The Jeff Healey Band Play “See The Light”

See_the_LightListen to this track by fiery Torontonian guitarist, singer, and all around blues-rock titan Jeff Healey along with his two compatriots Joe Rockman on bass and Tom Stephen on drums; The Jeff Healey Band. It’s “See The Light”, the title cut and closing track on their 1988 debut record See The Light.

The notable point that critics and fans made about Healey on his debut beyond his blindness was his re-definition on how to play guitar. Playing the instrument more like a piano, he held the chords in an inverted manner, playing the instrument in his lap. That he was able to do this and still completely wail while doing so was akin to trying to figure out how bumblebees fly; that he shouldn’t be able to do it the way he did, but he somehow managed it anyway. This caused something of a sensation, and by the next year Healey and his bandmates would appear as a version of themselves in the 1989 movie Roadhouse with Patrick Swayze, in which Healey’s every line seemed to start with the expositionary phrase “well, word on the street is …”. Otherwise, who but Healey could have played a blind white blues guitarist with such credibility?

Healey would of course carry that credibility over into his music career, during a period when the blues in the mainstream was just coming into its own after a period in the wilderness. This was not simply down to gimmickry, but rather down to something more vital; a consuming interest from the artist as to where the music he played originally came from. Read more

The White Stripes Play “Dead Leaves And The Dirty Ground”

Dead_Leaves_and_the_Dirty_GroundListen to this track by tri-colour schemed indie-blues-rock twosome from Detroit The White Stripes. It’s “Dead Leaves And The Dirty Ground”, a cut as taken from their breakthrough 2001 album White Blood Cells. It served as the third single from that record scoring a top twenty showing on the Billboard Modern Rock chart.

The impact The White Stripes had on rock music by the beginning of the two-thousands was hefty. Their music challenged many of the conventions of the time, while also reinforcing many of the same that fans had perhaps forgotten about. It was brand new, and yet somehow dusty and old at the same time. The band’s approach certainly undercut the idea that to make new music, one had to leave the past behind. But is also undercut the idea that one couldn’t take a left turn when it came to presenting it in a new context.

That what this song illustrates so well, and perfectly frames why The White Stripes were able to make such an impact on the mainstream. Read more

Son Little Sings “Cross My Heart”

Son Little Cross My HeartListen to this track by impressionistic blues and soul proponent for the 21st century, Son Little. It’s “Cross My Heart”, his initial foray into a new musical milieu under this new moniker in November of 2013. His birth name is Aaron Livingston, known for  projects under that name in collaborations with Rjd2 and The Roots.

The evocation of the blues is palpable here on his first single under the Son Little banner, and for more than the standard and purely musical reasons, although this song departs from that template too. For many, the blues is not so much a musical form as it is a spiritual state, and a connection to a shared history that is less joyous than even the best in a musical genre has shown us.

At the root, and established before the branches of rock and soul music were cultivated , the blues has always been about pain and dehumanization, and the raw expression in reaction to those. That’s what Son Little hooks into here.

Yet, somehow this is not about some scholarly recreation of classic blues or soul. There are greater depths to be discovered here.

Read more

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

Jimmy Reed Sings ‘Shame Shame Shame’

Here’s a clip of Blues and R&B giant Jimmy Reed with his 1963 song ‘Shame Shame Shame’, which like so many  of his other tunes became standard set favourites during the British R&B boom in the 1960s.

Reed’s voice is a quite idiosyncratic sleepy mumble,  making him instantly recognizable. And his delivery here is perfect.  This is the tale of a man done wrong by his woman, and clearly the worse for wear because of it.  Of course, Reed’s own state of being probably helped the performance quite a bit.

This is one of his least successful singles, yet it’s one of my favourites. By ’63, Jimmy Reed had a string of big hits including ‘Bright Lights, Big City’, ‘Honest I Do’, ‘Baby, What You Want Me To Do’, and many others, having made a name for himself on the Vee-Jay label and being, for a time, a big seller on both the R&B and pop charts.  But, his success would never match that of other blues artists in the long-term, possibly due to health problems and personal issues which included alcoholism.  At one point, his memory for lyrics became so bad even during recording sessions, that his wife had to whisper the words in his ear as the tape rolled.  On some cuts, you can hear her.

