Over the last eight weeks, more than a dozen blues albums have made their way through the system to land in the wee metal box down the road.
Lots of electric blues, some with a Chicago feel, others more southern, many guitar-based and a couple pianocentric albums, quite a few featuring female frontpersons, even more with too many wankering guitar solos, a small number featuring fusion attempts, and one more with a ‘trad.’ acoustic blues foundation. All have been listened to, several only once because that is all they seemed to deserve (sorry!) while others have created my personal soundtrack over the past several weeks.
I enjoy blues music, although not as much as some other forms of roots music, but I don’t actively seek it out on a day-to-day basis. I have favourite contemporary artists—Rory Block, Eric Bibb, Paul Reddick, Sue Foley, Watermelon Slim, Colin James, Crystal Shawanda, Maria Muldaur, to name a few—and the likes of John Lee Hooker, Lead Belly, and Alberta Hunter have been a part of my listening since I was a teenager: I recall one summer (I think— after all, when else would I be watching it?) morning becoming transfixed by Alberta Hunter on Good Morning America. Still, it would take a lot to get me off the couch to attend a blues performance.
Here are my thoughts on three really strong blues albums that have recently come my way.
Suzie Vinnick Shake The Love Around SuzieVinnick.com
From Western Canada, Suzie Vinnick is well-familiar to Alberta blues listeners. Now based in the Niagara area of Ontario, Vinnick continues to make her way to the prairies almost annually. Early in the album opening “Happy As Hell,” Vinnick sings, “I may complain but I know, I am living a charmed life…I got no reason to ever bitch and moan, but I do sometimes…” It appears life is agreeing with the vibrant singer, songwriter, and bandleader, because across the album’s dozen tracks the positive receives greater emphasis than its opposite.
Blessed with a gorgeous voice, throughout Shake The Love Around Vinnick leads her band through terrific songs filled with rich lyrical insights, smooth arrangements, and stunning and near-overwhelming performances. One example would be “Golden Rule” (“It costs nothing to be kind,” she sings) featuring an almost Laurel Canyon vibe with Vinnick handling all guitars—acoustic, electric, bass, and lap steel—to excellent effect. Truly an indie artist, Vinnick has again released an album without label support, produced herself (with Mark Lalama), and done the bulk of the instrumental heavy lifting.
Unlike the previous favourite Me ‘n’ Mabel, the album that made me a fan, which was largely a solo album, Shake The Love Around is a band album. Still naturally tasteful, this time out the approach is a bit more aggressive (“Watch Me,” and “Lean Into The Light.”) An ideal summer listen, the album is abounding with songs that make this listener think of Bobbie Gentry (all evidence to the contrary, not everything I listen to runs through my Gentry filter) including a sweltering cover of John Fogerty’s “A Hundred and Ten In The Shade” and “Crying A River For You,” featuring Colin Linden; to Linden’s and Vinnick’s collaborative credit, each of their guitar parts are discernible and distinctive.
“Beautiful Little Fool” has a playful vibe and Percy Mayfield’s “Danger Zone” allows Vinnick to carry a song—typically performed with horns and all manner of accompaniment—very ably with just her voice and bass: it may be my favourite performance on the album, and is an ideal selection given the album’s theme of spreading positivity while surrounded by darkness. However, the very next song—”Creaking Pines”—is also a favourite, a wisp of a song equally effective—a little seductive, a lot haunting—bringing to mind the legendary Alberta Hunter.
Shake The Love Around is an excellent blues and roots album from Suzie Vinnick. She never disappoints.
Angel Forrest Electric Love AngelForrest.ca
If Suzie Vinnick is great—and she is—and well-regarded within the Canadian blues industry—and she is, having been crowned as Female Vocalist of the Year six times by the Maple Blues Awards—Angel Forrest is held in similar high esteem.
