LIVE AT 55: STORMY MONDAY BAND & LOUISIANA RED MEET CAREY BELL
Blues Beacon 1010-2
KANT SHECK DEES BLUZE
SHORT FUSE BLUES
Sometimes it seems there's a never-ending stream of blues "guitar monsters" coming off some vast assembly line, all firing up their Stratocasters and firing off endless raw variations on classic themes--anything from Robert Johnson's Delta patterns to post-60s blues-rock thunder--with a maximum of bombast and a minimum of restraint. While the displays of technical wizardry can be jaw dropping, there's often precious little emotional or thematic variation: too many young blues guitarists seem to think that agonized screams and bacchanalian abandon are all there is to blues expression.
These three discs--two from veterans, one from a Young Turk with fire in the belly--give us reason to rejoice. Both veterans are established masters reminding us again of what killer guitar blues is really all about. Even more heartening is a young newcomer who sounds as if he might actually live up to his press releases.
Iverson Minter, aka Louisiana Red, is one of the true free spirits of the blues. In person he's eccentric: muscular and intense, given to rocking restlessly back and forth in his seat when he's not performing, he contemplates the world from behind bulging, nervously twitching eyes, always scanning the horizon--for a vision, or maybe an escape. He travels constantly through Europe, sometimes playing shows with rockers like Eric Burdon, fusing his searing Delta-style slide with a harmonic and lyric imagination that seldom fails to entertain.
Red is joined here by Chicago harpist Carey Bell. Bell was widely touted in the late 60s and 70s as the successor to Little Walter (often by critics who'd grumpily written off Junior Wells for his sacrilegious excursions into funk stylings). But Bell has never quite fulfilled his promise, despite his virtuosity and despite his being the first harmonica player in years to come up with original licks (a skittering trill; an updating of the old folk "whooping" vocal technique) that have since become part of the standard repertory. He's tended to sink into long periods of apathy, and in recent years health problems have taken a further toll.
This disc finds Red and Bell fronting a German blues band that tends to make up in freneticism what it lacks in subtlety. Guitarist Gromus Gromotka especially tends to indulge in overly metallic, fire-spitting guitar solos. Through it all Red remains as unflappable as he is unpredictable, and Bell sounds at the top of his form.
The opening cut, "Ashima," eloquently showcases Red's offbeat way with a theme. Set to a reggae/world-beat rhythm, it starts out as a paean to Africa, but with a characteristically eccentric twist--most of the praise is reserved for the food ("You know I love Ashima / 'Cause I love to eat!"). Bell adapts his percussive blowing to the loping, upbeat-accented rhythm, and the guitar break is lithe and contemporary with a strong rock/funk tinge; it sounds like Gromotka again, although individual solo credits aren't given.
Beneath the quirkiness of Louisiana Red's imagination there's often a tender, even plaintive sense of introspection. The world-weary slow blues of "Lonesome Hotel" has Red's T-Bone-ish guitar meandering through the changes as Bell warbles in the background. Red eloquently captures the ennui of the expatriate musician brooding about a love he left behind ("Bad to be lonesome in a lonesome hotel in a faraway land"). His imagery is enhanced by some lines that sound starkly autobiographical--"I told Hubert Sumlin when he was over here in Germany last year / I told him to tell your daughter I still love her anyway." The beefy sax solo from Uli Fild doesn't really fit into the song's sparse moodiness, but except for a few George Adams-like ascensions into screaming miasma it's quite successful.
"Henk's Baby" is an even more telling glimpse into the vulnerability that lurks behind Red's antic facade. As Bell follows the walking bass line with sparse, clear-toned precision, Red spins a tale about being suddenly overcome with emotion while holding someone else's baby: "When I looked at him, tears came from my cheeks / It reminded me when I was a child, somebody held me. . . . Well I remember, when I was a baby too / When I held that little fellow my tears came through." This time Gromotka's solo is tasteful and clear, setting the stage for Red's slide. Fuzzy and tubular, Red's playing sounds for once more modern and rock-tinged than the band does--all those years jamming with British blues rockers have taught Red some tricks.
But Red is more than a tenderhearted clown; unlike his buddy Sumlin he seldom lets eccentricity intrude on coherence, and he and his partners always know when to play it straight. Even a novelty number like "Good Kokamaloo," despite its witty half-spoken, half-shouted story line (a tale of admiration and lust interspersed with references to various African cultures and countries), is fueled by straight-ahead commitment to blues passion. A fat, rock-and-roll drumbeat drives the piece and Bell scurries around on his harp, showcasing his characteristic rapid-fire arpeggio style, punctuated by tongue stops.
