The SniFFs – Barrio Element

Barrio Element

The SniFFs

Barrio Element

2013

http://www.reverbnation.com/thesniffs

Austin’s The SniFFs belong with those of us who enjoy nearly every sort of music, so long as it’s good. They describe their sound as “a little Dallas smut, a dash of swamp air, and a mojo hand”; a vodka martini made with whiskey in a crankcase, stirred with Iggy Pop and Johnny Thunders; and, less metaphorically, as inspired by ’70s rock, avant-garde pop, and low-down blues/R&B. Pretty close to the truth on all counts, I’d say. On their nine-song début Barrio Element, a bracing and fast-paced set that will find you pressing the Repeat button, the SniFFs–Mike Parent (guitar and vocals), Rafa Ibarra II (bass), and THE Nick Curran (percussion, occasional guitar, and production), with drums on this project by Charlie Jones–divide their attention between punk-inflected rave-ups and grimy, working-class rockers, delivered with palpable energy, attitude, and melody.

“Gaston Ave. Street Habit” has a post-punk-circa-1980 edge. Denny Freeman’s electric piano adds bit of Stooges flavor to an arrangement dominated by jackhammer drumming and Parent’s slide guitar. It may be more the tonal quality of Parent’s voice than any glam or punk sound inherent in the song, but “Surveil” for some reason strikes me as Bowie-esque, or like something out of the Generation X songbook, though it’s closer to something The Clash might have written at some point later in their evolution. “Scraps Of Town” fits in this sonic grouping as well, with brutal rhythm guitar as metallic as vintage Gang of Four, and skanky, semi-funk breakdowns and a wild, extended outro guitar solo, both of which could have been inspired by either Talking Heads or Richard Hell’s Voidoids.

A few outliers spice up the playlist immeasurably. The Latin-tinged “Ray Rey” shares a groove, vaguely, with The Champs’ “Tequila,” but would be very much at home on a Cramps or Johnny Thunders album (or possibly even an old ZZ Top record: that’s some dirty lead guitar!). Parent’s vocal is outstanding. “Chainsaws ‘n’ Psycho Swamps” is a rockabilly/trash madman: “Mystery Train” crossed with “Surfin’ Bird.” The hidden track at the end of the disc is a completely reimagined “Wicked Game,” its tempo bumped up significantly, and the moody sultriness of Chris Isaak’s original version transformed into pure power pop with a punk edge, à la Buzzcocks.

Closer to the heart of rock ‘n’ roll, “82” is a perfect little mid-tempo tune from somewhere out of time, loaded with Stones-y swagger and choice lines like “there’s a poster of Sheena Easton and it looks like you/Back in ’82.” The lead guitar’s gritty fills and melodic solo demonstrate Curran’s previously unrecorded familiarity with both Keith’s Chuck Berry-isms and Ronnie’s faux pedal steel bends (“Beast Of Burden,” anyone?). “Waiting For The Law” fits into the same rootsy category, with a yearning vocal and catchy shifts in dynamics. “Phone Booth” has more country-fried guitar, overlaid on a galloping, highly melodic framework reminiscent of Marshall Crenshaw’s perfect pop songs. I’m reminded, too, of Alejandro Escovedo’s work during his Rank And File period. That’s good stuff indeed. “Just gimme some fiction/I don’t wanna hear about no real life” is such a wonderful rock ‘n’ roll line, it’s a wonder no one sang it until now.

The AE reference makes a lot of sense, given the breadth of his musical interests, many of which are shared by The SniFFs: pure rock ‘n’ roll, punk rock, roots rock, and solid pop songwriting. If you dig any or all of those styles, or if you trust that anything Nick Curran took part in is worth hearing, you ought to be checking out Barrio Element.

TOM HYSLOP

I bought this CD from Antone’s Record Shop, online:

http://antonesrecordshop.com/content/search.php?name=snIFFs

The Chris Ruest Band – Live at Shakespeare’s

flyerShakespeare

Chris Ruest Band

Live at The Shakespeare Pub • Houston, Texas

2013

http://www.chrisruest.com/

If you haven’t been paying attention to his career, this is the short version of what you need to know: Chris Ruest is the real thing. The New Englander has been a resident of Texas for well over a decade. Already a serious student and lover of traditional blues and blues-oriented jazz artists, the singer-guitarist came up through Brian “Hash Brown” Calway’s band (justly regarded as the finishing school of choice for aspiring Dallas blues musicians), and has worked with many of the Lone Star State’s most important talents, including the great Ray Sharpe (“Linda Lu”). Ruest cut his third CD, Live at Shakespeare’s, in March of this year, with JD Ditullio on drums, and the great Ronnie James (Nightcats, Fabulous Thunderbirds, Jimmie Vaughan, Nick Moss) on bass.

