Under The Spell Of JD McPherson
An interview with Doug Corcoran
Words: Vincent Abbate / Photos: Jimmy Sutton, Amanda Devitt
Some musicians crave the spotlight. They’re born to raise hell, jump security barriers and take twenty-foot leaps into the crowd. Others just show up and do their jobs without any fanfare. Saxophonist Richard Oppenheim, who has blown his horn alongside Otis Rush, Johnny Winter, Marvin Gaye and dozens of others, put it this way: “There’s a certain comfort in being a sideman. (…) Basically I shut up and play.”
Chicago product Doug Corcoran would likely echo that sentiment. Though his steady hand on guitar and occasional saxophone flourishes are integral to the ever-evolving, neo-rockabilly sound of JD McPherson’s five-piece band, Corcoran is a stoic figure onstage who shuns extraneous motion. In conversation, he’s deliberate and self-effacing. “JD’s a lot harder to get an interview with. I think there’s about six hoops you have to jump through.” It’s almost as if he’s apologizing for being the one doing the talking – without actually saying “So you’re stuck with me.”
The Walter Davis Project
A few days ago I was preparing to interview Christian Rannenberg, one of the world’s finest blues piano players, for the Talkin’ Blues show in Cologne. Chris lives in Berlin and I hadn’t seen him for a number of years. So I did some digging to find out what he’d been up to. My most pleasant discovery was The Walter Davis Project.
Chris had told me about his intention to do a Walter Davis tribute album as far back as 2006. He’s been an admirer of Davis – the Mississippi-born pianist who recorded roughly 150 sides for the Victor and Bluebird labels in the 30s, 40s and 50s – ever since first sitting down to play the blues on a piano keyboard. As the initiator and driving force behind the project, he wound up investing a good deal of his own money on sessions with Billy Boy Arnold, Charlie Musselwhite and several others. But the recordings lay around gathering dust until Rannenberg and harmonica player Bob Corritore crossed paths at a memorial celebration for mutual friend Louisiana Red in 2012.
Still Fierce and Free
An Interview with Watermelon Slim
Words by Vincent Abbate / Photos by Mike Latschislaw
In an age of dime-a-dozen blues guitarists whose chief calling card is their technical proficiency, Watermelon Slim is a cherished exception. A bold, blatant personality who actually has something to say.
His success – modest as it is – owes less to effects pedals and vintage axes than to his ability to communicate universal truths. Listening to Slim, one is constantly confronted with the human struggle. For a brief, heady period roughly a decade ago, it looked as though the blues community had found – in this late-blooming Vietnam vet turned truck driver turned country bluesman – a working class hero for the long haul.
Forward-thinking European artists like Ana Popovic, Ghalia Volt & Erja Lyytinen are kicking the old school bluesman ethic to the curb.
Text: Vincent Abbate / Photos: Gernot Mangold, Marcella auf der Heide
Lately I’ve noticed something. At least a third of the live shows I attend are fronted by female artists. It got me to thinking: Have women ever had a stronger presence in the blues than they do today?
Roughly a century ago, when classic singers like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith were among the first to record, women were a dominant force in the blues world. But no one reading this was around back then, right? During the past 50 years or so, for every Bonnie Raitt, Irma Thomas, Sue Foley or Marcia Ball, we’ve had to endure a dozen Stratocaster-playing dudes in sunglasses and hats. Most of them perpetually singing about some baby who done them wrong. (In that regard, women – those infamous evil women – have been there all along.)
We’re witnessing a changing of the guard right now. When we listen to the blues, it’s just as likely to be by a young lady from London, Kansas City or Zagreb as by some grizzled veteran from Chicago or Baton Rouge. And it’s not just origin, age or sex. The female performers who are leading the charge – people like Samantha Fish, Shemekia Copeland, Joanne Shaw Taylor and Georgia duo Larkin Poe, to name but a few – have a fresh take on the blues. No deep philosophical analysis here. Women are simply different from us beer-swilling, emotionally stunted, tragically unfashionable men.
In and Out of the Blues
An interview with Jon Amor
Words: Vincent Abbate
(Author’s note: Exactly one year ago tomorrow, on November 28th 2018, British musician Jon Amor released the brilliant and eclectic Colour In The Sky – an essential album that is perhaps his finest collection of songs to date. In the interview we conducted a few weeks later, Jon provided deep insight into his songwriting. He also opened up about the personal challenges he was facing while making the record. But a bout of procrastination and the unforeseen circumstances of a tumultuous winter caused me to shelve the article. Colour In The Sky deserves better than that! And perhaps some of you missed it. So today, with my apologies to Jon, I give you our interview.)
