New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: blues

Twisted Things Come in Threes Today

Been a little while since there have been any singles on this page. But little by little, more and more artists are gearing up for a return to freedom. There’s optimism, apocalypse and fury in today’s trio of songs.

“I’m living in a ghost town, I’m doing things my way, I’m not dead yet, ” four-piece New York band Devora’s frontwoman asserts over skronky minimalist punk rock straight out of the late 80s in their latest single, Not Dead Yet.

Chicago guitar legend Dave Specter and blues harp player Billy Branch build a slow, venomously simmering groove in The Ballad of George Floyd: “Eight minutes of torture, begged for mercy, then he was killed.” Specter has been on a roll with good protest songs, ever since his venomous anti-Trump broadside, How Low Can One Man Go.

Marianne Dissard, who’s been putting out single after hauntingly eclectic single from a planned covers album, has just released the one of her disturbing picks so far, a ghastly remake of Adriano Celentano’s creepily dadaesque 1972 Prisencolinensinainciusol, with a pastiche of samples of lockdown posturing by Boris Johnson, two Trumps, Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel, Reccep Erdogan, and Xi Jinping. Together they give Dissard a long, long rope to hang them with.

Saluting Some Great Women Blues Pioneers

These days, the irrepressible playlisters who put together the Rough Guide compilations have turned to the public domain. With digital music having flatlined as a consumer product a long time ago, one way a record label can survive is to reissue hundred-year-old blues songs that don’t require licensing or royalties. And these Rough Guide oldtime blues playlists are good! Each has lots of music, the greats alongside lesser-known talents. One of the best is the Rough Guide to Blues Women, a twenty-five track mix of guitar, piano and larger-group recordings, mostly from the 1920s, released in 2016 and streaming at Spotify.

There isn’t a lot of obvious material on this one. Among the iconic figures here, Ma Rainey is represented by a proto-dixieland version of Stack O’Lee Blues. Likewise, Bessie Smith’s Careless Love has chattering brass and piano. The Memphis Minnie track here is the lesser-known, upbeat shuffle Frisco Town. Sippie Wallace has a big band behind her in the speakeasy tale Parlor Social DeLuxe, while Victoria Spivey – the sweet-voiced Madonna of the 1920s – closes the album over some tasty stride piano with Hoodoo Man Blues.

For those looking for instrumental flash, check out the neat two-guitar intertwine in Ruth Willis’ Man of My Own, Lottie Kimbrough’s gorgeously chiming Rolling Log Blues, and Mattie Delaney’s elegantly pouncing fretwork in Down the Big Road Blues.

The blues can get pretty grim. Leola Manning’s Arcade Building Moan gruesomely recalls a lethal fire, and Greshie Wiley and Elvie Thomas’ contribute the alllusively grisly Pick Poor Robin Clean.

There’s risque material here too, notably Lucille Bogan’s barrelhouse tune Shave ‘Em Dry. Ida Cox’s Moaning Groaning Blues is somewhat subtler. And Hattie Hart fronts the Memphis Jug Band throughout a jauntily shuffling take of Cocaine Habit Blues, a.k.a. Take a Whiff on Me.

Pearl Dickson’s Little Rock Blues is built around a fleet-fingered, cascading riff, Louisa Johnson channels a brittle unease over thumping piano in By the Moon and Stars, otherwise known as I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down. Hattie Hudson’s surreal, imagistic Black Hand Blues makes a good segue.

There are a handful of ringers on this album. Louis Armstrong is one, with Bertha “Chippie” Hill fronting a piano-trumpet-vocal trio on a steady version of Trouble in Mind. Likewise, Blind Willie McTell backs his wife Kate in what seems an impromptu homemade version of the Prohibition-era relic God Don’t Like It. The version of Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do here is by Fats Waller, with Sara Martin on the mic. And Irene Scruggs sings over Blind Blake’s sparkling picking on Itching Heel Blues.

