I remember the first time I ever heard John Hammond Jr. and how impressed I was with the way his voice and the sound of his slide guitar playing worked together. It was especially noticeable when he played his resonator guitar with its built in cones to amplify sound; he could growl out his lyrics in just the right tonal quality, able to cut through the sound of his guitar without shouting over it.
It was a long time until I found another player who could do the same thing. Bob Brozman had his own unique vocal style that enabled him to work with all the resonator instruments he used and created. I say instruments because he played more then one resonator guitar, and he had also created a resonator mandolin. Aside from those two there hasn't been anyone I've heard that's been able to find that perfect balance where voice and resonator guitar work together instead of the voice trying to overcome the guitar. That doesn't mean they aren't out there; I just haven't heard them yet.
That is until now, hearing John-Alex Mason for the first time. Looking at his picture on the cover of his newest release, Town And Country on Naked Jaybird Records you wouldn't believe that face had the life experience to sing with the authority needed for a church choir let alone the down-and-dirty Blues required to work with a resonator.
This just goes to show you that you really shouldn't judge anything or anybody by appearances. From the first syllable that eases out of John-Alex's mouth you know that this guy can sing the Blues with the best of them. It's not just that he's got the right voice for it, lots of folks out there can growl pretty convincingly without being able to sing the Blues. No, what you realize about this guy is that he feels every sound that he plays on his guitar and it reverberates up through his body and shapes the sound that comes out of his throat.
The next thing you notice about him is something that distinguishes him from the majority of folk who playing these days; similar to both Brozman and Hammond, John-Alex has released a completely solo album. You look at the credits for the songs and you see there is only his name listed; but then you wonder whose playing the drums? Well he is but not on a separate take; while his hands are dealing with the guitar and his mouth is doing the singing he's taking care of the drumming with his feet.
As a guy who on occasion still has trouble walking and talking at the same time, I can't help but be in awe of folk who can control their bodies sufficiently to do two things at once. To be able to do three things at once is beyond my wildest imaginings. Yet here's this guy, who is not only able to play some pretty hot guitar, leads and rhythm, but keep a steady beat going on the drum, and sing on top of that. Now that might not sound too difficult to some of you, but you try keeping three separate beats going at once and see how well you do. On top of that throw in an occasional lead on your guitar, and never once lose your place in the measure.
Oh and if all that isn't enough, he also writes some great tunes. Eight of the 15 tracks (there are only 14 songs but he does a "Town" (electric) and a "Country" (acoustic) version of "Shake 'Em On Down" a traditional piece that he's arranged and added additional lyrics to) are original compositions, and the only way to describe them is to say that they were written by an old soul. These aren't the standard Blues numbers you hear from most of the new young guys out there about some girl treating them bad, or they're not getting what they want from life; what I call the selfish Blues.
The Blues he sings are either about universal things to which all of us can relate and a couple that sound as if they were created just out of the sheer joy of writing and singing a song. "Rabbit Song" and "Steel Pony Blues" fall into the latter category as they are sort of nonsense tunes, but then they catch you by surprise in the end as he puts a little twist in their tails that makes you think twice about what they might be about.
It makes sense to me that almost every Blues artist putting out an album these days is including a song about New Orleans. The miracle, as far as I'm concerned, is how many of them have been so good; John-Alex Mason's "Chef Menteur" is no exception. Some accounts say that Chef Menteur was the name the Choctaw Indians of the area gave to the Mississippi river, and listening to the lyrics of John-Alex's song you'd have to believe that he's used that interpretation of the phrase.
What I like about this song is that it's an acknowledgement of what New Orleans is and what it gave to us. "Don't forget what we got from the original Melting Pot" sums up nicely how New Orleans was where four different cultures; French, Spanish, African, and Native American, all came together, and how important it is to remember what that means. Think of all the different music that comes from there, everything from zydeco to brass bands, traditional Jazz, Blues, and funk, and you can't help but think of all the different cultural influences that came into play.
John doesn't stop there; he also reminds us that individuals lived there as well and rhymes off the names of Irma, Kermit, Dr. Professor and Fats along with a few others. This song highlights his sophistication as a song writer. He's taken his own personal feelings and expressed them in a manner that can be universally understood so that it becomes more than just about how he feels.
Before listening to Town And Country I had never heard of John-Alex Mason before, so I didn't know what to expect. What I found was another one of those rare people who when they sing the Blues they aren't just complaining about their lives, but use it as a means of tapping into feelings that we've all experienced and expressing them in a as universal a manner as possible. I was so excited by his song writing and singing ability that I didn't even mention he plays cigar-box guitar! Oh well maybe next time. I'm sure there will be plenty of next times for this guy.