Forrest is the reigning and five time Maple Blues Female Vocalist of the Year, and on this double live set, she shows why. The Quebec veteran focuses on vocals, and does with considerable gravelly panache, while leading her four-piece band through a set of standards and I presume, originals—at least songs I am not familiar with (songwriting credits must always be provided within an album package)—from a single concert captured last October in St-Hyacinthe, Quebec.
The show opening “All The Way” (a co-write with guitarist Denis Coulombe, I believe) sets the stage for almost an hour and a half of blues-rock. Forrest is at her strongest belting out her own songs including “Hold On Tight, Mr. I’m Alright” “Spoil Me Up,” and “Mother Tongue Blues.” Not much is held back—or left to interpretation—on the brassy “Move On.”
Realizing she has long sung Janis Joplin songs, I find her versions of “Piece Of My Heart” and “Me and Bobby McGee” a little too on the nose—imitation rather than inspiration—although I am confident there are others who will strongly disagree, and I appreciate the guitar work: it isn’t that I didn’t like Forrest’s versions, it is just I feel I have heard these vocal approaches often enough. Her take of “Turtle Blues” is more impressive, and stronger still are her takes of “House of the Rising Sun” and the extended, set-closing jam “Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean”/”Hound Dog”/”Whole Lotta Love” which are full of energy and passion.
Angel Forrest has released a number of albums—and I believe this is her third live release—but this is the first to come to my attention: I’ll be keeping my ears open for more. I’m intrigued.
Speaking of intrigued.
When was the last time a Ph. D. released a blues album? Not intriguing enough? Okay, when was the last time a University of Toronto associate professor of East Asian Studies, born in Bowling Green, Ohio into a Japanese-Korean family released a blues album?
That’s what I thought.
Proving that the blues is a force of nurture as much as nature, Sugar Brown has unleashed a powerful blues missive upon an unsuspecting populace.
Man, Sugar Brown plays my kind of blues. Influenced by the Chicago blues, a sound well familiar to Ken Kawashima as that is where he got his start blowing harp in blues bands. Now fronting a band on both guitar and harmonica, Sugar Brown has created thirteen new songs—some of them based around and reinventing familiar songs of various extract—that kept this listener rapt for the entirety of their 48-minute run. Some of his lyrics are hopeful, some are rather dark—a balance I can certainly appreciate.
Fronting the likes of Michelle Josef (mostly) and Chuck Bucket (three tracks) (drums), Russ Boswell (basses), Minnie Heart and Nichol Robertson (various string instruments), and Julian Fauth (piano and organ), Sugar Brown has captured his blues in a warm and inviting atmosphere utilizing some vintage equipment and a knack for a variety of blues structures. As stated in the accompanying press material, here Brown “mines the various strata of the blues genre.” Taking full advantage of the broad blues palate, no two songs sound too much alike even as they may explore a common thematic spectrum.
Highlights include the finger-picking grounded “Hard to Love” and “Lousy Dine,” a song built around the adroit lyric “everybody’s scrambling for the same lousy dime.” “It’s A Blues World” is a song for the times, an old-timey sounding lamentation with a bit of “The House of the Rising Sun” in its foundation.
For an album rich in reflection, Sugar Brown doesn’t let the listener soak in misery for too long. Numbers including “Dew On The Grass,” “Out Of The Frying Pan”, and “Those Things You Said” are lighter and livelier. “Sure As The Stars” is a sassy, kiss-off piece, while “Tide Blues” reminds me of something Doc Watson might have played around with on the porch with Merle or grandson Richard. By the time we reach the closing “Brothers,” we have been fully immersed in a fully satisfying blues session.
From its striking, etched cover art through to the clarity of the recording itself and the strength of the songs, Sugar Brown has created a memorable album. When he wants to, he puts a fine growl in his voice, while elsewhere his approach is pure, natural, and clear (“Love Me Twice.”)
It’s A Blues World: Calling All Blues is my introduction to Sugar Brown. I’ll be hearing more.