A Smart, Defiant, Diverse Debut Album From Americana Tunesmith Cristina Vane

Cristina Vane shifts between a simmering intensity and a low-key, brooding vocal delivery. She’s a strong guitarist with command of a whole bunch of blues styles and writes sharply lyrical, darkly aphoristic songs. Her narratives are cached in allusive, grim rural imagery more than fire-and-brimstone gospel. Her brilliant debut album Nowhere Sounds Lovely – streaming at Bandcamp – covers a lot of ground, stylistically and otherwise.

She opens the record with Blueberry Hill – an original, not the Fats Domino classic, although the first verse of this intricately interwoven, Appalachian-flavored acoustic slide guitar blues is set in New Orleans. The devil tells her to get out, so she heads to New Mexico – and that isn’t any more welcoming:

We got spiders in the bathrooms and there’s snakes in the halls
We got our women in white dresses gonna walk through walls
And this house is haunted, not as much as me
But I could shake these demons, they’re good company

Travelin’ Blues has an easygoing Piedmont-style feel, Tommy Hannum’s dobro lingering over Vane’s nimble fingerpicking, bassist Dow Tomlin and drummer Cactus Moser giving it a, loping groove. By contrast, the stark banjo tune Prayer For the Blind has a midwest gothic fatalism, an endless cycle where “Time passes on old wounds as if they were brand new.”

Badlands is not the famous song by that 70s rock guy who became a hopeless lockdowner apologist, but a searing, allusively grim slide guitar-driven blues original. It could be a sinister account of antedeluvian rural hell…or a thinly disguised pro-freedom anthem. The big guitar payoff at the end is spot-on.

There’s redemptive solitude in the front-porch folk waltz Dreaming of Utah, Hannum’s pedal steel adding a touch of vintage Bob Wills western swing. Vane reaches for a matter-of-factly strutting Memphis soul feel in What Remains and goes back to blues with Heaven Bound Station, a steady stroll with some neat twin-guitar interplay.

She switches to banjo for Will I Ever Be Satisfied, a spare, lonesome-traveler type number. Vane imagines her ideal guy in Dreamboy, a stomping, insistent, similarly simmering blues: turns out she likes the strong silent type. Then she slows things down with the moody, slide guitar-driven Wishing Bone Blues, rising out of a hypnotic, summery resonance

The Driving Song captures a gloomy, desperate rural atmosphere where “The characters around me, border the absurd/It’s a comedy of horrors, and it just keeps getting worse.” Vane winds up the album the triumphant waltz Satisfied Soul, Nate Leath’s fiddle harmonizing with the keening pedal steel. If she hits the road in the free states this summer, she’s going to make a whole lot of fans.

An Edgy Playlist for a Spring Day…and a Great Upcoming Webcast

Spring is here and artists are starting to release more and more singles. Prediction: this year we’re going to see more and more music that was recorded in defiance of the lockdown. For your listening pleasure, here’s a self-guided playlist that’s just a small capsule of some of the very good things bubbling up from under the radar:

Molly Burman‘s Fool Me With Flattery has a noirish 60s rock edge with tropicalia tinges. Great jangly guitar!

Just when you think Paper Citizen‘s Scratching the Surface is totally no wave/skronky retro early 80s dystopia, the big catchy crunchy chorus kicks in. The lyrical message is allusive but spot on: let’s get off the screen before it gets us.

Shannon Clark & the Sugar‘s Let It Ride is not a cover of the Bachman-Turner Overdrive hit but a slow-burning minor key blues original. Remember the Black Lodge in Twin Peaks? This is probably on the jukebox there

Blood Lemon‘s Black-Capped Cry oozes through slow, doomy postmetal minimalism. They’re an Idaho band, and Idaho is a free state, so chances are they recorded this legally!

