7/13/2017

Did you miss the latest edition of Señor Blues?

Hey you!

Did you miss the most recent edition of Señor Blues on CJSR? Or did you enjoy it and want to listen to it again? If so, step right this way!

Visit www.mixcloud.com/SenorBlues to listen to archived shows for a limited time.

Good blues to you!

6/08/2017

The Blues That Got Away: The WHAT In Funk?!

Muddy Waters is a man who needs no introduction...but in case you're fairly new to the blues, I'll provide one anyway. Born McKinley Morganfield circa 1915, Muddy Waters is considered by many to be one of the godfathers of the electrified Chicago blues sound that grew out of the acoustic sounds of the Mississippi Delta and later spawned rhythm & blues, rock 'n' roll, and many other musical descendants. Muddy wrote and recorded many classic sides for the legendary Chess Record label in the '50s and early '60s, including "Rollin' Stone" (which later lent its name to a British rock band you might have heard of that idolized Muddy Waters), "Mannish Boy", and "I Just Want To Make Love To You". He also enjoyed a late-career comeback in the late '70s with several excellent records produced by Texas blues guitarist Johnny Winter (also a huge Muddy Waters fan himself) before Muddy's passing in 1983.

But what happened between Muddy's last chart hits in the late '50s and his comeback in the '70s? Well, he continued to record and tour extensively (even a car accident in 1969 was not enough to completely stop the godfather of Chicago Blues), but his commercial appeal dwindled in the face of rock 'n' roll, the British Invasion, and other trends in popular music (most of which his music, ironically, paved the way for). Meanwhile, Chess Records was sold to General Recorded Tape (GRT) and later All Platinum Records before becoming defunct in 1975. Some say that Muddy's recorded output during this extended commercial lull was a shadow of its former glory and weaker compared to his later Winter-produced recordings. Certainly, his late '60s records Electric Mud and After The Rain, on which he and his band emulated the psychedelic sounds du jour (a la Jimi Hendrix) at the behest of Marshall Chess to gain wider exposure and commercial success, were considered by most blues fans to be an embarrassment and an insult to Muddy's reputation as a blues giant. While a case can certainly be made for the assertion that much of this lesser-known mid-period material lacked the passion and fire of both his earlier and later material, it wasn't for a lack of trying, and indeed there is some excellent Chicago blues material from this era as performed by one of its all-time greatest practitioners. His early '70s records, in particular, showed promise and hinted at his later comeback.

My personal favourite among Muddy's early '70s recordings is Unk In Funk. Released in 1974, it was his penultimate Chess album and featured his touring band, including Luther "Guitar Junior" Johnson and "Steady Rollin'" Bob Margolin on guitars, Calvin "Fuzz" Jones on bass, Willie "Big Eyes" Smith on drums, Pinetop Perkins on piano, and harmonica players Carey Bell, George "Mojo" Buford, and Paul Oscher (on different tracks). The overall sound is considerably subdued in texture compared to his classic '50s recordings, especially since it sounds like the majority of the electric instruments were plugged directly into the mixing board via direct input (D.I.), resulting in a cleaner, almost brittle sound, compared to the more common practice of plugging into and mic-ing an amplifier; however, the playing is spirited throughout, and the passion of each of the players and their overall chemistry as a band transcend the quasi-clinical-sounding studio environment.

The album begins with a 9-minute remake of a Muddy Waters classic, "Rollin' and Tumblin'". In fact, it's actually two entire run-throughs of the same song, with Muddy instructing the band to keep playing after the first take ends somewhat chaotically. Interestingly, it's the only song on the album that features Muddy's distinctive slide guitar, but it shows how crucial his guitar playing was to the overall sound and feel of his music. The next song is my favourite track on the album, a remake of "Just To Be With You", which has a slower and slinkier feel compared to the first version that Muddy recorded in the '50s and features Carey Bell's haunting harmonica punctuations throughout (almost sounding like the ghost of a horse whinnying at times!). Other standouts for me include a remake of "Trouble No More" (which has a darker sound, compared to the original '50s recording), "Katie" (written about one of Muddy's then-contemporary girlfriends, and featuring a very crystal-like lead guitar sound from Luther "Guitar Junior" Johnson), and "Drive My Blues Away", on which Pinetop Perkins leads the way with his authoritative piano playing and Bob Margolin contributes a solo that seems to channel Robert Johnson but on a '50s Stratocaster. The remainder of the songs are solid, albeit somewhat generic when considered in the context of Muddy Waters' overall outstanding discography. However, the title track is entertaining and amusing, with its boastful lyrics over a slow, grinding Chicago blues track.

