Champion Jack Dupree
One Last Time
Nathan and the Zydeco Cha Chas
Follow Me Chicken
By Bob Weinberg
Although they're headquartered in Massachusetts, Rounder Records knows a thing or two about New Orleans music. The Cambridge-based independent scores again with three Crescent City releases from the diverse likes of barrelhouser Champion Jack Dupree, R&B crooner Chuck Carbo, and raveup zydeco band Nathan and the Zydeco Cha Chas. Like different strands of the same dreads, each represents a unique path the region's music has traveled.
Repatriating to the U.S. in his later years, Champion Jack Dupree gave an indelible performance at 1991's Chicago Blues Festival. They wheeled him out to his piano, a lone, frail figure engulfed by the mammoth Petrillo Bandshell in Grant Park. Could he still play, this 80-something blues giant? All doubts vanished as Champion Jack's spidery, spatulate fingers pounded out his signature opening riff, his voice -- not the booming, wall-shaking instrument it once was -- still redolent with character. Not long after, Champion Jack passed away. But before he went on to that ultimate jam session, the Champ laid down three albums worth of material, the last of which, One Last Time, proves his talents undiminished.
In fine voice, his pianistics strong as ever, the one-time boxer and street urchin (he was, legend has it, a roommate of Louis Armstrong's at the Negro Home for Waifs in New Orleans) gleefully romps through material old and new. You can hear the unrepentant naughtiness in his voice as he sings: "You got bad blood, mama/Throw your legs up on the wall." Still a randy coot, he warns against the dangerous pleasures of younger women in "She's Jail Bait" and plays the classic blues goat in "Somebody Done Changed the Lock on My Door."
The veteran barrelhouser is surrounded by first-rate musicians, notably the sky-grabbing tenor of Earl Turbinton and the don't-bother-me-while-I'm-funkin' bass of Walter Payton, Jr. Favorites from the Champ's songbook, such as "Drinkin' Wine-Spo-Dee-O-Dee" -- one of the jumpin'est tunes ever written -- and the raunchy, ramblin' "Big Leg Emma's" ("Walk with me," he tells the band, as his piano does the striding) are infused with new life. "Give Me Flowers While I'm Living" is a poignant reminder on behalf of all blues greats venerated only after they were pushing daisies from the other side (not the case with Champion Jack -- his two albums previous to these posthumous tracks won W.C. Handy and NAIRD Indie Blues awards). Equally moving is the album's closer, "School Days," which includes this: "My grandmother told me/Fifty years ago/Tip your hat and bow your head/Everywhere you go/And you'll have freedom."
Chuck Carbo represents the strain of black music that came out of the barrelhouses, got all dressed up, and went clubbing down on Bourbon Street. It's the music of Allen Toussaint and Ernie K. Doe and Lee Dorsey, rolling piano rhythms paired with big horns and smooth vocal arrangements. Carbo opens with a sexy, midtempo "Meet Me with Your Black Drawers On" and then, for anyone who wasn't paying attention, follows it up with the comical "Drawers Trouble," a Dr. John composition ("Put down that racing form and listen to me," Carbo tells the Night Tripper, who makes his presence known throughout the album on piano, organ, and something called "low guitar"). Carbo's dry, dusty pipes are warm and emotionally engaging and the big rollicking arrangements complement and enhance vocals that might be lost to less sympathetic backing. Two of the strongest tunes, "New York City Blues" and "Rock Me in Your Arms," wouldn't have sounded out of place crooned by Big Joe Turner in front of the Basie band. The album closes on a wry twist with "Take Off That Dress," where Chuck tells his woman she can't go out in public dressed so damn sexy, coming full circle from "Meet Me with Your Black Drawers On."
From the big city lights to the bayou front porch, Nathan Williams leads his band through an excellent set of zydeco raves on Follow Me Chicken. Williams's vocals sound somewhat like one-time label-mate Buckwheat Zydeco, although his accordion playing is not quite as accomplished. However, Williams and band keep the cayenne in an etouffee that Buckwheat has watered down in recent years. A potentially patronizing zydecoized cover of Stevie Wonder's "Isn't She Lovely," sung entirely in Creole (everybody now, "Elle est jolie..."), actually succeeds as a straight, sweet tribute to Wonder's melodic genius. Other tunes such as "Follow Me Chicken" and "Mama's Tired" are rhythmic romps through bayou country with heaping helpings of R&B mixed in. Like the best New Orleans music, the Zydeco Cha Chas combine multicultural ingredients to create a fresh stew.
Guided By Voices
Vampire on Titus/Propeller
By Rat Bastard
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LP number six (and technically seven, because this is two on one CD) from Dayton, Ohio's Lo-Fi rockers, who continue to crank out great songs that often last only 30 seconds. At least half of the tracks here clock in under two minutes, which helps explain how they crammed 33 cuts onto this disc. Music for short attention spans.
Full of Peter-Pan-in-Neverland pop, Vampire has more hooks than Baker's tackle box. Real music critics are comparing them to Sebadoh, Smog, Fly Ashtray, and Pavement. But I've seen 'em live, and they remind me more of early Eighties Miami bands like Cats on Holiday, RBT, and the Cookies.
Here they mix fuzzy ballads ("Marchers in Orange," "Jar of Cardinals," "Wondering Boy Poet," "Red Gas Circle") with chord crunchers ("Expecting Brainchild," "Sot," "Non-Absorbing," "Weed King," "Quality of Armor," "Exit Flagger," and "14 Cheerleader Cold Front"). And they do it in a hurry.