John Sinclair and his Blues Scholars
featuring Wayne Kramer
If anybody had told me that the ex-manager of the MC5 would have emerged from years in prison and God knows what else to make a spoken-word blues album this perfect, I'd have been more than skeptical. Sinclair, the radical late-'60s leader of the White Panther Party, relinquished his minutes of fame shortly after Rolling Stone rock critic Jon Landau took over the MC5's creative direction.
But something has clearly been simmering underneath Sinclair's pointy gray beard, and it comes out rocking hard. Full Circle is a thoroughly entertaining blues and jazz history lesson with the right touch of the rabble-rouser's subversiveness. The album's best and most triumphant song is "Ain't Nobody's Bizness (Just Say Yes)," in which Sinclair reels off a litany of horrible vices, from oral sex to prostitution to suicide, then concludes, with profane relish: "Baby, we got a RIGHT to our bad habits."
As the Blues Scholars swing relentlessly in the background, shifting from Bo Diddley-style jump blues to skronky, horny jazz, Sinclair lectures about a wide range of topics. The lyrics to the opening "Doctor Blues," a boogie blues with ex-MC5 guitarist Kramer doing his John Lee Hooker imitation, were adapted from an interview with the great '20s pianist Roosevelt Sykes. Sinclair's assertions that the blues is in you, it's a talent, you can't learn it, gain momentum as the riff moves along.
The breadth of Sinclair's music-history interest is astounding, and it never gets boring. His outrage about Rice "Sonny Boy Williamson" Miller's pauper's grave is thoroughly convincing, and he connects Chuck Berry, Max Roach, Thelonious Monk, Allen Ginsberg, Charlie Parker and many, many other important names as figureheads of the same revolutionary world.
Kramer's guitar-playing stays sharp, even in sax-dominated swing songs like "Double Dealing," and his presence lends a key heavy-metal quality to the concept. Still, for all the great ideas and even better execution floating around Full Circle, the unquestionable star is Sinclair himself. His straightforward, Captain Beefheart ramble makes him sound like the kind of dirty old revolutionary any young hipster would want to follow through a town's red-light district.
-- Steve Knopper