Despite some flaws, I still love Unk In Funk and frequently listen to it. That it pales somewhat in comparison to his earlier '50s and later '70s recordings only reflects on the superbly high quality of Muddy's recorded output overall.

Tune in to CJSR's Señor Blues every other Saturday to hear tracks from Unk In Funk and other similarly underrated, rare, or lesser known blues gems as part of the semi-regular segment, "The Blues That Got Away".

5/13/2017

New Blues Release Review: Billy Flynn’s Lonesome Highway

Wow! Long time no write. I need to make up for lost time, so let me start by reviewing a fairly new release called Lonesome HIghway by Billy Flynn, released on Delmark Records.

Billy Flynn is a Chicago blues guitarist, singer, and songwriter. He got his start at the young age of 14, after he was seen playing the guitar by Chicago blues legend Jimmy Dawkins. Dawkins befriended and mentored the young Flynn, and the latter joined Dawkin's band in the second half of the ‘70s. Since then, Flynn has gone on to become a guitarist’s guitarist, performing with countless blues artists over the years including Billy Boy Arnold, Big Bill Morganfield, Mad Dog Lester Davenport, and more. In fact, Flynn played guitar on Beyoncé Knowles’ cover of the Etta James classic, “At Last”, which not only won a Grammy award but also was performed at President Barack Obama’s inaugural ball in 2009. Harp legend Kim Wilson probably says it best in the CD’s liner notes: “Billy Flynn is one of the greatest blues guitarists alive and one of the greatest to ever live.”

To say that I was eagerly anticipating this release since it was announced by Delmark Records is an understatement. I have been a huge fan of Flynn’s session work with other artists, both in the studio and live. In fact, I first became aware of Flynn’s impressive work when I saw him perform with Billy Boy Arnold at the Chicago Blues Festival some years back. He provides both solid rhythm guitar and subtle yet effective lead guitar work in such settings. That being said, I wondered how Flynn would fare in a solo recording. Often, session musicians who are as versatile as Flynn might struggle to establish a unique identity of their own on their solo recordings. If you could play virtually any style of music, which one would you focus on with on your own album?  Or would you include a little bit of everything, at the risk of seeming like a jack of all trades but a master of none? Though Flynn has previously released independent solo recordings, the small bits that I had heard of them over the years were solid yet not particularly distinctive. Also, noticing the length of the album, I wondered if there would be any filler included among the album’s 17 tracks. 

Luckily, my concerns were all for naught. Flynn takes full command and shines on every single track on the CD, whether he is driving the song with his rhythm guitar work, moanin’ and groanin’ with the best of ‘em on slide guitar, or delivering stinging, slashing lead guitar lines. Though I would not categorize him as a flashy, “shred-tastic” guitarist, he can blow the house down with his understated yet deliciously satisfying guitar work. His vocals are not particularly distinctive, mind you, but he still can convey a lot of emotion with his singing. The album’s stock-in-trade is traditional Chicago blues, but true to his versatile abilities, Flynn also incorporates elements of old school rock ’n’ roll (a la the late great Chuck Berry) on the opener “Good Navigator”, funk/R&B on “The Lucky Kind” and “I Feel ‘Um”, and even ‘60s surf/instrumental music on the album’s lone cover, “The ‘In’ Crowd”. Similarly, his guitar playing evokes Albert King on “Sufferin’ With The Blues”, B.B. King on “Christmas Blues”, Earl Hooker on "Jackson Street", and Otis Rush on “The Lucky Kind”, among others, but always with his own unique twist or stamp. Although the album indeed has 17 tracks, after listening to it once through, I wanted more and started wondering when Flynn is going to make another great record like this one. Thankfully, he has given us quite a lot of great blues on this disc to tide us over until he (hopefully) makes another!

