Friday, October 31, 2008

Blues For Food Fest 2008

Oh, Yeah!!!

The 17th Annual Blues For Food Fest is due to hit Shakespeare's Pub on November 16th. Trust me on this--if you are anywhere within driving range of 14129 Memorial Drive in Houston, Texas, you must not miss some of the finest music that the city has to offer in a non-stop, kick booty, blues and roots rockin' show that'll satisfy and saturate your soul. You will have some kind of fine time and the entry fee is to show up with non-perishable food items and/or cash donations that will help the Houston Food Bank replenish their supplies and feed those in need and while you're there you can feed yourself on the free BBQ that'll be on the house.

My good friend Sonny Boy Terry has been involved in promoting this fine event, in one way or another, since its inception and the quality of talent donating their time over the years has been amazing. I first met the likes of Jimmy 'T-99' Nelson, Joe 'Guitar' Hughes, Texas Johnny Brown, Grady Gaines, Calvin Owens and Pete Mayes through the years at these gatherings. The stars have always shone for this event. Ya never know who will turn up, but I do know that all these cats will be there, according to this press release:

1:30pm-Steve the Chief, 2:30pm-Mojofromopolis, 3:30pm-TC and the Cannonballs, 4:15pm-Don Kesee and the Bluesmasters, 5pm-John McVey and the Stumble w/Marie English, 5:45pm-Texas Johnny Brown and the Quality Blues Band, 6:30pm-Sonny Boy Terry w/Little Ray, 7:15pm-Trudy Lynn, 8pm-The Mighty Org, 8:45pm-Snit's Dog and Pony Show, 9:30pm-1:30am-Spare Time Murray and the Honeymakers' World Famous Blues Jam and Open Mic featuring Little Screamin' Kenny.


Hey, this will be a walloping good show. If you've never seen Trudy Lynn, then you've never seen anyone upset the house in the way that she will. There is going to be some kind of cranking great music coming off Memorial Drive on the 16th. Anyway--

Friday, October 24, 2008

Texas Blues

Texas Blues
The Rise of a
Contemporary Sound

Alan Govenar
Texas A&M University Press
College Station

John & Robin Dickson
Series In Texas Music
Center for Texas Music History
Texas State University
Greg Hartman & Gregg Andrews
General Editors

I was about to sit down and add a bit or two to the ol' blog here, when my wife came in the front door with a UPS delivery from that trumps anything that I was about to write and that everyone reading this blog needs to go out and buy (or push a few keystrokes and buy). Now, having had my copy for less than a couple of hours, this won't be much of a review--I just know how great of a book that it is going to be for anyone that relishes the blues.

At my side is a copy of Alan Govenar's Texas Blues-The Rise of a Contemporary Sound. It is sort of his continuing saga that began with his Living Texas Blues and Meeting the Blues: The Rise of the Texas Sound. With over 400 photographs and at 599 pages, it offers us a marvelous culmination of his research that began over 25 years ago. There ain't much that he hasn't managed to uncover as far a tracking down the blues from its beginnings in the state up to interviews with blues artists that are taking the stage tonight. The key word here is interviews. These are stories told by the artists themselves, either in interviews conducted by the author or collected from others and reproduced for our enjoyment and education.

He travels from the early blues of East Texas and the Deep Ellum of Dallas, through the progression of electric blues, the importance that the saxmen played on the creation of the sound, the influence of the state's musicians on the West Coast, and along the way we find out oodles about musicians from San Antonio, Austin, DFW, Houston and the Golden Triangle of Beaumont, Port Arthur and Orange.

I'm ecstatic that a couple of darned fine musicians (both of whom I consider friends) are getting their due. It's about time that a major publication is giving a bow to Sonny Boy Terry's importance to the Houston blues scene for the last 20 some-odd years. As much as I know about Sonny Boy (because I've written about he and his music back in the day), his interview gave me a slice of his history with the city and the bluesmen that he hung with that I didn't know. Sonny Boy's current guitarist and one of this state's finest, Little Ray Ybarra, gets to tell his tale also and it's a fascinating read. Didn't know that his given name was Alphonso. Next time I see him, I'll have to call him Little Alphonso. I reviewed his band's CDs back in the day and they're somewhere, in the meantime go to his myspace site under my links and check out what real blues guitar playing is all about.

