Various Artists: The Future of the Blues, Vol. 2

Various Artists
The Future of the Blues, Vol. 2
Northern Blues

This CD is presented as an advance sampler of a new Canadian label. The titles of both label and sampler CD are on the misleading side, for to call the music here “blues” — and extend that name to the catalogue — is, judging from present evidence, to stretch things far beyond the breaking point. In German the word “sampler” is misused to mean simply “anthology”. If a little Mississippi town had five competent minor bluesmen who could deliver a total of, say, 12 performances distinctive and worth listening to, the CD of those 12 titles (such as actually exists in a few cases) would be comprehensive and complete. In modern German it would still be called a “sampler”.

More items played by the same men, if not hackneyed like imitations, would have to be something else, like pop songs played not all that well. The local blues performer characteristically played a small repertoire well, and a wider repertoire like current pop hundreds or more others could deliver probably better. Buddy Guy even plays such things as “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction”, in the course of which he gives very little satisfaction to the listener. Howlin’ Wolf’s “Built for Comfort” is part of a wider repertoire of songs blues performers can deliver as their own, touching the fringe but not going beyond blues expression. With a few exceptions blues performers haven’t been adaptable, but short of settling for imitation more generally versatile artistes have very rarely performed blues in any emulation of tradition-steeped specialists.

Blues can develop only so far. The notion that every genre is susceptible to equal development dies when the supposed development turns into something else — or everything else and nothing in particular. One does not join some supposed blues police by noticing in various performances the lack of the specific depths blues has. On this presentation — which has capsule publicity blurbs for the 14 CDs sampled here — a little blues turns up beside examples which might be called pop or rock or world or R&B or mélanges of some of these, etc. The opening track by Taxi Chain bursts on the ears with electric organ, but possibly something has gone wrong with the balance. The vocal is barely audible. The blurb speaks of Celtic and other influences in the music of this band’s CD, which is also reported as somewhere featuring bagpipes. It does indeed seem likely that the music is, in the blurb-writer’s word, “unclassifiable”.

For the rest. David Jacobs-Strain is a folksy guitarist-singer with pop drumming and other backing coming in; there’s blues harp with Dan Traynor and Frankie Lee, but bass-heavy soul-reggae backing dominates, as on the composite music of Glamour Puss, and indeed the mixture of raga and rockabilly on the sampling from the Kevin Breit and Harry Manx CD. This last goes rockabilly after Manx’s slide guitar solo. The dominant presence is not Muddy Waters, except maybe on some slide guitar licks, but murky bass, over-emphatic unless the music’s considered only in relation to certain dancing purposes.

Janiva Magness sings a sort of rockabilly blues, again bass-heavy in the band. Carlos del Junco may be a brilliant blues harmonica player, but electronically boosted drums (bang!) don’t enhance his (bang!) cover of a (bang!) Little Walter song. Don’t shoot the drummer; just flick the off-switch.

A human drummer seems to be in the band with piano behind and always in danger of overpowering John Dickie’s vocal (John and the Sisters). The notes recall Captain Beefheart and advise playing this loud. Why? The band is plainly doing that already. Honest brass and neo-boogie piano assault the rock vocal of JW-Jones. Little Richard did this sort of thing better, but some of the blurbs suggest this is really coverage of music played regularly in parts of Canada. Ears also don’t suggest it’s played better there than in other countries.

It would be more to the point to forget this very varied and not necessarily very interesting CD — unless as something to check beside reviews of the individual discs sampled. The label does also seem to favour a level of processing quite at odds with what attracted listeners to Howlin’ Wolf and Jimmy Reed singles 40 years ago. Nobody had overproduced their brief dates.

It is refreshing here to land on acoustic guitar in emulation of Big Bill Broonzy, with a bassist accompanying Teri Lee Washington doing a soul-gospel influenced “Back Water Blues”. It’s fine when the piano joins in, and the drums. Then there’s soul brass, OK, and the guitar seems to have been plugged into an amplifier. The guitarist is plainly a capable blues player, in what isn’t at all a bad blues band, with some trumpet obligato later on. The build-up of excessively loud drums gives a sinking feeling of predictability. The balance may be deliberately achieved, but that don’t mean it ain’t bad.

Paul Reddick allegedly has an “ability to interpret the flavours and imagery of pre-war blues into a fresh new sound”. He sings with a lot of echo — in fact altogether an excess of it. With the later entry of organ and guitar and harmonica, saccharine covers any finer flavours I might have missed before.

James Cohen plays acoustic guitar in a mélange of Django Reinhardt and flamenco and something jazzy. Hints of Klezmer even. The pianist plays some amusing nonsense on an item from an instrumental set. Could be a fun (genre: musical fun) CD?

Brian Blain apparently plays acoustic guitar and half-sings, half-talks with occasional support from a small lady chorus. There’s a jazzy sort of pianist and an alto saxophonist apparently expert and on the lyrical side (wonder who?). A piece of whimsy with some 1920s echoes. Eddie Turner seems to have blues ambitions but the background — I’m starting to feel like a prophet of doom! — overproduced. It winds up swamping him. I wonder what he and the ladies (or multi-tracked lady) who join in are singing. This is not to be confused with the regional excellence of Louisiana on at least one other company’s album entitled Swamp Blues. Connoisseurs of John Lee Hooker may remember the out-of-synch overdubs of his vocal added to some titles on the Modern label (I heard one such track in a shop and the assistant thought there was something wrong with his equipment). There is also a very good old Hooker album on that defunct label, with the sleeve advertising a Christmas record of chimes; one track on the disc has the same chimes dubbed on one Hooker track. Crazy, but not so remote from what turns up here.

“Burning at the Feet of the Lord” by John and the Sisters is unissued elsewhere, and has electric guitar played very loud, and organ, and the overdone bass/drums (sorry, am I shouting?) which this company seems to think a real enhancement.

My, it’s nice to get out from under that into silence. This sampler doesn’t seem to represent anybody in particular. The title is as I say rubbish, as even the little blurbs printed in the fold-out box seem to acknowledge. Booming bottoms apart, there’s certainly more variety in those other things which here take the place of what got added to blues recordings certainly in the 1960s. Aficionados were mortified at the time and fumed about commercialization. The truth was that sales of the great men were dropping and nothing more was involved than an effort to break even. The blues certainly would have had no future if nobody had been playing the music. I don’t blame the Brodsky Quartet for not playing the blues, but nobody should think that very much blues is being played here either.

RATING 3 / 10