Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Writing The Lowdown Blues

To me the best blues songs are those that really tell a story; sorta flash fiction if you will-or autobiographically related. Of course, most of the time it's hard to tell whether the tale spinner lived it, rubbed up against it, or imagined the whole thing. My favorite blues-smiths write such convincing slice of life moments that leaves me with the impression that they come from personal experience. Well, anyway, here's some guys that I feel conjure up the blues lyrics best and blow a mean blues harp while they're at it.

Sonny Boy Williamson II (Rice Miller)--Hands down, he's the best at the game. Whether he's lamenting having two fine chicks that live too close together, being caught by a woman's husband, being put out in nine below temperatures by his baby, or feeling the need to warn his woman to keep her hands out of his pockets; the rascal knew how to frame a blues song around those moments with loads of humor on display.

Rick Estrin--The first time I heard Little Charlie and the Nightcats, I thought of them as a novelty act, or a band that worked in modern day "hokum" blues, like Tampa Red did back in the day. Then, I really listened to them and realized the genius of Estrin's lyrical talent. His highly original songs instigate, investigate, and conjoles us to appreciate big women, to dump that chump, to understand that his money's green too, to accept that he ain't lyin', or to quit bragging. It doesn't matter if he's talking about poor Tarzan, his next ex-wife, or being twisted; he paints a vivid picture of life as he knows it and most of the time with tongue planted firmly in cheek. Who else would possibly describe being worn out and beat down as feeling like they were circling the drain.

James Harman--Runs neck and neck with Estrin in the department of originality and cleverness. Harman's songs probably come as close to a short story as one will get in the blues, and many of his albums are collections of those tales with a thematic element--life of a motel king, gambler, fine bbq aficionado, dangerous gentleman, and all-'round raconteur.
Juke Boy Bonner--No one captured Houston street life during the turbulent '60s like Weldon "Juke Boy" Bonner did while playing guitar, racked harmonica, and drums. He sang about struggles in Houston, about life being a nightmare, staying the hell off of Lyons avenue, and going back to the country (perhaps to his birthplace in Bellville).

Lightnin' Hopkins--I ran a bit of a review of Alan Grovenar's bio of Po' Lighntin' a few posts back and mentioned just how much it pointed out how influential he was, and is. Juke Boy certainly learned a trick or two from the Bard of The Third Ward. Ol' Sam spun topical tales at the drop of a hat, singing about hurricanes, twisters blowing his house away, every woman he courted, any man who done him wrong, mojo hands, good whiskey, bad whiskey, etc...Few human beings have yet to match the sheer output of his blues poetry.

Jimmy Reed--Gotta include the high and lonesome troubadour on any list mentioning blues songs. His songs were simple tales, but he got to the point with his stories of running, hiding, peeping, carrying insurance for a broken heart, dealing with the Big Bossman, while lamenting that bright lights took his baby away. His music found its way into a crossover market and represented some of the first blues many of us white boys heard back then.

Slim Harpo--Ditto for Slim Harpo. He had love if you wanted, was a self-professed King Bee, and quite the back scratcher. Those English fellows, led by Mick & Keef, gave his songs worldwide exposure. His grooves were filled with swamp gas. Lots of belt buckles were polished when he rained in his heart.

Charley Patton--He didn't blow harp, but certainly influenced Howlin' Wolf, who did. Patton was the banty rooster that he sang about and put a show for his audience, who could relate to him recalling high water everywhere, dry wells, running from the law, moon shining, saddling up his mare, and talking 'bout a spoonful. Patton had seeped deep into Howlin' Wolf's soul by the time he hit Chicago and started churning out hits based on songs by the "Father of the Delta Blues".

Willie Dixon--Had to include the big man. Can't begin to add up the number of songs that Dixon wrote for a stable full of harp players at Chess records. Everybody and their sisters, uncles, cousins or friends who play the blues play something written by Willie Dixon; most likely at every gig.  I don't believe he wrote what he lived or live what he wrote, but just wrote for the "hook" and he always seemed to come up with one. He wrote a few sappy songs, but most of what he fed Chess became instant blues classics.

