Johnny Shines The Blues Came Falling Down Omnivore Records
This may be the best blues album I’ve heard so far in 2019.
It was recorded when I was nine years old.
A contemporary of Robert Johnson and Mississippi Fred McDowell, Johnny Shines garnered his limited fame as the folk and blues revival of the 60s came to bore. A native of Memphis, Shines moved to Arkansas before hitting the road with Johnson for parts of three years. Shines recorded sides for a handful of labels; finding minimal success, he settled into the Chicago construction industry. Recorded live in 1973, this set captures Shines several years into his resurgence and—seemingly—at the height of his blues powers.
At age 58 and playing to an appreciative audience at St. Louis’ Washington University, Shines is a revelation for those—like me—who’ve never before encountered his music. His voice is smooth and soulful, enriched with a lifetime of experience and personality. His are hurting blues, and most of the songs are of his own composition. The Blues Came Falling Down is a solo performance—just Shines and his guitar—excepting three tracks featuring guitar accompaniment from Leroy Jodie Pierson, who co-produced this release and wrote the liner notes.
“Stay High All Day Long,” with its refrain of “I don’t do the Chubby Checker, James Brown, or no one else,” is ‘bout as sad as a blues song can get, and Shines’ fingerpicking is absolutely impeccable: “I just be myself.”
Shines is a fluid guitarist, his fret work very impressive. His picking is clean, everything melodic and still a little bit dirty. “Cold In Hand Blues” is a gritty tune, notes poppin’ off the strings, his voice moanin’. “Ramblin’” has the feel of a traditional number, but like most everything else, is claimed by Shines. It is one of the songs Shines recorded for J.O.B. in the early 50s, and is more palatable and impacting in this setting.
Four Robert Johnson numbers are included, including “I’m A Steady Rollin’ Man” and “Kind-Hearted Woman Blues.” “Sweet Home Chicago” gets the audience involved, and is bolstered by Pierson’s support. Long before the notes fade on “How You Want Your Rollin’ Done,” I found myself searching for additional Shines material.
Shines’ song introductions and between song banter is essential, adding context and some humour to the listening experience.
Coming in at about eighty minutes, this set cooks. It is historically significant, but not because the performance is more than forty-five years old. The Blues Came Falling Down matters because it is stout: a man, his guitar, and the blues—it doesn’t get more pure or true.
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