Cover photo by Bob Kieser © 2012 Blues Blast Magazine
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In This Issue
We have the latest in Blues Society news from around the globe. Terry Mullins has our feature interview with Moreland & Arbuckle and also part II of our interview with Delmark Records CEO, Bob Koester. Marilyn Stringer has photos and commentary on the 2012 Blues By The Bay.
We have six music reviews for you! Greg “Bluesdog” Szalony reviews a new release from John Primer. Ian McKenzie reviews a new release from Omar and The Howlers. Rainey Wetnight reviews a new release from Mick Clarke. James "Skyy Dobro" Walker reviews a new album from The Killing Floor. John Mitchell reviews a new CD from Open Blues. Jim Kanavy reviews a new album from The Bluesmasters. All this and MORE! SCROLL DOWN!!!
Featured Blues Interview - Moreland & Arbuckle
He sure didn’t do it because it was something that he wanted to do.
Rather, Dustin Arbuckle did it because it was something he had to do.
Invited to play at the prestigious King Biscuit Blues Festival (at that time, it was one of the world’s largest free blues festivals), harp player Dustin Arbuckle and guitarist Aaron “Chainsaw” Moreland were ready to leave a lasting impression on the gathered masses and gain a bunch of new fans in the process.
Their plan was to play on one of the street corners of Helena’s famed Cherry Street on Friday; hit the Houston Stackhouse Stage Saturday afternoon; and then make their way back to Cherry Street to play all night long after that.
“We brought down 100 CDs and we thought that would be enough to get us through the weekend. But we sold them like gang-busters on Friday night,” Arbuckle said. “And at the end of the night, we had like 10 CDs left.”
With the response they had received the day before their scheduled set, there was no way that 10 CDs would carry the group through the next day.
So a plan of action was quickly formulated.
“I called a buddy of mine and he went over to Aaron’s house (in Kansas) and got some more CDs and I told him to drive as far as he could this way and we would meet up somewhere,” Arbuckle said. “So a couple of friends hopped in the car with me and we headed out from Helena and ended up hooking up with him in Sallisaw, Oklahoma at about 3 a.m. in the morning.”
No doubt Arbuckle was dead-tired after playing in the hot October sun all afternoon, but regardless of that, the job had to be done.
But at that point, the job was just halfway done.
“We picked up the CDs, drove back to Memphis, grabbed a quick shower, headed back to Helena and then played on the stage that afternoon and then played back on the street all night after that,” said Arbuckle. “I ended up being up for over 40 straight hours. I was pretty sure I was going to die there at the end.”
But instead of a painful death, an outstanding tune about the whole affair – “Red Moon Rising” off 2010’s Flood (Telarc Records) was born. “It’s one of my favorite things we’ve ever written,” Arbuckle said.
It’s precisely that kind of desire to get the job done that has seen the Kansas-based blues duo of Moreland and Arbuckle battle their way up the ranks over the course of the last decade, never giving up, giving in or throwing in the towel when things get tough.
“It’s been a lot of hard work. A lot of late nights and a lot of crappy hotels,” Moreland said. “Lots of very long drives and lots of bad fast food. But more than anything, it’s been playing as much music as we possibly can, anywhere that we can. But it’s just a ton of work. I don’t think people realize just how much work it takes to keep a band running. That’s why so many great musicians never make a living playing music, because it is such a hard job.”
While it seems like TV shows such as American Idol and The Voice are capable of churning out the next big thing as quickly as KFC churns out chicken strips, when it comes to the world of the blues, it’s either roll up your sleeves and go to work, or just stay at home.
Sometimes you even have to battle against forces beyond your control, like the sluggish – if not downright terrible – economy this country has been mired in the past few years.
“I think it (bad economy) did hurt us last year. We had taken a jump every year until last year, when we had a slight dip,” Moreland said. “And this year, we had a huge jump again. So I think the economy did hurt us last year.”
But when you log over 82,000 miles crammed into a Chevy Suburban over a nine-month stretch like Moreland and Arbuckle did a year or so ago, it’s obvious you’re in it for the long haul.
“Well, in the roots-music community, you don’t have much of a choice. One thing we talk about a lot is, it’s not like the pop world, or even the rock world, where you’re either famous or you’re not,” said Arbuckle. “There’s middle ground (in pop and rock) to a point, but not as much as there is in this community. I think in a lot of ways, it’s a great experience. I mean, we’re still really connected with the people that have helped us and supported us, to get us where we are. That’s one of the great things about not having instant stardom; you can actually feel yourself building. ”
That work ethic has certainly paid dividends, and as of late, business has certainly been booming for Moreland and Arbuckle.
“This is the best year we’ve ever had. From a business standpoint, it’s been our best, for sure,” said Moreland. “It seems like we’ve had the best kind of stuff happen to us, as far as people helping us out, this year.”
The one thing that the group has always managed to do is to keep things fresh and unpredictable when it comes to their take on the blues. Filtered through the North Mississippi Hill Country style – and kicked in the ass by some pounding drums - Moreland and Arbuckle can make Little Walter’s classic “Juke” sound like something that might have crawled out of Seattle in the early 90s.
You might call the end result something like blues straight from the heartland.
“It’s (their sound) just an amalgamation of styles; it really wasn’t intentional,” Moreland said. “It wasn’t something that we planned, that’s for sure.”
And the group’s latest release – their second for Telarc Records – Just a Dream – finds the group continuing to tweak and experiment with their sound, adding a bit of an edgier, rawer slant to the proceedings.
And fans of the band shouldn’t expect Just a Dream to signal an end to Moreland and Arbuckle’s quest to find their signature sound.
“We’re still exploring. I think that the next record will be even more different … hopefully better,” Moreland said.
That sentiment is shared by new drummer Kendall Newbie, (formerly from Wichita’s legendary Black Gasoline) who took over the drum throne from Brad Horner recently.
“There’s no telling (where the group’s sound will end up). It’s just a natural progression based on the influences of everyone in the band,” said Newbie. “I’m the new guy and have brought in my set of influences, too, so it’s just going to keep evolving even further.”
The last track on Just a Dream – “White Lightnin” – had to be like something straight out of a dream for the band. Not only was the tune written by Steve Cropper, the famed guitarist and Booker T and the MG’s main man also laid down some six-string on the cut.
“It was totally by luck. We went to Shemekia Copeland’s wedding – we shared a manager with her – and Steve was there. We got to talking and he had a tune for us,” said Moreland. “So we sent him the track and then he played on it. It’s cool to have him on there. He’s one of the most important guitar players ever.”
Moreland, too, has been turning heads as an accomplished guitarist for several years now; weaving thick, chunky power chords into a delta blues influenced tapestry. He’s also become known for his prowess on the cigar box guitar, an instrument he got turned on to almost by accident.
“That happened at the King Biscuit one year. This guy that had built one and was a big fan of ours asked me to sign one he had built. So we got to talking and became big friends and that was October of 2006,” Moreland said. “So he started building them for me and I’m been playing them ever since. It gave us a different element that we didn’t have before. And the way that thing is put together; it’s a perfect marriage with the way that I was already playing. I learned how to play that thing just by plugging in and playing it on stage.”
