I have four blues DVD’s waiting for review, and rather than drag out the process and post four separate reviews, I’ll discuss them all in one longer piece, even though I have no over-arching “review essay” statement to make. Two are by lesser-known artists, one by a major blues star of today, and a major talent of the recent past.
“Moses Oakland Quartet Live @ Famous Dave’s BBQ & Blues, March 28.2010” (Big Notes Productions) introduces us to a San Francisco-born singer-guitarist-bandleader who has spent over a decade gracing the stages of the Minneapolis blues scene. He is, in a way, typical of the many really solid blues musicians whose reputation remains a local phenomenon despite considerable amounts of talent and know-how, simply because there isn’t a large enough national audience for blues music to support very many bands in a national scale. When I say “typical”, however, I don’t mean to imply that Oakland and company sound like “everybody else”. Rather, it’s the circumstances that work against a skilled local bluesman from reaching a wider audience that are, alas, typical.
Oakland is very much a contemporary bluesman, with a style that goes beyond blues to incorporate rock, Americana, gospel, jazz, and funk influences, backed by a band that can negotiate this wide range of styles with aplomb. With his long white, Z.Z. Top-length beard and denim overalls, Oakland looks as if he just stepped out of a particularly soulful Grant Wood painting.
Things get off in funk mode with a song I haven’t thought about since the days of Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, “Captain Bobby Stout” (though I believe it was first recorded by the Jerry Hahn Brotherhood). Bassist Charles Fletcher and drummer Donald “Hye Pockets” Robertson lay down a phat groove. Oakland sings with authority, and both he and organist Jason Craft solo intelligently at such length that I can’t but wonder if there isn’t room for this band on the jam-band circuit. It must be well-nigh impossible to play “The Thrill Is Gone” completely removed from the shadow of B.B. King, but Oakland’s singing and the depth of the rhythm section add more than enough originality to keep it interesting on a high level.
“Chicken” is a deceptive instrumental in which Oakland’s guitar solo sounds as if it’s trying to fly away out of his control. But since he finds his way back each time a certain part of the tune is reached, one eventually realizes that it was written this way. The rest of the band keeps the fun going in a string of solos. The band lays down a slinky backdrop for “Spoonful”, a song I’ve heard perhaps too many times, to the point where I just could not approach this with eager anticipation. Next thing I knew, I was tapping my foot and smiling, so it obviously won me over. There’s a somewhat lackluster tenor sax solo, but it passes quickly. “I Got A Mind To Give Up Living” slows the pace down to a crawl, getting deep into the emotional core of the music. Oakland’s half-spoken vocal captures the disconsolate mood perfectly. This time, the languor of the saxophonist’s meanderings works to his advantage. The organ produces some intriguing tone colors during an appropriately funereal solo, followed by a soulful, nicely textured Oakland guitar solo.
The viewer of any concert DVD never really knows how many takes were filmed over how many sets. But if this set is a true indication of what one would hear at a Moses Oakland gig - and I have no reason to suspect otherwise - this is a band which knows how to pace a set in a manner that leaves the audience wanting more. The videography likewise captures a “you are there” quality, as cameras move from one musician to another the way an audience member’s head might move, mixing the sights and sounds together for maximum interest. The 55-minute DVD is available from Amazon.
Billy D. and the Hoodoos are currently based in Portland, Oregon, after a number of years in Santa Fe. “Somethin’s Wrong: The Music Videos” (self-released) is a visual companion to a CD of the same name. As the title indicates, this is not a concert performance, but a collection of videos for Billy D.’s original songs, shot in a Santa Fe studio. Nevertheless, these have the quality of a live performance, being straightforward filmed versions of singer-guitartist Billy D. and his two bandmates in action, without the distraction of pseudo-plotlines, sexy models, overly busy production effects, and all those other extraneous elements that mar so many music videos.
Billy D. (short for Desmond) and the Hoodoos are a very tight little guitar/bass/drums combo, with a blues/rock/etc. mix which brings to mind the freshness and excitement many of us felt when we first heard Z.Z. Top, yet with more of a Chicago-club flair (not surprising, as D. grew up on the Chicago blues scene). This is a distinctly middle-age combo, whose years of individual and collective experience are quite audible. But there’s nothing tired-sounding or jaded about their sound and style. There’s little attempt to hit the listener/viewer over the head with empty virtuosity, even though it seems evident that D. could do this quite effectively if he wished to. Fortunately, he doesn’t wish to. There are occasional overdubs and layers of reverb added to the texture of the music, but one gets the distinct impression that if you caught the band late on a Saturday evening, they’d sound just as tough, yet just as controlled as they do here. These are veteran musicians who know exactly what they want to do, and have the chops to do it, plain and simple.
