The idea behind Telarc’s Beatles tribute The Blues White Album was a pretty good one. After all, The White Album was the most blues-tinged album in the Beatles’ catalog, so why not put out an album that re-explores that blues influence? Some decent talent was rounded up, ranging from guitar ace Jimmy Thackery, to Lucky Peterson, to chanteuse Maria Muldaur, to harmonica virtuoso Charlie Musselwhite, but the end result is an album that is, aside from a couple of instances, an unmitigated failure. These are Beatles songs here. How in the world could a bunch of talented musicians mess this up so badly?
Of the three Paul McCartney covers, only one isn’t a complete disaster. Jimmy Thackery and The Drivers’ version of Paul’s raunchy romp “Why Don’t We Do It In the Road?” is completely by-the-numbers, hardly a re-interpretation at all, and is just a chance for Thackery to noodle away at his guitar, but at least it’s performed with some semblance of energy. Still, you get the feeling that he and his band are going through the motions. Maria Muldaur’s blasé rendition of “Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da” is not only a highly questionable choice for a blues album, but also sounds like very little effort and feeling was put into the performance. The backing band, featuring guitarist Chris Duarte, tries to add a smooth, Memphis soul touch to the song, only to sound saccharine and phony. And Canadian blues artist Colin Linden’s terrible cover of “Blackbird” is like everything we’ve heard before. Everyone has covered “Blackbird” in the past, and nothing about this bland rendition makes it stick out from all the countless others.
Justifiably, there are five John Lennon songs on The Blues White Album. After all, John knew the blues better than his other three bandmates, and much of his best work came on The White Album. It’s too bad nobody on this CD could sound as genuine as Lennon did in 1968. Lucky Peterson’s vocals on “Yer Blues” try way, way, way too hard to sound desperate, and in the end sound cliched, and the song’s slow blues churn hardly comes close to matching the intensity of the original. Swedish artist Anders Osborne tackles “Happiness Is a Warm Gun”, playing the thing note for note. If the blues is an art form best heard in a live setting, why on earth did Osborne record all the instruments himself? It’s a trainwreck of a song, again, completely lacking in feeling (notice a pattern?). Kenny Neal, Lucky Peterson, and Tab Benoit try to add some funk to “Revolution”, and Chris Duarte tries to equate the lugubriousness of Lennon’s original version of “I’m So Tired”, and neither work well at all. Colin Linden and Charlie Musselwhite provide an instrumental version of “Dear Prudence”, and though Musselwhite’s harmonica playing sounds great, the rest of the band sounds generic.
The one song that does work is Joe Louis Walker’s cover of George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”. The song is slowed right down to a somber, elegiac pace, as Walker brings in some welcome emotion to both his vocals and his lead guitar playing. The song goes on for eight lovely minutes, and, unfortunately, gives us merely a fleeting glimpse at how good this album could have been.
Part of the blame has to go to the backing band, led by guitarist G.E. Smith. I’ve never been a fan of Smith’s playing, going back to his days as the preening bandleader on Saturday Night Live and his role as Bob Dylan’s musical director over a decade ago; he has always come off as skilled, but completely lacking in soul, and while most of the lead singers try their best to bring some feeling into these songs, it’s Smith and his cohorts who bring things crashing down with their blues-meets-Muzak (Bluzak?) sound. Why not have some really great young talent like the North Mississippi All-Stars tackle a song or two? Instead, we’re stuck with some horrendous version of Blues Lite.
The Blues White Album should have worked better than this. After listening to the album, what you ultimately realize, ironically, is what a great blues band the Beatles really were at times. If you hear this CD, go put the original White Album on right after, and listen to four 20-something Brits blow these supposed blues experts out of the water. Oh, and the less said about the cover of Ringo’s “Don’t Pass Me By”, the better. Believe me.