New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: b.b. king

Edgy, Oldschool Electric Florida Blues From the Wailin’ Wolves

The Wailin’ Wolves come from blues country: deep down in Florida, as Muddy Waters used to sing. They’ve been a mainstay of East Florida roadhouses for years. There’s been some turnover in the band in the wake of the death of co-founder and guitarist Bert Calderon, but they continue to soldier on, and put on an often electrifying, unpredictable show. They’re playing a free outdoor gig at 3 PM on Oct 25 at Fish Camp, a burger joint at 12062 Waterfront Drive on Lake Lamonia in Tallahassee; there’s no cover.

Some blues bands go into the studio and make rushjob albums (Rounder Records was notorious for doing that throughout the 80s and 90s). Not the Wailin’ Wolves. They’ve got more than an hour of frequently feral live audio at their music page, a mix of classics and originals.

The group’s latest lead guitarist, Lenny Widener is the rare blues player who doesn’t waste notes, although he takes a lot of chances: he’s always thisclose to going over the edge, whether with his wah-wah on or just an icy, gritty tone on his Strat.

Frontwoman Brittany Widener is a brassy belter: imagine Susan Tedeschi but with more sass and simmer. Keyboardist Jim Graham holds the group together throughout the solos, and seems just as home playing honkytonk and blues piano in a swinging pocket with bassist Adam Gaffney and drummer Deb Berlinger.

Hit their music page and give a listen to Bert’s Bolero, a haphazard minor-key blues written by Calderon, which sounds like early Santana covering the Doors. Taxi Man, with a sultry vocal from the group’s frontwoman and some wry wah guitar, is another original, which they follow with the slow boogie Help Me. Some choice covers include a careening take of Hey Bartender, an unexpectedly energetic version of The Thrill Is Gone and a growling, upbeat, Stonesy reinvention of the Howlin’ Wolf classic Built For Comfort. This is how people play the blues in the parts of the world where it’s still party music.

For those who might why a New York music blog would suddenly take an interest in places like Tallahassee, or Sioux Falls, that’s because both of those cities have live music. And thanks to a power-mad dictator in the New York state house, New York City has little more than buskers in city parks and jazz groups phoning in sidewalk cafe gigs. Much respect to the people of Sioux Falls and Tallahassee for keeping the arts alive when they’re all but dead in Manhattan.

In Memoriam: B.B. King

B.B. King, the beloved “King of the Blues” and worldwide ambassador for the music he played through parts of nine decades, died last night at his Las Vegas home. He was 89. Born into near-slavery in Mississippi, abandoned by his parents at age four to spend a winter alone in a plantation shotgun shack, Riley B. King rose to become the world’s best-known electric bluesman, and arguably the greatest singer and guitarist the style has ever known.

King got his start in music walking miles into town from the plantation on Saturday nights to busk. Bulding a repertoire of originals and covers that would reach over one thousand songs, King managed to connect with the second Sonny Bon Williamson, Rice Miller, who doubled as a Memphis radio disc jockey when not on the road. King earned his nicknane – it stands for Blues Boy – as Miler’s dj protege. Using the radio gig as a springboard for his own career, King started with a small band and by the mid-50s was touring in his own custom-made bus with a full orchestra, playing upwards of 300 shows a year, a pace he maintained for most of his life. In his career, he played well over ten thousand concerts.

King described his vocals as “raw,” and although his gritty baritone could be plaintive and anguished, his singing was nuanced, sophisticated and eclectic. He could sing gospel fervently or raptly, or croon a ballad, as evocatively as he could rasp and wail his way through a bitter blues lament. He credited not fast fingers but fast wrists for enabling him to deveop fearsome guitar technique, his blazing speed on the fretboard coupled with a remarkably economical approach. And King was just as versatile a blues guitarist as he was a singer: in concert, he could bounce his way through a two-minute, thirty-second hit and then follow that with a ten-minute epic full of guitar pyrotechnics and not waste a note: his mind was as fast as his fingers. And he could channel any emotion he wanted: mystical rapture, buffoonish exuberance, fullscale angst or, when he was feeling it, unreptentant rage.

A scholar of the blues, King built a massive record collection that he ended up donating to Stony Brook University. Largely self-educated, King was a humble but proud man, pollitically aware but diplomatic to the point where Presidents from everywhere on the spectrum felt comfortable inviting him to the White House. As a result, King was the first American blues artist to tour behind the Iron Curtain during the Soviet regime.

Virtually every rock lead guitarist from the 60s through the 80s cited King as an inspiration, or their main inspiration. Many imitated him; none could quite match his tersely incisive attack, which he’d sometimes cap off with a joyous little slide from the highest strings.

By his own count, King officially released just under a hundred albums, hundreds of singles and two rather enigmatic autobiographies. Hundreds, maybe thousands of his shows were also recorded: there’s enough live B.B. King on the web to keep a listener in new material for possibly years. Conventional wisdom is that King’s most defining album is Live at the Regal, a 1964 recording that King disavowed, citing that he’d played thousands of shows better than that one. And he was right: of all the official releases, perhaps the most essential one is Live in Cook County Jail, from 1971. Like his fellow Americana icon Johnny Cash, King was populist to the core and frequently performed behind bars: this particular set features a particularly scorching, dynamically intesne version of How Blue Can You Get as well as versions of many of his biggest hits, including 3 O’Clock Blues, The Thrill Is Gone and Please Accept My Love.

In recent years, as King’s fingers slowed, he went for depth rather than adrenaline. Onstage, his lines became more spare, resonant and mystical, Although the big, robust frame that had shouted and sweated and fired off dizzying volleys of notes for so long was now confined to a chair, King had lost none of his ability to tease and cajole and entertain a crowd. At his last large-scale New York show, outdoors on the water behind the World Financial Center in July of 2013, he transcended a dodgy sound system to deliver a brief set of familiar hits that still found him searching, and exploring, and finding ways to make old material that he’d played hundreds of times sound fresh. Which wss no surprise: transcendence defined B.B. King.

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.