It's good to also see Frank Robinson's story in print. Blues musicologist, record company owner, musician, etc.., Tary Owens pulled him from obscurity in Crockett, Texas (my birthplace) and got him featured at the first couple of Navasota Blues Festivals in honor of Mance Lipscomb and also provided Frank with his first recording opportunity. Since Lightnin' grew up just down the road in Centerville and played Crockett jukes frequently back in the day, the younger Robinson often sat and picked with him and picked up his style, his and Frankie Lee Sims, who also frequented the area. Listening to him play was like witnessing a blues time warp kind of thing. His inclusion at that first 'fest was a real treat and got him back into the game. His inclusion in this book shows just how deep Govenar got into the outback of Texas blues.

I'll come clean and admit that I knew that Sonny Boy and Little Ray would be included in Govenar's book, but it was just an added carrot to entice me into getting my hands on it. I did read their interviews before I sat down today and I may not get back to the blog for awhile because I plan on spending some time reading the words of the legends (and those not so legendary, but just as vital) presented within this massive example of Texas blues history. So, I'm gonna stop and read a bit and quit hitting these keys for a spell.

I'm not sure who John & Robin Dickson are, but hats off to them and the Center for Texas Music History at my Alma Mater, Texas State University (I might have to forgive the regents for changing the schools name now.)


P.S.--Update (10/27/08) Quibbles: Now that I read a few more pages of the book, I think I should pass along what irritates me about it. The value of the contents of this volume outweigh my peeves by a long shot, but I think there are some things that could have made the book even better:
1. Better editing--In the table of contents, Doyle Bramhall II is listed as the entry on page 521. Turn to page 521 and it is titled Doyle Bramhall III with a very nice photo of Doyle Bramhall II and Charlie Sexton from their Arc Angels days. There are three additional pictures of he and Charlie together (one of which is erroneously mis-labeled). Is the interview about Doyle Bramhall III or II? No, it is about his dad, Doyle Bramhall, there is no III. Well, the table of contents had it right as far as photos go and there is one photo of Doyle Sr. from back in the day in Dallas. And speaking of photos, I realize that with over 400 photos that the real work comes with writing the captions. There are a few that could have identified the subjects a bit better or a bit more correctly.

2. A little more introduction to some of the artist to let the reader know why they count and maybe why they are included. I know enough about a good number of the musicians highlighted in this book, that the interview suffices, but the novice blues fans could benefit with a bit more about the who, what, when, and where. I'm clueless about a few of the folks here, so a bit more info, please.

3. A little updated information on some of the artists that are still with us would have been nice, especially if the interview was from the '80s. This again would be of great benefit to the novice blues reader who just might get the idea that Jimmy Vaughn and Kim Wilson's contributions of any importance to the genre ended in 1987.

I'll stop now, because I don't want to give anyone the idea that I don't and won't treasure this book as being an important addition to the world of blues music. It is well worth the price and adding to your collection of blues literature. Anyway--

Friday, October 10, 2008

Happy Birthday....To Me

I'm going to keep this short because I'm pretending that today is my birthday. Yesterday was actually my birthday, but it turned out to be less than enjoyable. I had to go under the knife for what has become a frequent routine for me in recent years--the removal of a basal cell carcinoma. My skin doesn't like the sun, but I spent a good deal of my time as a teenager on the beach and a great deal of my time as an adult working summers on a workover oil rig--so, my skin is in full retaliation and this one was on the left side of my nose, which will match the scar on the right side of my nose from the same procedure. Not gonna go into a lot of detail, but yesterday was not fun and was a great deal more painful than my past trips to the derm doc. So, forget yesterday. My mom did bring out a great chocolate cake and gave me money and my wife did hold my hand for the bad trip and feel sorry for me and gave me an Adirondack chair for the front porch (which I'm enjoying today).