Howlin' Wolf--Might as well throw in Big Foot Chester, because when he was doing Patton and before Dixon began pushing songs on him, he was already moanin' at midnight and wanting off the killing floor with some of the deepest blues ever put to record.

Sonny Boy Williamson I (John Lee Williamson)--I can't think of any harmonica player who hasn't covered a song by SBW I singing about a little school girl, coming to see him early in the morning, or getting sloppy drunk. He had quite the prolific blues pen and set the tone for harmonica players to follow.

Monday, April 18, 2011

"She's A Body Mover"

My heading was Doug Sahm's original title for one of his biggest hit tunes, "She's About A Mover", according to Jan Reid's biography of the musical chameleon, entitled Texas Tornado: The Times and Music of Doug Sahm. Seems that the "Crazy Cajun" of record producers and all-around rascal, Huey Meaux felt that disc jockeys would nix playing it on the air back in the '60s for being too provocative, so he had them change the wording a bit. Story goes that Sahm turned to his partner in chimes, Augie Meyers, on the bandstand one night to comment on an attractive young lady moving and grooving on the dance floor and the resulting song put he and the Sir Douglas Quintet on the fast track to stardom.

I know, what am I doing writing up Doug Sahm on a blog about the blues? Hmmm...because I want to. Could be. Or because he's a fellow Texan. Maybe. Might just be that the man could play the hell out of blues like nobody's business when the mood struck, which was more often that lots of folks realize. Might be that I saw Doug Sahm play numerous times back in the day (name of the blog by the way) and he always threw down amazing performances. His music was Texas music, and he captured it in a bottle and made a potent brew from his mixture of country, blues, rock, and conjunto. Couldn't pigeon hole this fire brand of a musical genius. As he said himself, "I don't stay in one bag". Jan Reid does a great job of putting this cool cat in a bag long enough for us to get a better idea of what made the man tick. Along for the ride is son Shawn Sahm, who knew his old man better than anybody. I saw Shawn play with him at a packed Satellite Lounge in Houston one night and Doug allowed his offspring to shred the guitar a time or two. That's Shawn pictured with him on the book cover, taken from a vintage cover of Rolling Stone magazine.

For those wanting a taste of Doug's bluesiest, my favorites are Hell of A Spell, Juke Box Music, and the live Last Great Texas Blues Band. Track 'em down. Of course, he probably gained his most fame in his Tex-Mex band (he invented that style IMHO), The Texas Tornadoes with Freddy Fender, Flaco Jimenez, and Augie Meyers. Reid's bio covers this transition and all those preceding, all the way back to his child prodigy days as a whiz bang triple neck steel guitarist in San Antonio country bands, through his move out to California, and back again to rule as Austin's Mayor of Music. He was the predecessor of the "Cosmic Cowboy". According to Reid, though, he was quite the wandering spirit and didn't stay still very long; even if it was to travel from Texas to California just to get a haircut. His moves were as unpredictable as his music it seems.

I knew that Doug Sahm was quite the baseball fan. He'd mention how the Astros were doing or had been doing at his gigs, but I didn't know that he turned down an offered role in the movie American Graffiti because the shooting schedule would coincide with baseball's spring training, which found him parked in Florida for that annual ritual. Plenty of tales like that one pepper the bio, which takes us on all the ups and downs throughout Sahm's life. One thing is apparent, musically he never stayed down very long. He'd just re-invent himself. Reid takes us along for a ride of these twists and turns that Sahm made, sometimes at breakneck speed, and it's an enjoyable journey for the reader.

He definitely could play anything that had strings on it, along with piano, and horns. I'd imagine that he could break out and wail the blues on a harmonica if he had a mind to do so. Readers here, who are not familiar with Sahm's music, should certainly check him out. Beware, though, one album does not define who this man was because the music didn't define the man, he defined the music and mashed it up to suit him, and a legion of fans along the way.

This book's been out for over a year and I knew not that it was, but I happened to be fiddling around on Amazon one day and they told me that I since liked this, then I'd like that. They were right, so being the impatient type, I downloaded it to my newfangled Kindle and now I'm sharing my thoughts here. I've read quite of bit of Jan Reid's writings over the years from Texas Monthly magazine and his take on The Rise of Redneck Rock last year (which had been out for awhile, too). He knows how to cover the scene. Great read for music lovers.

