By Bruce Sylvester
The 1960s and early ’70s were a watershed for revitalizing the blues. Fast forward a few decades, and you’ll find many of those same artists are still going strong.
Since Staple Singers patriarch Roebuck Staples’ death in 2000, the family’s torch is left for daughter Mavis Staples to carry. We’ll Never Turn Back (Anti) is the most topical disc of her career, returning to songs that gave strength to the ’60s Civil Rights movement of her youth — songs for dark hours when people feared for their lives.
Letting loose with her gutsy, nurturing mother-earth contralto, Staples fuses personal history (“My Own Eyes”) and national history (“In The Mississippi River”) with help from the original Freedom Singers (without Bernice Johnson Reagon) and South Africa’s Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
Vacillating between uplifting and frightening, the intense disc begins with a part-narrated adaptation of J.B. Lenoir’s “Down In Mississippi.” With his typical eclecticism, producer Ry Cooder at one point uses an upbeat string band intro for music that has rarely met that style.
See if you can sit still to the funk groove as Staples intones, “Keep your eyes on the prize. Hold on.” Whether she’s taking us back in time to church or a political rally, it’s music you can dance to.
As for Cooder’s own My Name Is Buddy (Perro Verde/Nonesuch), just imagine a collaboration among John Steinbeck, Woody Guthrie and Pogo cartoonist Walt Kelly.
As resilient Buddy, a migrant red cat, travels America, various species of mammals assume human virtues and vices, including a hog named J. Edgar that devours a drunken farmhand.
Joe Hill, Paul Robeson and Hank Williams are among the historic heroes and villains who crop up in Cooder’s tale. In an election going awry, Buddy’s denied the vote in “One Cat, One Vote, One Beer.” The song’s delivery resembles that of Tom Waits, and the title calls to mind John Lee Hooker’s “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer.”
Buddy adapts older songs for new purposes. With help from Flaco Jimenez’ norteno accordion, Bill Monroe’s bluegrass “Footprints In The Snow” becomes a labor-organizing polka. Pete Seeger appears as both a participant and song character. Mike Seeger, Van Dyke Parks and The Chieftains’ Paddy Moloney also take part in this stylistic free-for-all that embraces America’s indigenous music, like blues, beatnik jazz and country dance.
The inspiration for Buddy came when a friend sent Cooder a picture of Leadbelly with a cat’s head Photoshopped over his face. Yes, the songs are occasionally simplistic, but the populist concept album is unique. Packaged along with the CD, a small hardcover, illustrated book allows Cooder to elaborate on Buddy’s adventures.
With Naughty, Bawdy & Blue (Stony Plain), pre-Madonna red-hot mama Maria Muldaur completes the blues trilogy she began with the Grammy-nominated Richland Woman Blues and Sweet Lovin’ Ol’ Soul.
More urbane than its predecessors, Naughty essentially is a tribute to bygone blues divas like Victoria Spivey (who mentored then-teen Muldaur in the ’60s), Bessie Smith and Alberta Hunter. Bonnie Raitt duets on Sippie Wallace’s “Separation Blues.” Naughty spotlights vaudeville blues, backed by James Dapogny’s Chicago Jazz Band.
In her thorough liner notes, Muldaur writes: “These singers presented a sophisticated, polished and urban blues style compared to the more primitive sound of the Delta blues artists … These women were ‘liberated’ way before the term was coined, liberated socially, financially and — most of all — sexually.”
As Muldaur plays the vamp, her throaty vocals convey a loving yet tongue-in-cheek mood. Listeners almost can sense her licking her lips over a few choice lines. After a litany of abuses dumped upon her by a no-good fancy man in “Up The Country Blues,” she savors a laundry list of dirty metaphors on “Handy Man.”
No teary-eyed wimp, she struts, “No use in grieving,” more convincingly than she moans, “He broke my heart,” on “Down Hearted Blues.” Of course, considering Muldaur’s decades of imploring her audiences, “Don’t You Feel My Leg,” you’d expect Naughty to be campy fun.
The Band: The Best Of A Musical History (Capitol/EMI) abridges the group’s humongous, six-disc A Musical History (2005).
Available in three formats — 19-song CD, CD/DVD and 16-song digital album — it’s an interesting balance of classics (“The Weight”) and obscurities. The CD’s prison blues “Ain’t No More Cane On The Brazos” gets a Cajun accordion. The six-song, 23-minute DVD shows us why The Band was the best interpreter of gothic “Long Black Veil.”
As for reissues, Muddy Waters, Johnny Winter and James Cotton all were in transition during the spring 1977 tour that provides the heretofore unissued Breakin’ It Up & Breakin’ It Down (Epic/Legacy).
Waters had just ended his increasingly problematic years at Chess Records and released Hard Again (produced by Winter) on Blue Sky. Winter was getting back into solid blues.
After years of fronting his own band, Cotton was once again blowing harmonica for his long-time boss, Waters, the godfather of moving Mississippi Delta blues to Chicago. With Waters’ sidemen Bob Margolin (guitar), Pinetop Perkins (piano) and Willie Smith (drums) on board, the tour was to support his new Hard Again, though Breakin’s songs don’t particularly repeat Hard or presage the triumvirate’s 1979 Grammy winner Muddy “Mississippi” Waters Live.
The three serve up staples of their individual repertoires: Cotton’s “Rocket 88” and Winter’s “Black Cat Bone.” “I Can’t Be Satisfied” (from Waters’ earliest days) enjoys incisive slide guitar. “Caledonia” (a 1945 Louis Jordan hit) erupts in high-pitched, hyper ad-libbing.
As they roamed the stage and sang into whatever mic was nearest, the trio created a challenge in terms of tape remastering, but as they spontaneously call out to each other mid-song, their camaraderie spills over to us 30 years after the fact.
Finally, The Blind Boys Of Alabama (three of whose singers were at the troupe’s 1939 start at The Talladega Institute For The Blind) enter the DVD realm with Go Tell It On The Mountain (Eagle Rock) and, singing with Ben Harper, Live At The Apollo (Virgin). Both are concert sequels to earlier CDs of those titles.
At The Apollo (100 minutes) essentially shows The Blind Boys as backup singers for soft-voiced guitarist Harper’s pensive religious compositions. They could have blown him off the stage with their vocal power, but instead they hold back until the unleashed finale, a totally fresh approach to the country standard “Satisfied Mind.”
Decades ago, The Blind Boys (like Sister Rosetta Tharpe) foreshadowed rock by harnessing blues energy to black gospel — a controversial move among the devout. Go Tell It shows their ongoing embrace of blues rock. Its opener, “Amazing Grace,” is sung like The Animals’ “House Of The Rising Sun.” Mavis Staples, John Medeski and Charlie Musselwhite happily join Go Tell It to salute the aging Blind Boys.
Lanky Michael Franti physically dwarfs original Blind Boy Jimmy Carter in one duet, though Carter (not to be confused with the former president) easily holds his own in vocal strength. “Higher Ground” sizzles with Chrissie Hynde and steel guitarist Robert Randolph, after Aaron Neville brings his heavenly falsetto to “People Get Ready.”
As the two-hour DVD progresses, the arrangements go deeper into vintage black gospel styles — except with electric guitar and drums — and vocal leads are passed around. The Blind Boys understand how to evolve with the times