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Fiona Boyes – Blues For Hard Times

Blue Empress/Vizztone

16 tracks; 57.30 minutes

Fiona Boyes was the first Australian to win the coveted IBC solo award in 2003 and has also been the only Australian to be nominated for a BMA, so she has made quite an impact in a short space of time. On her new CD she returns to a stripped down, mainly acoustic approach, playing either solo or in a small combo format. The CD was produced by Mark ‘Kaz’ Kazanoff at Wire Studios in Austin and an array of Austin musicians help out: Jimi Bott and Frosty Smith on drums, Derek O’Brien on guitars, Nick Connolly on piano,Dave Kahl, John Mazzacco and Larry Eisenberg on bass. Bob Margolin puts in one of his trademark slide guitar features on “Baptised In Muddy’s Sweat” and producer Kazanoff adds harmonica to two tracks. However, on half the tracks it is just Fiona playing solo, sometimes accompanying herself on foot percussion.

The material is mostly original with just five covers. There is a fuller sound on tracks like JB Lenoir’s “Grandma’s Advice” although it is still just a trio of Fiona, Kaz Kazanoff on harp and Jimi Bott sounding like three men on the drums. “Guys Be Wise” is by Dan Grove and is a response to Sippie Wallace’s “Women Be Wise”, a song covered by Bonnie Raitt in the past. The track differs from most of the CD in having a fuller sound with a tuba and clarinet combination providing something of a classic era band sound. Fellow Australian Nick Charles’ “No Friends” adds bass and a second guitar but remains essentially an acoustic sound. A solo cover of Rev Gary Davis’ “Mean World” reminded me that there are a lot of songs with a very similar lyric and that this is not quite the same as Little Walter’s “Mean Old World”! The final track on the CD is a cover of another Aussie Chris Wilson’s “Jesus Took Possession” which sees Fiona alone with her guitar and foot on a song that harks back to old gospel songs and contrasts well with Fiona’s own tune “The Preacher” which immediately precedes it with its catchy tune and memorable chorus: “there ain’t nothing like a yellow haired girl to make a preacher lay his bible down”. The two songs together make a fine end to the album.

“Baptised In Muddy’s Sweat” takes a story related by one of Fiona’s friends about seeing Muddy live in concert and (as her excellent notes on the songs on her website explain) you could not have such a song without Bob Margolin’s expert representation of Muddy’s slide style. “Drink To Your Health” is a funny song, apparently about Fiona’s ex: “I’m sitting here drinking all alone; I’m gonna drink to your health, baby, until I ruin my own”.

Most of the songs here tell a tale: “God And The Devil” recounts the classic ‘good versus evil’ issue and how we are all at times torn between the two. Opener “Nickels And Dimes” takes an optimistic view of the current economic difficulties over a jaunty rhythm and some nice finger picking Piedmont style guitar. “I Let The Blues In” is an autobiographical piece about how Fiona found herself in the music she now pursues as a career. I particularly enjoyed the gentle beat of “High Time”, a song about getting away from your troubles: “I ain’t gonna check my mail, ain’t gonna do my books… you can’t make me look”, enhanced by Kaz Kazanoff’s excellent harp playing.
In an essentially acoustic setting there is nowhere to hide for the vocalist, so it is to Fiona’s credit that she can meet that challenge well. She has quite a deep voice, with just a touch of grit when needed and the words are entirely clear throughout the disc. There is a lot to appreciate here and the CD should add further to Fiona’s growing reputation. Definitely recommended to those who enjoy acoustic blues, solid musicianship, interesting songs and strong vocals.

Reviewer John Mitchell is a blues enthusiast based in the UK. He also travels to the States most years to see live blues music.

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