Big Bill Broonzy, Amsterdam Live Concerts 1953
Big Bill Broonzy, like Robert Johnson, played but also transcended the blues. Like Mississippi John Hurt, Broonzy – also a Mississippi native, born in 1901 (or possibly 1893, or possibly 1898, but I favor the 1901 theory) constructed his acoustic concerts out of blues, folk songs, and spirituals. Broonzy had been a pioneer of electric blues, but, finding that his white audiences in the 1950s wanted to hear him play in the old folk styles, he obliged.
His spirited, earthy guitar playing, the range of his big voice, and the sheer breadth of his material have insured his place in history as one of the all-time great men of the blues. But few, if any, live Broonzy recordings sound as good as this one, which makes it not just a necessity for completists but strongly recommended for any blues fan.
Broonzy found his most welcoming audiences at that time in Europe. In early 1953, at the top of his game, he played a series of concerts in Holland, two of which were recorded by Louis van Gasteren, who later became a noted filmmaker. The recordings have been known for decades, but never released until now, in this handsomely packaged two-CD box that includes a 48-page booklet loaded with interesting photos, reproduced documents, detailed liner notes, and a new essay by van Gasteren on how the recordings came to be made. Though Broonzy's busy recording career lasted for three decades, a newly available recording of such high sound quality is most welcome.
"If you want to play the blues," Big Bill tells his appreciative Amsterdam audience, "the first thing to do is go to a real music teacher and learn the right way first… then after you leave him, then do everything wrong from what he told you to do, and then you're playing the blues."
The CDs capture the storytelling, joking, and informative song introductions that characterized these informal shows. Broonzy's preamble to Bessie Smith's "Back-Water Blues" is heart-stopping in the context of the Katrina recovery. Poor people got the worst of the disastrous Mississippi River floods of the 1920s, with some starving to death waiting to be rescued, and little has changed. Also, the great North Sea Flood of 1953, in which over 1800 Dutch lost their lives, had occurred only days before these concerts.
No doubt about it, Big Bill had his callused fingers on the pulse of what life was all about. "'John Henry,'" he says, "that's what they call an 'American folk song'… in Mississippi, where I came from, we call it a work song. [But]," he assures the crowd, "I love to play it, don't worry about a thing."
A few songs appear twice, a few others in fragmentary form. There's a lot of talking from Bill and a bit of appreciation from an actor named Otto Sturman. So don't expect two hours of pure music. Instead, what you get are big chunks of the way Broonzy's concerts really went down. They're well worth the price of admission.
Jake Shimabukuro, Gently Weeps
Uke master Jake Shimabukuro — "one ukelele-playing mofo" as Blogcritics Fearless Leader puts it — has a new solo album out and it's a fine one. Eschewing the portentious arrangements he is sometimes prone to, Jake gives us twelve tracks of the uke, the whole uke and nothing but the uke, plus five accompanied but homey "bonus" tracks." He plays many of his own compositions, a few standards from the pop and classical canon, and what has become his signature cover tune, George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps."
With this small, four-stringed, two-octave instrument, Shimabukuro rocks, croons, and soars with a sound that's as lush as his technique is astounding. When he wails on "Grandma's Groove" and "Blue Roses Falling" you keep expecting the instrument to shatter, while "Gently Weeps," "Ave Maria" and "Heartbreak/Dragon" are delicately beautiful. Selections like the Japanese folk song "Sakura" and the jazz standard "Misty" further demonstrate the well-roundedness of his musicianship.
As an introduction to this artist, and to what can be done on the humble ukelele, this CD would be a fine choice. It should also be more to the liking of fans of American roots and world music than some of Jake's more heavily produced, Europop-influenced recordings.
Stephen DiJoseph, Hypnotized
Stephen DiJoseph does many things musical – Celtic, electronic, New Age, instrumental. His latest CD shows him to be a talented singer-songwriter as well. He has a hip but restrained sensibility somewhat akin to that of Sufjan Stevens, while his watery sneer and faintly eerie harmonies bring to mind classic Tom Petty or the power-pop of George Usher. Strains of acoustic folk-rock, Beckish modernism, soft-pedal soul, and drum-'n'-bass coalesce into a poetic and accessible collection of songs with an original flavor.
Most of the best songs, like "Sunlight," "Flyin,'" the sax-spiced "Breakaway," and a cleverly re-imagined "Nights In White Satin" cluster towards the beginning of the disc; it loses some steam halfway through as the writing gets a bit lazy, although "It's No Mystery" is subtly powerful. DiJoseph's sure feel for the sound he wants never wanes, however, and even in the less happening sections the music keeps you swaying. At its best, it's nourishing food for the musical soul.
OUT AND ABOUT: Your still-intrepid reviewer took the music of his band Whisperado on a mini-tour to the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York the other weekend. You can read about these delightful happenings at Whisperado's Myspace blog.