The Best of 2009, Part 2: Blues 'n' Roots

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by S. Victor Aaron

2009 has had its share of the blues but there were plenty of blues practitioners making the best of the hard times, as we saw a slew of fine releases by them last year. There were seven of those that really stood out to me, above a large batch of solid, but more run-of-the-mill blues. Most of these standout records present the blues as still evolving, changing and successfully merging with other music forms. For a few other releases, their appeal lie in covering ground covered many times before, but covering it exceptionally well.

The blues wasn’t all good news last year (it wouldn’t really be the blues without some bad news): the Queen of the Blues Koko Taylor left us back in June. This came merely a few months after her heir apparent came out with perhaps her best album yet. One that’s good enough to take the prize for best blues CD for the year. All hail the new queen:


Best CD Of The Batch: Shemekia Copeland – Never Going Back

Even though this release bowed way back in February, I opined then that Never Going Back was “a strong early candidate for best blues album of 2009,” and nothing since then was caused me to change my mind. Copeland put together a magnificent album of robust, varied material, terrific backing by some of the best musicians around and stellar production by Oliver Wood. It all served to complement a strong and steady voice with just enough grit to keep it real and plenty enough verve to set it miles apart from the crowd. This is a record that retains the blues character even where Shemekia takes a diversionary turn, as she does for a sublime cover of Joni Mitchell’s dark soul number “Black Crow.”

Koko Taylor’s passing leaves a huge void in the blues world, but Shemekia Copeland may be the one woman who can fill it. Never Going Back makes one think that she has already well on her way there.

Best Song Of The Batch: Otis Taylor – “Lost My Guitar”

Honestly, I could pick about a half dozen tracks from Ms. Copeland’s album for this honor, but picking one song from there might make it unfair for the other standout tracks on that record. Besides, Otis Taylor has produced another great batch of songs, and with his downcast demeanor, simple lyrics and repeating phrases, Taylor plays a brand of the blues that’s not far removed from the Delta and yet he makes it entirely his own. “Lost My Guitar” is a lament about a missing six-string, but it could easily be a metaphor for a lost love. Regardless, it’s nicely rendered by jazzers like Jason Moran on piano and Ron Miles on cornet, with daughter Cassie providing some haunting backing vocals. The cherry on this sundae, however, is Gary Moore’s lead electric guitar. He avoids getting too heavy, and wrings a nuanced sackful of emotion out of his axe.

Taylor can convey the blues so brutally effectively with just his voice and an acoustic guitar, but when he calls in the help that he did for “Lost My Guitar,” he brings his blues up to another level.

Best Of The Rest:

Chuck BernsteinDelta Berimbau Blues
: The Brazilian one-stringed berimbau didn’t come from Clarksdale, MS, but Bernstein makes it sound as if it did.
Joe BonamassaThe Ballad Of John Henry: Bonamassa leaves behind the large field of rock-oriented blues guitarists and casts his own imprint as a 21st century electric bluesman.
Cyril NevilleBrand New Blues: The most underrated Neville Brother may have left New Orleans, but New Orleans hadn’t left him.
Mia VermillionAlone Together With The Blues: Mia Vermillion grew up in the Mississippi Delta during the Great Depression in her prior life. That’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it.
Robert CrayThis Time: This is no Strong Persuader but it’s more than good enough to show that Cray is still a strong performer.
Otis TaylorPentatonic Wars and Love Songs
: Otis Taylor’s latest draws a dark, direct line between John Lee Hooker and Miles Davis.
Duck BakerThe Roots & Branches of American Music: Could be the best education on the origins of classic American music you can get on one disc. And all it took to give the lesson was an acoustic six-string.
Mike Marshall’s Big TrioMike Marshall’s Big Trio: The prese
nt and the future of virtuosic bluegrass is in great shape, as this small group of one veteran and two prodigies attests.

Next: Fusion Jazz…

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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