Billy Branch – Kingston Mines, Chicago, Sat 21.Mar 2009

The blues keep following me around

Ever since buying a copy of the 1990 W.C.Handy award winning album Harp Attack, Billy Branch has had me intrigued. He’s pictured on the cover as the new kid on the block, alongside three legends – Junior Wells, James Cotton and Carey Bell. Billy provides fresh reinforcement for the old guard, enlisted to extend the Chicago Harp tradition rather than bend it (as Sugar Blue might have done). The album is of course a valuable celebration of ChiTown honking, however the full extent of Branch’s artistic ability was probably hidden under the barrage.

So it was when I heard his 1995 solo album, The Blues Keep Following Me Around, that I really began to appreciate Billy’s work. Again it stems directly from the Chicago idiom – how could it not – but it makes a fearless march forward. It is new, energetic and wonderfully varied. Billy’s passion for the blues shines through the whole recording and he takes no prisoners. His cover of Tony Joe White’s Polk Salad Annie is a particular classic. With a heap of soul in the vocals and a brooding, pulsating groove, Mr. Branch takes you down in Louisiana and dumps you right on your…corn patch. Which reminds me – Billy is not only a cool harp player, he is also a magnificent singer. (more…)

Mountain of Love (Alabama 3), Concorde II, Brighton, 2 Dec.2008

You know how it is when people evangelise. You smile, nod your head and then shove an invisible finger in each ear. The first time I heard Exile On Coldharbour Lane, I was unreceptive. My friend, on the other hand, was entering a transcended state even before he hit the play button. ‘You’ll love it!’ he beamed. What I heard was good, but it didn’t burn bushes for me or part the clouds. In fact all I could focus on was the crudeness of the harmonica.

A few days later I cranked up my own copy on the car stereo. This was when it hit me. It actually sounded fantastic. Immediately the world was a better place and before the month was out I had subscribed, unconditionally, to a new subculture. Then I too found myself evangelising. Alabama 3 made me chuckle inside. It made me groove. It was clever, it was sleazy, it was irreverent. It had a punky edge and musical depths. It had a lyrical wizardry and it was relevant. It was an adventure. It threw high fives at roots Americana. It flashed a V at decorum. It gave prejudice the bird. Most importantly it had a layer of raw harmonica that sat perfectly… (more…)

Charlie Musselwhite (Part II) – Komedia, Brighton, 18th November 2008

“Why we elected Bush worries my mind

I must confess, having seen Charlie in action again after a break of seventeen years, I remain unconvinced about his credentials as a performing artist. Last time he was upstaged by his backing band. This time his lengthy digression into solo guitar and rack harp was brave, but wasted. Any impact was lost owing to the wagon load of down home guitar already delivered by Dave Peabody. The audience had thirsted far too long for that big town electric harp. When it came, of course it was well received, but it was still insufficient to quench their frustration. Barely a twenty minute stretch at the end of a long evening. When Deep Purple did that, fans tore down the stadium, uprooted street furniture and rolled cop cars. Tonight people had the last bus home to think about.

I had hoped that my enduring ambivalence towards Charlie’s music would melt in a blinding epiphany this evening. Having seen the show however, there was no change. Instead, I felt my reservations had been vindicated. One nagging question still simmered though – what exactly was it I was blind to that others understood so clearly? It mystified me. The imaginary urchin continued crying out from the crowd – ‘the Emperor’s wearing no clothes.’ (more…)

Charlie Musselwhite (Part I) – Komedia, Brighton, 18th November 2008

What was all the fuss about?

According to the display of fading gig tickets on the Harp Surgery wall, it was July 1991 when I last saw Charlie Musselwhite live at the Town & Country 2 in Highbury, North London. Charlie’s backing band opened that night with a fabulous rendition of Little Milton’s ‘Hey, Hey, The Blues Is All Right’, while his silver harp case stood open on a table at the front of the stage – a statement of the maestro’s intent. The backing band had the house revved up and jumping. Once he took the stage however, Charlie’s performance proved uninspiring. Accepted, he had flown in from the USA only hours earlier, but amidst his clever display of positional playing and monotone vocals, I grew bored. The band soldiered on but I left early, thinking to myself, ‘what was all the fuss about?’

In the months that followed, I occasionally gave Charlie’s records a spin. More through a sense of duty than as a genuine fan. Each time I concluded this was a white guy who came from the right southern state, had entered the Chicago blues scene at the right time and mixed with the right blues luminaries, but who’s musical contribution was inconsistent, if not over-rated. It just didn’t bounce. The records went back in their sleeves and onto the pile. I still didn’t get him. (more…)

SaRon Crenshaw – Terra Blues, New York, 16th Oct 2008

We arrived at Terra Blues for the nightly acoustic set at about 7.30pm, not really knowing what to expect. What we discovered were two rare treasures. The first was the venue itself. We were instantly bowled over by its style and warmth. This place is charming and sophisticated, with mood lighting, a vaulted ceiling and candlelit tables. And teasing us from the stage, like a spotlit still life, was an empty chair, a red Lucille Gibson guitar signed by BB King and a silver-faced Fender Twin Reverb amplifier.

