The Blues Experience with Cash McCall
The Vintage Room
Dixon Landing Music
The Michael Packer Blues Band
Random Chance RCD-34
Blues Lights for Yours and Mine
Three solid electric bands here give us the blues as expressed in the characteristic sound of their respective cities. The Blues Experience with Cash McCall lays down the classic Chicago blues, while New York City's Michael Packer Blues Band delivers the blues as influenced by the polyglot musical influences of the Big Apple, and Davis Coen serves up the spicy blues gumbo of New Orleans.
First, a look at The Vintage Room with the Blues Experience featuring Cash McCall. Leading Indianapolis bluesman Governor Davis was born and raised on Chicago's South Side and had as his mentor in the blues Cash McCall. It's easy to see from the 11 tracks on The Vintage Room that Cash McCall was an excellent mentor indeed.
Establishing himself as a blues guitarist and vocalist in his own right in 1966, McCall served as a leading Chess Records session musician and songwriter from 1961 under the famed Willie Dixon, backing performers such as Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Etta James and Little Milton.
He was born Morris Dollison, Jr. in New Madrid, Mississippi in 1941, and moved to Chicago in the late 1950s.
Although The Vintage Room was recorded in Hollywood, it is a CD of straight-ahead, no-frills Chicago blues throughout, with no attempt to "modernize" or "reinterpret" the classic Chicago sound. In addition to McCall, The Vintage Room has two other direct links to the Chicago blues -- in Dixon Landing Music's owner and music producer Alex Dixon, grandson of Willie Dixon, who literally grew up learning the blues at his grandpa's knee; and also in harpman Steve Bell, son of the late Chicago blues harp wizard Carey Bell.
Alex Dixon plays piano on the CD, and the Blues Experience is graced also with a fine biracial rhythm section of West Coast musicians -- rhythm guitarists Bill "Young Blood" Learned and Katy J, electric bassist Brady Wills and drummer Vinnie Threats, with the addition of Dylan Cooper, upright bass on two cuts.
McCall's lead guitar and Steve Bell's harp are wild and exciting throughout, but also leavened with a discipline that comes from playing that economical Chicago way, where every note counts, and none are wasted.
The 11 tracks include three of Willie Dixon's blues classics -- "I Just Want to Make Love to You," "I'm Ready" and "Bring It on Home," with seven originals penned by Alex Dixon, and a poignant ballad, "Mama," from Cash McCall himself.
Two of Alex Dixon's originals, "Helluva Time" and "Gypsy Woman," hark back to two of his grandfather's classic originals: "Helluva Time" is a party tune celebrating the greats of blues and soul that' based on Willie Dixon's hit written for Koko Taylor, "Wang Dang Doodle," while "Gypsy Woman" is a "prequel" to his famed hit for Muddy Waters, "Hoochie Coochie Man," which tells what the gypsy woman detailed before the Hoochie Coochie Man was born.
Musical evocations of the Chicago blues past come from McCall and Steve Bell on "Catch Me Before I Go," where McCall lays down classic Elmore James slide guitar licks, and Bell incorporates Sonny Boy Williamson II licks into his amplified harmonica solos.
"I Just Want to Make Love to You" is done to a musical arrangement based on that of "Hoochie Coochie Man," as is, fittingly enough, "Gypsy Woman." "I'm Ready" is given a nicely rockin' up-tempo treatment, while "Bring It on Home" continues with the softer, churning drive of the original.
McCall's raspy vocals are always in sync with the songs, giving forth a shouting delivery when called for, softer treatment when the song demands it, as on "Mama" and "Bring It on Home."
There's a lot of "Willie Jr." in Alex Dixon's articulate lyrics (for he co-wrote songs with his famous grandfather), but they also establish the younger Dixon as his own, solid bluesman as well, who can stand outside the shadow.
The Vintage Room is a truly enduring re-statement of those always enduring Chicago blues, done extremely well, just as the original Chicago blues were. This is truly a solid CD that shows that the blues will, indeed, never die; and also, that the blues don't need to be "brought up to date" either.
The Michael Packer Blues Band also evokes another classic Chicago blues group, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band of the mid-1960s, that featured Michael Bloomfield on lead guitar, Elvin Bishop on rhythm/second lead guitar, Mark Naftalin on keyboards, and two members from the rhythm section of Howlin' Wolf's band, Jerome Arnold, bass, and Sam Lay, drums.
Packer's "Born in New York City" is his own take as a New York City bluesman on the Butterfield Band's self-defining "Born in Chicago" that not only incorporates the melody and thematic structure of the Butterfield song, but also refers directly both to Paul Butterfield himself and his untimely death (at 48) in 1987, as well as to Nick Gravenites, composer of "Born in Chicago."
