Monday, 25 March 2013

Record Review - Alice Russell

Published in the April edition of The Big Issue.

To Dust
Alice Russell
[three and a half stars]

Coming to notice early in her career via collaborations with Quantic, Bah Samba and Nostalgia 77 in the early 2000s (and more recently with Fatboy Slim and David Byrne), British singer Alice Russell has slowly but steadily risen through the ranks of blue-eyed soul music. She’s also released a series of strong solo records, the latest of which is To Dust, a solid fusion of old and new. The pithy ‘A to Z’ opens the affair, its laidback funk shimmer melding well with a sharp pop edge. It lays a foundation for the rest of the album – that marriage of old-school and modern – but that balancing act never gets in the way of what the album is really about: Russell’s voice. It will no doubt draw comparisons to Adele’s, but where Russell stamps her own mark is how easy she makes it sound. Whether slow and simple (the horn-laden ‘Twin Peaks’) or free-flowing and powerful (the gritty ‘Heartbreaker’), Russell makes it clear that she’s at the forefront of the new soul movement.

Samuel J. Fell

Friday, 22 March 2013

Feature - Ben Harper & Charlie Musselwhite

Published in the March issue of Rhythms. Full feature below.

Get Down!

Towards the end of last year, I found myself in Sydney, covering the Blues Festival for Rhythms, and conducting some live Q&As – relaxed, intimate chats with artists on the bill, out in the sunshine in front of an appreciative audience, a fine way to spend a few hours amidst the noise and bustle of an event like that one.

One of my favourite interviews occurred on the last day – none other than Mr. Charlie Musselwhite, a bona fide blues legend, and one of the last original cats still left on the scene. Sure, not as high profile as some of his contemporaries, but a behemoth to those of us in the know.

He came wandering out into the grassy yard where we were conducting the interviews, strolling through the crowd with his wife, who introduced herself to me, before beckoning Charlie over. “Charlie’s the name, harmonica’s the game,” he said to me with a smile, his eyes twinkling, laconic and animated all at once. A better introduction one could not give oneself – it certainly grabbed me just right.

We sat in the small pagoda, which was serving as a stage, and chatted for around twenty minutes. We spoke about Musselwhite’s relationship with the great John Lee Hooker. We talked about him touring Australia. We chatted about what keeps him motivated, 46 years into his career. And we also spoke of one, Ben Harper. Perhaps an odd topic of conversation, but again, to those of us in the know, a poignant one indeed.

Ben Harper has been coming to Australia, and Bluesfest, since 1996. Indeed, it was his performance at Bluesfest back in ’96 that introduced this now superstar to the world. It was Harper’s music that triggered the ‘roots’ wave that engulfed all, back around ten years ago, spawning the likes of Xavier Rudd, Jack Johnson, John Butler, Donovan Frankenreiter, G Love and countless others. Through all that though, Harper has proven he’s no one trick pony, and has reinvented, reinvigorated and renewed not only his own music, but another generation’s appreciation for music made well before their time. Namely, the blues.

Over the past few months, I’ve spoken to Harper a couple of times – over the phone, certainly not in the convivial surrounds of a grassy yard in Windsor, just outside of Sydney. We covered a lot during these two conversations though – his love of the blues; the release of a ballady Best Of, By My Side; his first ever solo tour (last November); and Charlie Musselwhite. Again, that connection. Strange? Not in the slightest.

“He’s one of the last men standing in the American blues tradition,” enthuses Harper on Musselwhite, a man he obviously ardently admires. And with good reason, for it’s Musselwhite with whom Harper has just recorded yet another album, the bluesy, soul-infused Get Up!, which sees an old master teaching a young innovator a few tricks, no doubt about that.

Before we get ahead of ourselves however, we need to go back in time somewhat, to where this connection developed, to find out how these two came to be friends, and how they came to put this record, which bridges two generations of the blues, together.

“Charlie and I connected in 1995, when I was opening for John Lee Hooker,” Harper remembers fondly. “Oh man, I remember John Lee coming into my dressing room, and I’m thinking, ‘Oh man! My career can’t possibly get any higher than this!’

“Then we connected again at [Bluesfest], not long afterwards, that was the second time we connected. Then in about 1998, John Lee contacted Charlie and I to record with him on the same song (‘Burnin’ Hell’, from the Best Of Friends record, 1998), so we recorded that, and it was between the first time Charlie and I met and then, that Charlie and I formed a deep friendship. So we’ve been talking about making this record ever since we first met, so it’s been damn near 20 years in the making.”

“Both of us were finally off the road at the same time,” Harper says, explaining why Get Up!, recorded last year, has taken so long to come together. “Oh my goodness!  He called me and said, ‘What are you doing?’, and I said, ‘Waiting for you to tell me it’s time’. He said, ‘I think it might be time, I’m comin’ down to LA’, so I said, ‘All right’. So I got us a spot to record… and we just dug in, and I’ve gotta tell you, I’ve never been a part of making a record where it felt like the music was just out there waiting for you to just jump inside it and drive it.”

