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