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fRoots reviews: 2011

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Murder Ballads
Secret London

The Lil' Band O' Gold: The Promised Land: A Swamp Pop Journey.
"What is swamp pop?" asks Lafayette's legendary Gene Terry in the band documentary this album soundtracks. "I've studied it, and I've come to the conclusion that swamp pop music is white guys playing black music damn good."
LBoG's eight-strong supergroup of veteran Louisiana musicians certainly deliver on that definition here, and the result is 53 minutes of prime New Orleans R&B. The band's members have worked with everyone from Mick Jagger and Bob Dylan to Mavis Staples, Clifton Chenier and Slim Harpo, but it's pretty clear from the evidence here that playing together brings a little extra spice to the gumbo for all concerned. It's a masterful demonstration of the old guard's rootsy musical craft: Buena Vista on the Bayou.
Highlights? Well, there's the stately sway of Faster & Faster, teased along by a twitching guitar pattern from guest David Kitt, and featuring the most soulful of Warren Storm's six lead vocals. Storm's well into his seventies now, but you'd never guess that from his gutsy, expressive voice.
David Egan's songwriting is equally impressive. The best of his three compositions here is Dreamer, where Egan's own rolling N'Yawlins piano chords lead the band through a slow, nostagic ballad. His writing scores again with Hard Enough, though there it's Richard Comeaux's pedal steel that dominates.
Guitarist CC Adcock has three songs on the album too, and the acoustic Memories is my favourite. Tommy McLain guests with a tender, country-tinged vocal, and Dickie Landry contributes a breathy sax solo. Adcock shines again on Ain't No Child No More, trading the riff back and forth with Steve Riley's accordian to make this the album's most exhilarating rocker.
Landry joins with Pat Breaux on saxophones on almost every other track here, and the duo always adds a welcome texture and swing. Dave Ranson's bass and Storm's drumming tie everything together nicely.
On the debit side, the album's noisier tracks sometimes veer a little too close to standard southern rock, and the cover of ELO's Hold On Tight proves pretty forgettable. But these are mere quibbles. As Riley sings on Ain't No Child No More: "This is the gospel truth / I am the living proof". That could be the album itself talking, and you'd be a fool not to listen.

Pokey LaFarge & The South City Three: Middle of Everywhere.
In the 1920s and 1930s, with recorded music still in its infancy, no-one had yet thought to draw rigid lines between different genres. The elements of what we'd now call blues, country or jazz were all there in American popular music, but it would never have occurred to the performers that they were supposed to stake out one patch and forsake all others.
It's fitting, then, that this St Louis quartet's second album is so difficult to pigeonhole. LaFarge has mastered the art of writing songs in his chosen era's sunny, charming style, but the musical setting he gives them demands that his bandmates conjure up everyone from the early black songsters to Bob Wills and Django Reinhardt. Fortunately, he's got the boys that can pull that off, with Adam Hoskins' guitar, Joey Glynn's stand-up bass and Ryan Koenig's dual skills on washboard and harmonica effortlessly serving up every flavour required.
So Long Honeybee Goodbye has a trad jazz feel about it, Hoskins' lap steel on Shenandoah River brings a trace of western swing, and a guest horn section of cornet and trombone colours Feels So Good. Best of all is Koenig's harmonica playing, particularly on the bluesy Mississippi Girl, where he swoops and dives round the other instruments like a bird loosed in the studio. His washboard playing's a treat too, joining seamlessly with Glynn's supple bass to swing each song forward. What drums there are on the record are kept low enough to ensure they never break its gentle mood.
LaFarge himself adds vocals, parlour guitar and occasional banjo. He wrote all 13 of the songs here, and sings them in the persona of a sweet, slightly befuddled guy, happily chasing girls and innocent fun in a world as cheery as that of a PG Wodehouse novel. "Say it sunny, say it sunny," he reminds Hoskins during one solo, and that's the band's watchword throughout.
The result is a thoroughly enjoyable, toe-tapper of an album, and one that's almost guaranteed to put a smile on your face. No wonder The White Stripes' Jack White has declared himself a fan, and already done some production work on one of the band's other records.