Highlights on this record for me include “The Lucky Kind”, which is an quasi-Latin-influenced, cowbell-driven blues reminiscent of Otis Rush’s classic ‘50s recordings for Cobra Records; “You Are My Lover”, which marries an uptempo classic Chicago blues sound with double-tracked vocals that are interestingly evocative of the Beach Boys; “I Feel ‘Um”, a moody minor-key funk-infused ballad that I am sure Isaac Hayes and Grover Washington Jr. would have been proud of; “Blues Express”, an instrumental that was the theme song for one of Flynn’s bands of the same name and has a horn section that captures the spirit of '60s cop show theme music; and “Sufferin’ With The Blues”, a slow blues that features Flynn channeling the spirit of the aforementioned Albert King. Really, all of the songs can be considered gems in their own ways — I honestly cannot think of any track on this CD that I did not enjoy!

In addition to his own guitar and voice, Flynn also provided some harmonica and percussion work throughout the CD. He is joined by vocalist and friend Deitra Farr on “Good Navigator” and “Hold On”. The rest of the band provides supple accompaniment, including Roosevelt Purifoy on keyboards, E.G. McDaniel on bass, Andrew “Blaze” Thomas on drums, Doug Corcoran on trumpet, Christopher Neal on tenor sax, and Dave Katzman, who provides rhythm guitar on “The Lucky Kind”. 

Though it is still a bit early to tell, Flynn’s Lonesome Highway is definitely a contender for the honour of Señor Blues Album of the Year for 2017. I recommend it highly and wholeheartedly. Thank you, Mr. Flynn, for the wonderful music!

1/24/2016

Blues Musician Spotlight: Earl Hooker

"He might have been the best ever if he didn't pass on so young." - Junior Wells

"Just lookin' at him play, he was magic to me." - Otis Rush

"There's no way a man can play a slide that clean." - B.B. King

These are just some of the accolades that Earl Zebedee Hooker, a highly-regarded Chicago blues guitarist and artist, has received over the years.

Hooker, who indeed was a cousin of John Lee's, was born on January 15, 1929, just outside Clarksdale, Mississippi. He and his family moved to Chicago shortly thereafter, as did many other African-Americans from the Southern United States in search of career and work opportunities. Hooker began teaching himself the guitar by the age of ten, and by his mid-teens, he was frequently playing the blues on the streets of Chicago, often with contemporaries such as Junior Wells and Bo Diddley. As the Chicago Blues sound began to evolve from its Delta/country blues origins and take shape in the late '40s, Hooker was particularly influenced by blues guitar virtuosos T-Bone Walker and Robert Nighthawk; in fact, he learned his techniques of playing slide guitar in standard guitar tuning (as opposed to the open tunings generally favoured by other slide players, including Muddy Waters and Bukka White) directly from Nighthawk.

In the 1950s, Hooker began recording professionally. He recorded several singles under his own name, but for the most part, he played as a guitarist with other singers and artists, as he was, by many accounts, not a particularly noteworthy blues singer himself. By the late 1950s, Hooker was part of the house band for Mel London's Chief record label group, playing guitar on sessions for many of Chief's artists, including Junior Wells, saxophonist A.C. Reed, and keyboardist Johnny "Big Moose" Walker, in addition to recording his own solo (often instrumental) recordings. One such instrumental recording, titled "Blue Guitar", arose out of a warm-up jam session, and came to the attention of Leonard Chess (of Chess Records, Chicago's then-leading independent blues/R&B label) when it was subsequently released as a single; with London's blessing, Chess had Muddy Waters overdub a vocal part over Hooker's instrumental single, and the result was "You Shook Me", one of Muddy Waters' enduring classic hits.

Hooker's career was frequently interrupted with bouts of tuberculosis, which he had likely contracted at an early age while living in sub-optimal conditions in Chicago. In the late '60s, he returned to the Chicago blues scene after another tuberculosis flare and ensuing hiatus. He played on sessions for other musicians, including cousin John Lee Hooker and Andrew "Big Voice" Odom, and recorded his own albums for Arhoolie Records, Blue Thumb Records, and ABC-Bluesway Records. Hooker even got to tour Eruope in 1969 as part of the American Folk Blues Festival (footage of which has been released professionally and likely can be found on YouTube as well), with the blues' increasing popularity among receptive European audiences. Unfortunately, Hooker passed away from tuberculosis in April of 1970 at the age of 41.

