Big Joe & the Dynaflows,
You Can't Keep a Big Man Down
(Severn, 2010)

Big Shanty,
(King Mojo, 2011)

Two big men, each a master of his domain, practice the blues but from different addresses in the realm. One I was not at all surprised to like, while the other I was shocked to find myself taking to.

Big Joe & the Dynamos, based in the Washington, D.C., area, are genre veterans and music professionals in love with the electric blues, jump blues and jazz blues of B.B. King, Jay McShann, Jimmy Witherspoon, Albert Collins, Earl Hooker and more. Drummer Big Joe Maher, who's been playing these sounds for four decades, often in the company of his heroes, is a fabulously witty vocalist and an exemplary picker of material, none of it out of the chestnut grove, with the vaguely possible exception of McShann's classic "Confessin' the Blues," about which no sane listener will register a complaint.

You Can't Keep a Big Man Down shows it's true, and a good thing, too, because this sad old world needs -- possibly now more than ever -- swingin' blues performed by musicians who have the sound inside their skins. If you don't like this stuff, you may be experiencing problems with your ears.

On the other hand, "death metal blues" and "heavy metal funk" -- two phrases quoted in the promo material -- are not ones that would propel me toward my CD player, Big Shanty's two-disc Collection clutched in hand. It turns out that, at least here since I can't speak to Shanty in live performance, only a couple of songs sound prominently like metal ("Uncle Sam Go to Rehab" and "New Messiah," gratingly over the top to my hearing, on the second disc). Metal is a genre whose absence from my life and record collection is hardly accidental, however tolerant I try to be in my assessment of musical genres not immediately to my taste.

Otherwise, I recommend Collection, partly because I've always liked music to which the adjective "swampy" can be applied. If you want swampy, I'm here to tell you that's Shanty's natural environment. Lots of what's here sounds vaguely like a bluesier, louder, grittier Creedence Clearwater Revival, and there are Jimi Hendrix influences and references, plus -- I'm sure -- others from rock bands I've never heard. On the other hand, none of this feels imitative, and most of it has the happy resonance of something out of the blues tradition, albeit tossed into the 21st century, and not necessarily its latter first decade. Big Shanty, in short, may be the man to lead the blues into whatever future awaits it.

There's also a lot of fierce guitar rock and tough r&b here, too, plus something else you don't hear in many blues recordings: a political point of view. Big Shanty -- Dick Wooley when he's not wielding an axe -- will not be found swanning about the right end of the political spectrum. His uncompromising, finger-pointing anti-war "Killing Fields" even manages to quote Pete Seeger's "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" Among his range of robust talents, Shanty is a songwriting marvel. As a musician generally, he contains multitudes: at once rooted, progressive and pretty much cliche free.

music review by
Jerome Clark

23 April 2011

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