In elegant, stately Hebrew, singer Shifra Levy sings If I Found Grace over pianist/composer Yerachmiel’s neoromantic crescendos. It’s a Purim piano power ballad. Purim is sort of the Jewish Halloween: it’s not macabre, but all the cool kids dress up in costume and go to parties. Purim is over and Passover is looming, but give it a spin anyway

And speaking of awesome Jewish music, iconic klezmer violinist Alicia Svigals is playing a webcast live from Rockland, New York this March 13 at 7 PM. She chooses her spots for when she does these broadcasts, always gives you plenty of thrills and chills but just as much poignancy and an encyclopedic knowledge of the source material.

Chamomile and Whiskey’s Gloomy Americana Rock Narratives Echo in the Here and Now

Americana band Chamomile and Whiskey’s new album Red Clay Heart – streaming at Spotify – is their loudest and darkest yet. The jaunty Celtic-tinged themes and newgrass of their earlier material have been switched out for hard country and electric blues, desperate narratives for desperate times.

The album’s opening track, Way Back is a careening hillbilly boogie “That was way back when I used to give a shit…when I used to strive for greatness, when I used to think I should,” frontman/guitarist Ryan Lavin snarls, flipping off a tantalizing blues solo before the last verse. If nostalgia is the enemy of history, this song rings true.

With its litany of hellfire imagery, Dead Bird seems to be a Bible Belt gothic cautionary tale: “I drank the blood of the savior and he drank some of mine.” The dark electric blues of Will Scott is a good comparison.

The embittered, gloomily reflective Never Live Up follows the same pattern: the full electric band doesn’t kick in until a couple of skeletal acoustic verses. Lavin’s layer of twangy riffage mingle with fiddler Marie Borgman’s leaps and bounds in Triumph, an ironically titled, haphazardly catchy honkytonk shuffle.

They follow the 80s-tinged rock anthem All Right with the fire-and brimstone-shuffle Hard Time Honey, spiced with an unexpected Spanish guitar solo. Another Wake – a requiem for the Charlottesville massacre – is a famous John Lennon piano ballad recast as grim Americana, with a surprisingly empowering message.

The band go back to lo-fi hard honkytonk with the party anthem Best of the Worst, which would have been a good way to end an album which again and again returns to a personal pain that anyone who’s suffered under the past year’s lockdowns can relate to.

Branford Marsalis’ New Soundtrack Salutes an Iconic Blues Heroine

Continuing this month’s theme of big, ambitious projects, one of this year’s most entertaining new albums is Branford Marsalis’ original score to the film Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, streaming at Spotify.

Although conventional wisdom says it never could have happened, a hundred years ago some of the most successful bandleaders in the world were women. Ma Rainey was the first national blues star, and paved the way for the bestselling megastar of the 20s and early 30s, Bessie Smith. It’s about time Rainey, whose theatrics and sardonic persona spoke for a generation of indomitable black women, got the props she deserved, and Marsalis delivers a score that does her justice. The production values are purist, but in the here and now: Marsalis doesn’t try to recreate any kind of rustic ambience or trebly imitation of Rainey’s iconic 78 RPM records.

Singer Maxayn Lewis delivers the songs with an expressive alto that’s grittier than Rainey’s signature, understatedly brooding delivery. The opening number, Deep Moaning Blues, sets the stage for the rest of the record, with horns, piano, bass and drums, the latter two seldom found in a recording studio at the time Rainey was making 78s. The song is also almost twice as long as anything that could be squeezed into the shellac at the time.

Marsalis and the trombone engage in a genial barroom conversation in the blues Hear Me Talking to You. The Story of Memphis Green is a haunting minor-key theme, veering in and out of waltz time, with moody clarinet carrying the melody.

Clarinet, trumpet and tapdancing take centerstage in Jump Song, a lively midtempo 20s swing tune. Leftovers, a grimly incisive minor-key solo piano theme, is the album’s most minimalist yet most haunting interlude.

