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.

The Hoodoo Kings' original "Blue Over You" is yet another mediocre composition, but this one's enlivened by former Hoodoo Kings and Forbidden Pigs guitarist Mario Moreno's exquisite hot-rod breaks. Dave Trippy has an appropriately smoky timbre and the rest of the band keeps up just fine, but Moreno is the star here.

And then the cream: King Karl's "Mathilda" is the hands-down winner on this set. No surprise, really--Bernard "King Karl" Jolivette, a native of Louisiana, was a singer with the Guitar Gable Band on the great swamp-pop Excello label in the 1950s, where he cut "Irene" and "This Should Go On Forever." He made some solo singles on the regional La Louisianne/Tamm label in the mid-1960s, and then disappeared from the market. This cut marks his first recording in a long time, and I suspect Bob Corritore, who plays harp on the track, had something to do with that. In any case, Karl doesn't sound a bit rusty. His version of Cookie and the Cupcakes' "Mathilda" uses the loping Cajun-waltz time of classic Excello sides and Corritore does a credible impersonation of Slim Harpo. Valley residents should count themselves blessed that Karl moved to town and beg him to cut a full album.

Rocket 88s, possibly the most frequently recorded band on the compilation, contributes the instrumental "Rockin' at the Roller Rink." You've got a right to expect more from a bunch of pros; while there are no flies on these guys, there's nothing really dazzling in this number, either. No doubt this song, like so many other selections on Desert Blues, sounds better live.

It's hard to imagine I'd ever want to hear another cover of a Jimmy Reed song. Luther Jackson and the Loose Cannons Blues Band prove me at least half wrong for thinking anything is forbidden to those with conviction and imagination; they take "Big Boss Man" uptown a little ways with a faster beat than the original (no real trick there--that's what most bar bands do with Reed songs, since the originals were nearly narcoleptic) and add jangly country-style guitar, courtesy of Parris Simmons. It's not for nothing that the first wave of rockabillies saw Reed as fertile ground to mine, but to appreciate singer and guitarist Jackson (who was, once upon a time, a member of the legendary Falcons), it would be nice to have a slightly less-worn number.

Bob Bingham's solo "Got a Real Bad Feeling" sounds like Leon Redbone, which isn't necessarily bad--I thought of "Polly-Wolly-Doodle," something I hadn't done in a while. Bingham, a guitarist who did time in the Hoodoo Kings and Rocket 88s, has that old-timey feeling down. But what does he want to do with it? Here's my suggestion: Hoagy Carmichael covers. Really.

Walkin' Cane Mark's "$40 in the Hole" isn't an especially proficient version of what seems to be someone else's song, to judge from the credits, but he makes up for it with abundant energy and that's good enough for me. I'm not sure I'd want to own one of his albums, but I'd check out one of his shows. Hell, Madonna's not such a hot singer, either, but there's a reason she's famous. And she and Walkin' Cane have this much in common: Subtlety is not in their lexicons.

The Jim Glass Band's "Blues on Sahuaro" is a long, slow, rip-snortin' instrumental showcase for Glass, a former guitarist with Big Pete Pearson's Blues Sevilles. He does a nice job, and Clyde "Flash" Covington's sax work adds a welcome counterpoint to the ax pyrotechnics.

I got to the end of Desert Blues hoping for one more keeper. No such luck. Lamar and Lucius Parr's "Don't Yell" is another competent piece that never quite catches fire. The problem here could be the recording--Lamar's voice doesn't stand out against Steve Hastings' echoing trumpet, although each could be an asset in a bar or a club. And in my book, all blues bands start off with bonus points for employing horns. But you still have to ace the test.--Robert Meyerowitz

George Howard and the Roadhouse Hounds
Great American Blues You Can Use
(Blue Tick Records)

The title of veteran Tucson bluesman George Howard's latest release seems appropriate. This is indeed blues you can use--as, say, background music in a movie with lots of smoky-bar scenes. There are no smoldering hunks of pure blues power to distract from the dialogue here, just a set of well-put-together songs that is a bit too slicked up to sound authentic.

Howard's band, the Roadhouse Hounds, is a group of accomplished musicians--most notably Bryan Dean, who maintains subtle command of his hot guitar licks, and Richard Gomez, who conjures a haunting atmosphere with his tremulous keyboard work. And so the problem with Great American Blues is less one of execution than conception--the recording is simply too laid-back.

The Bobby Parker Jr. composition "Blues Get Off My Shoulder" is a slow, soulful number that the Hounds serve well. Ditto for Syl Johnson's melancholy "Any Way the Wind Blows." But without a couple of legitimate window rattlers, one mellow song tends to blur with the next. Even Howard's cover of James Brown's "I Go Crazy" is stripped of its funk underpinnings to sound competent but uninspired. Where the band succeeds more readily is with a rousing version of Don Nix's "Going Down," or its cover of Rufus Thomas' "Walking the Dog" (which has a Randy Newman-in-New Orleans lilt to it, thanks largely to Gomez's halting piano riffs). There's also a respectable rehash of "Crosscut Saw," but once you've heard Albert King's retrofitted Latin-funk rendition, it's hard to get too excited about other attempts, including this one.

Howard has logged 25 years in the blues biz during which he played with some greats, including John Lee Hooker and Albert Collins. And, judging by this recording, he's a sophisticated professional who knows how to create a clean, layered sound. For my money, though, Howard should have added more growl and grit to the mix--a little straight whiskey to compliment the Southern comfort.--Matt Golosinski

Big Nick and the Gila Monsters
Out From Under the Rock
(Monster-Tone)
Chuck Hall Band
Blues Dawgs
(Velveeta)

I don't get it. Here we have two Phoenix-area blues bands with 27 songs on two albums--an hour and 45 minutes of material, give or take a few seconds. Covers? We got covers: songs by Willie Dixon, Albert Collins, Muddy Waters, even Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, not to mention Jimmy Thackery, Freddie King and, that grand old touchstone, Robert Johnson. We've got a quintet and a trio--two drummers, two bassists, three vocalists, two guitarists, a harp player and a guy with a Hammond organ. And we've got blues out the wazoo.

What we don't have is anything resembling a spark. I listened to Out From Under the Rock and Blues Dawgs over and over, and all that happened was my little shack started to feel like a bar. Me and my dog did a shot. You gotta draw a line somewhere.

Don't get me wrong, Big Nick Riviera's got a fine voice and his boys know all the notes to all the songs they cover; it's just that they all sound the same. Chuck Hall's a kick-ass guitar player, with a real sweet tone sometimes; for $5 at the door, I wouldn't have any qualms. I know a band in hand is worth 20 in the bins.

But when I pry one of those silver discs out of its jewel box and punch the forward arrow, that's when you're up against everyone that ever was and will be. That's when the dead get up and walk. Hell, I could be listening to my Guitar Slim and Earl Hooker recordings, and you gotta go a long way to make me forget that.

I've seen beloved artists play live when they couldn't make a dancing fool move, and I've tapped my foot to straight-out trash, as long as it had a beat, so I have a feeling I'd be content in a bar with Chuck Hall and his band onstage. And I've got nothing against Big Nick; he seems like a nice guy. Hey, I know these guys have wives and girlfriends and fans. More power to 'em. I love a party.

But not at home. Not in my car. Not on my CD player, and not straight. No way.--Robert Meyerowitz

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