This brand new album revisits only a few selections from Ruest’s previous releases, 2005’s Too Many Problems and 2011’s No 2nd Chances (both excellent sets, recorded with all-star bands and loaded with well-written original tunes), but those provide an overview of his stylistic range. “Poor Lil’ Greta,” Chris’s apologetic ode to a deceased pet, spotlights slide guitar and a deep blues groove, both unmistakably cut from Muddy Waters’s slow blues template. “My Baby Loves Me,” with its swaggering shuffle and slashing slide guitar figure, is firmly in the tradition of Elmore James. And “You Suck” lulls us into thinking it is a garden-variety you’re-mistreating-me song, until Ruest sings the laugh-out-loud funny chorus. James and Ditullio lay down a quirky, throwback R&B groove a mile wide, reminiscent of “I’m Shakin’.”

The balance of the playlist expands on these elements with intelligently selected covers that give insight into, and pay tribute to, some of Ruest’s favorite artists. He dials up the reverb for a harrowing take on Magic Sam’s fabulous (and rarely covered) “Out of Bad Luck,” replete with a blistering guitar break, and ratchets up the rumba feel behind an update of Arthur Crudup’s “Mean Ole Frisco,” filtered through B.B. King’s version, with lead guitar that nails King’s ’50s style. There’s a strong take on Muddy’s “Champagne and Reefer,” a hard-shuffling adaptation of Lonesome Sundown’s swamp classic “Don’t Say A Word,” and two of Elmore’s greatest songs: a bristling romp through “Cry For Me” and a greasy reading of the stop-time Latin-influenced “Can’t Stop Loving My Baby.” I know “Bark” best from the Darrell Nulisch-era Anson Funderburgh & The Rockets; the band deftly handles this loping shuffle.

What do Elmore James and The Rockets have in common? Why, Sam Myers, of course. The harmonica great was a bluesman in the truest sense of that now-debased word, and perhaps the strongest influence felt by Ruest, who acted as the legend’s right-hand-man during the last three years of Sam’s life. Ruest pays tribute to his close friend by singing Sam’s “Sad Lonesome Day,” adorning the slow blues with elegant guitar lines à la King and Funderburgh, and his vintage gem “Sleepin’ in the Ground,” which presents Ruest’s guitar playing at its meanest, dirtiest, and most low-down.

The presence of the proto-punk nugget “Strychnine” reflects the influence of another of Ruest’s closest friends. The late, great Nick Curran was a fearless free spirit who was apt to follow a T-Bone Walker chestnut with a selection from the catalog of The Stooges, or to pair a Little Richard song with an AC/DC number. Viewed in that light, the seemingly improbable inclusion of The Sonics’ wild ’60s rocker makes perfect sense. Two excellent instrumentals, one by Albert Collins (“The Freeze”), the other from Ike Turner (“Cuban Getaway”) bracket the set. Ruest politely converts a mid-show request for something by Stevie Ray Vaughan into a teaching opportunity, instead performing yet another iconic instrumental: a stinging version of Freddie King’s “Funnybone.”

Like the rest of the program, these three songs let the band work out on touchstone tunes that still sound fresh, owing to their relative scarcity in the playlists of contemporary bands, and demonstrate Ruest’s control of the essential themes of real blues guitar. His playing, sometimes deliberate, frequently savage, is always intense, carrying the threat of violence that was imminent in the approach of Curran, or Pat Hare. Paired with this outstanding rhythm section, Ruest–one of the toughest players anywhere–is on fire. Live at Shakespeare‘s is his master class in blues history, vividly performed, and should attract a great of overdue attention.

TOM HYSLOP

The artist kindly provided the CD for this review.

Just Magic: The Magic Slim Story

just-magic

Just Magic: The Magic Slim Story

Peter Carlson, producer & director

Sagebrush Productions, Inc., 2013

http://www.sagebrushproductions.com/blues.html

The new documentary Just Magic: The Magic Slim Story provides as thorough an overview of the life and achievements of Morris Holt as you are likely to find. Among those interviewed are Magic Slim himself; his sister, Lucinda; his manager, Marty Salzman, and his road manager, Michael Blakemore; and fellow musicians like Lonnie Brooks, Dr. John, and Koko Taylor.

