Dennis Johnson,
(independent, 2017)

The Gordon Meier Blues Experience,
Magic Kingdom
(independent, 2017)

Without particularly sounding like him, Dennis Johnson inevitably calls Ry Cooder to mind, especially the Cooder of the classic 1970s Reprise recordings. Which is to say Johnson, who is based in the Bay Area, is an unusually skilled, innovative electric and acoustic guitarist eloquent in the language of American roots forms: blues, folk, jazz and gospel. Unlike the early Cooder, however, Johnson writes his own songs. Only the opening number, "Walkin' Blues" (first recorded by Son House, later by Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and others), is from somebody else.

Johnson's approach is to focus on one style but to let the influences of others shade his arrangements. He does this with an impressive three-piece band that supports and elevates his musical vision which, for all its various sources, is very much of a piece. In fact, when I first heard Rhythmland, I thought, "What a fine blues album." That is likely to be your thought on initial, passing exposure. With each subsequent listening, though, I was taken aback to hear other sounds, too, different from cut to cut. You can definitely say that Johnson's songs don't all feel the same.

Besides their variety, they're well crafted and melodic, with capably crafted lyrics on a range of subjects. If you can make a love song interesting -- not many can -- "Valley of Love," undergirded by Johnson's masterly slide, is certainly that. At the other extreme is the dazzlingly affecting "Revolution," a blues-hymn of the anti-Trump Resistance rivaling Phil Ochs' strongest topical songs. "Timbale" is Johnson's excursion into Latin sounds; the title refers to a kettledrum, by the way. "High Heel Shoes" amounts to an object lesson on how jump blues evolved into rockabilly.

As I've remarked on occasion, among the many pleasures of being a music writer is the opportunity one gets to hear exceptional performers of whom otherwise one would not have heard. Johnson, who is one of those, ought to be better known, and I hope that Rhythmland delivers his name throughout the land.

The Gordon Meier Blues Experience may be a highfalutin name for a band, but Meier and associates deliver nearly an hour's worth of full-strength, hard-core Chicago blues on Magic Kingdom. No hyphen follows blues, which is to say this is anything but so-called blues-rock, usually rather more of the latter than of the former.

The usual sources don't provide a whole lot of information about Meier himself, though his CD's liner notes inform us that his passion for blues goes back decades. Eventually, it brought him into friendship with Magic Slim and frequent stage-sharing with him and his guitarist John Primer, an alumnus of Muddy Waters's outfit. Beyond that, the influences of Muddy, Freddie King, Howlin' Wolf (a suitably muscular arrangement of whose "Howlin' for My Darlin'" appears here) and Primer ("Stop Draggin' That Chain Around") are in happy evidence.

None of this, though, feels like imitation. Like all true artists, Meier and bandmates have long since absorbed what they learned and gone on to make of it something of their own, including original albeit in-the-tradition material.

Magic Kingdom is a kind of homage to the Windy City blues of the 1960s and '70s, not as often celebrated -- though it should be -- as the more Mississippi-inflected sound one would hear on records and in South Side clubs in the 1950s. Younger guitarists had started moving toward a fuller big-city approach, but most still had rural roots they hadn't quite outgrown. I love that sound, and in his way, also looking forward, Meier has captured that rough and tough barroom-floor edge, suitable for both dancing and listening, always a kick in the ass and a joy to the heart.

music review by
Jerome Clark

26 August 2017

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