The most satisfying moments occur when Red displays his talent as a slide guitarist. "Funky Slide" lays his searing technique over a skintight horn arrangement and a funky rhythm. Red's lyrics are virtual free association, invoking such past and present slide masters as Earl Hooker, Elmore James, Homesick James, and Johnny Littlejohn in a loosely wrapped message of love to a Bahamian girl named Phillipa. Red doesn't get around to playing his slide until well into the piece, so we first have to wait through a burbling, wah-wah-drenched guitar solo (most likely Gromotka), but it's worth it; despite the raw-edged tone there's a limpid smoothness to Red's technique that lays a soothing sheen over the jittery funk of the rhythm section.
"Woman Trouble" places Red and his slide in a more traditional context. The sparse, Delta-style slide-guitar/harp intro builds to a full-bodied blues shuffle, complete with horns supporting the Robert Johnson/Elmore James "Dust My Broom" riff. Red invokes James's name and the song is virtually a tribute to him, perhaps even in some unintentional ways: like "Woman Trouble," several of James's hits were characterized by tension between bare-bones blues expression and slick, horn-drenched arrangements. There are also echoes of James--as well as the supple, melodious Earl Hooker--on "Luelen," another slide workout kicked off by a brawny horn intro and laid over a straight-four boogie beat.
This disc falls short of the masterpiece it might have been. Several cuts go on too long, and the horns and the rocked-out backup band intrude as often as they enhance. But it's fun to hear veterans like Red and Bell, bloody but unbowed, charging through a set like this with unfettered imagination and joy.
Chicago's Jimmy Dawkins, an internationally acclaimed guitarist who hasn't always deserved his reputation, approaches music with similar imagination. But joy is another matter--Red and Bell may sound as if they're having a party, but on Kant Sheck Dees Bluze Dawkins sounds as if he's on his way to a rendezvous with a jailer who'll lay claim to his soul.
Dawkins proclaims his musical agenda from the first note: "I Ain't Got It." A thunderous variation on the "Dust My Broom" theme, this opener features Dawkins churning out raw, sustained leads in contrast to the crisply bitten off, choppy phrases he's known for in live performance. Drummer Ray Scott pounds away fiercely, bringing an almost rocklike roar to the arrangement as Dawkins's extended lines squirm and undulate upward.
"Rockin D. Blues" (another annoyingly cutesy title) is slower rolling. It's a little long at 5:51, but the sentiments are obviously heartfelt ("I just rock these blues / You know that's all that keeps me goin"'). In contrast to the previous song, Dawkins leaves more empty spaces in his solos here, spaces he'd normally fill in with chords in the west-side style he helped pioneer. Here they're filled in with Professor Eddie Lusk's rather standard piano vamps, but Dawkins's intensity is such that the effect is breathtaking.
Still, there are times you wish Dawkins would turn down the jets a bit. "A Love Like That" is a remembrance written by Chicago lyricist Marge Sampson about one of the blues' great love stories--the 35-year-plus marriage of Koko Taylor and her late husband "Pops." However, guest vocalist Nora Jean Wallace sounds nearly overwhelmed by the up-tempo rock-soul arrangement; her singing seems forced and the lyrics are robbed of their poignancy. Wallace sounds much more in her element on the slow-burning "My Man Loves Me," where she shows an attractive unforced strength. Dawkins's guitar slithers and writhes behind her, kicking the intensity up even higher.
Dawkins's style is unique in that he purposely avoids the high, keening tone most electric guitarists use to evoke passion. He prefers middle-register phrases that ascend into high-treble finales with a fuzzy, muted timbre. The effect is almost visceral--it slugs you in the gut instead of piercing your ears. The title song provides a perfect vehicle for this style; it's built around an ominous, lurking riff based on the standard "Green Onions/Help Me" vamp, but Dawkins slows everything down to a bone-crunching lurch, making hard-core hard-times music. Dawkins's guitar work on this one is almost frightening, a splintered metallic onslaught that erupts into molten fire and showers you with shards of desperation and intensity. Despite his nickname "Fast Fingers," Dawkins doesn't overwhelm you with technique--he lingers savagely over each note, extracting every ounce of emotion.
Only in a few places does some tenderness intrude on this disc's almost relentless sense of desperation. Dawkins's rendition of his own "Luv Sumbody" isn't as thunderous as Magic Slim's well-known cover version, but Johnny B. Gayden's rapidly picked bass effectively propels it. There's a pleading quality to Dawkins's voice that makes this song very appealing; where Slim demanded satisfaction, Dawkins begs for mercy.
It's on the final cut, "Gotta Hold On," that the light finally shines through. Despite the slightly muddy production (you can't really hear Dawkins's inspirational spoken message), the song is a deeply affirming testament to faith and hope: "Holdin' on, no matter what, I got to hold on," sings Dawkins. "Sometimes it just ain't what it oughta be / And I keep trusting in Jesus." The listener, having just been dragged through the churning emotional maelstrom of the first 12 songs, can only hope that this faith will be borne out.