Anyway, I didn't go through my usual routine of ordering some kind of blues so that it would arrive by the 9th. The pending operation just sidetracked me a bit, so yesterday I decided to download a bit from iTunes--since posting about such kinda got me looking around again and since it would appear on my harddrive in an instant, then it made it sorta birthdayish.

I'd had my eye on the Texas Northside Kings for some time now, mainly because Johnny Moeller and Mike Keller were both a piece of the fabric for another Dialtone Records revue that follows their Texas Southside Kings and Texas Eastside Kings. Where the latter two showcased unsung veterans of the music, this one here focuses on some of the young bucks (and buckette) of the genre. Joining Moeller and Keller are Nick Curran, Seth Walker, Shawn Pittman and Eve Monsees with Houston keyboard veteran Earl Gilliam thrown into the mix (Dialtone dialed up a winner with a Gilliam CD a couple of years ago). All those present have been adding there touches with their own releases and on a multitude of other artist's recordings. Moeller and Keller stepped in to the role of Fabulous T-Bird guitarists when Curran stepped out. Walker and Pittman both have garnered the respect of most everyone around the Lone Star state with both their guitar and vocal skills. Monsees has gained a reputation around Austin with her band the Exiles (formed with ex-T-Bird drummer Mike Buck) and as being quite a butt rockin' guitarist and a heck of a singer.

So, there's a bunch of guitaring going on here, but it is not at the expense of the songs that they cover. This is OLD SCHOOL stuff. They show their reverence for the R&B, Blues and Rock 'n' Roll from four and five decades ago as they offer up covers from Lazy Lester, Elmore James, Howlin' Wolf, Little Richard, etc...and it sounds oh, so authentic and sweet. Keller gets the Red Hot Mama going with a wicked slide tone, Curran gets down, way down and dirty with the Wolf's I'll Be Around with some wicked distortion and gruffed up vocals, Monsees belts out some Magic Sam, Seth Walker nails down sweet ballad vocals on Since I Fell For You, Gilliam and Moeller (he sings one too) bounce off each other on the Junior Walker sounding Radio Groove with a exquisite sax from the mighty Spot Barnett. Oh, did I say there were some guitarist on this release? Yep, and they do be slinging it in a tasty sort of way. If you like it done the way it was once done, then get this.

I didn't know much about San Pedro Slim when I downloaded his release, Barhoppin', but I had read favorable reviews and I knew he was a harmonica man and that Rick Holmstrom was on board as guitarist and producer, so I clicked on it and sucked it into my machine. This is pretty much traditional West Coast/Chicago style blues and is a fairly enjoyable ride. Anyone who is a fan of Holmstrom's blusiest guitar work (such as from his Johnny Dyer and Rod Piazza days) will certainly enjoy what he gets going here. He is quite intent on keeping the tonal variety quotient up by summoning some of the heaviest reverb ladened plucking on one tune and then the deepest distortion possible on another and then swinging to and fro the rest of the way. If you know Rick, then you know the trick. I think he keeps the purist in us and him in mind and doesn't flip out into left field, as he's wont to do on some of his solo stuff.

Well, what about Slim? He has a lot in common with James Harman, both vocally, harmonically and lyrically. Maybe a little too much in common. He sounds like he is trying to sound like Harman. It's tough to do that without coming off sounding like a second rate version. He writes with the same hell bent for humor lyrics and comes up with some really nice ideas. Even his amplified harp tone has a Harman quality on a couple of the cuts, but Slim's chops are not quite equal. If I wasn't such a Harman fan and didn't know his music well, then I'd really enjoy Slim's singing and writing a lot more and it may grow on me, heck, I've only listened to the songs once. Back in the day a bit, before I realized what separated the men from the boys on blues harp, I would really enjoy his playing also. It's not a bad release of trad blues music, but I would get it for Holmstrom's playing. I may be over-analyzing and he may not be influenced by Harman in the least, but I think that San Pedro Slim will progress once he develops more of a style of his own.

