Jimmy Alter & Jason Bone • The Bottom Line

Jason Bone & Jimmy Alter

The Bottom Line EP

2014

http://www.jimmyaltermusic.com

 

Jimmy Alter’s soon-to-be-released five song record follows an earlier EP, Rock With Me. The young guitarist from St. Clair Shores, Michigan, and his band mate, guitarist Jason Bone, sing blues-based music with heart and skill. The pair has selected this short set wisely, for although all of the songs are covers, none is unknown (or, with one exception, even obscure), yet none has been frequently re-recorded, thereby introducing an element of surprise while maintaining some familiarity. That’s the way to do it!

The program opens with a bass line and hammering piano, both straight out of Little Richard, kicking off a raucous number that proves to be “Player,” an exciting throwback classic by Nick Curran. The band dispatches that tune in 2:20, just enough time to squeeze in a couple choruses of rock ‘n’ roll guitar inspired by Berry and Richards. Next up is the obscurity–I had to Google the lyrics to positively identify “The Bottom Line,” a noir-ish, mid-tempo song from the late harmonica man Paul de Lay. Bone really gets across the character of the narrator, a lonely outsider. A tersely phrased guitar break yields to Jim David’s subtly dazzling organ solo. Both players understand that what isn’t played is as important as what is.

Alex Lyon (bass) and David Watson (drums) cut a strong groove behind the tough take on “Funky Mama” that centers the set. Those unfamiliar with the original version would be forgiven for scanning their Jimmie Vaughan records trying to identify this instrumental shuffle. Bone holds down the rhythm, playing greasy lines through a Leslie cabinet in tribute to Big John Patton’s organ. First David solos on piano; next Alter, Bone, and Motor City Josh take turns on guitar. None really references Grant Green’s playing on Lou Donaldson’s classic version; instead we hear three snappy solos, each with a lot of personality, ranging from loopy, carnival-esque ideas through snarling, Albert Collins-inflected lines, and ending with a few unison run-throughs of the head arrangement, all in just over three minutes.

Hats off to Alter for reaching into the “5” Royales’ catalog for “Thirty Second Lover.” He hews close to the original for the guitar introduction and fills, but this version is far from a clone: the tempo seems slower and the track here has a distinctly boozy, New Orleans party feeling. Jimmy and the backing vocalists acquit themselves enthusiastically and well, and the guitar break is crisp and impressive. For the final cut, Bone turns to the great American band Los Lobos for their beautiful, haunting “The Neighborhood.” Everything comes together here, from the rhythm section through the electric piano touches and organ solo (take note of David’s crafty Tito Puente/Santana quotation) to Jason Bone’s vocal, in which he sounds amazingly like David Hidalgo, to a guitar solo that is at once flashy and deeply soulful.

A song like this has far more in common with the blues than do any 500 blues rock clichés. Bone and Jimmy Alter ought to be commended for recognizing that kinship, and for being willing to stretch the boundaries in appropriate and fresh directions, while remaining emphatically loyal to blues tradition. They deserve credit too for their nerve. It would be nigh impossible to top Lowman Pauling’s wit and soul, or Curran’s shattering energy, but on this enjoyable EP Alter and Bone hold their own, with mature singing and playing that promise a huge upside.

 

TOM HYSLOP

 

The artist provided an advance copy of the EP. This review was commissioned by the Detroit Blues Society and published in the July 2014 edition of its BluesNotes newsletter. Download a PDF at the DBS Web site, detroitbluessociety.org

 

 

Al Blake • Blues According To Blake: …a road less traveled

Blues-According-To-Blake-A-Road-Less-Traveled-cover

Al Blake

Blues According To Blake: …a road less traveled

Soul Sanctuary, 2013/2014

 

Al Blake is a figure of particular importance in both the preservation of a strong traditional element and the continuing development of what has come to be called West Coast blues. Anyone who has listened to blues music with anything more than a casual dedication over the past 40+ years is familiar with Blake’s work, if not his name. The California-based artist achieved some fame and an undying legacy of excellence during the ‘70s and ‘80s as the voice, harmonica player, and primary songwriter of the Hollywood Fats Band. More recent years have found him releasing superb albums both as a solo artist and at the helm of the Hollywood Blue Flames, in collaboration with the surviving members of the Fats Band, whose namesake, guitarist Michael “Hollywood Fats” Mann, died in 1986. His latest recording is clearly a labor of love. Blues According To Blake: …a road less traveled is a spare and beautiful expression of blues from close to the heart.

