Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Marshall Lawrence Brings the Blues from the Great White North

Guitarist Marshall Lawrence’s new album Blues Intervention is blues with a Canadian accent. And it’s completely authentic – that applies to the blues as much as the accent. Like it or not, the blues, like any other style of music, keeps evolving: this is one fun, captivating example of where a talented contemporary artist can take a hundred-year-old style without cutting it off at the roots. Lawrence winkingly calls himself “The Doctor of the Blues,” since he actually is one: his alter ego is a professional psychologist. He keeps it simple and acoustic here, occasionally spicing the songs with mandolin or banjo, alongside his collaborators Sherman “Tank” Doucette on harmonica and former B.B. King sideman Russell Jackson on doghouse bass. Lawrence mixes up his originals with a diverse collection of classics. Lawrence’s take on the blues is brisk, an upbeat, houseparty style with deadpan, bright-eyed, bushytailed vocals that make every double entendre count. The opening track, So Long Rosalee sets the tone – Lawrence doesn’t try to be anybody but himself. In a world full of Clapton wannabes embarrassing themselves by doing what amounts to blackface, that’s genuinely refreshing.

As you might expect, the version of Traveling Blues here is a fast stomp, an amped-up take on the Tommy Johnson original and it’s great. Walking Blues is uncomplicatedly original – Lawrence puts his own stamp on it rather than trying to outdo Robert Johnson at fingerpicking. Going Down the Road Feeling Bad, along with an original, Going to the River mine a vintage Mississippi Sheiks string band vibe.

The rest of the album is originals. You’re Gonna Find the Blues works a bunch of standard lyrical tropes, Jackson playing simple, emphatic beats like Big Crawford did on those first classic Muddy Waters records. The down-and-out urban tale Lay Down My Sorrow and Detroit “Motor City” Blues – a party destination for as many Canadians as bored Detroiters who head for Windsor – are slow and mournful, enhanced by the harmonica. The best song on the album is a fast boogie, Once Loved a Cowgirl, with some sweet layers of guitar and a sly trick ending. There’s also a delta-style party anthem, Going Down to Louisiana; the clever woman-done-me-wrong blues If I Had a Nickel and a couple of tensely swinging resonator numbers. Put this in your collection alongside modern-day blues titans like Will Scott or Mamie Minch.

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September 9, 2010 Posted by | blues music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Vieux Farka Toure Burns His Guitar

Vieux Farka Toure didn’t really burn his guitar, at least the way Hendrix burned his. He just turned in an incandescent performance. It’s a useful rule of thumb that if a performer plays well in daylight, he or she will rip up whatever joint they’re in come nightfall. Or maybe Toure’s just a morning person. Thursday afternoon in Metrotech Park in downtown Brooklyn, the Malian guitarist didn’t let the crushing tropical heat and humidity phase him, blasting through one long, hypnotic, minimalistically bluesy number after another.

Like his father, desert blues pioneer Ali Farka Toure, he’ll hang on a chord for minutes at a clip, building tension sometimes thoughtfully, sometimes with savage abandon. That intensity – along with a long, pointless percussion solo- is what got the audience – an impressively diverse mix of daycamp kids and their chaperones, office workers and smelly trendoids – on their feet and roaring. Using his signature icy, crystalline, Albert Collins-esque tone, he took his time getting started, subtly varying his dynamics. What he does is ostensibly blues, inasmuch as his assaultive riffage generally sticks within the parameters of the minor-key blues scale. But the spacious, slowly unwinding melodies are indelibly Malian, with the occasional latin tinge or a shift into a funkier, swaying rhythm. This time out the band included a bass player along with Toure’s steady second guitarist, playing spikily hypnotic vamps on acoustic, along with a sub drummer who was clearly psyched to be onstage and limited himself to a spirited, thumping pulse, and a duo of adrenalized percussionists, one on a large, boomy calabash drum.

Lyrics don’t seem to factor much into this guy’s songwriting: a couple of numbers featured call-and-response on the chorus in Toure’s native tongue, but otherwise it was all about the guitar. As the energy level rose, he’d launch into one volley after another of blistering 32nd-note hammer-ons. And he wouldn’t waste them – after he’d taken a crescendo up as far as he could, he’d signal to the band and in a split second they’d end the song cold. It’s hard to think of another player who blends purposefulness with blinding speed to this degree (although, again, Albert Collins comes to mind – although Toure is more playful than cynical). Toure’s show this past spring at le Poisson Rouge was the last on an obviously exhausting tour: he’d sprint as far as he could, then back off when it was obvious that he needed a breather. Thursday was more of a clinic in command: Toure was completely in control this time out. Like most great guitarists, he spends a lot of time on the road (and has a killer new live album just out, very favorably reviewed here), so you can expect another New York appearance sooner than later.