Packer's song is on Bleecker-Bowery right after another song that the Paul Butterfield Band made notable, "I Got a Mind to Give Up Living," and indeed, Bleecker-Bowery is dedicated to the memory of Paul Butterfield, along with that of Thelonius Monk and three others.
The Michael Packer Blues Band has a full-throated sound here, replete with guitar, organ and piano from Packer himself; the commanding presence of tenor and soprano saxes and flute from Ric Frank; bongos from Ed Jackson, and background vocals from Ed Jackson, Julie Grinstead and Angela Iannacone, in addition to bass and drums. The cover photos of the band on Bleecker-Bowery picture seven members, and nine persons are listed on the musical credits for the CD.
Bleecker-Bowery musically is very much polyglot blues-rock, with its contemporary blues-based core deepened with influences taken from the seminal rock developed in New York in the mid-1960s, and with Latin and jazz evocations as well. It is a richly textured album.
In terms of these influences, the instrumental, "The Deuce," showcases Ric Frank's sax against a Latin-influenced beat, while the very short, 39-second long "#6 Train" is created of just Frank's modern jazz sax and Jackson's bongos. "I Got a Mind to Give Up Living" is done a contemporary jazz-rock with the strong presence of flute, but "Born in New York City" is straightforward blues-rock hewing closely to its "Born in Chicago" parent, with the bluesy presence of Phil Teitz's harp.
Of the three non-originals on Bleecker-Bowery, while one is the traditional "I Got a Mind to Give Up Living," the other two are folk-rock: Utah Phillip's lyrically poignant and wistfully mournful "Going Away," while the other is Bob Dylan's established-standard, "All Along the Watchtower."
The eight remaining originals are just as poetic as the Phillips and Dylan songs, expressive of a deeply creative way with song lyrics. The two opening cuts, "I'm In Love" and "Gotta Go (Chicago, New Orleans)," are road songs of getting away and traveling to greener pastures, and "Don't Need You No More" is a definitive philippic of goodbye. Two of the original songs partake of specifically New York City themes: "Christmas on the Bowery" is a poignantly mournful ballad of being broke and forlorn on Christmas day, and spending the time in a Bowery bar cadging drinks; while "Bleecker Street" is one of those love-and-lament evocations of the City, where, despite all, Michael Packer still sings robustly in his nasal tenor, "Tonight I'll be toastin' you/Down on Bleecker Street." Big Apple blues all the way.
The pungent, keyboard-driven blues are at the heart of Davis Coen's Blues Lights for Yours and Mine, but so are other influences, including Memphis soul, gutbucket Mississippi Delta and other Southern Black blues, and even a taste of white country.
Indeed, this 11-track CD of four Davis Coen blues originals and one Professor Longhair New Orleans blues cover, a classic country song from early master Bob Willis, and five traditional songs, including two spirituals, make Blues Lights for Yours and Mine as much a folk album as a contemporary blues one.
Further, Coen, with his traditional guitar playing and raspy baritone voice with echoes of Jimmy Reed and John Lee Hooker, establishes himself as an able folk interpreter in that same way that the early Bob Dylan did; and indeed, Blues Lights for Yours and Mine reminds this writer very much of Bob Dylan's first two albums, where he mixed traditional folk with his original songs.
Four of these blues stand squarely in that New Orleans keyboard-driven tradition, with strong backing of organ, piano, and organ and piano together -- Coen's tribute to Memphis soul done as New Orleans blues, "Basement with the Blue Lights," his Latin-beat "Mambo Jumbo, his traditional blues-evoking "New Shoes Blues," and his remake of Professor Longhair's "Baby Let Me Hold Your Hand," with perfect Professor Longhair piano from Adrian Duke.
Brother Trevor Coen provides the rest of the piano on the tracks, and Lance Ashley the organ on "Basement with the Blue Light" and "Mambo Jumbo." Trevor Coen also provides electric bass on seven of the tracks, and Ben Palmer "doghouse" bass on three tracks, all backed with Joe Izzo on drums, giving the CD an substantive folk-rock rhythmic cast.
The sole pure acoustic track is the last, the traditional classic, "C.C. Rider." Davis Coen provides electric and slide resonator guitar throughout, and also vocals.
Blues Lights for Yours and Mine further gives us an original blues treatment of Bob Willis's country classic, "Don't Let Your Deal Go Down;" a blues-spiritual of praise for the Lord while the singer searches for his woman, "Lordy Lord;" the traditional spiritual of finding salvation and healing, "Since I Laid My Burden Down;" and a Delta blues original from Coen with bass and drums that's a most evocative tribute to early John Lee Hooker, and through him, all those great acoustic Delta blues singers and players before him, "Accelerated Woman," a play on Hooker's classic "Boom Boom."
Blues Lights for Yours and Mine is a solid, most able folk-blues album from a solid, most able folk-blues interpreter indeed.
George Fish can be reached at email@example.com.