Telarc International has slowly and quietly been populating its jazz and blues rosters with some of the foremost talent performing and recording today. The jazz roles boast the late Ray Brown, Oscar Peterson, Monty Alexander, Geoff Keezer, Benny Green, Russell Malone, Tierney Sutton, and McCoy Tyner. Th blues stables are just as impressive with Bob Margolin, Jimmy Thackery, Tab Benoit, Joe Louis Walker, Tommy Castro, and Jimmy Hall. While the jazz output remains straightforward and mainstream (accepting Ray Brown's successful Some of My Best Friends Are...
series and Monty Alexander's Jamaican Explorations), the blues offerings provide a few surprises and take some significant creative risks.
In addition to individual artist releases, Telarc Blues has established two cutting edge series, employing all of their house stars and then some. The first series, recently completed, highlights the Mississippi Delta Blues of Charlie Patton, Robert Johnson, and Mississippi Fred McDowall, devoting a disc to each of them. Recently, these three discs were collected into an aggressively priced three-disc set, provocative for the amount of music, its high level of invention and creativity, and it affordability. The second series is the reinterpretation, in a blues setting, of seminal late 1960s and early '70s rock albums. Included here are blues inoculated interpretations of The Beatles' The White Album, Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde, and The Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street. Both of these series are worthy of discussion on an individual basis.
The Music of Charlie Patton
Necessarily, this recording should be acoustic and the majority of it is. This music may be more sacred than Robert Johnson's in that as a recorded legacy, it provides one of the best testaments of the songster temperament of the itinerate rural blues singers. Patton's recorded output was greater than that of Johnson's and that accepted. The interpretations contained herein are conservative to a point but do take some interesting liberties. Telarc assembled a variety of modern blues singers to tackle the considerable project of interpreting the Music of Charlie Patton.
The highlights are many. Steve James addresses "Elder Green Blues" with slide guitar (and mandolin overdubbed) and string bass. James' voice is a growl and his slide guitar precise. Charlie Musselwhite approaches "Pea Vine Blues" with care, his guitar crisp. "I Shall Not Be Moved" indicates the songster disposition of Patton, who would call on the Church as much as the jook joint for subjects. Joe Louis Walker, who sings with a menacing conviction, gives "Sugar Mama" a keen workout. Colleen Sexton makes a medley of "Down the Dirt Road Blues" and "When Your Way Gets Dark." It is a blissful way to end this fine recording.
But it is the center of the recording that gives up its masterpiece. Snooky Pryor turns in the performance of the disc with a harmonica-vocals take on perhaps Patton's most famous recording "Pony Blues." This song more than any of the others captures the desperate spirit of Charlie Patton's music.
The Music of Robert Johnson
I have mixed feelings about a tribute disc to a phantom. Robert Johnson's craft is as essential to world culture as Bach's Well Tempered Clavier, the Koran, and Citizen Kane. In my experience, tribute discs contain one or two performances that are over the top wonderful (such as Buddy Guy's "Red House" on the Hendrix Tribute and Hootie and the Blowfish on the Zep Tribute). Therefore, I had pretty low expectations of Hellhound on My Trail: Songs of Robert Johnson. After all, how could Robert "I'm Addicted to Love" Palmer sneak sally through the alley on the blues canon? To my glee, I discovered a tribute disc that should be owned along side The Complete Robert Johnson.
Why, might you ask? Because we are fortunate to have performing on this disc, perhaps the last of the practicing bluesmen that actually knew Robert Johnson, particularly Dave "Honeyboy" Edwards who was present the night Johnson was allegedly poisoned and Robert Jr. Lockwood, who learned at the foot of the phantom as Johnson kept house with his mother. With a groan as deep as the delta he hailed from, betraying his 80-some odd years, Dave Edwards metaphorically returns to Friar's Point Mississippi with Johnson's "Traveling Riverside Blues". Edwards still plays a mean bottleneck guitar and his voice has as many rings as a Mississippi Pine Tree. He closes the song with the words, "That's pretty close to it". Indeed.
