Cream Play “Crossroads”

creamwheelsoffireListen to this track by British power trio, “supergroup”, and hard-rock pioneers Cream. It’s their live performance of Robert Johnson’s 1936 song “Crossroads Blues”, a take on the song that also quotes another Johnson song, “Travelin’ Riverside Blues”, and showcases the three-way assault of each member of the band (For you stereo listeners: Bassist Jack Bruce to your left, drummer Ginger Baker just behind you, and Eric Clapton to your immediate right).

The song itself is a tale of an unnamed dread, a fear of nightfall and being out on the road alone. Many associate this song with the legendary and very often repeated tale of a deal going down at a crossroads in Misssissippi, where Robert Johnson is rumoured to have sold his very soul in order to become no less than King of the Delta Blues Singers. Johnson’s influence is certainly proven by this cover version, performed in March of 1968 at San Francisco’s famed Winterland Ballroom, a mecca of rock ‘n’ roll history. Cream scored a #28 hit with this rendition of the song.

But, what is the real story behind this tune, and the real source of dread hinted at in its lyrics? Is it the terror of a supernatural force, or is the threat the song’s narrator is alluding to more of a mortal concern? Read more

The Small Faces Perform “You Need Loving”

Listen to this track by ’60s mod champions and British R&B purveyors The Small Faces. It’s “You Need Loving”, a belter of an R&B tune recorded in 1966, and featured on their self-titled debut record The Small Faces . The song was originally written a few years earlier for Muddy Waters to sing by Chess Records bassist, producer, and songwriting giant Willie Dixon, who christened it “You Need Love“.

This version by the Small Faces had a tremendous influence on the upcoming hard rock scene by the end of the decade. It might actually sound very familiar to you as it inspired yet another song by a group of British R&B enthusiasts, who made that song into something of a signature number of their own – “Whole Lotta Love” by Led Zeppelin.

The blues is a mysterious form, as we’ve seen. Like a lot of vibrant folk music, individual songs aren’t so much owned as they are passed along, and changed through performance and interpretation over the years and decades. But, as we’ve also seen, the modern publishing industry isn’t so mysterious when it comes to the issue of borrowing and adapting without leave. So, how did things unfold with this tune?

Read more

Little Walter Performs “My Babe”

Listen to this track by primo blues harpist and bad, bad R&B badass Little Walter.  It’s his signature #1 hit and key R&B statement “My Babe”, originally released as a single in 1955 on the Chess Records label, home of many, many R&B hits, and as featured on numerous blues compilations.  Not too many of them put a woman on a pedestal like this and still retain its balls, of course.

This tune was one of the first Chess sides I’d ever heard, and what a revelation it was.  Just the sound of it unlocked a whole corridor of musical tradition and allowed me new access to forms I’d always felt separated from.  It was the Chess sound that activated blues-rock in the 60s, and hard rock in the 70s. Understanding where all of that came from allowed me to really appreciate where, say, Led Zeppelin had come from too. Read more

Little Miss Higgins Sings “Middle of Nowhere”

Here’s a clip of modern-day proto-electric rural blues stylist  Little Miss Higgins (sometimes known as Jolene Higgins when not on stage), hailing proudly from the heart of the Canadian Praries – Nokomis, Saskatchewan to be exact.  It’s a rendition of her affectionate ode to her surroundings, “Middle of Nowhere” originally to be found on her 2007 album Junction City, as well as on the live document, Little Miss Higgins Live Two Nights in March.

A lot of great music has come out of the supposed backwaters of the world.  The Canadian Prairies is such a place; geographically isolated perhaps when compared to urban settings.   Yet it’s in place like this where tight-knit communities are found to treasure that unique simplicity of living. In the more desolate places, celebrating the joys to be found in simple things is part and parcel toward defining what ‘home’ means.  And  perhaps the end result leads to a greater attachment, and a deeper sense of belonging.