August 2, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Vieux Farka Toure – Live

A characteristically intense, often exhilarating album by one of the great guitarists of our time. Vieux Farka Toure’s dad Ali Farka Toure was one of the inventors of duskcore, the patiently meandering, hypnotic desert blues. Unlike his dad, Vieux Farka Toure is not exactly a patient player, but in the family tradition he’s also invented his own style of music. Whether it’s blues, or an electrified and electrifying version of Malian folk music is beside the point. He may be playing in a completely different idiom, but Vieux Farka Toure’s approach is essentially the same as Charlie Parker’s, creating mini-symphonies out of seemingly endless, wild volleys of notes within a very simple chord structure. Bird played the blues; sometimes Toure does. Other times he just jams on a single chord. Whatever the case, Toure is the rare fret-burner who still manages to make his notes count for something: this album isn’t just mindless Buckethead or Steve Vai-style shredding. The obvious comparison (and one which invites a lot of chicken-or-the-egg questions, which may be academic) is to hypnotic Mississippi hill country bluesmen like Junior Kimbrough and Will Scott.

Toure’s attack is fluid and precise, utilizing lightning-fast hammer-ons whether he’s sticking to the blues scale, or working subtle shifts in timbre and rhythm during the songs’ quieter passages. He plays with a cool, watery, chorus-box tone very reminiscent of Albert Collins. Here he’s backed by an acoustic rhythm guitarist who holds it down with smooth yet prickly repetitive riffs, along with percussion, sometimes bass and a guest guitarist or two (Australian slide player Jeff Lang converses and eventually duels with him memorably on one track). The album collects several of the hottest moments of a 2009 European and Australian tour.

The midtempo opening number is a teaser, only hinting at the kind of speed Toure is capable of. As with several of the other numbers here, call-and-response is involved, this time with band members (later on he tries to get the audience to talk back to him in his own vernacular, with particularly mystified results). The slow jam that serves as the second track here is a study in dynamics and tension-building up to the ecstatic wail of the next cut.

A couple of songs here work a boisterous, reggae-tinged groove; another echoes the thoughtful, Castles Made of Sand side of Hendrix. When Toure’s taken the energy as high as anyone possibly could, sometimes he’ll stop cold and end the song there rather than doing something anticlimactic. He winds up the album with a big blazing boogie with a trick ending and then a stomp featuring a couple of characteristically paint-peeling solos along with a breakdown where the band takes it low and suspenseful until Toure is ready to wail again. If lead guitar is your thing, this is somebody you need to know – and somebody you really ought to see live. Like most of the great lead guitarists, Toure pretty much lives on the road – his next NYC gig is at Metrotech Park in Brooklyn at noon on July 29.

July 2, 2010 Posted by | blues music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review From the Archives: Albert King at Tramps, NYC 4/24/92

[editor’s note: we were going to review the Moisturizer show last night at BPM, but something got in the way. From the looks of it, about five charter buses full of fresh-faced white kids looking like they came straight from the prom. There was literally a line around the block. I’ve never seen that many people waiting outside a small club in my life. Maybe someone spotted one of the Olsen twins, texted their whole IM list, and what we saw was the resulting flashmob. It would be heartening to believe that they’d all showed up to see the band, but Moisturizer’s dazzling musicianship and Satie-esque wit don’t exactly fit into corporatized suburban “culture.”

It was quickly obvious that those who weren’t already inside the club were never going to get in, but nobody seemed to mind. To complicate matters, there had just been a stabbing, obviously a white person since there were police cruisers speeding up and down the surrounding streets and a couple of helicopters overhead. So we went over to a friend’s place instead. In lieu of a full review of Moisturizer, we’ve pulled one out of the archives: legendary southpaw guitarist Albert King at Tramps in April of 1992]:

