When Blak and Blu was released by Warner Bros in 2012, Gary Clark Jr became an instant sensation. Critics raved that the talented young blues guitarist and singer could be a revivalist for the genre. Clark is much more than that. If you’ve heard Blak and Blu, you know how the 31-year-old is able to take the blues, infuse it with his raucous guitar playing and easy, super-smooth style of singing, and elevate it to a level rarely heard.
Soon, Blak and Blu and the several gigs where the young Texan wowed audiences got him calls. Important ones — such as the one from Eric Clapton who invited him to play at his Crossroads Guitar Festival and is believed to have said that listening to Clark made him want to play the blues again. High praise came from others too: such as Buddy Guy who thinks Clark is the new saviour for the blues. And from bands such as The Rolling Stones and The Foo Fighters with whom he has also played.
Also watch: Gary Clark Jr.: Rock in Rio USA 2015
So, three years after I first heard Clark, on Blak and Blu, on a few live recordings, and in the Jon Favreau film, Chef, I couldn’t wait to listen to his second studio album, The Story of Sonny Boy Slim, which came out last month. I was in for a surprise.
On Blak and Blu and the other live tracks, Clark’s music is distinctive for its rawness: his guitar influences range from Jimi Hendrix to Stevie Ray Vaughan; but also, a bit oddly for a bluesman, the power chords and distorted notes of grunge bands — in fact, in a long interview to Relix magazine, Clark mentions Nirvana as one of his influences.
On Blak and Blu, the stand-out song is When My Train Pulls In, which, I think, showcases the bluesman’s oeuvre the best. His music, even on a studio album, is like listening to a live band. Or at least that’s what I thought. Till now.
On The Story of Sonny Boy Slim, the first thing that strikes you is the restraint. For the 13 songs, recorded not in an LA studio but in his hometown in Texas, Clark dropped his band and played every instrument on his own – diving deep into the music and making an album that is more like a personal project.
The searing guitar licks do show up on the new album but it also demonstrates how deep and mature a musician the young bluesman is. Genres are hopped with ease: from R&B (on Our Love) to gospel (on Church) to funk (on Can’t Sleep). His guitar is still the biggest magnet of his music but he also shows how comfortable and versatile his vocals can be.
The a capella opening to the first song, The Healing, is deceptive — it soon segues into a high-energy scorcher. And by the time you’re halfway into the album, and listening to Hold On, a song that is clearly a response to the resurgent racism in many parts of America, you are completely hooked to Clark. Again.
The other album that made its way to my playlist last fortnight was Craig Finn’s (frontman of The Hold Steady) new solo album, Faith in the Future. The Hold Steady and Finn make songs that tell stories – dark, sad and odd ones – about characters that inhabit the urban underbelly. Their songs are tales about people that are treated unfortunately by circumstances.
The 10 songs on the new Finn album aren’t different. His booze-soaked bar-ready vocals; the bit of reverb in the music; and the stories that aren’t going to make you happy. If you fancy a walk into the dark side, it’s a perfect album to play. I like The Hold Steady, and their 2005 album, Separation Sunday, creeps back into my playlist often. Craig’s storytelling is compelling though the stories are often disturbing. An album to play when you’re down and intend to stay there for a while. What? That doesn’t happen to you?
DOWN MEMORY LANE:
There are two tracks on Miles Davis’s 1970 album, A Tribute to Jack Johnson: Right Off and Yesternow; the first is nearly 27 minutes long and the second nearly 26.
Originally intended as a soundtrack for a documentary on the legendary black boxer, it’s probably the finest piece of electric jazz I’ve heard. Yes, finer than Bitches Brew. Oh, and who else besides the ace trumpeter is playing? Well, there’s John McLaughlin (on guitar), Herbie Hancock (on organ), and Billy Cobham (on drums). Want more? There’s also Dave Holland (on electric bass), Jack DeJohnette (on drums) and Chick Corea (on piano). Legends. Just like the album. Get a drink. Put it on. And switch off the lights.
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My vinyl copies of two of John Mayall’s albums, The Turning Point and Empty Rooms, are long gone. I don’t remember how I lost them or who borrowed them and never returned them – a common enough way to lose albums in the 1980s when I still used to lend music to others (now I simply share files).