Texas Tornado: The Times and Music of Doug Sahm
By Jan Reid with Shawn Sahm
University of Texas Press

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Bet On The Blues

Of course, most blues harp fans know that Paul Oscher's blues validation ticket was punched once Muddy Waters tapped him to fill the harmonica chair in his band. He certainly had big shoes to fill, following in the footsteps of Little Walter, Junior Wells, James Cotton, and Big Walter Horton. Muddy hired him on the spot, after showing up at a gig at the Apollo without a harp player and allowed Osher to sit in for a few songs. Oscher played with him from that 1967 gig through 1972. A big deal was made of the fact that Oscher was the first white musician to be in his band. I don't think that Muddy thought in terms of black and white, but just that this white boy could blow his brand of blues.

Oscher hung his hat out as Brooklyn Slim back in the seventies and today carries on the blues tradition mainly as a solo act with a racked harmonica and guitar; sometimes with keyboards and melodica thrown into the mix.. He manages to get something out of his harp that eludes most racked harmonica players-that nasty ol' amplified tone. I've heard that he refuses to divulge the secrets of the contraption that he uses in order to maintain that essential element to the good ol' ChiTown sound.

He'll probably refuse to divulge his Three Card Monty techniques also, but he does share a tale about Luther Boy "Snake" Johnson introducing him to Little Walter for the first time and the warning to Walter to not play cards with this boy. That humorous narrative opens the title track from Oscher's newest release, Bet On The Blues. It also carries an "explicit language" warning for Osher's colorful choice of words decribing a classic moment in time. And that's all it is, a narrative and not a song cut. It is also one of only two original tracks on the album, but he wonderfully covers a variety of artists and a variety of styles, the majority of them being deep blues. The biggest surprise is his cover of Thelonius Monks' "Round Midnight" with Kid Andersen on standup bass and Willie "Big Eyes" Smith brushing the drum skins. The song exposes his lack of vocal range for this jazzy composition, but he makes up for it with the deep welled vibe set up by his big butt bass harmonica.

The "Kid" and "Big Eyes" hang with on few of the cuts, such as the biographical (IMHO) "Robin Lee". His dirty, nasty distorted guitar sets the stage for a low down woeful blues tale of the pains of love. His vocals match up better with this gutbucket style of blues and the listener can feel the pangs of depression in his voice. The same musical cohorts, along with Bob Welsh on piano, take Freddy King for a short ride (1:57). He slips the slide on and wails on "Slideaway (After Hide Away) and it rips. The highlight for me is Welsh getting down on the ivories.

Osher obviously is satisfying the blues harp aficionados in the audience with his "live" solo rendition of Little Walter's "Juke".  Of course, he's got that sorta stuff down pat and it is apparent that he got some glee from breaking the Master's piece out on stage. This is one of several live cuts mixed in with the studio stuff just mentioned.

He continues in the Little Walter vein to things with "Mean Old World". It's actually a T-Bone Walker song, but when Little Walter transformed into Chicago blues mode, he changed enough that it is credited to him. Johnny "Ace" Acerno and Per Hansen support him on bass and drums, respectively. Oscher pulls out all the stops by sucking the harp tones out of his harp for all it's worth. He throws down some Muddy type slide licks into the mix.

"Jesus, Won't You Come by Here",  "River Jordan", and Mississippi John Hurt's "Lisa Jane-God's Unchanging Hand" spins some spiritual music into the programs mix and adds a bit of contrast to the "Devil's Music", which he keeps crankin' out by cover his ex-boss's "Rock Me" and "Sad Sad Day". He pulls up a darned good approximation of the unique guitar tones that Muddy Waters innovated. He's also pretty darned impressive with a chromatic harp in this neckrack; illustrated by his take on George "Harmonica" Smith's "Bues in the Dark".

