Feb 11, 2009, 05:30AM

Why I Listen to the Blues

...and four contemporary blues albums you need to own now.

Joe louis walker.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1

Joe Louis Walker.

Although I grew up thinking her collection was cheesy, the stacks of sticky cassettes that my mom would pop into our sky-blue station wagon feel as canonical and beloved to me now as the Psalms to a Bible scholar. There’s Patsy Cline swinging sad and sweet at the Opry, Cat Stevens whispering in the revolution in Tea For The Tillerman, Carol King feeling the earth move under her feet, Simon and Garfunkel wandering on the 59th Street bridge... At 12, I begged her to let me blast Green Day or The Offspring, but Mom insisted on a steady diet of wholesome, not-too-loud post-hippie songwriters and folk interpreters to set me on the right track. Of course, for Mom, (who admitted to me the other day that she has never bought a single music CD for herself in her life and doesn’t listen to music “indoors”) the music was meant as pleasant background only.

Dad was different. In the car when he popped in a jam he made you listen with him. He turned it up loud. And you didn’t speak during the song. It was education. It didn’t matter if I had friends in the car, if it was a particularly poignant verse or a swinging guitar solo like the one 28 minutes into The Allman Brothers’ “Mountain Jam,” he’d make everyone in the car sit silently. When Duane went nuts on “Drunken Hearted Boy” or “Statesboro Blues” I could feel his breathless excitement.

Dad’s passion was contagious. In my room I started sitting in front of my Sharp boombox and listening harder, deeper. And while Pops could probably die happy listening to only The Allman Bro’s Live at Fillmore East and The Grateful Dead’s What A Long Strange Trip It’s Been compilation on an eternal loop, just before I left home for good he showed me one last thing: the blues.

It wasn’t a big overblown sermon but it stuck. It started with Muddy Waters and the Chicago boys—Jimmy Rodgers, Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter, Junior Wells, Otis Spann, James Cotton and later expanded to his faded college vinyl collection of Paul Butterfield, Robert Johnson and Taj Mahal.  Obvious, maybe, but when you’re a dumb kid who won’t listen to Dylan because, “the dude can’t sing or play the harmonica in tune,” you need some serious help.

Hearing those old guys wail in the car just about blew my mind. It was like lightning hitting me in the chest. One of my father’s obsessions, the Muddy Waters/Paul Butterfield collaboration Fathers and Sons served as the pivotal foundation.

It didn’t matter that I had been playing in a punk band named Labyrinth; Wolf howling “Smokestack Lightning” was 10 times more bad-ass than anything I’d ever witnessed. It wasn’t until college that I started really understanding what my father was talking about—why the music was important. While everyone should pick up Muddy, Wolf, Johnson and the godfathers of the genre, I thought I’d share a few of my favorite current blues artists and some good discs. ‘Cause it sure as hell isn’t dead music, no matter what anyone says.

Carey and Lurrie Bell, Second Nature (1991)
Pairing Lurrie Bell’s piercing acoustic guitar with his father Carey’s legendary mournful and accordion-like blues harp (he played with Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon and Big Walter Horton) Second Nature is one of those happy accidents that turns into something that’s built to last. Recorded on a whim for three hours during a tour of Finland, both father and son feed off each other in remarkable ways, even switching off the vocal duties from song to song. The blues runs thick and pure in the family and after awhile it’s hard to tell who is better or more soulful.

While Lurrie has a more emotional, gospel-tinged inflection reminiscent of Junior Wells, or even Jackie Wilson, the elder Carey has a lower, gravely and angrier sound. The disc features both Carey originals and re-imagined blues staples like “Key To The Highway” and a sweet, funky Hendrixy version of “Rock Me” which features the younger Lurrie burning it up solo. 

