There was a time when nearly every second CD I reviewed was a blues recording. While I never tired of listening to the wide variety of sound the genre encompasses, I noticed my writing on the subject was all beginning to sound the same. Whatever the reason for it, I decided it wasn’t fair to the people sending me discs to review to continue on in this vain, so I took a break from writing about the blues. So it seems appropriate the first blues disc I’ve reviewed in a while is a release from Chicago-based Delmark Records, the oldest independent record label in North America, if not the world. Not only have they brought the world recordings by some of the biggest names in blues over the years, but they also go into the neighbourhood bars and clubs which are the life blood of the genre to find and record artists who play the blues for the love of the music.
These are the people who will probably never be household names or even known beyond the boundaries of Chicago. However, it’s people like Linsey Alexander pouring their hearts and souls into the music who ensure the blues not only survive but grow. Listening to his newest release, Been There Done That, you not only hear the passion which has always been the strength of this type of music, you get a sense of how music in Chicago has cross-pollenated. For on this disc Alexander not only plays the straight ahead electric blues the city is famous for, you’ll also hear how soul, R&B, and funk have exerted their influences on his sound.
Like many other blues musicians, Alexander is a transplanted Southerner. He moved up to Chicago in the early 1950s and has been playing the blues since 1959, sharing stages with the likes of B.B King, Bobby Rush, and Buddy Guy. At the same time he’s also carved out a solo career for himself which has seen him not only playing Chicago, but beginning to get recognition in Europe as well. For this disc he’s put together a hot band of local blues players including the ubiquitous and immensely talented Billy Branch on harmonica and the LA Horns (Ryan Nyther trumpet and Bryan Fritz tenor saxophone) to fill out the sound on those occasions he ventures into more soulful territory.
No matter what he’s playing the first thing you’re going to notice about Alexander is his voice. It’s like it was made to sing the blues. Raw, raspy and powerful (you don’t want some smooth as silk balladeer singing the blues), he is able to effortlessly project over his accompanying band without ever sounding like he’s straining. On tracks like the disc’s opener, “Raffle Ticket”, and the other straight ahead blues numbers, his voice takes on a world weary, seen it all and had it all done to me tone that suits the music perfectly. Yet at the same time he also gives the impression he’s dropping you a wink, letting you know it’s all in fun and preventing him from sounding like he’s feeling sorry for himself. It also helps to take the edge off the “girl done treat me wrong” type of songs by making them sound playful rather than hateful. For while there’s nothing wrong with a blues song celebrating a love gone bad, I get sick of songs about the bad things women do to men.
Something else setting Alexander apart from quite a few other blues players is his sense of humour. The second song on the disc, “Bad Man”, with a funky groove propelled by Roosevelt Puifoy’s driving organ and the aforementioned horn section, has him listing all the reasons why he’s such a bad man. Lyrics like “My hair is nappy/I never got along with my pappy/Drugs and crime only make me happy/I’m a bad man/I’m a real bad man” show you he’s not taking himself too seriously. While “drugs and crime only make me happy” might sound serious, you have to wonder how “bad” he really is when how he wears his hair is given equal importance. The fact the song is a lively, almost cheery, funk number, makes it even less likely that he wants us to take him seriously. Just to top it off, the song fades out to the sound of Alexander doing a really funny evil laugh, the type you equate with people sending up the villain in a melodrama.
However, just because he knows how to have fun doesn’t mean he doesn’t take the music seriously. Listening to his elegant cover of the late Willie Kent’s “Looks Like It’s Going To Rain”, the fifth song of the disc, gives you an indication of how much he cares about what he’s doing. Maybe it’s because Kent was a friend of his, Alexander starts off by dedicating the song to him, but this is as good a version of this song as I’ve heard from anyone. The arrangement of the horns, guitar, and keyboard is perfect in how it conveys the emotions of the song without being overwrought or manipulative. Instead of the horns being used to try and milk a little extra emotion out of the song, they serve as accents to the beat, helping to prevent the tune from bogging down.
Too often performers take soul songs like this and slow them down far too much in order to make themselves sound more emotional. What they don’t realize is the careful interrelation of lyrics, melody, and rhythm are what make them powerful. Slowing them down might make the singer the centre of attention, but it also saps the tune of its energy and emotional impact. Alexander has too much respect for both the man who wrote the song, and music in general, to make himself more important than the needs of the tune. So his vocals are just one of the instruments working together to communicate the song’s message to listeners.
It’s not just in his vocals you see his respect for the music, it’s in everything Alexander does with a song. Even with the material on this disc being primarily written by him ( “Bad Man” and “Big Woman” were co-written by Sharon Pomaville) he doesn’t indulge in any extravagances, like over elaborate guitar solos, which might detract from a number’s overall impact. His solos, as well as those by fellow guitarists Breezy Rodio and Mike Wheeler, elaborate on a melody’s theme to accent a song instead of being excuses to show off anyone’s expertise. Each song is carefully arranged to take best advantage of the entire band without any one of them taking precedence. From the rhythm section of Greg McDaniel on bass and James Wilson on drums out, the band plays so well together there are times when it feels like you’re listening to a single instrument instead of the up to nine that could be playing at anyone time.
Recordings like Been There Done That show how the blues have survived both the ups and downs of popular interest. It’s because of the love and passion the music inspires in musicians the quality of Linsey Alexander. Not only does he respect the music he plays, he also remembers playing implies having fun. When it’s appropriate he can be as serious as the next musician, but he also knows there’s enough troubles in the world that sometimes even the blues has to have some laughs. This is a wonderful album of music from a musician who deserves far more attention then he has received up to this point in his career.