That’s almost two decades of pent-up blues energy just exploding there – these sessions must have just burst forth. “Well, let me give you an example in a lyric,” smiles Harper. “You know it’s bad when the ceiling says to the floor / I’ll trade you places, I can’t take it up here no more / I’m a living nervous habit, I tremble and I twitch / You keep on pullin’ at me like I’m some kinda hangin’ stitch / Don’t look twice, don’t look twice / Be glad your worries ain’t like mine, don’t look twice.”

Enough said.

“It’s blues, but it’s not like traditional Chicago blues,” smiled Musselwhite during our Sydney interview, on the music contained within Get Up!. “It’s kinda like a new way of being traditional, it’s new blues, it’s current blues. We had a really good time working together, it was a lot of fun.”

The majority of that interview is distorted – modern technology letting us down – but it comes back in just as I ask Musselwhite, as I’d asked Harper the week before, if he’d learnt anything from his musical partner of the time. “No,” deadpanned Musselwhite, much to the delight of the crowd. “Not musically anyway, it’s not like he said, ‘Charlie, you should really play it like this’. But I just listened to the lyrics, I listened to the form of the tune, figured out how I could add to it, and away we went.”

“Oh man, he basically deconstructed and reconstructed my sense of melody and timing,” Harper had replied to the same question the week before. “I’ve been in sessions since the Charlie record, and I play different. I can feel myself playing and phrasing differently from having played with [him]. He’s the John Coltrane of his instrument, he’s the greatest living harmonica player, and one of the greatest who [ever lived], it’s like a horn section. You’ve just gotta take notes.”

With Get Up!, the blues has crossed a generation, something it needs to do in order to survive, something it needs to do for the good of music everywhere. With Charlie Musselwhite still going strong, and Ben Harper not likely to relinquish his rabid hold over any music he can sink his teeth into, the blues my friends, is in good hands indeed.

Samuel J. Fell

Get Up! is available now through ABC Music / Universal.  Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite play the West Coast Blues & Roots Festival March 24, and Bluesfest March 28. Ben Harper plays Bluesfest (solo) March 29.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Feature - Blind Boys Of Alabama

Published in the March issue of Rhythms, as part of the Gospel/Soul feature.

The Light Shines On

Seventy-four years ago, at the Institute For The Negro Blind in Talladega, Alabama, a gospel group was formed, The Happyland Jubilee Singers, a clutch of nine-year-olds with a penchant for song, and a love of this old, old style of church music.

A few years went by, the group played their first professional gig in the early ‘40s, they changed their name to the Blind Boys Of Alabama, and the rest, as they say, is history. For now, almost eight decades down the track, the Blind Boys are one of the longest enduring musical groups in modern history, a gospel powerhouse whose shows are nothing short of ethereal, their vocal harmonies likely to melt even the stoniest of hearts.

One of those nine-year-olds, back in 1939, was one Jimmy Carter. Carter is still with the group today, and along with fellow founding member Clarence Fountain (who rarely performs with them these days, due to health reasons), is the only surviving original Blind Boy. Today, Carter is backed by Bishop Billy Bowers and Ben Moore, along with added vocals from guitarist Joey Williams and drummer Ricky McKinnie. Tracy Pierce brings the bass, and Peter Levin the organ. It’s a tight outfit, and despite the advanced ages of the singers – particularly Carter – they lose nothing. You’d almost lay some money on the fact they’d outperform Iggy pop. Almost.

And what’s kept them going all this time? The music itself, gospel music. “Yeah, gospel music is the kind of music that reaches to the heart of man, and we just try to sing the songs to make you feel good,” says drummer McKinnie, who most often speaks on behalf of the group, and who has been there since 1990. “That’s what we do – we try to make you feel glad, even if you feel sad.”

“Well, if you come and see the Blind Boys this time, you gonna see some new songs,” McKinnie relates when asked what they’re up to, on stage, at this point in their career. “And we’ve had a country record come out, it’s called Take The High Road (2011), we’ll sing some songs off that, we’ll sing some a capella songs… we just wanna have a great time.”

If you’ve ever seen the Blind Boys play, you know they have a good time – it’s all guitarist Williams can do to get Carter to sit down for a minute, such is his ebullience at performing in front of such adoring crowds. And that’s who they play for – I defy you to see them sing live, and not fall in love with them, their ethos, this divine music.

Gospel music is an extremely old form of music, its roots going back to the 19th century and beyond. It is, of course, earthed in the traditions of the church, and it most commonly these days, still retains those themes. It’s also a form of music that prominently features vocals, most often in harmony, and none (or very few) do it better than the Blind Boys. This has been recognised the world over, a fact highlighted by the amount of collaboration the group has done over the past two decades.

“Yeah, that’s right, we do a lot more collaborating these days, than before I joined,” explains McKinnie. “And it’s always good to know that people [enjoy] your music… and it’s also good to know that your music is still popular with the people. We’ve had the opportunity to work with Aaron Neville, Susan Tedeschi, Bonnie Raitt, Dr John, just so many great people.”

