New York Sounds: American Roots

By Martin Longley.

James Blood Ulmer & The Memphis Blood Blues Band
Jazz Standard

James Blood Ulmer

James Blood Ulmer

For a blues combo that doesn’t possess a particularly powerful presence on the mainstream blues circuit, James Blood Ulmer certainly took his Memphis Blood Blues Band to the music’s furthest limits and highest levels (both in terms of artistry and volume peaks). The singer-guitarist’s four-night stint at Manhattan’s Jazz Standard club doubtless reached its apogee on this final Sunday evening. Without being a jazz elitist, it might be observed that the act of populating a band with players who also have heavy experience in free-form improvisation, funk, metal, country and old-time swing can be deeply beneficial to widening the portals down in that old blues cellar-bar.

One or two quizzed folks had reported that the run’s opening sets had slightly suffered from a degree of un-togetherness. This situation had changed significantly by the last night (if such an observation was just in the first place). By this time, Blood’s posse had coagulated into a single entity, dedicated to passion, drive, abandon and virtuosity.

The concept was ostensibly simple: to take a conventional blues repertoire, songs heard in countless manifestations down the decades, and subvert this material via a slightly skewed interpretation that breathed fresh fire into the toothless maw of the stooped rocking-chair stoop-veteran. The first step towards this hot-wiring process was inducting Living Colour’s guitarist Vernon Reid in the position of deputy bandleader and musical organiser. At the opening of each set, he would introduce each player as they were given a meaty portion of bars for self-expression. Oft-times, with the pumped-up volume levels and frequent choice of distortion as a conduit towards the ears of the audience, it would be fleetingly challenging to discern who might be starting up their solo. A communal howling, scorching, bleeding swoop would make Reid’s electric guitar sound like the psychedelic wah-wah-ing of Charlie Burnham’s rugged violin, which could, in turn, fool our delicate ears that it was a smouldering harmonica gush, courtesy of David Barnes, whose rusty reeds might impersonate the wheeling rush of Leon Grunebaum’s Hammond organ. Absolutely nothing sounded similar to Greenbaum’s small electronic lap-device, which looked like a chance meeting on an operating table between a keytar and a computer keyboard.

The resultant group sound was as dirty as an unwashed Fat Possum, yet as slick as an imagined Mahavishnu Orchestra tribute to Muddy Waters. As smokin’ as Ornette Coleman onstage with Jimi Hendrix. And this was before the first number of each set had climaxed. Further excitement was imminent, of course, as Ulmer himself entered the ring for the greater bulk of the two Sunday shows. As Reid was the dedicated audience communicator, Ulmer decided to hunker down and play, putting all of his expression into his raw, gruffly-conversational vocals and his spiralling guitar statements, themselves also imbued with the gift of speech. The harmolodic experience can’t be denied, and it was particularly thrilling to hear ballsy blues solos shot out of an avant canon.

Ulmer is a master of dislocated phrasing, both vocally and on guitar. Where Reid’s the streamlined rocker, a fuzz sculptor in the post-Hendrix tradition, Ulmer has the unpredictable rhythms of a Lightnin’ Hopkins, slashing his strings with a splayed hand, sensitively deployed when required, but capable of emphatic arpeggios when he needs to sting. His constructions are like rusted iron tendrils, twisted into surprising shapes.

The Memphis Blood bunch’s great strength was to deliver the blues in its uncut strength, but to frame that rawness with a cuttingly-arranged tightness, perpetually sustaining audience attentiveness over two full sets of generous length. This was partly due to the high level of individualist soloing between the front line members. In fact, the so-called rhythm section also joined the official front line as they too soloed with a competitive complexity.

As the second set neared its peak, Ulmer introduced a stronger element of improvised informality, inviting his old collaborator Queen Esther onstage to sing Jimmy Reed’s “Bright Lights, Big City”. Even though they rambled through a spontaneous version, by this stage of the evening it was beneficial to reap the rewards of some heated looseness. As Ulmer took his bows, and left the stage, Reid led a Sunday night gospel clap-along, sending the audience home with an energised glow. This was not the blues as normally savoured, but rather the blues as we might prefer to hear them in an idealised fantasy-land of unpredictable fusions.

The Hot Club Of Cowtown
Joe’s Pub

The following night, even though entering a completely different stylistic terrain, there’s still a feeling that familiar old music is being re-routed by dynamic practitioners from the modern realm. Here, in the intimately womb-like Joe’s Pub, there’s a melding of Western swing with elements of pure jazz, country, blues and rock’n’roll. Whenever and wherever they play, Austin’s Hot Club Of Cowtown threesome are guaranteed to entertain and communicate, without needing to dilute their varied essences of old-time authenticity. They’ve been honing their craft for well over a decade now, and it shows.

The vocals are shared out, and so too are the solos, with Elana James dominating in terms of sheer gusto in both her personality, fiddling and vocal delivery. Whit Smith is a spirited competitor for attention, providing a run of twanging rockabilly-derived guitar solos, and upright bassist Jake Erwin lives a double life as a percussionist, so thwacking are his solo lines.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but did I hear them singing “Big Balls In Cowtown”, as Bob Wills received the AC/DC treatment? Well, the Hot Club’s latest album, What Makes Bob Holler, is devoted to the Texas Playboys repertoire, so their Joe’s Pub set was fittingly plump with Wills numbers. Unaccustomed to the venue’s operational tactics, the Cowtowners were slightly thrown by the pressure to condense all their energies into a single 70-minute set. Usually, they’ll settle into a roadhouse-style joint for two or three hours, stretching out with an even more extensive songbook. Nevertheless, they adapted very well, playing faster and harder than ever. They even caught their collective breath and offered the occasional slowie.

David Lindley

Since the passing of Les Paul, his long established Monday night spot at Broadway’s Iridium club has been steadily evolving. Initially, there was an attempt to team the old guitar-slinger’s trio with a series of guest artists, but lately that crew have tended to open up each set with their own separate sequence, followed by the night’s visiting guitarist performing either solo or with their own backing musicians. When the Californian multi-stringman David Lindley made one of his rare visits to town, he elected to sing and play alone. This seems eminently appropriate, given his wide array of guitar-like instruments, always ready to alter the tone of each tune. It’s hard to identify some of Lindley’s axes, but he concentrated mostly on his Irish bouzouki (or was it a Turkish saz?) and a customised big-bodied acoustic guitar.

Lindley began his career in the late-1960s with Kaleidoscope, even then being attuned to the sounds of global folk music. He followed this with an extended stint as Jackson Browne’s sideman, then began to work regularly with Ry Cooder. A highlight of Lindley’s evolution was the album that grew out of a journey to Madagascar with fellow guitarist Henry Kaiser, A World Out Of Time, Volumes 1-3.

There was great substance to Lindley’s performance. Arriving near the close of his first set, and witnessing all of the second, it was easy to marvel at the switches between introverted instrumental virtuosity and the more extreme narrative escapades of his vocal numbers. I surely will not laugh again so profoundly during 2011 as I did during Lindley’s perfectly-timed escalation of backstage food-revulsion that is “Catfood Sandwiches”. Tears of mirth were flowing amongst the audience, cheeks aching en masse with prolonged smiling. Lindley is an inspired storyteller, which comes as a secret bonus for those who’ve always considered him to be primarily a guitar master in the inward-looking sense.