Sunday, January 23, 2011

“The Mississippi Sheiks Tribute Concert: Live In Vancouver” DVD (Black Hen)

The Mississippi Sheiks were one of the most popular performing and recording acts ever to come out of the Mississippi Delta. Although generally thought of by modern listeners as “blues” artists, in their 1930’s heyday they recorded a variety of music ranging from fiddle tunes, nominally folk and country songs from both black and white traditions, pop songs of the day, older ragtime and humorous songs, as well as blues, plus anything else people wanted to hear. The band was a somewhat loose assemblage centered around the Chatmon Brothers, including fiddler Lonnie Chatmon, guitarist/singers Sam Chatmon (whose later solo career continued well into the 1970’s) and Bo Chatmon (who, as Bo Carter, enjoyed solo success with a string of double-entendre hits), plus a key non-brother, singer-songwriter Walter Vinson.

It would be untrue to say the Sheiks are now forgotten, as they still have a strong, faithful following, but neither are they as well-known as they deserve to be. Enter guitarist Steve Dawson, who produced a CD of modern-day artists recording their own versions of the Sheiks repertoire, to be followed by two concerts and this DVD, which is derived from those concerts. While I’ve never heard the CD, a quick check of Amazon shows that the lineups of the artists appearing on the CD and DVD overlap, but are considerably different. No matter - this concert DVD holds up extremely well, even without the likes of Bruce Cockburn or the Carolina Chocolate Drops (who appeared on the CD).

The disc opens with a bit of background about the Sheiks as well as on the organization of the concerts. The concert is built around a carefully chosen house combo of musicians from the Seattle/Vancouver area, who are joined by an impressive cast of featured celebrity singer-musicians from both sides of the US/Canada border. Dawson talks about the haste with which the rehearsals were put together, which contributes to the informality of the proceedings. One might expect from this that there would be a certain level of sloppiness in the music, but indeed there is very little, and what small bits of uncoordination there may be are easily overlooked.

Things get under way with a reading by actor/bluesman Jim Byrnes from liner notes written by Sam Chatmon back in the 1970’s, as the house band plays behind him. Throughout the set, the band by no means attempts to slavishly recapture the sound, style, or fully-acoustic arrangements of the Sheiks. There are electric guitars, keyboards, acoustic bass, drums, and an occasional touch of brass, as well as some decidedly modern funk and New Orleans rhythms going on. Purists may object, but there really is no reason these old favorite songs need to live solely in the past.

Oh Susanna, a slightly strident American-born, Canadian-based singer who is new to me, does “Things About Comin’ My Way,” a song which shares its melody line with the Sheiks’ most influential song, “Sitting on Top of the World” (a song covered by Bob Wills, Howlin’ Wolf, Cream, Willie Nelson, among countless others). The Sojourners, a vocal trio, add touches of quartet-style gospel and swing to “Sweet Maggie”, the chorus of which is essentially “Corrine Corrina”. Geoff Muldaur offers “Poor Boy”, with some sweet fiddling by Daniel Lapp in the Lonnie Chatmon tradition. Despite an instrumentation which includes accordion, mandolin, and Muldaur’s banjo, this one really captures the essence of the Sheiks.

Bob Brozman, on National steel guitar, plays a down-and-dirty “Church Bell Blues”, with some gritty fiddling by Lapp and nice interaction between Brozman and Dawson on the instrumental break. Singer-pianist Robin Holcomb, takes one of my personal favorite Sheiks’ songs, “I’ve Got Blood In My Eyes For You”, and totally transforms it into a harmonically adventurous jazz narrative a la Nina Simone (not necessarily an exact parallel, but it’s the best familiar-name approximation I can come up with). Only the lyrics remain intact. It’s an interesting recasting, to be sure, and one which is beginning to grow on me now that the initial shock has worn off. (Holcomb’s husband, Wayne Horvitz, perhaps best known in jazz circles, is the versatile keyboardist for the concert’s house band.) Alvin Youngblood Hart sings a soulful version of “Livin’ In a Strain”, backing himself with some subtle, tasty lap steel licks. Dave Alvin, along with singer Christy McWilson, Brozman, Lapp, and Dawson, tweaks the concert’s format only slightly with a song from Bo Carter’s solo repertoire (“Who’s Been Here”). Though Alvin is generally thought of as a roots-rocker, fans may not be at all surprised that this may be the most traditional-folk performance in the set, and a highly ingratiating one at that.

If there could be said to be one artist on the disc who stands out a slight cut above the rest, it might be John Hammond, one of the giants of the 1960’s blues revival and still going strong. He blows some solid blues harp on Colin James’ easy-going version of “Keep On Tryin’”, done in the low-key, loping rhythm the Sheiks did so well, then returns to accompany Jim Byrnes. Hammond then gets his own spot for a typically fine performance of “Kind Treatment.” If there could be said to be a failure on the disc, it would be Van Dyke Parks’ version of “It’s Backfirin’ Now”. Parks is not someone one would expect to hear in this context in the first place, but he IS from Mississippi and a Sheiks’ admirer. Alas, this isn’t quite enough. With his barrelhouse piano, coupled with Lapp’s cornet, he gets a bit of a Dr. John groove going, but his voice simply does not have enough grit in it to make his valiant attempt a successful one.