Yet Reed had a tremendous impact, not only on British groups like the Rolling Stones (who modeled, some might say stole, this  very song for their own under the title, “Little By Little”), but also on early rock ‘n’ rollers, including Elvis Presley who recorded Reed’s ‘Baby, What You Want Me To Do”.  Even country artists like Charlie Rich and Hank Williams, Jr. had a shot at some of Reed’s songs, once again proving that the barriers between R&B and country aren’t really that insurmountable.  And this ability to put across accessible, and highly interpretable R&B  might be more true of Jimmy Reed than most.

By the mid-70s though, he was ravaged by health problems, including epilepsy.  And even though he had changed tracks and was on the road to making a comeback on the blues revival circuit, his years of hard living and chronic health issues besides caught up with him in August of 1976.  Yet, he’s made his mark as a purveyor of accessible-yet-authentic and highly appealing blues that has inspired multiple generations of players.

For more music, check out this Jimmy Reed MySpace page.


Robert Johnson – A New Picture Unearthed?

Recently, a new image of legendary bluesman Robert Johnson has been put forward in a whirlwind of legal implications, not to mention questions of authenticity.  Take a read of the story from Vanity Fair about the search for Robert Johnson.

     The image above must have been taken after Johnson was beginning to make some headway as a musician, sharp-suited and well-fed as he is here. Johnson continues to be something of a mystery, the details of his life being largely down to an aural tradition. Yet his influence on bands from the Stones, to the Cowboy Junkies, to The White Stripes is undeniable.
The image above must have been taken after Johnson (depicted on the left) was beginning to make some headway as a musician, sharp-suited and well-fed as he is here. And look at the size of the man's hands! Johnson continues to be something of a mystery, the details of his life being largely down to an oral tradition. Yet his influence on bands from the Stones, to the Cowboy Junkies, to The White Stripes is undeniable.

When looking at a picture on eBay which was described as an early picture of B.B King, vintage guitar seller Steven “Zeke” Schien was sure that he’d found something even more valuable – a third photograph of the legendary and mysterious Robert Johnson, who was murdered in 1938 when, according to myth, a jealous husband poisoned his drink.

Before that of course, Robert Johnson recorded 29 songs from November of 1936 to June 1937, many of which had an untold effect on the development of the blues and of rock music too; “Love in Vain”, “I’m a Steady Rollin’ Man”, “Crossroad Blues”,  “Me and the Devil Blues” all standards and among many Johnson tunes covered by the Stones, the Yardbirds, Fleetwood Mac (under Peter Green), Cream, Led Zeppelin, and many others.

What was it that tipped Schein off that it might be Johnson?  It was the fingers, depicted in two other photos of Johnson as being abnormally long.  Some of my music geek associates noted the same thing when we talked about whether or not this was indeed Robert Johnson.  It is Johnson’s hands that characterizes him visually, and which possibly allowed for his incredible guitar skills too, at least in part.

Despite dying at the end of 1930s, Johnson remains to be a platinum-selling artist, with his 29 songs still being well sought-after artifacts of another age.  And the myth surrounding him, that he sold his soul for fame and fortune, only makes his lost history and his persona as the haunted bluesman damned for eternity for momentary gain all the more compelling.

For more information about the new picture and the man himself, check out the official Robert Johnson website.

Howlin’ Wolf Sings “Backdoor Man”

Here’s a clip of Howlin’Wolf performing his 1961 single, “Backdoor Man”, famously covered by the Doors.

