tributes and tributaries (part 2)
First off, I need to admit that I was taken in by a clever (and on-the-money) hoax, one that I gave further credence to by putting it in print in last issue’s column. As I was informed by the company’s publicist, Heavy Hip Mama Records is not releasing an Alice Cooper tribute CD as part of their "Blues on Fire" series. Further, the Alonzo Smith quoted as a HHM spokesman, does not work for that label and no doubt doesn’t even exist. We apologize for falling for this ruse that was posted to a blues newsgroup on the ’Net.
However, this does not absolve Heavy Hip Mama from another crimes against nature, an offense that made the Cooper tribute seem all too believable.
I hope you won’t think less of me for it, but I may be the only person under the age of 65 who has never actually heard Aerosmith. Which I guess makes me uniquely qualified to review Sweet Emotion: Songs of Aerosmith (Heavy Hip Mama HHM-4321-2), since I can judge it solely on its own merit. Such as that is.
It is perhaps telling that my first listen to the disc had to be done in two sittings since, by the time I’d reached Joe Louis Walker’s rendition of "Rag Doll," my wife requested, in her special, gentle way, "Would you please TURN THAT OFF!?!" I guess it must have been fun for youngish blues guitarists like brothers Ronnie ("Walk This Way") and Wayne Baker Brooks ("Last Child") and Donald Kinsey ("Sweet Emotion") to show off their hair-metal chops. But dude, whether or not you look like a lady, this ain’t the blues, no way, no how, no matter who you bring to the dance.
Steven Tyler, the main perp responsible for all but two of the songs, says on the CD jacket, "The blues are our f***in’ roots." If that’s true, he’s managed to pour Roundup® all over them. Or is it, like Kiss, a big put-on that I just don’t get? I certainly hope so, because it would be frightening to think that anyone would confuse most of what’s here with serious songsmanship. Rather, it’s a gigantic waste of the talents of Pinetop Perkins, Rusty Zinn, Sugar Blue, Crystal Talafiero with Joanna Connor, Lou Ann Barton, Honeyboy Edwards and a few lesser-knowns. I at least hope that they all got a good paycheck.
The two honest-to-gosh blues/R&B tunes on the disc provide an interesting contrast. Marshall Crenshaw (backed by Sugar Blue on harp) takes Bull Moose Jackson’s raunchy "Big Ten Inch Record" at a furious gallop; this is one stud who doesn’t seem to care much about taking his time, but then I imagine neither id Aerosmith’s recording. Whether the band’s version of "Train Kept A-Rollin’" is based on Tiny Bradshaw’s original or (as I suspect) the Yardbirds’ cover, Honeyboy’s creaky acoustic interpretation — much as I love the old guy — doesn’t stand up to either.
Is there anything here I’d want to listen to more than once? Well, Otis Clay manages to pour lots of gospel-flavored passion into the lead-off "Cryin’," with Jeff Jacobs’ keyboards and the impeccable Alex Schultz on guitar creating a nice instrumental complement. Kim McFarland gives a fairly understated (a true rarity here) contempo-gospel reading of "Dream On," augmented by a true-believer choir that does indeed generate some genuine soul power. Tad Robinson’s vocal on "Draw the Line" is driven by a convincing second-line backbeat from drummer Brian Tichy. But unless outrageously-over-the-top is your idea of a good time, I’d recommend passing on this package.
A galaxy away from this noise (and timed nicely to coincide with the release of the Revenant and Catfish reissues of Patton’s work) is Down the Dirt Road: The Songs of Charley Patton (Telarc Blues CD-83535). Patton, of course, was the banty rooster of a singer whose big, rough voice and guitar sparked many a juke joint and plantation gathering in the early part of the last century. In 1927 Charley turned down an opportunity to record for Columbia Records, but he relented a couple of years later when Paramount came knocking. Sadly, that label’s recording equipment and techniques were vastly inferior to what Columbia was using, so what we get to hear of Patton’s surviving sides suffers not only from age but additional distortion. Even though many of his performances are acknowledged classics, it’s not easy for modern ears to imagine what Patton might have sounded like to his contemporaries.
Luckily, all but one of the performers on this particular tribute are up to the task of infusing life and light into the murk of what was on those old 78s. As with the Mississippi John Hurt tribute, Avalon Blues (reviewed elsewhere in these pages), Dirt Road is a virtual collection of highlights. Steve James is featured on two of the tracks herein, and proves himself more than worthy with perfect period mandolin, banjo and guitar playing while putting some Pattonesque gravel in his voice on the opening "Elder Greene Blues" and the lusty "Shake It and Break It."