The way that Moreland and Arbuckle storm a stage makes it next to impossible not to get caught up in the power and enthusiasm pouring off the bandstand, making their show seem a lot like a big rock concert – especially from an energy standpoint – as the group belts out the blues.
A lot of that energy comes from the way that Arbuckle commands the harmonica cupped in his hands. He can switch from Chicago-style harp to acoustic-style harp to a swampy blend of both – at times, all in the same song. He’s also a highly-underrated vocalist as well. Check out his take on Tom Waits’ “Heartattack and Vine” off Just a Dream for further proof of that.
Not unlike a lot of other success stories in the world of entertainment, Moreland and Arbuckle was born not out of some master-plan, but rather by a chance meeting between the two central figures in the story.
“We met at an open-mike night in Wichita, at a club there called The Roadhouse, that was at that time, where most of the touring blues acts that came through played at,” Arbuckle said. “I was kind of in the house band that hosted the jams on Monday nights and Aaron came in and was doing Mississippi-style acoustic stuff and I got up and played with him.”
A few months later, when Moreland was heading into the studio to cut a record with a guy that he had been playing with, the call went out to Arbuckle when harmonica was needed for a couple of the tunes.
“When we did that recording together, and then did a few gigs together, we found out there was a really good chemistry,” said Arbuckle. “And really, we were about the only two guys around who shared each other’s visions of what we wanted to do musically.”
That shared vision hit the ground running at a brisk pace, beginning with the guys winning the Wichita Blues Society’s Blues Challenge in 2003, earning them a spot in the International Blues Challenge (IBC) in Memphis that year.
The next year, Moreland and Arbuckle took things a step farther and made it all the way to the IBC finals.
And based on the track record they’ve established so far, it seems like the only place for Moreland and Arbuckle to go from here is … up.
“Climbing the ladder is fun. I mean, its hard work,” Arbuckle said. “We spend a lot of hours and days and weeks crammed together in that Suburban smelling each other, but more often than not, I think it’s a good time. It helps strengthen us as a band and friends and all that.”
“Hopefully, this thing will keep growing. I really don’t care about being famous, I just want to make good music and make a decent living doing it,” said Moreland. “If we can do that … I mean, obviously we want to make more money, but it’s such a long, hard road that it is nice to be compensated for your efforts.”
So, any regrets or anything they would have changed along the way?
“I would have changed the brand of deodorant that Dustin wears,” quipped Newbie. “I would also change the brand of deodorant that I wear,” shot back Arbuckle. “And I would have cut my hair about six months sooner.”
And with that out of the way …
“No, I think for me personally, I would have made a much greater effort to hone my personal craft of song-writing. I tried, it’s not that I wasn’t, but we were pretty far into it before I really understood the amount of work that needs to go into writing a good song. But I think that’s a growth process that hopefully continues for anybody,” said Arbuckle. “I would have actually gone back to long before Aaron and I met each other – back to my first band in high school – and said to myself, ‘Work harder on writing your own songs.’ Because for a lot of years when I was younger, I was far more concerned with understanding the tradition – which, don’t get wrong, is super-important – but I think I was more concerned with that than with finding myself and my own place in that tradition.”
Visit Moreland & Arbuckle's website at www.morelandarbuckle.com
Photos by Bob Kieser © 2012 Blues Blast Magazine
Interviewer Terry Mullins is a journalist and former record store owner whose personal taste in music is the sonic equivalent of Attention Deficit Disorder. Works by the Bee Gees, Captain Beefheart, Black Sabbath, Earth, Wind & Fire and Willie Nelson share equal space with Muddy Waters, The Staples Singers and R.L. Burnside in his compact disc collection. He's also been known to spend time hanging out on the street corners of Clarksdale, Miss., eating copious amounts of barbecued delicacies while listening to the wonderful sounds of the blues.
Featured Blues Review 1 of 6
John Primer - Blues On Solid Ground
Blues House Productions
The first time I heard John Primer’s guitar playing was on Lester “Mad Dog” Davenport’s “When The Blues Hit You” CD. He was a long time member of Magic Slim And The Teardrops and played with many of the founding fathers of the electric blues. He has electric blues guitar down pat. I bought his “All Original” CD and found it to be good, but nothing earth-shattering. On his latest CD the opening song, is an upbeat track “Hiding Place” that kicks things off nicely with his electric slide playing. From then on except for two songs it’s acoustic guitar with varying numbers of backup musicians. His acoustic playing is fine and this has a down home charm to it, but the subjects are the usual blues clichés about his baby leaving him, loneliness, how he met the blues, how crazy he is about his baby, etc.. The lyrics have little social conscience and aren’t up-to-date. Primer has a strong and resonant blues voice. You can’t go wrong with the band, especially Barrel House Chuck on piano, Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith on drums and Russ Green harmonica. His idea for this CD was to keep the blues tradition alive for future generations by composing new blues songs rooted in the traditional styles.
“Hiding Place” is blues ensemble playing at its best. He sounds uncannily like Muddy Waters in voice and song style on “Take Care Of Me”. His acoustic guitar playing and Russ Green’s powerful harmonica move the song along nicely. The title song features just his acoustic guitar and piano, sounding much like a modern day Scrapper Blackwell and Leroy Carr, and it is a soul-satisfying tribute to the blues. The full band with electric and acoustic guitar are used to good effect on “Power Of Attorney”. Russ Green’s harp shines once again on “Crazy For My Baby” it complements the acoustic guitar in an old-fashioned back porch rave up. “Happy Blues” is just what the title implies, a joyous blues-romp between acoustic, electric slide and harmonica. Finally a song of unity in helping the less fortunate in “Poor Man Blues”, that closes the record out with a full-blown band send-off featuring good slide work ala Elmore James.
This record works fine in a laid back lazy day kind of way. The expertise of Russ Green and Barrel House Chuck blend well with the guitar and vocal skills of Primer. Nothing new here, but this sounds authentic in the hands of this standard-bearer of the blues. I still hope he dishes up his signature electric blues for his next effort.
Reviewer Greg “Bluesdog” Szalony hails from the New Jersey Delta.
Featured Blues Review 2 of 6
Omar and The Howlers - I’m Gone
12 Tracks: 44mins
Kent Dykes was born and raised in McComb Mississippi, and that’s a great start as it’s also the home town of Bo Diddley and King Solomon Hill. Dykes joined his first band at 12. He is now 62 and is thus citing the fact that he has spent fifty years making the blues rock: And here’s the really good news. It’s true and he still does!.
Apart from the Essential Collection album released earlier this year (which is what it says it is on the box) the last proper Howlers CD was 2009’s Big Town Playboy and before that Bamboozled in 2005. Omar is rarely inactive though and a short examination of his discography will reveal collaborations with Jimmie Vaughn, Magic Slim and many others during the intervening years. This one however is straight Howlers.
