The Piety recording studio, where James Blood Ulmer recorded Bad Blood in the City: The Piety Street Sessions
, stands on the corner of Piety and Dauphine Streets, the original route of the famous Desire streetcar line in New Orleans' ninth ward. In an early scene from Tennessee Williams' play, A Streetcar Named Desire
, Stanley enters the kitchen leaving the door open so that "the perpetual blue piano" can be heard from the neighborhood. "This blue piano," Williams explains, "expresses the spirit of life which goes on here."
In New Orleans, two years after Hurricane Katrina, the music and the spirit lives on, but it wouldn't be Ulmer without the angst and the examination of the soul of America which has marked so much of his work over the years. The five Ulmer originals and six songs by classic blues figures re-examine themes such as race, poverty, loss, survival, faith, and government negligence in the aftermath of the devastating hurricane.
"Lord there's a thousand people, they don't have no place to go conjures up images of the ninth ward in 2005, but the lyrics are from Bessie Smith's "Backwater Blues," dating from 1927. The Mississippi River, it seems, has always been a cruel mistress. On this slow-burning classic, Ulmer gives a fine vocal performance, and Charlie Burnham's fiddle cries sympathetically. Throughout the album, the fiddle, mandolin and flute provide lovely contrast to the gruff beauty of Ulmer's voice.
Ulmer's singing, that gravelly growl, has always been as distinctive and defining as the sound of his guitar. Nobody sounds like Ulmer. Odd then, that he should sound uncannily like John Lee Hooker on the master's "This Land is No One's Land." Strange that he seemingly imitates Howlin' Wolf on "Commit a Crime." On Junior Kimbrough's "Sad Days, Lonely Nights," Ulmer's voice is so hoarse as to age him ten years. There is however, a real energy to the music.
Those still not entirely used to the reincarnation of James Blood Ulmer as a blues man, despite the Down Beat awards and a Grammy nomination, will find the Ulmer of old, the prince of Black Rock, on his self-penned "Survivors of the Hurricane." This is the strongest song on the albumVernon Reid lets fly on guitar and Ulmer delivers a caustic attack on the government ("Here comes Johnny-come-lately") for its late appearance after Katrina struck.
"Katrina" proves that Ulmer can write a blues tune of real quality; so why so many covers? A few more Ulmer originals of the caliber of "Survivors of the Hurricane" and "Katrina" would have gone a long way to making this an album to rank alongside America, Do you Remember the Love? (Bluenote,1987).
Personnel: James Blood Ulmer: guitar, vocals; Vernon Reid: electric and acoustic guitar; Charlie Burnham: electric fiddle and mandolin; David Barnes: harmonica; Leon Gruenbaum: Fender Rhodes, piano, Hammond B-3 organ, samchillian, mellotron, clarinet; Mark Peterson: electric and upright bass; Aubrey Dayle: drums, percussion; Irene Datcher: background vocals.