Both Snooky Pryor (on Patton’s signature "Pony Blues") and Corey Harris ("Moon Going Down") use their voices and the attack of their instruments (harp and guitar, respectively) to forcefully project impressive re-creations of the master’s aggressive style. The ever-versatile Guy Davis — a throwback to those early blues guys who had to be versed in numerous types of music — is convincing on the wonderful "Some of These Days." Charley also had a spiritual side, which Paul Rishell and Annie Raines effectively reinvent on "I Shall Not Be Moved." Charlie Musselwhite continues to prove himself a quite effective Delta guitarist while tackling "Pea Vine Blues," and Joe Louis Walker’s long version of "Sugar Mama," with some zestful slide guitar, redeems him from the wretched excess of "Rag Doll." Other contributors include Graham Parker, Dave Van Ronk and an instrumental turn on "Some Summer Day" by guitarist Kid Bangham and friends. Only the protracted (9:34) closer from little-known folkie Colleen Sexton seems out of place in this heady company.
It’s no accident that Bob Dylan, Willie Dixon, Robert Johnson, Leiber & Stoller, Lennon & McCartney, Rogers & Hammerstein are so ubiquitously covered in American popular music. They were all able to create songs with timeless and universal qualities that lent themselves to a nearly infinite range of musical styles. Seemingly lost in the psychedelic circus that surrounded the Grateful Dead was the exceptional quality of songcraft represented by the band’s chief writers, Robert Hunter (words) and Jerry Garcia (music). Poet Hunter’s lyrics were layered with multiple meanings and imagery that evoked some alternate folk Americana, and it wasn’t unusual for members of the audience at a Dead concert to get sudden flashes of new meaning from songs they might have heard dozens of times.
Enter Jerry Lawson, Joe Russell, Jimmy Hayes, Jayotis Washington and Raymond X. Sanders, collectively known as the Persuasions, with Might As Well … The Persuasions Sing The Grateful Dead (Grateful Dead/Arista GDCD 4070). Over their lengthy career these titans of a cappella have conjured a gospel-rooted, soul-inflected spirit out of the work of a continuum of composers that ranges from Kurt Weill to Sam Cooke to Elvis Presley. "Some songs, to us, just sound like ‘Persuasions’ songs," says lead vocalist Lawson. "We hear ’em and we know they’re for us. These Grateful Dead songs — they’re Persuasions songs."
From a list of 30 songs suggested by Hunter and producers David Gans and Rip Rense, Lawson selected a dozen Hunter-Garcia compositions, another by Hunter alone, one by guitarist Bob Weir ("One More Saturday Night") and the beautiful traditional hymn "And We Bid You Goodnight," which the Dead learned from a 1965 recording by Bahamian guitarist Joseph Spence with the Pindar Family.
Lawson’s taste and sensibility prove to be unerring here. The group simply puts the songs on like comfortable clothes and wears them like their own. Among the choice renditions are "Ripple," "Sugaree" (given a bit of a "Soul Serenade" touch), a rocking "One More Saturday Night" and the sad, sweet closing duo of "Bid You Goodnight" and "Black Muddy River."
Speaking of the Dead, CMH Records has released yet another "blues tribute" disc to a well-known rock band and the good news is that The Blues Tribute to the Grateful Dead is nowhere near as milquetoast-lite as their all-instrumental paeans to the Doors and the Eagles that we reviewed last issue. In fact, "Grammy nominated producers" Joe Ferry, Charlie Dahan and Matt Baxter have even recruited some people you’ve actually heard of to cameo on this one. But be apprised that only half the 16 tracks are actual Dead songs; the others are well-worn tunes like "Big Boss Man," "It Hurts Me Too," "Next Time You See Me" and "Mama Tried" that the band covered at one time or another.
The best is right up front in two Willie Dixon compositions: a rousingly electric "Spoonful" by Michael Hill (of the Blues Mob) and Guy Davis’ solo workout on "Little Red Rooster." Hill returns for a pretty much by-the-book reading of "Casey Jones" and Anders Osborne pitches in with a solo "Big Boss Man." Beyond that it’s vocalists Langhorne Slim and Amy Helm doing some adequate but undistinguished vocals; slide guitarist Richie Castellano offering weepy but not especially bluesy instrumental renditions of "Truckin’" and "Black Peter," along with a vocal turn on "Operator" that won’t at all threaten Pigpen’s legend. Castellano’s one contribution with a true blues feel is an instrumental "Touch of Grey" that wasn’t at all recognizable as such. Banjo-playing Charles Butler (he also doubles on Dobro and guitar) is in more of a bluegrass mode; his "bonus track" with Langhorne Slim on a raw-sounding, living room recording of "Ripple" sounds like a delightfully demented incarnation of Flatt and Scruggs.