This is the first release on Omar's own Big Guitar Music label and all the songs were written by Dykes except I'm Mad Again which is a John Lee Hooker cover. The Howlers include Wes Starr and Bruce Jones, who have been playing with Omar since 1980 and Mike Buck, Ronnie James, and added guitar action from Casper Rawls and Derek O'Brien. Omar says that he wanted the CD to reflect his likes and it does just that. Here we get blues, rockabilly, country and rock n roll and a mix of stuff that makes the album irresistible.
The opener I’m Gone is like a return to the 1950’s. It’s a rocker in the Elvis, Jerry Lee mould with a wonderful countrified version of the kind of solo heard in Bill Haley rockers. All About The Money is a nice little blues with some soothing guitar backing and fills. Drunkard’s Paradise is a tribute to country music with a song like a Waylon Jennings or Merle Haggard epic “I can’t find a reason to stay sober anymore.” Get your mind around T-Bone Walker with added SRV for the instrumental Lone Star Blues. Omar’s Boogie is another instrumental that does what it says on the box. Goin’ Back To Texas is a fabulous slow blues for those of us who hanker for the Big Sky Country. The last track, Take Me Back, echoes, but is not locked to, Junior Parker’s later EPs Mystery Train. If all that is not enough enjoy the slowest of slow blues with JLH’s I’m Mad Again. Fantastic.
Do not expect blues rock, do not expect country blues, do not expect anything except consummate musicianship, infectious melodies and the sound of Omar and his pals having a great time. Don’t miss this one.
Reviewer Ian McKenzie is English and is the editor of Blues In The South, [http://www.bluesinthesouth.com] a monthly blues information publication. He is the producer/ host of two blues radio shows Blues Before Midnight on KCOR (Kansas City Online Radio: www.kconlineradio.com) Fridays; and Wednesday's Even Worse on Phonic FM (www.phonic.fm) alternate Wednesdays.
Live Blues Review - Blues By The Bay
Getting there may be a long drive from the north or south but the drive is breathtaking. From the north you can go down the Oregon Coast, from the SF Bay Area, or south, you get to drive through the giant redwood forests. And once you are there, Eureka is just as beautiful. Blues By The Bay is right on the bay, with boats parked on the water enjoying the festival and the sunsets over the harbor are a photographer’s dream. The festival is small and intimate, the atmosphere relaxed, with plenty of hotels and restaurants and an art show in town to make the weekend completely entertaining. And if you are a gambler, The Blue Lake Casino, one of the sponsors, is 15 minutes down the road and has some great entertainment on Saturday night, this year featuring the Kaye Bohler Band.
The festival opened Saturday morning at 11 as the fog lifted off the bay. The fans were in their chairs with plenty of coffee and great food being offered at the vendor booths. It was nice to see that Saturday’s lineup was dominated by women band leaders, with Chris Cain included that day.
The first act the get the festival started was the Laurie Morvan Band. Laurie is an energetic, talented blues guitarist and singer, with great stories, and hitting some heavy electric blues. Her band includes Lisa Gibbs (vocals), Patrick Morvan (bass), Kevin Murillo (drums), and Tommy Salyers (keyboards).
Next up was the Chris Cain Band. Chris just seems to get better and better (if that is possible) and is one the best blues guitar players in the business. When Chris gets into one of licks, he is in his own world and the fans are transported with him. And beyond that he is just having infectious fun!! Everyone loves Chris!! His band includes Steve Evans (bass), Greg Rahn (keyboards), and Peter Boras (drums-on a last minute sub for Mick Mestek).
Showcasing her multi-awarded new CD “Stronger For It” (Three 2012 Blues Blast Music Awards), Janiva Magness and the band took the stage. The CD is deeply moving for both Janiva and the audience and once again she garnered more fans from her powerful performance. (Personally – I have seen her perform this album many times over the summer and I love it even more every time I hear it!) The band includes Zach Zunis (guitar), Gary Davenport (bass), Matt Tecu (Drums), Jim Alfredson (keyboards). (Just a note: Janiva won 3 Blues Blast Awards this year: Contemporary Blues CD, Song of the Year “I Won’t Cry”, and Female Blues Artist. Congrats!!)
Next up was the Deanna Bogart Band. Deanna is multi-talented on the keyboards, saxophone and vocals. One of the nicest performers in the blues, Deanna always has a great relationship with the band and the audience, traveling amongst the fans and playing to the audience well. And it is obvious that her love is the saxophone – sometimes she just has to drop everything and play toot out the blues on that sax!! This trip to the west coast included a special treat with Scot Sutherland on the bass – everyone’s favorite (previous) bass player from Tommy Castro’s band. They have wanted to play together for a long time and the whole set was funky fun. With Dan Leonard on guitar and Michael Aubin on drums, the entire set was like being in your living room with your best friends having a bluesy afternoon of fun!!
The final act on Saturday was New York’s Dana Fuchs. Most west coast blues fans are unfamiliar with Dana as she has not been on the west coast for a long time and only once at that. Glen Maxson, the festival promoter, assured us that we would love her. And within the first five seconds from Dana strutting on stage, with her head thrown back and the mike pointing skyward, letting out a long beautiful “Ahhhhhh”, the crowd went wild. Dana moved through every iteration of the blues – traditional, country, hill, rock, soulful, etc., with ease. Her energy level never dropped and the music was exciting. (And the line was really really long to buy her CD’s – a tribute to the impact she made on the crowd). So when can we get her back again???? Her band included Jon Diamond (guitar), Richie Monica (drums), and Brett Bass (bass).
Sunday morning started early with a gospel band (that I missed). But around 10:30 a.m. Corey Harris took the stage and mesmerized the fans with his beautiful acoustic blues songs and stories - a nice soulful way to begin a peaceful Sunday in Eureka next to the waterfront.
Next was David Jacobs-Strain - Oregon’s Band From Plaid. (Ok, so that is what I call them. When I pointed out their fashion statement– David’s response was “We’re from Oregon…what else would we wear?”). David is an amazing guitar player, singer, storyteller, and the entire band is relaxed, fun, and great! I was extremely impressed by his 12-string slide guitar – something I have never seen. Beautiful! His band included Bob Beach (harmonica), Blake Padilla (keyboards), John Raden (drums), and Zak Johnson (drums).
A special treat for this festival was Eric Bibb’s acoustic quartet with Eric Bibb (guitar), Grant Dermody (harmonica), Cedric Watson (violin) and Dirk Powell (violin & accordion). Eric, on his own, is inspirational when he speaks and sings. He is quiet and you listen to every word and note. It was a well-rounded set with the additional players - they added many dimensions to his music.
The final set of the day was James Cotton –harmonica legend extraordinaire. With him was Darrel Nulisch, his blues vocalist, Tom Holland (guitar), and Jerry Quarter (drums). Another last minute substitution for his bass player who couldn’t get out of NOLA – Noelle Neal – was brother Kenny Neal. Most all of us have seen Kenny with his own band but most of us have never seen Kenny on bass. His talent doesn’t stop with his guitar or harmonica – he is an amazing bass player too and he certainly was having a good time playing with James!! As always, James and his band continue to perform like the legends they are.
