Category Archives: Contemporary Blues

Alpoko Don, Folk Culture and the Ethics of Field Recordings

Seems a lot of old timers like to complain about the decline of the blues, especially when the blues is understood as the last bloom of a vital folk culture. Yet, as I’ve insisted before, folk culture is not dying. Like it always has, folk culture is changing and adapting to the times.

Alan Lomax provided an incredibly important contribution to musical history, driving around the countryside and recording poor, rural musicians whose voices would otherwise never have been heard. Yet the growing awareness of the economics and politics of representation often call into question the ethics of field recording. Is it exploitative for an educated, upper-middle class white man to travel to economically marginalized regions or countries and record economically and culturally marginalized performers, sometimes without payment, for the sake of furthering their academic career? Sublime Frequencies, one of the foremost contemporary field recording labels, often seems to be faced with similar charges of unethical practice.

Advances in international telecommunications technology and the expanding realm of do-it-yourself internet culture pose at least two solutions. The first, undertaken by the Bandcamp-powered record label Sahel Sounds is to use these technologies to distribute payment for field recordings in a more democratic manner. While this solves many of the economic ethics of selling field recordings, it doesn’t answer any of the representational problems. Who chooses who gets heard, and how is it presented?

Which brings me back to my original argument: folk culture is alive and thriving, and the new technologies that many decry as the end of regionalized, local folk movements are helping to keep it that way. In the series of popular videos Greenville, South Carolina rapper Alpoko Don has uploaded to YouTube, he sits on his porch, hums a melody, and taps out a beat with his hands, all the while freestyling with a unique and well-developed sense of humour and timing. When his jokes hit home, neighbours and friends laugh audibly off-screen while Alpoko shoots them a knowing look.

If all this, except for the rapping, sounds uncannily familiar, it should. Front porch, a capella performances such as this are the backbone of most American folk musics. They require no professional equipment or training, just time, talent and a desire to convey a message. Alpoko’s videos are field recordings curated and published by the artist himself. As digital technology become more and more accessible, folk culture won’t disappear, it will merely begin to assert itself and connect to other musics in more global ways.

As always, of course I have no desire to assert an oversimplified 1:1 equivalence between the blues and rap, or any variety of music. Rather I wish to demonstrate the thriving, changing face of folk culture. If the folk-blues are dead, folk-rapping isn’t.

Alpoko Don, “Sitting Sideways” (2012)

Clyde Maxwell, “Corrina” (1978)

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Filed under Blues, Contemporary Blues, Field Recordings, Folk, Hip-Hop, Lomax, Music, Post-War Blues

Dr. John, Locked Down (2012)

Dr. John, “Revolution [Teaser]” (2012)

A lot has been made recently about the Black Keys’ guitarist/vocalist Dan Auerbach’s involvement in Dr. John’s new album Locked Down, which should come as no surprise, seeing as the Black Keys are the current flag-bearers of roots-, blues-, and soul-rock, territory that Dr. John has stalked for most of his career. Auerbach serves as producer and guitar contributor on this set of ten songs, and his presence shows. The production bears a striking similarity to the Black Keys’ sound from 2008 onwards, with murky vocals, neo-retro keyboards and a funky swagger. Many of the song lead-ins feel like lost Danger Mouse backing tracks with their break-filled drumming and horn charts. This sound works well with Dr. John’s signature vocal style, still incredibly unchanged after 44 years, bringing the Doctor in line with the current neo-retro fascination.

The second most common topic to come up in the discussion of this album seems to be Dr. John’s return to Nite Tripper-era atmospherics, and while this is somewhat accurate, as Auerbach’s production adds a swampy layer of murk, the songwriting itself lies closer to the Doctor’s 1972-1974 era albums, than his 1968-1971 style. As such, Locked Down doesn’t contain an experimental freak-out in the vein of “Croker Courtbuillon,” nor a 17-minute “Angola Anthem” jam-along. Given that these more left-field adventures are what gave the Nite Tripper-era albums their dynamism, Locked Down is a much more consistent affair, like his 1972-1974 albums. Despite the Nite Tripper referencing reviews and album art, which is awesome, by the way, Locked Down feels more like the spiritual successor to In The Right Place (1973), than Gris-Gris (1968). The album, in its entirety, is a very enjoyable listen, full of funky grooves and a great vibes, and the songs stand up to individual scrutiny, ranging from the overpoweringly groovy “Revolution” to the more contemplative “My Children, My Angels.” Check out the teaser video below, and be sure to pick up the album at your local, independent record retailer.

Dr. John, “Locked Down [Teaser]” (2012)

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Filed under Blues, Contemporary Blues, Jazz, Music, New Orleans, Rock, Soul

Belton Sutherland, “I Have Trouble”

While skimming through the Alan Lomax Archives’ YouTube account today I came across what is, in my mind, the Holy Grail of Lomax field recordings: a never-before-seen video of Belton Sutherland. Sutherland has long been a favourite around See That My Blog is Kept Clean, and adding a third song to his very limited output is a momentus occasion. Needless to say, I am currently very excited. Excitement aside, the song itself is a departure from the previous two Sutherland recordings that have been available to the public, as Sutherland abandons the powerful droning basslines of his other works, producing otherwise excellent rendition of Muddy Waters’ “I Be’s Troubled”/”I Can’t Be Satisfied”. Sutherland’s version of the tune is slowed down with a lot more emphasis on pauses and phrasing, and while sounding somewhat untutored, Sutherland turns Waters’ trademark boastful delivery into more of a lament. This new Sutherland track is accompanied by the release of both of earlier tracks on the official Alan Lomax Archives YouTube account, including a slightly more complete recording of “Old Grey Mule” (now officially labelled “Blues #1”). Watch the video for “I Have Trouble” below, and be sure to enjoy the newly available extra 15 seconds of “Blues #1,” here, as well as the officially available “Blues #2,” here.