Blake delivers pre- and post-war styles with a master’s hand on this all-acoustic affair. He performs four songs alone, on harmonica or guitar. On the chugging midtempo harp instrumental “Old Time Boogie,” Blake delivers a perfect mix of chords and single note lines, accompanied only by his tapping foot. He takes “Easy” perhaps a little faster than the classic Sun single by Walter Horton and Jimmy DeBerry, and without guitar. While Walter’s hornlike tone remains inimitable, Blake recreates his fluttering vibrato and breathing-through-the-harp effects to a T. Bravo! The guitar tracks include a dark-toned adaptation of “Big Fat Mama” to which Blake adds a pulsating, single bass note beneath intricate runs like those in Tommy Johnson’s original, and the splendid new line “[she] don’t need no diet plan.” He also covers Slim Harpo’s “King Bee” in a swaggering, country blues rendition. It was an inspired moment that produced this interpretation, which filters the swamp blues classic through the sensibility of Lightnin’ Hopkins at his most doomy. Blake’s National steel-bodied resonator (I think) sounds like nothing so much as a trashcan with strings–and it is lovely.

The balance of the program features the contributions of several other musicians. Richard Innes’s drumming subtly drives “Hummingbird,” a shuffle as hard-hitting and crisply defined as Eddie Taylor’s “Bad Boy,” though instead of coming through a dirty-toned amplifier, it is played by Blake on that National resonator. “All the flowers are crazy about me,” indeed! The great blues and jazz pianist Fred Kaplan, another Fats Band alumnus, duets with Blake’s guitar on “Papa’s Boogie,” a sprightly shuffle with stop-time choruses in which lascivious currents bubble under Blake’s good-natured vocal. In “Music Man,” a low-key, Delta-style blues about an itinerant musician and ladies’ man, he again rolls the 88s behind Blake’s percussive, snapped guitar. Blake seems really to be feeling this hypnotic, dreamy vocal performance. Blake and Kaplan, with Innes again and the addition of bassist Larry Taylor, make a complete Fats Band reunion on a quietly sexy “Rock Me.”

Blake reserves his deepest expressiveness and bluest emotions for a pair of songs on which he is joined by guitarist Nathan James. “Precious Time” is a philosophical meditation on death and temporality with a focus both general (“Time waits for no one, not millionaires, not kings”) and specific (“Goodbye, old friend, you know time brings about a change”). Tremolo-picked, mandolin-like flourishes add a distinctive touch to rhythmic echoes of Tommy Johnson in James’s accompaniment. In “City Of Angels,” Blake weaves his plaintive harmonica through a delicate figure played on the treble strings of James’s guitar as indelible images of waves and wind draw tight his rueful lyric of sin and heartbreak in Los Angeles. This is artistry at a high level.

Although it holds true to the conventions of the genre, a road less traveled in no way sounds like the work of an archivist. Rather, in its lack of affectation and unflinching honesty, this record sounds as if, just like John Lee Hooker’s boogie-woogie, it was in Al Blake and had to come out. Its lack of pretension or artifice makes Blues According To Blake the perfect restorative for listeners offended by the phoniness and wearied by the bombast common to practically every style of music today (with much of what is marketed as “blues” sadly no exception). Depending on your listening habits, this record may at first sound a bit subtle to you. If it does, play it again and listen closely. Mr. Blake’s blues will move you.

TOM HYSLOP

 

The artist kindly provided this CD for review. It is available for purchase at http://www.bluebeatmusic.com