As a self-proclaimed “photo-journalist blues historian” who travels to a lot of venues, festivals, and blues events, I hear & see a lot of music & musicians of all ages. I am always happy and amazed how much talent resides in some of the young kids I see coming up in the blues community. One of those performers is Kyle Rowland – a 19 year old harmonica player from Sacramento. I first saw him (at 16 yrs old) wandering around the Blues Cruise all week looking for a place to play. His talent was well developed then. I have seen him at different events over the last three years and have watched his talent grow. When he showed up at the back gate of the festival on Sunday morning asking us to get him in so he could see James Cotton, we got the job done. And I stood next to him during the entire set as he watched enraptured by James. And when James invited him on stage to play with him and handed him his harmonica, Kyle didn’t miss a beat and continued “Got My Mojo Working” with the band. And I have to say his thrill only surpassed ours to see this respectful, talented, young man stand tall next to his legend and play his heart out - side by side with this legend. So I close this article with a photo of a long-time legend playing next to a future legend with another legend playing bass behind him who is also very committed in keeping the blues alive in his family. Pretty cool I say!
Thanks to Glen Maxon, Michael Buell, Mike Russo, and all the staff, volunteers, and sponsors who put on a fantastic festival in beautiful Eureka. Put this on your schedule for next year – it is everything a great blues festival should be –GREAT BLUES & FUN!!
(Full set of photos eventually at http://MJStringerPhoto.com)
Photos and comments by Marilyn Stringer @ 2012 MJStringerPhoto.com
Featured Blues Interview - Bob Koester Part II
Blues Record Label CEO's - L to R - Bruce Iglauer - Alligator Records, Jerry Del Guidice - Blind Pig Records,
Bob Koester - Delmark Records and Michael Frank, Earwig Music
Part II - The Delmark Records recording legacy begins.
Buying and selling records produced by other record companies was to be only a small part of Koester’s budding enterprise.
He also began actively seeking out artists and recording them. Artists like Big Joe Williams, Speckled Red and J.D. Short all ended up with long-players to their credit, thanks to Koester.
And it all started simply because Koester thought that the Windy City Six should be recorded.
“That’s how it all started, he said. “Just that simple.”
It wasn’t long before he had a catalog of about seven LPs and five 10-inch recordings ready to go.
However, things were to go downhill before they started to climb upward for the fledgling record company.
“Well, I had covers printed up for the second Dixie Stompers record and I think maybe the Speckled Red, but I had to throw all that paper away because the 10-inch LP, over the course of a weekend, was dead,” Koester said.
While he was sinking into a hole, pulled down by the suddenly unpopular 10-inch format, Koester managed to keep his wits about him and his legendary business sense began to develop into what it is today, as he made the best of a potentially business-killing situation.
He went around to all the local distributors and started picking up the now-defunct 10-inch records for about a buck apiece. He was then able to turn them at regular price, which helped him absorb the loss of the stuff he had to trash, while also enabling him to continue to record.
“I was able to get four 12-inch LPs out in a period of a year and a half or two years and to pay off most of my debts. We had no advance warning that the 10-inch was going out. I went down to Columbia Records on a Friday night and bought 10-inch LPs for $2.10 and went back Monday and was able to get them for $1.00. That’s how quickly this industry can change.”
And that’s how quickly a business can go from one with a solid future to one on teetering and unsteady ground.
“Well, the fall of the 10-inch LP cost me a lot of money because I had to toss all that printing and of course it took me ages to get rid of the 10-inchers that I’d had pressed, but I ended up buying Riversides (record label) for half-a-dollar. They waited too long to dispose of certain stuff. Bill Grauer told me that if I’d buy 200 at a time, I could have them for half-a-dollar. And then I sold them for $3 or $3.85 – regular price. Eventually I had to close them out at $1.99, but I still more than doubled my money.”
Koester really began to pick up steam when he started purchasing masters, the first of which was a collection of material from the George Lewis New Orleans Jazz Band collection, at the price of $500 for two 10-inch LPs.
One of Koester’s former partners came up with the cash for the first round of George Lewis masters, but another source was the bankroll for round number two of the Lewis material.
“Later, I learned there was enough material for two more LPs (of Lewis music) and the guy that designed the Busch Bavarian Beer label, a guy that I had gotten acquainted with when I did a lecture on the history of jazz at the St. Louis Jazz Club, gave me the $300 to buy the rest of the masters,” Koester said. “I don’t know why they only wanted $300 when I’d paid $500 for the first two. But at any rate, that gave me a basic catalog and was what really got me going.”
Not only did getting hold of master tapes give Koester, the music lover, the power to bring forgotten gems back into the light of day, it also made good economic sense for Koester, the businessman, to engage that kind of business model.
“That’s what set the label off at the beginning. I mean, to record the George Lewis Band for three 12-inch LPs would be several thousand dollars, but I got the masters for $800,” he said. “Those masters have paid for themselves many times over. They don’t sell that well now, but back then, the George Lewis Band toured colleges a lot.”
That practice of owning masters soon helped Delmark build its catalog and catch the attention of those inside and outside of the music industry.
“Buying masters has been a major sideline for us. Buying United’s gave us, what, 25 or 30 albums? It gave us Junior Wells, those three Memphis Slim’s, Robert Nighthawk, and a bunch of anthologies, along with some good jazz stuff,” said Koester. “And then we bought Apollo and that added to our blues catalog, along with classic jazz like Charles Thompson with Charlie Parker. And we later wound up recording Charles Thompson again.”
An opportunity to land the recorded works of legends like Blind Lemon and Ma Rainy would soon follow, as would a move to his current and long-time home of Chicago in 1958.
“The first records that I bought wholesale to sell at jazz club meetings and by mail, were from John Steiner, so I got to be fairly acquainted with him. And one day I got a letter that said he was getting ready to retire and was thinking about disposing of his Paramount (record label) properties and wanted to work out a deal where I could have them,” Koester said. “And he also said, ‘It might not be a bad deal to move to Chicago and get going, young fellow.’”
That advice did not go unheeded and next thing you knew, Koester packed up and left St. Louis for Chicago.
“Steiner encouraged me to move to Chicago and then he loaned me the money – not very much – to buy Seymour’s Record Mart, which was a jazz store in the Roosevelt U. Building on Wabash, near Congress. But I never did get Paramount (Records) because his license deal with Riverside did not have a term, so I wouldn’t be able to issue the Louis Armstrong’s and the King Oliver’s – the stuff that Riverside had issued,” Koester said. “And that deal is still enforced today. George Buck in New Orleans owns the Paramount masters, but he can’t issue them.”
The Paramount hang-up turned out to be nothing more than a speed-bump for Koester, nor did his aversion to the sounds of modern jazz turn into a problem. Because he knew that in order to operate a successful jazz record store, even though it wasn’t his favorite music at the time, he was going to have to start selling modern jazz.
“My interest has been in traditional jazz and that’s continued. I’ve always like the trad jazz more than the modern jazz,” he said. “That’s why I recorded Art Hodes, the Salty Dogs, Albert Nicholas … and we reunited the Dixie Stompers for a couple of sessions.”
