James Blood Ulmer: Bad Blood in the City: The Piety Street Sessions (2007)
"Blood wrote these songs that are the essence of the blues," suggests producer and guitarist Vernon Reid. "They're politically incorrect, they're sad and haunting, they're pissed off and on an existential level, they address the complicated concept that is America, which is something Blood's been dealing with since the beginning of his career."
You might forgive a certain about of hyperbole from the producer, but even one listen to Bad Blood in the City proves that what Reid posits is absolutely true: This inscrutable bluesman's set carves out rough-hewn electric screams that transcend blues music to become blues mythology. Bad Blood sounds eternal.
This set list is full of legend, featuring blues written by Howlin' Wolf, Bessie Smith, John Lee Hooker and others interwoven with new Ulmer compositions about the physical and sociological wallop of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.
Ulmer's "Survivors of the Hurricane" rips this set open, its backbeat churning thick and hot behind the harmonica's blue howl and Ulmer's graveled guitar and vocal. This hurricane sound blows through "Sad Days, Lonely Nights" (Junior Kimbrough), brutally stomping its single riff into bloody ground. Ulmer's "Katrina," his thematic focal point, completes this opening trilogy with rippling production that makes his guitar and vocal sound ironically, angrily underwater.
A skeletal arrangement of "This Land is No One's Land" (John Lee Hooker) showcases one of Ulmer's best vocals alongside its scrawled guitar hook; Ulmer genuinely reaches the cold, black depths in which Hooker's music singularly swam with a voice that chills your bones with its pain and anger. At first it seems impossible, but this take on "Commit a Crime" (Howlin' Wolf) sounds even more powerful: The rhythm section and harmonica seem to shred the accompaniment while Ulmer's lead guitar slices off huge chunks from their volcanic sheets of blue sound, a blues so powerful that the musicians sound barely able to harness and direct it.
And yet...at the end of Bad Blood, after its onslaught of darkness and rage, Ulmer's "Old Slave Master" leaves you dancing with a four-on-the-floor three-minute rave-up that's the blues equivalent of "Twistin' the Night Away."
Track Listing: Survivors of the Hurricane; Sad Days, Lonely Nights; Katrina; Let's Talk About Jesus; Dead Presidents; Commit a Crime; Grinnin' in Your Face; There Is Power in the Blues; Backwater Blues; Old Slave Master.
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.