Abner Jay Sings “I’m So Depressed”

Abner Jay Swaunee Water And Cocaine BluesListen to this track by itinerant musician, self-styled last minstrel man and “World’s Worse (sic) Businessman” Abner Jay. It’s “I’m So Depressed”, a cut from his independently produced and distributed album Swaunee Water And Cocaine Blues. The song was also re-issued as a single in 2009 through Portland-based Mississippi records, a label that compiled Abner Jay’s somewhat scattered output.

Abner Jay seems like more of a figure that someone invented rather than an actual person. He was the ultimate self-contained act in the medicine show tradition, traveling in a mobile home that opened up into a makeshift stage, roaming from town to town playing for country folks at flea markets and store parking lots, and selling records from a cardboard box. Amazingly, he performed his material while playing all of the instruments himself in a live setting, including a six-string banjo he claimed was made in 1748 and handed down to him by his grandfather who had been born a slave. Maybe in some ways then, he really was invented, or rather self-invented.

There has been some question as to how to qualify Abner Jay’s music, too. Is it authentic? Could it be described as outsider music? I suppose all of that is determined by how you define each of those terms.. Maybe the clues to Abner Jay’s position on the authenticity spectrum can be found in this song. Read more

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Taj Mahal Sings “Take A Giant Step”

Giant_StepListen to this track by blues and roots alchemist and multi-instrumentalist interpreter Taj Mahal. It’s “Take A Giant Step”,  the title track as taken from one-half of his 1969 two-fer double album Giant Step/De Ol’ Folks Home, his third release. The album represented two different approaches on each disc, with one being a full band excursion into the American roots music spectrum. The other is a solo acoustic record.

On both discs, you can hear just how well integrated Mahal’s sound is with respect to country, blues, folk, and pop music. This track may be the prime example of this, written by pop writers supreme Carole King & Gerry Goffin written for The Monkees and recorded by them as a B-side for first hit single, “The Last Train To Clarksville”.  This version by Mahal is a far cry from that one, slowing everything down, taking out the pop-psychedelic and far east edges, and replacing them with a languid and world-weary quality that the fresh-voiced Monkees couldn’t really have pulled off in their version, as much as I love it.

This is another sterling example of how an arrangement and vocal performance can add dimension to a song. So, what’s the angle on this tune? I think there’s a decidedly spiritual aspect to be found here that may have been missed earlier, but that Taj Mahal is able to draw out as easily as a bucket of water from a sacred river. Read more

Tinariwen Play “Matadjem Yinmixan”

AmanImanListen to this track by actual rock ‘n’ roll rebels from the sahara region of northern Mali and Algeria, Tinariwen. It’s “Matadjem Yinmixan”, a key track as taken from their 2007 album, directly translated as “water is life” from the Tuareg language tamasheq native to the band . This title is perhaps of no surprise given the band’s origins, and even their name, which in English means “deserts”.

I say that they are actual rebels because the Tuareg people were involved in a war of independence in the early sixties and again in Libya in the mid-eighties, spending the ensuing years in between as a scattered people living their nomadic lives in various countries that make up northern Africa, including Mali. This is also a region known for being host to a source of the blues. In a region of the world where the desert is encrouching into farmlands every year, it’s easy to believe that the blues in several respects is alive and well on the edge of the Sahara.

But, in this case, it would be a mistake to think that Tinariwen’s music flows from this one source alone. In fact, the music they make is much like many other things in the Tuareg culture; it wanders, and picks up useful elements on its travels. Read more

The Barr Brothers Play “Beggar In The Morning”

Barr Brothers self titledListen to this track by Montreal-based, Providence Rhode Island originated folk-rock fraternal outfit The Barr Brothers. It’s “Beggar In The Morning”, a single as taken from their 2011 self-titled record The Barr Brothers. The titular brothers Brad (guitar, voice) and Andrew (drums and percussion) had been a part of experimental rock band The Slip from the mid-nineties, but had been playing music in one form or another since 1983 when they were still children growing up in Rhode Island, with Chuck Berry and Miles Davis getting equal time on the record player as they learned their craft on their instruments.