Other highlights among the set pieces include the title theme, a red-neon hokum blues; the Chicago El portrayed with steady, chuffing dixieland echoes; a catchy, brassy New Orleans sway with tuba and banjo; a cheery swing tune for soprano sax and piano; an artfully orchestrated rag; a towering sax-versus-piano tableau; a steely minor-key Gershwin Summertime paraphrase, and plenty of humorous, vaudevillian bits. Fans of classic blues and jazz have a lot to enjoy here.

The Original Cast Recording of the Tina Turner Musical Packs a Punch

The lavish 24-track original London cast recording of Tina: The Tina Turner Musical – streaming at Spotify – is a risky project. Covering an icon like Turner is a potential minefield: mess up and you will be held accountable. But singer Adrienne Warren, in the lead role, shows off a strong, throaty, versatile delivery. The band behind her are superb, particularly on the vintage soul numbers, and the supporting cast rise to the occasion as well. It’s not often that a Broadway pit band can school other musicians on how to play much of anything, but they do here. And the script doesn’t shy away from what a creep and an abuser Ike was.

The music doesn’t follow a chronological narrative, with songs from Turner’s big 80s comeback mingled within material that spans from edgy blues to high-voltage vintage soul to the poppier stuff of her later career. Sending out a shout to her gospel beginnings, the first version of Nutbush City Limits has a lavish, ecstatic choral arrangement. The band add a welcome raw edge to Shake a Tail Feather; likewise, Daniel J. Watts, whose salacious rasp makes a great fit in Ike’s Innuendo-fueled hit The Hunter.

Tina enters in the background in Matchbox, done here as a swinging jump blues. Her dad warns Ike what’s going happen if he strays from Tina in a witheringly cynical take of It’s Gonna Work Out Fine over some delicious guitar textures. In context, the angst-fueled intro to A Fool in Love packs a punch.

With a beefy rhythm section and bright spacerock guitars, Better Be Good to Me is a vast improvement on the original. The whole crew shift gears seamlessly back to a blue-flame, unexpectedly psychedelic take of Higher, the first song the Turners – battling hard behind the scenes by now – played on national tv.

River Deep Mountain High has a lavish intensity that rivals the record. Be Tender With Me, Ike’s plea for forgiveness, has a simmering intensity from both sides of the battle. Smartly, the version of Proud Mary here draws on the epic album version rather than the single – or Creedence, for that matter.

The group do their best to add an elegant, harder-rocking edge to I Don’t Wanna Fight, a good setup for Private Dancer, which is arguably even more weary and worn than the original even if it is a tad faster. And the cover of the Trammps’ hit Disco Inferno is practically punk rock.

Warren does a more-than-decent imitation of original singer Ann Peebles in Can’t Stand the Rain. After a low-key, starry version of David Bowie’s elegaic ballad Tonight, What’s Love Got to Do With It rocks a lot harder than the techy original, commemorating Turner’s first post-comeback New York appearance.

Likewise, Warren and the band reach toward Pink Floyd angst and grandeur in We Don’t Need Another Hero. Simply the Best may be epically cheesy no matter how epically you play it, but the decision to go back to Nutbush City Limits in the 1960s for the finale pays off mightily. There are only a couple of duds here: covering Al Green was ill-advised, and that odious Journey song is a real buzzkill. That’s why we have the mute button.

Spot-On Protest Songs and Spare, Eclectic Guitar Instrumentals From Austin Legend Matt Smith

Multi-instrumentalist Matt Smith is one of the great guitarists in Americana, among many other things. These days, most importantly, he writes protest songs.

Check out How We Got to Here, a spare, fingerpicked, dobro-infused number from his most recent album Being Human. In under four minutes, he paints a grim picture of recent American history, from the coup d’etat in 2000, up to the lockdown and how social media has paralyzed so many of us when we’re needed most:

We all saw it coming but we’re too self-involved to stand
Against the ones back in the shadows who wait to implement the plan
When they told us this was normal and did not believe the news
We took pictures of our dinnes and proselytized our views

Smith finds optimism in historical rebellions against past tyrannies: let’s hope he’s right.