And even though he wasn’t a huge fan of folk music back in the day, Koester still decided to record Big Joe Williams, the King of the 9-String Guitar - with an eye squarely on that market.
“I wasn’t going to try and sell his record to black people – Trumpet had tried that and not done too well – and VeeJay recorded him and didn’t bother issuing more than one record, but in the liner notes to Piney Woods Blues, I mention that my hopes are they’ll be an audience for these blues records among the folk people, and with jazz fans who are interested in the origins of jazz,” he said. “I think the name of our series for that was Roots of Jazz, trying to make that tie-in. And by the time I got that record issued (1958), the folk scene was happening big. Back in the 50s, folk music was getting slammed by all the right-wingers for being Communist propaganda, and so forth.”
Piney Woods Blues was the first release on Delmark Records, and its initial success caught Koester a little bit off guard.
“I was surprised, but it sold 700 or 800 copies. And then we put out the Speckled Red and it sold about 250 or 300 copies. And I thought the Red would have been the bigger seller – I almost released it first,” he said. “And had that happened, I might have been disappointed and might not have issued the other for awhile.”
A lot was going on in Koester’s world in the early 1960s - he not only found and recorded Sleepy John Estes, but at the same time, he was forced to uproot his business and move it from Wabash to Grand Avenue.
“I recorded Sleepy John and then was having to move and open up a new location and my business turned to zip. And that’s when I had to sell my blues records,” said Koester. “I got $25 for one of my Robert Johnson’s. Or that might have been one of Charley Patton’s on Paramount. And I thought that was big money. But we were able to get the Estes record out and that helped a lot. I think we shipped 1,700 copies. And that was big-time.”
Koester also started to spend a considerable amount of time in the clubs around Chicago and very soon became hip to the electric sound that was starting to gather steam and turn people on in the 1960s.
“Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf had a lot to do with that – they knew how to run a band. They were great singers and they were great band-leaders, both of them,” Koester said. “They made their guys play together and not fight each other for who was going to be the loudest.”
There was another happening young bluesman on the Windy City scene that possessed a lot of the same qualities that Muddy and The Wolf were blessed with.
“He was a singer, harmonica player and producer. Great on the stage. And I thought, ‘People ought to hear this stuff - the way it sounds in a club.’ So I brought Junior into the studio and told him to just play like he did on stage, not to worry about running time or anything like that,” said Koester. “And that’s what we did. In seven hours, we got a nice album.”
Calling Hoodoo Man Blues a ‘nice album’ is like calling the Mona Lisa an ‘OK painting.’
Released in 1965, Hoodoo Man Blues has a spot reserved on the Mount Rushmore of blues recordings and its impact on the blues genre, or rock-n-roll for that matter, cannot be overstated. It is one of the most important recordings of all time.
Koester’s forward-thinking approach let Wells and his band-mates do their thing, showcasing just how powerful this new brand of electric Chicago blues could be.
A key member of that seven-hour session was Wells’ guitarist, a ‘friendly chap,’ better known as Buddy Guy.
Not yet the icon and revered figure that he is today, Guy did have a couple of sides of his own out on Chess Records at the time of the Hoodoo Man taping.
“He (Buddy) was hoping to get seriously on board and he told me I’d better call Leonard Chess and make sure it was OK for him to record,” Koester said. “Leonard acted like he was under contract, but as we know today, he didn’t have Muddy or Wolf or any of them under contract. But he said, ‘OK, record the mother*#@. But, he doesn’t sing and you don’t use his name.’ So that’s why ‘Friendly Chap’ appears on the earliest 7,000 first copies of that. A British kid that worked for me, Peter Brown, said, ‘Well, if Buddy is a friend and a Guy is a chap, why don’t we call him Friendly Chap?’”
The real kicker from those sessions?
“We had about 15 minutes of unissued music (including a duet between Wells and Guy) that was essentially stolen – taped over by a band rehearsing in the basement,” Koester said. “They were stealing records from me, too. But I think they thought the tape was blank and they just recorded over it.”
The album initially shipped 1,700 copies, but its appeal was not to be denied.
Not by the blues-loving public and especially not by other record companies.
“That had a lot to do with Sam Charters coming to Chicago to record that anthology (Chicago/the Blues/ Today!) for Vanguard,” Koester said.
It took a few years for Koester to fully realize that he was standing at ground zero of the electric blues movement the day that Hoodoo Man Blues was given life at Sound Studios.
“Sales were good and the Vanguard series probably helped, but it took ages before I realized that was the first time that a working Chicago blues band had went into the studio to make an album,” he said. “And I have to say working, because I, myself, presided over one of two Prestige Records of Chicago blues bands, but these were not working bands – these were pickup bands.”
Koester’s ‘hands-off’ approach in the studio always paid big dividends for Delmark Records, giving each artist the freedom to create their craft without fear of restrictions or guidelines, resulting in albums that were true representations of what you would see if you went to a club to watch the Chicago blues.
“My role was to keep the engineer from getting in the way,” he said. “Most of the engineers we use understand that they’re also listeners. The best engineers are musicians.”
Despite having a high-powered item like Hoodoo Man Blues in your catalog, it can be a daunting proposition to keep a record label afloat.
Even a label with all the cache that Delmark has.
“Sales in the industry fall off about 95 percent after the first year (of a release) and it can get worse. So if the artist will sell records off the bandstand, that’s a major factor in our decision to record an artist,” Koester said. “If a guy wants a record, but doesn’t want to sell them, he probably won’t get recorded. A jazz artist damn sure won’t get recorded. I hate that, because they are guys that I want to record, but they won’t sell their records. After the first year, assuming he’s working regularly, an artist can sell more records off the bandstand than we could sell in the entire world.”
Even though the business of gathering masters and then re-releasing them has been a major part of Delmark’s modus operandi the past several decades, the label has certainly not turned its back on the cats that are out there playing the blues today.
Witness releases by ‘newer’ artists like James Kinds and Toronzo Cannon for proof. Highly-acclaimed releases, both of them.
“Well, I really feel like it’s more important to record people than it is to acquire old masters, anyway,” Koester said. “I’d like to be able to prove that the blues are not dying. Most of our releases these days are stuff that we’ve recorded. We’ve pretty much exhausted the United catalog. And we’ve got about one more good batch of Apollo stuff to release.”
One thing Delmark has never been about is making a quick buck. While that temptation has probably reared its head from time to time, Koester and his label refuse to give in to the green demon.
“The main rule of jazz specialty recording companies has always been, you’re not going to get your money back right away, like you would with a hit. But you’re less likely to lose it all, too. A big percentage of the pop records that get issued lose money for the company. And if they spend a lot on promotion, they really lose money,” said Koester. “The difference between jazz and pop is, pop tends to be disposable music. It’s very easy to get into the record business, but it’s not so easy to get out alive.”
Koester’s place in jazz and blues history is firmly cemented based solely on what he’s done with Delmark and at the Jazz Record Mart.