This is one of the appeals of Little Miss Higgins’ “Middle of Nowhere”.  This song is all about defining what ‘home’ means.  The place in this song may be a featureless place on the surface, but it is ultimately full of singular character.  This makes the song a concentrated shot of the culture and attitude out of the place from which it comes. This can be said for her entire oeuvre, love letters to her home as it is.

Musically speaking, there is of course a heavy debt to the rural blues and country music of the pre-war period. This is a good fit when it comes to LMH’s subject matter, which is about collecting little snapshots of a place that, perhaps in the minds of many who’ve never been there, exists in 1930s sepia-tones.  And even to those who are from there, the sense of community bound by common experience isn’t crowded out by slick arrangements.

In short, the music is entirely appropriate to its subject matter, and packed to the brim with unbridled affection and charming self-deprecation.

Rural Saskatchewan: a place so flat you can watch your dog run away from home for a week. But, look at that BIG SKY!

I had the extreme pleasure of seeing Little Miss Higgins perform with her musical colleague Foy Taylor (also featured in the above clip) perform at the Burnaby Blues and Roots Festival this year.  The performance was charming, raw, hilarious, and just plain warm.  LMH was like an ambassador from the rural Prairies, making ‘the middle of nowhere’ sound like a vital, and welcoming somewhere, even for us city-folk.

For another wonderful clip of Little Miss Higgins, check out this blog post from my friend Emme Rogers, which features a clip of LMH’s performing another tune of hers – “Me and My Gin”

And for more information still, including news about the new Across the Plains album, check out the Little Miss Higgins website.

Enjoy!

Slim Harpo Sings “I’m A King Bee”

Listen to this track, a shot of blues braggadocio from Louisiana son and master blues harpist born James Moore and known more widely as the great Slim Harpo.  It’s “I’m A King Bee”, his most widely known song and a Grammy Hall of Fame (awarded in 2008 for historical significance) single that inspired many a cover version.  Slim’s version was his 1957 debut, originally a B-side (of the A-side “Got Love If You Want It”), but eventually becoming his signature tune.

One of the great things about this tune is Harpo’s matter-of-fact delivery, effortless, and slightly menacing too. It’s well within the popular approach to the blues that is overtly about sexual capacity, and about rivalry too – buzzing around your hive while your man is gone, no less.  It’s no wonder that it captured the attention of rock bands into the 60s, a virtual manifesto for the horny young man making a play for a woman.

In addition to the Rolling Stones version on their 1964 debut album, Harpo’s tune inspired a number of other bands to create their own versions this 3-minute spark of musical sexual potency, including the Grateful Dead, the Doors (who also covered the similarly themed “Backdoor Man” by Howlin’ Wolf), Aerosmith, and others.

John Belushi, dressed as a bumblebee of course, performed this song on a 1976 broadcast of Saturday Night Live.  It was a prototype performance that would later lead to the Blues Brothers appearances on the show, and of course the movie, too.

Slim Harpo’s career was reasonably short lived.  He played music only part time by the 1960s, making ends meet by running a trucking company. Yet he managed to create other blues tunes that had an impact on the rock world including “Baby Scratch My Back” (a number one single, no less), and “Shake Your Hips”, which was covered by the Stones on 1972’s Exile on Main Street. Not a bad run by a part-timer!  But, by 1970, Slim Harpo was dead of a heart attack at the young age of 46.  But, his influence over an entire generation of rock bands immortalizes him.

For more music, check out Slim Harpo on MySpace.

Enjoy!

John Mayall Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton Perform ‘All Your Love’

Bluesbreakers_John_Mayall_with_Eric_ClaptonListen to this song, a scorching slice of electrified blues straight from the peak of the 60’s London R&B boom.  It’s “All Your Love” from the very brief 1965 line-up of John Mayall Bluesbreakers, a combo which created Mayall’s, and arguably the band’s guitarist Eric Clapton’s, greatest achievement of the period on the 1966 ground-breaking disc Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton.

