Slide of Hand
By Bob Weinberg
When am I gonna learn? Roy Rogers puts out a new album and I get all excited. Maybe it's because I remember how Roy scorched the earth at the Riverwalk Blues Fest, or parched the pavement on Flagler during Sunfest, slinging one of the fastest, meanest slide guitars on this planet and several others. So I eagerly await a release, tear it open with my teeth...and am woefully disappointed.
Somehow, something gets lost in translation. You excuse Rogers's thin, high voice in concert because you're too busy trying to follow his dazzling digits. On record his voice sounds, well, just thin and high.
And the musical mediocrities don't help much, either. Live, Rogers reinterprets all the greats: Elmore. Robert. John Lee. Given an entire album to fill, however, he often ends up with subpar material. "Change of Season" and "Make Your Own Paradise" sound like those wimpy ballads that would sometimes pop up on old Edgar Winter albums (the tracks you skipped over to get to "Frankenstein"). "Bad Situation" and "Work Hard for the Money" are just your basic fist-pumping rock fodder. Tunes that work, not surprisingly, draw from Rogers's extensive knowledge of authentic blues: Robert Johnson's "Stones in My Passway" gives listeners a glimpse at what this album might have been, with eerie, chill-inducing steel reverberations; "Rockin' at the Hey Hey," an original jook, conjures up boot-scuffed wooden floors stained with beer.
Don't get me wrong; Rogers's playing is exemplary throughout. It's just wasted on some drivel. Same goes for Norton Buffalo's harp, so effective in duet with Roy on "Shake Your Moneymaker" (from Chops Not Chaps). Here, Buffalo is reduced to Fingers Taylor's status, rather than Sonny Boy Williamson's -- competent, but somewhat bland.
Blues, by its nature, is derivative. It's not that you can't do something new with the form or go beyond cover versions (check out the recently departed and much-missed John Campbell). But you play the slide, you risk comparisons with everyone from Robert Johnson to Big Joe Williams. And Rogers can hold his own with these legends. If only someone was rolling the tape when he chose to do so.
Blues with a Feeling
By Bob Weinberg
The debate continues: Is blues a folk idiom? If so, does that make it any less genuine an art form? Do we put it in the same category as, say, candle-dipping or in the lofty altitude reserved for guys like Wolfgang and Ludwig? Blues with a Feeling, a sublime two-disc collection of performances culled from the Newport Folk Festivals of 1963 through 1966, does more to confound than resolve the issue. But when you lock and load either disc and feel the raw resonance and deep character of the playing and singing, it just won't matter. You'll be as captivated as the slack-jawed, crew-necked, penny-loafered Ivy Leaguers who made the pilgrimage to the Rhode Island fairgrounds to worship at the feet of newfound heroes.
Fittingly, the first voice you hear is that of Dick Waterman, the manager/promoter who helped track down and record some of these venerable artists, many of whom would otherwise be lost to the ages (of course the other take is that older black performers were trotted out to play before the privileged, albeit adoring, white masses).
Waterman talks of the technique of his first guest, Son House, how he hooks his thumb under the bass string of his guitar to create his unique sound. But when House opens with the definitive reading of "Preachin' Blues," his musical tract about religion versus the life of the bluesman, academia takes a back seat. The war for dominance of his soul seems very real, even if some of the lyrics are satirical. Skip James, whom many kids glommed onto after hearing Cream's version of "I'm So Glad," sounds equally possessed, floating an unearthly falsetto on his "Devil's Got My Woman." The Rev. Robert Wilkins brings the religion theme to the fore on "What Do You Think About Jesus," teaming with Fred and Anne McDowell.
One of the great success stories of the so-called blues revival -- and certainly a high point of Blues -- was the rediscovery of Mississippi John Hurt, who lays down two sweetly picked and sung tunes that sound more like the Okie folk of Woody Guthrie than the Delta blues of Robert Johnson. Another indication of the depth and breadth of blues styles that became more homogenized as they headed north.
Of course no one was really worried about losing track of the music of Lightnin' Hopkins or Muddy Waters, two of the more prolific artists on this compilation. Lightnin' strikes three times, his countrified humor and warm Texas drawl most affecting on "The Woman I'm Loving She's Taken My Appetite." The only two tracks recorded in 1968, Muddy's set includes a spry slide ride through "I Just Can't Be Satisfied" (although for the best reading, pick up Hard Again, with Johnny Winter helping out).
Two acts that would explode in the years to come also contribute: the Chambers Brothers put on an exquisite gospel harmony on "See See Rider," which also utilizes some lonesome blues harp. The Butterfield Blues Band grind through three tracks they would later perform powerfully on their first album (including the Little Walter slow-burn that gives the Vanguard collection its title). The same Newport audience who would later decry Dylan's electric "betrayal" seem to enjoy the amped-up Chicago-style band.
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Whether the blues performed here is folk-craft or great art (we favor the latter), you won't find more emotionally riveting, personal performances. Obviously guys like Waterman believed this enough to persuade a Son House (who'd left the biz in 1948), a Mississippi John Hurt, and a Skip James to share their legacy with the rest of the world.
By Adrian Castro
I wonder if there's a sphere where talking pianos fly -- Thelonious Monk pianos, McCoy Tyner pianos, Dave Brubeck pianos, Oscar Peterson pianos. Among those airborne 88s would be Chucho Valdes's instrument of choice. Documented on his first Blue Note release is a vast array of spontaneous melodic gymnastics balanced with technical mastery, all of it tumbling through ten tunes straight outta Cuba.
The first eight tracks feature Chucho solito, giving listeners a dose of ominous, nostalgic, pensive melodies countered with machine-gun lyrical phrasing (especially in "Nandy"). Many styles flow through the CD -- blues and Dixieland ("Blues Yes"), strains of bebop ("Blues [Untitled]"), traditional son ("Nandy" and "Togo"), and Afro-Cuban ("Noliu" and "When I Fall in Love"). "When I Fall in Love" will especially please the most selective of Irakere fans with its exquisite blend of Afro percussion and jazz strings. A heavy -- pero bien heavy -- conversation takes place between fingers, ebony, ivory, and strings. You are eavesdropping on a special dialogue. Listen up. It's only a piano.