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Willie McBlind - Live Long Day

FreeNote Records

10 tracks/49:57

Trains have figured in blues songs for decades, from the early acoustic blues through the advent of music going electric. But as air travel grew in popularity due to ease and faster travel times, train imagery slowly faded away as grist for more contemporary songs.

Willie McBlind seems to be on a mission to singlehandedly restore trains to their once lofty spot as source material. Four of their original compositions plus the bonus track have the word “train” in the tittle while four other tunes are built around railroad themes.

The other unique aspect of the band is their use of micro tonally tuned guitars and bass. Jon Catler employs a 64-tone Just Intonation guitar along with a 12-Tone Ultra Plus in addition to fretless guitars. His “harmonic blues” explores the pitches and tones found in between notes on the standard Western scale. Mat Fields uses a 12-Tone Ultra Plus bass as well as fretless instruments. Lorne Watson handles the drums and percussion. Catler shares the vocal responsibilities with Babe Borden, whose three octave range and conservatory training make her a formidable presence whenever she is singing.

They get things rolling on the opener, “Sittin' in the Train Station” with Catler's spitting out a flurry of dark-hued notes while Borden echoes his work with several piercing screams. “Live Long Day” finds them reworking the lyrics to “I've Been Working on the Railroad” over an ominous musical landscape. The lyrically challenged “Slow Moving Train” is a shuffle that gives Borden a chance to once again utilize the full force of her impressive voice, easily sliding into her upper register to unleash some cries that rival Geddy Lee or Robert Plant in full flight.

“One Thing” manages to name-drop Casey Jones in the midst of repetitive lyrics that advocate “ the blues until your fingers bleed.” The band offers a more subdued approach on “Mighty Long Time”, with Catler's heartfelt vocal a highlight while his solo shows the unique tones his harmonic system is capable of generating. There's a hint of rockabilly on “Down the Road”, a leaving song that has Catler playing a chugging train guitar riff.

“Boogie Train” builds momentum through a opening sequence with the focus on Catler's harmonic guitar work, then he shares the lead vocal with Borden while adding a frenzied solo to the proceedings while she uses an autoharp to accent the arrangement. Their version of Robert Johnson's “Love in Vain” keeps the locomotive motif going and Borden's vivid singing goes from a deep growl to full-throat wail.
“The Train That Never Came”, is another mid-tempo number with a heavy rock influence that segues into a nine minute excursion into the world of harmonic microtones. Some musicians may find this section to be of interest but most listeners will write it off as feedback or distortion. It is an odd way to end the disc. Still, for those who favor a rocked-out version of blues – or simply appreciate a different take on the blues idiom, Willie McBlind may be just what you are looking for. And this one is definitely required if you have any train enthusiasts in the house!

Reviewer Mark Thompson retired after twelve years as president of the Crossroads Blues Society in Rockford. IL. and moved to Florida. He has been listening to music of all kinds for over fifty years. Favorite musicians include Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Magic Slim, Magic Sam, Charles Mingus and Count Basie.

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