Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Cephas & Wiggins – Richmond Blues

“Bowling Green” John Cephas and Phil Wiggins are long-time favorites here on the Bus. The pair has been wowing audiences worldwide with their Piedmont blues since they first met up at the 1976 Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C.

The Piedmont blues, also called the East Coast blues or fingerstyle blues, is a form of the blues unique to the Piedmont region of the Southeastern United States, roughly from Richmond, Virginia to Atlanta, Georgia. The Piedmont blues benefit from influences as varied as ragtime, old time string bands, medicine shows, gospel, and popular music of the turn of the 20th century. For several decades (the 1920s – 1940s), the Piedmont blues were enjoyed nationwide as artists such as Blind Boy Fuller, Josh White, and Blind Blake were making and selling records nearly as fast as the record companies could press them. Blind Boy Fuller’s “Step It Up and Go” sold over half a million copies in 1940, impressive for any record at the time, incredible for a “race” record. The Rev. Gary Davis, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, and Paul Geremia kept the style moving forward in the 1960s.

John Cephas and Phil Wiggins are the preeminent practitioners of the Piedmont blues. Both were born in Washington, D.C., albeit a quarter of a century apart, and both were raised on the traditional music of their families. John first learned the alternating thumb and fingerpicking guitar style that defines the Piedmont blues from his country cousins near Bowling Green in eastern Virginia when he was eight or nine years old. Today, many consider John Cephas the finest Piedmont guitarist of all time.

Together these two brilliant musicians keep the rich heritage of the Piedmont blues alive and vibrant. Their live performances, which I have been fortunate to enjoy on half a dozen occasions, are moving experiences full to the brim with wonderful music and rich history. Their just-released CD, Richmond Blues, from Smithsonian Folkways is a studio collection of their most often requested songs performed with all of the impact of a live concert.

Powerful and immensely entertaining.

Cephas & Wiggins-Key to the Highway.mp3

Cephas & Wiggins-Great Change.mp3

Artist: John Cephas & Phil Wiggins
Artist Website: www.cephasandwiggins.net
Title: Richmond Blues
Label: Smithsonian Folkways
Release Date: July 29, 2008
Available for: purchase or download from: Cephas & Wiggins, Smithsonian Folkways, Smithsonian Global Sound, Amazon.com, Plan 9 Music, or your locally owned record store.

Cephas & Wiggins – “Little School Girl” on stage at the 2007 Smithsonian Folklife Festival

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Buddy Guy – Skin Deep

Founder of Chicago’s legendary Chess Records, Leonard Chess, once called Buddy Guy’s live guitar shows as “motherfucking noise.” Years later, as Buddy Guy was touring England and leaving lasting impressions on young rockers Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Rod Stewart, and the Rolling Stones, Chess would regret not releasing any of Buddy Guy’s ‘noise.’ According to Guy, after he left Chess Records for the prestigious Vanguard label, Leonard Chess told him “...that’s the shit you’ve been trying to sell me for the last 12 years, and now it’s sellin' like hotcakes!"

Buddy Guy’s music has been covered by the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Led Zeppelin, Stevie Ray Vaughan, John Mayall, and many others. His live concerts were full of raw energy with Guy leaping off stacks of amplifiers, playing his guitar with his feet or teeth, or with his guitar behind his back. His stage antics and piercing, note-bending guitar playing were a major influence on Jimi Hendrix.

Skin Deep is the latest from Buddy Guy and is the first in his long career to be composed entirely of original material. Joining Buddy on this outing are some outstanding artists. Robert Randolph adds his funky, soulful pedal steel guitar on the stripped down “Out in the Woods” and “Hammer and Nail.” Susan Tedeschi counts Buddy Guy as a powerful influence on her own guitar playing and she contributes both guitar and her amazing, powerful vocals on “Too Many Tears.” Derek Trucks joins in the album’s moving title cut and Eric Clapton pairs up with Buddy on “Every Time I Sing the Blues.”

After fifty years of playing wild, monstrous guitar, Buddy Guy is still the master. Skin Deep has all of the raw energy of Buddy’s live concerts with just a bit of polish from the studio setting. If only Leonard Chess could have realized that Buddy Guy’s ‘noise’ was still “selling like hotcakes” nearly half a century later.

Steaming Audio from Buddy Guy - Skin Deep:
Bubby Guy – Every Time I Sing the Blues with Eric Clapton

Buddy Guy – Skin Deep with Derek Trucks

Buddy Guy – Best Damn Fool

Artist: Buddy Guy
Artist Website: www.buddyguy.net
Title: Skin Deep
Label: Zomba/Silvertone
Release Date: July 22, 2008
Available for: purchase or download from: Amazon.com, Borders, Barnes & Noble, Plan 9 Music, and your friendly local record store.