I feel it’d be remiss of me not to mention the fantastic There Will Be A Light record the group did with Ben Harper in 2004, which would have introduced the Blind Boys to an entirely new, younger, audience. “Yeah, that’s right,” concurs McKinnie. “We actually got the opportunity to do a couple of songs, and ended up doing a whole CD, and that was great, our hats are off to Ben Harper.”

Everyone else’s hats are off to the Blind Boys Of Alabama. That they have been able to move from a group of children, to the group the are today, spreading their song across generations, continents, races, religions and musical genres, speaks volumes for how important this group is to music today. And despite their ages, there’s no end in sight for these monsters of gospel music.

“Oh no, no end in sight,” McKinnie smiles. “We’ll continue to pray that people enjoy it, the Blind Boys and our music. We just wanna keep comin’, and as long as you want to hear us, we want to come there and sing for you.” Can’t get much better than that.

By Samuel J. Fell

Take The High Road is available now through Saguaro Road Records. The Blind Boys Of Alabama play Bluesfest March 30.

Friday, 15 March 2013

Profile - Tony Joe White

Published in the March issue of Rhythms.

Swamp Thang

“I play a bit wilder on the guitar when it’s just me and drums. I don’t know what it is, but I’ve always played that way… if I have a band with me, I don’t play nearly as wild.”

So says The Swamp Fox. Mr Tony Joe White. His deep, heavy drawl echoes over phone lines as he muses on playing with keyboardists and not, and you can picture him somewhere in Louisiana, perhaps in a wooden shack with guitars hangin’ on the walls.

“We’re workin’ on a new record at the moment, we’ve got about ten or 15 songs, we’re lookin’ to play some of these new ones [at Bluesfest]. The new record though, I don’t think it’ll be out ‘til about June. But we’re lookin’ forward to doing these tunes on stage and lettin’ people know where I’ve been.”

Tony Joe White has been everywhere over the past 45 years. He’s been in places others can only dream of – having his songs covered by Elvis and Joe Cocker, Ray Charles and Tina Turner. Some of his songs have become larger than life – ‘Rainy Night In Georgia’, ‘Polk Salad Annie’ – and it’s the songs which keep him going, which fuel his drive, that get him out of bed every day.

“It’s the songs man, writing. This last year I’ve been on a streak of songs, I don’t know where they come from, up above or wherever… I always thought, if I quit writin’, then I go fishin’. The songs come to me and I get to play ‘em, they’ve been recorded by some of my heroes, Tina Turner, Waylon and people like that… and not only that, but usually they call me and want me to come to the sessions and play guitar and harmonica, so I’m a part of it – it’s a double barrel shotgun.”

One particular song White wrote, or co-wrote, was ‘Goin’ Down Rockin’. He wrote it with the legendary Waylon Jennings, who not long afterwards recorded the guitar and vocals for that and a number of other songs. Jennings then died, in 2002, but those songs have been brought back to life, added to by a host of musical royalty, and released on the Waylon Jennings: Goin’ Down Rockin’ – The Final Recordings album, dropping last year. Tony Joe White, of course, plays on the title track they wrote together.

“Waylon had been in the hospital and he came out to the house to hang out, play a little bit, get his chops back, and this tune just kinda popped up. He had this great rhythm going on with his guitar… and after he died, we were able to find that recording and bring it back with ProTools and add my guitar and drums and bass to him, it sounds like he was right there in the room. And he was, really. And it was no problem at all… it was all spontaneous, it all came together, it sounds like we’d just cut it together that day.”

“What I remember most about Waylon, is the friendship lasting over the years, starting in the ‘70s, and early ‘80s,” White remembers of his old friend. “He came to me one day in Memphis, I was living there, he pulled up in his Cadillac and said, ‘I’ve got something in the back of the trunk that I wanna show you man’. He said, ‘Don’t you play Strats?’ I say, ‘Yeah’. He said, ‘Well, I hate Stratocasters’, cos he plays Telecasters. And he pulled out this old, brown case, it was under his amps, someone had found it [somewhere]. He said, ‘Can you take this off my hands?’ I said, ‘Waylon, that’s a ’58 Strat!’ He said, ‘I know, get it outta my car… I don’t like ‘em’. So I’ve still got it.”

White doesn’t take that old guitar on the road, it stays at home given it’s so valuable, but it doesn’t make no never mind – as long as White has got the songs and the urge to play ‘em, he’ll be traveling and performing, him and a drummer, fuzzing and burning well into the night, just like he’s always done.

As he mentioned, he’s working on a new record, it’ll be out towards the middle of the year, and so things are good for The Swamp Fox – there could even be another 45 years left in him. “You know man, who can say about years, or time, or anything like that. I never thought ‘Rainy Night In Georgia’ would last this long, and now Boz Scaggs just cut it, three weeks ago. Like I said, if I stop writing, [then] I’ll go to the lake.”

Samuel J. Fell

Waylon Jennings: The Last Recordings is available now through Saguaro Road Recordings.  Tony Joe White plays Bluesfest March 31 and April 1.