Belton Sutherland, “I Have Trouble” (1978)

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Filed under Blues, Contemporary Blues, Field Recordings, Folk, Lomax, Music

Maria in the Shower, “Train of the Pounding Hours”/”Old Joseph Brady”

Maria in the Shower are vastly different from Titus Andronicus is many, very important ways. In fact, perhaps the only thing both bands share is the top spot on my list of favourite live bands. Both bands can electrify a stage and captivate an audience, albeit often for completely different reasons. Maria in the Shower have a theatrical stage presence that doesn’t shy away from props, costumes, over-arching narratives or contrabass acrobatics. That said, Maria in the Shower is not a band that needs to, nor does, rely on gimmickery. Attending a Maria in the Shower live show is to be taken on a wildfire tour through the American Folk songbook, beginning with jazz, browsing through folk and bluegrass, and winding up sweating through some pounding blues-rock numbers.

Maria create an excellent facsimile of all these styles, particularly pre-war jazz. For my money, however, Maria is best at crafting driving Americana epics. Maria in the Shower produce the type of music that the Decemberists would if their recent stylistic shift had settled south of the Mason-Dixon Line. That said, Maria in the Shower know a good New England sea-shanty when they get their hands on it! Nonetheless, my two favourite Maria in the Shower songs are the two that best fit the description of “driving Americana epic”: “Train of the Pounding Hours” and “Old Joseph Brady.”

“Train of the Pounding Hours” begins with the clank and clatter percussion of a hammer and chains and is best played loud. The sounds in question are reproduced faithfully at their live shows in a marathon performance by drummer Todd Biffard, by alternately striking a actual section of railroad track with a hammer and crashing a fistful of chains against the dancefloor. The simple cello riff that begins the track leads the rest of the group through a building drone as the music swaggers and sways with the chaingang percussion. The simple, repeated gospel chorus really seals the deal. When performed live, Martin Reisle, who sings lead on this track, breaks down into a shouting Evangelical rhapsody as the instruments drop out leaving the band and audience moaning in unison: “We’re bleeding, Lord. Bleeding, Lord.” It’s a very powerful thing to experience.

Maria in the Shower, “Train of the Pounding Hours” (from Come Never, 2009)

Though perhaps more subtle, Maria’s other epic is no less resonant. The song begins with a single guitar chord and Reisle’s wavering voice, before Reisle and other vocalist Jack Garton begin to trade verses, building the tension in the narrative. The band slowly joins in as the track builds to a beautiful, shuddering climax before a harmonizing, a capella dénouement.

Maria in the Shower, “Old Joseph Brady” (Live, 2010)

Their albums are available to stream or purchase, here.

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Filed under Blues, Contemporary Blues, Country, Folk, Jazz, Music, Rock

Tom Jones & Jack White, “Evil” (Howlin’ Wolf)

Last month, I posted an article about Tom Jones surprisingly good blues album Praise + Blame (2010). Jones’ chain of badass blues stompers recently received another entry with the Jack White produced cover of the Howlin’ Wolf immortalized “Evil” for Jack White’s series of one-off collaborations for his Third Man Records. White and Jones do a pretty good job of giving the Wolf’s “Evil” a modern blues-rock thump, and it’s definitely worth a listen, here. The track is available for pre-order as a limited edition, tri-color single backed with “Jezebel” at the same link. Dig it.

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Hound Dog Taylor, “Sun is Shining”

I tend to focus my posts about the blues on artists either from the pre-war or immediate post-war eras, so today I’d like to change things up a bit by posting a selection from Hound Dog Taylor’s 1982 album Genuine Houserocking Music. This is a classic piece of blues music, a gentle rocking beat cut through with a simple but incisive riff and Taylor’s croaking vocals. Songs such as this are why Hound Dog and his band, the Houserockers, have been referred to as the Ramones of the Blues: they only do one thing, it ain’t a hard thing to do, but they do it better than anyone else before or since. So here it is: simple, razor-sharp and incredible. Dig it.

Hound Dog Taylor, “Sun is Shining”

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Tom Jones, “Burning Hell” (2010)

This is a surprisingly badass song for the artist best known for the 1960s schmaltz-croon of “What’s New Pussycat?”. Much as Johnny Cash spent his final years exploring the darker side of American folk and country music, Jones 2010 album Praise & Blame is a back to the roots affair, seeing Jones play a rousing blues set. Despite my initial skepticism, Praise & Blame became one of my favourite releases of 2010. Jones’ weathered, commanding voice is well-suited to the Evangelical blues hollering he pursues on this album. Check out a live version of the stand-out track “Burning Hell” below.

Tom Jones, “Burning Hell”

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