Most of these songs are straightforward blues or blues-rock, but there are a couple which have more of a nostalgic pop-rock feel, which is equally effective. The one time the DVD makes a complete break from both the musical direction and the studio setting which serves as an austere backdrop for the camera, the change of pace is quite effective. That song, “Blue” is a thoughtful, singer-songwriter-styled ballad, presented as a Billy D. solo and filmed outdoors. The rest of the videos are shot in either black-and-white or color, with red being the dominant color. I confess I find the saturated red of “Miss The Love” a bit garish for my personal taste, but the red works much better on other videos when contrast is added.
Billy D is a fine singer, with a light, yet very distinctive voice and a well-developed sense of phrasing that allows him to communicate the true meaning of the lyrics. He has mastered a variety of guitar styles, and never plays more than he needs to. The bass player adds a counterpoint which serves as a bridge between the foreground and the the beat, while the drumming is subtle and steady.
There are twelve videos in all, running a total of 44 minutes. But add in the Bonus Features, and the total package runs well over an hour, including seventeen minutes of interview segments, in which Billy D. discusses his personal background, musical influences, and career experiences. The viewer has the option to watch short snippets on specific topics, but it’s more interesting (and convenient) when one hits the “play all” button. The features also include impromptu performances of slide-guitar classics by Elmore James and Muddy Waters. Available from www.filmbaby.com
Fans of Roy Buchanan (1939-1988) will certainly celebrate the release of “Live at Rockpalast” (MVD), a 1985 televIsion concert., which MVD has issued in the US at the same time as three other classic concert DVD’s which will meet with great approval among veteran rock fans (Michael Schenker Group, “Hardrock Legends, Vol. 2”; Ian Hunter Band with Mick Ronson, “Live at Rockpalast”, and Public Image Limited, “Live At Rockpalast 1983).
Buchanan was hardly in the same musical territory as Schenker, Hunter, and PiL, but neither was he strictly a hard-core bluesman, much the same way that the other three artists featured in this review are prone to mix rock and other genres into a base of blues. Unfortunately, as with nearly all of Buchanan’s recorded output under his own name, this is very definitely a good-new-bad-news affair. But the bad news is not particularly unexpected, and is - as always - overwhelmed by the good news.
The sad fact of the matter is that Roy Buchanan could not sing and should not have sung, ever. Those Buchanan albums featuring other people singing never quite offered fully satisfactory vocal performances, either, so I guess having Buchanan sing all but one song is a bit of a wash in the long run. What’s more, he hardly ever hired musicians who were anywhere near his level of musicianship and originality - few musicians are, to be sure. But his bands often had to struggle up to the level of mediocrity, and this band is no better. Drummer Martin Yule (who would go on to bigger things with Toy Dolls) is, in particular, a stiff, awkward pounder who seems to fall out of rhythm every so often.
But no one would even consider buying a Roy Buchanan concert DVD for the vocals or the backing band. It’s the unique Roy Buchanan guitar style we want to hear, and there’s tons of masterfully mind-boggling guitar work here, with Buchanan reaching high levels of intensity throughout, fully drawing the listener’s attention away from the sub-par backing. Just as fortuitously, there is a large percentage of instrumentals on this disc, thus keeping his vocal inadequacies from turning the proceedings toward the direction of tedium. He invigorates a number of old instrumental warhorses - “Green Onions”, “Walk Don’t Run”, “Peter Gunn”, “Night Train” - by giving them the special Roy Buchanan interpretive treatment, and does an awe-inspiring version of one of his signature pieces, “Sweet Dreams”, as well as a decent “Messiah”.
The concert is 71 minutes in length, and the disc comes with an 8-page booklet. The songwriting credits contain a couple curiosities - Henry Mancini’s “Peter Gunn” is credited simply to “Hank”, Both Jimmy Forrest’s “Night Train” and Ray Sharpe’s “Linda Lu” are credited to Buchanan. In the case of “Night Train”, Jimmy Forrest plagiarized the tune from Duke Ellington, so he probably doesn’t deserve the credit anyway. But in the case of the still-living (and, I believe, still-active at age 74) Ray Sharpe, he not only deserves the credit, but could probably use the royalties as well. Perhaps the misspelling of “Linda Lu” as “Linda Lou” complicated the search for the copyright holder.
Guitarists will welcome the opportunity to study Buchanan’s technique (thumb picking, pinch harmonics, bent notes, et. al.) in close-ups and distance shots alike. Fans will love this, despite the flaws. And Buchanan neophytes should check this out as well, flaws and all, because this is one spectacular musician, whose like we may never see again.
