Friday, May 13, 2022

Archive Review: Dave & Phil Alvin’s Common Ground (2014)

Dave & Phil Alvin’s Common Ground
It would be pretty safe to say that without legendary bluesman Big Bill Broonzy, the sound of Chicago blues – and all of blues music, really – would be vastly different than it is today. A country bluesman with roots in Mississippi and Arkansas, Broonzy served his country during World War I. When he returned home he found that farming no longer held any interest and, relocating to Chicago, he started a life in music. Broonzy would become a popular bluesman, talented songwriter and guitarist, and a prolific recording artist as well as an important catalyst in the evolution of the country blues sound into big city urban blues during the 1940s and ‘50s.

Through the years, Broonzy performed in country blues, ragtime, hokum, R&B, and folk blues styles and wrote for, performed and recorded with talents like Memphis Minnie, John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson, and Tampa Red. His kindness was legendary, and he helped Southern immigrants to the Windy City like Muddy Waters get a toehold in the city, arranging gigs and recording sessions for the newcomers. It is Broonzy’s influence on blues and rock music that is most keenly felt, however, not just on Chicago bluesmen like Waters and Buddy Guy, but also on young rock guitarists like Eric Clapton, Rory Gallagher, and Ron Wood of the Rolling Stones, among many others.    

Dave & Phil Alvin’s Common Ground

Two young musicians that Broonzy influenced were brothers Dave and Phil Alvin. Growing up in Downey, California in the 1960s, the brothers shared a love of music. As Dave Alvin remembers in the liner notes to Common Ground, Broonzy’s music was a revelatory discovery for the two teenagers, an artist that remains their musical touchstone to this day. The brothers would go on to form the Blasters in 1980, the band recording a handful of critically-acclaimed albums featuring a high-octane blend of roots-rock, rockabilly, blues, and R&B that found an appreciative audience on the Southern California punk rock scene. The band called it quits by the end of the decade, though, with Dave Alvin launching an acclaimed solo career in much the same musical vein as that of his former band that is still winning the artist accolades today.   

Part of the reason for the break-up of the Blasters was the notoriously combative relationship between the two brothers. As Dave has been quoted as saying, “we argue sometimes, but we never argue about Big Bill Broonzy.” It is the brothers’ shared love of the revered blues legend that brought them back together in the studio for the first time in nearly 24 years to record Common Ground. Credited to Dave Alvin and Phil Alvin, and subtitled “Play and Sing The Songs of Big Bill Broonzy,” Common Ground is exactly that – a heartfelt tribute to Broonzy by a couple of musicians that felt his influence at an early age.   

The Songs of Big Bill Broonzy

Broonzy was a gifted songwriter, so there was no dearth of material for the brothers to choose from, and it’s a credit to Broonzy’s talents that the Alvin’s duplicate only two songs from Muddy Waters’ tribute to his mentor, the 1960s album Sings Big Bill Broonzy. The album opens with the jaunty “All By Myself,” an upbeat ragtime-styled romp that features the brothers’ shared vocals and Dave’s elegant National steel guitar. If not for the modern recording technique, the performance might be mistaken for an old slab o’ 78rpm shellac, the brothers playing it straight and having a ball with their careful interpretation of the song. “I Feel So Good” differs from the aforementioned Waters’ rendition, skewing closer to Broonzy’s courtesy of Gene Taylor’s light-fingered piano-play and drummer Lisa Pankratz’s lively percussion. It’s a swinging tune, and tailor-made for Phil’s yelping vocals.

In contrast to the pair of openers, “Southern Flood Blues” rocks like a juke-joint Saturday night, with Dave’s wiry electric guitar licks and ominous vocals punctuated by Phil’s mournful blasts of harp. It’s a fine performance, the song’s disturbing lyrical tale emphasized by the strength of the instrumentation. It’s probably the furthest the brothers get from Broonzy’s original intent, sounding more like a long-lost Blasters’ outtake, but it’s also entirely appropriate. “Big Bill’s Blues,” one of Broonzy’s first recorded sides, returns to a country blues sound, the performance fueled by Phil’s wonderful heartbreak vocals and Taylor’s lonesome piano runs.

Key To The Highway

Since first recording the song in 1941, Broonzy’s “Key To the Highway” has become a blues standard, recorded not only by blues legends like Waters, Little Walter, and John Lee Hooker but also by rockers like Clapton’s Derek and the Dominos and the Rolling Stones. The Alvins’ reading of “Key To the Highway” is a country-styled blues tune capturing the spirit of the original with Dave’s engaging National steel play and Phil’s friendly harp and acoustic guitar. The jazz-flecked “Tomorrow” is another one of those songs perfectly suited to Phil’s soulful twang, and his vocals here swing on one of Broonzy’s better R&B tunes. Taylor’s hands dance across the keyboard and bassist Brad Fordham holds a steady rhythm while Dave lays down a hearty solo that fits in perfectly with the other instrumentation.

“Just A Dream” is the other Broonzy tune recorded in tribute by Muddy Waters, and the brothers Alvin hew closely to Waters’ electric Chicago blues styled romp here. Phil’s vocals are lower and slower, perfectly capturing the moment as Taylor does his best Otis Spann imitation, Dave layers in some fine, fuzzy fretwork, and Phil adds dashes of energetic James Cotton-styled harmonica. The brothers share vocals again on the underrated Broonzy gem “Stuff They Call Money,” Taylor’s piano tinkling low in the mix beneath the hearty rhythmic play of Fordham’s bass and Pankratz’s drums, with blasts of icy harp underlining the song’s insightful social commentary. The instrumental “Saturday Night Rub” is a perfect showcase for the brothers’ intertwined guitarplay – Dave on the steel, Phil on acoustic – while the Fordham/Pankratz rhythm section rides along. It’s a joyous performance and an appropriate choice to close out the album.  

