I am not a blues aficionado, not even close. If you went through my music collection, you are likely to find many blues discs but you are more likely to find as many albums from the Williamses—Hank, Lucinda, Jack, Dar, Holly, Robin, Linda, and the like—as you are blues recordings, in total. I tend to write about them—or not—and pass them onto friends who are more likely to get long-term enjoyment.
When I do hang onto a blues album, as likely as not they are ones released on Canada’s two preeminent blues labels, Northern Blues and Stony Plain. Not everything they produce resonates, but they have a stronger track record of appealing than most. Here are three recent releases from Stony Plain, as well as one release that is even more independent.
Ride the One
Stony Plain Records
Among my favourite blues artists is Paul Reddick, and Reddick’s Villanelle (2004) is one of my most frequently played roots albums. An examination of pre-war blues and rural music, that album was acoustic sounding although electric instruments were present within the well-balanced mix. Without resorting to studio trickery, Reddick and producer Colin Linden created a full, natural sound with songs that were thoughtful and lasting.
Since that time, Reddick has continued to produce excellent blues music, and his recordings are of interest individually and collectively.
On Ride the One, Reddick reunites with Colin Cripps, producer of his last album Wishbone, and continues in a similar stream of full-bodied, band-focused blues. What is different this time out is the aggression present on songs including Ride the One’s lead tracks “Shadows” and “Celebrate.” While Reddick had previously touched on such in songs like “Whiskey in the Life of Man” and “Devil’s Load,” this time out it is the rule more than the exception.
The darkness of some of these songs, including “Living in Another World,” will challenge listeners, but they are pulled back from the edge by awareness that the blues needs more subtlety than other forms of roots music: go too far, and it becomes rock and roll, and usually not good rock and roll. Cripps and Reddick balance their more base instincts with gentle artistry in songs such as “Mourning Dove” and “Diamonds.” Even an up-tempo number such as “Watersmooth” is presented with an emphasis on the more gentle shadings of band interplay.
MonkeyJunk’s Steve Marriner is featured on guitar and keyboards throughout, with Cripps and Greg Cockerill contributing additional guitar. Reddick’s voice is afforded rather scary effects in a number of places, digging deep into Nick Cave territory on several songs. Elsewhere, as on “Love and Never Know” and “Gotta Find A…,” the approach is more natural and even satisfying.
My favoured blues will always be that which is more-acoustic and focused on the aged roots of the music. That Paul Reddick doesn’t want to spend all his time in the past is fine with me, as long as he continues to incorporate those influences in his music. On Ride the One he has done that most successfully.
Eric Bibb & North Country Far with Danny Thompson
The Happiest Man in the World
Stony Plain Records
Michael Jerome Browne. Paul Reddick. Maria Muldaur. Guy Davis. Eric Bibb.
That pretty much sums up the contemporary blues artists I have great interest in. Not many, but the quality is there, I like to think.
Eric Bibb’s last album was the excellent tribute Lead Belly’s Gold. This time out, the spectrum is a bit broader, incorporating a range of approaches to the blues. What remains consistent with all Bibb releases is that voice, smooth as Bailey’s with the same effect that sneaks up on you the more you imbibe.
These are almost exclusively songs of love and lust, and one can hear why Bibb favours this type of material: it is his natural palate. When he sings, “I’ll pump your water, light your stove, Take you on a picnic baby, in the shady grove,” in “I’ll Farm for You,” it isn’t so much dirty as a promise. Similarly, Bibb stays busy in the “Creole Café” and a “King Size Bed,” confessing that he was “Born to Be Your Man” while “Toolin’ Down the Road.” I guess it ain’t bragging if it’s true.
Producing these smooth blues numbers, Bibb and the band—a pair of Finnish brothers Janne (drums) and Olli (resophonic and pedal steel guitars) Haavisto, Petri Hakala (mandolin, mandola, fiddle), and Danny Thompson (upright bass)—have found a comfortable groove and ride it straight through. Despite its consistency, things never become mundane, each song revealing understated differences in approach.
One has to be impressed by the quality of guitar playing Bibb produces from his various acoustics. Listening to this album is such a satisfying experience. Nothing is cluttered, no one is attempting to elbow their way into the mix. Happiest Man in the World is a delightful listen for those who appreciate polished, acoustic blues.
Adding some diversity to the proceedings are songs not intended to lead to the bedroom. “Prison of Time” is filled with a longing for freedom, naturally, but there isn’t any bitterness just regret. “Tell Ol’ Bill” connects these contemporary performances to the roots of blues and folk music. The instrumental tunes, “1912 Skiing Disaster” and “Blueberry Boy” retain the album’s pervasive mood while allowing the instrumentalists the opportunity to further demonstrate their intuitive connections.