Eric Clapton had been the fulcrum of The Yardbirds since 1963, starting from the tender age of 18 as an idealistic, serious-minded, and supremely gifted blues guitarist informed by electric players like  Otis Rush and Buddy Guy, as well as older, spookier blues traditions as exemplified by Skip James and Robert Johnson. When called upon to record the more Merseybeat-aligned (and more commercially-motivated) song “For Your Love”, Clapton’s blues muse wouldn’t allow him to continue with the Yardbirds. That honour went next to Jeff Beck. And the song was a big hit.  But, Clapton’s path lay elsewhere.

Seeking an outlet for a purer blues sound, Clapton fell in with Mayall, something of a blues purist himself, although with a love of soul music that would certainly inform his outfit, the Bluesbreakers.  The resulting collaboration between the two, plus bassist John McVie (later of Fleetwood Mac) and drummer Hughie Flint, sent a shockwave through the scene.  And it resulted in some interesting graffiti through out London: “Clapton Is God”.

Sometimes known as the “Beano” album, because of Clapton’s rapt attention to the funny papers on the cover of the record, this track and the rest of the tracks on the album reflect a harder-edged approach to the blues.  Before this, British blues bands were reverent when it came to the source material which fed the scene.  Numbers were performed exactly as they had been on the original sides on labels like Cobra, Chess, and Checker by bands who considered the originals as sacred texts.  Not so with this record, which lays a foundation that is tougher, louder, and more sonically pliable. And the songs mix the traditional with the new, penned by Mayall.

And with these new innovations, this record is more than just an evolution for British musicians playing, and mastering, an American musical form.  It is also the birth of a new subgenre; blues-rock.

Clapton’s stay with Mayall wouldn’t last even until the record was released.  But, it fed his ambition to help to evolve the blues even further when he went on to form Cream with Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker.  Mayall wouldn’t be stopped in his tracks by Clapton’s departure either, and provided his own contribution to the furtherance of the blues, working first with Peter Green (also like McVie, later of Fleetwood Mac), and also with soon-to-be Rolling Stone Mick Taylor.

Both Green and Taylor can be comfortably described as guitar gods themselves, of course.  But, for a while, there was only one God, at least where London spraycan enthusiasts were concerned. And it’s his performance on this album that created a new theology when it came to rock guitar playing.

John Mayall is an active musician, with decades of service to the mantle of electric blues and blues-rock.  Check out his site at Johnmayall.com

Enjoy!

Junior Kimbrough Sings ‘I Cried Last Night’

junior-kimbrough-god-knows-i-triedListen to this song, a slice of primal, primordial blues echoing down from the ages and from across continents.  It’s late-blooming recording artist, and well-traveled bluesman Junior Kimbrough’s “I Cried Last Night” as taken from his 1998 record God Knows I Tried.

David ‘Junior’ Kimbrough hailed from North Mississippi, part of a veritable hotbed of high-profile blues talent that came out of the 1990s such as The North Mississippi All-Stars, and R.L Burnside.  Kimbrough had a long regional career in the area, with good many of his previous recordings being singles, recorded sparingly in the 60s. Besides this limited time in recording studios, there weren’t  many opportunities to build momentum as a consistent recording artist. In the 70s and 80s, he toured local juke joints, but had yet to lay down a full-length album.

It wasn’t until he was discovered in the late 80s by critic, producer and impresario Robert Palmer. His first album was recorded on the Fat Possum label in 1992. His music gained attention of rock bands as well as blues fans, with British band Gomez recording Kimbrough’s ‘Meet Me In the City’ on their 2004 Split the Difference album.  “I Cried Last Night” (borrowing a riff from from Willie Cobb’s “You Don’t Love Me”), and the record it is featured on, was his last hurrah, before dying of a heart attack the year it came out, not before recording six albums. He was 68.