Overall, though, there’s not enough hard blues here to attract blues fans, nor are there any compelling interpretations of GD originals to make this a must-buy for Deadheads. Which, while it’s certainly not a bad disc, leaves this a tribute without much of an audience.
A better bet for fans of San Francisco’s finest is the 1995 Shanachie Records compilation, The Music Never Stopped: Roots of the Grateful Dead (Shanachie 6014). Produced by David Gans and avant garde guitarist-cum-Deadhead Henry Kaiser, this delightful set serves up the original artist versions of 17 of the Dead’s concert staples. Rev. Gary Davis, Howlin’ Wolf, Jimmy Reed, Chuck Berry, Bobby "Blue" Bland and the Dixie Cups represent the blues end of the spectrum. The real highlights, however, come from the opportunity to hear such rarely reissued classics as North Carolina banjoist Obray Ramsey’s "Rain and Snow"; Charlie Patton’s 1929 version of "Spoonful," an ancestral version of the one Willie Dixon wrote for Howlin’ Wolf; hobo singer Henry "Ragtime Texas" Thomas’ "Don’t Ease Me In" from the late ’20s; and ’60s folkie Bonnie Dobson’s haunting soprano on her "Morning Dew" (a song that was later stolen by Tim Rose). Other treats include hearing Merle Haggard perform his bad boy lament "Mama Tried" and Buddy Holly’s ’50s teen-rock interpretation of Bo Diddley’s "Not Fade Away." Taken as a whole, this is a home-grown treasure chest that you don’t have to wear tie-dye to enjoy.
For the past 22 years the Blues Foundation has honored the efforts of blues artists by presenting the W.C. Handy Awards, named for the composer whose "Memphis Blues" in 1912 was the first song to be published with the word "blues" in its title. The artists and music nominated for these awards are chosen by blues industry insiders and deejays, with the final voting done by a more general populace that includes the readers of BLUES ACCESS. (You can find this year’s winners listed at www.bluesaccess.com. Our report on the 2001 ceremony is on page 52.) Unlike, say, country music and numerous other forms, the blues ceremony is not beamed to a large television audience and, in consequence, the world at large rarely gets to hear the musicians involved.
The organization is attempting to remedy that situation by releasing The Blues Foundation Presents W.C. Handy Nominees, Vol. 1 (Music Blitz MBZ CD 30011). Producers Bryan Glover and Howard Stovall have wisely chosen not to focus on the same-old, same-old blues "stars." Instead they provide a good mix of the familiar (Taj Mahal, Son Seals, Anson Funderburgh and the Rockets with Sam Myers, Eddy Clearwater), the mid-level (Guy Davis, Big Jack Johnson, Johnnie Bassett and the Blues Insurgents, Corey Harris and Henry Butler) and the up-and-coming (Shemekia Copeland, Sean Costello, Calvin Jackson, Beverly "Guitar" Watkins, Willie King). The tracks are culled from the released works of these artists, which means that new fans can easily find the discs that their favorite songs came from. But it would have been nice if the Foundation could have offered some "command performances," particularly from the more recognizable players. Still, the concept is a good one for an association that often has to deal with accusations of preaching to the already converted.
It must boggle Bruce Iglauer’s mind that his little project to record his favorite Chicago musician, Hound Dog Taylor, has turned into an established 30-year-old record label (see "Access," page 6). If you don’t already own something from Alligator Records you’re either a pre-war fanatic or reading the wrong magazine. Alligator Records 30th Anniversary Collection (Alligator ALCD 112/13) presents two jam-packed discs, one from the studio and one of live performances, spanning the label’s history. The studio disc (which is generally skewed toward more recent releases) offers 18 album tracks ranging from new ’Gator recruits Marcia Ball, Rusty Zinn and the Holmes Brothers to youngsters Shemekia Copeland and Michael Burks to veteran artists who passed through the label’s stable (Johnny Winter, Junior Wells, Robert Cray and Albert Collins) and stand-bys like Koko Taylor, Lonnie Brooks, the Kinsey Report and William Clarke. The live side is more adventurous, with unreleased on-stage material from C.J. Chenier & the Red Hot Louisiana Band, Albert Collins, Little Charlie & the Nightcats, Lil’ Ed & the Blues Imperials and Son Seals with Elvin Bishop alongside album cuts by Luther Allison, Delbert McClinton, Lonnie Mack and more. The unabashed highlight, though — and one that brings it all back home — is a QuickTime movie of Hound Dog Taylor & the HouseRockers doing their rough and ready thing at the 1973 Ann Arbor Blues Festival.
The attractive package features a lengthy historical essay by our own John Sinclair, as well as informative biographical information on all the musical contributors.