Rather unexpectedly, the album closes with a soupy rendition of “You Really Got Me,” allowing Bibb to (again) prove he can sing absolutely anything and make it sound as if he unearthed it from some obscure recording.
Eric Bibb turns sixty-five this year. Depending on how you’re counting, Happiest Man in the World is his fortieth album. I haven’t been listening for all that long, and have encountered only possibly a fifth of his recordings. But, this is one of the finer ones I’ve listened to. Beautifully recorded and artfully packaged, Happiest Man in the World is an album that deserves the accolades it is certain to garner.
Good Days a Comin
Right Side Up Records
With several recordings behind him, Missouri-based guitar player Ivas John’s Good Days a Comin is an acoustic folk, country, and blues recording (folk country blues—is that a thing?) presenting a cleanly recorded set of concise songs.
Two originals, “Roll Mississippi” and “Goin’ Back to Arkansas” provide the template for this recording, a breezy interpretation of acoustic roots music with an emphasis on companionable instrumental interplay. Cleanly played and pristinely recorded, one envisions four or five friends jamming on a shaded, rural porch, dogs resting beside their chairs. Laid-back doesn’t begin to describe it.
In his mid-thirties, but appearing a decade younger, John—whose family name is Dambrauskas, as fine a Lithuanian moniker as I’ve encountered—mixes a handful of standards with originals. “Dark As a Dungeon” is brooding, “Can’t Help Wonder Where I’m Bound” brims with Eric Bibbeque optimism. Mid-set, “Greenville Trestle High”—a song that seems to be ageless but only appeared in the last thirty years—is provided an earthy, low-key interpretation, highlighted not only by John’s effective leads, but bluegrass bandleader David Davis’ timing and impeccable mandolin chop.
Jack Williams comes to mind listening to John’s guitar playing: it isn’t flashy, and he doesn’t go looking for unnecessary notes just for the sake of playing them. His songwriting, augmented in places by his father Edward, is consistent with his instrumental approach. Not wordy, but sufficiently detailed to attract the listeners attention.
“Things Ain’t Been the Same” aches, honest and unadorned. Less complex emotionally, “Keep Your Train Movin’” is equally well-crafted, a gentle blues-jam that connects with one’s inner rambler. “Here I Am,” again featuring Davis, reveals the other side of the wanderer’s heart.
Over the last decade, Ivas John has built a nice little portfolio. Good Days a Comin provides additional evidence that he is a folk country blues picker and vocalist to keep an ear open for.
Kenny ‘Blues Boss’ Wayne
Jumpin’ & Boppin’
Stony Plain Records
Kenny ‘Blues Boss’ Wayne’s tenth recording is the first I’ve listened to, but this definitely isn’t the first time I’ve encountered the legendary keyboard player.
Over the last decade, Wayne has become prominent enough so that even casual blues listeners have likely heard his music on various radio and satellite services. He has been awarded a couple Living Blues awards, a Juno and a Maple Blues award, and has been recognized for his long-time contributions to the music.
Born in Spokane, and raised in Los Angeles and New Orleans, Kenny Wayne is now firmly established as a Canadian ambassador of the blues piano. Jumpin’ and Boppin’ is his third album for Stony Plain, and its title tells the tale.
Up-tempo through and through, but not one-dimensional, Jumpin’ and Boppin’ is a tribute to the type of music created in the 1950s by artists that influenced Wayne’s development, folks like Louis Jordan, Amos Milburn, and Fats Domino and no one so much—to these ears—as Ray Charles. There is lyrical substance in some songs, but mostly this is music for dancing and jiving. Wayne’s voice is soulful and strong, and he is accompanied by some of the finest players around.
Duke Robillard makes appearances, including on the opening “Blues Boss Shuffle,” and bassman Russell Jackson toured with B.B. King for years, and has recorded with Wayne previously. Charlie Jacobson is the featured guitar player, and Dave Babcock brings his saxophone including on “Blues Stew” and “Blackmail Blues,” two outstanding cuts.
“Bankrupted Blues” contains wisdom in its grooves, and the title track “Jumpin’ and Boppin’ With Joy” is a breezy, toe-tappin’ celebration of the boogie woogie. “Back to Square One” is more restrained, a jazz-touched portrait of romance.
Kenny ‘Blues Boss’ Wayne brags that he has the beat that won’t let go, and this is ably demonstrated throughout Jumpin’ and Boppin’s 45-plus minutes.
Hopefully you have found something to pass this rainy long weekend at Fervor Coulee. Support the artists, support the labels. Catch up to me @FervorCoulee