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The Boston Phoenix The Dirty Dozen

Twelve gritty new blues CDs

By Ted Drozdowski

JUNE 7, 1999:  Here's mud in your ear: a dozen new or reissued blues albums that capture the gritty spirit of the music in a passel of different ways, from the straight-out-of-the-soil sound of country bluesman James "Son Ford" Thomas to the red-clay soul crooning of Robert Cray.

What they all have in common is that near-elemental quality and sense of human history that's one of the blues' best virtues. If God made man out of mud . . . well, that's nearly all the enslaved creators of this great American music had to work with that they could call their own. That and their own blood, sweat, and spirit. And when this music hits its mark, that can be heard in its sound.

So without further ado, let's check out the dirty dozen:


James "Son" Thomas, BEEFSTEAK BLUES (Evidence)

These mostly European recordings of Mississippi's Thomas playing acoustic and electric guitar alone (save for one tune with bass and another with bass and drums) in the '80s may be his best work on disc. The late Thomas was not a great blues talent -- in fact, one could argue that his folk art (on display in Cambridge's House of Blues) was better than his music. But there's a relaxed feel to his strumming and thin-voiced singing that echoes back-porch comfort and makes these 12 mostly traditional tunes a pleasure. His ribald reading of "Catfish Blues," which he credibly identifies as the original juke-joint crowd pleaser, tells exactly how his baby can "make a dead man come." You want dirty blues? You got 'em.


Clarence Brewer, KING CLARENTZ (HMG/Hightone)

The blues discovery of the year, 49-year-old Missourian Brewer is a raw slide player and singer -- the proverbial "one that got away" from the Fat Possum label. He plays with the kind of big, unstoppable beat that makes R.L. Burnside such a house rocker. And whether he's singing about the "Box Spring Boogie" or devils and Republicans (what's the difference, anyway?), there's a playfulness and twisted wit at work that indicates he could turn into T-Model Ford when he grows up. Break out the moonshine.


Preston Shannon, ALL IN TIME (Bullseye Blues & Jazz)

This guitarist/singer works at least three nights a week on Memphis's Beale Street, where it's covers that please the tourists. So it's no surprise he knows "Purple Rain." The jolt comes in his delivery (which criss-crosses the blues-rock boundary line with a stretch of feedback), his declamatory shouting, and the raw sizzle he invests in his performance. And new tunes like "Just Between Me and My Woman" and "Tired of the Ghetto Bringing Me Down" go easily along the soul-blues path. No wonder, with classic Hi Records producer Willie Mitchell at the helm.


Luther "Guitar Junior" Johnson, GOT TO FIND A WAY (Telarc)

Chicago-to-New-Hampshire transplant Johnson is getting older, but he's also getting better. In fact, the Muddy Waters Band veteran has grown to become one of today's finest exponents of chugging Chicago blues. He throws down the Windy City soul on "Got To Find a Way," lays solos full of hard-snapped phrases everywhere, and tackles his own "Luther's Blues" with smoky aplomb, putting a Magic Sam-like cry into both his full-throated singing and his guitar. Johnson doesn't have the vocal skill to wrap around Bobby Bland's "I Pity the Fool." Otherwise, this is textbook West Side blues. Dig it all night long.


Robert Nighthawk, BRICKS IN MY PILLOW (Delmark)

Another in the series of great recordings from the long-dead United Label being reissued by Chicago-based blues and jazz specialists Delmark. Nighthawk is a legendary performer not only because of his guitar expertise but because of his relatively few recordings. So these 14 tracks are manna for diehards. And his sweet, singing slide on numbers like "The Moon Is Rising" and "Crying Won't Help You" will explain why to novices and thrill fans. Add Nighthawk's low Mississippi moan for more chills. It's a voice from the pit of the soul. Great blues.


Frank Frost and Sam Carr, THE JELLY ROLL KINGS (HMG/High Tone)

Drummer Carr is the late Robert Nighthawk's son and perhaps the greatest living blues sticksman. His kit embraces the drive of rock and roll and the roll and tumble of Mississippi fife & drum music. Frost, from Helena, Arkansas, is the singing, harp- and keyboard-playing successor to Sonny Boy Williamson. Along with Big Jack Johnson, Carr and Frost were once the definitive modern electric juke-joint band the Jelly Roll Kings. Here, with guitarist Fred James in tow, they pay romping tribute to their Kings heyday, dishing out hellified boogie and blue soul. Frost snarls and purrs through his Mississippi saxophone, Carr propels with the surety of a freight engine, and James -- challenged to meet Big Jack's standard -- rises to the occasion with nimble rhythm licks and solos full of slick sliding and gliding bends. Cool.


