James "Blood" Ulmer: Bad Blood in the City: The Piety Street Sessions (2007)
Recorded at Piety Street Studios in New Orleans, Ulmer leads his seven-piece Memphis Blood Blues Band in a rough and tumble selection of lyrically poignant diatribes. One of five originals, the powerhouse opener "Survivor's of the Hurricane," rides a wicked clavinet grove as Ulmer rails against the government; "Here comes Johnny come lately with the army and the national guard, now that the storm was all over, they call themselves heroes for doing their jobs." Fittingly, the tune climaxes with an explosive guitar solo from guitarist Vernon Reid. Ulmer's vocals take precedence over his guitar playing here, with Reid taking most of the solos. But when the leader does let loose with his brittle tone and angular phrasing, sparks fly.
Borrowing a classic blues metaphor, Ulmer refers to "Katrina" as a spiteful woman in a dark, simmering slow blues that builds to an agitated climax. "Let's Talk About Jesus" provides some funky gospel-driven levity to the album's justifiably pessimistic mood, with vocalist Irene Dasher lending harmonious lift to Ulmer's gruff growl. "There Is Power In The Blues" is similarly optimistic, while "Old Slave Master" showcases the band's instrumental prowess.
Timelessly relevant, six classic blues covers address universal plights, like poverty, crime and loneliness. Some are given intense renditions; Junior Kimbrough's "Sad Days, Lonely Nights" is fueled by a locomotive bass-line while Howlin' Wolf's threatening "Commit A Crime" is a raucous roadhouse rumble. Others exude somber reflection; like Son House's "Grinnin in Your Face" or John Lee Hooker's "This Land Is Nobody's Land," casually delivered over an exotic, percussive background. On a lighter note, Willie Dixon's "Dead Presidents" regales with humor and innuendo.
Ancient to the future, Bessie Smith's "Backwater Blues" is updated with a distorted wah-wah solo from Charlie Burnham as he coaxes plangent cries from his electric fiddle. Ulmer's melancholy delivery is startlingly relevant; "Lord there's a thousand people, they don't have no place to go."
Since his transformation into a post-modern bluesman at the turn of the century, Ulmer has won numerous accolades for his raw, but subtle avant-garde approach to traditional roots material. With its topical lyrics and adventurous instrumental approach, Bad Blood in the City is a modern day blues masterpiece, Ulmer's finest venture into the genre yet.
Track Listing: Survivors of the Hurricane; Sad Days, Lonely Nights; Katrina; Let's Talk About Jesus; This Land Is No One's Land; Dead Presidents; Commit A Crime; Grinnin' In Your Face; There Is Power In The Blues; Backwater Blues; Old Slave Master.
Personnel: James "Blood" Ulmer: vocals, guitar; Vernon Reid: electric and acoustic guitar; Charlie Burnham: electric fiddle, mandolin; David Barnes: harmonica; Leon Gruenbaum: Fender Rhodes, Hammond B-3 organ, Samchillian, Mellotron, Clavinet; Mark Peterson: electric and upright bass; Aubrey Dayle: drums, percussion; Irene Dasher: vocals (4).
Record Label: Hyena Records