Billy Branch's blues: a foot in the past, an eye on the future | Music Review | Chicago Reader

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Billy Branch's blues: a foot in the past, an eye on the future

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It's getting to be more difficult for blues musicians to carry on a legacy and remain contemporary. Master-apprentice relationships and clear lines of musical descent connected earlier southern traditions with the blues of the mid-50s Chicago heyday, and reflected a time when musical changes occurred slowly, over years and generations. An artist like Muddy Waters, for instance, could continue playing solidly in the tradition of his mentors--Robert Johnson, Son House, Charley Patton--and still create a new music through subtle modifications in amplification, percussion, and tempo. The idea that a sound had to be entirely original to be up-to-date had not yet been sold to listeners, who managed to appreciate older musical forms even as they devoured the innovations of young urban bluesmen.

It's no longer so simple. The blues "revival" of the 1960s gave countless great musicians a new lease on fading careers. But the well-meaning white students of blues history who emerged were bent on categorizing styles, influences, and regional and generational differences in an academic approach borrowed from literary and classical criticism. These critics viewed with suspicion and even hostility what would have been the natural development of a folk tradition in a modern world: the cross-pollination of blues with rock, soul, and pop, shadings that would have been integral to any music during that particular period. A blues musician was labeled as more or less "pure" according to how true he was to styles that had been defined long before most of the critics were born.

A curious kind of double standard developed. Young white imitators were expected to look backward, while the originators were forbidden to look forward. As the British blues revivalists and, later, U.S. rockers earned millions of dollars playing supercharged versions of blues standards, many aficionados continued to demand that the pioneers of the music remain mired in the past. Eric Clapton could get away with a rocked-out, 20-minute version of Robert Johnson's "Crossroads," while Johnson's own musical heir, Robert Junior Lockwood, was never forgiven for including pop standards like "Misty" in his repertoire.

Today there are a handful of young black artists--John Cephas and Phil Wiggins come to mind--who've dedicated their careers to preserving the tradition. Most other young bluesmen, however, are determined to take the best of the heritage as they see it and fuse it with contemporary styles in a way they hope will please fans of blues, rock, pop, and R & B equally. In earlier times, musicians such as Blind Willie McTell and the late Blind John Davis and the great southern string bands like the Mississippi Sheiks were admired for such versatility; today it's likely to bring accusations of selling out.

Harmonica player Billy Branch has made a concerted effort to combine truth to tradition with relevance to modern listeners. Taught by some of the greatest of all harp players--Big Walter Horton, Junior Wells, and Carey Bell--Branch has expanded his musical vocabulary to include a light, jazzy, improvisational style he uses in pop-funk instrumentals and modern blues. Unlike many younger harpists, however, he can still play traditional blues in the sparse, deeply emotional style of his mentors without self-consciousness; you never feel that he's paying obligatory homage to a style that's no longer relevant to him. This ability to bring personal conviction to everything he plays sets Branch apart from many of his contemporaries.

Branch has named his band the Sons of Blues; aside from the playful raunchiness of the acronym, the name expresses Branch's attitude. He looks back with respect to the tradition behind his music even as he strives to break new ground, a loving son taking his father's gifts and surpassing him. Branch has been known to put his own job on the line to defend elderly musicians against the whims of an exploitive music industry; under the auspices of Chicago's Urban Gateways program, he spends many of his days teaching blues and the blues tradition to children. A strong sense of his role informs not only his music but much of his life.

Last Friday at B.L.U.E.S., Branch and his band demonstrated their links to both past and future. The unit opened with a light funk, almost MOR instrumental that featured clear-toned, crooning harp from Branch and moody chording from guitarist Carl Weathersby. The band immediately established its musical identity: sophisticated and diverse, with a strong blues base. Branch's solo on the opening number was light and jazzy, with an occasional note-bend to retain some blues feeling. The mood evoked was closer to the Rascals' "Groovin'" (regarded as the epitome of blue-eyed soul in its day) than anything most listeners would consider blues.