We rushed up here after an interesting and inspiring day at the Socialist Scholars’ Conference downtown on Chambers St. The club was crowded, but, happily, not ridiculously oversold and jampacked like it usually is. This was an incredibly moving show, perhaps the best blues concert I’ve ever seen. His band opened with two instrumentals: the rhythm guitarist played an unreal, lightining-fast, bone-chilling solo in the second. Albert King then took the stage: “Are you ready? I’m not,” warmed up with Every Day I Have the Blues (which he took slowly) and then launched into a brilliant set. Maybe the best song selection I’ve ever seen at a show like this. The anguished, screaming power of Elmore James’ The Sky Is Crying was overwhelming. A swinging Born Under a Bad Sign, an upbeat Crosscut Saw and a driven Stormy Monday were crowd-pleasers, as the band took turns soloing around the horn: first King, then the rhythm player (who got to showcase his jazz chops), and the keyboardist, whose talents unfortunately didn’t measure up to the rest of the band. It seemed he only knew one flashy descending riff, which he played on the cheesiest setting available. But even this could not detract from the power of King’s guitar playing and singing, which were, for lack of a better word, deep. With his guitar, he can say more in the microtones of a single bent note than most people could say in a whole album, and his vocals are the very definition of soul.

As much as King loves minor keys and slowly smoldering crescendos, he was in an upbeat mood tonight. Maybe the ever-present wine glass was part of it. “Ain’t nothing like a glass of red wine,” he mused. The best of many highlights was when the band went into an ominous, slow 6/8 minor-key groove, the keyboardist hit that unexpected major chord and King began to dedicate the song, “From the album Born Under a Bad Sign, As the Years Go Passing By.” He was rudely interrupted by a fan during his second solo, when some asshole handed him a piece of paper (a request? why not wait til he finished?). Later, they also did Robert Cray’s Phone Booth (which King popularized a few years before Cray hit it big). In a word, exhilarating.

[postscript: This was Albert King’s last New York show. He died less than eight months later.]

June 23, 2007 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: The Roulette Sisters at Barbes, Brooklyn NY 6/18/07

A deliriously fun, hot, sweaty show. It was late on a Monday night, but the place was packed. The crowd sang along, and when they weren’t singing, they were laughing at all the subtle and not-so-subtle double entendres the band was harmonizing on. Because (other than great musicianship and gorgeous 4-part harmonies and stone cold authentic acoustic blues playing), sex is what the Roulette Sisters are all about. Lou Pearlman couldn’t have come up with a better marketing concept: four attractive women singing innuendo-laden oldtime music – an impressively wide-ranging mix of blues, country and 1920s/30s pop – playing their own instruments, singing beautifully and writing a lot of their own material. They opened with Coney Island Washboard: guitarist Mamie Minch explained how it was an instrumental from the early 20s given lyrics by a popular pop group, the Mills Brothers, about ten years later. Lead guitarist Meg Reichardt (also of les Chauds Lapins) added a typically suggestive postscript, telling the audience about a co-worker who was walking around the office all day wearing something akin to the “brand new suit of easy breezes” in the song’s chorus. A little later they did another original, inspired by the Carter Family, that wouldn’t be out of place on the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack.

Minch had just asked her bandmates whether they should do a pretty song or a dirty song when she was suddenly interrupted. “Fuck!” She’d just gotten a jolt of electric current from her mic. Her bandmates grinned at each other, and the question was answered: they launched into the hokum blues classic Keep on Churnin’:

Keep on churning til the butter comes
Keep on pumping, let the butter flow
Wipe off the paddle and churn some more

The crowd roared for another in the same vein, so they obliged, with heir most popular original, Hottest Girl in Town. The song is a hoot: each band member takes a verse laden with Freudian imagery, some verging on X-rated, detailing how their boyfriends like to please them. Viola player Karen Waltuch, who played incisive, somewhat dark solos all night long, took her most intricate one of the evening after her verse and the crowd loved it.

Then was Reichardt’s turn to bring the house down with an outtake from Dolly Parton’s first album, a deliciously righteous tale of a jilted woman wanting to get even with the woman who married her man: “I feel like tying dynamite to her side of the car.” After that, Minch delivered an especially sly version of the Bessie Smith hit Sugar in My Bowl.

The excellent Al Duvall – who’s quite the master of thinly veiled dirty lyrics himself – accompanied them on banjo on their last four songs, ending with a brand-new composition about a sheet music plugger (plugger: get it?) which Minch sang off a lyric sheet. She began the song as a talking blues but by the end she’d written a vocal melody and had it down cold.

You heard it here first: this band is going places. Our predecessor e-zine picked their cd Nerve Medicine as best debut album of 2006. Good to see that prediction come true, with this fantastic band getting some real momentum.

June 19, 2007 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments