BEST OF 2017: Don Wilcock’s Top 8 Blues Albums (And Year-End Rant)
By Don Wilcock
Photograph of Selwyn Birchwood at The Upper Room by Andrzej Pilarczyk
As I approach half a century of reviewing music locally, nationally and internationally, I am fascinated by how the various scenes have changed. When I was a student at Tufts University outside of Boston in the early ’60s, folk music was rigidly academic performed by artists who were neophytes and often sounded like it. They rigidly stuck to copying “authentic” American folk songs of the ’30s and ’40s.
Their fans, on the contrary, tended to be rebellious post-Beat, pre-hippy young people searching for an identity that rejected the boredom of post-war Eisenhower white t-shirts and chinos.
Now, the roles are often reversed. The fans I see at Caffe Lena, the Eighth Step and The Egg skew over 50. They’re the same fans who were into folk then, but now they have short haircuts or no hair at all, and they dress like they’re getting ready to do yard work. The older folk acts have gotten much better with age, often are writing their own material, and have been given a green light by Dylan and younger Americana acts who mix genres generally with a heavy dollop of rock, a sound that was very popular in 1962 but sometimes considered juvenile to the college set. (Just as an aside, don’t expect the term “Americana” to stick around forever. It’s become a catchall phrase for everything that doesn’t fit the categories of folk, rock, country and blues).
I’ve spent more than half my time as a music journalist writing about blues. In Chicago, Memphis, New Orleans and St. Louis, blues was a fully recognized genre in 1962 when I entered college, but in the Harvard Square/Greenwich Village world, it was a subtext of American folk music where Big Bill Broonzy, Rev. Gary Davis and Leadbelly were looked upon as African-American folksingers, while electric blues artists like B.B. King, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf were not generally known to most of my college friends who were into music. And if they were, they were not held in high regard. Remember, these are the same people who booed Dylan when he plugged in.
Fast forward to the present, and you have a blues scene that, like the folk and Americana genres, encompasses a wide variety of sounds, this despite a minority effort to keep “blues content” as an important criterion by The Blues Foundation in choosing the winners of its annual Blues Music Awards (BMAs). Under the auspices of Barbara Newman, two years into her assignment as CEO of the Foundation, the scope of the organization’s BMAs and International Blues Challenge has broadened to reflect the attitude of fans who today are less concerned with historical authenticity than they are finding music that both makes then feel good and has the cathartic quality long associated with the music’s history. Bottom line is that as a journalist writing for several blues publications I don’t feel that I’m pushing the compass needle one way or another, but rather I’m simply reflecting a much more open attitude towards the genre. Ultimately, it’s the fans spending their money on the music they like that determines who survives in the genre, not what I like.
Fortunately for me, I like the new blues. And for what it’s worth, here are a few of the CDs I like best this year:
JASON RICCI & THE BAD KIND
Approved by Snakes (EllerSoul)
If you’re a blues fans who likes your music safe, traditional and heartwarming, this CD is not for you, but if you love “The Walking Dead” and horror movie soundtracks, this is as good as it gets. Ricci is a recovering addict who plays killer harmonica (double entendre intended) and who sweats out the DTs in his vocals. This stuff is powerful and nasty. “My True Love Is a Dope Whore” will peel your skin off alive.
Chills & Fever (Ruf)
This young lady drives her own van to her festival appearances and understands that she needs to write new songs all the time to keep her musical muscle in tone. She’s a modern woman who mixes hard rock and blues that put young dudes like Jonny Lang to shame with her real deal mojo.
Black and Blue (Marquis Knox Entertainment)
This live album from a St. Louis guitarist/vocalist has the kind of classic Chicago blues that runs the tight rope between postwar electric blues and sweet soul that Luther Allison used to put forth. This album may not be as hot as Luther’s double LP recorded at the Chicago Blues Festival for Alligator, but it comes close.
WEE WILLIE WALKER & THE ANTHONY PAULE SOUL ORCHESTRA
After a While (Blue Dot)
Walker’s traditional soulful voice has been honed from years on a regional basis. Discovered last year by Blues Music Award voters, he just keeps getting better and better. Having a killer big band behind him just raises his bar height.
CORKY SIEGEL’S CHAMBER BLUES
Different Voices (Dawnserly)
Vocalist/harmonica player Corky Siegel’s background goes back the ’60s with the Siegel/Schwall Band. Playing with a classical string quartet doesn’t just push the envelope of blues orthodoxy, it forces the listener to hear blues from a different perspective similar to the way the Newgrass Revival changed the bluegrass paradigm.
Blues & Boogie Vol. 1 (Severn)
Kim Wilson runs the Fabulous Thunderbirds as a business that pays the gas bill, but his true love is classic blues harp. And here he fully indulges in that closet obsession.
Pick Your Poison (Alligator)
Alligator CEO Bruce Iglauer has outlasted all his blues indie competitors by discovering electric bluesmen who appeal to both the aging blues fan who wants to discover the next Buddy Guy and the younger fan who identifies with young musicians who are in their demographic. Birchwood pulls it off, and if you saw him at The Upper Room in Albany this summer, you don’t need to read this to convince you he has it going on.
RONNIE BAKER BROOKS
Times Have Changed (Provogue)
The older of the Lonnie Brooks’ two sons, Ronnie has inherited his dad’s rock edginess without ever selling out with clichés. The title cut of this album featuring Memphis rapper Al Kapone is the first blues/rap song that I don’t have to leave the room from. This is a career-defining work from a real road warrior and genuine nice guy.
Vintage #18’s Grit
Walter Trout’s We’re All in This Together
Doug MacLeod’s Break the Chain
Dawn Tyler Watson’s Jawbreaker
Kilborn Alley Blues Band’s The Tolono Tapes
Cary Morin’s Cradle to Grave
Katy & The Kilowatts’ Let’s Do This Thing
Gene Jackson’s 2963
The Nighthawks’ All You Gotta Do
Harrison Kennedy’s Who U Tellin’?
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