Thursday, 28 July 2011

Young At Hart

Published in the August issue of Rhythms Magazine, 2011

Alvin Youngblood Hart

I first discovered modern US bluesman Alvin Youngblood Hart, about six years ago when I first began working for Rhythms, kicking shit behind the scenes, raiding Brian Wise’s immense stash of promo records in lieu of payment.  One of the absolute gems I found in there was an album called Motivational Speaker, and because the cover appealed to me, I bagged it and took it home.  It was later on then, once I threw it on the CD player, that I found Hart, and I became an instant fan.

Motivational Speaker was a departure of sorts for Hart, being as it was quite a rock ‘n’ roll influenced work, which isn’t far off his radar, but was certainly something different to what he’d released in the past: the acoustic blues of Big Mama’s Door in 1996; the grab-bag of American-influenced tunes that made up Territory in ’98 (an album which netted Hart the Downbeat Magazine critics award for Best Blues Album and a WC Handy Award for Best Newcomer); Start With The Soul, which he recorded with Jim Dickinson in 2000, plus a host of blues-influenced side-projects with various other musical luminaries.  So Motivational Speaker was a departure, but it was one which grabbed me just right.

It’s also an album which stands as Hart’s last recorded work under his own name.  Six years without a record is a long time by anyone’s standards, although as Hart attests, it’s not like there hasn’t been a valid reason.  “Are you familiar with the Ford Motor Company product called the Edsel?” he asks, resignation evident in his voice.  “It was this car they released in the late ‘50s and they had this big publicity push for it, and it was a disaster.  So I kinda equate Motivational Speaker with the Edsel.  Except there was no big publicity push, that was the problem.”

Hart goes on to say how his record company at the time told him they didn’t have the money to properly promote the record (whilst simultaneously trying to sign other, in their eyes, more lucrative acts), and so the record became somewhat of a failure as a result.  “That took a lot out of me, I guess,” Hart muses.  I imagine it would have – the record was as solid as a rock, and for me at least, it formed the basis of my love of his music.  “Well, that’s one [who likes it],” he laughs.

As a result, coupled with the fact the industry is changing so rapidly making it tricky indeed to release in the traditional sense, Hart hasn’t dropped anything of his own since, whether it be solo or with his band, Muscle Theory.  What he has been doing though, in addition to his rigorous touring regime (which sees him playing regularly around his hometown of Memphis, and also New Orleans, as well as the rest of the States and Europe) is banding together with other like-minded souls, and there have been some interesting results.

Firstly, The South Memphis String Band, a jug band of sorts comprising Hart, legendary guitarist Jimbo Mathus (Squirrel Nut Zippers) and North Mississippi Allstar, Luther Dickinson.  “Yeah, we started officially about two years ago,” he drawls.  “Unofficially, we’d been talking about it for a couple of years prior to that.  For me, it was something that I had planned for a few years, I just didn’t know who with.  I guess for the three of us, the timing was just right where none of the three of us were really doing anything, so we were like, ‘Hey, lets give this a shot’.

“We didn’t even have a set or anything and we already had gigs booked,” he goes on with a laugh.  “I recall our first gig was in Dallas, I think, so we’re driving across Arkansas trying to rehearse songs in the van.  But we’ve got a fair amount of stuff together now.”  The union quickly yielded results with the low-key release of Home Sweet Home.  “Yeah, that was towards the end of 2009,” Hart says.  It should also be noted that these three musical layabouts also have an electric incarnation of the String Band, Loose Shoes.  “Oh yeah, I don’t really remember how that came about,” says Hart.

“We were just messing around in Jimbo’s studio one day and he had a couple of songs and he asked if we minded playing on then,” he goes on.  “So we switched instruments and played these tracks… and we recorded a few of ‘em.”  Whether or not these will eventually get released is in the lap of the gods, but you can live in hope.  In the meantime, Hart will grace Australian shores with his presence later this month, in solo mode, and he is actually working on some new material, as he tells.
“Maybe next year I’ll be able to put something together,” he muses.  “Most of them [the songs] are kinda rock tunes, you know?  There are a couple already that I’m trying to write for both formats (solo and band), try and play them different ways.”

We also live in hope of another Alvin Youngblood Hart record, although holding your breath wouldn’t be recommended.  That’s no drama though, because what’s the hurry?  For this modern bluesman, it’s about the music and where it takes you, time be damned.

Samuel J. Fell

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