Since I had new birthday money, I did order up a couple of CDs the traditional way through Bluebeat Music. They had a copy of Johnny Young's Complete Blue Horizon recordings. Young is one of those few blues artist that could be considered an original, since he took the mandolin and applied it to the format. Of course, he wasn't the first and not the only one to do so, but in the context of a Chicago blues band it was indeed unique. I'm not a huge fan of Englishman Mike Vernon's Blue Horizon label, but a number of his releases are valuable snippets of blues history as it was being made--this being a prime example and I also wanted to hear what harpman Paul Oscher was putting down with Johnny Young's band. I also ran across a band called The Special 20s and since that is also the name of a Hohner harmonica, I figured that the band is led by a harp player and it is. I ordered a copy of their second album called Morry Sochat and The Special 20s just to hear what some new bloods are doing with Chicago blues. Anyway--'Nuff for Now.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008


I got into the ipod thang relatively late in the game. When I finally got around to getting my hands on a nano version, very shortly afterwards they dropped the price by half because they upgraded the gizmos and doubled the capacity and added video capabilities and such. I have a tendency to drag my feet when it comes to jumping into new technology. It took me forever to buy a cd player, but my hand was forced on that account because records and tapes faded away.

I do enjoy visiting the iTunes site and seeing what's available as far a blues goes and adding a tune here and there to my library. For the most part, I've kept it aimed at blues harp tunes because I've found the ipod great for wood shedding the harp skills and for taking my mind off mindless exercise (two activities I'd like to stick to and increase throughout retirement). I'm not about to give up buying CDs. There is just something about holding the product from the artist in my hands and reading the liner notes and such that has a satisfaction quotient that searching for the same and downloading it on a computer can't meet for me(this is where I miss the ol' LP version the most). I want to know which musicians are adding what to each cut and who's playing the cowbell. I really don't trust this ipod stuff. I'm thinking POOF! and it all disappears. I've downloaded very few full albums, unless it is something that I don't have and can't find. I have transferred a few of my CDs over to the ipod in order to steal a lick or two, but for the most part I look around for some songs that really have strong, toneful harp from the heart and that I don't have a copy of in another format.

Okay, I'm just going to occasionally throw out and comment on some of the artists or tunes that I have in captivity on my little friend and share it with those that care to read it.

1. Jimmy Rogers--I grabbed some songs off of his Gold Tailed Bird album that is woefully underrated. Leon Russell's Shelter Records was doing us all a favor signing up and recording bluesmen in early '70s such as Rogers and Freddie King back in the day. In fact, this was Rogers return to recording after getting out of the scene for quite some time. Sure, these albums suffer in comparison to the their classic recordings of the '50s and '60s and sure some rock icons had their fingers on the product, but I think, that in retrospect, Shelter put out some good stuff. The Aces (Little Walter's old bandmates Fred Below, Dave and Louis Myers) and Freddie King are on board for this release, so how can you go wrong? The real reason that I downloaded tunes from this album was due to the harp blowing of Bill Lupkin (whose CD I mentioned in an earlier post). I wanted to hear what he was doing back in the day with one of the masters which helped define his reputation. He was just a young pup in '72, but had his chops down. If you don't any Jimmy Rogers, get his Chess stuff first or Ludella (with Kim Wilson) on the Antones label.

2. Little Walter--I listen to something by Little Walter every day, because he's just the greatest blues harp player that ever walked the planet. I downloaded the entire Confessin' The Blues. I mentioned in one of my blues history posts that this was the first LP that I ever had of Little Walter's stuff and that the liner notes were in Italian. I was just going to download Rocker and Rock Bottom, because I had listened to this record many, many, many times, but I wanted those couple of instrumentals on the pod for a little practice. I did that, but then went back and bought the whole enchilada. Great balls of fire, here!