Both the albums came out in 1969 but I got to listen to them several years later. Mayall, the legendary English bluesman in whose band, John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, big names such as Eric Clapton, Peter Green, John McVie and Jack Bruce cut their teeth in the 1960s, turned 81 in 2014. That’s the year he also released a new album, A Special Life. Listen to that album and you’ll see why he’s still the boss of British blues.
On A Special Life, Mayall sings a number of covers but his own song, World Gone Crazy, which is about the effects of religious intolerance, is the album’s must-listen track. Listening to it, I wanted to listen again to the two albums that I lost years ago. I have them in digital formats and in the cloud but it’s not the same thing. I heard them but missed the vinyls with their sleeves, album art and the text.
On The Turning Point (a live recording) and Empty Rooms (a studio album), Mayall had done away with loud electric guitars and drums and relied on horns, flutes, acoustic guitars and bass guitars that made the two albums sound spare but tight and intense.
Turning Point has songs influenced by the zeitgeist of the 1960s – the politically charged The Laws Must Change and I’m Gonna Fight for You JB, a tribute to JB Lenoir, a black American bluesman who died in 1967 and whose songs dealt with issues of politics and racism.
On Empty Rooms also there are signs of the charged-up 1960s (Plan Your Revolution) but there are also several mellow love songs (Thinking of My Woman, To a Princess, Many Miles Apart) that strike a very intimate and personal note.
I have heard quite a few Mayall albums (his discography is long; and his band line-ups have changed frequently) and his style of blues is quite heavily influenced by the Chicago blues sound – with themes dealing with city life (my reco on the leading exponents of the genre to explore: Muddy Waters, Hound Dog Taylor, Howlin’ Wolf and Koko Taylor but there are dozens of others). Like his compatriots, The Rolling Stones, Mayall’s music is highly influenced by the American blues but unlike the Stones, he stuck to the blues mainstream.
Re-hearing the two old albums, rekindled the blues bug and I spent hours trying to locate the 40th Anniversary Collection of Alligator Records CDs that I knew I’d bought a few years back. A renowned blues label, Alligator marked its 40th anniversary with the release of a 2-CD set with 38 songs.
As it happened, I couldn’t find it. I knew I had it. I knew I hadn’t lent it to anyone but yet I couldn’t find it. Then I remembered that I’d bought it just after it came out via Amazon back in 2011 and that my account in Amazon’s Music Storage in the cloud would have all the albums that I ever bought from the website plus all of what else I’d uploaded.
So, right now, as I write this, the Alligator album is streaming off the cloud. And exactly at this point, it’s Charlie Musselwhite, the phenomenally talented harmonica player doing Where Hwy 61 Runs.
Also watch: JJ Grey & Mofro – The Sun Is Shining Down
It’s a fine album, the 40th Anniv from Alligator Records. It’s got a mix of old blues musicians as well as the new. So you have Hound Dog and Buddy Guy and Albert Collins sharing an album with newer performers in the genre such as JJ Grey & Mofro, Janiva Magness (listen to her Slipped, Tripped and Fell in Love) and Eric Lindell, a New Orleans-based bluesman whose guitar has a healthy proclivity to jam!
DOWN MEMORY LANE:
While I’m talking of streaming, cloud storage and so on, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that I’ve been trying out Apple Music, the new music streaming service.
First, it’s dirt cheap (Rs 120 per month for unlimited streaming after the three-month free trial); second, I get to hear a 24×7, always on radio (this morning at 7.30, Elton John was DJ-ing); and third, I can find almost anything I want to. Or at least that’s what I decided to challenge.
I looked for an ancient psych-rock band from my old hometown (then called Calcutta), Great Bear. They played gigs in the city way back in the early 1970s. I found them. Not only that, I found two albums, Simla Beat ’70 and Psych Rock from India. Both are crammed with tracks from forgotten old Indian rock bands. Worth checking out. In heaps.