Like John Lee Hooker, Kimbrough’s music shows a clear and shining path back to places like Mali, where the blues was arguably first conceived, if not christened.  And like the best of the blues, it is evocative and otherworldly, evoking a sort of mythical shorthand for emotional connectedness that is attached to the darker corners of the human psyche. But, this is what the blues does best. It’s encapsulates raw emotions, viscerally, and without artifice, crossing cultural barriers with ease.

Like a lot of African music, Kimbrough’s approach to the blues puts emphasis on the drone, with the guitars winding hypnotically in and out of the steady, interlocking rhythm.  Kimbrough’s voice is muddy, indecipherable in places.  It might as well be in another language. And perhaps in some way it is.

For more information, check out the Junior Kimbrough MySpace page.

Enjoy!

Ry Cooder Performs ‘Crazy ‘Bout An Automobile’

Ry Cooder BorderlineHere’s a clip of roots music archivist, film composer, world music ambassador, and slide-guitar superhero Ry Cooder with a 1987 performance of Billy ‘the Kid’ Emerson’s “Crazy ‘Bout an Automobile” in Santa Cruz, California, a town which Cooder incorporates cleverly into the narrative for this particular performance.  The studio version of this song can be found on his 1980 album Borderline.

This tune is a quintessential rock ‘n’ roll song, full of sexual vigour, and with a touch of Tex-Mex and Zydeco flavouring heating things up even more.  The band here is stellar, including stalwart session drummer Jim Keltner, Van Dyke Parks on keyboards, Flaco Jimenez  on accordion, among others.  The calibre of the playing certainly helps to attain a funky groove about being horny and being down and out without wheels at the same time. This is ripe subject matter for rock ‘n’ roll, drawing a distinct correlation between the two.

Ry Cooder himself is a fascinating musical figure, being something of a boy-genius when it came to the guitar and many other stringed instruments when he started out. Before the 1960s had concluded he’d worked with Jackie DeShannon, Taj Mahal, and the Rolling Stones. By the 1970s, Cooder built a career as a gatherer of R&B, folk, and pop gems from decades past, and re-positioning them in new contexts.  His slide playing became his trademark, as did his ability to repurpose old songs, many of them minor hits and forgotten treasures into a succession of celebrated albums, like Boomer’s Story and (my favourite) Paradise and Lunch.  His 1979 Bop ‘Til You Drop LP was the first major label album ever to be recorded digitally.

Yet this would be merely a stage in his career.  His 1980s work eventually turned to scoring films, the most high profile being the evocative and impressionistic score for the film Paris, Texas starring Harry Dean Stanton who also sings on the soundtrack, and with contributions from fellow stringed-instrument mage David Lindley.  He would also score the film Crossroads, a film which also concerned itself with blues folklore, making Cooder something of a logical choice as film composer.

Apart from his work with John Hiatt, Jim Keltner, and Nick Lowe as the short-lived Little Village,  Cooder would have a third phase of his career by the 1990s with world music albums featuring Malian guitarist Ali Farka Toure, and later with a group of Cuban musicians later to be known as the Buena Vista Social Club.  This  latter project would make stars out of all participants, with a smash hit album and a celebrated film by Wim Wenders, profiling the story of how Cooder discovered a group of masterclass, and very elderly, Cuban musicians and brought them into the limelight at Carnegie Hall in 1998.

But overall, Cooder is a phenomenal guitarist and arranger, incorporating an incredible stew of influences to take old material and make it shine in a new context while not betraying the original spirit out of which it was born.  That’s a skill that isn’t to be underestimated, and in this Cooder is one of the best at wielding it.

Enjoy!

Otis Rush Sings “I Can’t Quit You Baby”

otis_rushHere’s a clip of soulful blues belter Otis Rush with a version of his 1956 single on the Cobra label ” I Can’t Quit You Baby”, a landmark single in his career that established him as a first-tier Chicago blues artist along with kindred spirits Buddy Guy and Albert King.