The rest of the record – streaming at youtube – mirrors Smith’s long career as a bandleader, sideman to the stars and owner of a recording studio, the 6 String Ranch, revered as one of the go-to spots if you really want a vintage Americana sound from across many decades. There’s another great protest song here, Sanctuary, a dusky minor-key Robert Cray-style blues about the xenophobia that South American refugees run up against once they cross the US border.

“Why does it feel like the sky is falling?” Smith asks in the cynical, loping title track. After that, Smith channels a vast range of styles ranging from early 80s Midnight Starr stoner funk, to the Who.

Smith also has a charming all-instrumental solo acoustic album, Parlor – streamin at Spotify – where he plays a beautifully restored heirloom 1890’s Thompson and Odell parlor guitar. Most of the tracks are on the short side, some less than two minutes. Blind Blake-inspired ragtime fingerpicking, Piedmont and delta blues, Yorkshire-style balladry, Indian music, Leo Kottke wizardry, and, improbably, indie rock all figure into Smith’s distinctive, sometimes stark, sometimes opaque compositions.

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.

A Brilliant, Erudite New Blues Album and a Webcast From Mamie Minch

Mamie Minch hit New York in the early zeros while still in her teens and quickly got a reputation as a force of nature in the oldtime Americana scene. Almost two decades later, she’s earned herself a place among the greats who influenced her. Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Muddy Waters, look out, you’ve got company. Minch may be best known as an erudite, imaginative guitarist, but she also has a hauntingly nuanced alto voice and writes in an oldtime vernacular that can be raucously funny, or profoundly sad. 

Minch has a characteristically brilliant, sharply lyrical new album, Slow Burn streaming at Bandcamp and while she doesn’t have any shows scheduled at the moment, she is playing a webcast on Aug 20 at 6 PM on the Barbes youtube channel to celebrate.

It’s been an awful lot of fun watching her work up the material on the album onstage over the past few years: in the tradition of her predecessors over the past hundred-plus years, these songs have gone through many different incarnations. The first one, Deep Footsteps could be a hokum blues classic from the late 20s: Minch’s defiant, endless series of innuendos are irresistible. Drummer Dean Sharenow gives the song an emphatic swing; Minch close-mics her National Steel guitar to catch every available microtone resonating from her spiky fingerpicking

Fortified Wine, a slow Indian-summer front-porch lament, is another number that’s taken on a different shapes in the past few years. Here she’s joined by both members of Kill Henry Sugar, Sharenow and guitarist Erik Della Penna, who nails the mood with the the subtlest of slide guitar washes. The point of the song seems to be that being stuck with an addict is a bitch, whether in on some forlorn plantation in 1920, or in the here and now.

No More Is Love, a gentle, understatedly haunting Carter Family-style waltz, is an urban oldtime country song with more atmospherically drifting slide work from Della Penna. Big Bad Maddie is a remake of RL Burnside’s Poor Black Mattie with new lyrics which transform this character from downtrodden victim to total badass: she’s got “big dick swagger to keep those boys in line.” Logan Coale holds down a terse, minimalist bass pulse; it’s a revelation to hear Minch put her own spin on Mississippi hill country blues guitar.

The album’s other sort-of cover is Wee Midnight Hours, based on the version by Blind Wille McTell and Curly Weaver; Sharenow gives it an easygoing swing that recalls an even earlier time. The gorgeously bittersweet, even more bucolic True Blue was inspired by a New Yorker article about the unique properties of the color blue. CJ Camerieri adds spare, resonant french horn over Minch’s fingerpicking.

She winds up the record with the venomously bristling You Don’t Lift Me Up, a kiss-off to negative people, both specifically and in general, with echoes of Iggy Pop’s The Passenger. Della Penna’s sparse incisions are a perfect complement to Minch’s propulsively strolling groove. The band could have gone on for five more minutes and that wouldn’t have been too much. This record’s on the shortlist for best albums of 2020 in any stye of music.