Before long, though, the blues became dominant. Branch's straight-out blues blowing combines Big Walter's harmonic ideas with a slightly muted tone, as well as incorporating the fluttering runs and turnarounds that Carey Bell pioneered in the 1970s. Meanwhile Weathersby impresses as one of the more tasteful of the young blues guitarists on the scene. His debt to B.B. King is obvious in the shimmering, string-bending leads that start his solos, but he also transcends his influences. Weathersby plays solid, meat-and-potatoes blues with little unnecessary elaboration. Although his fleetness on pop and funk instrumentals leaves no doubt as to his technical ability, he is sophisticated enough to realize that less is often more in blues: a few well-placed notes, played with emotion and commitment, have far greater effect than an evening's worth of histrionics. It's a lesson Billy Branch learned from Big Walter; Weathersby has apparently absorbed it.

Probably the most impressive thing about Branch's musicianship is his ability to fuse apparently disparate styles in the same song without compromising his integrity. He can pour furious runs of staccato note clusters into a slow blues tune and not sound cluttered or hysterical like many other young harpists who have an advanced technique but limited musical feeling. He manages to be both crowd-pleasing and tasteful, a feat more difficult than it sounds in an era when too many listeners have been weaned on music whose greatest virtue is excess. Branch has even built a personal signature riff on Big Walter's trademark three-note turnaround, a pattern that wows newcomers and brings an affectionate smile of recognition from those who knew and loved Walter.

The band's knack of fusing tradition with contemporary stylings was most evident on Weathersby's featured number, Elmore James's "The Sky Is Crying." James often took moody blues ballads and transformed them into intense, agonized screams; here Weathersby returned the favor. He brought a suave, almost Percy Mayfield-like sophistication to his vocal interpretation of a song whose original version is one of the most wracked and emotional in all of blues. This approach accentuated the eloquent poetry of the lyrics--worthy of a master songwriter like Mayfield. In contrast, Branch attacked the song, working out furiously in jarring counterpoint to Weathersby's mellow soul. Weathersby's final guitar solo brought some of James's tortured emotionalism back to the number; and even though Weathersby's smooth vocals might have offended some purists, the overall result was an impressive updating of a blues classic.

Other traditional blues fared equally well. "Kansas City" was propelled by drummer Mose Reutes and bassist Felton Crews, deep in the pocket of the driving shuffle rhythm. It contrasted effectively with B.B. King's standard "The Thrill Is Gone," which Weathersby again interpreted as a sophisticated blues ballad. Branch wailed out "You Told Me Baby' (Jimmy Rogers's classic reworking of Othum Brown's "Ora Nelle Blues") in the great, harsh Chicago tradition on his harp, while Weathersby laid down the appropriate Delta-style accompaniment. Branch strolled from table to table, again invoking Big Walter as he cupped his hands over his harp and then extended one of them palm up, as Horton used to do.

Branch's interpretation of Sonny Boy Williamson's "Don't Start Me Talking," one of the finest songs in blues, evoked perfectly Williamson's unique combination of puckishness and aggression. Branch's harp solo on "Talking" was magnificent: he interspersed sharp-toned treble notes with wide-mouthed chording and rapid flurries. He then broke into a solo that gave something of a guided tour through three or four generations of blues-harmonica tradition. He referred to Williamson, to both Little Walter Jacobs and Big Walter Horton, and to Jimmy Reed, culminating with a Carey Bell whoop that put a spectacular finish on what was his tour de force of the evening.

It was revealing, though, that the evening's most memorable moment wasn't blues at all but Weathersby's lovely rendition of "Rainy Night in Georgia." As Branch's harp crooned behind him, Weathersby played the Brook Benton standard with a gentle, melodic sensitivity and delivered the lyrics in a rich vibrato. Several people in the audience raised lit matches in tribute; despite the late hour, the club fell almost silent. Branch's solo attained a jazzy eloquence nearly worthy of a Toots Thielemans; both bassist Crews and drummer Reutes laid down an understated, gently rolling rhythm almost too subtle to be called a pulse but perfectly in synch with the soloists' mellow introspection.

The fact that Branch and his young band can bring fire and life to "Don't Start Me Talking," get the audience up and dancing with an extended jam on "The World Is a Ghetto," and then silence the house with "Rainy Night in Georgia" demonstrates perfectly the musical mission Branch has assigned himself. The heritage of the masters whose memory he reveres is safe in his respectful hands; the present is alive, well, and funky; and the future is bright with soulful promise.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/James Fraher.

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