The fun does not stop there. Robert Jr. Lockwood turns in an intense "I'm A Steady Rollin' Man" with Carey Bell playing Rice Miller to Lockwood's Johnson. Two other old timers also show up. Pinetop Perkins, pounding his piano, tells the listener of his "Sweet Home Chicago" while Bob Margolin provides the slide guitar. Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown performs "If You've Got a Good Friend" only as he can. Most of the performances on this disc are reverent and straight. That is with the exception of the aforementioned Robert Palmer. Palmer uses a tuba, dobro, and processed guitar. And his voice: Palmer had one of the finest vocal performances on the record, using Johnson's "Milkcow Calf's Blues" as his vehicle. If you already have The Complete Robert Johnson, buy this disc . If you don't already have The Complete Robert Johnson, get it and then buy Hellhound on My Trail. It's just like reading poetryyou just have to.
The Music of Mississippi Fred McDowall
Como, Mississippi's Fred McDowall may not be a household blues name save for the inclusion of his "You Got to Move" on the Rolling Stone's Sticky Fingers. Paul Geremia starts things off with McDowall's sacred music with "Get Right Church," playing twelve-sting slide. His vocals betray the conflicts between the church and blues lives. Charlie Musselwhite and Anders Osborne ply their acoustic wares on "61 Highway" and "Kokomo Blues," respectively. The brilliant McDowall statement "Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning" smokes from the rhythm section of guitarist Gregg Hoover, bassist Dan Corbett, and drummer Darren Thiboutot. Colleen Sexton testifies as she sings.
Brian Stoltz attacks "You Got To Move" from a traditional standpoint, his thumping slide guitar staying close to the original. Tab Benoit puts an electric sheen on "Train I Ride," his voice full of delta dust. David Maxwell transforms "I Heard Somebody Call" into a country Chopin Nocturne. Sue Foley shows up for a very cool "Frisco Line," her guitar and voice equally gritty. The disc closer is a molten "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl" by Scott Holt.
This McDowall collection is the finest of the three contained in the set if for no other reason than he is less well known. The entire set is fine and worth purchasing.
The Blues White Album
Of all three of the blues interpretation recordings, the Blues White Album fares the worse. Conceptually, this is the only Beatles recording that could be covered in this way as it did contain 12-bar blues ("Why Don't We Do It in the Road" and "Yer Blues") and, indeed, these pieces do translate well (even if Jimmy Thackery's vocals are heavy-handed on "Do It..." his guitar is searing). Lucky Peterson's "Yer Blues" might be the disc highlight. "Revolution" is treated about as well as can be expected by Kenny Neal, Tab Benoit, and Lucky Peterson, who provide the song a Memphis Groove.
Maria Muldaur transforms "Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da" via a Muscle Shoals sound, but never quite makes it to where the song needs to go. Part of this is because this would have to be troublesome song to cover because it is so thoroughly Beatles. I held out great hope for "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," a certified guitar workout saved for master Joe Louis Walker. It is a troublesome masterpiece. Walker's guitar is superb throughout and his vocals hit the mark. But...there is still that Beatles thing. Colin Linden's "Blackbird" and Charlie Musselwhite's instrumental "Dear Prudence" close this disc out on a high note, offering the most original interpretations of the project.
Telarc had not engaged the services of double trouble for this recording, using former Saturday Night Live's G.E. Smith and his band for the party. They are more than capable, but do bring a rote studio fell to the recording. This is not a bad recording. This is hard material to deal with.