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

What’s not to like about Common Ground? It’s the first album from Dave and Phil Alvin together in two decades, and for an old Blasters fan such as myself, that’s like manna from heaven. Plus, these are Big Bill Broonzy songs, so it’s hard to go wrong. The brothers are obviously familiar with the material, and not only bring a reverence to their performances, but also a playfulness that is completely in the spirit of the late blues legend.

There are tribute albums where it’s obvious the performers are going through the motions for a payday, the publicity, or the cache of being associated with a project considered “hip.” Then there are great tribute albums where the contributors truly love the artist and songs they’re honoring and they juice up their performances with passion and energy…Common Ground is one of those kind of albums, a tribute that truly lets the music do the talking. Get it! (Yep Roc Records, released June 3, 2014)

Buy the CD from Amazon: Dave & Phil Alvin’s Common Ground

Archive Review: Dion’s Tank Full of Blues (2012)

Dion’s Tank Full of Blues
Over the course of a career that has spanned an amazing seven decades, Dion DiMucci has worked his way across a full spectrum of American musical styles. From the pop, rock, R&B, and doo-wop of his 1950s-era hits to the folk-and-gospel leanings of his ‘60s commercial comeback – as well as the soulful electric-blues that he’s explored during the new millennium – Dion has done it all and done it well.

Dion’s Tank Full of Blues

Spurred on by conversations with music journalist Dave Marsh, who stated that Dion is the only first-generation rocker of the 1950s who remains artistically relevant today, and with his wife Susan daring him to live up to Marsh’s claim, DiMucci dove headfirst into a creative frenzy that resulted in Tank Full of Blues. The last leg of a blues-n-roots trilogy that began with 2005’s Grammy® Award-winning Bronx In Blue and continued through 2007’s Son of Skip James, Dion’s Tank Full of Blues is a stunning musical statement delivered by an artist who has lived and breathed the blues for decades.

Unlike those aforementioned albums, the former of which was a collection of classic blues covers, the latter mixing a handful of originals amidst sturdy old warhorses, Tank Full of Blues offers up a slate of mostly original material, the result of a divinely-inspired songwriting jag that provided Dion with a wealth of material. The title track is a vintage-sounding throwback to the 1950s with a Chicago blues lilt and finely-crafted fretwork, while “I Read It (In the Rolling Stone)” evinces a swamp-blues menace with appropriately dark-hued guitar paired with topical lyrics.

Dion’s “Ride’s Blues” is his tribute to Delta blues legend Robert Johnson, the lyrics weaving an enchanting tale while the sparse, atmospheric, guitar-driven soundtrack adds steel-coiled muscle above a steady pounding drumbeat. The “Two Train” medley welds Muddy Waters’ “Still A Fool” with Johnson’s “Ramblin’ On My Mind,” evoking a spirit of wanderlust with a wonderful, nuanced performance. The stream-of-consciousness “Bronx Poem” is a talking-blues tone-poem with elegant fretwork and insightful, autobiographical lyrics.  

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Throughout Tank Full of Blues, Dion’s powerful vocals are matched by his fierce, unbridled guitarplay and an uncanny songwriting sense. Those who dismiss Dion as yesterday’s news display their own ignorance, as Tank Full of Blues is one of the most soulful blues albums that you’ll hear this year…or any other. (Blue Horizon Records, released November 14th, 2011)

Review originally published by Blues Revue magazine, 2012

Buy the CD from Amazon: Dion’s Tank Full of Blues

Friday, May 6, 2022

Archive Review: Homemade Jamz Blues Band’s Mississippi Hill Country (2012)

Homemade Jamz Blues Band’s Mississippi Hill Country
Mississippi Hill Country, the fourth Homemade Jamz Blues Band album, was financed by the band’s fans through a Kickstarter fundraiser (the Reverend among those who donated). From all indications, the money was well-spent, as the production preserves the raw spirit of the band’s performances but never sounds cheap or underserved. The biggest difference between Mississippi Hill Country and the band’s third album, 2010’s self-produced The Game, is in the growth shown by the Perry siblings as artists, frontman Ryan Perry in particular.

Homemade Jamz Blues Band’s Mississippi Hill Country

It is Ryan’s songwriting on Mississippi Hill Country that stands out; six years into an acclaimed career, the oldest Perry sibling is still only 22 years old. But it sounds like he’s been listening (heavily) to his father’s record collection, Mississippi Hill Country displaying a wide range of styles and influences, from 1960s era blues-rock and ‘70s soul to the 1990s sounds of R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough. Throughout it all, the band evinces a strong identity, the material relying more on subtlety and talent than on the novelty that often plagued their youthful performances. Ryan, Kyle, and Taya have grown up, and they sound better for it.

The album-opening “Buy One Get One Free” is a blustery blues-rocker reminiscent of Michael Bloomfield and Electric Flag while “Times Are Changing” offers a timeless romantic plea that matches Ryan’s soulful vocals with a throwback vibe that reminds of Curtis Mayfield. The hypnotic “Red Eye Flight” is the sort of menacing juke-joint jam that the Burnside family built its legend on, full of circular guitar riffs, heavy throbbing bass lines, and steady rhythmic percussion, a spirit also shown by the title track, a full-tilt tribute to those Hill Country legends that captures the essence of this hardscrabble region.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Mississippi Hill Country closes with a bit of magic, the acoustic “Love Doctor” catching lightning in a bottle as Ryan calls on the influence of Delta greats like Charley Patton and Son House to bang out a haunting, powerful bit of old fashioned black cat moan. I tell ya, the blues seldom gets better than this… (self-produced, released 2012)

Review originally published by Blues Music magazine, 2012