But there’s also another Hall of Fame worthy accomplishment that he needs to be noted for. He was an early boss, tutor, mentor and friend to another couple of guys that have carved out their own space in the annals of blues history – Bruce Iglauer and Michael Frank.
Before going on to form Alligator Records and Earwig Records respectively, Iglauer and Frank both worked for Koester in the 1970s.
“Well, I think they both told me they wanted to start a label,” Koester said. “So I told them – ‘Good. Let me help you.’ And I guess I gave them a few pointers. Later on, they were the ones giving me the pointers.”
Koester’s influence doesn’t stop there with Iglauer and Frank, however.
That list also features: Chuck Nessa of Nessa Records and the distribution company Master Takes; Jim O'Neal of Rooster Records and Living Blues Magazine; and the late Bruce Kaplan of Flying Fish Records.
It’s amazing to think that all of those gentlemen at one time early in their career were a part of either Delmark Records or the Jazz Record Mart extended family.
“Yeah, we’ve given birth to a few jazz labels, too. But I think they were going to be born whether they worked for Bob Koester or not,” he said. “It’s a seduction.”
Koester’s role at both places has changed over the ensuing years; to the point that now he’s almost taken on the position of CEO, turning over the day-to-day chores of operation to his trusted aides.
“I’ve got good managers at both places. Steve Wagner pretty much runs Delmark – he’s the engineer and handles the fine points of production. He gets the cover designs together and I get to decide which one I like. As for the store, Ron Bierma does a wonderful job of managing the store,” Koester said. “And both managers know when to ask me and when to just go ahead and do something. That’s the main thing you want in a manager.” We’ve got a good staff, too. It’s a small group, but we all get along.”
Koester, Delmark Records and the Jazz Record Mart have all seen their share of slow times throughout the years.
From economic downturns to the changing tastes of music listeners, through rising costs of shipping and production … even through the rise and fall of disco … the three have all managed to stay the course. But was there ever a time when Koester threw up his hands and screamed, ‘Enough is enough! I’m outta’ here!?
“No. It’s too much fun. I get to listen to all this music. If I go hear a band, it’s tax deductable,” he said. “And I get in a lot of clubs for nothing. I don’t drink, but I do drink water, so I’m a cheap date.”
And while it is way, way too early for Koester to ride off into the sunset on his white horse, it’s not too early to remember the titan of jazz and blues for his contributions to the history of recorded music.
“I’d like to be remembered by people buying the *&%#@ records,” he said. “I have some hopes that when I’m gone, my family will continue running the store with Ron. And I think it’s possible that Steve Wagner will end up owning Delmark. I don’t know. I figure my wife will want to retire one of these days. She’s the glue around here. I’m just at the sideline, watching.”
Photo by Bob Kieser © 2012
Interviewer Terry Mullins is a journalist and former record store owner whose personal taste in music is the sonic equivalent of Attention Deficit Disorder. Works by the Bee Gees, Captain Beefheart, Black Sabbath, Earth, Wind & Fire and Willie Nelson share equal space with Muddy Waters, The Staples Singers and R.L. Burnside in his compact disc collection. He's also been known to spend time hanging out on the street corners of Clarksdale, Miss., eating copious amounts of barbecued delicacies while listening to the wonderful sounds of the blues.
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Mid-Mississippi Muddy Water Blues Society - Quincy, IL
Blues Society President, and long time Blues radio host Jerry Davis' Sunday morning Blues Show-"Blues Till Noon with Jerry D" is now being streamed live on the web, Sunday mornings from 9am-Noon at www.1039thefox.com. Check it out, and help keep the Blues alive locally in the Quincy IL area, and get your Sunday Morning Blues Fix!
River City Blues Society - Peoria, IL
The River City Blues Society and Freebird Chapter of Abate of Illinois presents Bikes, Blues and BBQ September 29th at VFW Post 1232 at 15665 VFW Road, Pekin, IL. The show starts at 1pm and features 3 bands including Nick Moss & The Fliptops, Rooster Alley and The Governor, The event features BBQ by Sammy Lynn's Smokehouse, beer, soda and water for purchase. Bring your lawn chairs. Admission is $10.
The River City Blues Society presents Michael Charles at 7:00 pm Wednesday October 10th at Goodfellas 1414 N. 8th St. Pekin, Illinois $5.00 general public, John Primer at 7:00 pm Wednesday November. 7th at Goodfellas 1414 N. 8th St. Pekin, Illinois Admission: $7.00 general public or $5.00 for Society Members For more info visit: www.rivercityblues.com or call 309-648-8510
Illinois Central Blues Club - Springfield, IL
The Illinois Central Blues Club presents "Blue Monday" every Monday night for the last 25 years - BLUE MONDAY SHOWS - Held at the Alamo 115 N 5th St, Springfield, IL (217) 523-1455 every Monday 8:00pm $3 cover. • 10/1/2012 - Levee Town • 10/8/2012 - Rich Fabec • 10/15/2012 - Jason Elmore • Oct 22 - James Armstrong •Oct 29 - The Mojo Cats More info available at icbluesclub.org
The Friends Of The Blues - Watseka, IL
Friends of the Blues present 2012 shows:
Tentative Tues, Oct 9, Too Slim & Taildraggers, 7 pm, Kankakee Valley Boat Club
Thurs, Oct 18, Morry Sochat & The Special 20s, 7 pm, Kankakee Valley Boat Club
Thur, Nov 1, Steve “The Harp” Blues Band, 7 pm, venue TBA
Thur, Nov 8, Eddie Turner, 7 pm, Bradley Bourbonnais Sportsmen’s Club
The DC Blues Society - Washingon, D.C.
DC Blues Society: Celebrating the Blues for 25 years in DC-MD-VA!
DC Blues Society's Annual Battle of the Bands takes place 7:00 pm - 12:30 AM on Saturday, October 13, 2012 at American Legion Post No. 268, 11225 Fern Street, Wheaton, MD. Plenty of free parking! The winner represents DCBS at the International Blues Challenge and local events like the Annual College Park Blues Festival at Ritchie Coliseum, University of MD in College Park, MD on Saturday, Nov. 10, 2012 and 25th Annual DC Blues Festival in Washington, DC on Saturday, Aug. 31, 2013. This is your chance to support your favorite group and learn more about area bands. A night not to be missed!
Purchase advance tickets online. DCBS Members: $10 advance/$12 door/ Non-members: $13 advance/$15 door. You can also join & renew on-line: www.dcblues.org or call 301-322-4808
Crossroads Blues Society - Freeport, IL
Vizztone Recording Artist Gina Sicilia and her band will be in the Rockford area on Wednesday, October 17th, in support of Crossroads Blues Society and their Blues in the Schools (BITS) Program. Hailing from Bucks County, Pennsylvania (just north of Philadelphia), Ms. Sicilia is a superb young artist with a huge and expressive voice. With three great CDs under her belt, she is getting noticed in the blues world both in the US and internationally.
She will be conducting an evening show open to the public as part of the BITS effort. Admission to the show is only $5 and is free for students. The show is at the Adriatic Live Music Bar on 321 W. Jefferson. Call 779-537-4006 for more information.
