the Field Museum, not as I supposed a collection of open-grassy spaces, but rather a natural history museum which featured a wonderful exhibit on the life of Genghis Khan. We saw both these attractions on the first day, separated by a lunch of homemade porchetta sandwich at the famous-on-TV Panozza’s Deli. The second day we took pictures of ourselves reflected in The Bean sculpture, and then studied the Roy Lichtenstein show at the Art Institute of Chicago. All those museums were getting a little tiring … after all here we were in the centre of the blues universe and we hadn’t heard any of that great Chicago music yet! For lunch we taxied over to Buddy Guy’s Legends for some Louisiana cooking and a healthy serving of the blues. Buddy himself was on tour in California, so we didn’t find him leaning against the bar, but Anthony Moser (and another guitarist named Anthony) provided the free music. They sang blues, and funky originals while we enjoyed the beer, gumbo and po’boys.

If playing the blues was as simple as repeating 3 chords over a 12-bar structure, then everybody who tried it would sound the same. And there are people who claim that all blues music does sound the same. I think there must be something wrong with their hearing! I have received dozens of blues albums for review over the years, and I can assure you that while repetition is a part of blues music, there are many, many ways of “doing it” to give style and substance to the form. Just listen to the old masters to hear the variety: Robert Johnson, Skip James, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf; each one had his own unique approach. The CDs at hand today cover a broad spectrum of styles, but each one would be found in the “blues” rack at your local music store (if such a thing existed any more – an exaggeration, but only just).

First up is Tim “Too Slim” Langford with an all-original solo acoustic album called Broken Halo. “Too Slim” Langford hails from Seattle and normally fronts a band called The Taildraggers. From the first track, “La Llorana”, Langford takes the listener on a bottleneck tour of his guitar. Melodies float in and out sometimes referring to other songs sometimes just riffs. I thought I recognized Yes’s “Roundabout” echoed here, and then it changed to a more standard blues progression.  “Three Chords” describes the modern songwriter’s tool box, “you’ve got three chords to make your case and then take ‘em to some other place.” “Shaking a Cup” bemoans poverty on our streets set to a solid rhythm and “You Hide It Well” brings the bottleneck out again with a real Delta sound. The disc is filled with Langford’s interpretations of the essential elements of blues: a guitar, a voice and “a good man feelin’ bad.” 

That definition must be expanded to include a “good woman feelin’ bad” as exemplified by Suzanne & the Blues Church. The first notes of The Cost of Love are from Bruce Edwards’ organ, but Suzanne’s stinging lead guitar soon appears, sounding not unlike Albert King’s single note leads. Suzanne’s lyrics take us to the church – she dedicates the album to her “Lord and Savior Jesus Christ who healed me and brought me out of the wilderness.” It’s never preachy, but you definitely know which side of the question the lady stands on. She also covers a couple of tunes, one by Otis Rush and the other being Buddy Guy’s “Damn Right I Got the Blues.” Her voice gets tougher, her guitar sizzles, and the band supports her beautifully. This is classic Chicago blues played by a woman who overcame early life in a Korean orphanage and the threat of death for her mixed heritage. She knows what the blues is all about, paying tribute to the acoustic forefathers in “Dusty 6 String Box” which also features acoustic guitar from Ray Bailey and BR Milion.  

Buddy Guy is more than an influence on the new disc by Shemekia Copeland since he adds his own searing guitar lines to the haunting “Ain’t Gonna Be Your Tattoo.” Buddy is not the only guest on 33 1/3. The basic band includes guitarist Oliver Wood (who produced), bassist Ted Pecchio and drummer Gary Hansen who provide a firm foundation for Shemekia’s melodic but gritty vocals. “Can’t Let Go” was a country hit for Lucinda Williams, but Shemekia funks it up, and Oliver Wood’s slide guitar is the icing on the cake! JJ Grey adds his vocals to the mix for “Mississippi Mud”, a song about “people who are … set in their ways [in the mud that keeps you] stuck in a backward, rigid way of thinking.” Ms Copeland explains, “It’s about people who only see things in black and white.” Shemekia is the daughter of blues guitarist Johnny Copeland; she has opened for the Rolling Stones, shared the stage with Buddy Guy, BB King, and performed at the White House. If she continues to make music as powerful as this, there’s no stopping her.

Jeremy Spencer was an early member of Fleetwood Mac, the original Mac with Peter Green. He made a solo album in 1973 and then seemed to disappear into a religious cult. He showed up again in 1979, but since then he has maintained a low profile. On Record Store Day on April 21st, 2012 he released a 2-record vinyl LP entitled Bend In The Road. It featured 17 tracks and a cover painted by Spencer himself. This album loses four of those tracks and adds “Homework” which is exclusive to the CD. Fronting a young band, Spencer wields a Paul Reed Smith guitar and a handful of porcelain slides to give him one of the smoothest bottleneck sounds this side of George Harrison. His voice is well-suited to the blues, having some of the same qualities as Elmore James. It is often asked can a white man play the blues? Well, Jeremy Spencer is a 64 year old Englishman who speaks three languages, has lived in over a dozen countries, believes in God, writes children’s stories and poetry, cuts hair as a hobby, and he sings the blues just fine. He plays them even better.      
If playing the blues was just repeating the same three chords all these CDs would sound the same. There is a vast difference in the sounds made by these four good men and woman feelin’ bad. They are linked by the form they’ve adopted, linked by the structure and feel of the blues, but are as different as night and day.

– David Kidney has reviewed for Green Man Review and Sleeping Hedgehog. He published the Rylander Quarterly (a Ry Cooder-based newsletter) for 8 years before turning it into a blog, at He works at McMaster University as Director of Learning Space Development and lives in Dundas with his wife.

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