When the recording industry sings the blues, as it often has in these inflationary times, you can bet blues musicians are singing them, too. Of the four artists appearing at the Smithsonian's blues symposium this weekend -- Koko Taylor, Willie Dixon, Taj Mahal and J.C. Burris -- only Taylor has recorded consistently and with much success in recent years.
Three excellent albums by Taylor have been released on Chicago's Alligator label, by far the most active electric blues label in a small and generally static field. But now, with an impressive batch of blues albums coming from Rounder Records, another company is helping to fill the void.
The best of these albums include releases by the Legendary Blues Band, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, and the team of Robert Jr. Lockwood and Johnny Shines. The most noteworthy, perhaps, is "Life of Ease" (Rounder 2029), the debut album of the Legendary Blues Band. A name like that may smack of hype, but if any rhythm section in blues deserves being called legendary, it is drummer Willie Smith, bassist Calvin Jones and pianist Pinetop Perkins.
Like the harp player Jerry Portnoy, all three worked in the Muddy Waters Band until 1980 when they decided to go out on their own. Later, they teamed up with guitarist Louis Meyers, himself a legend of sorts, best known for the classic recordings he made with Little Walter in the early '50s.
It is no surprise then that the Legendary Blues Band is a smooth and tightly coordinated ensemble. Perkins and Jones may not be striking vocalists, certainly not in a league with Muddy Waters, but each is comfortable and convincing in the roles they play on this album, roles that often complement each other.
Perkins has a sweet and low voice. It's an amiable companion to the rollicking boogie-woogie piano style he favors. His bouncy accompaniment, which emphasizes both ends of the keyboard -- rumbling bass patterns and sustained trills -- frequently brings an old-time exuberance to the album.
Jones is the more versatile singer. He breezes through the stoptime shuffle beat of the title track, sounds convincing on the vengeful "Payback" and cuts loose on Little Richard's "Lucille." Former Roomful of Blues' guitarist Duke Robillard, who helped produce the album, also appears briefly on "Lucille," but the band's instrumental lineup doesn't really need additional support.
As always, drummer Willie Smith keeps simple, uncluttered time; he is to Chicago blues what Count Basie's guitarist Freddie Green is to Kansas City jazz. Jerry Portnoy brings three original tunes to the album as well as a harmonica style that ranges from dark cello tones to high register Jimmy Reed licks. And Louis Meyers' guitar is alternately fleet, lyrical and poignant. All in all, "Life of Ease" is a promising and potent debut album.
Even more satisfying is Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown's (Rounder 2029), if only because it once again captures this guitarist and fiddler doing what he does best -- playing a brash southwestern mixture of jazz and blues while a vigorous and responsive horn section wails behind him.
This is the same territory that T-Bone Walker carved out in the '40s, and these days no one covers it as well as Brown -- when he's properly equipped. This time out, he is. Not only are things diverse and colorfully arranged, but the personnel, particularly the soloists, make this Brown's finest release since recording with Roy Clark several years ago.
Brown can be awfully wordy at times. He also has a habit of playing favorites -- reprising the same songs over and over again. But listeners don't have to contend with those problems on "Feelin' Alright." Brown wisely lets the music speak for itself, and while some of the songs may be familiar, the arrangements often sparkle with colorful twists.
Albert Collins' "Frosty," for example, is treated lavishly, complete with a riffing horn section and a booting alto sax lead by Bill Samuels. And Samuels isn't the only band member worth noting. David Fender brings several nice touches to the album, like the bluesy Hammond organ on Percy Mayfield's "Give Me Time To Explain" and the honky tonk piano on "Honey in the Be-bo." But for the most part this is Brown's show. Throughout the album, as he moves confidently from swing to blues to funk to honky tonk styles, Brown's supple guitar phrasing and clear tone contrasts sharply with the bold, brassy punctuations. This is a wonderfully vibrant juxtaposition of brass and strings. A more infectious brand of blues is hard to imagine.
Oddly enough, Lockwood and Shines' "Mr. Blues Is Back To Stay" (Rounder 2026) has a lot in common with Brown's inspired eclecticism. Shines is best known as an acoustic guitarist, one very much influenced by the '30s Delta blues king Robert Johnson, while Lockwood, also one of Johnson's prote'ge's, has led a progressive electric blues band for many years. The two have teamed up with exceptional results before, but nothing they've done approaches the adventurous spirit of this album.
Using Lockwood's band, a group versed in jazz as well as blues, Shines and Lockwood stretch the conventional rhythmic and harmonic boundaries of blues music. James C. Garrett's arrangements incorporate elements of bop, blues, funk and swing, and when saxophonists Maurice Reedus and Bobby Marcus are allowed to flex their muscles, the music breathes freely, strutting from one idiom to the next. These are blues with bite, drive, taste and plenty of personality.