Son House – “The Real Delta Blues” (1974)

One item on my “must-do” list any time I’m in Portland, Oregon is a trip to Mississippi Records. The small retail space/label is a treasure trove. You’re not going to find all those dollar bin records that seem to fill up 90% of the space in most shops, but instead an eclectic and surprisingly deep selection across a number of genres. If you’re willing to expand your horizons I guarantee you’ll come out of there with at least a half dozen records under your arms. And the prices… the prices… no gouging happening at Mississippi; their prices are always reasonable. Just remember to bring a pocket full of cash, kids, because they don’t take credit or debit cards.

I found this reprint of the 1974 Son House classic The Real Delta Blues (14 Songs From The Man Who Taught Robert Johnson) on the wall at Mississippi in pristine condition a few weeks ago. I’ve been infatuated with House for a while, ever since listening to Jack White talk about him on the documentary It Might Get Loud, but this is the first time I pulled the trigger on one of his recordings. Not only are the record and jacket perfect, but the label Blue Goose provides some deep and thoughtful liner notes on the back cover, the kind of thing you’d expect to see on the classic 1950s and 60s jazz records, which is a great primer on the man and his music. Farmer and preacher, railroad man and drinker, musician and killer (♠). Son House led a life, to be sure.

Blues is, at its best, simply a guitar and a singer, usually one in the same person. And that’s what Son House gives us on this collection of 14 tracks, all House originals recorded in the 1960s. With the voice of an older man (he would have been in his 60s when he performed these versions) the songs drip with soul. There’s nothing here keeping time, it’s just emotion poured out in words and a lonesome guitar. In other words, it’s perfect.

Blue Goose originally released The Real Delta Blues in 1974 and there appear to have been one or more subsequent re-pressings, though I’m not sure when these were made or if they’re bootlegs. I suspect mine is one of the later pressings. The important thing to note, though, is that the recording quality is outstanding, so if you’ve been thinking about checking out Son House, this is a great place to start.

(♠) Son House shot and killed a man at a party in 1928. The facts were a bit murky, and the shooting may have been in self-defense. Or it may not. He was convicted and sent to prison, but released early after less than two years served.

“Gabe’s Dirty Blues” Compilation (1978)

Gabe McManus owned Seattle’s Shamrock Tavern back in the 1950s and 1960s, turning the regular old dive bar into a blues and jazz dive bar. He also had a prodigious record collection, one said to have consisted of more than 60,000 titles. In the late 1970s his son suggested he try to put together an album of some of the lost blues classics in his collection, and in 1978 they miraculously pulled it off in the form of the 30-song, 2XLP Gabe’s Dirty Blues. The record is said to have sold about 15,000 copies, mostly in the Seattle area, and that’s how I ended up coming across a copy at Georgetown Records a few weeks back. The jacket is pretty thrashed, but the vinyl is in great shape.

I’m not even remotely knowledgeable about blues, but even so I was surprised at how many songs I recognize on this record, even if it’s not the same version I know. Right from the get-go I got hit with Little Willie John doing “Fever” and found myself thinking, “Alright, this could be cool”. “Sixty-Second Man” I know from it’s inclusion in the movie Bull Durham, while “Big Ten Inch Record” is familiar due to Aerosmith’s well-known cover version. And frankly the ones I don’t know are every bit as good.

I’m not much of a blues guy, to be sure, but every no and then I want to hear it. And a well-curated comp like Gabe’s Dirty Blues is perfect for those times.

Three Torches – “Hex” (2017)

An unexpected CD showed up in my mailbox the other day, a pre-release copy of a new album entitled Hex by a band out of North Carolina called Three Torches. I’d never heard of them before, and wasn’t expecting anything in the mail from them, but I’m not one to refuse a musical invitation, so into the CD player it went.

The “About” section of the Three Torches Facebook page describes the band’s sound as “junkyard jazz and latinesque emanating from a scratchy radio in a late model vehicle w/ expired tags,” and I’m definitely buying it. My guess is the ashtray is full of butts and there are some questionable stains on the upholstery as well, because the music is a bit old-timey and the vocals booze-soaked. Some songs are of woeful regret and others salsa-esque, all of them calling to mind certain slightly rundown neighborhoods, the kinds where you find the most interesting bars and the greasy spoons that have the best all-day breakfasts, whether you’re just getting started with your day when you walk in at 6AM or just ending it.

