We’ll Never Lose the Blues

We’ll Never Lose the Blues
July 28, 2009
The Wall Street Journal

Despite ample evidence of talent, vitality and originality in blues music today, rumors have persisted that the genre is on life support. Taj Mahal is not surprised.

“There was a point where everybody was saying that the blues was dead, so everybody believed it,” the veteran musical innovator and blues-and-roots authority told me in Memphis. (It was just before the 30th annual Blues Music Awards in May; he’d been inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame the night before, along with New Orleans soul queen Irma Thomas.) But, he added, “that only meant it wasn’t going to do as much for the larger music industry. So let’s define what we’re talking about. You can’t tell me that hearts aren’t still going to be stepped on, that folks are not going to get their nose out of joint ’cause things don’t go right. That never changes.”

Jay Sieleman, executive director of the Memphis-based Blues Foundation, dedicated to both educating the public and aiding the genre’s performers, agrees that the blues has lasting power. He says the genre is sturdy enough to evolve unpredictably through another century in part because of its steady international fan base. “Blues fans are very loyal,” he noted when we spoke, “and the music is very personal; there’s not much separation between the musicians and the fans.” Legends such as Bobby “Blue” Bland, B.B. King, Pinetop Perkins, Honeyboy Edwards and Koko Taylor, in what proved to be her last performance, mingled easily with fans throughout the award and Hall of Fame induction ceremonies.

The real news out of Memphis, however, is the abundance of risk-taking 21st-century blues on display both at the awards show and in Beale Street venues during the days that followed—often from performers with impressive and honored discs to match the live excitement. To wit:

Otis Taylor
“Pentatonic Wars and Love Songs”

Mr. Taylor has been an avid advocate for the revival of African-American banjo styles, and he was awarded this year for his banjo playing. When he took his current, lively band to the stage at the ceremony, however, he had an electric guitar in hand and let loose with a wall of music from this astounding, layered new CD—a blues-based meditation on love, childhood and race comparable in scope and ambition to Marvin Gaye’s opus “What’s Going On.”

The Soul of John Black
“Black John”
(Eclecto Groove)

This is an utterly contemporary and infectious blend of blues, funk and catchy pop from an involving, surprise-a-minute band fronted by exciting guitar-slinging vocalist John Bigham (a.k.a. “John Black”), a veteran of Miles Davis’s band, and rubber-faced, loose-limbed bass player Shawn Davis. The numbers are informed by what Jimi Hendrix, Buddy Guy and Magic Sam contributed to music—and funk and hip-hop and even country influences show up, too. Their song “Betty Jean” won’t leave your head, and it’s far from the disc’s only earworm track.

Janiva Magness
”What Love Will Do”

Having won this year’s prime “B.B. King Entertainer of the Year” award (she also picked up “Contemporary Blues Female Artist”), Ms. Magness—a blues-circuit veteran and quite young grandmother from a hardscrabble background—stepped up to a new level of recognition and did so on the strength of this recording. The songs are mainly hard-hitting, sassy reconstructions, backed by a small-horn band, of songs from the soul and blues bags of Bill Withers, Al Green, Tina Turner and the like.

Cedric Burnside & Lightnin’ Malcolm
“2 Man Wrecking Crew”
(Delta Groove)

Winner of the 2009 “Best New Artist Debut” blues award, this duo joins the aggressive, modern attack of the singing, drumming grandson of the late Mississippi hill country blues legend R.L. Burnside with the alternately chugging and nuanced guitar and vocals of Missouri’s Lightnin’ (Steve) Malcolm, a red-haired young guitarist and vocalist who’d jammed with and been tutored by the elder Burnside, Junior Kimbrough and others of the same school. The result, including these 30-somethings’ touching but funky tribute song “R.L. Burnside,” is a pounding, updated take on hills-style ­danceability.

The Mannish Boys
”Lowdown Feelin’”
(Delta Groove)

This big Los Angeles-based band is often called a Chicago blues supergroup, and while it didn’t win awards this year, it was nominated for more of them than any other act. “Supergroup” doesn’t really describe how their often electrifying shows or CDs like this latest one actually work, however. Highly skilled, admirably loose blues veterans officially in the group and a succession of guests step up to take vocal or instrumental leads.The result is an infectious revival of both ’40s jump and ’50s to ’60s Chess-like styles from a band that lives inside the music.

Eden Brent
“Mississippi Number One”
(Yellow Dog)

For her contemporary, soul-influenced, downright-sexy turns on after-hours piano blues, Ms. Brent took home the award for Best Acoustic Artist and, for this CD, Best Acoustic Album. She emerged as a force to reckon with as an apprentice of Boogaloo Ames, and is often called “Little Boogaloo” herself. She sings Gershwin and Peggy Lee tunes, as well as her own Delta-born songs—aggressive, sultry, hot and cool.
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