The results of vocalist and guitarist Brad Barr’s songwriting output reflects a sense of emotional gravity and textural variety. His brother Andrew keeps the beat and add percussive accents and melodic accessory on drums and percussion. Classically-trained harpist Sara Page was added to their line-up after Brad heard her playing harp through the drywall, since she was his neighbour. with her addition to the brothers’s sound, the band was officially born. Multi-instrumentalist Andres Vial rounds out the membership, adding further nuance to the whole, which is a meditative and subtle approach to modern roots music that escapes easy comparison.

How did the brothers cover the distance between Boston, where they were based for a decade, and Montreal? It was a question of an odd and unexpected welcome they received in a city that was gaining in stature as a key cultural destination for innovative music.

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Willie Nelson Plays “I Never Cared For You”

Willie Nelson TeatroListen to this track by original country music outlaw, singer-songwriter, and everyone’s favourite Americana octogenarian Willie Nelson. It’s “I Never Cared For You”, a song dating back to his days as a Nashville hitslinger in the 1960s, here re-imagined as a single as taken from 1998’s Teatro.

The song appeared on an early live album in 1966 (Live Country Music Concert) and again in 1982 as a part of a joint double album with Dolly Parton, Kris Kristofferson, and Brenda Lee called The Winning Hand. But, on the Daniel Lanois-produced Teatro, it shines as a high-point in his career during a time when country music artists of his vintage and calibre were taking an opportunity to simplify their approaches in the wake of younger artists garnering all of the attention of the country music establishment. Part of what this meant was going back to the things that made them singular artists in the first place, unshackling themselves from the demands of that same establishment that had written them off as being outdated.

But Nelson had made a point of making a nuisance of himself where this fickle establishment was concerned from the very beginning in any case.  And how so?

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The Band Play “Chest Fever”

Music From Big PinkListen to this track by West Saugerties, NY house-renters and former backing group turned  20th Century music innovators The Band. It’s “Chest Fever”, a track as taken from their 1968 debut record Music From Big Pink.

The album was named affectionately after the house in which much of the group’s early material was written, now famously known in rock lore as one of the first “clubhouse” style recording set-ups that would produce their fruitful Basement Tapes sessions with Bob Dylan when they were still a nameless band transitioning out of their days as The Hawks.

Their work during these sessions showed that world-changing rock music didn’t have to be created in a professional studio while someone else’s clock is ticking. It would also allow them space to explore other musical avenues and  modes of narrative, and to push the possibilities of what rock music could be for everyone while they were at it. It would set the tone for an approach that would carry over even when they came to record their debut in a formal studio setting, working with sympathetic producer John Simon, under their new name The Band.

This is a tune that would burn like a beacon on a landmark debut record, and distinguish itself among some of the best in the group’s catalog. It would also diverge from the carefully constructed approach to songwriting for which the Band is now known in distinct, unique ways.

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Bonnie Raitt Sings “Love Me Like A Man”

Bonnie Raitt
Bonnie Raitt in the early ’70s (via Bonnie Raitt official site)

Listen to this track by redheaded guitar slinger and roots and blues ingenue turned American music matriarch Bonnie Raitt. It’s “Love Me Like a Man” as taken from her second album Give It Up, released to the world in the summer of 1972, when she was a fresh-faced 22 year old.

Bonnie Riatt is known today particularly for the work she created in the late ’80s and into the ’90s. Albums like Nick Of Time and Luck of the Draw, plus songs like “Something To Talk About”, and “I Can’t Make You Love Me” led to armfuls of Grammies. They also reveal Raitt’s superior command of emotional tone, arrangement, and great chops, even if they were created with a polished, adult contemporary sound in mind. But, her career began well before that work was created, upon a sturdy foundation of the blues.

The idea of “contemporary blues” is off-putting to some. It’s a bit of a red flag for me, if I’m honest. But, this song is certainly one that can be called contemporary although maybe in a different way then one might expect.