3. Tad Robinson--This guy was made for my ipod--as far as cherry picking the songs that I like the best (namely those with his harp in his mouth). See, Robinson is one of those fantastic harp guys, with tone to die for, that puts out albums that highlight their vocal chops more than their harp and that's great if that's what they feel like doing. Darrell Nulisch, John Nemeth and Curtis Salgado fit into this same category. These cats can ALL sing their butts off--and pull some serious stuff from the harmonica. A lot of what they like to get across vocally is more in the soul/blues bag and well, that just ain't my cup of tea. I don't care who keeps saying that it is all blues to them; it ain't, but if that's what smokes their shorts, okie dokie. What I like, though, is when they get down and dirty with the blues--harmonically and vocally. So, the ipod does its duty for me here--as I pull up Robinson's work with Dave Specter and the Bluebirds Live In Europe. Whoa! The boy do get down with the harp business on chestnuts like Eddie Taylor's Bad Boy and Little Walter's It's Too Late Brother. Dave Specter can really swing the axe on this fine set of live stuff. From there, I just took a swing through Tad's catalog of work available on iTunes and snatched off his harp blowing numbers--all of it very good.

3. James Harman--James is one of my main men. There ain't too many dudes that can write a blues song as well as Harman does and then sing it and then add one hell of a tonally righteous harmonica to it. He doesn't blow harp on every song on his albums either, but when he doesn't, it's because he's letting someone like Hollywood Fats or Kid Ramos kick butt on guitar to carry the song--and it's all blues, so all is forgiven. I've got most of everything that the man has recorded and some of his finest is some of his first, such as, Extra Napkins, Mo' Napkins and Strickly Live in '85 (one of his finest of the fine). I let some of his Blacktop recordings get by me and then the label went out of business, so I snagged a few of those that I'd missed back in the day and they're classics. I mean, how can you pass up a song that's narrated by a man who's left for dead by his lover on the hard floor and all he can feel is the freezing air conditioner and all he can see is the knob saying HI COOL--which also is the song's chorus. Cool.

4. Watermelon Slim--Now I have one of Slim's CDs and like it a lot. Some doubt just how legitimate his Hillbilly Bluesman persona can possibly be, given that he has a degree in literature and can quote Shakesphere off the cuff. He sounds darned authentic, so if his schtick ain't real, then he's a good actor. He's got a rough, gruff vocal style that promotes the Okie from Muskogee blues thang well. He does put his academic background to work in his songwriting skills. He's a bit of a countryfied Rick Estrin as he twists the humor threads of life experiences from driving trucks, dealing with check bouncing, juke joint women, and laboring the hard way. He works with a rock solid band of journeymen musicians and applies his skills both with the slide guitar and the Hohner diatonic. He is fairly formidable at both. I'll probably grab another of his CDs, but in the meantime, I went through his stuff on iTunes and pulled his harp playing tunes over to my ipod. Pretty hopped up ride.

5. Moreland and Arbuckle--These guys are a close second to Collard Greens and Gravy (mentioned back a bit) or maybe an American version of Collard Greens and Gravy as far as stripping down the music to its bare essentials. Anyway, what these young Kansas cats are doing is a Mississippi hill country/Delta stomping kinda blues thing with harmonica, guitar and sometimes drums. It is raw and it is real The first examples I downloaded was from Moreland, Arbuckle and Floyd (Floyd being the drummer) called Floyd's Market which was a mix of original stuff and covers of such artists as RL Burnsides, Mississippi Fred McDowell and even Little Walter. Aaron Moreland can get a nasty, distorted vibe going on with his slipping, slide guitar and its really nice to hear a young (or younger) dude like Dustin Arbuckle quote some of the masters of the blues harp. He has his chops down pretty good and even pulls off a nice rendition of Juke, which is far from being just a slavish copy of Little Walter's masterpiece. These guys are rawkus in their attitude towards the music and play it with wild abandon. They be stompin' on it! I also pulled some stuff from their latest, called 1861, which has some great cuts on it. Their sonic aura does wear on me after awhile, so an ipod shuffle mix is the right place for them for me.

