True Blues (Telarc)
By Devon Wendell
In a time when most practicing blues artists pay more attention to the overly guitar driven indulgences of late 60s blues-rock and, for the most part, have lost sight of the music’s richest traditions and subtleties, it’s refreshing to hear a compilation dedicated to the true originating masters of the blues.
True Blues celebrates the history of the blues and its rich musical heritage by assembling several of the music’s most prominent and powerful artists of the day, such as Corey Harris, Taj Mahal, Shemekia Copeland, Guy Davis, Phil Wiggins, and Alvin Youngblood Hart.
The compilation consists of live material recorded at various venues in the U.S., including Jazz At Lincoln Center, The House Of Blues in Los Angeles CA, The Howard Theatre in Washington DC, and Rams Head On Stage in Annapolis, MD.
The set opens with a raw and pure rendition of Muddy Waters’ “Hoochie Coochie Man,” live at Jazz At Lincoln Center in NYC, performed by Guy Davis, Corey Harris, and Alvin Youngblood Hart, all trading verses, with Phil Wiggins on harmonica. Aside from the stellar sound quality, all of these men sound as if they’re being recorded on a plantation in Mississippi by The Library of Congress in the ‘40s. Davis, Harris, And Hart all have distinctive, gut-wrenching vocal styles with bare bones Delta blues guitar playing. This is pure blues with no flash or unneeded pyrotechnics. Wiggins’ blues harp style is reminiscent of the late Sonny Boy Williamson and Sonny Terry.
Alvin Youngblood Hart takes the Reverend Blind Willie Johnson’s “Motherless Children Have A Hard Time” and transforms it into the later Mississippi post-war style of John Lee Hooker and Robert Petway, finger picking on an electric guitar or an acoustic guitar with an active pickup. Though literally thousands of artists have covered this 1927 classic, this performance (recorded at The Howard Theatre In Washington, DC) is one of the most spine tingling and chilling in its intimacy and in the dynamics of Hart’s vocals and guitar.
A true highlight of the album is Corey Harris’ version of Sleepy John Estes’ “Everybody Got To Change Sometime,” recorded at The House Of Blues in Los Angeles. Harris’ vocal timbre is already very close to that of the late Estes, and it sounds as if Harris has studied and mastered every vocal nuance of the original recording from 1938, even capturing Estes’ sparsely primitive but rhythmic acoustic guitar style.
The elder statesman of the bunch, Taj Mahal knows blues tradition like no one else and proves it on his electrifying take of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Done Changed My Way Of Living,” performed at Rams Head On Stage in Annapolis, MD. Taj Mahal comes off like a mix between a Baptist preacher, Houston Stackhouse, and Howlin’ Wolf. Mahal still has that fantastic ability to channel the blues masters from many different regions and genres and the Annapolis crowd responds to this electrifying performance.
Next, Shemekia Copeland (along with Davis, Hart, Harris, and Wiggins at Jazz At Lincoln Center) pays tribute to her late father, the great Texas six-stringer Johnny “Clyde” Copeland on “Bring Your Fine Self Home,” a track the late Copeland recorded with another great, the late Albert Collins, in 1984. It’s a terrific departure to hear Copeland in a stripped-down acoustic blues setting. She mercilessly belts out the blues that not only sounds as if her voice shook the NYC stage, but also made her father very proud.
After a somewhat lackluster and clumsy performance of Leadbelly’s “Roberta” by Guy Davis, Corey Harris, Alvin Youngblood Hart, and Phil Wiggins, Harris lays down a warm, heartfelt rendition of Blind Blake’s “C C Pill Blues.” As fine as Davis and Hart are vocally, Harris is truly the star on this performance and throughout the album. There’s a pained yearning to Harris’ vocals and a delicate touch to his guitar playing that you don’t hear much of in the blues these days. Hart is a close second with his masterfully rhythmic version of Leadbelly’s “Gallows Pole.” Hopefully this will educate people that Led Zeppelin didn’t write this song once and for all.
The problem with this tribute to the blues is a lack of originals by these great artists. The blues is as personal as one’s fingerprints. “Gonna Move Up The Country (Paint My Mailbox Blue)” demonstrates what a brilliant guitarist and songwriter Taj Mahal still is. Mahal sings along with each note of his staccato guitar solo. The strings on Mahal’s guitar sound so thick that they could cut through railroad iron. And his playful stage antics and attitude are a reminder that the blues is fun music.
Ending the CD are Copeland, Davis, Harris, Hart, and Wiggins, doing yet another version of Robert Johnson’s “Ramblin’ On My Mind.” This feels forced, possibly to win over the live audience’s limited knowledge of the blues. Too many versions of this song have been recorded and it feels unnecessary here in comparison to the carefully selected more obscure and underappreciated material.
True Blues sets out to pay homage to the blues that gave birth to jazz, funk, and rock n’ roll and it does just that, especially in terms of historically significant songs that are timeless. Although some more original tribute material would have made this project more interesting, all the performers demonstrate their knowledge and love of the blues. And, more importantly, it’s evident that all are having a good time doing so.
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To read more posts, reviews and columns by Devon Wendell click HERE.