I have said it before, and I’ll say it again: the human voice is our very best instrument for the blues. The last patient venue operator will finally swing closed the door on the last blues promoter who brings the last “watch the guitar player play the guitar act” in America. And the amazing, world shattering, cultural direction setting project that was the blues will be done once and for all. Male singing in the blues is all but undiscussable. The rare good male blues singers need to be cherished like ambrosia and guarded like plutonium. Fortunately, the women who front our blues acts usually can sing; though, let’s be clear, a lot of the “big” women guitar players sing every bit as “adequately” as do their male peers. Do we go to hear our great female voices, look to them to define our scene, have their names on our lips, turn to the record bins and catalogues searching them out, and demand them at our festivals? Don’t fudge your answers.
'If you have a decent blues or soul radio station in your area you may have already heard some of Betty Harris’ Intuition, which got significant air time around the country, especially in the early months of 2008. You may have heard “Is it Hot in Here [or is it me]” which does that Tina Turner thing—straight forward, balls to the wall sexuality, with just a touch of irony for protection. Or you may have heard “Intuition,” a song in a gauzy little girl Macy Gray voice (or if you prefer historical comparisons, in a vulnerable Billie Holiday coo.) This is fine work.
Betty Harris is a great story. Harris toured through the 60s, landing high on the charts in 1963 with Solomon Burke’s “Cry to Me.” Life on the road got too hard, so she quit and went back to school, got a civilian job and a life. A few years ago her adult daughter told her people were writing about her in r&b collectors circles on the internet, that her old 45s were valuable. The possibility of a revival was born.
Jon Tiven produced this album. Tiven has a lengthy musical resume, including guiding Little Milton’s final award winning work and a long collaboration with Ellis Hooks. He has done a series of musical reclamation projects in the r&b and gospel genres on talents such as P.F. Sloan, Don Covay, and Garnet Mimms. Tiven did or shared most of the writing on Intuition, sharing primarily with former B.B. King bassist Sally Tiven. We blues lovers are inclined to smile favorably on anyone who can write a nugget like “A Bible and a Beer.”
This album works on many levels, with fourteen highly experienced players backing Harris through a good variety of contemporary blues tempos, melodic schemes, and familiar instrumental and backing vocal gambits. Harris, plainly, stars. She talks it straight, shouts at us, strains majestically, just flat out sings like you would like to stand next to her in church and lean in to hear her hit every last damn note.
I assume most people who pay attention to the blues know this, but just in case you are seriously confused that our music is made like Bruce Springsteen’s, where everything gets twenty takes, and songs are built over months of studio exertion, well it is not. Most of the cds reviewed in Blues Blast were probably rehearsed in one day and recorded in three or fewer days. So, the weaknesses of this album are found in the fact this is not the work of a “real band” that performs together all the time and has developed a whomping full sound. The drummers ride along, staying out of the way; the guitarists dutifully fill. It is good work, but it is craftman-like, and probably will not blow you away. There are times the listener suspects Harris is reading the lyrics off a sheet as she sings, that she does not really own all of these songs yet. This album needs to be four songs shorter. If it had been four songs shorter, and if Harris had fronted a band to really support it on tour last year, it would have been taken very seriously for blues awards for 2008 releases.
I was sent Christy Howard’s I Crossed the Tracks this spring, and popped it into the car CD player as I drove around St. Louis on a beautiful early April afternoon. I thought this was some kind of joke. This woman was trying to sing as if she is really tough, like a parody of some mean, dimwitted biker chic in Joe Namath’s legendary 1970 movie C.C. & Company. But don’t stop reading just yet. As with Harris’ album, it seems pretty clear, part of the problem here is that Howard brought in special “name” players, and the effect is a lot of riding along unobtrusively with predictable flourishes and turns. You cannot underestimate the way financial constraints are effecting what we are getting in the blues. As with Harris, Howard may well not have had the familiarity with these songs to go on short practice; but while Harris could probably sing the back of a box of Rice Krispies, Howard just forcefully puts hers out there. This is lesson 1, 2, and 3 for those blues bands who are doing great on some local scene and want to jump up to play on a national and international stage, and who are tempted to think there will be some kind of borrowed magic in some big name players with just enough hours in the studio to do the job. But if you are in Christy Howard’s band, don’t turn off the computer in disgust yet. At the mid-point, this CD opens up. “He’s Gone” is a fine slow blues, with fat guitar bending and cool piano lines underlining the melody. There is some humor and some menace in this. When Christy Howard speaks, “You better run, baby,” it works. This song is good enough that other bands should consider it for their repertoire. Jan Abrams adds some fine vocals; many listeners will especially enjoy his ballad “Six Feet Down in the Blues.” Christy Howard and Jeff Howard did all of the song writing on this CD, and obviously have not just potential but polish in their lyrics.
One can easily see that Roxy Perry’s 2009 release In My Sweet Time, will become a good friend to many listeners, never far from the top of the CD stack. Perry has maturity and is the soul of musical confidence. As with many blues albums these days, this is a bit of a contemporary blues revue; a little jazzier and more swinging than some, it makes a tour of different blues styles nonetheless. If that is too eclectic for some tastes, it works for Perry, because at the center is her voice and command.
When I try to put my finger on what makes this work special, I think of “release.” Perry and her players are so absolutely sure of themselves and each other, they have mastered the micro-stops, and almost imperceptible note elongations, that go past craft to art. They make the sound, hold it, and then release it when it says what they want it to say, and more than you thought it was going to say. The imagination floods.
Except for Hank William’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” Perry (with a hand from her mates Mike Ventimiglia, Chris Vitarello, and Mat Baxter) did all the writing on In My Sweet Time. For good humored, pissed off women songs her “Goodbye Honey” is great (her relationship diagnosis being, “He did the waltz, I did the tango . . .”). But as much as the opening jazz piano strains of the first song “Bed of Blues” brings you in, this album won me at the end with “Not Bad Enough,” a 1920s Bessie Smith type of piano blues with “authentic” record player “scratch” sounds. The song goes that she died and went to heaven but they didn’t want her there, so she went to hell and the devil told her, “You were bad, but you weren’t bad enough. You were bad, but your strong suit wasn’t sin. You were bad, but you can’t come in.” I would love to hear blues bands across the world trying their hand at this. It is a gracious note, to a fine album. Jurors will surely take Perry seriously when it is time to make 2009 blues award nominations.
As painfully trite as it is to say it, pay attention to our blues women. They may be our last refuge against cookie cutter guitar players.
Reviews by Dale Clark.