Paul Rishell – Talking Guitar (2012)

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That this is W.C. Handy Award-winning bluesman Paul Rishell’s first acoustic recording will come as something of a surprise, so deep is his grasp, so complete is his commitment. That it’s his first solo effort in nearly two decades is more confusing still.

A singer and guitarist who has played with and learned from legends like Son House, Johnny Shines, Howlin’ Wolf and John Lee Hooker, Rishell is likely only familiar to this generation of listeners if they’ve paid close attention to Paul Rishell’s guitar pupil Susan Tedeschi, who recorded a version of his “Blues on a Holiday” with Paul on guitar.

Rishell’s last solo album, after all, came out back in 1993. He and harmonica player Annie Raines (who appears on three songs sprinkled throughout the forthcoming Talking Guitar, due May 8, 2012, from Mojo Rodeo Records) have also appeared on A Prairie Home Companion. But, by and large, Rishell has spent his time more recently as a visiting artist at Berklee College of Music — far from fame’s bright lights. Talking Guitar, a frank and thrilling journey through a series of reborn blues classics and hand-picked originals, should change that.

On his rambling songs — Lead Belly’s “Fannin Street,” a winking tribute to a rough ride in Shreveport, Louisiana; the rail-jumping sway of Willie Brown’s “M & O Blues”; the four-on-the-floor rattle of “Big Road Blues,” with Raines on harp — there’s sense of beatific transience, like passed-down wisdom from a grizzled, but perfectly content fellow hitchhiker. Then, every once in a while, Paul Rishell simply lets loose: There’s his original “I’m Gonna Jump and Shout” and Blind Boy Fuller’s “Weeping Willow Blues,” where every bit of that hard-won live-for-the-moment insouciance bursts out like the wail of a 5 o’clock factory whistle on a Friday.

In between, Rishell untangles the gnarled emotions associated with love gone wrong (Clifford Gibson’s “Tired of Being Mistreated,” Fuller’s “Screaming and Crying Blues”) and love long-gone (Skip James’ “Special Rider Blues,” Blind Blake’s “Police Dog Blues”) with a sharp eye for detail, and brilliant bursts of guitar intellect.

Taken together, they give the country blues a modern immediacy that belies its own age-old mythology. The difference between Talking Guitar and so many of the throwback versions of this music out there today, to my ear, is Rishell’s unvarnished commitment to the material. He seems to be recounting, with acceptance and a sense of resigned celebration, the travails of this life. That he’s singing about it in a style that points back to the scarifying 78s of Robert Johnson is only worth mentioning because that’s the vehicle for his music.

Paul Rishell’s songs go deeper than that, past convention, history and cliche — and all the way inside your heart.

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