The film covers Slim’s entire career, beginning with his early years in Torrance and Grenada, Mississippi, including his introduction to music in church; the cotton mill accident that put an end to his piano-playing; and his first attempts at learning to play a home-made one-string diddley bow guitar. Slim’s friendship with Magic Sam and his abortive first move to Chicago in the 1950s are discussed, along with his subsequent return to Mississippi, where he assembled a band by teaching his brothers Nick and Lee Baby to play. His friend and bandmate Sam Wooden recounts stories of gigging around Greenville, Itta Bena, and Tchula with Magic Slim’s Night Rockers.

Slim tells of his return in the 1960s to Chicago, where he worked day jobs while developing a sound of his own; recounts how he inherited both the Teardrops (from Robert “Mr Pitiful” Perkins) and a regular gig at Florence’s on the South Side of Chicago (from Hound Dog Taylor); and talks about the dangers of the violent club scene. He and Salzman discuss how Slim’s popularity grew internationally, including his key role in introducing the blues to South America, and his numerous honors, including multiple Blues Music Awards. It is instructive to hear Slim break down the blues he plays into two basic styles–uptempo blues (“You can swing dance to it”), and slow blues (“The barrelhouse blues”)–and to demonstrate them on his unamplified Fender Jazzmaster guitar.

None of this information will be newsworthy to anyone who has followed Slim’s career, and certainly not to anyone who has read the in-depth profiles of Magic Slim in Blues Revue or Living Blues. But it is most enjoyable to watch him tell the stories in his own words during two sessions that appear to have been conducted perhaps six and twelve years ago. His immense warmth and humor are very much apparent, as he is obviously at ease with his interviewer. This is an up-close look at the real Magic Slim that not every club-goer would have had the chance to see. (Be sure to watch to the end, when Slim really lets down his guard.)

I would have liked to hear Slim talk about his close relationship with the Teardrops’ first guitarist, Daddy Rabbit. It also seems odd that Slim’s lengthy association with the Zoo Bar, in Lincoln, Nebraska, where he lived for many years, goes unmentioned. Interviews with some other individuals close to the man, such as Jim O’Neal or Dick Shurman, both respected blues historians who produced records on Slim; Edward Chmelewski and Jerry Del Giudice of Blind Pig Records; Steve Cushing, host of Blues Before Sunrise and the Teardrops’ drummer in the 1970s; or Slim’s longtime bandleaders, John Primer and Jon McDonald, would perhaps have provided additional insight. Musician and club owner Bob Corritore and label head Hannes Folterbauer have also written eloquently on the record about the importance and beauty of Slim’s art, but are not heard from here. Carlson’s use of archival photographs is good, but it is a truism that in the internet age, rare or unseen images are hard to come by. The four or five live numbers included provide a respectable sampling of Magic Slim’s work, from a show in Brazil circa 1990 where he plays the introduction to a Jimmy Reed song on harmonica (!), through a raw (slightly out-of tune), rare solo performance of Muddy Waters’s “You Can’t Lose What You Never Had” at the 2001 Chicago Blues Festival, to a couple of songs from the Teardrops’ triumphant performance at the Blues Music Awards later in the decade. While these songs are presented in their entirety, this is a documentary, and so inevitably during the performances, the visual cuts away to a talking head and the sound is brought down to background level. It would have been nice to have the unedited footage included as bonus material (there is none).

Of course, those are wishes, not complaints, and I am grateful to have the relatively comprehensive portrait Just Magic: The Magic Slim Story gives us. As the film winds down, Slim says he would like to be remembered as a man who went to work every day of his life playing the blues–“a bluesman.” Superimposed on the screen are various quotations included in his press materials, including the often-recycled line from my own review of Scufflin’ in Blues Revue: “Whoever the house band in Blues Heaven may be, even money says they’re wearing out Magic Slim records, trying to get that Teardrops sound down cold.” Of course, since February of this year, Slim has been there to rehearse them himself. Just Magic is a worthwhile and welcome tribute to the man, one that his many fans will want to own.

TOM HYSLOP

I purchased this DVD from Sagebrush Productions.