Buddy Guy – Skin Deep (video)

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis –
Two Men with the Blues

When a promo copy of Two Men with the Blues appeared in the mailbox, my first thought of the odd pairing was to wonder if Willie had fallen behind on his taxes again and in need of some quick cash. I’ll admit that I wasn’t too sure if this collaboration between Willie and Wynton would have much to offer the discerning listeners on the Bus. The CD has sat on the edge of my desk for several weeks, only getting a serious listen this past weekend.

Actually, the pairing of Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis isn’t as odd as it would first appear. Willie Nelson’s distinctive off-beat vocal phrasing has always had a swinging jazz feel to it. In fact, Willie’s repertoire over the years has included several jazz standards. Besides, country and jazz do have a common ancestor in the blues.

Two Men with the Blues was recorded during a two-night gig at Jazz at Lincoln Center, where Marsalis is the Artistic Director. Willie brought along his long-time sideman, harmonica player Mickey Raphael, and Marsalis was with his Jazz at Lincoln Center quartet. The CD appropriately kicks off with the jazzed-up honky-tonk of “Bright Lights, Big City” then flows flawlessly into Willie’s classic “Night Life.” Eight more standards round out the session.

Although Two Men with the Blues was recorded at a live concert, it is apparent that this was a well rehearsed effort. Given a little thought, it’s not surprising to hear Willie singing these great jazz standards, and Wynton Marsalis and his quartet fall right into Willie’s groove. My early concerns for this collaboration were unfounded. Willie and Wynton have overcome what could have been nothing more than a novelty record and produced an evocative hybrid.

Willie Nelson & Wynton Marsalis - Bright Lights, Big City.mp3

Willie Nelson & Wynton Marsalis - Caldonia.mp3

Artist: Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis
Title: Two Men with the Blues
Label: Blue Note
Release Date: July 8, 2008
Available from: purchase or download from Blue Note (includes a link to iTunes)
Or purchase at your local big box store.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Michael Doucet – From Now On

Michael Doucet is one of the artists responsible for the worldwide enjoyment of the Cajun music of south Louisiana. As the leader of the globally acclaimed Cajun ensemble BeauSoleil, Doucet introduced the world to the unique music of southern Louisiana. BeauSoleil won a GRAMMY award in 1998 for the Best Traditional Folk Album and Michael Doucet received a National Heritage Fellowship award in 2005 from the National Endowment for the Arts for his contributions to American culture and Cajun tradition. Most riders on the Bus are familiar with BeauSoleil from their regular appearances on Garrison Keillor’s ‘Prairie Home Companion.’

From Now On is the latest solo outing from Michael Doucet recorded for the respected Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. The 19 tracks on this CD were recorded without rehearsal, overdubs, or other studio finagling during three sessions in Baton Rouge and Lafayette. Michael plays fiddle, octave violin, guitar, or diatonic accordion on the tracks, accompanied on several tracks by fiddler Mitchell Reed or New Orleans jazz/funk guitarist Todd Duke.

“Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky” opens the CD and sets the tone for the eclectic collection of songs to follow. As to be expected from someone who has such a passion for his native Cajun music, From Now On takes the listener on a musical journey through a collection of wonderful, traditional Cajun tunes and equally amazing numbers from the myriad of musical styles that had profound influence on Cajun music. Doucet’s “Madame Boudreaux” is a reworking of Cajun accordionist Nathan Abshire’s “Mama Rosin”, which was a rework of an early 20th century Cuban tune, “Mama Inez.” Taking Cajun music to it’s deepest roots, “Contredanse de Mamou” is an old Cajun tune that more closely resembles an old world French quadrille than any Cajun tune I have ever heard. The dual fiddles of Doucet and Reed interweave flawlessly on several tracks, but the appropriately titled “Happy One-Step” is especially satisfying. Closing this wonderful collection is the Southern gospel tune turned blue by Reverend Gary Davis and Mississippi Fred McDowell. Michael Doucet presents a moving version on his guitar, singing one verse in Cajun-French to acknowledge the influence of the blues on Cajun music.

The range of music and simple solo, and solo-plus-one makes From Now On a thoroughly satisfying musical endeavor from this ardent champion of Cajun music and culture.

Michael Doucet - Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky.mp3

Michael Doucet - Happy One-Step.mp3

Artist: Michael Doucet
Title: From Now On
Label: Smithsonian Folkways Recordings
Available from: purchase or download from Smithsonian Folkways or Smithsonian Global Sound
Also available from Amazon.com Purchase from Amazon or Download from Amazon.
Or purchase at your favorite local record or book store

Lazy Days of Summer

Lately, real life has kept me busy and the Old Blue Bus has been parked more often than not. While I do miss the daily excursions on the Bus, I have rather enjoyed a summer of gardening and lazy days on the river, rather than hours at the computer every evening. I hope the gentle riders on the Bus will understand and forgive the irregular posting schedule.