But this is the only misstep in a solid set of tunes and performances. The entire lineup assembles at the end for a surprisingly frisky version of “Sitting On Top of the World”, bringing the concert and the DVD to an appropriately rousing conclusion.

The 85-minute disc has no extra features, and none are necessary.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Marina Rossell - “Classics Catalans: Gran Teatre Del Liceu de Barcelona” DVD (World Village)

Catalunya (or Catalonia) is an “autonomous community” within the Kingdom of Spain, which sounds as if the “nation” of Catalunya should be at least semi-independent. Spain, however, continues to maintain sovereignty over the region (which includes the metropolis of Barcelona). Thus it is by no means inappropriate or unexpected for a Catalan singer to program songs calling for Catalan freedom in a televised performance in a major concert hall.

The singer in question, Marina Rossell, is a long-time superstar in Catalunya, with a career dating back into the 1970’s, though she is little known in the US. This is unfortunate, because as a performer and as a representative of her culture, she should rank alongside such former International sensations as Edith Piaf, Nana Mouskouri, and Mercedes Sosa. Many of her own songs, as well as the older Catalan songs (about which below) that she interprets, may be regarded as somewhat equivalent to the South American nueva cancion, in that they are poetically worded songs which examine the lives of the common people, leaving it up to the listener to decide what must be done if things are to change. There are English subtitles available for the lyrics, which I tended to ignore at first, so captivating is the lush beauty of Rossell’s voice. Fortunately, I soon realized what a serious mistake that was, as the lyrics hold the key for a full understanding of the songs and the entire nationalist nature of the concert.

Rossell’s original material dominates the first half of the 90-minute concert, and a very substantial (and entertaining) body of work it is. The second half of the proceedings, however, may be even more valuable, as the singer has done considerable research into long-forgotten Catalan songs from the late 19th- and early 20th centuries. She has retained the heartfelt lyrics and memorable melodies of these songs intact, but has very successfully updated the styles of their arrangements to suit her musical approach and the taste of the contemporary listener.

Her accompaniment is focused largely on a variety of “Mediterranean guitars”, as well as piano, occasional accordion, strong bass playing, light percussion. This is supplemented by a variety of well-chosen guest artists - a choir of young women (teens, it would appear) called the Vivaldi Choir of Young Voices of Catalonia, two musicians playing tenoras (long double-reed woodwinds generally found in coblas; see below), the great Basque trikitixa (localized version of the accordion) player Kepa Junkera, and a largish percussion ensemble called the Coetus Iberian Percussion Orchestra.

In addition to the concert, there is a half-hour feature focusing on the songs themselves, showing how Rossell combed archives filled with sheet music to resurrect gems from her nation’s past. We are treated to an outdoor performance by a Catalan wind band called a cobla, which has the traditional role of supplying music for the Catalan circle dance known as the sardana. We also hear the background of several of the older songs featured in the concert, and learn a bit about their composers. In all, this lone bonus feature is an invaluable adjunct to a fuller understanding of the music.

Since this concert was filmed in 2008 for Catalan television, it would seem to make sense for someone like PBS to make it available for American viewers. But that would probably make too much sense. Certainly, there is far more substance and passion in this DVD than in a full week, even two, of the bland concerts by international pop singers trotted out by PBS during Membership Pledge Drives. Get this DVD -it’s the really good stuff.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Joe Louis Walker & the Bosstalkers “In Concert” (MVD)

When Joe Louis Walker exploded onto the blues scene in the late 1980’s, he was hailed as a breath of fresh air. He enlivened a somewhat stagnating scene with his energetic, emotional, original approach to combining hard-core electric blues with elements of soul and gospel. This 1991 live-performance DVD, from the German concert t.v. series “Ohne Filter”, captures him and his equally energetic band, the Bosstalkers, at their early peak.

Walker and the band are notable for their clean, stripped-down sound, built around the leader’s, precise, clipped-note lead which has some of the cool approach of Albert Collins melodically (though the parallel should not be taken too exactly), but which can burst out in showers of notes which can catch you pleasantly off-guard. This tight, compact early edition of the Bosstalkers provide solid support throughout, without ever overpowering Walker. The bass player in particular has a nice, popping funk rhythmic sense, whereas the keyboardist and drummer are refreshingly content to be role-players, filling in with taste and subtlety. A concise two-man horn section (tenor sax, trumpet) provides first-rate enhancement, occasionally putting down their horns to pick up small percussion instruments. One can only wish that all sidemen in small bands of this nature were equally content to help showcase their leader and not themselves.

Walker’s repertoire is quite varied, and reflects his early interest in the earthier aspects of 60’s r&b, his early-career experience in the playing field, his interest in a wide range of electric blues from Chicago through Memphis to Texas, even his friendship with former roommate Michael Bloomfield. It’s all here, not in a scatter-shot way, but melded into a coherent, individualistic approach. The 57-minute performance holds a great deal of interest from beginning to end.

In the twenty years since this concert was originally televised, Joe Louis Walker has continued to record consistently excellent CD’s and perform at top festivals and clubs. Even so, he has never quite crossed into mainstream consciousness the way a B. B. King or Buddy Guy has. And that’s a shame, because the man has an awful lot to offer. This disc captures him at full power, and should be seen by anyone interested in modern-day blues.