Hooker's signature sound generally consisted of a clear, ringing sound (usually from Gibson guitars, although he also played a Fender Stratocaster, a Danelectro double-neck guitar, and a Univox Les Paul copy gutar at different times of his career), with fluid and fast guitar lines alternating with smooth, melodic slide guitar. He was equally adept in a number of different blues styles, as evidenced by his involvement as a session guitarist with many different blues artists (from Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee to Big Moose Walker), and even genres as diverse as jazz and country (reportedly, he was able to hold down a country gig for several months!). Hooker was fairly progressive in his approach to the electric guitar, using the aforementioned double-neck guitars (which were quite the novelty upon their introduction in the late '50s) and incorporating effects and stompboxes (particularly the fuzz and wah-wah pedals) to give his guitar playing a unique, versatile, and even vocal-like quality. Hooker was an important influence on many other guitar players, including Buddy Guy, Ike Turner, and possibly even Jimi Hendrix!

On the January 16, 2016 edition of Señor Blues, we listened to three recordings featuring Earl Hooker's guitar wizardry:
- "You Shook Me" by Muddy Waters
- "How To Sing These Blues" by Sleepy John Estes (featuring Hooker on bass guitar)
- "Don't Wait For Me" by Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee
- "I'm Your Main Man" by Earl Hooker himself.

Sources
- Allmusic.com biography of Earl Hooker by Bill Dahl
- Allmusic.com review of Simply The Best by Cub Koda
- Guy, B., and D. Ritz. When I Left Home: My Story. 2012.
- Liner notes to The Moon is Rising (Arhoolie Records, 1998) and Simply The Best (MCA Records, 1999) by Earl Hooker.
- Obrecht, J. "Buddy Guy, Otis Rush: The Inside Story". Guitar Player, November 1994.
- Robble, A.M. "Junior Wells: Searching For The True Blues Feeling". Guitar Player, November 1994.

12/28/2015

The Blues That Got Away: Etta is Betta Than Evvah? Maybe Not So Much...

A powerhouse soul/blues/R&B performer "with a voice that could take you to hell or take you to heaven" (according to Keith Richards), Etta James needs no introduction. Starting her career in the 1950s, she survived decades through thick and thin, troubled relationships and lifestyles, and changing musical trends to become one of the most well-loved women of R&B and the Queen of Soul/Blues/R&B/what-have-you. She recorded for many record labels over the years, but her recordings for Chicago-based Chess Records, including such classics as "Tell Mama" and "At Last", are arguably her most definitive.

In 1976, Etta James recorded and released her final LP for the Chess Record label, titled Etta Is Betta Than Evvah ('A' for effort on the creative title, not so much the spelling!). By this time, Chess was a shell of its former self. Leonard and Phil Chess, founders of the label, had sold the company to General Recorded Tape (GRT) (which later sold the label to All Platinum Records) in the late '60s (with Leonard passing away shortly thereafter), and the company gradually wound down in terms of the quantity (and some would say the quality) of their recorded output. To make matters worse, the musical climate was not healthy for the blues and old-school R&B; although many blues artists continued to work into the 1970s (albeit with increasing difficulty), it was not until artists like Stevie Ray Vaughan and Robert Cray emerged in the 1980s that the blues would see a revival as a commercial entity. That being said, there were still some great early '70s Chess records. Was Etta is Betta Than Evvah one of them?

Etta is Betta Than Evvah consists of 10 tracks, 9 of which were newly recorded in 1975-1976 (curiously, the other was a reprise of a song that was originally included on Etta's self-titled Chess release from just three years earlier). All of the songs are moulded in the contemporary R&B sound du jour, with slick quasi-disco rhythms, funky guitars and/or clavinets, popping basses, and frequent horn and string punctuations. It was likely arranged just so in an effort to reestablish Etta James as a contemporary R&B/funk diva (much like how Chess originally revived her career as a balladeer and soul artist in the early '60s, after her initial heyday in the '50s). The result of this is that a lot of the performances on the record have a slightly mechanical feel, providing great dance music but ultimately feeling deficient in the soulful rawness that distinguished Etta's earlier efforts for the label. Similarly, Etta James sounds a bit tentative in certain parts of this album (although she looks like she's having a good time on the cover).

