Saturday, September 19, 2015

Blues x 3: Dave and Phil Alvin's Lost Time, Shemekia Copeland's Outskirts of Love and Ronnie Earl and The Broadcasters' Father’s Day

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Willie Dixon, Brownie McGhee and Hound Dog Taylor. In the spirit of these founders of a musical form that never seems to wane, here are three first-rate releases for 2015. Dave and Phil Alvin's Lost Time (Yep Roc) is their follow up to Common Ground, released last year, and it features even more of their up-tempo and invigorating music. The last record was a rather laid back affair featuring songs written by Big Bill Broonzy. This time the Alvin brothers break out the electric guitars and rock the joint. The album opens with the Oscar Brown Jr song “Mr Kicks” quickly followed by the gospel number “World's in a Bad Condition” in a rousing version worthy of a tent meeting in Mississippi. In an interview in the August 2015 issue of Living Blues magazine, Dave Alvin was asked why the songs on the album sound so “contemporary” in spite of their age. Alvin's response spoke volumes about the value of blues music today, “in any type of old folk music, there's always that kernel of truth that keeps it alive [and] keeps it relevant.”

Lost Time features a wide variety of songs that dip into post-war r&b, “Cherry Red Blues”, Chicago-style shuffle “Rattle Snakin' Daddy” and the early soul sound of James Brown, “Please, Please, Please”. But the overall effect leaves the listener charged up to hear more and we do with a great version of Big Joe Turner's “Hide and Seek”, one of three songs made famous by the big man from Kansas City. Dave and Phil met Turner in California when they were teens, which changed their lives. Phil was so inspired he started his own blues band at the age of 15. Now, some 45 years later, the Alvin brothers not only pay tribute to their musical heroes, they also bring their own experiences to the music maintaining its relevancy and its deeply rooted history. There’s not a false note on Lost Time, one of the best blues albums of the year.

Shemekia Copeland made her stage debut at the age of sixteen opening shows for her father, blues great Johnny Clyde Copeland, back in 1995. Twenty years later she's established herself as one of the finest voices in music. Copeland’s approach to her work is definitely from the bottom up rooted in the all-important rhythm section. But her versatility is most evident on her new album, Outskirts Of Love (Alligator) featuring a fine mixture of blues, gospel and country. It was recorded in Nashville and produced by Oliver Wood. For instance, her version of Johnny Copeland's “Devil's Hand” has that great mix of the traditional with the modern. It’s a funky song mixed with bits of gospel and swing. Other highlights include “The Battle is Over (But the war goes on),” “Cardboard Box” and “Jesus Just Left Chicago,”originally recorded by ZZ Top. In fact, this version features an earthy solo by ZZ's Billy Gibbons on lead guitar. (Gibbons turned 65 last year.)

Outskirts of Love marks Copeland’s return to her first label Alligator after a short absence of several years and I think it’s a good fit. Alligator Records, based in Chicago, has maintained a fine tradition of issuing contemporary blues albums since 1971. The company treats the music and the musicians with great respect by putting their art before easy profits knowing full well that the blues community is loyal if not large. Both Copeland and Alligator have done us a great service with the release of this album.

Father's Day (Stony Plain) is the latest album by blues guitar virtuoso Ronnie Earl and The Broadcasters. Their new record is a bright, fresh approach to some blues standards that showcase the leader with a few vocalists who sound rooted in history. For instance Michael Ledbetter is a direct descendant of Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Leadbelly, one of America's founding fathers of the blues/folk tradition in the 1930s. This excellent recording is one of the most inspired records in Earl's career; a non-stop trip into the emotional depth of the music. His soloing on this record is the best I've heard in several years, and I’ve been listening to his music since the early Nineties. The band’s performance on “Wrong Place, Right Time,” written by Otis Rush, is outstanding. Singer Diane Blue, who’s been performing with Earl in recent years, takes her best turn on the Magic Sam tune “What Have I Done Wrong” backed by a killer horn section and supported by Earl's edgy solo.

Other highlights include a soulful version of “Giving Up,” originally recorded by Van McCoy, and “I Need You So Bad” by B.B. King, the latter a steady shuffle in the best tradition of King’s unforgettable style. The title track is a slow blues written by Earl in memory of his father who’s photograph graces the inside jacket showing a proud Papa holding up a Boston newspaper with a full-page article on his son, Ronnie. When I first heard Ronnie Earl play guitar it was revelation. Everything about his sound, his phrasing and his spontaneity communicated a deep spiritual feeling. Father’s Day has all of that while respecting the “kernels of truth” that continue to be relevant in the 21st Century.

John Corcelli is a music critic, broadcast/producer, musician and member of the Festival Wind Orchestra. He's just finished Frank Zappa FAQ: All That's Left to Know About the Father of Invention (Backbeat Books) to be released in 2016.

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