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Posts Tagged ‘John Lee Hooker’

(Above: Blues legends Hubert Sumlin and James Cotton help Big Head Todd and the Monsters visit the “Killing Floor.”)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Rock and roll tributes to the blues are hardly a novel concept, but the glossy, contemporary rock of Big Head Todd and the Monsters makes them an unexpected outfit to try such a feat.

Saturday’s concert at the Uptown was billed as “Back at the Crossroads: The Robert Johnson Centennial Concerts.” The four-piece, Colorado rock band aimed to celebrate Johnson in the months leading up to his 100th birthday in May, but this wasn’t quite the case. Johnson figured prominently in the set, but there was also a heavy dose of Chicago blues. The night was more like an exposition of the genre’s most overt influences on rock. Put another way, the first set opened with Todd Park Mohr alone onstage playing the dobro and ended less than an hour later with dueling drum solos.

Taking the stage in a dark suit and black fedora, frontman Mohr quickly put any expectations for the Monsters’ back catalog to bed, telling the one-third capacity crowd the only thing they’d be hearing was “straight, natural blues.” He was right for the most part, but an audience clamoring for “Bittersweet” – one of the band’s biggest tunes – needn’t have worried. The songs in the last third of the set sounded like typical Big Head Todd material outfitted with familiar blues lyrics.

Mohr opened with three stellar, solo acoustic numbers before being joined by Missouri native Lightnin’ Malcolm and Monsters keyboardist Jeremy Lawton. That trio, along with bass player Rob Squires who entered later, formed the core band for the night, present on nearly every number. They were augmented by drummer Cedric Burnside, grandson of the Fat Possum bluesman R.L. Burnside and Malcolm’s longtime touring partner, and Monsters drummer Brian Nevin.

The real blues cred, however, came from 79-year-old guitarist Hubert Sumlin, and 75-year-old harp man James Cotton. Sumlin’s playing can be heard on most of Howlin’ Wolf’s classic material and Cotton played on many great Muddy Waters records. Half a century later, both men were in just as fine of form today as they were in their Chess Records heyday. Sumlin’s soling was nimble and his vocal turn on “Sittin’ On Top of the World” was strong. Cotton made his harmonica moan and wail like a woman in pleasure and had so much fun during one solo that he started laughing when it was done.

Big Head Todd and the Monsters are no strangers to working with blues legends. In 1997 they worked with John Lee Hooker on a cover of his “Boom Boom” that reached the Top 40. Opinions of that track will likely frame one’s appreciation for the evening: The band either misappropriated a hero to dumb down a song or paid honest homage using their familiar idiom.

The best moments were the spare opening numbers, particularly Lightnin’ Malcolm’s duets with Cotton on “Walkin’ Blues” and “Future Blues.” Mohr really pushed himself at the mic all night and did a great job approximating the Wolf’s moans and rasp on the Chicago numbers. Cotton or Sumlin were onstage for about half of the two-hour set’s 22 songs. Their contributions were always a treat.

After the first, mostly acoustic set, the band took a 20 minute break. They returned for another hour of electric music that blurred the lines between Chicago blues, traditional bar band fare and the typical Big Head sound. Not everything worked – covers of ZZ Top’s “Jesus Just Left Chicago” and a slick arrangement that removed any sense of doom from “Last Fair Deal Gone Down” were questionable. But there was no doubt everyone onstage was having fun.

Setlist: Love in Vain; Stones In My Passway; Dry Spell; Kind-Hearted Woman Blues; If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day; Walkin’ Blues; Future Blues; Viola Lee Blues; When You Got A Good Friend; Travelling Riverside Blues. Intermission. Ramblin’ On My Mind; Preachin’ Blues (Up Jumped the Devil); Wang Dang Doodle; Sittin’ On Top of the World; Killing Floor; I Love the Life I Live, I Live the Life I Love; Jesus Just Left Chicago; Come On In My Kitchen; Last Fair Deal Gone Down. Encore: Cross Road Blues; I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom > Sweet Home Chicago.

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Review: T-Model Ford

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(Above: T-Model Ford wants to cut you loose.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Few links remain to the golden age of Delta Blues. Most of the artists are dead, and the generation that followed grew up cities far away from sharecropping plantations. T-Model Ford’s appearance at Davey’s Uptown on Thursday night was a rare opportunity to witness firsthand the roots of the blues.

Ford drew a diverse group of about 60 fans, spanning several generations and including bikers, punk rockers, hipsters, musicologists and the curious. What they got was either an embarrassment of riches or way too much.

Fliers promised Ford would be performing with a band, but his only backing was Gravel Road drummer Marty Reinsel. Together the pair coaxed a sound that distilled nearly every traditional variety of the blues into one long shuffle. The guitar-and-drums duo played with a simplicity the White Stripes and Black Keys could only imagine.

