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Music Review: James Blood Ulmer – Bad Blood In The City: The Piety Street Sessions

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Following up on his 2005 release Birthright, the CD that was embraced by the music world as one of the most important blues records of the year, James Blood Ulmer is releasing Bad Blood In The City on May 8th 2007. As much as I loved Birthright for its "…blues at its finest", I like this album even better.

Bad Blood In The City was made in New Orleans, about New Orleans. It's about Katrina and the after effect to the people of New Orleans; especially the disenfranchised. Why now? Katrina is almost two years past and the city is coming back, they had football back last year, basketball is coming back this next year. The city is rebuilding and growing out of the ashes.

According to producer Vernon Reid, "For me, it seems more important to record this music now than right after Katrina. With the media no longer focused on it, this is when the tragedy starts slipping to the backs of our collective memories, but we can't forget what happened down there." Ulmer did write the majority of the songs from Bad Blood In The City during the days following Hurricane Katrina; while he was still promoting Birthright.

In December 2006, Ulmer and the Memphis Blood Blues Band entered the Piety Street Studios. The band consists of Vernon Ried on guitar, Charlie Burnham on fiddle, David Barnes on harmonica, Leon Gruenbaum on keyboards, Mark Peterson on bass and Aubry Dayle on drums.

Bad Blood In The City contains eleven songs, five of which are Ulmer originals. The sessions start with "Survivors of the Hurricane" performing a complex painting of the disaster that was Katrina. With a Clavinet grove and Vernon Reid's explosive guitar work matching Ulmer's biting lyrics "..they called themselves heroes for doing their jobs." This is a masterpiece!

When I first heard "Sad Days, Lonely Nights", the Junior Kimbrough tune, I was not sure if I liked it at first. It kept calling me back to give it one more listen and one more listen until I realized it was the hypnotic quality that kept calling me back like a siren's wail. "Katrina", is a biting commentary on the fact that the "rich and able" left the poor to fend for themselves. The track was cut in the dead of night and biting edges shows its gnarly teeth.

"Let's Talk About Jesus", is a wonderful gospel blues piece that really kicks it up a notch. Adding Irene Dasher, the voices blend in an old time harmony. Then, they do a rendition of John Lee Hooker's "This Land is Nobody's Land". This he turns into a modern day social statement. This is followed by Willie Dixon's "Dead Presidents". This provides a brief respite with its jumping rhythms and playful rhymes.

We are back to business with Howlin' Wolf's, "Commit a Crime" followed by Son House's "Grinnin in Your Face". Both interpreted in Ulmer style, power and fury. "There is Power in the Blues", Ulmer, one who is known to challenge the preconceived notion that the blues is a predetermined style, "uses the concept of the blues to feel our way around" with this song.

"Backwater Blues" is Ulmer's most traditional interpration of a classical blues number on the album. The CD closes out with "Old Slave Master", an Ulmer original that brings us back to the start.

Recognized as an elder statesman of the blues, Ulmer continues to define and redefine both himself and the brand of blues that he creates. Bad Blood In The City is a pivotal piece in that definition. As good as Birthright was, I think that Bad Blood In The City exceeds those heights.

There is a recording of James Blood Ulmer and Alison Krauss performing at Radio City Music Hall which shows the power in Ulmer's renditions. This can be found at YouTube.

"Bad Blood In The City" song listing

Survivors of the Hurricane
Sad Days, Lonely Nights
Let's Talk About Jesus
This Land is Nobody's Land
Dead Presidents
Commit A Crime
Grinnin' in Your Face
There is Power in the Blues
Backwater Blues
Old Slave Master

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About T. Michael Testi

Photographer, writer, software engineer, educator, and maker of fine images.
  • Good stuff here. This is an album I need to get a hold of.

  • Mark Saleski

    nice review. you know, i’ve heard almost none of Ulmer’s blues stuff (being a jazz guy and all) but man, that clip is great. he kinda sounds like John Lee Hooker there.

  • I got to know and work with Mr Ulmer when I worked at Rough Trade in London in the early 80s. Great man, great musician.

  • Josh,
    Like you, I have always been a fan of the blues and growing up around Chicago that is where my roots lay. As I moved and traveled about, my explorations traveled further south. It was only last year that I got to experience JBU through his Birthright CD. To me, it was back to the roots music.

    When I heard that he was going into the studio in December to do this album, I was both looking forward to his new stuff, but also concerned about the topic of Katrina.

    Many artists use platforms like Katrina, 911 or global warming to either 1) Blather about their political views and increase their own self importance, or 2) try to cash in on the pity party and generate the big bucks.

    In my opinion, James Blood Ulmer does neither. This is a heartfelt tribute to the people of New Orleans. And the fact that he waited almost two years to release this adds to the genuine feel of his material

    One additional note, there is a line that I personally disagree with that says “Talk to the President”, in which he implies that water getting into the city was not Katrina’s fault, but rather the President. It so slight and unobtrusive that it does not hit my political criteria. I personally think that the fault lies with a lot of people over a lot of years.


  • Mark,
    Thanks for the comment. I was unfamiliar with him until last year, but found him refreshingly unique. In his earlier years he was classified as heir apparent to Jimi Hendrix. He truly is one of a kind.


  • Christopher,
    He seems very genuine, something many artists today are lacking.


  • Mark Saleski

    check out Ulmer releases like Are You Glad To Be In America? or maybe Tales of Captain Black for some material that’s absolutely nothing like this.

  • “AYGTBIA” is what I worked with him on! And you’re absolutely right, Mark, it is absolutely nothing like this stuff, it shreds!

    He’s so versatile though. One day he sat in my office and played the flute! I have a cassette of it somewhere, which I titled “Blood on the Flute”! I guess not many folk have had a private Ulmer show.

  • zingzing

    blood on the flute? dear god, chris. that is sooooo fuckin nasty.

    but, ahh… rough trade in the early 80s… scritti politti, robert wyatt… cabaret voltaire, the fall… the raincoats, young marble giants… what a time it must have been… totally jealous.

    or is that just my kidney failing?

  • Thanks Mark, I will check out those. Growing up around Chi-town, I made my way to a fair number of the more jazzy places and influences as well. Got into Chic Corea, Stanly Clark, Pat Metheny and John McLaughlin.


  • Chris,
    “Blood on the Flute”!

    I have to agree with ZingZing. Nothin but nasty!

    It may be my mind, but I have about three different pictures in my mind that I want to go away.

    Seriously though, that would have been radically cool!


  • digstitt

    I’m pretty sure that’s Ulmer playing flute on Junior Kimbrough’s “Sad Days, Lonely Nights” from this album…Nasty for sure…

  • Well, I was just being literal but you guys are deliciously sick!

    Happy days!!

  • Digstitt,
    You are correct sir! It was not listed in the linernotes, but I confirmed it with the record label that it was non other than James Blood Ulmer.

    This guy has talent!


  • Congrats! This article has been forwarded to the Advance.net websites and Boston.com.