The concert

The Yank Rachell Tribute Concert and CD Release Party happened June 8 in the courtyard of the Indiana Historical Society in downtown Indianapolis, along the banks of the newly renovated White River Canal. It drew only a moderate crowd, perhaps because of the $10 admission charge ($12 at the door), but nonetheless, was a delightful way to spend a sultry Sunday afternoon that featured a full five hours of music.

The mandolin was very much the dominating instrument among the music played, fittingly enough given that that was not only the instrument of choice of Rachell himself, but also given that he was one of the undoubted masters of the blues mandolin.

National artists Rich DelGrosso and Andra Faye sang and played mandolin, with mandolin also featured by several notable local and regional artists as well -- Jim Richter, Mike Butler (who played not only his electric mandolin, but also Yank's own acoustic-electric Harmony mandolin, which Butler plans on donating to the Smithsonian upon his death), and Steve Robbins.

Before the music began, DelGrosso conducted a two-hour mandolin workshop, and this Mandolin Workshop Band also played. Faye is also a member of the female group Saffire-the Uppity Blues Women, and is originally from Indianapolis. DelGrosso, Faye and Richter also played at the area Mandolin Fest that occurred earlier that weekend.

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The concert was a mixture of musical styles -- old-timey, acoustic and electric blues, and even a set that combined 1950s jazz and rock from Karen and the Beast. There was a lot of jamming, and a lot of playing of Yank Rachell originals, for not only was he a prolific songwriter, he also composed some of the most notable songs ever recorded in the blues.

Local musicians Tim Duffy, drums, Tim Messersmith, bass, Mike Brown, keyboards, and Allen Stratyner, harp, filled in backing roles extensively, as did drummer David Clawson, who came down from South Bend. Mario Joven, part of the Mandolin Workshop Band, played mandolin accompaniment, and sat in several times on electric rhythm and compelling lead guitar, with other local/regional notables Governor Davis, Steve Robbins, Steve Brown and Rich Hynes making multiple jamming appearances.

Both DelGrosso and Faye got called back to the stage several times, with DelGrosso leading the ensembles in a nicely funked-up version of Yank's "Shotgun Blues," while Faye did haunting vocals and mandolin on Yank's "My Baby's Gone," which both of them do on the Rachell Tribute CD.

The concert performances that afternoon showcased the Indianapolis blues scene well, and several of its leading players, showing just how much the blues playing has solidified and matured these past several years in Indianapolis.

Very special guest at the concert was Sheena Rachell, Yank's granddaughter and long-time bassist in his bands, who suffers from Wegener's granulomatosis, a debilitating, cause-unknown resperatory disease. Although physically tired and attached to a portable oxygen tank, her voice was strong, and, although she did not sing, she did give a brief "thank you" speech.

The proceeds from the concert went to Sheena and her family, and indeed, several of the extended Rachell clan showed up for the concert. Unfortunately, the Rachell family has suffered much in medical expenses in the last few years, but the Indianapolis blues community rallies around the Rachell family, and helps as it can -- which is frequently.

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Yank Rachell was the undoubted patriarch of Indianapolis's blues scene from the 1960s until his death in 1997, and a truly beloved man. He was a living blues legend in his own time, but was always a gentle, courtly man to all who had the pleasure of knowing him, and a man very much devoted to his family and even a member of the Missionary Baptist Church.

Not only local players such as Steve Brown and before she went national, Faye, count Yank as a major influence in their becoming blues artists, but national artists and music teachers such as DelGrosso regard Yank the same way. This writer was also privileged to know Yank, and to have had the singular honor of writing the notes for his Chicago Style LP and CD on Delmark Records, with Yank thus positively influencing me to develop and carry on as a blues writer. (I wrote a tribute to Yank in my "Blues and More" column for the Alternative June 1.)

So it is only fitting that Yank should continue to be remembered, as he was at the concert of June 8, and in the A Tribute to the Legendary Blues Mandolin Man James "Yank" Rachell, 1910-1997 that was released that day.

The CD

Various Artists
A Tribute to the
Legendary Blues Mandolin Man
James "Yank" Rachell, 1910-1997

Yanksville Records yr12708

A Tribute to the Legendary Blues Mandolin Man James "Yank" Rachell, 1910-1997 is an excellent, compelling CD that features an outstanding range of artists not only from Indianapolis and the regional area, but also several top-rated national and even international musicians as well. The CD was three years in the making, and like a bottle of aged vintage wine, it shows, and shows well.

That such a stellar lineup of musicians and vocalists could be called upon to donate their talent to such a CD is a fitting tribute to the seminal influence of one James "Yank" Rachell on the blues, and on his unique and lasting importance as a blues musician, vocalist and songwriter.

Headlining the national talent on the CD are John Sebastian, former member of the leading 1960s folk-rock band, the Lovin' Spoonful; noted folk musician Mike Seeger; mandolinist, music teacher and former editor of Blues Revue, DelGrosso; and Indianapolis expatriate Faye, now with Saffire-the Uppity Blues Women.

But also featured on the CD is an extensive roster of renowned but lesser-known national artists with extensive playing and recording accomplishments -- mandolinist David Grisman; Howdy Skies recording artist Tim O'Brien; guitarist David Grier; Peter Rowan of Rounder Records; multi-instrumentalist Orville Johnson; and old-timey music master Curtis Buckhannon, whose repertoire has been recorded by the Library of Congress.

Adding international flavor are Bert Deivert, an American now living in Sweden, and French multi-instrumentalist Jean-Louis Mahjun of Last Call Records.

