Mary Flower,
Misery Loves Company
(Yellow Dog, 2011)

Mark T. Small,
Blacks, Whites & the Blues
(Lead Foot, 2011)

It's depressing to have to remark, as any reviewer of independent music must, that particular musicians deserve to be better known than they are. Sadly, there's no shortage of those of whom that needs to be said, even as all kinds of vacuous unworthies are household names. It's another way, I guess, of saying that virtue must be its own reward because it certainly doesn't offer many other ones. Here are two outstanding artists who do it for the sake of the song:

A world-class, folk-based acoustic guitar picker based these days in Portland, Oregon, Mary Flower has become one of my favorite musicians. While she's been around for a while, my belated introduction to her came via her last Yellow Dog CD, Bridges, which I reviewed here on 16 May 2009. Flower's exquisite guitar style is an amalgam, in degrees that vary depending upon the number of the moment, of Piedmont blues, ragtime, 19th-century parlor, John Fahey and more. It's technically demanding, not to be tried by the faint of heart or talent; but done in these -- literal -- hands, it is a thing of beauty and a cause for joy, notwithstanding a title that reaffirms the old saw (which also served as the title of a long-ago Porter Wagoner chart-topper) Misery Loves Company. The misery lies in some of the song and instrumental themes, most graphically in the homicidal humor of the Flower composition "I'm Dreaming of Your Demise," where she's accompanied by Dave Frishberg on piano. Those who know his darkly droll compositions may think Frishberg wrote it.

On all but one of the dozen cuts, one other person accompanies Flower on instrument (mandolin, fiddle, guitar, bass, piano, accordion or tuba) or vocal harmony. Next to Frishberg, known primarily to jazz buffs, the most relatively prominent is the ubiquitous Canadian folk/blues/rock guitarist/producer Colin Linden (electric dobro on Flower's "Way Down in the Bottom"). Blues harpist Curtis Selgado backs up Flower on the opening piece, Muddy Waters's "Hard Day Blues," which bears practically no resemblance to the original. It's not just the Piedmont style versus Muddy's Delta-derived blues; it's also that Flower has never tried to sound like any kind of blues singer, downhome or uptown. She sings the blues in her own straightforward, unadorned white woman's voice, which is a fine one; once you get used to that -- and the cognitive dissonance is especially acute in her rendition of Son House's "Death Letter Blues," in the original a primeval howl of existential terror -- you realize that of course she should sing the blues her way. It's already been sung all the other ways.

Mark T. Small's approach to the blues is more traditional in its orientation than Flower's but in its way fully as enjoyable. On Blacks, Whites & the Blues, Small -- rooted in bluegrass and Appalachian music though he now defines himself as a bluesman -- chooses a program of familiar blues and folk songs set mostly, not quite exclusively, to solo-acoustic arrangements. Actually, the more you hear him, the more you may think of somebody who doesn't usually come to mind in this context; Small turns out to be something of a Doc Watson of the blues. He's a well-above-average flat-picker, gifted enough to play many more notes than he chooses to, and he's a pretty decent singer besides. The biggest surprise is a rare (maybe unique) acoustic arrangement of Roy Hawkins's "The Thrill is Gone," a big hit for B.B. King in 1969. It's definitely an improvement on Watson's not so successful attempt to transform "Stormy Weather" into a country-blues piece.

Nearly everything here will be -- and probably in the well-traveled original -- resident in any modestly stocked roots-music geek's collection. Still, Small is too intelligent an artist to try to imitate the masterly likes of Mississippi Fred McDowell, Howlin' Wolf, John Lee Hooker and their contemporaries gone on to blues heaven. Yes, he respects them sufficiently not to reinvent them entirely; yet the more you listen to it, the more his approach yields its own distinct personal truths and emotions, not to mention rhythmic and melodic flourishes. Small knows how to find the gold.

music review by
Jerome Clark

26 November 2011

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