Still, Etta is Betta Than Evvah is not without its merits. The album begins with a rewrite of a song that she originally recorded in the '50s for Modern Records, this time titled "Woman (Shake Your Booty)". As she states in her autobiography, the tune was subtly rewritten to include more of a contemporary message reflecting women's empowerment issues than the original, and it works wonderfully in the context of the new arrangement. The interplay between the trendy-sounding clarinet and skittish guitars is compelling. In the same autobiography, Etta admitted that the words of "I've Been a Fool" and "Blinded By Love" reflected her personal life at that time; the latter is an especially interesting mix of art and commerce, where she produced a great, danceable tune with confessional lyrics that reflected where she was at in her life at that point. Etta brings back some of the passion of her earlier Chess platters to King Floyd's "Groove Me", an outstanding funk tune that works well in this setting (she later rerecorded it for her final album, The Dreamer, in 2011). A similar grit graces "Jump Into Love", although the male background vocals seem off-putting, awkward, and unnecessary. My favourite song of the album, however, is "Leave Your Hat On", a slow-burner that features a sultry vocal from Etta (along with her trademark growl, double-tracked in places to provide a nifty texture) and some terrific ensemble playing by the band. The remaining songs on the record are listenable but not particularly memorable.

The CD reissue by Kent Records adds 10 bonus tracks, an assortment of Etta's other early '70s Chess recordings. They rang from good to excellent (in some cases, I prefer them to the original album's tracks). My favourite among these is "Feeling Uneasy", originally tracked for her 1974 platter Come a Little Closer; it's a short but very sweet showcase for Etta's humming, moaning, and generally wordless vocalizing that actually manages to convey an uneasy feeling, which reflected how she felt during this era. The closing bonus track, "Lovin' Arms", is also a wonderful ballad with excellent instrumentation by several top session musicians from that era (including Cornell Dupree, Steve Gadd, and Richard Tee).

Unlike the boastful title, on Etta is Betta Than Evvah, Etta was not quite better than ever (probably more "average" than anything else), but it was still a fairly dignified way to end her tenure with Chess, with some good songs and competent performances gracing the final LP. She would bounce back later in the '70s and beyond with improved recordings.

Tune in to CJSR's Señor Blues every other Saturday to hear tracks from Etta is Betta Than Evvah and other similarly underrated, rare, or lesser known blues genes as part of the semi-regular "Blues That Got Away" segment.

12/27/2015

Señor Blues Early 2016 Schedule

Happy Holidays, everyone!

Here is the schedule for Señor Blues (which alternates with The Toast Marketing Board on CJSR 88.5FM) in early 2016:

January 2
January 16
January 30
February 13
February 27
March 12
March 26

Thank you for continuing to listen to and support Señor Blues on CJSR! All the best in 2016!

11/30/2015

The Blues That Got Away: Buddy Guy Breaks Out

Born in Lettsworth, Louisiana, Buddy Guy is one of the last living legends of the blues. A master guitarist in the Chicago blues tradition, Guy has been considered the living link between blues and rock 'n' roll, and he has influenced many guitarists in both genres and beyond, including Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix, and Eric "Guitar" Davis, among others. It wasn't always that way, however; Guy initially struggled in his career. Although he was a revered session guitarist with Chess Records in the early 1960s, his raw, uninhibited style was dismissed by founder Leonard Chess as "noise" and Guy struggled to expressed himself artistically satisfactorily on subsequent solo recordings with Chess, Vanguard, and Atco Records. Meanwhile, popular rock guitarists as diverse as Carlos Santana, Eric Clapton, and Keith Richards were inspired and blown away by his wild style in concert.

By the late '70s, Guy's career was in the doldrums (along with the blues in general). While he was still performing regularly with his harmonica-wielding partner Junior Wells and running a blues club in Chicago (the Checkerboard Lounge, which recently closed -- RIP), Guy was without a recording contract in the US. However, a couple of European record labels, Isabel Records (in France) and JSP Records (in England), were interested in capturing Guy's style on tape. With this label support, he cut four records between 1979 and 1981 that were more representative of his unique trailblazing sound than his earlier recordings. Among these was Breaking Out, released by JSP Records in 1980.

