Although the "big" acts at the Chicago Blues Fest may continue to ring in your ears long after the fact, it's often the sidewalk musicians or the back-alley bar bands that leave the most lasting impressions. Sure, Albert Collins grinded his ax with his teeth, but that dude with the portable amp set up under the trees played Elmore James tunes as if they had just been written. Such is the case with the roster of talent accumulated by Evidence, a two-and-a-half-year-old label headquartered in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, home of the blues. Well, not exactly, but the small town just west of Philly can lay claim to a blues machine that has rescued some great music from relative obscurity.
Less than household words but more than unknown quantities, artists such as Johnnie Johnson, Clarence Gatemouth Brown, Eddie Kirkland, Mighty Joe Young, Larry Davis, and Carrie Smith have found a showcase to display some little-heard releases. For that, they can thank Jerry Gordon and Howard Rosen, two long-time record retailers who combine business savvy with blues fanaticism. Gordon and Rosen bought up the catalogue of the short-lived Pulsar imprint and licensed several releases from the French Black and Blue label. Some of the featured artists, notably Johnson, Davis, and Smith, went on to bigger things after these sides were recorded, signing with major labels, winning awards, appearing on Broadway. The tracks here fill in the gaps, representing some significant work during lean years.
"We used to sell Pulsar at the store," says Gordon, who peddled music from his hip, funky little Third Street Jazz and Rock shop in downtown Philadelphia for seventeen years. "We also used to do investigative work, find out who owned what, what happened to them. So we tracked them [former owners of Pulsar] down," he explains, describing how he and Rosen, who once owned the sprawling We Three record chain (with 19 locations in Pennsylvania and New Jersey), purchased their current collection.
The two men, who went to the same Lower Marion high school but "admired each other from afar" in the ensuing years, met again at a party and compared notes. Gordon's experience told him customers were clamoring for out-of-print material; Rosen found there was an extensive market for mid-price and budget records among his mall clientele. And so Evidence was born.
But don't misinterpret these actions, Gordon warns. He and Rosen were not on a mission to save the blues so much as to make some long green. It doesn't hurt that the object of their speculation was something both men know and love. "When we put out CDs, we try to accomplish two things," Gordon explains. "Great music and people with followings. And all of these artists do have followings. Johnson had a big album [1991's Johnnie B. Bad], but we were negotiating on [the Evidence release] before that album even existed."
Although the discs reviewed here are all blues, 50 percent of the Evidence output is jazz, including a highly touted collection of avant pianist and space traveler Sun Ra. "For seventeen years," Gordon says, "people would say 'jazz is picking up.' But it never went away, never got any bigger, never got any smaller. The blues is different. It has gotten stronger. American roots music, with the exception of rap, will never outsell more common strains and derivatives. But the cost of a disc is the same, whether it's Eric Clapton or Mighty Joe Young."
The resulting collection, released earlier this year, is pure grit, with nary a Bonnie Raitt or Carlos Santana to help sell the bill of goods. Evidence is not for the "Hey Otis" visitors to the blue side of the tracks, but for those who prefer to reside there full time.
Blue Hand Johnnie
If you've ever had the overwhelming urge to play dashboard piano while listening to Chuck Berry (there oughta be a law that you must be in a car to listen to Chuck Berry A might just be on the books in St. Louis), thank Johnnie Johnson. As much a part of Berry's signature sound as his chunky guitar rhythms, Johnson's rippling pianistics added elegant Kansas City stride to Berry's tough East St. Louis duck walk.
His trademark captain's hat perched atop his head, his trademark fingers flying quicksilver over the 88s, Johnson has been touring the festival and club circuit with a band tighter than the clasp on Jack Benny's coinpurse. Before Johnnie B. Bad, his 1991 solo breakthrough album recorded with admirers such as Keith Richards and Eric Clapton, the piano man laid down the tracks for Blue Hand Johnnie with a less glittering cast, but with no less verve or prowess. In fact, Blue Hand is more representative of Johnson's talents, bringing center stage his riffology on originals such as "Johnnie's Boogie" and "Son's Dream," and of course reprising his great moments with you-know-who on "Johnnie B. Goode" and "Back in the U.S.A."
Johnson sets a high standard for honky-tonk piano A combining the dexterity of Art Tatum with the barrelhouse rhythms of Otis Spann A that has inspired many and been equaled by few. Short of delving back into the old Berry singles (as rewarding as that may be), Blue Hand is as good a showcase of Johnson's talents as is available.
Confessin' the Blues
Imagine the presence a performer would need to stand belly to belly with blues greats Ruth Brown and Linda Hopkins, whose respective girths are exceeded only by their talents, and actually command attention. That's just what sultry voiced Carrie Smith did A on Broadway no less A in the celebration Black and Blue. A deep, cool delivery A reminiscent of her Orange, New Jersey, homegirl Sarah Vaughan A was the perfect counterpoint to the R&B shouting of her costars, although Smith generated some heat of her own with the show-stopping "Butter and Egg Man."