With his powerful voice, and stinging left-handed  guitar work, Otis Rush began his career as a hitmaker on the Cobra label, recording with Ike Turner, and scoring several R&B hits, including this one, from 1956-59.  Today, Rush’s talent drastically outweighs his fame. Yet his early singles on the Cobra label established his voice in electric blues scenes in Chicago and beyond.

And “I Can’t Quit You Baby” is a song that would become a part of the blues canon because of its unprecedented intensity. Led Zeppelin’s version of ‘I Can’t Quit You Baby” on their first album in 1968 brought the song to a mainstream rock audience. This band who borrowed so heavily from other blues musicians and their songs sticks pretty close to the Otis Rush’s here, perhaps because they had yet to make their name, or maybe that they saw no way to improve it.

After all, listen to Rush’s performance on the clip.  Get a load of that opening note that immediately rivets the audience to their seats, pulling their eyes and ears stageward.  This is as powerful as any rock performance, and Rush seems to be able to pull this out of himself with very little effort, making his presentation something to behold.

Otis Rush embodies something here which was true to his generation as an electric blues elder statesman.  I find much of the electric blues genre in modern times to be slavish, and very often plain erstatz. Yet, Rush is the real thing, exuding confidence, showing mastery while never showboating, and putting across a performance based around his material, as opposed to one based around a set of aesthetics that have become associated with blues performance .

Rush’s powerful and confident guitar chops influenced the playing of both Eric Clapton and Mike Bloomfield.  And let’s not forget fellow lefty guitarist Jimi Hendrix, who would later go on to influence even more guitarists of both blues and rock persuasions alike.

Otis Rush continued to record and perform until a 2004 stroke took him off of the road.

Enjoy!

Hound Dog Taylor Sings ‘Give Me Back My Wig’

hound_dog_taylor_and_the_houserockers_coverListen to this song by late-blooming bluesman and slide guitar-slinger Hound Dog Taylor.  It’s the oddly titled ‘Give Me Back My Wig’ as taken from Hound Dog’s 1970 debut Hound Dog Taylor and the Houserockers on the label that was created in order to put it out; the now-legendary Chigago-based Alligator Records.

Hound Dog Taylor (neé Theodore Roosevelt Taylor, no less) was born in 1915 Mississippi, with a presidential moniker and six fingers on his left hand.   His first record was put out in 1970, making him something of an undiscovered treasure when it comes to electric blues.  He clearly draws from Elmore James, both in his vocal delivery and in his scrappy slide playing.  Yet, his onstage energy and personality quickly gained him a following of his own.

 

Hound Dog moved to Chicago in 1942, where he made a name for himself as a club act.  His command of the blues allowed him to make a few singles in the 50s and 60s, plus a few radio appearances.  But, by 1970, Hound Dog was able to connect with the electric blues festival circuits and revival package tours that had helped folk-blues artists a few years before.  In some ways, the timing was just right for him.

This tune in particular was one of his best-known numbers, and is something of a meat-and-potatoes 12-bar blues which is more than the sum of its parts because of Taylor’s personality which shines through.  This is not to mention the tough-as-nails backing courtesy of the Houserockers, notable for supporting Hound Dog’s slide by means of only a second guitar and a drum kit.  Jon Spencer, eat your heart out.

Hound Dog was also known for his use of cheap guitars, and an almost punk rock approach to the blues, with minimalist arranging and limited soloing.  To me, it’s kind of ironic that his debut album was the flagship record for the birth of Alligator records, which to my ears have taken to building a catalogue of slickly produced contemporary blues and one dimensional blues-rock that is a little light on personality.

At the time of his death from lung cancer in 1975, Hound Dog was actively touring, yet having only released his third LP, the live document Beware of the Dog in 1973.  A fourth was released in the early 80s, by which time he’d become the inspiration to many a young blues fan including one George Thorogood of “Bad to the Bone” fame.

Enjoy!