Thursday, December 2, 2010
Looking at the Blues in 2010.
Writer: Rick Galusha
There was a time when Christmas was a religious break; a time of hope and aspiration. But those days seem far away as today December 25th seems little more than a Hallmark pause of retail exuberance. Meanwhile the blues melds into a homogenized exercise that bets on the next ‘horse’ in the endless race of commercial popularity. It would be dishonest to pretend that I hadn’t spent the last twenty years at the ‘racetrack’ and, except for this brief moment of clarity, won’t soon be back with, “a handle in my hand.”
A by-product of the music industry continued meltdown in that this “creative destruction” presents opportunities. Overall, 2010 has been a good year for music. As ‘twas last year, inexpensive technology lowers costs and the market is flooded with homemade projects; thereby, confusing the consumers with choices. This mountain of selection has created an opportunity for voices that try to help discern honorable hobby from recommendation. This subsequent ramble is hardly the tradition “best of list” as few are able to fully imbibe the breadth of blues releases today.
• That said, my favorite independent release this year was, ‘Still the Rain’ by Karen Lovely. This is a luscious taste that simmers on low as Lovely’s vocals emotes modern vocal blues that breed authenticity over mimicry and clichés.
• Perhaps the wider industries ‘pick to win’ this year was former Fabulous Thunderbird guitarist Jimmie Vaughan’s release, ‘Plays Blues Ballads and Favorites.’ Vaughan’s understated guitar styling’s are ever-vogue and often tasty. His safe choice of songs indicates a lack of risk as the heir-apparent is positioned to define cool in today’s blues scene. It’s clear that Vaughan is neither hungry nor compelled to earn accolades. This record could have been better but is none-the-less, quite good. That said, the former dominance of the Austin sound has ebbed.
• The blues continues to be a guitar players market. This year’s ‘ax-man cometh’ disc is ‘Spread the Love’ by the ever tasty love supreme of Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters. An instrumental record, Earl’s venture are endlessly textured and under-stated in a genre that leans toward two-by-four wielding mercenaries. If this guy ever put out a bad album, I haven’t heard it yet.
• Speaking of “great” guitar albums, ‘3 Hours Past Midnight’ (complied 1986) by Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson is the definitive blues guitar album. A musical chameleon that served tutelage under fellow Houston players Albert Collins and Johnny Copeland, Watson’s catalogue is spotty ranging from the touted ‘Gangster of Love’ to the vapid, ‘’I Cried for You.’ Dying in Japan in ’96, Watson’s legacy is, for me, unexplored and beckoning with the subtly of a coastal foghorn.
There are three releases by ‘major artists’ that should appeal to the majority of blues fans;
• Eric Clapton’s self titled release, Clapton, came out late in the year. While some will kvetch that the former Patrick Clapham is not a blues artist, such standards are irrelevant. This is a solid record by the genre’s most impactful artist.
• Carlos Santana’s, ‘Guitar Heaven – The Greatest Guitar Classics of All Time’ is clearly targeted to baby boomer rock music fans that know this artist, and know the songs and are thus predisposed to hearing Santana cover songs they already know. Is it art? No. Is it commercially viable? Yes. This is a low risk, low cost gift that is artistically harmless but little more than a calculated cash grab. So don’t gift this to your serious music listener but a casual listener will likely be appreciative.
• ‘The Union’ by Elton John and Leon Russell is another speculative venture designed to salvage two careers. Media spin poses this as John’s rescue of Russell’s career. “Ellie” stands to gain artistic credibility from the presence of Russell as well as guest spots from Neil Young, Booker T. Jones, Brian Wilson, Robert Randolph and producer T Bone Burnett. This is a nice album that unfolds slowly. While not appropriate for a blues purist, most blues fans should be curious.
• Speaking of Classic Rock artists, the entire John Lennon catalogue has been re-released. As everyone’s ‘big brother,’ peace activist John Lennon’s death thirty years ago still pangs. Public Broadcasting’s documentary, LennoNYC’ attempted to re-define Yoko Ono’s role as Lennon artistic peer. Perhaps side-kick would have been a more believable as ‘Double Fantasy’ showcases the wide gap between their respective talents.
Vocally there are two other albums that stood out for me…
• The industry has donned John Nemeth’s ‘Name the Day’ as a front runner. Any critical perspective on this disc is roundly rapped but suffice it to say that while artful, Nemeth is the beneficiary of marketing as much as music…but then which successful artist is not? A rather predictable bent on the blues, this album is warmly received.
• Former Mavericks front man Raul Malo is this generations Roy Orbison. Long considered among the finest recorded vocalists, Orbison’s Texas roots align well with Malo’s Hispanic background to create an album, ‘Sinners & Saints.’ Malo swoon his way through a variety of styles but it all comes back to a beautiful voice and rich arrangements. No, this is not something for everyone but true music fans should find Malo’s cross-genre pollination interesting, new and unexpected.
• The ‘up & comer’ for t2010 is Ruf Record’s release, ‘Diamonds in the Dirt’ by England’s Joanne Shaw Taylor. Young enough to have impact, Shaw Taylor explores enough to make the release interesting. Her strength is minor ballads which lend themselves to airplay; however, she wisely pushes into other sounds and this exploration piques my interest. Occasionally she mistakes ‘shouting’ for emotive singing which I enjoy less. The mentoring of Dave Stewart (Eurthymics) – lead to connection with uber-producer Jim Gaines (Allman Brothers, Bonamassa) – which lead to endorsement by Joe Bonamassa – all feeds into a short cut to success…so perhaps it is who you know. The proof will be in the pudding and the pudding is still coagulating.
• For those that venture outside of the blues, Richard Thompson (Fairport Convention) has released an album that is an ocean of intrigue, ‘Dream Attic.’ Thompson’s guitar playing is unpredictable and second to none. His understatement and use of off-keys is ever interesting. Thompson is a niche artist Stateside but worth the exploration as he exemplifies among a minor handful that did not ‘sell out’ when the opportunity came knocking.
• Finally, Otis Taylor remains the genre’s most pressing artist. More than any other, to my mind, Taylor uses his music to credibly push the blues into crevices and passageways that are simultaneously intriguing and captivating. A crusty bastard, Taylor’s music uses hypnotic layering of blues textures to help a seemingly near stagnant artform expand beyond established confines (IMO). His new album, ‘Clovis People, Volume 3’ is an audible adventure that requires rapt attention from listeners and yet, somehow, Taylor is able to keep the focus on the industry. Taylor seems uncompromising, thankfully.