Some fine blues ear candy

I love blues music.

It’s what I grew up playing and listening to and if it’s played well it’s something I never get tired of hearing.

Given its basic structure – mainly based around three chords and the pentatonics scales – it amazes me how varied the music is and how it’s attracted devotees for nearly a century.

However, therein lies a double-edged sword – yes, it’s a simple musical form and there is a lot you can do with it in terms of introducing variations and twists but its simplicity also means that you can end up with an awful lot of boring and cliched shite as well. When it’s all 3 chord 12-bars with pentatonic scales then it’s a fucking pain to listen to.

Leaving the ‘old blues guys’ aside – Robert, Muddy, the Wolf, John Lee, BB, etc, etc – and even the 1960s blues revivalists, it’s the younger breed that I’m concerned with here; the keepers of the flame as it were.

What I don’t like are people like SRV – Stevie Ray Vaughn. To me he displays all the hallmarks of the white guy who plays in a highly derivative style (Jimi Hendrix and Albert King)  and in an almost exclusively 12-bar and pentatonic setting. Yes, he had a gorgeous tone but that’s all his music has to offer me.

So, Stevie Ray isn’t coming out to play today but some other cats are – eleven of ‘em in my brand-new, shiny-as-a-shiny-shit list of ‘11 modern blues tracks you might not have heard before but fucking well ought to check out’. They’re in no particular order – it’s not a chart – and guitars are well to the fore. By ‘modern’ I mean post about 1980 – the second blues boom of the 20th century as it were – and you won’t necessarily find all the artists filed under ‘Blues’. As far as I know, all the albums these tracks are from are currently available.

1) The Hollywood Fats Band – ‘Too Many Drivers’. No longer with us due to a smack OD, Fats was a fantastic guitarist who spiced up his simple style with some lovely jazzy bebop touches a la Tiny Grimes and very early BB King. This track is a straight 12 bar but the ensemble playing is superb with great harp fills riding over Fats’ rock-solid rhythm playing. Beautifully smutty lyrics here, with lines like ‘You got a fine carburettor’. The intro is a beautiful, descending, double-stopped, diminished chord variant that sounds tricky but is a doddle if you hybrid-pick like me. A doddle maybe, but it was new to me when I first heard it. Very highly recommended and available on a great double album of the complete sessions along with alternative takes.

2)  Mike Henderson and the Bluebloods – ‘Wouldn’t Lay My Guitar Down’. As far as I know, Mike was a Country session player in Nashville before he went blues. A good job too, as he kicks major fucking ass on this track. It starts off with him singing in unison with his own electric slide and then the whole band piles in after one verse of this. Accolades here for the drummer who powers the track along with a very muscular New Orleans style shuffle. No pyrotechnics from Mike’s soloing but he does enough and that’s almost always better than too much with blues. The whole album (‘Thicker Than Water’) is OK, but this track’s the real standout.

3) Junior Wells – ‘I’m Gonna Move to Kansas City’. Sheer coincidence at play here, as Junior gave Hollywood Fats (real name Michael Leonard Mann) his nickname. Junior had been around for a long time when the album containing this track came out. After a long term partnership with the great Buddy Guy, Wells went solo and eventually came out with an album which saw him paired up with several young guitarists, including Derek Trucks (if my memory serves me correctly) on this corking track. With Junior and the slide guitarist soloing over a very jazzy shuffle, the band hits a nice groove which is relaxed yet very propulsive. Junior’s not the best blues singer you’ll ever hear, but his harp playing is great and the standard of musicianship throughout ensures that the whole album’s very, very good indeed.

4) David Grissom – ‘What Passes for Love’. Wielding one of several beautiful PRS guitars and filtering his chops through a cranked Marshall to create a tone so thick you could carve chunks off it, Grissom’s one of my favourite players. Ex-sideman to Joe Ely, John Mellencamp and the Dixie Chicks, he’s also a fantastic blues player who’s Inventive in both his solo and rhythm playing as revealed on this track. which comes from an album he cut with his own band Storyville. Beautiful suspended chords, a chunky riff and a blinding and moody solo all combine in a song that isn’t a 12 bar but still oozes blues feeling. The album this comes from is ‘A Piece of Your Soul’ and is highly recommended – as are all of the Storyville albums. Check out a live version of this track on YouTube!