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Since this blog and its companion book series are called Who Is Blues, I’ll pose the dreaded question: Is Jon Amor blues?
Sure he is. As guitarist and singer, he’s been in some of the best blues bands to come out of Great Britain during the past three decades. Amor is a founding member of The Hoax, who enjoyed a run of critically acclaimed albums in the 1990s and whose raw, edgy sound was last heard in 2014 on their full-length B.B. King tribute Recession Blues. He also tours off-and-on with a pair of blues “supergroup” projects, DVL and The Boom Band. Moreover, with two excellent (and highly recommended) releases from his own Jon Amor Blues Group between 2011 and 2012, he demonstrated – like few others have – that electric blues can be rooted in decades-old traditions without carrying the stench of mothballs.
By constrast, on his occasional solo releases he works comfortably both alongside and well outside the blues genre. Those records are where this talented gent tests the limits of his songwriting muscle. As a lifelong devotee of the blues, Amor bemoans the lack of well-rounded artists on today’s scene, and rightfully so. “Too often, lyric and melody are treated as if they are just filling time between guitar solos,” he observes in the Q&A that follows.
Six Questions on Rock ‘N’ Roll: A Tribute To Chuck Berry
Words: Vincent Abbate
When introducing Chuck Berry on the Mike Douglas Show in 1972, former Beatle John Lennon stated, “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry.” Though it appears the line was written for him, there’s no denying Berry’s influence on Lennon, Paul McCartney, Keith Richards and just about anyone else who has picked up an electric guitar during the past 70 years.
With his newest album Rock ‘N’ Roll: A Tribute to Chuck Berry, bluesman Mike Zito – like Berry a native of St. Louis, Missouri – reveals his profound love and admiration for Berry’s musical legacy. The 20-track collection of classic rock’n’roll songs was two years in the making, as the singer and guitarist sought to celebrate the late musical legend in grand style by inviting A-list guitarists to re-interpret Berry’s songs. Credited to “Mike Zito & Friends,” the album’s roster of guest artists includes Joe Bonamassa, Walter Trout, Eric Gales, Tommy Castro, Robben Ford, Sonny Landreth, Luther Dickinson, Joanna Connor, Albert Castiglia, Anders Osborne and even Chuck’s grandson, Charles Berry III.
It’s good to have friends.
Keep It Weird
An interview with Dudley Taft (Pt. 2)
Words: Vincent Abbate
After Part 1 of our interview went live on Who Is Blues in mid-September, bluesrocker Dudley Taft closed out a successful European run with his trio before returning to his home base in Cincinnati, Ohio. There, he’s performed at the Blink Festival, appeared on local television and been nominated for a Cincinnati Entertainment Award as Best Blues Artist. Simple Life, the album he released on September 6th, has been hovering in the upper reaches of various roots music charts and getting favorable reviews in the press. All in all, the positives outweigh the challenges he encountered while touring around Europe, which included a blown amp, shoddy foot pedals and a touring van that came to a hair-raising halt on a busy stretch of Autobahn.
Bassist Kasey Williams, an Ohioan, and British drummer Darby Todd, both of whom were sharing that ride with Taft, play a more active role in the second and final part of our interview. As the evening wore on, tongues got looser and our conversation became somewhat more scattered. There was less talk about the new album, more about the blues, playing live and making music in general. When the smoke cleared, the opinions expressed by this trio of seasoned musicians underscored my overriding impression of Dudley Taft: He puts the song first and doesn’t give a tinker’s dam about categories.
Everything’s Gonna Be Alright
Paul Thorn live @ Pitcher
Words & photos: Vincent Abbate
So much truth. Soooo much truth.
If you leave a show with that phrase resonating in your head, you know something very good has just gone down.
Turnout for this club show on a drizzly Wednesday night in Germany was light – surely nothing any musician or concert promoter wants. Yet as far as vibe goes, the people attending the performance by Tupelo, Mississippi’s Paul Thorn were perfect, making the event more of a homey gathering of friends than some “us” versus “them” spectacle. Over the course of a glorious set that spanned roughly two decades of material, Thorn managed to make a personal connection with just about every one of the few dozen individuals in the room.