Meschiya Lake & The Little Big Horns: Lucky Devil.
Meschiya (Ma-shee-ya) Lake is a former sideshow performer who's been busking with New Orleans jazz bands like The Loose Marbles since 2007. She switched to singing country for a while with The Magnolia Beacon, then returned home to form her own old-time jazz band in 2009. That band, The Little Big Horns, netted her the city's Big Easy Award for best female performer earlier this year, and now their debut album's arrived.
And what a New Orleans affair it is. The spacious arrangements, intertwining horns and abrasive trombone or cornet solos are all characteristic of the Crescent City's sound. Its unquenchable good humour is well-represented too, thanks to elements like the frantic spoons solo on The Curse of an Aching Heart, the stately sousaphone pulse underpinning Do For Myself, and the witty lyrics of songs like the mock-mournful Lucky Devil. The lazy, half-stoned lurch of even the album's slowest numbers always bursts into celebration before the track's done.
Lake includes just two of her own songs, filling the rest of the album with covers such as Duke Ellington's I Ain't Got Nuthin But The Blues, Bessie Smith's Gimme a Pigfoot, and Jelly Roll Morton's Sweet Substitute. Her own compositions sound thoroughly at home in this company, although the smouldering Slowburn reminds me powerfully of another song I can't quite put my finger on.
Pigfoot is just one of three Bessie Smith covers included here, the others being Sam Stept's Comes Love and Smith's own composition Backwater Blues. Lake can't quite match the sheer grunt of Smith's own performances, but the experience of making herself heard over busy city traffic has given her enough lung-power and presence to ensure she's not overwhelmed by the comparison either. She's at her best on the album's wryly humourous numbers, infusing them with just the sense of salacious mischief a song like Lucky Devil demands.
Her vocals on Backwater Blues - which you can only hear as a Hurricane Katrina song in this context - are less successful. For a band which declares itself so rooted in New Orleans, you'd expect Katrina to inspire much more emotion than Lake's rather mannered vocal conveys. That's really just a quibble, though, and no reason to miss seeing the band on their promised 2012 UK tour. On the evidence here, they'll provide a bloody good night out.

Jack Blackman: River Town.
Jack Blackman is a 17-year-old guitarist and singer from Warwickshire, whose heroes are the old country blues masters like Blind Blake and Rev. Gary Davis. That's the style Blackman emulates here, on his first full-length album, and it's a remarkably accomplished performance for one so young.
The album's entirely a solo effort, with Blackman sticking to acoustic guitar throughout, and writing all but two tracks himself. The two covers are Muddy Waters' Can't Be Satisfied and a live version of Blind Blake's Police Dog Blues from the Radio 2 Young Folk Awards. Blackman's playing is lively and fluid right through the album, combining some very agile finger-picking with a percussive slap on the strings after every phrase. The two slide numbers - Whisky Grave and Can't Be Satisfied - are particularly enjoyable.
The problem comes with his voice, which often pipes when it should roar or growl. A teenager's voice simply lacks the authority to pull off lines like: "They'll never see what we've seen" or: "Pour whisky on my grave". Instead of feeling a shiver of fear when he threatens to pistol-whip us to death in Can't Be Satisfied, you want to toussle his hair.
Blackman's own lyrics draw largely from his recent trip to the American South, and are full of precisely the observations you'd expect a young Englishman to make there. Stranger alone squeezes in spanish moss, live oaks, a chain gang, cotton blossom, heat mirages, roadkill, neon signs, the levee and some noisy bullfrogs.
Thankfully, not every song's like this. Trouble details some of his mates' cider-fuelled adventures, and here the sound of a modern British teenager using the blues idiom to talk about his own life brings something more distinctive to the table. The folksy Stick Stock Stone hits closer to home too, telling the legend of Warwickshire's Rollright Stones.
Set Blackman's age aside for a moment, and this emerges as a respectable debut rather than an astonishing one. He'll make far better albums than this in the future, but the foundations he's laid here are solid enough. His love of the blues is clearly genuine and, with more than 100 gigs already under his belt, he's doing everything right to ensure he grows into a major talent. What he needs right now is a few years of hard living to roughen up that voice a bit.

Ian Siegal & The Youngest Sons: The Skinny.
British bluesman Ian Siegal decamped to Coldwater, Mississippi, last year to record this album with the baby boys fathered by RL Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, Jim Dickinson and Bobby Bland.
Bassist Garry Burnside and drummer/producer Cody Dickinson both have a history with the hill country's North Mississippi Allstars, and bring much of that band's trademark muddy sound with them. Rodd Bland plays drums on the six tracks Dickinson doesn't handle himself, and Robert Kimbrough contributes both lead and rhythm guitar.
Siegal settles into the band's embrace for much of the album, calling aloud for Kimbrough to take the solo on several tracks, and including two of Burnside's songs alongside his own seven compositions. It's very much a band project, rather than a star fronting his hired hands, and Siegal's rewarded with a sense of palpable respect from the young princes.
The downside of this approach is that the album sometimes sounds more like an NMA record than one of his own. There's a nimble little wah-wah pattern from Siegal to enjoy on Stud Spider, and a pleasant breathy growl to his vocals throughout, but no denying that the first six tracks' mid-tempo rockers are more or less interchangeable. This isn't helped by Siegal's workmanlike lyrics, which lean rather too heavily on the old blues cliches of desire, death and damnation.
Relief comes with track seven's Better Than Myself, when Siegal finally takes the spotlight. The clean, sharp tones of his acoustic slide guitar cut through the album's prevailing murk like cool rain after a long day's suffocating heat. Siegel's slide playing is the highlight of this whole project, and it never shines brighter than it does here. Better has easily the album's most memorable tune too, and the only one which lingered in my head when it was done.
There's more impressive slide work on Garry's Night Out, where Burnside takes over the vocals to let Siegal concentrate on playing an extended showcase. The amount of chatter on the take suggests it was meant only as a rehearsal, but that Siegal's lightning-in-a-bottle performance won it a place on the album anyway.
Sadly, nothing else here quite reaches the heights those two tracks achieve. Confirmed Siegal fans will want to pick it up anyway, but the merely curious might find 2008's The Dust a safer bet.

