James Blood Ulmer, Hot Club Of Cowtown & David Lindley

Martin Longley By

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James Blood Ulmer & The Memphis Blood Blues Band
Jazz Standard
March 27, 2011

For a blues combo that doesn't possess a particularly powerful presence on the mainstream blues circuit, James Blood Ulmer certainly took his Memphis Blood Blues Band to the music's furthest limits and highest levels, both in terms of artistry and volume peaks. The singer/guitarist's four-night stint at Manhattan's Jazz Standard doubtless reached its apogee on this final Sunday evening. Without being a jazz elitist, it might be observed that the act of populating a band with players who also have heavy experience in free-form improvisation, funk, metal, country and old-time swing can be deeply beneficial to widening the portals down in that old blues cellar-bar.

One or two quizzed folks had reported that the run's opening sets had slightly suffered from a degree of un-togetherness. This situation changed significantly by the last night, if such an observation was just in the first place; by this time, Blood's posse had coagulated into a single entity, dedicated to passion, drive, abandon and virtuosity.

The concept was ostensibly simple: take a conventional blues repertoire—songs heard in countless manifestations down the decades—and subvert this material via a slightly skewed interpretation that breathed fresh fire into the toothless maw of the rocking-chair stoop-veteran. The first step towards this hotwiring process was inducting Living Colour's guitarist, Vernon Reid, in the position of deputy bandleader and musical organizer. At the opening of each set, he would introduce each player as they were given a meaty portion of bars for self-expression. Oft-times, with the pumped-up volume levels and frequent choice of distortion as a conduit towards the ears of the audience, it would be fleetingly challenging to discern who might be starting up their solo. A communal howling, scorching, bleeding swoop would make Reid's electric guitar sound like the psychedelic wah-wah-ing of Charlie Burnham's rugged violin, which could, in turn, fool our delicate ears that it was a smoldering harmonica gush, courtesy of David Barnes, whose rusty reeds might impersonate the wheeling rush of Leon Grunebaum's Hammond organ. Absolutely nothing sounded similar to Greenbaum's small electronic lap-device, which looked like a chance meeting on an operating table between a keytar and a computer keyboard.

The resultant group sound was as dirty as an unwashed fat possum, yet as slick as an imagined Mahavishnu Orchestra tribute to Muddy Waters and as smokin' as Ornette Coleman onstage with Jimi Hendrix. And this was before the first number of each set had climaxed. Further excitement was imminent, of course, as Ulmer himself entered the ring for the greater bulk of the two Sunday shows. As Reid was the dedicated audience communicator, Ulmer decided to hunker down and play, putting all of his expression into his raw, gruffly-conversational vocals and spiraling guitar statements, themselves also imbued with the gift of speech. The harmolodic experience couldn't be denied, and it was particularly thrilling to hear ballsy blues solos shot out of an avant canon.

Ulmer was a master of dislocated phrasing, both vocally and on guitar. Where Reid was the streamlined rocker—a fuzz sculptor in the post-Hendrix tradition—Ulmer had the unpredictable rhythms of a Lightnin' Hopkins, slashing his strings with a splayed hand, sensitively deployed when required, but capable of emphatic arpeggios when he needed to sting. His constructions were like rusted iron tendrils, twisted into surprising shapes.

The Memphis Blood bunch's great strength was to deliver the blues in its uncut strength, but to frame that rawness with a cuttingly-arranged tightness, perpetually sustaining audience attentiveness over two full sets of generous length. This was partly due to the high level of individualist soloing between the frontline members; in fact, the so-called rhythm section also joined the official frontline as they, too, soloed with a competitive complexity.

As the second set neared its peak, Ulmer introduced a stronger element of improvised informality, inviting his old collaborator, Queen Esther, onstage to sing Jimmy Reed's "Bright Lights, Big City." Even though they rambled through a spontaneous version, by this stage of the evening it was beneficial to reap the rewards of some heated looseness. As Ulmer took his bows and left the stage, Reid led a Sunday night gospel clap-along, sending the audience home with an energized glow. This was not the blues as normally savored, but rather the blues as we might prefer to hear them, in an idealized fantasy land of unpredictable fusions.

The Hot Club Of Cowtown
Joe's Pub
March 28, 2011


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