Of the relatively few poignant moments in "The Blues," the spotty documentary series produced by Martin Scorsese and aired by PBS last year, most came courtesy of Bobby Rush. Crisscrossing the South on an unreliable bus, he explained why it was necessary to keep his chops as an engine mechanic just as sharp as his chops as guitarist and singer. He got you rooting for him. But in the end you were left unconvinced that the charms that serve Rush well on the "chitlin circuit" will propel him to the larger stage he plainly craves.
If "The Blues" garnered Rush any new fans, "Folk Funk" is a good place for them to begin closer listening. The sessions arose from Rush's long-held desire to explore the seminal styles that inform his playing, which extend from blues to funk and soul. All are evident on the reworked Rush classic "Chicken Heads -- Refried," a groovy, tall-walking bit of lover-man hyperbole, while you can hear the Meters conflate with southern boogie on the guitars that slither through "Uncle Esau."
The music here is free of the ornamentation that weighs down many of Rush's modern recordings, a blessing when you consider the sterling backing band, which includes Alvin Youngblood Hart on guitar and Stax session drummer Charlie Jenkins. They lock elbows with Rush in animating even tired blues tropes. The world may not need another song about the road like "Ride My Automobile," but the listeners' needs have never been the blues' primary concern. The song is a piece of funk-hard, tightly syncopated craftsmanship, and it's worth it just to hear Rush relishing the sound of his fuzzed-out guitar, audible proof that his pistons still fire. Long may he ride.
-- Brett Anderson
23RD STREET LULLABY
Patti Scialfa takes a fond look back on "23rd Street Lullaby," her second solo album, following "Rumble Doll" 11 years ago -- before she got busy with family, and with husband Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band. Now, like the protagonist of her song "Rose," she's around her mid-century mark, old enough to have mastered the art of reflecting and partying at the same time.
The new album was inspired by Scialfa's late-'70s and early-'80s time in New York, when she busked in the Village, became part of the Chelsea artist community and worked with David Johansen, the Rolling Stones and, ultimately, Springsteen. The album romanticizes her starving-artist experience; fellow Chelsea denizen Rufus Wainwright famously sang of being drunk and wearing flip-flops on Fifth Avenue, but Scialfa's dreamers undergo no such decadent periods. She'd rather be sassy, buoyant and extroverted -- and it's irresistible to compare her easy style to that of vintage Springsteen. Like him, she handles rockabilly ("City Boys"), slow-dance dreaminess ("Romeo") and nouveau-beatnik rock ("You Can't Go Back") with equal skill.
Legendary producer Steve Jordan (Robert Cray, Keith Richards) teamed with Scialfa on production work, and old pals including vocalist-violinist Soozie Tyrell and guitarist Nils Lofgren pitched in, but Scialfa is the undeniable star here, emerging from the Boss's big shadow without hesitation. "Rose" is particularly charming, with its retro "sha-la-la-la" opening and its keenly drawn portrait of a seasoned waitress who knows the secrets of her club: "Keep a dollar in the jukebox . . . a bottle of whiskey behind the coffee machine." Scialfa's voice slides up and down on notes easily, strong and graceful -- proving the sweet toughness so right for E Street can work on 23rd Street as well.
-- Pamela Murray Winters