Ladies do, indeed, sing the blues — in many guises. Michelle Shocked never rests in one musical spot for long.
ToHeavenURide (Mighty Sound Records) is part her own compositions (“The Quality Of Mercy” from “Dead Man Walking”) and part a rousing salute to female black gospel-blues-rockers (Mavis Staples, Sister Rosetta Tharpe) with help from her largely black Los Angeles church’s choir.
ToHeavenURide comes from her performance at the 2003 Telluride Bluegrass Festival. (Get the CD title’s pun?) Between songs are her characteristic shoot-from-the-hip, environmental-political raps. She’s not afraid to stick her neck out.
Meanwhile, Tharpe’s 1940s singing partner, Marie Knight, returns to the studio for Let Us Get Together: A Tribute to Reverend Gary Davis (MC Records).
Producer Larry Campbell (Bob Dylan’s ex-sideman) masterfully captures the spirit of Davis’ cheery Piedmont blues guitar style. A Harlem preacher, like Davis was, octogenarian Knight holds her own reasonably well as a gutsy vocalist. Campbell’s thorough notes explain “Piedmont blues is all about imitating ragtime piano playing with the thumb imitating [the pianist’s] left hand and the fingers the right hand.”
As for a much younger generation, Ana Popovic’s confident Still Making History (Electro Groove Records) boasts her '70s-style blues-rock power licks, with “Hungry” shifting to a jazzy chanteuse approach.
A native of war-torn Serbia, Popovic occasionally shows as a writer how the blues can be the expression of outsiders of any denomination. But mostly, she just plain rocks.
Turning to a reissue, Just Like A Woman: Nina Simone Sings Classic Songs Of the '60s (RCA/Legacy) fuses jazz, blues and art song in Simone’s inimitable earthy, yet sophisticated, style.
Backing her must have required intuition, as she paid little heed to beat and melody on the likes of “Here Comes The Sun,” “Suzanne” and “I Shall Be Released.”
Of course, gentlemen, too, sing the blues.
It’s safe to assume that a band named The Mannish Boys (note the Muddy Waters reference) revives classic Chicago blues.
The West Coast troupe does this with rustic aplomb and verve on Big Plans (Delta Groove Records).
A few long-ago Chess Records sidemen lend a hand as the nine Mannish Boys adroitly interweave their own originals with bygone bluesmen’s somewhat obscure songs (Howlin’ Wolf’s “California Blues”) Big Plans nears the spirit of a '60s South Side joint.
Moving uptown, the 115-minute, two-CD Duke Robillard’s World Full Of Blues (Stony Plain Records) is a good-time travelogue across the blues spectrum with his own songs, plus some by T-Bone Walker, Memphis Slim, Buddy Johnson and Jimmy Reed, not to mention Bob Dylan and Tom Waits.
For light humor, Roomful of Blues founder Robillard’s “Six-Inch Heels” pays discreet tribute to film legend Bettie Page, while “Too Much Stuff” (from Eric Bibb) addresses acquisitiveness. A deep-voiced cover of Bo Diddley’s arch “Who Do You Love” gets the comic spookiness it deserves.
Chris Whitley didn’t know he had but seven months left to live when, in April 2005, he taped the mainly acoustic Dislocation Blues (Rounder Records) with Australian lap guitarist/producer Jeff Lang. They made a perfect match. A ghostly aura often marked Whitley’s music, but here it’s easy to wonder if the unrecognized spectre of death contributed to his eerie National guitar work (with occasional African tinges).