Big Head Blues Club: 100 Years of Robert Johnson.
Robert Johnson was born 100 years ago this May, and Colorado's Big Head Todd & The Monsters are celebrating with an album of his songs. The revised moniker they've adopted reflects the fact that BB King, Hubert Sumlin, Charlie Musselwhite, Honeyboy Edwards, Ruthie Foster, Cedric Burnside and Lightin' Malcolm all dropped by to join in.
The result's a lot better than you'd expect. All too often, albums with a host of superstar chums on board end up as horribly disjointed affairs, and so highly-polished that not a trace of life remains. In this case, though, the core band has a strong enough presence to impose a consistent sound, and many of the guests stick around for more than the usual flying visit. Lightnin' Malcolm, for example, adds guitar to five tracks, while Musselwhite's harmonica is on three. Only King and Sumlin limit themselves to a single track each.
All My Love's In Vain is a solo rendition from Todd Park Mohr, using just voice and acoustic guitar, while Honeyboy has only Musselwhite to help him out on Sweet Home Chicago. Both these tracks are fine, but the minimalist approach inevitably prompts comparisons with Johnson's own recordings, and that's a battle the BHBC boys were never going to win.
The solid, meaty full-band arrangements prove much more rewarding. The Monsters built their following through constant touring, and there's no better apprenticeship for a blues band. Twenty-five years into their career, with one platinum album already in the bank, they've got the skills, discipline and confidence to make this project a genuine tribute to Johnson's songwriting rather than a cheap attempt to exploit his legend.
Among the guests, King and Sumlin turn in characteristic performances, with Sumlin's gravitas underpinning When You Got a Good Friend and King scattering his familiar licks through a funky Crossroads Blues. Musselwhite adds careful, subtle colouring to Come On In My Kitchen and Last Fair Deal Gone Down.
But it's the lesser-known names who shine brightest. Foster has a background in gospel as well as blues, and her verses of Kind Hearted Woman offer the album's strongest vocal performance. Lightnin' Malcolm's guitar work lifts every track it touches, particularly when his regular bandmate Burnside adds drums on Preachin' Blues and If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day.

These reviews first appeared in fRoots 337, 338/339 and 340. For more details, visit the magazine's website here.

Listen up: Ain't nothing but a blues thang

In the summer of 2011, I started writing occasional reviews of blues CDs and suchlike material for fRoots, the UK's best folk music and world music magazine.
      The deal is that fRoots gets each review to itself for a full month, then I'm free to run it here on PlanetSlade too. My payment comes in the form of the CDs themselves, some of which have turned out to be very good indeed.
     I took a break from this gig in 2013/2014, but normal service has now been resumed.
      To learn more about fRoots, visit the magazine's website here. Its free monthly music podcast is particularly good.

Destination Unknown, by Joe Filisko & Eric Noden.
Blue Mesa, by Luke Winslow-King.
Some of These Days, by Dave Peabody & Regina Mudrich.

Great, by Fred Smith.
The Outsider, by Ma Polaine's Great Decline.

Down Home Blues Chicago - Fine Boogie,by various artists.
Folk Hotel, by Tom Russell.
Material Electrico, by UnclePhil.

I'm Glad Trouble Don't Last Always, by Luke Winslow-King
Seasick Steve, by Matthew Wright
Blues for Francis, by Caroline Beecroft and Howard Rye.
Let The Devil In, by Uncle Sinner.
Hold On!, by The James Hunter Six.
Deus Luna, by The Malingerers and The Destructors.

Free as the Wind, by Petunia.
Live At Southern Ground, by Martin Harley & Daniel Kimbro.
Rural Electrification, by Peter Keane.
Home, by Fred Smith.
Something in the Water , by Pokey LaFarge.
Right Now Blues, by Dave Peabody.
Stumpjumper, by Charlie Parr.
Vintage Troubadour, by Steve Brookes.

Chemako, by Chemako.

The Games People Play, by Paul Lamb & The King Snakes.
Push Record, by Mike Stevens & Matt Andersen.
The Teaser, by Little G Weevil.

The Promised Land: A Swamp Pop Journey, by The Lil' Band O' Gold.
Middle of Everywhere, by Pokey LaFarge & The South City Three.
Lucky Devil, by Meschiya Lake & The Little Big Horns.
River Town, by Jack Blackman.
The Skinny, by Ian Siegal & The Youngest Sons.
100 Years of Robert Johnson, by Big Head Blues Club.

Tribe of One, br Ruth Wyand.
The Hellhound Sample, by Charles Shaar Murray.
Darling Oh Darling, by Miss Tess.
O Dig, by The Woodshedders.