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Nina Simone Sings “Sinnerman”

Nina Simone Pastel BluesListen to this track by incomparable High Priestess of Soul herself Nina Simone. It’s “Sinnerman”, a traditional gospel-blues song of misty and mysterious origins as captured on her 1965 record Pastel Blues. The song closed that record, an epic length encapsulation of nothing less than the Fall of Humanity, the hope for redemption, and the fear of damnation.

Covering this tune was likely a product of Simone’s upbringing in the church. But, it is also likely that “Sinnerman” was well-covered on the Greenwich Village folk scene, of which Simone was also a part. The Weavers recorded a version of it, which may have been responsible for it being something of a standard of the ’60s folk boom. It has since become a well-covered standard across a number of musical spectrums.

This one is the real thing; over ten minutes long, and with Simone’s full-powers behind it, and making it her own. It would have an impact well after this version was recorded. Read more

Lyle Lovett Sings “Skinny Legs”

Listen to this track by quirky Texan country-folk singer-songwriter, ‘Large Band’ honcho, and sometime actor Lyle Lovett. It’s “Skinny Legs” a 1994 track from his album I Love Everybody.

Here’s a tale for the non-rock star if there ever was one, a grass-is-always-greener narrative that many guys find themselves in the middle of when comparing themselves unfavourably to others.  In some ways, Lovett is like a gentler, country-folk answer to Randy Newman‘s more abrasive sense of cynicism and irony. Where Newman laughs at the world and it’s absurdities, it’s easy to get the impression that Lovett laughs along while throwing himself in there with it.

That’s one of the things that makes this song so endearing; it has a softer side, a sense of innocence to it that provides an emollient to the spiky themes that it deals with so subtly; envy, self-hatred, and living in a culture that very often values appearances over substance. Being in Hollywood circles as an actor must have given Lovett some sense of this in very personal terms. Yet, that’s another ironic twist to be found in the background of this song, and the record off of which it comes. Read more

Mose Allison Sings ‘Young Man’s Blues’

Here’s a clip featuring jazz pianist and rhythm & blues stylist, singer, and songwriter Mose Allison, with a song he wrote and recorded in 1963 . It’s “Young Man’s Blues” a lament for the titular young man who once ‘had all the money’. Luckily, thanks to a 1970 cover version by the Who on their Live At Leeds album, pretty soon Mose Allison had all the money, too. The song is taken from Allison’s Mose Allison Sings album.

During a time when having a cross-over career from the jazz world to the world of R&B was looked upon as commercial suicide, Mose Allison was a fearless artist who’s music defied the high walls between genres and audiences. He was born in the Mississippi Delta in 1927 and took to the musician’s life at a young age.  By the 1950s, his skills as a pianist were being employed while in jazz bands with Stan Getz, Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, and Gerry Mulligan.

But Allison’s feel for the blues allowed him to gain the attention of R&B fans too, including many rock players, from Van Morrison, and later to the Clash, and Elvis Costello.  As mentioned this particular tune, a jazz-inflected number that features Allison’s laid back tenor drawl and light-as-air piano lines, was ripe to be transformed into the monster rock assault by the Who, who made it a part of their live set, and later recorded it for their monumental Live At Leeds album. When he got the royalty cheque, he was convinced it must be mistake.

This perhaps shows that anything held together by the base ingredient of the blues can be interpreted and re-interpreted in any other musical milieu that has that same base ingredient.   Yet, it also proves the song’s writer to be ahead of his time, in being able to see that common thread and build it into his music, despite the difficulties of being able to successfully do so in the early 60s.

While the decades rolled on from the 50s to the 90s, Allison continued to be an active recording artist and performer, with a dedication to putting out records that was perhaps contrary to his lack of widespread recognition among pop music fans.  At the age of 82, he’s released a new record this year, Way of the World produced by Joe Henry on Anti-Records.

In this 21st Century when mixing styles and writing songs which are open to stylistic interpretation is common, Mose Allison has in many ways come home.

For more information about Mose Allison, check out moseallison.com.

You can review or preview the music on the Mose Allison on MySpace.

Enjoy!