The second of his three JSP discs, Breaking Out found Guy employing heavier, more overdriven guitar tones in the studio, the likes of which he had helped to pioneer in his concerts (including use of feedback as early as the late 1950s) but that were more commonly associated with rock guitarists such as Hendrix. This created a raw, distorted sound that was perhaps a shock for dedicated blues listeners who were more familiar with Guy's cleaner Chess and Vanguard recordings (the original release may also have suffered from less-than-optimal sound quality, as the Penguin Guide to the Blues described it as a "sonic dustbin"), but was overall more representative of Guy's artistic vision. Indeed, the powerfully raw sound was probably also a sort of catharsis for Guy during this difficult period, which JSP founder John Stedman described as "a cry of pain". The lyrics for most of the songs are fairly generic in the blues tradition, but Guy is in stellar form throughout on both vocals and guitar. Highlights (for Me) include a remake of a song that Guy recorded in the '60s called "Poison Ivy" (here retitled "Break Out All Over"), where the distorted guitar is texturally akin to an ivy-associated rash, and "You Called Me In My Dream", which is a fairly early recorded example of Guy's blend of heavy blues and funk (something he later did more overtly during his 1990s comeback). The guitar tones are tamer on a sublime cover of the R&B classic "You Can Make It If You Try" and the slow-burning blues of "She Winked At Me". My favourite track, however, has to be the instrumental "Me and My Guitar". It is pretty much what the title says -- Guy and his guitar duking it out for five minutes over a funky blues-rock track, with some adventurous bass playing and lush supporting chordal work in the background. The 2008 CD reissue includes 5 bonus tracks by Guy's brother Phil that were recorded and released by JSP during the same era (with Buddy backing him up). Among these is a bouncy jazz-tinged instrumental, "Breaking Out On Top", which features Maurice John Vaughn on saxophone and Phil handling the bulk of the lead guitar (although Buddy contributes some smooth complementary leads throughout and a brief fiery solo). Another interesting bonus track is "Ice Around My Heart", a 9-minute jam that is very loosely based on T-Bone Walker's "Cold, Cold Feeling" lyrically, but with a different melody entirely; Buddy contributes a playfully timid solo halfway through, while keyboardist Professor Eddie Lusk plays both piano and a textural synthesizer throughout, likely imitating the sound of a string section a la "The Thrill is Gone" (although it ends up sounding like a distant persistent vacuum cleaner at certain points!). Overall, with the bonus tracks, you can hear some similarities between the two Guys' (no pun intended) sounds, but they have distinctive qualities in their tone and approach to the instrument that complement each other superbly.

Throughout the album, Buddy Guy is backed by a stellar band that includes Phil on rhythm/lead guitar, Nick Charles (later of Billy Branch & The Sons of Blues) on bass, Ray Allison on drums, and the aforementioned Lusk and Vaughn, among others. These cats played together frequently in the late '70s and early '80s, and their musical chemistry and love for the blues are evident in spades on this disc.

Many fans point to Stone Crazy as being one of the few (older) Guy recordings that truly represented his groundbreaking live sound. While I agree that Stone Crazy is a great recording, I feel that Breaking Out features more of his live fire, and it likely provided the blueprint (or at least a good part of it) for his comeback recordings when Guy returned to the limelight in the '90s and beyond.

Tune in to CJSR's Señor Blues every other Saturday to hear tracks from Breaking Out and other similarly underrated, rare, or lesser known blues genes as part of the semi-regular "Blues That Got Away" segment.

11/06/2015

Señor Blues Schedule - Late Fall 2015

Greetings, blues lovers!

Señor Blues returns to CJSR airwaves tomorrow (November 7) after a brief hiatus and will continue to air every other Saturday alternating with The Toast Marketing Board on 88.5FM or cjsr.com.

Señor Blues will be on the air on the following dates:

November 7
November 21
December 5
December 19

Stay tuned for further updates to the schedule.

In the meantime, good blues to ya!

10/31/2015

The Blues That Got Away: North Mississippi Popstars?

The North Mississippi Allstars (NMA) are a Southern blues/rock group from (where else?) North Mississippi. Formed in 1996 and consisting of brothers Luther (guitar, vocals) and Cody Dickinson (drums, vocals) along with an array of other members over the years (including Dwayne Burnside, Lightnin' Malcolm, and Chris Chew), they have helped to bring the blues into the 21st century with their blend of North Mississippi hill country blues (a la Junior Kimbrough, R.L. Burnside, and Mississippi Fred McDowell), rock 'n' roll, and other more contemporary styles of music.

