2004 may have been a grim (for democrats, anyaway) year politically, but there were some outstanding blues recordings released this year. It’s been an especially good year for music that combines blues and soul: The Bo Keys’ Royal Sessions and Pat Boyack’s Voices from the Street recall the heyday of Stax records. Here is my list-in no special order- of the best blues of 2004.
Hound Dog Taylor
Release the Hound
Bruce Iglauer started the Alligator Records label back in 1971 specifically so he could record Hound Dog Taylor. Hound Dog’s Chicago blues was the musical equivalent of the “Chopped Hogs” outlaw bikers used to ride in the 60’s and 70’s- it was stripped down to the bare essentials and pulsating with raw power. These live recordings from the Alligator vaults feature the ragged slide guitar and whiskey-ravaged vocals Hound Dog was famous for.
The Royal Sessions
This instrumental album takes listeners back to the glory days of Stax Records and Memphis soul. Royal Sessions was recorded at the studio of legendary soul producer Willie Mitchell, and features Skip Pitts, who played guitar on Isaac Hayes immortal theme from “Shaft.” Standouts include down home versions of “Coming Home Baby” and “Back at the Chicken Shack”, as well as the meditative ballad “I Remember Stax.”
Charlie Musselwhite is a musician who’s payed his dues. Back in the early 60’s, Charlie was part of a small clique of “White Blues Kids” who pushed racial barriers by hanging out in Chicago’s blues clubs and jamming with the musicians. Sanctuary, however, is not a recording that tries to revive the classic Chicago sound. Songs like “Homeless Child” and “Train to Nowhere” have a strong gospel feel, while “Snake Song” and “The Neighborhood” have a brooding, menacing quality. Sanctuary is by far the most innovative recording Musselwhite has made in years.
For years, Bobby Rush has been known as the “King of the Chitlin’ Circuit”, playing for mostly black audiences in the south. Rush was introduced to a wider audience when he was featured in the PBS “Year of The Blues” series, and Folk-Funk is a recording aimed at the “crossover” (aka “white”) audience. Even though he’s been trying to win more white fans, Rush has carefully avoided the clichés that often plague mainstream blues recordings. Folk-Funk relies on impassioned vocals and a tight, percolating rhythm section rather than the endless guitar and harp solos that are all too common in the blues today.
Voices From the Street
Another recording that will bring back memories of the hey-day of Memphis soul. This recording features a large cast of guest vocalists-including WC Clarke and Marcia Ball. Voices From the Street is essential listening for any fan of soul-blues: the gut-wrenching ballad “First Comes the Grieving” and the funky “Shotgun Slim” sound like they could have been recorded for Stax records back in the sixties.
Curtis Salgado’s music isn’t strictly blues-he combines elements of blues, soul and rock-but blues fans usually enjoy his music. Highpoints of Strong Suspicion include a cover of Johnny Copeland’s “Born All Over” and the tongue-in-cheek “Money Must Think I’m Dead.” Slide guitar virtuoso Sonny Landreth also appears on several tracks.