Blues Arizona

A cocktail review of recent state releases

Various artists
Desert Blues Volume 1
(Phoenix Blues Society/CDGBs)

There's nothing like listening to 17 unknown blues acts in 63 minutes to set you thinking about just what the term "blues" means; clearly, it's a catch-all term, judging from this anthology of Arizona bands, which encompasses moving bayou waltzes, gospel, Eric Clapton clones (that's not meant as a compliment), hackneyed boogie, strains of country and stone-gritty soul. Since almost all of the 40-plus artists who perform on this invitation-only compilation regularly play in the Phoenix area, the good news is that no one in the Valley should have to sit by a stereo to hear blues. The bad news is that there are a few acts to avoid--unless you're drunk or there's no cover.

The Phoenix Blues Society has succeeded only too well in its attempt to provide a panoramic snapshot of this area's active local-blues scene. By presenting the Valley's strongest blues acts side by side with some of its weakest, and by somehow failing to coax better performances out of local legends, Desert Blues becomes twice as long and half as good as it should be. The result is a strong argument against making aesthetic decisions by committee.

The first bone I have to pick with this set's compilers has to do with the order. This disc ought to start with one of the several bangs buried here, but instead it begins with Hans Olson's "Phoenix Boogie," a boosterish but lackluster solo rendition of the type of song that will sound instantly familiar to ZZ Top fans; material that's been the staple of John Lee Hooker's repertoire since the late 1940s. But where Hooker plays endless, subtle variations on his theme and ZZ Top rocks it over the top, Olson plods.

Fortunately, you don't have to wait long to hit pay dirt. Big Pete Pearson does a fine job with his original "Your Love Is Like a Runway"--his pinched voice suggesting soul-blues stylists from Bobby Bland to Rufus Thomas. Pearson is perhaps a touch squeakier, but hardly less expressive, and his lyrics--"Your love is like a runway/And everybody's trying to land on you"--have a winsome goofiness. I'm charmed. The Blues Sevilles swing along behind him, wisely doing just enough, and no more, to augment his voice. The song's four minutes don't seem like enough time, and my only regret is that Pearson doesn't have the space or inclination to build to a climax--but I guess that's what live shows are for.

Drummer and vocalist Chico Chism's original "Big Fat Mama 480 Pounds," on the other hand, is a broken promise. Chism's band is in fine technical form, but the song is a blues McNugget; it clocks in a few seconds shorter than Pearson's, but feels chuggingly longer.

Things pick up with Diana Lee's soulful original "Moving Out Back." It's really a gospel number, and it takes nothing away from Lee's artistry to say Aretha Franklin would have been comfortable with this kind of material in her heyday at Atlantic Records. It's also a welcome relief from cliched blues rhythms; Lee's song, filled out by "Peach Pit" Gibson's slide guitar and Patti Williams' and Shamsi Ruhe's backing vocals, meanders delicately.

But the feeling doesn't last. The Chuck Hall Band's "Good Mind to Quit You," a band composition, is exactly the kind of meat-and-potatoes stuff I expect to hear at any local-blues bar anytime--or, for that matter, on a local-blues compilation. It's not subtle, but it's certainly danceable, which may be the point; I know people who actually prefer this type of generic material to the quirks of blues masters. Go figure.

Chief Gillame contributes a Muddy Waters cover, "I'm a Howlin' Wolf," and rather than try to make sense of the brief biographical note in the CD's booklet, I think it's best just to reproduce it here: "Chief Gillame was born in Ethiopia and lived in Arkansas and Louisiana before moving to Phoenix. His heavy African accent."

Now what the hell does that mean? I tried to finish that sentence for them, but I guess I just don't buy the premise. In any case, Gillame gives a slow, dutiful rendition of Delta blues.

And then comes a pleasant surprise: Sam Taylor Band. This Tucson guitarist cracks the mold with his original "It Ain't Me" largely because of Heather Hardy's fiddle, injecting a note of bluegrass, that makes it an upbeat number more than just party blues. It's a shrewd marriage, calling to mind Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown's Texas-Louisiana compositions.

Dino Spells' original "Jennie Bea" is a strong, energetic but, ultimately, undistinguished cut. Spells was a sax player with Albert Collins all the way back in the late guitarist's Imperial-label days, according to the liner notes, but here he plays guitar. It's a bit of a tease, frankly.

Blues was never the most hospitable home for women--not as the subjects of songs, and even less so being in the band. So what does it say that two of the brightest of the 17 songs on Desert Blues--Diana Lee's, and Rena Haus' "House-Cleanin' Blues"--are performed by women? "House-Cleanin' Blues" has a light, melodic touch that's missing from too many other earnest efforts here. This transplanted Minnesotan offers an original "don't mess with me" number that should please fans of the late Sippie Wallace.

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