Methuselah and Medusa, one-eyed kids and monkeys on your back, they’re the types of things that populate Three Torches’ world. It’s not a cheery place, and the deliberateness of the strong rhythm section keeps the pace slow like a tired drunk trying to walk a straight line, while the guitar sometimes keeps pace and at others shoots out like an electric boomerang before quacking coming back to the hand that threw it to once again join the beat. The vocals have a wandering restlessness, with even the more crooning numbers like “Wherever Dreams Go” retaining a certain weariness-of-life, I-can-take-it-or-leave-it quality to them. It’s music for the perpetually down on their luck, but also for those who achieved a certain level of satisfaction in being able to afford smokes and booze and still have enough game to occasionally bring a like-minded lady home for the evening.

You can check out some of Three Torches’ tracks HERE, a number of which will appear on Hex when it’s released (no official date at this time).

“The Rough Guide to East Coast Blues” Compilation (2015)

I’ve never been a particularly big blues fan, at least not so far as traditional blues goes (as opposed to blues rock). My father-in-law is though, and we spent many an evening sitting on his driveway after dinner having drinks, smoking cigars, and listening to blues tapes, so that’s what I always think of when I hear the blues.

The Rough Guide to East Coast Blues consists of a dozen old school blues tracks that originated from the Piedmont region, a style that differs a bit from that of the more frequently referred to Delta blues from the deep south. All the performances date from the 1920s and 1930s, so while the mastering and production did an excellent job in cleaning up the sound, the songs still retain a certain old-timey feel. We’re talking about songs that were all performed in one continuous take using a process that is basically the exact reverse of playing a record, instead cutting groves into a master. When you think about that, it makes the quality of these recordings that much more impressive.

In listening to this album I’m reminded of a couple of contemporary bands I truly enjoy – Hillstomp and Devil Makes Three. Certainly both have a much faster paced style than the old school bluesmen, but the influences are certainly there to be heard. The influence of the blues on rock is unquestionable, and while it may not be as truly a uniquely American musical style the way jazz is, it is a heavily Americanized version of traditional folk, one influenced by geography and ethnicity, and how those things interacted.

The A side consists of what I think of as more traditional blues – limited instrumentation and a soulful singer. The B side gives a few more uptempo, almost poppy kind of numbers like “Mama, Let Me Scoop for You” by Blind Willie McTell. Not being any kind of blues expert myself, I’m not sure how these two different styles fit together, though I’ll admit the inclusion of these bouncier tunes gives a bit of extra flavor to the collection.

I give the Music Rough Guides label a lot of credit for the quality of The Rough Guide to East Coast Blues. The overall quality is excellent, the notes on the jacket reverse are informative, and it includes a download card. And for around $15, that’s a pretty solid value.

Blues Brothers – “Briefcase Full of Blues” (1978)

Jake: We’re putting the band back together.
Mr. Fabulous: Forget it. No way.
Elwood: We’re on a mission from God.

Actors want to be musicians (♠), musicians want to be actors (♥). It’s the way of things. Truth be told attaining legitimate cross-over status is difficult, likely more so for the actors who want to be taken seriously as musicians. After all, their primary job is to pretend to be other people, something that does not inspire confidence that you’re legitimately good at something else. But sometimes… sometimes it works. And one of the early examples was the duo of John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, who smartly combined the two arts by creating their own musical alter egos, the brothers Jake and Elwood Blues. The Blues Brothers.

Every generation has to discover the movie The Blues Brothers for themselves, and it has retained a solid following (especially among teens and young men) for close to 40 years now. The fictional back story of the brothers is populated by a veritable who’s who of actors and musicians, like a dysfunctional musical with some inspired performances. How they got so many talented artists to participate in that project, I’ll never know.

I ran across a copy of the first Blues Brothers album yesterday, 1978s Briefcase Full of Blues. Belushi and Aykroyd smartly surrounded themselves with a backing band of incredible musicians and performed an all-covers selection of blues classics, ensuring that at least the music and songs would be great and leaving them to do what they do best – perform. And they nail it. Belushi’s excitement is palpable, and Aykroyd’s vocals on “Rubber Biscuit” are hysterical. Frankly you feel like they’re not really acting, instead that they’re playing characters that are in fact elements of their own personalities.

The result is a fun 10-song live blues record with a just a bit of a sense of humor. And man, couldn’t we all use a little more fun in our music from time to time?


(♠) For examples see: Depp, Johnny; Thornton, Billy Bob; and Shatner, William.

(♥) For examples see: Cube, Ice; Bowie, David; and Jagger, Mick (♦).

(♦) My God “Freejack” was awful…