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.
MUSIC: The Chess Story Volume 1
BEVERAGE: Wolfscraft Frisch-Pils
Words & photos: Vincent Abbate
The Chess Story Volume 1, a Chess Records anthology covering the period from 1948 to 1956, is one of the albums that did it for me. A big bang that sent the blues hurtling into my universe.
Growing up in the States, the blues was familiar to me, but no more so than it was to your average American rock’n’roll fan. That means my concept of what the blues is and where it came from or even what real blues sounded like was vague and limited. I knew of John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters. I’d seen B.B. King on Sanford and Son and Bo Diddley’s cameo in the George Thorogood video. I didn’t think of Jimi Hendrix or Eric Clapton as blues because they were all over FM radio.
Then I found this Chess sampler from 1993 in the bargain bin at a local bookstore. Those were ten Deutschmark well spent. (I’d been living in Germany for maybe two years at that point.) Some of the music I knew – Waters, Chuck Berry – but it was the guys I’d never heard before – Robert Nighthawk, Jimmy Rogers, Lowell Fulson – that made me realize just how many blues treasures were out there waiting to be discovered.
Let’s crack open this bottle and give it a spin…
The Interviews: Blues Encounters 2000 – 2020 is the second installment in the Who Is Blues book series and will become available later this year. It includes conversations held during the past two decades with B.B. King, Bobby Rush and more than a dozen other artists. The following is an excerpt from the chapter on singer, guitarist and songwriter Walter Trout.
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Interview by Vincent Abbate
Though practically all of our interaction has been via the phone, I feel like I’ve gotten to know Walter Trout a little bit during the latter part of his career. He may be a celebrated blues guitar hero, but he’s also someone who will treat a stranger like a friend.
Our first “phoner” coincided with the release of his Luther Allison tribute album Luther’s Blues in 2013 and introduced me to Walter as a plain talker whose New Jersey accent would always remind me of home. Our second conversation was as emotional as it gets, as he was still processing the near-death experience that inspired the writing of his unforgettable Battle Scars album. By the time we discussed his subsequent record We’re All In This Together, the worst of that storm had passed and he had emerged as someone the entire bluesrock scene could rally around. Mixed in was a quick hello and a handshake before a concert in Leverkusen, Germany – the only time we’ve ever spoken face-to-face.
His fans love and respect him. And yet, Trout routinely gets pounded by critics for his explosive, sometimes frenetic style of electric guitar. “You play too many notes and you’re too loud,” complained one of his detractors years ago. In an act of rebellion, Walter chopped that statement down to five words – “Too many notes, too loud!” – and began using the phrase as his official slogan on T-shirts and other merchandise.
Trout’s uneasy relationship with more traditionally-inclined listeners became a topic of our fourth and most recent interview, conducted once again by phone during the run-up to his latest studio album Ordinary Madness, released in August of 2020.
Dump That Trump: 10 Blues Songs for Election Day
Thank you, Donald, for making the blues political again.
Text: Vincent Abbate
You’ve come here for the music, right? Not to hear me rant about #45. So let’s get to it.
In the past five years, the man in the White House has pissed off a lot of people. Including a small army of blues musicians. They’ve felt compelled to speak up, literally in an effort to defend their country. Don’t believe me? Go enter “trump blues” on YouTube. You’ll find dozens of musicians, well-known and unknown, whose only outlet for the frustration and disgust they feel has been to write and sing about it.
The ten songs and videos I’ve chosen for this countdown to Election Day 2020 are some of the more eloquent and funniest blues protest songs of the Trump era. My fellow Americans, blues lovers everywhere … let’s do this!
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.