The late John Peel played discs like this from the start of his British radio career, beside letting schoolboys hear amazing blues recordings – Buddy Boy Hawkins! – beyond their pocket. The unusual and various stuff which turned up around the same time on Bob Harris’s BBC2 television The Old Grey Whistle Test—about forty years ago – included the likes of this: new things in blues cum rock cum high grade pop with multiple ethnic associations.
I never saw Whistle Test, but twenty years back a talented home-brewer in the Orkney archipelago reminisced about seeing the ancient, unforgettable, pioneer jazz fiddler Joe Venuti guesting with one band, before the whole business became (he insisted) mechanised, homogenised, too far from fun, spirit, variety. A dumbing down uniformitisation offended him even back then, in comparison with the merrier, morally more serious days of radical intellectuals and public service broadcasting. The new recipe, announced a couple of weeks ago in Britain, supposedly to bring things back up, is in effect to keep giving people what they have heard already.
So we can’t really look forward to much Dan Treanor, who has certainly found a lot more that many have never heard of, since his music germinated in the heyday of Harris and the long-haired days of Peel. The opening sounds on this CD are vocal, apparently African, before the performance turns orthodoxly bluesy. Whistle Test came to mind at once, because of the extraordinary closeness of the riffing harmonica figure with which Treanor opens “From African Soul” to the Whistle Test theme.
“Burden of Blues” is described as “Deltic Blues”, presumably unaware that there was once in Britain a “Deltic” class of steam locomotives (known about by males of a certain few generations). It’s not a train blues, though; the title conflates Delta and Celtic, as in Delta Blues and Irish culture (I can think of no more Irish name than Dan Treanor!). The fact that the band’s music is called by boss Treanor “Afrosippi Blues” should raise no eyebrows. The Scottish drummer and all-rounder John Rae did, after all, present an “Afro-Celt Ensemble” at the 2005 Edinburgh Jazz Festival, and one of the three or four major “classic” ragtime composers, Joseph Lamb, was an Irish-American. So why shouldn’t Treanor play dobro, banjo, ngoni, diddley bow, and cane flute and essay a sort of link music between African and blues?
“Mississippi Fred’s Dream” threads or even Freds into the musical performance a statement by the great McDowell, recorded on a loop with a slight, as light stutter-repetitions, to the effect that “I do not play no rock and roll . . . . [etc.]”. Before the African instruments and Hammond B3 get going on something between Blues and Gospel/ R&B, the intro echoes the Mississippi drum and fife band recorded on the same field trip which first recorded ole Fred.
“You Shot the Gun” is described as in the old school style of Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell: actually mis-described, severely but wholly benignly. Professor Beckstein emulates rather Otis Spann, Little Johnny Jones, or Eddie Boyd in a style like the guitarist and singer’s more recent and more rocking—but no rock and roll. That’s nearer what you’ll hear on the preceding track, a Dr.John-ish “What You Gonna Do?”. “The Goat and the Chicken” is, by contrast, Grand Ole Opry, what people who hate country music call ‘gnashville’.
“Tumblin’ Blues” adapts the old “Rollin’ and Tumblin’”, adding a few stock blues verses. Rex Peoples sings as ever in almost gospel style, and there’s some organ in the background, harmonica and especially blues guitar in the accompaniment. Back comes Reverend Peoples again after the opening monologue on “The 13th Amendment” has discussed the great name-shift of the 1860s, after which slavery continued for many under another name. Peoples is a righteous singer, and after the title track “Mercy” has created an impression of blues to come, it’s back again to more a Golden Gate Quartet or Five Blind Boys of Alabama style. “Standing in the Shadows” starts with B.B. King-ian sentimental guitar and is described as a rare example of the “beautiful blues ballad”, with doo-wop singers. I presume Christine Webb is the singer, but the genre’s again definitely churchy, with a blues into gospel solo from the pianist, followed by a gospel back into blues one from the guitarist. “Tonight’s the Night” starts like blues, but there’s a vocal choir after the first verse, followed by an interlude with Treanor playing blues harp.
Would you believe “Queen of the Dance Hall Girls” is more Hillbilly? Track 13 starts with older blues guitar, which slips into a style first heard more recently, just as Mr. Peoples and other peoples start singing in what’s called “Field Hollar [sic] #1” the phrase “Ain’t nobody but me, Lord”.
“Rock me Baby” is more churchy than usual, with presumably Randy Mrugala doing the latter-day blues guitar thing, and Beckstein on Hammond B-3 taking a solo and churning up a storm. And then there’s the spoken narration of Nii Armah Sowah, about heat and a baobab tree and a “Trickster”, with African instruments playing as we hear about hippo, hyena, humans. There is background music, provided by Rex Peoples and the rest of the band. It tells a different tale of the birth of the blues than my mama done tole me
At least the “special track”, the unlisted sixteenth one, is announced, and dedicated to “all of our friends”, and presumably you too if you buy this CD, since buyers also get a dedication. If you don’t buy it, but have puzzled that the pianist and one of the guest percussionists are listed as playing on a track 16, puzzle no more. The style’s a melange of jazz and blues influences, Peoples singing, nice guitar. But surely it’s rather self-effacing to single out track sixteen as a special track for people who will have bought the CD. I’m sure Dan Treanor and his musicians made an effort to create sixteen special tracks for buyers. And friends. For whom else would he make any such effort?