Various Artists: The Story of Tone-Cool, Vol. 1

Robert R. Calder

Various Artists

The Story of Tone-Cool, Vol. 1

Label: Artemis

This 50th release from Tone-Cool, a two-CD sampler derived from the previous 49, indicates a very strong contemporary blues catalogue. The one complaint concerns how long either CD can be played continuously without suffering the jolts of drastic stylistic contrast. But when this is good blues it is very, very good blues.

Susan Tedeschi's "It Hurt so Bad" opens with what I'd call Rock & Roll, a rolling style later half-drowned by noise and intensity but with its own more widely musical virtues. North Mississippi Allstars do a serviceable "Shake 'em on Down" with good slide guitar and ensemble vocals. Rick Holmstrom's "Pee Wee's Nightmare" begins with electronics then imposes Memphis guitar circa 1954 Ike Turner/ Willie Johnson, the circuitry simulating the old Sun studio echo, hinting at a kind of sci-fi zydeco. Hobex on "Playin' Games" seem to be larking around with soul music, but with more good mean old guitar. On "Is it Love?", Todd Thibaud sounds like Alan Price's Northumbrian (North East English) band of long ago, the Animals. Double Trouble survives a wa-wa opening on "Say One Thing" to sound a little like Little Milton Campbell, though without his sometime lapses of taste. Bernard Allison's "Storms of Life" lets me make a serious point, which is that some of this music which isn't exactly blues pur is following up ideas which went less into blues as recorded by the 1950s Veejay, JOB, Chess, and other labels, than into gospel music and its secular successor called "soul/ R&B". I suppose it's quite literally blues roots music.

Fifty years back, the sort of guitar Rick Holmstrom plays here began to develop (e.g., the slender young B.B. King) in a way harmonically more European if rhythmically more African -- certainly becoming more remote from white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, in line with the influence of bebop and other styles in jazz. Going back to this ancient rootstock, consciously or not, has created a new inspiration. In fact Bernard Allison here sounds quite seriously religious in the attitude to life implied by his song; and why not?

On "Moving to the Country", Paul Rinshell & Annie Raines sing a melody not too far from church, to an electric guitar figure based on the 1920s Jackson blues of Tommy Johnson. Of Rod Piazza's storming "Who Knows What's Goin' On", I have nothing negative to say. Piazza singing through his harp sounds as if he is on the other end of a telephone line, and the phone-call as a genre has a long history of at least metaphorical blues-singing. A very polished melange of American folk music techniques makes Susan Tedeschi's "Blues on a Holiday" an interesting puzzle, incredibly close to Paul Rishell's performance of the same item later in the set. Once would have been enough, though. "Sugartown" by the North Mississippi Allstars is, alas, self-indulgence in guitar distortion.

11th Hour Band's "UFO Alert" features harmonica guitar and ensemble stomping like the best. Having long wondered what happened to George Mayweather, I can report that his music -- while not gospelly -- is extreme good news: his blues harp playing was indeed under-recorded when he was younger, and the chance to hear more now can give an impression that if he ever wasn't a very considerable artist he is one now. By showing themselves able to follow that mighty harpist on great form, the James Montgomery Band on Elmore James' (but even more Sonny Boy Williamson II) "Yonder's Wall" lay a big claim to attention. On "Get Down with the Blues", Tony Z moves nearer the Age of Kings (Riley, Albert, Freddie) and Monster Mike Welch ("Freezer Burn") is guitar-wise somewhere on the happy 1954 cusp.

"Honkytonk Forgiveness" by Johnny Hoy and the Bluefish does jar with me -- sorry, cowboys, but I live in Scotland 10 miles from a place called the Grand Old Opry and some things will always present problems. Accomplished as it is, the sophisticated soul of Toni Lynn Washington's "Good Things Come to Those Who Wait" just doesn't fit the overall context, either.

The Love Dogs "Big and Hot" has a rocking appeal like that of Big Joe Turner on Imperial and Atlantic, and while the pianist doesn't sound like anybody I heard with Big Joe, the great man would surely have been delighted to have such an accompanist (could Tone-Cool tell me who 'tis?). On "Rockin' at the Riverside", Mack Hummel gives more testimony to claims that harmonica in the blues is alive and well, with another case of piano power behind him which bids me overleap Terrance Simien's curiously Caribbean Cajun or swamp reggae waltz to wonder what David Maxwell's reputedly OtisSpannian CD is like. Maxwell's sample here is in a Professor Longhair vein but with an engineering balance I have pined for in listening to old classics by such other New Orleanians as Archibald. I can really hear everything I want to! On "Blues on a Holiday", Rod Piazza's honey of a pianist sounds terrific, and with a less flowing and (needs to be!) more rhythmic right hand would make me reach for superlatives -- not far away when I hear Piazza and the Mighty Flyers rounding off the party with yet more of the hot blues stomp music featured on a collection which at once endears Tone-Cool to me. Instant old friends! I have not had time these several years to keep up with contemporary blues or Tone-Cool, and somebody who knew the overall catalogue could no doubt make firm separate recommendations. Mine ears did hear the glory long ago, and there are times here when to joyful amazement they tell me they hear it again, and yes, indeed yes.

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