5) Michael Katon – ‘Put My Blues Back On’. Michael’s one of those jobbing players who gigs like a madman, releases a slew of great albums and yet never gets elevated to the first rank of players – which is a real shame as he’s very good. People like Kenny Wayne Shepherd have been flavour of the month whilst Katon has just been slogging away. I bet a lot of people will now say ‘Kenny who?’ whilst Michael keeps on packing ‘em in all over the US – I hope so anyway! Just a 3 chord 12-bar, this track is performed with such flair and sheer ballsiness that it transcends the form with some gutsy guitar and raucous vocals. I seem to have had MK in my collection forever but he still means bugger all in the UK. Check him out – he won’t disappoint. This is good time blues – real no frills stuff – and I love it. 

6) Chris Cain – ‘Blues for Curtis J’. I have 7 Cain albums and I can’t say that his body of work hangs together too well. There’s no question that he’s a dynamite player – he can do BB, Burrell and Coryell with consummate ease – but it’s a bit like listening to several players rather than just the one. Factor into the mix his really quite terrible voice and you might be asking why he’s in this list at all. Well, he’s simply an amazing guitarist who can underplay in a vaguely BB King style and then astound you with his jazzy flourishes. I like that in a player – he can play simply but he has the chops to cope with more complex material. This track is very jazzy indeed but still blues – it just has more added notes!

7) Left Lane Cruiser – ‘Set Me Down’. A strange band this – a guitarist/vocalist and a drummer keeping it very simple. If you like Seasick Steve then this album should be a revelation as LLC are way better than the grossly overrated Steve. It’s no-nonsense stuff but played with real heart and stripped down to one chord work outs driven along by some basic but very pungent slide playing and a drum kit which seems to include some strange items of percussion. The album this is from is called ‘Bring Yo Ass to the Table’ – which might convey the rather punky attitude that pervades the whole thing. Worth checking out if you want some rent party blues!

8) Chuck E Weiss – ‘Tony Did the Boogie-Woogie’. Taken from a real oddball album with a title to match – ‘Old Souls and Wolf Tickets’ – this track is pretty representative of the album, with its strange mix of Tom Waits, Randy Newman, Captain Beefheart and swing, all held together by Chuck’s unique voice and lyrics. It’s one of those mixtures that is so strange that you can’t see it working but when you hear it it does – against all the odds. Still the blues, but as far from the norm as it’s possible to get. That’s a good thing and what keeps the blues alive today. 

9) Jan Akkerman – ‘Blues Route ‘94’. The ex-Focus guitarist is still going strong and releasing albums showcasing almost any genre of guitar playing. This track comes from the excellent ‘Blues Hearts’ album and has Jan playing blues with some flashy jazzy touches and a nice crunchy tone over a very LA backing – think Steely Dan and you’re almost there! I admire people like Akkerman. Unlike many of his contemporaries he’s refused to rest on his laurels and stay safe by churning out what first made him famous. Like Jeff Beck he’s an experimenter which is why he’s as relevant today as he was 40 years ago. Unlike someone like Clapton for example. Also worth checking out on this album – ‘Milestones’ and ‘Red Pool House Blues’. 

10) Chris Duarte – ‘My Way Down’. I don’t dispute that Duarte owes a lot to SRV, but he tweaks the formula so effectively that this track – the first one on his debut album ‘Texas Sugar/Strat Magik – surpasses Vaughn. What’s more, Duarte has kept on refining his playing into what is very definitely his own style today. This track is a nice funky blues with some fine soloing after the initial vocals. However at about 2.20 in, Duarte plays a flurry of tension building chords, cranks up the volume and then launches into a blindingly dirty solo. This change of gear never fails to make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. If you like SRV, check Duarte out. You may be pleasantly surprised!

11) Rainer Ptàcek – ‘Drive, Drive, Drive’. No longer with us – a natural death for a change – Rainer, as he was better known, was a consummate slide player equally at home with acoustic or electric guitar and blessed with a very melodic approach to the blues. Covering everything from Delta blues with layers of echoplexed guitar to ZZ Top blues raunch (he even cut an album with them!) Rainer was a true original and with his nerdy but effective vocals and skilful slide playing I reckon he’d be mega today. Still, there’s quite a lot of his stuff available and this track from ‘The Rainer Collection’ shows him in electric mode and taking plenty of liberties with the basic format. If you enjoy straight blues with a quirky but sensitive vibe and some hot slide playing then Rainer’s well worth checking out.

So, there you are; 11 tracks showing that the blues is alive and well and not just something that people like Eric Clapton wheel out for an airing every now and then.

Every single one of these tracks blows away anything bluesy that Clapton’s put out in the last 40 years.

And why 11 tracks?

Because it’s my fucking list – that’s why…

One Response

  1. Hey SteveShark,
    Thanks for including me on your list o’ levin!
    I appreciate it Brutha!
    Warm Regards From Hell!, Michael Katon

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