One of the down sides of not posting daily is the stacks of new releases that are now towering on my desk. I have received or stumbled across some great new music recently. Over the next week or so the Bus will be exploring some new music from old friends and introduce the riders to a few talented artists you may not have heard of yet.

Enjoy the ride!

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Blackberry Blossom

One of the joys of early summer is the bushes out back, heavy with ripe blueberries and blackberries. This morning we gathered baskets full of succulent berries, sampling the sweet, pump berries as we picked. Soon the kitchen will be filled with the sugary sweet aroma of blueberry pies fresh from the oven and blackberry preserves simmering in the pot.

I don’t know if our good friend and long-time Bus rider, Dan, had been picking berries in Ontario this weekend, or if something else had inspired him to write with an inquiry about the origins of the song “Blackberry Blossom.” Whatever the impetus for the question, the answer would depend on which “Blackberry Blossom” one has in mind.

Named for the delicate white blossoms that precede the delicious fruits, “Blackberry Blossom,” is an oft played favorite of Old Time, Bluegrass, and Celtic musicians, but like the bushes that yield the tender, sweet berries, the song is found in a variety of species.

At least three distinct tunes, and possibly five, go by the title “Blackberry Blossom.” Which one comes to mind first depends on one’s preferred listening habits. To followers of bluegrass music “Blackberry Blossom” is a standard played, some would say ‘overplayed’, by just about every musician with even the slightest ties to bluegrass music. This “Blackberry Blossom” was written by Tennessee fiddler Arthur Smith (not to be confused with Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith) and first recorded by the Arthur Smith Trio in 1929. Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith was one of the most influential of master fiddlers from the Tennessee Valley. Legend has it that Smith first played the then untitled tune on a WSM broadcast and asked listeners to provide a title. The station received bushels of mail and from the stacks of letters the title “Blackberry Blossom” was selected, submitted by a woman from Arkansas.

Old Time musicians also consider “Blackberry Blossom” a standard fiddle tune, but this favorite fiddle tune has no connection to Arthur Smith’s later song. This “Blackberry Blossom” is a favorite dance tune from northeastern Kentucky. First recorded in 1930 by Kentucky fiddler Dick Burnett and guitarist Oscar Ruttledge this tune was the signature fiddle tune of legendary fiddler Ed Haley (1883-1951) from Ashland, Kentucky. On the West Virginia side of the border the tune often goes by the title “Yew Piney Mountain.” Perhaps to distinguish this tune from Arthur Smith’s John Hartford recorded the song under the title “Garfield’s Blackberry Blossom,” a title often used today. According to Jean Thomas's Ballad Makin' in the Mountains of Kentucky, the Garfield title comes from a story about General Garfield inquiring about the title of the song he heard a soldier play on his harmonica during the Civil War. The soldier claimed he could not remember the title, whereupon he spat a stream of tobacco juice onto a white blackberry bush blossom. As unlikely as this story sounds, fiddler Ed Morrison claims to have learnt the song from his harmonica-playing father who often heard General Garfield whistling the tune.

The “Blackberry Blossom” that I am least familiar with is a traditional Irish reel from at least 1850, if not earlier. This “Blackberry Blossom”,” according to Alan Ng’s Irishtune.info, is also known as “Blat Na Smeur,” “Bargy,” or “Strawberry Beds” and was first recorded by accordion player John J. Kimmel in 1916. This “Blackberry Blossom” is quite popular with Celtic performers on this side of the Atlantic as well as the Emerald Isle, being popular from Prince Edward Island to Pennsylvania. Most likely played on the pipes or accordion originally, this song probably made the trip to North America as many songs from the British Isles did, via the fiddle. This Celtic “Blackberry Blossom” has been recorded by master Cape Breton fiddler Buddy McMaster as well as his equally talented daughter Natalie.

A quick search through my references turned up at least three more songs with the title “Blackberry Blossom,” but none that could match the longevity of the three distinctly different tunes mentioned above. I am not surprised that the dainty white blossoms that herald the juicy, black clusters that my family and I look forward to each summer could have been the inspiration for three songs from three noticeably different cultures that have each become traditional favorites in their own right.

Blackberry Blossom (Old Time)
Burnett And Ruttledge - Blackberry Blossom.mp3 (1930)

Clyde Davenport - Blackberry Blossom.mp3 (Berea College - 1984)
Courtesy of Digital Library of Appalachia

Blackberry Blossom (Celtic)
Leo Rowsome & His Irish Pipers Band – Blackberry Blossom.mp3 (1937)

Blackberry Blossom (Arthur Smith)
Arthur Smith & the Delmore Brothers - Blackberry Blossom.mp3

Norman Blake - Blackberry Blossom.mp3 (1977)
From his 1977 LP Blackberry Blossom on Flying Fish Records, re-released in 2000 and available from Rounder Records.

Kara Barnard - Blackberry Blossom.mp3
A delightful version from Indiana based multi-instrumentalist Kara Barnard. Hear more at KaraBarnard.com.