Also featured on his original tribute to Yank, "Bluesy Little Tune," is Stan Smith, who now lives in Texas, but who was talent coordinator at Indianapolis's noted Hummingbird folk club in its days from the 1960s into the mid-1980s.

Top Indianapolis and Indiana regional artists on the CD include vocalist Karen Irwin, who fronts Karen and the Beast; mandolinist Jim Richter; guitarist/vocalists Steve Brown and Gordon Bonham; harp player Allen Stratyner; pianist Dan Holmes; drummer Tim Duffy and bassist Tim Messersmith; bassist/vocalist Jerome Mills, and South Bend drummer David Clawson.

Craig Peterson adds a nice touch on sax, as does Guy Vreeman on Hammond B-3 organ on "She Caught the Katy," Rachell's original song that became a hit for the Blues Brothers. This by no means exhausts the array of local talent featured, making this Tribute to the Legendary Blues Mandolin Man James "Yank" Rachell CD also a showcase for how much the Indianapolis/Central and Southern Indiana blues scene has matured and deepened in quality these past few years. That these local artists can clearly hold their own with the national and international talent also featured on this CD (and the proof of that is in the listening) is a tribute to the serious and soulful skill Indianapolis and regional Indiana musicians now bring to blues playing -- just as Yank Rachell would've wanted it!

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As is only appropriate on a Rachell tribute CD, as he was truly an original master of the instrument, is the prominence of the mandolin. DelGrosso plays it using single-string picking on "Shotgun Blues," making it play the role in his ensemble analogous to that of a lead electric guitar. Faye plays the mandolin more traditionally on "My Baby's Gone," using it as a ruminative second-voice to her moody vocals. Grisman plays mandolin in accompaniment to Sebastian's vocals and guitar on "Tappin' That Thing," Rachell's renowned rowdy tribute to sex, which opens with a humorous recounting by Sebastian of being introduced to Rachell on the phone, and then later playing and recording with him.

Levinger accompanies guitarist Rowan on a vintage National Steel mandolin on the traditional "Sitting on Top of the World;" and Richter does the same on his Kimble with Bonham on "Brownsville Blues," written by Rachell's old partner, Sleepy John Estes (both men first met as youth in their hometown of Brownsville, Tennessee).

Butler is on several tracks with the mandolin, both his Schwab five-string electric and with Yank's acoustic-electric Harmony. And Seeger plays the traditional "Deep Elam Blues" on a cylinder-back mandola-shaped instrument, the banduria.

Also appropriately here as well is some strong electric ensemble playing, as Rachell in his later years preferred playing backed by an electric blues ensemble of guitar, bass and drums. DelGrosso and his group nicely funk-rock Yank's "Shotgun Blues," and John-Louis Majun does the same thing with Yank's "Cigarette Blues," giving it a stinging rock edge with distorted electric guitar. Jerome Mills and his group burn with a really funky, rocking rendition of "Moonshine Whiskey," and Karen Irwin & Co. puts "She Caught the Katy" into a solidly rocking R&B groove.

Up-tempo treatments are also given Yank's "Seems Like a Dream" by Deivert and his fellow Swedes, and the same is done to Yank's "Wadie Green" by Indianapolis blues singer Tipton and his ensemble of other local musicians. Also done electric up-tempo is Yank's "Depression Blues," with Steve Brown rendering the lyrics of this 1930s song that now have an eerie "deja vu all over again" feel, given our present economic difficulties. Yank's granddaughter Sheena Rachell does the vocals on his mournful "Lake Michigan Blues," which is done as an electric slow blues.

That leaves, by elimination, those tracks not mentioned in the above paragraph as acoustic blues, which give to this CD a nice overall contrast and complementary mixture of differing styles. The final track, "Freedom," Rachell's favorite gospel song, is sung a cappella by Yank's daughters, May Nell and Willa B., and granddaughter Sheena. And although May Nell is now deceased, Willa B. is still alive, as is Sheena, although suffering from a debilitating respiratory disease, Wegener's granulomatosis.

Of the 21 tracks on the Tribute to the Legendary Blues Mandolin Man James "Yank" Rachell CD, only five are other than Rachell's own songs. He was a noted and prolific songwriter of the blues, who claimed to have written over 900 songs. Sadly, but all too typically, he saw precious little in royalties from these songs, as he did generally in his 60-year career as a bluesman.

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Production values on the CD are truly top-notch, with special kudos deserved by its Executive Producer Mike Butler, who lovingly oversaw this CD from its inception back in 2005. He's aided here by producers and engineers Al Stone, Steve Creech, Brian Hanson and Jake Hopping.

Shae Taylor did the design and layout, and Bruce Neckar the original artwork used on the cover, CD and tray. The Tribute to the Legendary Blues Mandolin Man James "Yank" Rachell CD was truly a labor of love, with all the musical talent and work donated, and sales from the CD will go to the Rachell family, which has been hard-pressed with medical expenses.

National publicity and media exposure for the CD is in the able hands of Memphis's Betsie Brown and her Blind Raccoon independent blues publicity and media company. The CD can be ordered on the Web at www.yankrachell.com, or from Mike Butler at mrbmando@sbcglobal.net.

Rachell himself would've loved this CD, although he might have been a little bemused at all the fuss over him. Truly a blues legend in his own time, he was also a gentle, courtly and modest man whom people not only admired, but also truly loved.

As Sheena Rachell said simply but tellingly of her grandfather, "He was a good man who played the blues."

George Fish can be reached at georgefish666@yahoo.com.