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My playlist got a little weird last week. It all began with a version of Paint it Black, the Stones’ song from 1966. The version, a cover, was stunning: slower and with none of the original lyrics. There was an Afro-beat and a funky feel to it, replete with congas and stuff. It was rather good. Instead of the original lyrics, the band covering it occasionally chanted “Paint it black”, pronouncing black as ‘Blaak’. I got curious and found out that the cover version was by a band, or rather, a collective, called Africa who put out just one album in 1968 called Music From Lil Brown. I later found that that Music from Lil Brown was an African-American response to Music From Big Pink, the debut album from The Band, which, of course, is the Canadian-American band that got fame because it was Bob Dylan’s back-up band but which on its own was easily one of the best rock bands that I’ve heard. Read more
When Tom Waits and Keith Richards sing the old ballad Shenandoah for you, the only libation that I can think of as an accompaniment is Old Monk Rum. Waits, 63, and Richards, 69, have probably two of the most gravelly voices (and looks to match) in the business and their rendition of Shenandoah, a song whose exact provenance I tried to find out and wasn’t completely successful, is an indication of the shape of things to come in the form of a new album called Son of Rogue’s Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs and Chanteys. Read more
My daughter, about to be eight, has an earworm. You know, a piece of music that seems stuck in your ear so seemingly permanently that you just couldn’t get it out. It’s a song that she hums, sings and dances with vigorously even though it’s not being played anywhere. And I’m happy. Delighted, actually, because the song happens to be Lonely Boy by The Black Keys. Actually, the duo that makes up The Black Keys may also seem like an earworm for Download Central, in case you are one of those readers who for some strange reason follows this column fairly regularly—I don’t know how many times I have written about them, obsessively, compulsively and, perhaps also, maniacally.
I think it is sometimes better to watch a film without having read any of the reviews. Had I read the reviews of 2010’s British film, London Boulevard, I probably wouldn’t have readily watched the film on DVD as I did recently. On Metacritic, the film, a directorial debut of William Monahan, the Oscar winning screenplay writer of Martin Scorcese’s The Departed, got a score of just 52, which is at best considered a middling rating. I was fortunate not to have scoured the net before watching the DVD because I liked the film. London Boulevard is a British crime drama with all Brit cast—Colin Farrell, Keira Knightley, Ray Winstone and David Thewlis (he played Remus Lupin in the Harry Potter films). But it is a British film made by an American director. Read more
There are some musicians that you want to kick yourself for not discovering earlier. And the desire to plant the sole of your shoe firmly on your own behind is intensified if the musician happened to have been right under your nose and yet you didn’t notice. Sugar Blue is one such musician that I wish I’d discovered much earlier than I did, which happened to be just a couple of weeks back. Sugar Blue plays the harmonica. In fact, he is dizzyingly good at it. But more about him in just a minute. Read more
Some musicians are so low profile that you hardly ever realise their influence. They rarely hog the limelight and, in fact, are most often overshadowed by their band-mates who are way more famous. How many of us know of Chuck Leavell? Even if someone told us that Leavell, 59, is an American pianist and keyboardist who has played with the likes of Eric Clapton, The Rolling Stones and The Allman Brothers, we’d probably go, “Oh, yet another sessions musician; there are so many.” But if I were to tell you that Chuck Leavell is actually a part of The Rolling Stones and has been touring with the band for years, would that make him any more familiar? Read more
There are some bands that you either love or you hate. Jane’s Addiction is one of them. I love them. But I also know many people who hate them. In fact, it is the very same reason for my loving them that is also the reason why some others hate them. That is, of course, Perry Farrell’s unconventional style of singing (he shrieks) and his voice, which I’ve read, being compared to a “banshee-in-a-wind-tunnel”. I have had companions forbidding me from playing any Jane’s Addiction albums at home on the stereo, forcing me to listen to those delightful brain-shredding shrieks on the earphones or headphones. Read more
Rick Grech’s violin solo on Sea of Joy is probably the reason why I keep going back to Blind Faith, the eponymous and only album by the 1968 British super-group that Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, Ginger Baker and Grech formed. I am not sure whether they lasted together for a full year but that album has so many of my memories attached to it that I can’t even begin to tell you. I must have been just a bit older than the pubescent girl on that risqué and controversial album cover when I first heard Blind Faith. It came out in 1969. I must’ve heard it in 1973 in my friend Sujoy’s mezzanine den where we used to meet for our nefarious activities. It was a vinyl that we played on a rather robust record player that he had – believe me, it took all kinds of mishandling, including some that I would be embarrassed as hell to tell you.