Prairie Crossroads Blues Society - Champaign-Urbana, Illinois
Prairie Crossroads Blues Society of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois will hold its 2nd Annual Local International Blues Challenge on Saturday, October 20th at Memphis on Main, 55 East Main St., Champaign.
The winning band will receive a minimum of $1000.00 in travel assistance and go on to represent our blues society at the 2013 International Blues Challenge scheduled for January 29- February 2, in Memphis, Tennessee. We will provide a drum kit donated by Skins-N-Tins Drum Shop. All bands taking part in the event will be able to sell their CDs.
Please visit www.prairiecrossroadsblues.org/ibc_challenge13.html to find out more about our event and other rules for competing bands. Deadline to enter is Tuesday, September 25, 2012. Event start time will be determined by the number of bands competing.
West Virginia Blues Society - Charleston, W.V.
The West Virginia Blues Society will hold its Sixth Annual Blues Competition on October 13, 2012 at The Sound Factory, 812 Kanawha Blvd. Charleston, WV 25301. Blues bands, solo/duo and a Youth Division blues acts will compete for cash prizes and WVBS sponsorship to the Blues Foundation's International Blues Challenge held in Memphis, Tennessee. Jan. 29 - Feb 2 - Jan 2013.
CONTACT PERSON FOR COMPETITION PARTICIPANTS: Complete information, application & rules are available online at www.wvbluessociety.org . Deadline for application submission is September 21, 2012. For more information contact Competition Director, Mike Price at 304-389-5535 or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or Jack Rice at email@example.com.
Minnesota Blues Society - St. Paul, MN
The Minnesota Blues Society presents 2012 Minnesota Hall of Fame inductees. MnBS would like to congratulate this years' honorees: Big Walter Smith, "Blues Performer"; James Samuel "Cornbread" Harris, Sr., "Blues Legend"; Dan Schwalbe, "Blues Sideman"; Electric Fetus, "Supportive of the Blues (non-performer)"; Cyn Collins, "West Bank Boogie", "Blues Art and Literature"; Lamont Cranston, "Tiger in your Tank", "Blues Recording"; Will Donicht, "Blues on the Bank", "Blues Song". 2012 Minnesota Hall of Fame event will be held, Sun, Oct 14, Wilebski's Blues Saloon, St. Paul. Mn details to follow @ www.mnbs.org
Featured Blues Review 3 of 6
Mick Clarke - The Rambunctious Blues Experiment
12 songs; 50:14 minutes
Styles: Modern Electric Blues Rock
According to the scientific method, there are five parts to any experiment: a hypothesis, prediction, independent variable, dependent variable, and conclusion. What would a “blues experiment” look like? Let’s try one on a British veteran Mick Clarke and “The Rambunctious Blues Experiment,” released in 2011. Hypothesis: This album will be entertaining to fans of blues and blues rock, whatever their geographical location. Prediction: The hypothesis will be soundly proven. Independent variable: Clarke presents twelve original songs, each with their own distinct properties. Dependent variable: The factor being measured here, entertainment value, is highly subjective and relies upon the personal preferences of each listener. Taking a look at three particular songs, we can clearly gauge the musical expertise of Clarke, Dangerous Dave Newman on harmonica, and Russell Chaney on drums (additional bass, keyboards, and drums were programmed by Mick Clarke):
Track 01: “Cheap”-- “Some people like to brag a lot at the expense of blues they got. Cheap don’t worry me. I am looking at love--I ain’t worried about the quality….” Right from the start, Clarke lays his objective on the line. One could easily substitute another word for “love” and realize the true nature of for what he’s searching, but certain down-and-outers can relate. Clarke’s gruff vocals are spoken-sung (throughout the CD), so the guitar hook on this song is its catchiest feature that will stick in fans’ heads whether they consider themselves “Cheap” or not!
Track 02: “Poor Day”--Continuing the theme of monetary difficulty is the second track on this album, a stunning piece of slow blues: “I ain’t got time to talk with you. Money’s tight; I’ve got things to do. It’s going to be a poor day, poor day, and that’s no lie.” One gets the feeling that Mick doesn’t only mean “poor” in a financial sense. Dangerous Dave Newman’s harmonica wails in distress, adding emphasis to the gritty guitar solo in the middle.
Track 11: “I Should’ve Waited”--Sometimes, people’s mouths kick into high gear before their brain shifts into first. The result is the subject of this rueful ballad: “I should have stood back and hung around--shouldn’t have let my fool self down!” Our narrator leaves it up to blues fans to imagine the situation (bar fight? Lovers’ quarrel? Mouthing off to the boss? All of the above?) Regardless, he gives us a playful reminder that it’s better to engage one’s mental processes before the vocal ones.
In the CD liner notes, Clarke comments: “The tracks were not only recorded first take, there was also no rehearsal at all, minimal discussion as to what we were about to play, and some of the songs were written actually as they recorded.” This is a startling revelation, proving our original hypothesis: “The Rambunctious Blues Experiment” is a success worth more than one listen!Reviewer Rainey Wetnight is a 32 year old female Blues fan. She brings the perspective of a younger blues fan to reviews. A child of 1980s music, she was strongly influenced by her father’s blues music collection.
Featured Blues Review 4 of 6
Killing Floor - Rock ‘n’ Roll Gone Mad
Acid Bean Productions / Rockfold Records
12 songs; 42:58 minutes; Meritable
Styles: Modern Electric Blues-Rock, Rock and Roll
What is more addictive than heroin? It has been said that nicotine can sink its hooks deeper than any other drug. As if to illustrate, the UK’s “Killing Floor” has recorded “Toxic Nipple (One Cigarette).” Disturbingly honest and brutally existential, the song finds the protagonist on his death bed because of smoking; he wants “just one last cigarette before I die … one last smoke before I croak.” One of the Bluesiest numbers, this mid tempo track haunts with Mick Clarke’s shimmering guitar lines above a heart-pounding rhythm while Bill Thorndycraft lays down the convincing vocals. Raspy and seasoned, Thorndycraft’s vocals throughout the CD are anything but sweet or maudlin.
Killing Floor was formed in 1968 and was an active part of the British "Blues boom" of the late 1960s, which produced so many great bands. Over the next four years the band built a strong reputation on the club and college scene in the UK, played major festivals in Europe and backed Texas blues legend Freddie King on two British tours. Two albums were produced early on, both of which have been reissued many times and continue to sell worldwide. In 2003 the original band reformed to produce a new album "Zero Tolerance" and play selected concert dates across Europe.
Killing Floor has now released their fourth album "Rock'n'Roll Gone Mad" earlier in 2012. The current lineup has all four original members: Bill Thorndycraft – vocals, harp, guitar; Mick Clarke – guitar, vocals; Bazz Smith – drums; and Stuart “Mac” McDonald - bass. Blues is in the roots of the songs on this album, but the CD title tells it like it is. Dedicated to the late Hubert Sumlin (although you will find few licks invented by Sumlin), the album features twelve original songs. Overall, there is cocksure, damn-straight pose, a little crash and thrash, some sly humor, but mainly gut-felt rawness. This four-some knows that at their ages, there is no time left to be pussy-footing around (and I can relate to that)! Again, read the title.
