Tributes to the old Masters – Big Head Todd and Rory Block
Two new tribute records celebrate the music of Robert Johnson and Mississippi Fred McDowell
Reviews by Douglas Heselgrave
Like a lot of kids growing up in the sixties and seventies, I discovered the blues early. For suburban youngsters like myself, the blues represented something exotic, dangerous and downright otherworldly. The world gone wrong of thieves, gamblers, backdoor men and their pining women brought to life in the songs set my imagination on fire. As a teenager, I had the chance to sit outside the Commodore Ballroom and listen to Muddy Waters through the alley entrance as he wailed ‘I’m a Man’ to the lucky people in the audience. BB King, John Lee Hooker, Nina Simone, Sonny Terry, Taj Mahal. As a young man, I heard them all and in the process received an education that I never would have otherwise gotten. I am grateful for all that the blues have given me, but as the years have passed my interests moved on to other forms of music and I don’t really listen to the blues much anymore. Once or twice a year, I’ll take out an old Mississippi Sheiks or Blind Willie Johnson record, but for the most part I have completely lost track of new music by contemporary blues artists. The world has changed and if ever a form of music was in desperate need of an overhaul it’s the blues. Both the musical structures and the lyrical attitudes have become cliches and pure blues musicians – as opposed to artists like Tom Waits and Bob Dylan who dabble in the blues – face incredible challenges to remain relevant.
Big Head Todd and Rory Block are contemporary artists working in the blues medium, and each has recently released a tribute to one of Blues’ founding fathers – Robert Johnson and Mississippi Fred McDowell respectively. While both CDS have some nice moments, neither completely escapes the cliches and musical dead ends that currently make the style so problematic to work in.
Big Head Blues Club- 100 years of Robert Johnson
Big Head Todd certainly took on a challenge when he decided to record this disc. Considered the father of the blues by admirers the world over, Robert Johnson was the quintessential bluesman whose lifestyle and legend still define the medium and every one of his songs has been recorded so many times that it’s virtually impossible to say anything new about any of them. Perhaps in light of this, Todd wisely decided to stick to the tried and true blues traditions – the result being a very authentic sounding album of covers that overcomes its lack of novelty with heartfelt committed performances.
For his part, Todd Park Mohr contributes some very fine arrangements and sterling blues guitar throughout. Purists will revel in his soaring leads and exploratory grooves as he takes on numbers such as ‘Come on in my Kitchen’ and ‘When you got a good friend’ Others will thrill at BB King’s vocal and understated guitar work on ‘Cross Road Blues’ or at Charlie Musselwhite’s soulful harmonica work on ‘Last Fair Deal Gone Down.’ Ruthie Foster gives a fine vocal performance on ‘King Hearted Woman’ that is elevated by Lightin’ Malcolm’s acoustic guitar and David ‘Honeyboy’ Edwards’ singing and playing on ‘Sweet Home Chicago’ are passionate and note perfect. Perhaps it would be unreasonable to expect any more than Todd and his excellent group of musicians offer here – and I am certain that this record will find many admirers – but for my part I found it difficult to get into these new versions of songs I have heard so many hundreds of times before in their superior original versions. I wanted to hear these fine players take risks, dig a little deeper and give me a reason to get excited about Robert Johnson all over again. Unfortunately, that never happened for me. This one’s for mostly the purists.
Shake ’em on Down – Rory Block
Rory Block has been playing music for a long time and over the years she’s developed into one of the finest country blues guitarists anywhere. ‘Shake ’em on Down’ is the 3rd CD in a trilogy that previously paid tribute to Robert Johnson and Son House with the release of ‘The Lady and Mr. Johnson’ and ‘Blues Walkin’ like a man’ respectively. ‘Shake ’em on Down‘ distinguishes itself from many similar albums for two reasons – first, she actually met and played with McDowell and second, the album features a mixture of McDowell covers and songs inspired by him that give the album an individual character and relevance that was missing in the previously reviewed Big Head Blues Club Johnson Tribute. As Block writes ‘I met Fred McDowell at a time in my life when I was most impressionable, and when the effect would deeply inspire and educate.’
Even though Block isn’t trying to turn the world upside down with her improvisations around the blues or redefine what the music means, there’s a refreshing engagement with the songs on this disc which makes every track – both covers and originals – worthwhile and enjoyable upon repeat listenings. While the versions of old favourites like the title track, ‘Kokomo Blues‘ and ‘Woke Up This Morning‘ are often exhuberant and musically gripping (her guitar work keeps on getting better), it’s Block’s original numbers that make this album worth purchasing. The honesty and naivety that she conveys on songs like ‘Steady Freddy’ and ‘Write Me a Few of your lines’ make this a relevant and heartfelt album that achieves the nearly impossible task of creating something new and honoring the past at the same time. Definitely worth a listen.
This posting also appears at www.restlessandreal.blogspot.com
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