So, Bet On The Blues represents a fine additon to the catalog of a veteran bluesman, who cut his teeth with the best that ever played it. For some fine reading and listening, go over to http://www.pauloscher.com/ He's got some great photos of his travels of the blues over there.

Bet On The Blues
Paul Osher
VJM CD1004

Friday, April 8, 2011

Blues In The Night

No, literally, I was bushwacked and blindsided with a body slam and a kidney punch last night. Here I've been touting my excitement with getting River Bottom Blues published and mentioning with the last post that my cover art had been assigned and how neat seeing it would be. That all went down the proverbial toilet first with an e-mail from the chairman of the publishing company stating that he was resigning, but that his other three partners would carry on as usual. Whew! Then I clicked over to our author forum to see what was what and a message from one of the remaining three said "no sweat", that they'd pick up the slack and get down to business. Whew 2! Before crawling into bed, I checked our forum once more and there was a message from one of the other three stating that, no, THAT'S it for us, that they are closing up shop and going about their lives with other ventures and projects. She wished us all well. End of story.

Soooo, it's back on the submission trail to find someone who has the same passion for my story as these folks did. A story that I finished writing over two years ago. Man, this has been like wading in quick sand and then the rope I grab to pull up on dry land snaps. Oh, well. What the hell. Time to grab root and growl.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Murdering The Blues

Felt the need to drop a bit of an update on my progress as an author of crime novels. River Bottom Blues is chugging through the publishing queue heading for what looks like a landing sometime between September and November of 2011. I'll have a firmer idea of the actually release date in the following months. My cover has been assigned an artist, so that's an exciting step. I'm looking forward to seeing if my vision matches that of the cover's designer. The book is due for a review by the senior editorial staff, so the possibility of it landing back on my side of the court for a little more tweaking could be in the cards.

I've been working at getting the word out into the wild blue yonder by world wide web or word of mouth or whatever else I can think of doing. Doing just that right now, by the way. Hope no one minds. I think providing blues fans with their own crime novel protagonists should be a good thing. Don't you? I mean, a couple harmonica blowing dudes should be able to save their fellow man (or woman) from sure death as well as any martial arts kickin', sharp shootin' hero. Right? That's what I'm thinking anyway. Thinking it so much that I'm 62,000 words into my newest adventure with Mitty Andersen (self-retired reporter blowing the blues) and Pete Bolden (born again preacher playing the nasty ol' blues harp again). They are trying to find out who blew up a church, the steeple and the people, and got their good friend framed for the evil deed. Heading for the concluding chapters, so I've got to decide how they catch the bad guys or kill the bad guys and whether or not they'll save all mankind in the process.

Friday, April 1, 2011

The Fabulous Thunderbirds

Back in May 2008 (dang, has it been that long) I posted a gushing review of  the first T-Birds' gig that I witnessed with the newest lineup of Mike Keller and Johnny Moeller slinging guitars, and Jay Moeller and Randy Bermudes driving the rhythm on bass and drums (respectively). Word from Kim Wilson that night was that they would have a release out with these guys in the fall and I couldn't wait to get a copy of what I felt just might be the best band that Wilson had put together since he and Jimmy Vaughn parted ways. I regularly checked my usual online sites for obtaining blues music (even iTunes) and time passed by with no T-Bird fix. Painted On was available everywhere, but no new news.

Long story short, the new CD appears to have been sitting on their website for some time and that's one place that I sort of quit checking after awhile. Like Kim Wilson's My Blues, it seems that website distribution and gig sales was the chosen method to get the CD out there (or in my case, here). So, of course, I grabbed my autographed copy and must say that it'll go into my file as one of my favorite T-Birds albums. It definitely sports some of the funkiest grooves to ever come out of a T-Birds' band. Of course, if you have any of Johnny Moeller's stuff (case in point, Return of the Funky Worm), then you know he can get funky, but this being a Fabulous Thunderbirds' release, then you know that it'll stay true to Kim Wilson's orchestration and his vision on what their sound must be. Which is a jivin' mix of the blues, R&B, soul and a bit of rock 'n roll.

