Force of Nature
By Bob Weinberg
If any singer can be considered a force of nature, it's Koko Taylor. Howlin' Wolf knew it the first time he heard her in a Chicago nightclub; before Koko's mike had been turned off, she was signed by the erstwhile Mr. Burnett for the Chess Brothers. What followed has been one of the most successful careers of any blues artist, male or female, and her latest disc, Force of Nature, will surely add more Handys and Grammys to her already bursting trophy case.
Without resorting to hyperbole, I can honestly say this is the best blues recording of 1993. Although not a young woman, Koko's never been in better voice, her briar-and-bramble-throated delivery offering an eloquence William Buckley couldn't approach at his most thesaurus-intensive. If your heart doesn't shatter in a million pieces when you hear "Nothing Takes the Place of You," perhaps there's nothing left in your chest cavity to bust.
Like many of her blues sisters -- Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith, Bonnie Raitt -- Koko displays vulnerability, but don't you mistake her for the doormat, Mr. Thing. "Don't Put Your Hands on Me" says more for women's rights than Lorena Bobbit, cutting right to the chase: "It's all right to touch me/ With sweet things on your mind/ But keep your big fists off of me/ Any other time." And, oh, does this thing groove! Jerry Murphy's fat-back bass, Chris Johnson's icepick-in-the-heart lead-guitar, and a big, big horn chart make "Don't Put" one of Koko's finest moments.
And speaking of moments, the late Albert King's "Born Under a Bad Sign" also provides a showstopper (if you have the repeat function on your disc player, hit it, chum). As if it wouldn't be any blues lover's wet dream to hear Koko sink her gold teeth into this hard-luck tale, add Buddy Guy's overheated ax and vocals that dance on the outer edges of the stratosphere to the mix: instant classic. It's as menacing as Albert and Booker T. (the song's author) ever intended. And when Koko says, "Buddy Guy, can you play the blues?" he just laughs and lets his Strat do the talking. You can't force the dynamics, chemistry, and plain affection these two old friends display with such ease, as anyone who's heard some of Sinatra's duets with phoned-in costars (some he's never met) can tell you.
Koko also reclaims Big Mama Thornton's (one of her main inspirations) "Hound Dog," and it's a revelation for those who've only heard Elvis's version. The prologue to the tune, the bridge, and of course, the gender switch, create a completely different aura for the Lieber-Stoller tune that represents rock and roll to an entire generation. As did Big Mama T., Koko makes this song writhe with sex and an earthiness well beyond the ken of most of the bobby-soxers who once thought the King was the ginchiest. And while she's reclaiming, Koko takes back "Bad Case of Loving You," once a monster for Robert Palmer.
Just as she has for the past 30-some years, Koko owns the undisputed title Queen of the Blues. Force just tightens her grip.
Blonde & Blue
By Bob Weinberg
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I've got a new favorite song. Created for the recent Curtis Mayfield tribute album, People Get Ready, "Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um" is about the hookiest lost soul classic to come down the pike. And you'll find it on Angela Strehli's latest slab. Sung in duet with soulster Don Covay -- the legendary Steve Cropper trademarking his guitar, the Uptown Horns getting down to brass tacks -- "Um, Um, Um" is one of those sexy yet innocent love songs they used to do so well back in the days. And if by the seventh track you still need to be convinced Strehli can sing (trust us, you won't), this will moot the point.
In fact, the first tune on Blonde is just about my second new favorite song. A love letter to her blues heroes and the black-oriented radio stations that piped them into her little white girl's consciousness, "Two Bit Texas Town" starts off with a tough guitar riff lifted directly from John Lee Hooker's "Dimples": "Well, I never will forget/ When I heard the big Wolf howl/ Scared me half to death/ To know he was on the prowl." Everyone from Lightnin' Hopkins to Muddy Waters to airwave heroes John R. and the Horseman are given their due, as Strehli sings of the days when "radio could turn your life around."
A mix of searing Chicago-done-Texas-style blues -- (Elmore James's "The Sun is Shining," so hot it'll make you blush), rockabilly ("Can't Stop These Teardrops," authentic sounding, but it's an original), and Stax-y soul ("Never Like This Before," written by Booker T. and Isaac Hayes, natch) -- Blonde provides an ample showcase for Strehli's songwriting and interpreting abilities.
One of the trickiest aspects of white-girl blues, guitarist Sue Foley told me, is finding that elusive "black voice." Strehli, a major Foley influence (a fellow Austinite, she sings a duet with her young charge on Foley's Without a Warning), never forces the issue, maybe because she doesn't even try to sound black. And the album's all the more soulful for it.