Anyway--'Nuff for now. I'll share my snippets from time to time.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Harpin' Microphones

Anyone who plays amplified blues harmonica has been down some of the same roads that I've mentioned on this blog. I'd say that most of us went looking for THE amplifier to give us THE tone way before we were ready to uphold our end of the bargain by producing much of that with simply the sound that we made with the harmonica pressed to our lips. But, no, we knew we would sound much better by cupping up a microphone and sucking the notes through a tube amp. Fact is, I didn't sound much better, but just sounded like a louder me--which was a far cry from the gnarly bluesman I was attempting to sound like. Way down the road, I eventually found that matching my much improved acoustic tone, with the right amp and the right microphone came a lot closer to the sound that floated around in my head. I did say closer.

Back in the day, even though I knew MY tone wasn't there yet, I was hell bent to get my amplified act together. I mentioned that my first amplifier was far from being harp friendly, but little did I have a clue at the time. I just knew that I needed a microphone to go with it. I had been reading up on amps and mics and stuff, written by folks like Pete Sheridan and Tom Ellis. They were very knowledgeable and gave good descriptions of what to expect with various mic configurations and in Sheridan's case, which mics were used by our heroes such as James Cotton, Little Walter or Big Walter. I found that most of the examples discussed, and that were on the market, were out of my price range.

So, I experienced a bit of excitement when I stumbled across a box of microphones in a storeroom at the high school where I taught. My principal agreed with me when I told him that maybe they should go home with me, since no one had a use for them. The mics, pictured above, are from left to right: Shure 535, Shure 545SD, Turner 254, Shure 565SD and at the bottom, an Electro Voice 630. I was most excited by the presence of the 545, a type maybe used by Little Walter and similar to a model used by Paul Butterfield. I had also read that Turner and Electro Voice mics had their places in blues harp history. None of the microphones were useful out of the box (hah!). They had no cords, except for the Turner which was a desktop, push button model that certainly wouldn't plug into my amp. The 535 had a piece of a frayed cord attached, but that was that. So, I knew that I had a little work to do that I knew nothing about.

I began my butchery by attacking the Turner desktop and cutting the base off of it and attaching the leads of a mic cord to it and by golly it worked. I could blow some notes and hear it blast out through my amplifier. I knew enough at this point to know that the crystal element that the mic had in it was a type suited to harp playing. It still sounded like Ricky Bush and not Little Walter, but gosh it was loud and gave me my first exposure to FEEDBACK (which is another of those shared experiences that us amplified guys deal with controlling--another story, there). I packed it up with my amp and hauled it down to my first jam and blew the blues, dude. Jam leaders, Neil Kulhanek, Robert Zientek and Sam Murski encouraged me all night, but I knew that I had a ways to go.

After being successful with getting something out of the Turner, I turned my attention to the Electro Voice 630. Try as I might, though, I couldn't get it to reproduce a sound. I pretty much boogered it up fairly well in my quest to get it working and gave up and never got back to it. Might try to resurrect it someday.

I took the Shure 545SD and 535 to Tom's Sales and Service, which was operated at the time by Tom Brinkmeyer. He was from the old school and was one of the only techs in town who could work on tube type amplifiers and such. He ordered a Shure cord that would work on the 545 & 565 and he hard wired a cord to the 535. The 535 turned out to be a super hot, high impedance mic that proved to be way touchy for harp playing. Both the 545 and 535 were wired to low impedance, but I had bought an impedance matching transformer and cord to work around that. The 545 & 565 sonically blasted the Turner away. Only then did I really just how really weak the Turner crystal element was in comparison. I started using the 545 at jams and sit-ins, but it was a just not gritty sounding enough for me. It did become my main axe, though. Since these early days, I discovered how to change the impedance in both those microphones to high and the 545 will overdrive a tube amp very well. Not with the same tonal palette of an Astatic MC151 element or a Shure Controlled Reluctance/Magnetic cartridge, but with its own flavorful qualities. It is harder to seal off in a cup with a harp, but Stephen Schneider passed along the idea of using a bit of foamed pipe insulation around the mic and it does work. The 565 is okay, but does have quite the same magic as the 545 does.

Since I still didn't really have my tonal chops together and I hadn't discovered how to make the 545 better, I'll have to get around to the Crystal Balls story next time out. Anyway--