Listening Party #29: Blues From The Delta

featuring…

Skip James, Blues From The Delta

🍺 Chinook Red Indian Ale

Words & photos: Vincent Abbate

Are you ready to get way down low?

I just dug out my CD copy of the Skip James album Blues From The Delta, thinking it might be a worthy Listening Party candidate. It’s been a while since this one found its way into the CD player tray. The purple and violet-tinged Vanguard Records release combines nine tracks from 1966’s Today! with an additional nine cuts from 1968’s Devil Got My Woman. Two previously unreleased recordings bring the total to 20. As my favorite baseball broadcaster might say when noting a player’s stats: That’s just bookkeeping.

Then I skim listened, starting with James’s most enduring title “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues.” Goose bumps. “Special Rider Blues.” Goose bumps. James’s sorrowful moan set my hair on end the first time I heard it and it still does today.

If you’re unfamiliar with the originator of the so-called “Bentonia School” of blues (James was raised on a plantation near Bentonia, Mississippi), this 1998 Vanguard compilation is the place to start, as opposed to the hissy, scratchy relics he recorded for Paramount in 1931 – undeniably great but considerably less accessible.

Over on the beer side of things, we’ll be unscientifically enjoying a bottle of Kraftbierwerkstatt’s Chinook Red Indian Ale. Let’s be clear: I did not choose this beer on the strength of its name. I suppose I could have not chosen it on that basis. Were it brewed and bottled in the US instead of the southern German city of Böblingen, the marketing people at Kraftbierwerkstatt surely would have thought twice about the Red Indian moniker. Just ask the owners of the baseball franchise now called the Cleveland Guardians or the NFL’s Washington Football Club, who are still looking for a new name.

Issues of racial insensitivity aside: The album and beer look great together.

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WIB Listening Party #8: God Don’t Never Change

featuring…

God Don’t Never Change: The Songs of Blind Willie Johnson

🍺 Men’s Hell Extra Strong Lager

Words & photos: Vincent Abbate

Blind Willie Johnson.

I’m going to let that name sit there and resonate for a bit.

Those with only a vague notion of the blues are now wondering: Why are they all called Blind Willie? Or Blind something-or-other? Consider the career opportunities available to a southern black man with a handicap one hundred years ago.

If he was musically inclined and bold enough, he might choose to play popular songs on street corners, happy to hear the clatter of coins in the tin cup hanging around his neck. If he was good, word might spread to one of the label reps scouting around for talent. If he was exceptional, that label rep would put him on record. All the participants, including the street singer, were out to make money. They didn’t become artists and blues pioneers until later generations put those monikers on them. 

From all that I’ve read, though, Texas-born Blind Willie Johnson wasn’t your average busker. He was more of a wandering preacher. The 30 sides he left behind, recorded for Columbia Records between 1927 and 1930, bear that out. Johnson’s music – which he played and sang mostly close to home in Texas, but also as far away as New York City – is akin to the Living Bible. The gospel set to a fervent rhythm people can relate to. Moreover, he was genius at tying the teachings of the Bible to the major news events of his day, like the Titanic disaster (“God Moves On The Water”) or the Spanish flu epidemic (“Jesus Is Coming Soon.”)

As a singer and guitar player, he had a peculiar intensity. His voice was raspy and sharp as a buzzsaw, his syncopated bottleneck playing raw and rough – the exceeding beauty of the results is hard to explain. You know by listening that this man meant business, and even the agnostic ear can feel the power of the Lord in his songs.

Johnson’s God-fearing spirit will serve us well today, as we take on a diabolical brew that would curl Satan’s toes: Men’s Hell Extra Strong Lager. It’s one of five beers crafted by Kraftbierwerkstatt, a small German brewer based near Stuttgart. Musically, we’ll look at the recent star-studded tribute God Don’t Never Change: The Songs Of Blind Willie Johnson.

Two potent forces. One sonic, the other sensual. Let’s do this …

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