Chester Burnett, BKA Howlin’ Wolf performing in 1972 (image: Doug Fulton)

The 1950s and early 60s is widely known as a repressed era, full of images of uniform suburbs, grey-flannel suits, and Father-knows-best morality too. Yet, in the blues world, there were all kinds of contrasting forces that work against this type of generalization. In this world, backdoor men, cuckolded husbands, and married women sneaking around were the main players in these musical love triangles of raw sexuality. This filtered down into rock n’ roll too, of course. But Howlin’ Wolf’s reading of this Willie Dixon-penned tune is downright evil – well, evil in a good way.

In music coming out of urban centers like Chicago, the world is portrayed (and often was) a rough place, with danger and sex (sometimes just dangerous sex…) lurking around every corner, hand in hand with the high possibility of violent death. The braggadocio in the blues in the sexual sense – of backdoor men, hoochie coochie men, king bees buzzin’ around your hive, and other examples – was a firm basis upon which the same kinds of sentiments are now expressed in hip hop.

This song, and others like it, were sort of anti-love songs. This is not about gushy feelings. This is about physicality, carnality, and one-upmanship. Who would have thought that the era which produced Pat Boone, also featured Howlin’ Wolf who would go on to inspire the Rolling Stones (who insisted Wolf join them on their 1965 TV appearance on British program “Ready Steady Go“…), the Doors, Led Zeppelin, ZZ Top, and many others who took the mantle of sexual conquistador in rock music into the decades to come.

To hear more music from Howlin’ Wolf, check out the Howlin’ Wolf MySpace page.


Bluesman John Lee Hooker Performs “Boom Boom”

Here’s a clip of the immortal John Lee Hooker performing his hit “Boom Boom”

John Lee HookerThe blues is easily parodied – 12 bars, 3 chords, 3lines of lyrics for each verse, with subject matter about feeling bad. Yet, to reduce the blues to these cliches, as easy as it may be for some, is to forget how primal the blues really is as a form. And this isn’t just about how many genres of music it’s given birth to and fed. It’s about the basic human need to express something physical, something (for want of a better word) base. These expressions are as true to the human experience as anything to be found in any sacred text or scientific journal. For these purposes, singing the blues has few rivals. And Hooker’s tune is all about physicality, a celebration of arousal – “I love the way you walk/I love the way you talk/when you walk that walk/and talk that talk”. Grrr, baby! This is one of the songs about lust for the ages, and certainly one that has caused a ripple effect through into rock n’ roll.

“Boom Boom” was released by Hooker in 1961, marked by its unique guitar riff and Hooker’s own lustful growl. It was a staple song in the set of many blues and R&B acts on both sides of the Atlantic soon after. It became a single for the Animals, who were admirers of Hooker, a few years later along with another Hooker hit, “Dimples”. The “twelve bars-3chords-3 lines of lyrics” model for which the blues is known is entirely discarded here. What we get instead is a call-and-response drone, with Hooker’s guitar used more as a rhythm instrument, almost a percussion instrument, rather than the now-expected guitar histrionics with which electric blues is often associated. This song is much akin to Hooker’s earlier side “Boogie Chillun” which is a single riff on one chord, with only Hooker’s boot on the studio floor as a secondary instrument. It’s here that the world of the blues is taken out of the clubs of Chicago, and Hooker’s adopted hometown of Detroit, and is transported back to Africa.

Malian musician and innovator, the late Ali Farka Toure was always annoyed when he was compared to John Lee Hooker. “When I hear John Lee Hooker,” said Toure, “I hear African music”.

Thanks to for use of John Lee Hooker’s image.

Goodbye, Jeff Healey

Jeff HealeyBlues guitarist and jazz enthusiast Jeff Healey passed away yesterday of cancer. He was 41.

Read the full story here.

Besides some songs he had on Canadian radio at the end of the 80s, the thing I remember best him from was the 1989 movie Roadhouse in which he played, and wasn’t it a stretch, a blind blues-rock musician.

Here’s a performance of the title song from that movie, first made famous by the Doors: “Roadhouse Blues“.

Healey would expand his palette in more recent years as a jazz DJ, playing rare tracks from his own collection of music, many cuts taken from the original 78s.

‘Bye, Jeff.

Image courtesy of ckaiserca.