A few minutes later our second great find of the evening took the stage. SaRon Crenshaw is incredible. He has presence and rapport to match the likes of Luther Allison and Eric Bibb. His voice is the equal of any Atlantic soul singer – its richness, depth and expression is astonishing. His guitar work is comprehensively top drawer. (more…)

Candy’s Blues Jam – The Cantab Lounge, Boston 9th July 2008

According to the logo, The Cantab Lounge was established in 1938. Don’t ask who by or what for, but do take it as read that this is Boston’s answer to Chicago’s Rosa’s Lounge. A 15 minute taxi ride from downtown Boston took the Good Doctor across the Charles River and into Cambridge, with MIT and Harvard keeping a watchful eye on his progress. Cruising up Mass Ave towards Central Square, he soon saw the Cantab lights and the billboard advertising music 7 nights a week.

Tuesday’s at The Cantab is Bluegrass nite. Judging by the literature, one sniff of harpoonery and you’d be invited to fall on your tin sandwich by the hillbilly praetorian guard. Other nights boast blues, jazz and rock (plus a poetry ‘slam’ in the bar downstairs), BUT… every Wednesday and Sunday night at 9pm is Candy’s Blues, Jazz and Rock Jam. And it’s free. Now that’s more like it.

The Good Doctor arrived on a Wednesday evening, complete with Chicago Toolkit and a pocket full of green beer tokens. He walked right in, autographed the guest list and took a seat at the bar, no messing. He asked round for Candy. Turned out Candy was a he, and was already on stage playing guitar leading the house band. A Heineken was hastily ordered. (more…)

James Wheeler’s Blues Jam – Rosa’s Lounge, Chicago 19th June 2008

Chicago Rosa’s Lounge

If you’ve never tried it, go! Don’t expect anything grand like Buddy Guy’s Legends, this is more like going down to your local. Perfect in my opinion. Get some rest beforehand and plan to arrive between 9.30 and 10.00 pm local time (yes that’s six hours behind the UK….!). If you are a musician, take your instrument and sign up at the door. You’ll get in for free and Tony will call you up once the house band has finished its intro set (around 40 minutes). And don’t be nervous – this is a really cosy, cosmopolitan, genuinely friendly establishment. Everyone will speak to you and Tony will make you feel very welcome. The jam carries on till 2am officially, but with jet-lag and time difference I was totally knackered by around 12.30am…I guess others were too as the crowd started to thin. (more…)

Jason Ricci – Biscuits and Blues, San Francisco 5th Dec 2007

Prelude

Jason RicciDeeply disturbed by my encounter with Barry Manilow outside Tiffany’s this afternoon (literally!), I was in serious need of some rehabilitation. Mercifully the Copacabana was closed for staff training, so Biscuits and Blues it was to be – where, to my good fortune, harmonica wizard Jason Ricci would be weaving his magic. Plenty of good hoodoo was assured.

Actually, I had never heard of Jason before, but he came highly recommended by Dave Barrett (Harmonica Master Class) and I intended to correct my ignorance. Dave couldn’t make the gig, but Aki Kumar, one of his students, was at the bar nursing a beer. We made our acquaintances and Aki initiated my re-education. Jason, he informed me, is originally from Maine, but currently works out of Nashville. His influences include Pat Ramsey and Johnny Winter, while his style includes fast flowing third position patterns, overblows and licks drawn from jazz, rock, samba and swing.

Jason took the stage playing through what looked like a Shure SM57 or Unidyne mic, into a 4×10 tweed 59 Bassman. The sound he created was at times reminiscent of Johnny Mars in full flight. Avant garde in urban blues terms, it is not your classic Chicago crunch, but a synthesised variant. The tone is a challenge at first, in fact it is ‘in your face’, but you quickly acclimatise.

Musically and artistically, Jason is as challenging as his adopted harp tone. He has planted his flag on the ramparts of Fort Radical. His appearance and his persona is that of an edgy Punk. His energy is arresting. His playing is simply astonishing. If I had to credit specific harmonica players and bands for redefining the blues’ boundaries, Blues Traveler, Alabama 3, Little Axe, Lee Sankey, Lee Oskar and Sugar Blue readily come to mind. Jason Ricci vaults them all.

(more…)