Koko Taylor – Old School
I saw Koko Taylor about a year ago in Chicago, dressed in a gold lame jumpsuit and strutting her sassy stuff at the House of Blues. It was one of those corporate events where everyone’s too busy networking to listen to the live talent. Me, I'm the sort of person who can't sit in a piano bar without applauding everytime the pianist finishes a number; I just parked myself with a drink and got lost in the music. How could these people not be mesmerized by this act? I wondered. Here’s a 70-some-year-old woman who’s not afraid to growl and howl and get a little raunchy – in other words, not afraid to sing the blues.
Almost 50 years in the business, and nothing’s managed to smooth down or prettify Koko Taylor’s feisty energy. She's inherited Bessie Smith’s mantle as Queen of the Blues, and she's hanging onto it tight. On her new CD – appropriately named Old School – Koko does her best to take us back to the dingy smoke-filled Chicago blues joints where she hung out in the 1950s with folks like Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. Her backing band has that gritty sound down just right, with a hammering piano and buzzing guitar; guitarist Criss Johnson peels off some amazing licks indeed. This is a late-night record, the kind that washes down well with cheap whiskey or a cold bottle of beer; if you can get a neon bar-sign blinking across the street, all the better.
The very first track leads off with a bone-shivering primal howl — "Hey, y'all — listen to me / I wanna tell you a thing or two / You can believe it or not / Know what I'm talking about / Every word I say is true." Listening to this CD, I realize how rare it is to hear the woman’s side of the blues — the straight truth about female desire and survival and the price women pay for putting up with men. Who else tells it like this? Bonnie Raitt’s the only other singer I can think of who delivers the same goods.
Taylor wrote five tracks for the album herself (the other seven include two by her mentor Willie Dixon) and those originals are my favorites: every one’s a feminist manifesto, old-school style. You can’t get any more sexually confident and pissed-off than songs like "Piece of Man" or “You Ain’t Worth A Good Woman” and “Better Watch your Step,” where she reads the riot act to a no-account man who’s done her wrong. ("Lay around my house, baby, seven days a week / Soon as I turn my back there’s a woman out in the street…”) A classic blues complaint, but so what? It still applies.
It's enormously satisfying to hear this woman snap out lyrics like "I'm gonna buy me a mule / One can take the place of you / He won't have to look no further / I'll give him all that belongs to you." I'm telling you, guys, women really do think like this. So why do we put up with you? Because — as Koko tells us on that first track – "A piece of man / Is better than no man at all." Amen, sister.
Los Straitjackets’ Rock En Español Vol. I
Koko Taylor’s roots are different from mine, I’ll admit. Los Straitjackets, though? Their roots are plenty familiar to me. I too grew up listening to the Ventures and Duane Eddy, and this instrumental combo – who hail from Tennessee and for some demented reason wear lucho libre face masks on stage – are masters of that surf-twang guitar sound, a sound that cries out for driving a convertible on a sunny California afternoon.
But for Rock En Español Vol 1, they’ve lined up guest vocalists to pay homage to a subgenre of music that was completely off my radar until now – Latino covers of 1960s rock ‘n’ roll hits. And the more I listen, the more I dig it. It’s a little disconcerting to hear these familiar tracks with Spanish vocals, but the way Los Straitjackets rips into them, I buy the concept.
These songs are played with such energy and conviction, the whole deal rises above being a novelty record. Three different lead singers – Little Willie G., Big Sandy, and Cesar Rosas (of Los Lobos fame) – each bring their own electricity to their tracks. While the arrangements are often close to the originals (they’ve really nailed that distinctive power-chord riff on “You Really Got Me”), the songs inevitably gain a little Mexicano flair just from the vocals.
Of course, not every song is a literal translation of the English original – dig “Dizzy Miss Lizzie” turned into “El Microscopico Bikini”, “Slow Down” turned into “Calor” (Heat), “Devil Woman” turning into “Magia Blanca” (“White Magic”), and (here’s my favorite) “Wild Thing” becoming “Loca to Patina el Coco” (“Crazy Person Slides the Coco to You”). That's what worked for the original south-of-the-border 45s — you can't make this stuff up.
The songs that I really get off on are the tear-loose dance party classics, like “Poison Ivy,” “Slow Down,” and “Bony Maronie” (excuse me, “Popotitos”) where Los Straitjackets’ smoking guitar work and tight rhythm section can shine. On the other hand, a torcher like “Lonely Teardrops” somehow oozes extra passion the way Big Sandy croons it, and good-time singalongs like “Hang On Sloopy” and “Wild Thing” have an irresistible sloppy charm.
Frankly, there’s not a song on the album that doesn’t get more fun the more often you hear it. By stripping away the familiar lyrics, Los Straitjackets bring us back to the essence of these early rock-n-roll gems, and you know what? They hold up just fine. Just go find the car keys and give this CD a spin.