Dave Riley & Bob Corritore,
Hush Your Fuss!
(SWMAF/VizzTone, 2013)

Bryan Lee,
Play One for Me
(Severn, 2013)

It's easy to lapse into cynicism about the state of the blues in the 21st century. "Blues" seems in so many ways a niche for electric guitarists otherwise lost in a pop-music landscape where the sort of rock guitar associated with Hendrix, Clapton and their contemporaries is seen as hoary 1960s relic. At the same time, it is undeniably the case any genre is bound to change over time -- recorded blues is nearly a century old -- and audiences crave novelty even as musicians strive for creative expression.

The problem is that blues is not a wildly expansive genre, and over the decades, since its heyday from the 1920s through the 1950s, blues as more than an influence is something that gets harder to come by. One often hears loud guitars, slashing licks and pounding rhythms, and even as one is told it's blues, one hears instead rock as it evolved decades ago from simple rock 'n' roll chords. Yes, the blues is somewhere in there, but it's struggling to get out, not always succeeding.

The two CDs under review don't take identical approaches. Dave Riley & Bob Corritore are working from a rural blues core, even if mostly with a plugged-in band, and Bryan Lee's roots are in the uptown blues and r&b of a few decades ago. Not that either act sounds blandly imitative; Riley & Corritore and Lee are superior musicians, and they can rightly claim their own distinctive identities. But to those of us who love the blues, there can be no doubt that they're carrying the tradition in perceptible form, between them touching on nearly everything that gives blues meaning.

Riley -- one of a small number of younger African-American musicians drawn to the music these days -- alternates between acoustic and electric guitars, augmented by Corritore's satisfyingly full-bodied harmonica playing, with echoes of the Chicago masters. The legends -- Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and their generation -- migrated to the Windy City from Mississippi, transforming a Delta folk music into its electrified, hard-charging big-city equivalent.

Though much younger, Riley, too, followed the highway from Mississippi to Chicago, albeit into an altered world where blues sounds were less universally embraced. Still, Riley's singing and playing manage to feel a whole lot more organic than formally acquired. He is, moreover, a strong songwriter with notable humor and wit. All but three of the cuts are Riley compositions and cowrites, usually with Corritore. Each is capably crafted and thoroughly pleasurable, but "No Cussin'" will make you laugh out loud. Dave "Yahni" Riley Jr. and Brian Fahey back Riley and Corritore on bass and drums respectfully on most numbers.

News Orleans' Bryan Lee, singer and guitarist, knows how to deliver a song, and how to choose and write one, too. On Play One for Me his guitar is inflected with jazz as well as blues, always enhancing the song, not showing off the chops, considerable as they are. His richly soulful vocals cast an almost hypnotic aura. Half of the 10 numbers are his own, the other five from the likes of Freddie King, Howlin' Wolf and lesser-known r&b artists. Unless you've heard the originals, you won't know the difference. As a blind man, one might add, he's part of another blues tradition. His local nickname is "Braille Blues Daddy."

Though Lee is nearly 70 and a well-regarded figure in a deeply musical city, this is -- remarkably -- his first album on an American label. Among the best of the current blues-specialty imprints, Severn catches Lee in its new state-of-the-art studio in Annapolis, Md. Severn's expert house band provides the accompaniment. Guest artists include the harmonica powerhouse Kim Wilson, whose authoritative, heartfelt approach is always welcome in discerning ears. All here is joyful sound and blues truth.

music review by
Jerome Clark

12 October 2013

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