There was no set list. For two and a half hours, including a 20-minute break, Ford flipped through the vast blues songbook in his mind and played whatever started coming out of his fingers. The results included well-known songs like “Hoochie Coochie Man” and “My Babe” and Ford originals such as “Chicken Head Man” and “Cut Me Loose.”

Seated on a cushioned chair, Ford looked completely relaxed. During the glacial pauses between verses he gazed across the room, a gentle smile on his face as if he had no cares in the world. Across Ford’s lap was Black Nanny, a Peavy electric guitar that looked like it had been stolen from a hair metal band. Ford twice called it the best guitar in the world.

Regardless of their origin, most songs were based on a two-chord shuffle that had nowhere to go and was in no particular hurry to get there. Most songs ambled along for about five minutes, several stretched to nearly twice that length. Ford’s smooth singing was almost stream-of-conscious, picking up verses halfway through, mixing stanzas and inventing new verses altogether.

Reinsel’s drumming was the element that held the set together. He held back on most songs, altering his emphasis ever so slightly to keep the endless boogies from becoming monotonous. The more aggressive rhythms on “Chicken Head Man” had a Keith Moon energy.

Between songs, Ford massaged the arthritis in his right hand. After one number, he declared it “Jack Daniels time” and downed the contents of the shot glass sitting on his amplifier. He told a story about getting married last week and told the women in the room that “If she flags my train, I’m going to let her ride.”

But what was hypnotic for some was tedious for others and near the end of the first set the chatter from the bar in the back of the room threatened to take over the space. After a 75-minute set, Ford took a break which eliminated many of the less-dedicated fans.

If the night had stopped there no one would have felt shortchanged. No one is sure of Ford’s age, least of all the man himself, but most peg his birth sometime during the Harding administration. Unlike many bluesmen, Ford didn’t start playing guitar late in life and didn’t record an album until 1997 when he was discovered by the Fat Possum label.

The hour-long second set reprised many of the favorites from the first set, including “Sallie Mae” and “That’s Alright.” By the third go-round of “Hoochie Coochie Man” what started as innocent started looking senile. It didn’t stop anyone from dancing, though. As a friend said at the end, when you’re 90 years old you can play the blues any way you want.

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(Above: The Delmore Brothers landed a hit with “Blues Stay Away From Me” in 1949 on King Records.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

In a musical landscape that lionizes pioneering indie labels Chess, Motown and Atlantic, Cincinnati’s King Records is at best remembered as a footnote and the early home of James Brown.

Author Jon Hartley Fox aims to correct that perspective with his new book “King of the Queen City: The Story of King Records.” While Brown receives his due, Fox spends a great deal of time making the case that King was the most diverse and innovative label of its time.

King Records was founded in 1943 by Syd Nathan, a 40-year-old Cincinnati businessman with asthma and poor eyesight. Nathan’s got into the music business started by reselling old jukebox platters at the tail end of the depression. The venture proved so successful he opened Syd’s Record Shop on Cincinnati’s Central Avenue in 1940.

The first artists Nathan signed to King were Grandpa Jones and Merle Travis. Their success, coupled with the early hit “I’m Using My Bible for a Road Map,” led Nathan to advertise with the slogan, “If it’s a King, it’s a hillbilly.”

In 1945, Nathan dipped his toe in the waters of “race music” (the term “rhythm and blues” wouldn’t be coined for another three years), with Queen Records. The success of early artists like Bull Moose Johnson led the subsidiary to be moved onto the proper King label.

Nathan’s pursuit to make records for the “little man” took him into nearly every conceivable genre of music. Throughout his quarter century at the helm of King, the label produced hits on the country, blues, gospel, pop, R&B and jazz charts. A cross section of King’s staggeringly diverse roster includes Freddie King, Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, the Stanley Brothers, Homer and Jethro and, briefly, John Lee Hooker, Hot Lips Page and Johnny Otis.

The label’s biggest artist, however, nearly didn’t make it out of the studio. James Brown came to King through a demo of “Please, Please, Please.” Nathan hated the track with a passion, and released it only to humiliate the producer, who staked his career on its success. The Hardest Working Man in Show Business went on to have an unprecedented string of hits on King beginning with “Please, Please, Please” 1956 and continuing until 1971, when Brown and his back catalog moved to Polydor.

The label’s success went beyond its across-the-board chart triumphs. In the early 1940s it was the first independent label to have its own fully functioning recording studio. Nathan was also at the vanguard of race relations, hiring black producers to supervise sessions with white musicians. Eight years before the hometown Cincinnati Reds would let blacks and whites play on the same team, Nathan had integrated crews in nearly every facet of the label.

