Friday, February 23, 2024

The View On Pop Culture: R.L. Burnside, Skip James, Walter Trout, Furry Lewis (2003)

R.L. Burnside's First Recordings


By now you’ve watched every episode of the PBS documentary on the blues and you’re ready to celebrate the Congressionally-declared “year of the blues’ with a few new CD purchases. Well, you could choose from among the officially-sanctioned CD tie-ins to the PBS series, titles from deserving folks like Muddy Waters, Son House, and the obscure J.B. Lenoir. But if you really want to expand your musical vocabulary, look beyond the hype and marketing and discover these artists who offer several different shades of blue.

There are very few of the classic Mississippi bluesmen remaining, R.L. Burnside one of the last of a dying breed. Perhaps the best known of modern-day blues stylists, Burnside’s work has crossed over to a rock-oriented audience via collaborations with garage-rocker Jon Spencer and through the groundbreaking Come On In album. Remixed with an edge by Thom Rothrock and Alec Empire, the studio effects and loops enhancing Come On In only intensified Burnside’s already powerful performances, the resulting songs familiar to many listeners from movie and TV soundtracks.

The long-overdue reappearance of First Recordings (Fat Possum) on CD shows Burnside in a different light. Captured live in Mississippi by producer George Mitchell, these 1968 recordings – just R.L. and a beat-up acoustic guitar – preview the power and grace that will become Burnside’s legacy. Performing traditional juke-joint country blues in his Mississippi Fred McDowell-influenced “hill country” style, Burnside blazes through red hot readings of “Poor Black Mattie,” “My Time Ain’t Long” and his trademark “Goin’ Down South.” The recordings have been cleaned up to please modern ears, but Burnside’s hypnotizing vocals and strong, percussive guitar style are always a joy to listen to, First Recordings a welcome addition to the blues lexicon.

Skip James' Studio Sessions
Country bluesman Skip James is considered by historians to be one of the most important figures in the history of the Delta blues. A troubled man haunted by the dichotomy of sin and salvation represented by the blues and gospel music, James’ unique guitar style and songwriting skills have inspired and influenced musicians across decades and genres, from Robert Johnson to Eric Clapton. A long-lost collection of previously unreleased material, Studio Sessions: Rare and Unreleased (Vanguard Records) had the potential to be a real gem, the sort of rare find that escapes the vaults from time to time. Unfortunately, it is only mildly interesting to the most hardcore of blues fans.

Recorded in 1967 near the end of his life, the collection offers an obviously world-weary James spinning through a selection of mostly Gospel-oriented tunes. There are times when James’ haunting, otherworldly vocals soar – most notably on “One Dime Was All I Had” – and his bordello learned piano playing takes flight on numbers like “Omaha Blues.” The purchase of Studio Sessions should be reserved until the newcomer to James’ unique talents has digested the artist’s Complete Early Recordings (Yazoo) from 1931 or the latter-era collection Hard Time Killing Floor Blues (Biograph) from the early-60s. Then you’ll know what all the brouhaha over Skip James is all about.    

Walter Trout's Relentless
Walter Trout
is a blues-rocker of the Stevie Ray Vaughan school, mixing lightning-quick fretwork with traditional boogie styling, appealing to fans of amped-up guitar pyrotechnics. Trout earned his bones backing legends like John Lee Hooker and Big Mama Thornton; he played in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and propped up Canned Heat for a while in the ‘80s. I must admit that I’ve found much of Trout’s studio work to be a snooze, but the recently released Relentless (Ruf Records), which captures Trout and his fine band the Radicals performing live in Amsterdam, has prompted me to reconsider.

The stage is obviously Trout’s element, the guitarist filling every song with incredible energy and, well…relentless six-string riffing that would please any blues-rock enthusiast. Trout’s whiskey glass vocals are appropriately suited to the music and what he lacks as a songwriter he more than makes up for with power, sweat and passion. The rocking declaration “The Life I Chose,” the Hendrix-inspired ballad “Cry If You Want To” or the anthemic “Collingswood” showcase an artist seriously in love with the blues. A lifer who may never get rich from his craft, Trout is nevertheless determined to make his mark playing the music that he loves and Relentless is a fine step in that direction.        

Furry Lewis' Good Morning Judge
Walter “Furry” Lewis
was a fixture on the Memphis blues scene for years beyond count, recording his first songs in the ‘20s, retiring from music in the ‘30s and being rediscovered in the ‘50s. While most of the original country bluesmen had fled the Delta for Chicago, Detroit and other points north, Lewis remained on Beale Street, traveled the Southeast in medicine shows and, along the way, forged a musical legacy that stands up with the greatest artists of the genre. The timing of the release of Good Morning Judge (Fat Possum Records) couldn’t come at a better time as it is one of the strongest collections of Lewis recordings that is currently available.

Recorded by producer George Mitchell in Memphis circa 1962, Good Morning Judge offers Lewis in fine form. The opening title cut is hilarious, Lewis stating that “I got arrested once,” and then going on to deny accusations of murder, fraud, forgery and even loitering, his light-hearted lyrics covering the deadly seriousness of institutional racism, his vocals accompanied by slinky bottleneck guitar. In fact, much of Good Morning Judge showcases Lewis’ unique and intriguing six-string style, the elder bluesman filling songs like “Blues Around My Bed” and “Roll and Tumble Blues” with spry energy and soulful performances. “Don’t You Wish Your Mama Had Named You Furry Lewis” and “Furry Lewis Rag” revisit these traditional blues tunes with more braggadocio than any hip-hop microphone fiend could muster. A wonderful introduction to the lively wit, musical talent and immense charisma of Furry Lewis, Good Morning Judge should be on the shelf of any serious fan of the blues. (View From The Hill, 2003)

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