Australian guitarist Dave Hole doesn't waste time with emotional angst; he's too busy burning up his fretboard with audacious displays of imagination and incendiary technique. This is the kind of thing that usually gives me a headache. Hole doesn't entirely escape the mindless overboogie trap, but he's able to flirt with dissonance and still remain admirably in control. He'll never be mistaken for a poet, but his work on Short Fuse Blues reveals emotional depth beneath the pyrotechnics--even if he sometimes seems perversely determined to keep it hidden.
Like Dawkins, Hole shows his hand from the beginning. The opener "Keep Your Motor Running" virtually explodes with an ecstatic raunch-and-roll blues slide. The obvious point of reference is Duane Allman; Hole's slide work shows more melodic and harmonic imagination than that of most straight-blues slide players, with a shimmering vibrato reminiscent of vintage Clapton. Hole's power is genuine, not forced; like Dawkins, he doesn't have to pierce holes in your eardrums to move you. The lyrics, though, are standard woman-as-car macho ("Keep your motor runnin' baby / I want to check your oil").
Hole is at his best when he adapts traditional themes to original creations, then builds entirely new ideas from them. "Short Fuse Blues" begins as a takeoff on Elmore James's "When Things Go Wrong" riff, but breaks into a rather standard gutbucket blues rocker. It's saved from mediocrity by Hole's snarling power and the lithe dexterity with which he fires off even his most ponderous, declamatory riffs. His slide solo twists and writhes like a galvanized king snake, occasionally stopping abruptly then plunging ahead once more into new convolutions and patterns.
With all the full-throttle roaring going on here, it's especially welcome when Hole calms down a bit and lets his taste and maturity shine through. "Something Fine," a vaguely Texas-style jumper with whiffs of Albert Collins, mixes hard blues with the beat of a jaunty roadhouse shuffle. It's instructive to hear Hole build a solo with care--he ascends slowly, gradually pushing over the top of the song's chord structure, never abandoning it but challenging its limits and at the same time avoiding multinote overkill.
Especially arresting is "Albatross," the old Fleetwood Mac anthem and one of the loveliest melodies to emerge from the 60s. This version is a little ponderous and not quite as ethereal and bucolic as the original, but that's mostly due to the plodding leadenness of Ronnie "Greystoke" Parker's drumming. Hole's slide work here is shimmering and mellifluous--one wishes he'd show this side of himself more often.
Whether or not you consider this debut LP as earth-shattering as some of its press advances claim will depend largely on your appetite for unfettered balls-out blues. "Every Girl I See" is a good-natured bit of blues sexism, compliments of Willie Dixon, stripped of Dixon's amiable sense of irony. Hole first contributes a crisp and speedy single-string solo, then offers a tubular, elastic slide break featuring occasional dramatic descents into deep, resonant bass notes.
More original is "Night Cat," a takeoff on what sound like some of the same basic harmonic ideas as those in "Albatross"--out of the ether and into the alley. It's primarily a showcase for Hole's ripping slide; his lines tear through the changes with knifelike ferocity, at once riding the melody and goosing the energy level.
The problem with kicking off a recording with a series of in-your-face declamations is that you have to keep that level going or risk losing your audience. Hole makes a game attempt, but he sometimes falls short. "The Bottle" starts out with shimmering pop chords, then cuts savagely into a grinding roadhouse chugalug groove. This song is less distinguished than what's gone before; it's more like standard white-boy blues fare with the usual stylistic debts to Morrison Hotel-era Doors and crunchers like ZZ Top. The slide still stings, but its exuberance is almost lost underneath the fuzzed-out onslaught--there's a bit too much thunder and not enough lightning. Likewise "Take a Swing" assembles a rather standard plodding riff, heavy drums, and a lumbering bass line, burdened once again with tired "Come here, baby" frat- party lyrics.
There are also a couple of unsuccessful attempts to re-create classics. Blind Willie Johnson's 1927 recording of "Dark Was the Night (Cold Was the Ground)" is one of the most astounding slide guitar masterpieces ever pressed. It seems impossible that anyone could ever reproduce the unearthly sense of foreboding and desolation that permeated the original, and Hole doesn't come close. Hole also attempts Hendrix's "Purple Haze," the original of which was as completely realized a statement as can be imagined. There's little anyone, including Dave Hole, can add to it.
But it's encouraging to hear Hole stretching out into new areas, especially on pieces like "Dark Was the Night," where he summons a more introspective side of his musical personality. After a time the relentless party-animal mood of most of this disc gets oppressive despite the consistently high energy level and technical virtuosity on display. You want to hear some life stories in the blues, not just kick-out-the-jams abandon. It's all the more frustrating because there are plenty of indications that Hole has it in him to put out a recording that's both rough-and-ready and emotionally satisfying--if only he'll drop the macho facade long enough to give his other side a chance.