On "Confessin' the Blues," Smith is alternately hot and cool, genre-hopping with great facility from mentor Ruth Brown's R&B classic "Mama (He Treats Your Daughter Mean") to Harold Arlen's plaintive jazz standard "Ill Wind." On the way, she visits W.C. Handy, Ida Cox, and Fats Waller's songwriting partner, Andy Razaf (on the jubilant gospel shout, "Revival Day"). The musicianship backing Smith's hardy timbre is nothing short of spectacular, with guests such as trumpeter Doc Cheatham, sax man Budd Johnson, pianist Hank Jones, and bassist George Duvivier. The album's centerpiece, "I Want a Little Boy," has that languid, though never sloppy, late-night jazz-jam feel that makes for eight minutes and twenty-two seconds of sheer aural gratification. Smith does it all, breaking hearts, scolding lovers, and reveling in earthy pleasures A "I need a man with a whole lot of energy," she warns. Recorded in the mid to late Seventies, this collection A more than an hour of music taken from three albums A is prime Carrie Smith, although she has gotten even better since (to find out, call PBS and demand that they replay Black and Blue).
Clarence Gatemouth Brown
Just Got Lucky
This outing finds the lanky, pipe-puffing Texan wailing away on some hard-core blues, joyously rasping out the title track, and playing some deep indigo chords on tracks such as "Sad Hour." Gate glides effortlessly through four swingin' romps popularized by R&B pioneer Louis Jordan, most notably the chugging "Choo Choo Ch' Boogie" and the raucous road tale "Salt Pork West Virginia." Brown is so at ease you begin to wonder just what's in that pipe of his; he makes younger ax-wielders sound unwieldy. A debt of gratitude is owed Evidence for rescuing "Long Way Home" (once the flipside to Gate's remake of "May the Bluebird of Happiness Fly Up Your Nose"), with its train-whistle harp licks and locomotive rhythms. The guitarist is in accomplished company, joined by long-time Texas associate Arnett Cobb on sax, piano great Jay McShann on piano, and the legendary Milt Hinton on bass. Burbling organ riffs from Milt Buckner and Stan Hunter are also much appreciated. Unfortunately, Gate chins his fiddle on just one track, and briefly at that. But what he's lacking in crawfish, he more than makes up for in chitlins.
Mighty Joe Young
Muscular, blue-collar blues is what Mighty Joe dishes up, courtesy of his six-stringed electric lady, Josephine, and his hard-driving band. From "Teasing the Blues," the opening instrumental where Young introduces the lovely Josephine and the band, the tone is throbbing, smoky, hole in the wall blues, the kind you want to listen to LOUD, while you shake your head, close your eyes, and hope someone starts some shit. "Wisefool Express," with its rompin' electric shuffle, conjures up the Chi-town club it's named for, and "Need a Friend" resonates with happy menace. Blues stalwart Willie Mabon ("I Don't Know") spells Ken Sajdak on piano for a few tunes, while Sajdak more than recoups his losses on organ. Willie Hayes's nail-gun on a tin roof drumming is the perfect match. Where's Mighty Joe been all these years? Chicago. Where you been?
Eddie "Bluesman" Kirkland, with his Egyptian headdress, lean and mean guitar sound, gritty Chicago harmonica, and a voice rougher than the business edge of a two-by-four, is a tragically overlooked performer. His resume alone should command attention, but there are better reasons to listen to Have Mercy. For one thing, all the songs are original. For another, producer Oliver Sain lends some jumping (if uncredited) keyboards, as well as playing up his old Ike 'n' Tina connections by pulling in the Ikettes for some distinctive backing vocals. At first listen Mercy is pleasant enough, but it grows more and more rewarding with each successive spin. Kirkland's best on the rough stuff, such as the shufflin' "Mary Lou," the incendiary "Young Man, Young Woman," and the outstanding slow grind of "I've Got A Secret." The fact this is not all essential Kirkland shouldn't prevent blues fans from seeking Mercy.
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I Ain't Beggin' Nobody
The blues world (read, the "white" blues world) rediscovered Larry Davis, rewarding him with a Handy for best contemporary blues album and best blues single of 1982. It had been a long, dry spell since his 1958 classic "Texas Flood," later powerfully covered by Stevie Ray Vaughan. His follow-up to the award-winning Funny Stuff album, I Ain't Beggin' Nobody, was originally released in 1985. The title track, as well as four other songs, was written by producer/saxophonist/keyboardist Oliver Sain, whose presence is felt on many of the above Evidence releases. However, the strongest tune is a Davis original, "Giving Up On Love," a slow blues that amply displays the singer's smoky, emotionally charged, Freddie King-inspired vocals. The other King is covered with "Sneaking Around," a B.B. favorite, beautifully handled here. Though guitar is not his original instrument (he started on drums, switched to bass), Davis' fret work is nonetheless evocative and more than merely competent. But it is his voice that stuns, with it's stark emotiveness holding forth from that deep blue within.
Robert Jr. Lockwood
Plays Robert & Robert
Robert Johnson was good at two things: one insured his musical legacy and the other probably got him killed (at the hands, legend has it, of a jealous boyfriend or a spurned girlfriend). Robert Jr. Lockwood met up with Johnson at the crossroads of his two predilections: Lockwood's mother was captivated by the handsome blues man just as Lockwood, four years younger than Johnson, was captivated by his unique way with a guitar. Lockwood built his style around his mentor's teachings and carried that on after Johnson's untimely death.
Not surprisingly, the selections compiled on Plays Robert & Robert draw heavily from the Johnson songbook, with such staples as "Rambling on My Mind," "Kind Hearted Woman," and of course, "Sweet Home Chicago." Lockwood is alone and acoustic, the best setting for this type of music, strumming and picking deep Delta notes on his twelve-string. Although nothing here is as powerful nor as haunting as the originals, the album is still a worthwhile exercise. Besides reprising several successful Lockwood sides such as "Western Horizon," "Little Boy Blue," and "Take a Walk with Me," Robert Jr. cuts clean, inspired reproductions of the man whose shadow he'll never shake.