Robert Lockwood Jr., THE COMPLETE TRIX RECORDINGS (32 Blues)

Somewhere along the line octogenarian Lockwood got it into his stubborn head that he had to renounce gut-bucket blues to be respected as a guitar player. Just about everybody knows this is bullshit except him. Fortunately, he was still doing what he does best when he made these recordings in the early '70s. And he's great on all these tracks, whether plying slide and lonely voice in the footsteps of his guitar teacher/stepfather Robert Johnson on "Little Boy Blue" or swinging hard on the jump instrumental "Annie's Boogie," which was written for his sweetheart of a wife. His propulsive rhythm and lead on "King Biscuit Time" is an especially dazzling example of blues virtuosity and versatility. Last year, he made an all-blues album called I Got To Find Me a Woman (Verve). He didn't like it. But I did. And this one's even better.


Guitar Shorty & the Otis Grand Blues Band, MY WAY OR THE HIGHWAY (JSP)

Last year Guitar Shorty made his best album, Roll Over, Baby (Black Top). But this obscure Louisiana picker and flipper (he's known for his on-stage somersaults) was beginning to fan his flames high in 1991, when he cut this album in England. Full of the kind of dexterous licks and manic bends that got him his first deal (with Chicago's famed Cobra Records in the '50s) and supposedly influenced Buddy Guy, it's an energetic fix for six-string addicts. Shorty exhibits the influences of Guitar Slim, from his native state, and Johnny "Guitar" Watson, from his adopted California home turf -- especially in the soul guitar workout "It's Too Late." Not a prophetic title in the ebullient Shorty's case.


Various Artists, WITCHCRAFT: BLACK MAGIC FOR BEGINNERS (Black Magic)

This Europe-based label specializes in raw soul-blues talent with an angle: most of them are guitar killers, too. They range in fame from the late and highly influential smoothie Fenton Robinson to the just-emerging B.B. King-influenced Johnnie Bassett. There's also the stinging Nashville bluesman Johnny Jones, who kicks off the CD with a to-the-bone "Chip off the Old Block" (with exemplary tenor-sax support from ex-Bostonian Dennis Taylor) and the classic Chicago blues shouter Lee "Shot" Williams. Notables Lacy Gibson, Kid Ramos, Smokey Wilson, and Little Smokey Smothers are also present. Few samplers hang together this coherently. Quality performances are the glue.


Neal Pattman, PRISON BLUES (Music Maker/Cello)

Neal Pattman is the sole musician working under the umbrella of Virginia's Music Maker foundation who's impressed me. When the organization brought the older musicians it seeks to benefit to Boston recently on a tour underwritten by Winston, it seemed as though they were just blowing smoke. Cootie Stark proved to be a strong singer but a weak guitarist with a mediocre repertoire of tunes. Beverly "Guitar" Watkins really couldn't play much at all. And the younger members of the tour were, in a word, hideous. But Neal Pattman stood out for his indelible character. Pattman is a one-armed harmonica player and singer who beats rhythm with his foot. He's not a virtuoso by any means. But his rough voice and his stories of life in prison, bad love, and hope for spiritual redemption are arresting -- and made even more so by the sight of him sweating and huffing in front of the microphone, trying to squeeze the essence of his life into just a few minutes on stage. Or, in this case, on disc.


Lightnin' Hopkins, THE VERY BEST OF LIGHTNIN' HOPKINS (Tradition)

Hopkins recorded so often during his lifetime that it's impossible to tell what his very best work is. But these acoustic recordings preserve the late Texas blues great's wit, dry delivery, dusty voice, and elegantly capering guitar. I'm bigger on his electric recordings, but this is a superb introduction to his legacy. Give it to a Jonny Lang fan who might want to hear some blues.


The Robert Cray Band, TAKE YOUR SHOES OFF (Ryko)

Cray's convinced he's a Memphis soul man, and after you hear this record it's impossible to argue with him. He's gone for a sound fusing the Tennessee musical wonderland's Stax and Hi label signatures -- epic horn lines, church-bred vocals, and a sense of romance that's both ghetto-wise and country-fresh -- on previous occasions. This time he nails it. It helps that the opening "Love Gone to Waste" was penned by Willie Mitchell. But it's the beauty of Cray's voice that makes these songs take flight. He hasn't let his fingers go to pot, either: the guitar solos are probing, emotive, and smart all the way through. His self-imposed switch from major-label Mercury to artist-friendly indie Ryko seems to have yielded creative, um . . . paydirt.


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