In 2003, the NMA released their third album, Polaris. Although it was critically acclaimed by some upon release, with Sean Westergaard of AllMusic noting its ambitiousness, many listeners were put off by the combination of the NMA's trademark blues/roots sound with elements of sunshine pop and even hip-hop/rap in parts. I imagine some fans may have been concerned about the band possibly selling out. Subsequent NMA albums returned to more of the roosty sound that they developed on their first two albums, and their live set since 2003-2004 has rarely included tracks from Polaris, making it something of an anomaly in their catalogue. Though they blended blues with more contemporary music in subsequent releases, they never did so as overtly as on Polaris.

So, is Polaris deservedly the black sheep of the NMA discography? Not exactly. While the pop elements certainly are striking, there are enough helpings of the NMA's signature sound that it still sounds like the same band that delivered updated classics like "Shake 'Em On Down" only a few years earlier. The album opens with a killer riff on "Eyes", which couples Mississippi John Hurt-esque fingerpicking in the verses with bright, sunny backing vocals on the choruses. It's a catchy number that kind of reminds me of The Wallflowers, but there's enough soulful grit to make you not feel guilty for enjoying it. "Conan" is similar in its combination of fingerstyle blues and modern sounds, but overall it's a little closer to the NMA's jam rock style. They cover Junior Kimbrough's "Meet Me In The City" in a laid-back, swinging shuffle, with an overall sound almost reminiscent of the Allman Brothers. There's also an Earl King cover with "Time For The Sun To Rise", although the thin, reedy lead vocals (it is not clear who is singing this one) are somewhat of a mismatch for this gritty New Orleans tune. There are solid blues riffs in "All Along" (a dark sounding, semi-acoustic piece), "Never In All My Days", "Be So Glad" (which also incorporates bits of rap, although in a creative and tastefully unobtrusive way), and the hidden instrumental "Goin' Home" (rerecorded 10 years later as a bonus track on their World Boogie is Coming album), which is probably the one track on this platter that is most reminiscent of the sound of their debut album, Shake Hands With Shorty.

What about the rest of the album? That's where the pop music elements come through most prominently. The tracks "Kids These Daze", "One To Grow On", and "Polaris" are well-crafted catchy pop tunes that are almost devoid of the North Missisippi hill country blues sound and sound reminiscent of the pop/emo-style music that was in vogue during that era (especially with the occasionally thin lead vocals). At times, the lyrics are generic and insipid. That being said, these pop offerings are still fairly enjoyable, even if they are unlike anything the NMA recorded before or since. "Kids These Daze" is a particular favourite for me, with a pump-it-up type of chorus that seems to capture and celebrate the vibe at live concerts, and "One To Grow On" has a quasi-gospel feel along with a string section. Another highlight for me is "Bad Bad Pain", which pairs a solid blues song with a drum machine, creating an overall sound that is reminiscent of Michael Jackson's "Thriller" (in a good way). My only gripe with this track is that it's too short; as soon as you start enjoying the groove, it packs up. Interestingly, Noel Gallagher supposedly guests on the album, but his contribution does not stand out (unless the liner notes were referring to a different Noel Gallagher and not the former Oasis songwriter/guitarist).

All in all, Polaris might not have been the most promising new direction for the NMA to pursue in their quest to continue the North Mississippi blues tradition in the 21st century, but it's not an effort to be ashamed of either. While I would not recommend it as an introduction to what this band is all about, it's still a solid record that is well worth hearing.

Tune in to CJSR's Señor Blues every other Saturday to hear tracks from albums like Polaris and other similarly underrated, rare, and/or lesser known blues gems as part of the semi-regular "Blues That Got Away" feature.

4/03/2015

April Fools 2015!

Have you ever wondered what a blues cover of a Bob Marley song would sound like? How about Sammy Hagar singing the blues? Are you curious about how the blues would sound on a banjo?

If you answered 'yes' to any of the above, tune into the annual April Fools' edition of Señor Blues this upcoming Saturday (April 4) from 7-9am MT on CJSR 88.5FM or online at cjsr.com. You'll hear all of the above and more wacky laboratory experiments in the wonderful world of the blues!

Good blues to you!