By Bruce Sylvester
Time to cover the American Back Roads again. Want to read about a few cool new releases — mostly blues-related — and a music documentary? Here you go.
In the early-1960s folk revival, young blues devotees tried to track down old timers who'd recorded in the 20s and 30s and then vanished from the professional performing scene — not that they'd all ever been part of it. Mississsippi Delta-bred Son House (then age 62) was located in Rochester, NY, in 1964, decades after he'd stopped performing. Future Canned Heat guitarist Al Wilson wound up tutoring him on songs he'd recorded and forgotten. Edward James House, Jr.'s previously unissued eight-song, 43-minute Forever on My Mind (Easy Eye Sound) was recorded June 23, 1964, before a small audience at Wabash College in Indiana, five months before sessions for his post-rediscovery studio LP Father of the Blues. Raw and riveting, harsh-toned House sometimes let his metal-bodied guitar speak for him as he ranged from rye humor (“Preachin' Blues”) to heartbreak (“Death Letter”). Lyrics from one song might reappear in another. Fortunately, there's none of the drunken rambling of his 1970 London concert tapes that have appeared on different labels and titles over time. The excellently remastered Wabash show comes from the extensive tape collection of House's future manager (and one of his three discoverers) Dick Waterman. Let's hope that more of Waterman's tapes will emerge on The Black Keys' Dan Auerbach's company, Easy Eye Sound.
Moving forward to a heretofore unissued soul/R&B show from only 30 years ago, Ann Peebles & the Hi Rhythm Section's Live in Memphis (Memphis International) enjoys clear sound and a confident performance laced with sass, woman's wisdom in moments of domestic rivalry, and a bit of gospel-style testifying. Recorded at the Peabody Hotel, it's reportedly her sole live disc with the Hi Rhythm Section. “I Feel Like Breaking Up Somebody Else's Home” here precedes Albert King's hit version and Bette Midler's cover. The nine-song, 39-minute album closes with her signature song, “I Can't Stand the Rain.” (By the way, the Peabody Hotel holds a place of honor among blues and Memphis music historians thanks to its September 1929 recording sessions with Furry Lewis, Rev. Robert Wilkins, Charlie McCoy, and others found on Nehi Records' 26-cut Peabody Blues.)
Bruce Watson's label Bible & Tire brings us more eastern North Carolina Black religious music on singer/guitarist Johnny Ray Daniels' fervent Whatever You Need with vocal accopanimnet by his son Anthony Daniels (of Dedicated Men of Zion) and granddaughter KeAmber Daniels, who chant, “You've been good,” and finish his sentences on “Church Get Ready.” Back in the '60s, “I Shall Not Be Moved” was adapted for the Civil Rights movement. “Jesus Is Waiting” is Daniels' first-person account of divine help amid a health crisis. Loaded with the gutsy growls and falsetto whoops of long-ago gospel, the album (produced in Memphis by Watson and guitarist Will Sexton) brings hope and joy.
Slide guitar buffs may enjoy Sacramento-based Dennis Johnson's Revelation (www.dennisjohnsonslide.com) as it takes the slide in a number of directions – even acoustic country. “Ramblin” is pure-fun strut. Rocking “32-20 Blues” is totally different from Robert Johnson's 1937 interpretation. “Salvation Bound” delivers its own kind of salvation. The pensive passages call to mind Ronnie Earl. The stripped-down disc needs nothing more than its bass, keyboards, and drums backup. Johnson has said, “In the past few years, I have really focused on articulations with a slide – types of vibrato, sliding up or down to a note, and moving the slide at various angles like a lap steel player to connect notes – which made my playing way more expressive.” Take the title track: “I like notes to bark as Larry Carlton would say. Give me a Fender Tweed Deluxe with a 5e3 circuit and set it to where the amp is relatively clean with a light touch, but when you play a little harder the amp breaks up. It's emulative of the human voice changing at different volumes.”
Moving around from electric to acoustic blues plus some smoky balladry, Lew Jetton & 61 South's Deja Hoodoo (Endless Blues) is loaded with Jetton's vivid characters – some serious, some not – in songs of texting, tattoos, money, and more. There's a down-to-earth realism in his love songs. In this day and age, is the way to a man's heart still through his stomach? Yes in “Waffle House Woman.” A song may wait until its last line to show how dangerous its situation really is. When Jetton questions the Lord in “Will I Go to Hell,” the answer is a blaze of guitar notes. Bob Lohr, who long backed Chuck Berry, handles keyboards on three tracks. Legendary Shack Shakers leader J.D. Wilkes (a member of the original 61 South) returns to add hot harmonica.
All it took was the first few seconds of Cristina Vane's Make Myself Me Again (Red Parlor) for the purity of her vocal and guitar notes to tell me that here's a very talented young woman expertly using bygone instrumental styles in songs of navigating growing up. (“Sometimes I lose, sometimes I win. I'm gonna make myself me again. I'm giving up on giving in. I'm gonna make myself me again.”) Her slide guitar work calls to mind young Bonnie Raitt covering Mississippi Fred McDowell back in the 1970s. She plays banjo in the clawhammer style Ralph Stanley learned from his mother in southwestern Virginia. Born in Italy to a Sicilian/American father and Guatemalan mother, Vane (now a Nashville reisdent) can insert a young person's views to the rootsy mix. (“I went out and bought brand new blue suede shoes. If it did the trick for Elvis, it might do it for me too.”) while preserving each historic style's integrity.
Let's close this piece with a festival film: Over the decades, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival has become what's probably America's — or, at least, one region's — most stellar annual celebration of music, culture, and, of course, being New Orleans, food. Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story captures the vibe with music and/or comments from Crescent City natives like Irma Thomas, the musical Marsalis family, Aaron Neville, and Preservaion Hall Jazz Band's Jaffe family. Al Green, Katy Perry, and Bruce Springsteen also appear. We hear a lot from Jimmy Buffett. Vintage footage gives context to the city's culture. There's talk from the Fest's late founder, George Wein, whose Newport Jazz and Folk festivals led New Orleans leaders to ask him to do festivals in their town too. Wein said he couldn't until segregation's barriers fell. The fest began in 1970, taking place every subsequent year except for 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic Some people felt the first fest after Hurricane Katrina's devastation showed that the city was going to be alright. Of course, we get New Orleans music's gospel component including celebratory funeral parades that follow periods of mourning. The African heritage is here, as are southwestern Louisiana's Cajun and zydeco cultures . Frank Marshall and Ryan Sufffern directed the 95-minute doc.