Joe Bonamassa is, of course, one of the premier blues-rock artists of our time, a point driven home time and time again by the consistently fine music offered on “Joe Bonamassa - Beacon Theatre: Live From New York” (J&R Adventures). This is a two-disc set (concert on disc one, bonus tracks and features on disc two), and worth every penny of the asking price.
The first disc opens with a blistering acoustic guitar solo played in a subway tunnel. In a “stunt” that brings to mind the famous video of world-renowned classical violinist playing in a subway station, only to be totally ignored, Bonamassa likewise plays his heart out and no one seems to care. Obviously, people going from place to place have WAY too much on their minds these days; smell the roses, folks! Needless to say, no one in the Beacon Theatre audience has their mind on anything but the intense reverberations coming from the stage.
This is big, dramatic music for the most part, played by a powerful four-piece combo who have fully mastered their craft, their art, and their sense of the theatrical possibilities inherent in the blues format. These players are energetic, demonstrative, passionate, and creative. This isn’t a superstar guitar innovator with a mediocre backup band, as we heard on the Roy Buchanan DVD. This is a UNIT, four musicians who know their individual roles, but with one result in mind. Bonamassa’s style may be very different from Buchanan’s, but he is another guitarist with the skills to easily focus all the attention on himself. But by hiring musicians as fine as himself and rehearsing them to the point of oneness, he has concocted a sound that listeners from many musical backgrounds should (and do) find irresistible.
In addition to some solid and very appealing original material, the cover repertoire is culled from a variety of sources, not just strictly hard-core blues, everything from Little Walter to Leonard Cohen, stopping to pick up tunes by early r&b giant Lowell Fulson and blues/jazz fusionist Mose Allison. Bonamassa also pays homage to his blues-rock forbears, with songs by Rory Gallagher and Gary Moore, two artists who drew from many of the same sources as Bonamassa, with results entirely distinct from each other, paving the way for the modern “heavy” approach to blues-rock.
Bonamassa and company also welcome three guest artists, two of whom (John Hiatt and Paul Rodgers) bring their own material with them. Bonamassa and Beth Hart have previously collaborated on tour and on CD. On Bobby Bland’s “I’ll Take Care of You,” Hart lets out an attention-grabbing wail preceding Bonamassa’s intense guitar solo, which may be the single most gripping moment in the entire concert. (Side note - I never realized Brook Benton wrote this song, and would never have guessed it.) Hart’s other feature, Lowell Fulson’s “Sinner’s Prayer”, may not have especially ribald lyrics, but she sure makes them SOUND raunchy!
John Hiatt’s plugged-in hollow-body guitar adds a folkish Americana ambience to the proceedings. But who’s to say that the melancholic lyrics of “Down Around My Place” are not blues, albeit of a different variety, even before Bonamassa’s solo kicks in. “I Know A Place”, in which Hiatt and Bonamassa share vocal honors, is more definably in a progressive-blues vein.
The last guest, Paul Rodgers, works out on two songs from his days with Free. His years with Bad Company may have fattened his bank account to a greater degree, but Free remains at the core of Rodgers’ singing, which is just as gritty after 40-plus years. He is STILL “The Voice”, as he just plain dominates the two songs he performs on. By the way, the titles of Rodgers’ two songs are reversed in the booklet - “Walk In My Shadow” precedes “Fire and Water”.
Do not, however, get the impression that this is one of those all-star affairs that relies on guest artists to make its impact. There are many other highlights throughout the concert. For instance, there’s a rompin’, stompin’ “You Better Watch Yourself” in which Bonamassa illustrates once and for all why he’s often called “Smokin’ Joe”. He turns in a decidedly prog-rock direction on the driving :”Blue and Evil.” (I would have loved to have heard Robert Plant take this song on in the 1970’s.) There are more ballad-like songs as well, such as “Mountain Time”, with its taqsim-like intro. The concert ends with a rousing interpretation of the Mose Allison/Yardbirds classic, “Young Man Blues”, which contrast Bonamassa’s free-rhythm vocals with powerfully rocking instrumental segments.
The concert disc generously runs to 1 hour and 55 minutes, twice as long as so many concert DVD’s. The bonus features on disc two include two more songs from the concert, which are not simply filler, some interesting backstage chatter between Bonamassa and David Crosby, who teaches our star a tuning trick or two, and a segment where Bonamassa talks about the busking experience which opened the film. There is also a photo gallery, not all of the pics relating to the concert.
Musically, and in terms of production, this self-released concert DVD is most definitely on a par with anything on the major music-DVD labels, by far bigger names. Bigger definitely does not equate with better in the world of music, and this is a set that definitely deserves to attract a major-label-sized audience.