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Various artists – 35 Years Of Stony Plain
Stony Plain Records
CD1 - 21 tracks; 75.05 minutes; CD2 20 tracks; 73.20 minutes; DVD 11 tracks; approx. 54 minutes.
What were you doing in 1976? Holger Petersen was setting up a small, independent record company based in the most northern city in Canada, Edmonton. 35 years on that small debut has led to more than 400 album releases and the company is now established as a leading player in the blues and roots market. Stony Plain does not limit itself to Canadian artists and Americans such as Ronnie Earl, Duke Robillard, Rory Block, Steve Earle and Joe Louis Walker have found homes there, in some cases producing arguably their best work for the label.
This is essentially a double CD with a bonus DVD. The first CD is subtitled “Singers, songwriters and much, much more” and features an eclectic mix of material. For example, opening track “The Diplomat” finds Maria Muldaur in jug band mode, followed by the late Jeff Healey playing 1920s jazz guitar alongside excellent violinist Drew Jurecka. Harry Marx and Kevin Breit appear next on an attractive and quite bluesy piece “Looking For A Brand New World”.
There are several excellent performances on Disc 1 that are more folk/country or ‘Americana’, as such music is dubbed in the UK: Ian Tyson (the doyen of Canadian folk music and author of the timeless “Four Strong Winds” which is later reprised by Blue Rodeo on the compilation), Steve Earle, Corb Lund, Rodney Crowell and Emmylou Harris.
Two tracks on Disc 1 feature Duke Robillard (of whom we will hear more on Disc 2). One of Duke’s recent discoveries has been Sunny Crownover who was the featured vocalist on Duke’s 2009 CD “Stomp The Blues Tonight”. Here Duke accompanies Sunny on acoustic guitar in an ensemble called “Sunny And Her Joy Boys”. In collaboration with Jay Geils and Gerry Beaudoin, Duke produced the 2007 CD “New Guitar Summit” from which their interpretation of Charlie Christian and Lionel Hampton’s “Shivers” is taken. Both these tracks are more jazz than blues but are superbly executed.
Disc 2 is subtitled “Blues, R&B, Swing, Jazz and even more”, so that is where we blues fans should find more to our taste and we certainly do. Again, Duke Robillard features strongly; the first four tracks on the CD are all his productions: his own “Stomp The Blues Tonight”, Joe Louis Walker’s “Black Widow Spider” from “Between A Rock And The Blues”, the late Jay McShann captured with Duke’s band in 1998 and the very recent CD by Kenny “Blues Boss” Wayne bringing us right up to date. Just to demonstrate how prolific Duke is he also appears on further tracks by Doug James and Sugar Ray Norcia, Roscoe Gordon and Billy Boy Arnold. As ever with Duke’s recordings, all these are excellent tracks.
Jeff Healey appears again, this time in more familiar electric blues mode in a track from his 2008 BMA award winning CD “Mess Of Blues”. On Sonny Thompson’s “I’m Torn Down” Jeff reminds us of what an exciting player he was and what a loss to the blues world his untimely death was. In contrast Ronnie Earl’s approach to blues guitar is far more restrained yet always seems to reach our emotions. The track chosen here is “Miracles” from Ronnie’s 2010 release “Spread The Love”.
There are some previously unreleased tunes on these CDs that are worth noting. CD 1 features three demos recorded in 1979 by Bob Carpenter; CD 2 has a 1988 cut by King Biscuit Boy and no fewer than four unreleased 1965 recordings by Robert Nighthawk. Recorded late at night after a gig in Toronto, these are the last recordings he ever made and they are great fun. Perhaps there was insufficient material to warrant an album release at the time, but they are certainly a joy to hear, so thanks to Stony Plain for these tracks ‘from the vault’.
The bonus DVD material is mainly promo videos, some of which show their age. I liked the video for Jr Gone Wild in which they are playing live to an audience of one, albeit clearly a major fan of the band. When he decides to launch himself off the stage into the (now empty) audience, you just have to laugh! The tribute to Jeff Healey (playing Neil Young’s “Like A Hurricane”) is moving and the interview with Holger Petersen interesting. Ronnie Earl appears to be really playing live whereas Duke Robillard’s band is not, as Duke’s guitar changes from a Gibson to a Fender half way through!
The purpose of label-specific compilations is to promote the label’s roster. From a fan’s viewpoint the value is to discover new artists and this compilation offers a very wide range of material for us to consider. I have certainly one or two more albums to track down now!
Reviewer John Mitchell is a blues enthusiast based in the UK. He also travels to the States most years to see live blues music and is currently planning his trip to the Blues Blast Awards in October.