The opening track, “Rack My Brain,” challenges the honesty of politicians everywhere with its charging guitar and catchy rhythm. Thorndycraft blows hair-raising harmonica for a rage against xenophobes in another Bluesy number, “Xenophobic Blues.” Headed for some radio airplay is the dance inducing instrumental “Auntie Peggy’s Handbag” featuring Mick Clarke on piano.
The boys must have listened seriously to The Clash and The Ramones as one can hear up-tempo, hard hitting thrash influences in a couple of numbers: the title track, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Gone Mad,” and “Dissatisfied” – the latter a clever list of the narrator’s annoyances.
Let’s be honest, when it comes to Blues and its subsequent Blues-Rock, the Brits ironically “got it” well ahead of most Americans. Not only did Killing Floor get it, they have still got it! If what you want to get is some Brit grit, this is it!
Reviewer James "Skyy Dobro" Walker is a noted Blues writer, DJ, Master of Ceremonies, and Blues Blast contributor. His weekly radio show "Friends of the Blues" can be heard Saturdays 8 pm - Midnight on WKCC 91.1 FM and at www.wkccradio.org in Kankakee, IL.
Featured Blues Review 5 of 6
Open Blues – Piec Zlotych
HRPP Records 2012
11 tracks; 44.07 minutes
I reviewed the debut CD from this band in 2010. The line-up on this new CD is unchanged from that debut: harp/vocals (Przemyslaw Losos)), guitars (Wieslaw Krysewski), keyboards (Igor Nowicki), bass (Tomasz Imienowski) and drums (Grzegorz Minicz). The previous album featured a mix of originals and familiar covers; this time around all the songs are original and are sung in Polish. Most of the songs’ lyrics are by names from outside the band with music written by Open Blues. The album is well recorded and all instruments and vocals are clear in the mix.
Singer Losos has a good voice but without understanding the lyrics it is harder to give a proper consideration to the songs. From the titles the range seems to cover the usual topics but titles such as “Camel” and “Gadabout” suggest that lyrically Open Blues may have something interesting to offer. However, as a non-Polish speaker I will have to content myself to reviewing the music behind the words!
The first observation is that the songs are quite short, mainly around the 4 minute mark, so lengthy soloing is not part of the band’s approach. One of the band’s trump cards is that they can handle a good range of styles within and adjacent to the blues. For example track 1 is an uptempo rocker with an insistent guitar riff and some nice sustained notes on the harp break; the title track has a lighter, jazzier feel with piano to the fore and a call and response chorus; track 3 has more of a soul feel and, track 4 is a harp-led boogie. The remaining tracks offer a similar diversity and final track “You Have To Remember” is definitely not blues but is a beautifully constructed and sung ballad.
As ever, it is great to see how far the blues has spread out from its origins and full credit to this Polish band for putting together another well played and produced album. The CD is available from the band’s website.
Reviewer John Mitchell is a blues enthusiast based in the UK. He also travels to the States most years to see live blues music and enjoyed the Tampa Bay Blues Festival in April.
Featured Blues Review 6 of 6
The Bluesmasters - Volume Two
Direct Music LLC
12 Tracks; 41:48
The Bluesmasters is the brainchild of producer/guitarist Tim Tucker. The first Bluesmasters project became a showcase for Mickey Thomas of Jefferson Starship and Elvin Bishop’s “Fooled Around & Fell In Love” fame. The Bluesmasters Volume Two centers on the vocal talents of newcomer Cassie Taylor. Cassie is the daughter of enigmatic blues journeyman Otis Taylor in whose band she played bass and sang back up for several years. Cassie has toured and recorded as part of the Girls With Guitars project with Dani Wilde and Samantha Fish, and in 2011 she recorded the album Blue produced by Tim Tucker. On Bluesmasters Volume Two Cassie Taylor plays bass and fronts a band made up of Tim Tucker on guitar, Ric Ulsky on Hammond B3, Doug Lynn on harmonica, Larry Thompson on drums, and rock veteran Aynsley Dunbar on drums.
The disc is subtitled “In Memory of Our Friends Pinetop Perkins and Hubert Sumlin” who appear on the album, but where and when is up for debate. The musician credits seem to imply the presence of the true Blues masters on every track but their contributions seem minimal at best. Mickey Thomas makes a return appearance, singing “Red Rooster,” “Get Me A Car,” and singing a duet with Cassie Taylor on “I’d Rather Go Blind.” Colorado’s hidden treasure Hazel Miller sings “Tangoray” and Jimmy Reed’s “Big Boss Man.” Rusty Anderson from Paul McCartney’s band adds guitar to “I’d Rather Drink Muddy Water” and Eric Gales kicks the guitar heat up a few notches on Studebaker John’s “Fine Cadillac” on which he also duets with Cassie Taylor.
Even with all the guests, I’m still hard-pressed to find a blues master on this album. Hubert Sumlin and Pinetop Perkins may have contributed to the recordings but their parts are not prominent and could probably be removed and not missed. Eric Gales is an exceptional guitar player and always a pleasure to hear. He probably comes closest to achieving the “blues master” status. Maybe the “Bluesmasters” moniker is a nod to the masters covered on the album like Muddy Waters, Elmore James, and Robert Johnson. I don’t know the answer, but if you put a name like “Bluesmasters” on a disc you better live up to it and this ensemble falls short. The band is adequate but you can hear their equal or better anywhere in the world this weekend in some crappy bar, banging out blues covers for 100 bucks & free beer.
Cassie Taylor’s performance here is occasionally exceptional and her breathy, sensual take on “I Just Want To Make Love To You” might just have you believing it. She sparkles on the one-two punch of album opener “Bring It On Home To Me” and then Elmore James’ “Talk To Me Baby” making the pair of tunes much more than just throwaway covers. Overall her work is good, but not great, and it hints at the talent bubbling under the surface. She seems restrained, and occasionally tentative, and sometimes completely out of place as on Robert Johnson’s “32/20 Blues.” Cassie sounds too soft and happy to be singing a song about betrayal and murder. Cassie Taylor is a sultry songstress. She channels her feminine charms in her delivery and to be effective, she needs material suited to her style. Cassie Taylor is a talented young lady who should probably stick to her own music; the connection to it is deeper.
I appreciate the fact these guys love the blues and are trying to showcase the songs of blues legends past but they don’t add anything to the originals or, even better, put their own stamp on the material. They have fallen prey to the casual, suburban blues: polished, pretty, and prosaic. There’s a reason these songs are classics and it seems lost on many of today’s blues players. Too many modern blues musicians think it’s all about the formula and not the results, and there we have Bluesmasters Volume Two: perfect formula with imperfect results.
Reviewer Jim Kanavy is the greatest guitar player in his house. He has been reviewing albums in his head for 30 years and in print since 2008, and is deeply committed to keeping the blues alive and thriving. For more information visit http://jimkanavy.com.
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