Keep It Weird
An interview with Dudley Taft
Words: Vincent Abbate
Last time I checked, Dudley Taft was still waiting to be invited on one of those fancy schmancy blues cruises. You know – those overblown guitar orgies at sea that seem to be popping up all over the place.* Six albums into his solo career, the singer/guitarist still hasn’t become part of that exclusive back-patting mutual admiration society. And perhaps his “outside the box” approach means he never will. For now at least, he’s a lone wolf – an outsider who may or may not be looking in.
(*Note to Joe: I’d be happy to accept your invitation to the next cruise. Anything from the “mid-ship balcony” category upward will do.)
Yet with each new release, a few more people do seem to be picking up on what the persevering, axe-wielding longbeard from Cincinnati is putting down. Among today’s blues-rockers, Dudley Taft has a fairly unique skillset.
Big Boys Do Cry
Rockin The Blues 2019 live @ Carlswerk Victoria
Words & photos: Vincent Abbate
Since its inception in 1989, and especially over the past decade, the Netherlands-based Mascot Label Group has become home to many of today’s most popular rock-oriented blues acts. Its Provogue imprint currently boasts an artist roster that includes Beth Hart, Robert Cray, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Eric Gales and Joe Bonamassa. Last year, the label decided to send three of its top guitar slingers on the road under the banner Rockin The Blues. That tour – with Gales, Gary Hoey and Quinn Sullivan – proved successful enough to merit a second go-round in 2019.
Eight dates in four European countries are on the agenda. Show #2 on the tour transpired inside the massive Carlswerk Victoria venue in Cologne and gave the local German audience a chance to witness a guitar-heavy blues extravaganza in Cinemascope. Combine any ten blues shows you’ve seen in the past year and you’ll get an idea of how big, broad and loud this spectacle was.
Land Of The Giants
The Blues Giants live @ Harmonie
Words & photos: Vincent Abbate
They call themselves the Blues Giants – a group of five musicians from different corners of the USA, all of whom have paid their dues and earned their keep in a variety of band situations. Two years ago, when they toured Europe, Mike Zito was one of the Giants. This time, a slight lineup change allowed us to enjoy the chops and vocals of Nick Schnebelen. The vibe didn’t change much, though. This is a high-spirited, guitar-heavy and thoroughly soulful troupe in search of a good time.
As this is Blues Music Awards week (I still think of it as Handys week) and the indvidual members of the Blues Giants are up for a total of five awards, I thought I’d share a visual impression of each of them as they appeared onstage in Bonn, Germany last Thursday night, along with a few random thoughts. (Disclaimer: I am a bad photographer with a cheap cell phone.)
Time to catch up on some reviews. This CD Roundup is a “European Special” devoted to recent releases by Italy’s Dany Franchi, Belgium’s Shakedown Tim & The Rhythm Revue and a pair of Finnish acts: Dr. Helander & Third Ward and Jarkka Rissanen Tonal Box. American blues vets Charlie Musselwhite, Anson Funderburgh, James Harman and Gene Taylor make important contributions to these albums. Cheers to transatlantic friendships!
DR. HELANDER & THIRD WARD
Meat Grindin’ Business
Is a Finnish blues “supergroup” even possible? If so, Dr. Helander & Third Ward fits the bill. Members Ilkka Helander, Esa Kuloniemi und Leevi Leppänen comprise a trio of blues vets who have appeared on dozens of albums and played thousands of concerts over the past several decades. Helander’s the front man here, handling guitar and the bulk of the vocals, with Kuloniemi (bass/guitar/vocals) and Leppänen (drums) making strong contributions to an album that boasts added star power in the form of harmonica legend Charlie Musselwhite. They all come together on a raucous electric affair built on deep grooves, twin guitar fireworks and a big, booming, floor-rattling bass. Opening cut “Hawaiian Boogie” is an Elmore James number that sees them playing in a raw, chunky style reminiscent of Hound Dog Taylor & The Houserockers. Musselwhite spices up the similarly hard-driving “Third Ward Boogie,” then gives way to the skills of his Finnish harp counterpart Little Willie Mehto on “Money Makin’ Machine.” Helander does a solid job vocally on Lightnin’ Hopkins “Death Bells,” which also features some fine playing by Musselwhite, though it might have been nice to also hear Charlie singing on this one. The back half of the album is highlighted by the swampy CCR-style “It’s Not For Me But For My Friend” and the John Lee Hooker-esque “Woman’s Trust.” The greasy shuffle “Don’t Be Messin’ With My Bread” closes out Meat Grindin’ Business – a lean, tasty, thoroughly satisfying album with very little fat. – VA
SONG PICK: “Third Ward Boogie”