The Blues on Blonde on Blonde
The Blues on Blonde on Blonde gets a little closer to the core than did the White Alb um project. Dylan never got far from his blues roots and infused the blues into all that he did. Guitarist Brian Stolzt, veteran of several Telarc recordings vamps Rainy Day Woman #12 & 35 in a Slingblade sort of way, giving the song a heavy backbeat carrying his wah-wah on its back. Sue Foley sings "Most Likely Your Go Your Way..." with sexy and angry resignation. Walter Trout tears up the 12-bar "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat."
Special treats include Anders Osborne's take on "Visions of Johanna" and Duke Robillard's "Pledging My Time." Joe Louis Walker works out "Stuck Inside of Mobile..." as an eight-minute guitar tour-de-force. And the true highlight is C.J. Chenier's Zydeco romp through "Absolutely Sweet Marie." Double Trouble is on had for this recording, offering a much-needed consistency.
Exile on Blues Street
With Exile on Blues Street, Randy Labbe and Telarc Blues did not merely one in the hit a homerun, but a grand slam to win the World Series by one in the bottom of the ninth. Where The Blues White Album was a troublesome fit and The Blues on Blonde on Blonde was a near fit, Exile is a perfect fit. It begs the question "Were the Rolling Stone the purveyors of New Blues or is the music so enduring that it never lost its core regardless of how it was treated?" Or was the vision of the Rolling Stones so perfect on Exile on Main Street as a reinterpretation of the rural and urban vernacular that the current generation of bluesmen could step right in and pick up where the Stones left off? The answer...who cares? This is a fun romp through the hallowed basement of a French Castle, circa 1972, while the greatest rock and roll band in the world would wile away their time in exile.
The means by which producer Labbe ensures consistency and continuity is by employing the same rhythm section throughout the session. That rhythm section is Stevie Ray Vaughan's Double Troublebassist Tommy Shannon and drummer Chris Layton. Add to the band guitarist Brian Stoltz, veteran of previous of Telarc's blues adventures and now the foundation is complete. Thus, this solid underpinning established, the featured artists are free to pursue the Glimmer Twins raunchy and rowdy vision. So, how do the songs come off:
- "Ventalator Blues"Lucky Peterson delivers a molten version supplying sticky slide guitar and soupy, full-bodied organ. This is one of the strongest covers on the recording.
- "All Down The Line"Christine Ohlman belts out the '70s Stones concert staple with a tasty tenor compliments of Ryan Zoidis. Stoltz's guitar is viril and potent.
- "Rip This Joint"Tommy Castro has the pots on, gass on high on this rave up. His lead guitar is as hotly inspired as his vocals.
- "Sweet Black Angel"Otis Taylor and his wife Cassie multilayer this dark groove. Taylor's voice is perfect, as is his hypnotic guitar accompinment.
- "Sweet Virginia"This is the piece de resistance of the recording. Jeff Lang's acoustic slide guitar expresses so many ideas in such a short amount of time that the song requires several listens to appreciate fully his sheer artisanship. His voice is desperate and dense. He doubles electric and acoustic slide work, just like the Stones on Mississippi Fred McDowall's "You Got To Move." This is an outstanding interpretation in every way.
- "Tumblin' Dice"Andrea Re sings with conviction and Colin James provides the requisite slide guitar to this, the greatest Stones song. Great cover, but do not throw away Linda Rhonstadt's version of the same.
- "Shake Your Hips"Tab Benoit teases out all that is John Lee Hooker from this one-chord workout. He has just the voice also.
- "Shine A Light"Joe Louis Walker picks the songs perfect for him in these series. He sings with more soul and his guitar is a blues beacon. He transforms this gospel-tinged piece into a electric exorcism.
- "Happy" Deborah Coleman is a bona fide Stones fan and dyed-in-the-wool blueswoman. Her guitar playing on this, perhaps the greatest Keith Richards song, is exceptional, even if her vocals are not.
- "Rocks Off"I never understood the words until Jimmy Thackery sang them. What he lacks in a voice he makes up for with his ferocious guitar playing.
What? No "Turd on the Run"? We are blessed sometimes and this is one of thos times.