Billy Branch, a fire-kissed harp-playing protegé of blues great Willie Dixon, took some 15 years between studio recordings — and not because of some lack of creative impetus. Instead, Branch was waiting for a new sound to come together. Finally, with Blues Shock (due January 21, 2014 via Blind Pig), it did: Branch and his regular working group the Sons of Blues have constructed a daring new release, one that blends a series of tough-minded, cliche-free originals with inventively reimagined takes on classic tracks — never giving an inch to age, convention or expectations.
That, too, recalls Dixon. After all, as a singer, songwriter, bassist and arranger, he helped build the language of modern blues while sounding utterly original. Branch cops to it by covering Dixon’s “Crazy Mixed Up World,” but never descends into something so simplistic as tribute over the course of these 11 scorching tracks.
Instead, he absorbed the lessons his mentor passed along, and kept pushing. The effort paid off handsomely. After appearing on some 200 recordings (including Dixon’s collaboration with McKinley Mitchell on 1974’s “The Last Home Run,” by the way), Branch has claimed his share of awards and seen his share of mistakes. That font of experience held him in good stead when it came time to try something new.
He smartly switches out the harmonica for John Lee Hooker’s familiar hook on “Boom Boom,” and then takes an even bigger chance by delving into something approaching a blues-rap synthesis on “Sons of Blues.” And so it goes: There’s some nasty funk (“Function at the Junction”), hilarious send ups (“Dog House, and “Slow Moe,” written by SOBs drummer Moses Rutues), a sweeping historical narrative (“Going to See Miss Gerri”), moments of lip-smacking, though brilliantly understated salaciousness (“Baby Let Me Butter Your Corn”) and a touching instrumental finale featuring Branch on vocals (“Song for My Mother,” co-composed by Minoru Maruyama).
In short, Blues Shock is aptly named, combining things you’d expect and things you most certainly would not from a modern blues recording — but somehow, perhaps only through Branch’s steely force of will (well, and his spit-flinging harp), it all works.