The brain-child of producer and fledgling festival booker Chip Covington, Second Nature came together when Covington booked the Chicago-based father and son for a strangely planned Scandinavian tour that brought them from Helsinki to backwater towns like Rovaniemi and Saariselka above the arctic circle in the middle of January. As Covington describes, he didn’t plan on recording the duo but after witnessing their live sets night after night and traveling with them through the frightening blizzard conditions, “I knew we had to find a studio to capture their acoustic miracle in a laid back setting.” He made a phone call and an hour later the two were in front of the microphones. “There was no rehearsal,” Covington remarks about the session, “There are no overdubs. Everything was one take.” Which makes the results even more astonishing.

Joe Louis Walker, Silvertone Blues (1999)
I picked up this album a little while back and can’t seem to get tired of it. Bridging the gap between old-school Chicago blues and a more modern gospel-inflected sound, Walker does it all, playing slide acoustic, electric and dobro guitar, as well as blues harp and piano. His slide work is particularly impressive—that kind of spooky backwoods sound that makes your hair stand up on end.

The best tracks are the country-blues duets between Joe and blues harp legend James Cotton, particularly “Letting Go” and “It’s You Baby,” which has the kind of angular back-and-forth conversation that Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee would dig. The small-room sound suits the duet fine and hearing Walker go off in screaming scats-style vamps as the harmonica billows back is awesome.

While the instrumentation varies from solo-acoustic and harp to more raucous band and piano driven tunes (which can get a bit glossy) the highlight by far is Walker’s high-octane vocals.

Keith Dunn, Alone With The Blues (1998)
For aficionados of the blues harp this is a must-have. The whole shebang is Keith, his harp and his voice (and his feet stomping away), that’s it. The fat warmness and intimacy of the recording is remarkable; through all 14 tracks I never felt there needed to be a band. In fact, the intimacy is what makes this thing so special—we hear every percussive breath and tooth-scrape coming out of the harp, and every gasp and shout coming from his throat.

Keith’s high-speed, political-minded storytelling in “Need To Make A Dollar” and “I Used To Have A Home,” make this far more than just a blues exercise. Inspired by the activism of songwriter J.B. Lenoir, Dunn sings about the alienation and anger that poverty seeds and with his deep, direct voice seemingly hanging in an electric void, we are compelled to listen. His voice and harp tone surely brings to mind Sonny Boy Williamson in the way that he shifts in and out of taught anger and surprising sweetness with incredible ease. My favorite tune is the first track, “Strange Things Are Happening,” which has a call and response line with the harp that sounds like a horn part.

Guy Davis, Stomp Down Rider (1993)
Not sure where I found this guy but this album kicks so much ass. The simple crunch-a-crunch E-blues has never sounded so nasty and full. A sort of more refined old-time country-style picker in the model of Taj Mahal and Mississippi John Hurt, he does mostly old standards and jives them up big time. And while upbeat tracks like “Georgia Rag” and “Candy Man” are more traditional and predictable, the angrier harp-tinged reworkings of “Walkin’ Blues” and “Wintertime Blues” show that his percussive and melodic slide work on the 6 and 12 string is some of the best in the business.

A celebrated poet, actor and director as well as bluesman, Davis was born in New York City and taught himself how to play (it’s said that he learned much from a mysterious nine-fingered guitar player he met on a train trip to Boston). His voice reminds me of a young Wolf with more vulnerability. He often ends the tunes with gorgeous ringing connected harmonics—a decidedly modern twist on what is largely a disc of pre-war ragtime style ruminations. Produced by Thom Wolke, it’s one of the best live blues albums I’ve heard in some time—it feels like you’re in the first row.

  • Nice article, and it sees like your parents and mine have uncannily similar listening habits. Except in my dad's case switch in jazz for blues. Equally influential for my subsequent listening habits.

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  • Very well written! Nice job ZNL. Great write ups on the contemp albums, I'm going to look them up for... my dad!

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  • "lightning hitting me in the chest," right on...target. thing is, now I've been listening for past five years or so, so many of my old favorites are even better. will check out your recommendations.

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