Clearly, Fox has a lot of ground to cover in his book, and he does a good job of presenting the material in easy-to-digest portions. Each chapter covers a different facet of the label, such as country, gospel, solo or group R&B acts, production and distribution. From one-hit wonders to major performers, Fox does a good job breaking down the biographies of all the key players. In one or two pages, Fox paints a tight picture of everything the subject did before, during and after King. In that regard, the book functions almost as well as an encyclopedia of mid-century, Midwestern performers.

That approach, however, can also suffer from losing sight of the forest from all the trees. Nathan’s persona could have provided an easy and useful narrative thread, but he disappears for pages at a time. We don’t learn about his failing health until Fox casually mentions Nathan had a heart attack during a treatise on Brown. We also don’t learn much about Nathan’s personality – when he showed up at the office, his lifestyle, where he lived or his personal life.

The book’s timing also puts Fox at a disadvantage. Nathan died in 1968 and Brown in 2006. Most of the other performers are also deceased, giving Fox few primary sources to work with. Despite these difficulties, Fox proves himself a good researcher who draws on previously published material and interviews to tell his story.

The concise book covers a lot of territory in just over 200 pages. “King of the Queen City” is a brief but compelling work that should be devoured by music historians, both professional and amateur.

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(Above: Robert Randolph and the Family Band examine the “Man in the Mirror.”)

By Joel Francis
The Kasnas City Star

As the temperature dipped into the low 60s Saturday night at Crossroads, Robert Randolph and his family band mounted a two-front war: against the elements and against early onset hibernation in the crowd.

Pedal steel virtuoso Randolph and his six-piece band immediately conquered the weather. Opening with the buoyant “Good Times (3 Stroke),” Randolph frequently jumped out from behind his instrument to hop around like his own hype man. That proved more than enough to get the blood flowing.

For whatever reason, the band had more trouble winning over the audience. The third-full venue was populated with people who would rather converse and take their pictures on cell phones than dance and listen. The only times the crowd was engaged was when Randolph gave them something to do, like clap or sing. Everything else was background music.

When the night’s first Michael Jackson tribute – “Man in the Mirror,” delivered gospel-style by Randolph’s sister Lenesha Randolph – failed to rouse the crowd, Randolph segued into a John Lee Hooker boogie. Inviting dozens of ladies onstage to shake their hips did the trick during the number, but once the song was over it seemed everyone wanted to talk about what or who they saw onstage.

“Nobody” offered plenty of participation during the chorus and several encouraged call-and-responses.  For a moment it seemed like everything would gel, but mic problems capsized “Gilligan,” scat-vocal number about the Minnow’s castaways played on a square Bo Diddley guitar, and the crowd grew restless with the ensuing jam.

Finally, after 75 minutes onstage, Randolph got the crowd on board. “I Don’t Know What You Come To Do” had plenty of cues to clap and stomp along and the audience joyously obliged. That bled into “Ain’t Nothing Wrong With That,” which teased the riff to “Whole Lotta Love” and featured an organ sound straight out of “96 Tears.”

The second Jackson tribute went over better than the first. Sliding into the melody of “Rock With You” after a brief encore break, Randolph, who has been playing MJ songs long before the King of Pop’s passing, gave the crowd a forum to both sing and dance. The night ended with “Roll Up,” an unreleased number similar to what Randolph had been serving all night. This time everyone was up for it.

Randolph’s upbeat music rocks the middle ground between gospel and funk, and his songs are basically vamps and choruses. His band can ride a groove into the sunset, but when the organ player leaned into his B3 with some gospel chords the performance kicked up another level.

Wearing a silk do-rag, pink tie, dress shirt, black vest, plaid shorts and knee-high black nylon socks, Randolph looked like a cross between LL Cool J and a middle infielder.  If he was frustrated by the distracted crowd, Randolph didn’t show it. He grinned from ear to ear all night, dancing in his seat under the pedal steel or two-stepping across the stage behind a six-string.

When the parade of ladies left the stage after “Shake Your Hips” several of them planted a kiss on Randolph’s cheek. Lost in his playing, Randolph never looked up or acknowledged the gesture. He was wise to ignore the adulation from a crowd that gave little more than lip service for most of the night.

Setlist: Good Times (3 Stroke), Deliver Me, Man in the Mirror, Shake Your Hips, Black Betty, Nobody, Das EFX, Gilligan, I Don’t Know What You Come To Do, Ain’t Nothing Wrong With That, (Encore) Rock With You, Roll Up

(Below: Paper setlists are so passe. Photo by Joe Hutchison.)

RR-setlist2009-09-26

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Robert Randolph and the Family Band at Voodoo Lounge, 2008

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