Steve Cropper, Lou Marini & the Original Blues Brothers Band,
The Last Shade of Blue Before Black
(Severn, 2017)

Kim Wilson,
Blues & Boogie, Vol. 1
(Severn, 2017)

If the world doesn't offer us much to be cheerful about these days, there is that Vol. 1 following Blues & Boogie, under Kim Wilson's estimable byline. Nothing to feel dyspeptic about there. Wilson assures us there will be many more to come. Which, if you're looking for a reason to get out of bed in the morning, is as good as any in the dark and stormy weather of the American present.

A first-rank harmonica player and a founding member of the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Wilson has gone back to the essentials: to the deep-blues repertoire of the mid-century masters, among them Big Maceo Merriweather, Sonny Boy Williamson I, Magic Sam, Little Walter, Lightning Hopkins, Jimmy Reed, Elmore James and Jimmy Rogers, not to mention four sturdy Wilson-penned originals. Though I've heard most of the source recordings at one time or another, Wilson's long immersion enables him to render the music both gratifyingly familiar to listeners and unique to his own sensibility.

This is how I prefer my blues, as opposed to, say, the kind with the word on the lefthand side of the hyphen to whose right "rock" is attached. Through its (approximately) century-and-a-quarter history, blues has been variously if imperfectly defined, until it has at last become in good part the lingua franca of rock guitarists seeking employment in an age when guitars no longer bang away at the forefront of pop music. "Blues," anyway, has an authentic sound, if usually as just a word in most modern usage. In my own life I occasionally encounter persons who identify themselves as blues fans, though when asked always cite white rockers as their point of reference.

Blues doesn't automatically sound better when it's played louder. In fact, the effect is more often the reverse. Real blues can be rowdy, but outright bombast typically overwhelms the music's charm, emotion and humor. In common with other vernacular genres, blues is not open-ended. It's a music with a certain limited vocabulary. Its simplicity is deceptive, however; it's a whole lot harder than it looks. Wilson and his bandmates have been at this for decades, listening, learning from the greats (often in their company on stage or in personal friendship) and sharpening their skills. Like life itself, blues is something you don't begin to understand until you've lived it long enough.

On top of that, Wilson is a superior vocalist who through genes and long experience has found a way to communicate credibly. Blues performance is entwined with intractable racial issues, and it is a undeniably the case that white musicians, even if they do everything else right in the technical sense, often get tripped up in the singing. Either their voices are manifestly deficient, or they're forcing the issue. Not here. No notes are over-sung or, for that matter, over-played. Everything on Blues & Boogie not only feels right but comforts us who care that blues has life in it yet.

I always thought the Blues Brothers shtick was pretty dumb -- an entertaining SNL skit that should have been left at that -- but there can be no question that Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi were able to bankroll some of the best blues and r&b musicians around to back them up. The music was more often r&b than hard-core blues, but at least the instrumental part of it was always good.

Under the direction of a couple of well-regarded figures, guitarist Steve Cropper and saxophonist Blue Lou Marini, the Original Blues Brothers Band has continued as a part-time gig for its members in the years since. The current disc boasts some notable guest stars: Joe Louis Walker, Eddie Floyd, Dr. John, Matt "Guitar" Murphy and others.

With the occasional touch-up The Last Shade of Blue Before Black -- a title speaking volumes, though the lyrics of the Marini song acknowledged here hold the story to a more modest romantic narrative -- is a live-in-the-studio exercise in big-band, horn-driven r&b. Opening with the Jimmy Reed standard "Baby, What You Want Me To Do," it delivers undiminished pleasure, reminding us happily why r&b is so often called good-time music. Be on the lookout in particular, not quite midway through, for "You Left the Water Running." Now, there's r&b songwriting.

music review by
Jerome Clark

7 October 2017

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