Might as well start with the tracks on which Wilson blesses us with his mouth harp skills, since a few blues harp fans tap into the blog on a frequent basis. True to most of The Fabulous Thunderbird releases, he puts the songs first and sticks his harp to mouth on those that deserve and/or warrant the instrument. So, let's just begin with the last listed track, Doctor Isaiah Ross' Cat Squirrel (if anyone picked up the latest Collard Greens and Gravy, a good comparison could be made between their version and this 'un). Wilson lays down the mic and whomps out and drives the good Doctor's lick ideas acoustically and into the juke joint where it belongs. Wilson doesn't try to fancy it up any, just play it like it's supposed to be played. He also puts a ragged edge on his other wise smooth vocals to keep the tune way down in the alley where it belongs. The band keeps it there also, especially at the sticks of Jay Moeller's insistently crashing cymbals. The duo guitarists simply riff the rhythm to make the ragged feel stick.

Wilson doesn't break out his harp until the fifth track, Pay Back Time, which is one of the seven originals on the twelve tracks. It's just a nasty ol' blues, with Resonator slide rippin' and Wilson singing through his harp mic to put it in a "downhome" mood, until the band kicks into gear and brings it up to date, and Wilson spits out a few note warbles to set the tone. He jumps in and out with the harp, but it's not the song's feature. Jay Moeller and Bermudes bounce the song around significantly and no one uses those cymbals for effect as well as Moeller.

Baby I Love You invokes Wilson to pull out some Jerry McCain style riffs, mashed up with the Louisiana vibe that he's always been so good at. He waits until halfway through the song before laying it down and getting swamp juice all over it. The boys show how well they can drive a shuffle in a way that just smells and drips T-Bird groove. Keller and Moeller's guitars blend together so well, like Blue Bell Homemade Vanilla and chocolate syrup. Just hard to tell who's the ice cream and who's the topping at any given time.

Satisfied is the butt rocker that kicks off the whole proceedings and informs us that these new guys have the goods to be called The Fabulous Thunderbirds. Wilson lets them showcase what we can expect for the entire CD. Drums and bass upfront, loud and yanking the gear shift into "D". Two guitarists swapping rhythm and lead, lead and rhythm, while Wilson sings his tale (and his tail off) of being nothing but satisfied with his love. Keller and Moeller's guitars get that twangy, reverby stuff going that T-Bird legend is made of.

Speaking of butt rockin', they pull out and cover One's Too Many (and A Hundred Ain't Enough) that was covered on the Butt Rockin' album with Jimmy Vaughan's watery reverb highlighting the tune. The band funks it up quite a bit more and the dynamic duo apply their own guitar-a-rama magic to claim the tune as their own. This is a hidden bonus track, following Cat Squirrel.

They also put a funky spin on O.V. Wright's soul number, Love The Way You Love, and T-Birdify it. One of the boys spits out some rapid fired solo licks towards the end of the number that are nothing short of incredible. The band is at their funkiest on Got To Bring It With You. I'm guessing Johnny Moeller is jacking the funk quotient up with the rhythm guitar that hits from the beginning, but could just as well be Keller. The solo breaks these guys break out backs me up when I say that they are the best guitar tandem working the blues today. They had my hair standing on end.

Bermudes' Runnin' From The Blues proves his meddle as a songwriter. It sits solidly in the soul blues stew and our guitarists prove that can twinkle with the strings in the vein of a Curtis Mayfield, but before the song has faded, they're ripping the blues and the band swoops to a crashing, bashing crescendo with Wilson singing his butt off. They apply the same style of rhythmic vibe to Wilson's Hold Me and dash the funk into it liberally. The crescendo builds to a similar climax with the band banging the hell out of the tune and riffs flying around the proceedings and echoing off the walls. Great stuff.

Okay, that's enough. This is hands down, the best band that Kim Wilson has put together and they've put out one of the best albums that bears the name The Fabulous Thunderbirds. Oh, did I mention the chicken pickin' rockabilly style slinging they get going on Take Me As I Am or the topical message about helping our own here in the U.S. on Do You Know Who I Am? No? Well, just go on over to http://www.fabulousthunderbirds.com/ and buy yourself a signed copy and listen for yourself.