2011 brought its share of comebacks (Gregg Allman, the Meters’ Zigaboo Modeliste, the Time) Stax-related joys (both Booker T. Jones and Steve Cropper issued solo sides) and out-of-nowhere delights (Big Head Todd does the blues?). But how did they rank on my list?
Read on, as I count down my favorite blues and R&B finds — from Joe Bonamassa and Duke Robillard to Popa Chubby and Tab Benoit — from the past year … (oh, and click through the titles for full reviews):
BIG HEAD BLUES CLUB – 100 YEARS OF ROBERT JOHNSON: The Colorado-based indie-rock band Big Head Todd and the Monsters rechristened itself for this release. Check the liner notes, and you’ll see why they went with “Big Head Blues Club”: The control room was jam-packed with roots-rocking guests. Guitarist Todd Park Mohr, bassist Rob Squires, drummer Brian Nevin and keyboardist Jeremy Lawton welcomed legends B.B. King, Hubert Sumlin, David “Honeyboy” Edwards and Charlie Musselwhite, as well next-gen blues stars like Ruthie Foster, Cedric Burnside and Lightnin’ Malcolm. Together, they illustrated all over again the force and intrigue of Johnson’s all-too-brief body of work. Of special note are Sumlin and Edwards, both of whom passed later into the year. Edwards, by the way, was said to have been there on the night that Johnson died — the victim of strychnine-laced whiskey, likely from a jealous husband who’d had enough of Johnson’s juke-joint shenanigans. Johnson was just 27.
JOE BONAMASSA AND BETH HART – DON’T EXPLAIN: Produced by Kevin Shirley (John Hiatt, The Black Crowes, Black Country Communion), Don’t Explain included a series of hand-picked soul classics from the likes of Gil Scott-Heron, Tom Waits, Etta James, Billie Holiday and Aretha Franklin. The highlight just might have been a rattling remake of Delaney and Bonnie’s 1972 boogie-rock classic “Well, Well.” Hart, adding a scalding guest vocal to Bonamassa’s rooster-tail lick, boasts a whiskey-swilling, Joplin-esque danger. Whereas the original had this breezy reverie, Bonamassa and Hart trade as many smart digs as twinkling sexual advances. They still sound like old lovers, only this time they know each other’s game. Stand back as the sparks fly.
BOOKER T. JONES – THE ROAD THE MEMPHIS: His name is linked forever with the town, and the sound, of Memphis. But Booker T. Jones’ influence moves beyond Beale, into hip hop and today’s rhythm-and-blues — something that was underscored on The Road from Memphis, co-produced by The Roots drummer/bandleader ?uestlove. Not that Jones, a three-time Grammy winner and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, didn’t stake his claim to all that is fonky. “Walking Papers” and “The Vamp” boasted a Meters-level greasy grind, while “The Hive” sounded like an outtake from a sizzling James Brown session. Jones even sang a bit, lending a gruff soulfulness to “Down in Memphis.” But the album wasn’t content with confirming his fidelity to such things, so much as showing how the sound that Jones helped shape in the 1960s has continued to resonate across the decades.
POPA CHUBBY – BACK TO NEW YORK CITY: A script-flipped blues rock record, with this plugged-in emphasis on the rock part. In many ways, Back in New York City was as loud as it was brash — a thundering restatement of Popa Chubby’s outsized persona and even outer-sized personality. But peel away the scalding licks, and the stomping rhythms, and the braying vocals, and you found — like a beautiful wildflower pushing up through the cracks in a rugged city sidewalk — these moments of touching, real-world lyricism. Chubby was just as adept at the searing electrified Texas shuffle of “She Loves Everybody But Me” (a nod, it seems, to Stevie Ray Vaughan) as he was the pleading album-rock wail of “A Love That Will Not Die,” as apt to tear into a wall-shaking groover like “Warrior Gods” (a nod, it seems, to Motorhead) as he was a slow-cooked take on Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” Stevie Ray and Bach? Throw in punk rock, too. Chubby embraced the contradictions, and this album was better for it.
THE ORIGINAL 7VEN (AKA THE TIME) – CONDENSATE: Comebacks are often fraught with obstacles, most relating to the way a legacy act deals with the space between their hey day and today. The temptation, likely driven by label execs, tends to be an empty “updating” of the group’s old sound. It almost never works. Often, these older acts only come off as older still, rather than contemporary — like a middle-aged guy trying to kick it at the club. Credit the Time (calling themselves the Original 7ven now) with staying completely, utterly, deliriously unchanged — right down to its outsized lead singer’s memorable antics. As S. Victor Aaron aptly says in his piece from earlier this year: “Every great stage band has a great front man, and there’s few better than Morris Day. The man who once sang that he was Donald Trump (Black version) is really David Lee Roth (Black version): a good singer whose swagger makes him sound even better than he otherwise might be, and never takes himself too seriously.”
