It’s Happening for Johnnie Bassett
Johnnie Bassett is 75. Although an iconic figure in his hometown, the Detroit blues guitarist has lived in the shadow of guys like B.B. King – and in his younger days, T-Bone Walker. But he never stopped playing, and he’s got a new album, I Can Make That Happen which ought to elevate his profile internationally. Like Walker in his earlier days, Bassett’s guitar style is soulful and contemplative, often with a darkly jazzy edge – he doesn’t waste notes, and he’d rather make a statement or add meaning to the lyrics than show off his fast fingers. His backing band here is respected Detroit trio the Brothers Groove (drummer Skeeto Valdez, bassist James Simonson and keyboardist Chris Codish) along with longtime Stevie Wonder trumpeter Dwight Adams and other A-list Detroit players including John Rutherford on trombone, Bob Jensen and Mark Byerly on trumpets, Keith Kaminski on saxes and Brett Lucas on guitar. The oldschool production suits the playing here: it’s not analog, but the mix is tasteful, with the drums in back where they belong.
The classic track here is Let’s Get Hammered, the most amusingly fun blues drinking song since Albert Collins recorded I Ain’t Drunk (I’m Just Drinking) back in 1985. The bouncy, organ-fueled Love Lessons has a good time with teacher/student innuendos, then Bassett amps up the Freudian factor with the steady, swinging Spike Boy. The title track, a vintage Little Milton-style soul/blues tune has one of Bassett’s most memorable solos, a suspenseful series of raindroplets. Motor City Blues works elegantly around a boogie riff, Kaminski’s casually purposeful sax drives the instrumental Dawging Around, while Cha’mon takes the riff from Jimi Hendrix’ Fire and gives it a soul/funk groove. And then they cover The Wind Cries Mary, sticking close to the original, right down to Valdez’ nimbly staggered drums.
Not all the songs are straight-up blues. Proud to Be from Detroit has a funky edge and namechecks familiar landmarks and teams, including the Red Wings. There’s also a pulsing cover of Sam Cooke’s Cry to Me, with a pensive B.B. King-style solo, and the gospel-tinged ballad Teach Me to Love, a duet with Thornetta Davis. Nice to see Detroit’s Mack Avenue Records going to bat for a hometown guy. As with all the Mississippi hill country guys that Fat Possum put out in the 90s, it’s reason to wonder how many other Johnnie Bassetts there are out there who also deserve to be heard outside their home turf.