Even one hearing of "Direct Current" (Sounds Reasonable SR7708) confirms the suspicion that white blues bands are making a last stand in Washington. Surviving with the bands are the derigueur accountrements, harps and horns. "Direct Current," a well-recorded and well-produced live chronicle of last September's second annual "Homegrown Festival," features two songs each by five of the most popular D.C. groups.
Because almost everything on the album is easily located somewhere on the Chicago-boogie-jump blues continuum, the album's charms and flaws are pretty much those of white blues in general. Like everyone from Paul Butterfield through J. Geils, the artists on "Direct Current" have mostly explored the genre with a great sense of craft and some ocassionally excellent musicianship. Because the emphasis was on the more rhythmic and rocking styles, the blues on "Direct Current" are an accessible, foot-tapping experience - what I would call "party music" when beer is the beverage of choice and necessity.
At the same time, most white blues has been a ho-hum affair for anyone searching for the more personal idiosyncracy and imagination that marks the best rock art. This album is no exception. By subscribing to the formal dictates of various blues styles, the white bluesman usually forgoes the opportunity to give the music an original stamp, to transcend the style. The greatest white blues - that of, say, Van Morrison or Bob Dylan - is a matter of this stylistic transcendence by the force of personal art. Paradoxically, when this happens we forget that it's the blues.
Bill Holland and Rent's Due contribute to the album's first and finest performance, "Cogito Ergo Sum Ne." Holland is the only artist on "Direct Current" who demonstrates the kind of distinctive lyrical intelligence needed to make a blue song that is more about himself than the musical style itself. The cut rides on the nervous jump of Holland's piano and Larry Strother's sax, and features some wonderful witty lyrics by Holland that can only be described as existential funk: "Mr. Descrates bared his heart/He said I think therefore I am/But if am is was, would it be/I don't understand!"
The Catfish Hodge Band probably got the most enthusiastic response at the festival, and the good-time spirit of Catfish's own "Holiday" shows why. The shuffle rhythm and playful and relaxed interplay of trombones and trumpet evoke the joyful and loose atmosphere of the best New Orleans R & B. Catfish's rendition of Lowell George's Sailin' Shoes" is simply too drawn out and rhythmically lugubrious, however, to sustain interest. If Hodge dropped all the cocaine songs from his stage act (crowd-pleasers though they may be), he might eventually recoup the loss of immediate rapport with some hardearned respect for his originality.
Both of the Powerhouse cuts are fine instrumentally (especially the blue harp of Pierre G. T. Beauregard), but it's dubious whether six minutes each of standards like "My Babe" and "Fever" is worth the listening time. Trying to pump inspiration into these blues archetypes is difficult. Where vocalist, George Leh sounds confident and relaxed on "My Babe," "Fever" pushes him into some preposterous vocal indulgences. His blustering vocals and leaden scat-singing drag the listener away from a passionate and hot blues and into a cold sweat.
D.C.'s two most popular bands - the Nighthawks and Root Boy Slim and the Sex Change Band - suffer most on this album because of song selection. I assume the fact that they both have soon-to-be-released albums dictated the exclusion of the best material they peformed that night.
That's too bad, because the Nighthawks leave us with a pedestrian, if energetic, version of Warren Smith's rockability classic, "Ubangi Stomp," and a harmless singalong on Buddy Johnson's "Pretty Girls and Cadilacs." They also leave us with little indication of why they are the most dependable of rocking blues bands. That's too bad, because the festival's highlights for me were the Hawks' evocative and potent blues numbers not included on "Direct Current."
Even on the album you can feel the energy level rise as Root Boy takes the stage, sharman's (or clown's) headdress, and all. All the rootin' in the world can't substitute for the woeful absence of melody and lyrical invention on "Express Train" and "You Can't Quit my Club." The Sex Change Band chugs through both with their best high voltage swamp blues, but without Root Boys' garage dump, pop poetry, we are forced to boogie with a straight face.