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ZIGABOO MODELISTE – NEW LIFE: You might have came in expecting something in keeping with this drummer’s mythically groovetastic tenure with the Meters. New Life ends up doing much more than simply conjuring up that old magic; it boldly expands upon it. Take the title track, which doesn’t mimic the expected grease-fire funk of his old band, so much as forceably combine New Orleans syncopations with a popping R&B swagger. “Human Race” sounds like Prince-meets-early-1970s-Marvin Gaye, with a nasty guitar signature, a propulsive polyrhythm and a socially conscious lyric. “Was Not Meant To Be” has the broad appeal of chitlin-circuit soul blues, but with a heavier, battered-up rhythm signature. Of course, there are plenty of the expected party anthems, as well, from the opening “Les Bon Temps Roule,” to the blues-dipped “At the Mardi Gras.” By the end, New Life confirmed what many have suspected all along: Ziggy can do it all.
STEVE CROPPER – DEDICATED: Tribute records are a tricky things; star-studded tribute projects even more so. It takes a strong unifying voice, some central character beyond the featured composer, to save them from sounding like choppy compilations. Cropper, co-founder of Booker T and the MGs and a key sessions player and producer on a host of seminal soul records for Stax and Atlantic, is that voice. He had long credited North Carolina’s 5 Royales and their leader Lowman “Pete” Pauling with helping to shape his own sound and on-stage persona. So, the passion for this homage was there. But, more particularly, Cropper learned after a lifetime around big stars just when to assert himself. For all of the guest turns (B.B. King, Steve Winwood, Lucinda Williams, Brian May, Delbert McClinton, so on) found on Dedicated, this remained Steve Cropper’s show. And, in many ways, he’s never sounded better.
DUKE ROBILLARD – LOW DOWN AND TORE UP: Robillard, co-founder of Roomful of Blues and former member of the Fabulous Thunderbirds, started with some old favorites, even before he began recording them in the old way. That means dusty sides from Eddie Taylor, John Lee Hooker, Sugarboy Crawford, Pee Wee Clayton and Elmore James. But not the most popular, not the ones that everybody heard until they became featureless. Then he just cut loose. Funny, blues records used to routinely sound like this: Loose and fun, almost anarchic in their pursuit of nothing more than good-time joy and real-time emotion. Robillard breathed new life into the concept, and rarely has he sounded more visceral and present. In so doing, he claimed another piece — no, a chunk, really — of that legacy with every successive spin of this disc.
JOHNNY WINTER – ROOTS: Winter returned to some of his earliest childhood favorites, and a few tracks from his first bar bands, on a perfectly titled project. Roots boasted an all-star cast including Derek Trucks, Vince Gill, Susan Tedeschi and his brother Edgar Winter, performing tracks originally done by everyone from Elmore James to Bobby “Blue” Bland. Winter also goes it alone on a pair of familiar blues standards, Robert Johnson’s “Dust My Broom” and the Muddy Waters hit “Got My Mojo Workin,'” which skips along at a breakneck pace. In many ways, Roots was as far away as it could have been from Winter’s biggest seller, 1970’s blues-blended heavy rocker Johnny Winter And — the first of several notable collaborations with Rick Derringer. There’s a reason for that: “That’s the least favorite point in my career,” Winter told us, matter of factly. “I really wanted to do blues.” This album makes the argument that he should have been doing that all along.
No. 1 —
GREGG ALLMAN – LOW COUNTRY BLUES: This record’s hat-tips to blues, R&B, gospel and jazz only underscore how each provided uniquely American spices in the Allman Brothers Band’s bubbling Southern-rock synthesis. Even so, it could have been recipe for a snoozy conversation piece if not for Allman — the archetypical risktaker. Check out the appropriately fidgety edge he adds to Muddy Waters’ “I Can’t Be Satisfied,” as Allman dirties up a Chess-era groove. Other highlights include a devastatingly frank update of Sleepy John Estes’ “Floating Bridge,” with a surging assist at the piano from Dr. John; Junior Wells’ “Little by Little,” transformed into something resembling a lost soul side from the 1950s; Skip James’ “Devil Got My Woman,” which again reveals the lively intellect of guitarist Doyle Bramhall II; and Amos Milburn’s hardy R&B classic “Tears, Tears, Tears,” where Allman — belying a series of serious health problems — howls with a shanty-shaking, soul-rending power. He’s still got it. Every bit of it.
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2011 BLUES AND R&B HONORABLE MENTIONS: Tedeschi Trucks Band’s Revelator was a great collection of well-defined blues-kissed, gospel inflected soul songs. … Tab Benoit’s Medicine featured rough-and-ready electric blues with a dash of Cajun seasoning, soulful bayou ballads and a two-step or two. … The Bo-Keys’ Got to Get Back was a dark and spicy gumbo of Memphis soul featuring former sidemen with Otis Redding, Rufus Thomas and Al Green. … New artist Gary Sellers’ Soul Apparatus belies his youth with a brilliant blending of blues and R&B styles. … Then there was Quintus McCormick’s Put It On Me!, which looked both forward and back at the blues tradition, creating a timeless sound.