The Reverend receives a lot of worthwhile CD releases here at the About.com Blues HQ, but there sadly just aren't enough hours in the day to pen lengthy reviews on all of them. Some of these albums are just too good to ignore, thus "Blues Bites," a monthly round-up of records that we hope will get you as excited about them as we are! This month we're covering albums from British blues-rockers Blodwyn Pig, Memphis soul legends Booker T. & the M.G.s, and up-and-coming blues singer and harpist Grady Champion.
Blodwyn Pig & Mick Abrahams' Band – Radio Sessions '69 to '71
A real find, this one, for fans of the often-maligned British blues-rock upstarts Blodwyn Pig, featuring the underrated guitarist Mick Abrahams. Radio Sessions '69 to '71 offers up a rare set of previously unreleased radio broadcast recordings from both Blodwyn Pig and Mick Abrahams' subsequent self-titled band, a baker's dozen of cool performances that runs roughly 50%-50% between the Pig and Abrahams' solo stuff. The provenance of the tracks is hard to tell, and the liner notes provide no insight, but as the late, great BBC radio DJ John Peel introduces a couple songs, I'm guessing that many are from his show.
The Blodwyn Pig performances feature a band line-up that included sax blaster Jack Lancaster and violinist Phoon Horn. The assembled tracks are culled from 1969's Ahead Rings Out and the following year's Getting To This, along with a handful of unreleased cuts. "Ain't You Comin' Home" is an exotic blues-rock tune with menacing fretwork, a hypnotic recurring riff, and Lancaster's sax blowing hard with jazzy flourishes, not unlike what John Mayall was doing with Johnny Almond on the Bluesbreakers' The Turning Point album. My personal fave Pig tune, "See My Way," is provided a ripping performance, the song's start/stop dynamics creating tension alongside Berg's monster percussion and Abrahams' free-flying guitar.
Best I can tell, "Same Ol' Story" was previously unreleased on album, and here it mixes the energy and complexity of Jethro Tull – Abrahams' previous band – with the livewire energy of jazz-rock fusion and bluesy overtones. Of the Mick Abrahams Band songs, only a couple come from the guitarist's self-titled solo debut, but they're both firecrackers: "Greyhound Bus" is a soulful blues stomp that proves that Abrahams is one of the most underrated of British blues guitarists, while "Seasons" displays the band's prog-rock dexterity with elements of blues and jazz thrown in, Bob Sargeant's keyboards chiming in unison with Abrahams' imaginative guitarplay. Peel introduces the band for the spry acoustic folk-blues of "City of Gold."
Docked a full grade point for poor, bootleg-grade sound quality, Radio Sessions will mostly appeal to existing Blodwyn Pig/Abrahams fans which is a shame, 'cause these are quality British blues-rock tunes from back in the day. Grade: C+ (Secret Records UK, released July 10, 2012)
Booker T. & the M.G.s – Green Onions
By this point in our ever-shifting musical timeline, the classic Booker T. & the M.G.s' song "Green Onions" has become a bona fide cultural touchstone. Nearly three-minutes of sweet-talking, fast-walking musical perfection, Booker T. Jones' recognizable keyboard riffs, Steve Cropper's near-mythical slashes of guitar, and the steady-rolling rhythm section of bassist Lewis Steinberg and drummer Al Jackson, Jr. created a radio-friendly R&B instrumental that went supernova, building on the success that Freddie King had with "Hide Away." Go ahead, try and find somebody that doesn't like "Green Onions," I'll wait...the song hit the top of the soul chart three separate times, sold over a million copies, and has since been covered by dozens of artists and been used in countless movies and TV shows.
Interestingly enough, "Green Onions" was a happy accident, the band vamping in a Memphis studio while waiting for singer Billy Lee Riley to show up for a session. Stax Records top man (and producer) Jim Stewart, liking what he heard, recorded the jam and released the song as a single in the late summer of 1962 to great response. The band had to scramble to record a full-length Green Onions album, which would subsequently rise to #33 on the pop charts on the strength of the title track, although a sound-alike follow-up single, "Mo' Onions," barely scraped into the top 100. Too bad, 'cause the subtle differences between the two songs speak volumes, "Mo' Onions" more low-key in following a similar musical tack, with Jones' keyboards down-played in favor of a loping groove and Cropper's twangy fretwork.
Although the casual pop music listener may think of Booker T. & the M.G.s as a one-hit-wonder, true blues and R&B fans no better, and as this recent reissue of Green Onions on CD proves, the band had a lot of tricks in its bottomless bag. For instance, "Behave Yourself," the B-side of the hit single, is a deeply bluesy instrumental with plenty of ambiance and an almost gospel reverence. A cover of Doc Pomus's classic "Lonely Avenue" is extravagantly moody, with Jones' fingers flying across the keys while the band keeps a respectful distance. While "only" an instrumental, the band's take on Smokey Robinson's "One Who Really Loves You" manages to capture the romantic wistfulness of the better-known vocal version.
Green Onions circa 2012 includes a pair of live cuts circa 1965 that feature the legendary Donald "Duck" Dunn replacing Steinberg for a raucous performance of the band's greatest hit. The sound quality of these two is spotty, but the energy level is anything but, Cropper's guitar reaching out of the speakers to grab you by the throat so that Jones' keyboard can bludgeon you into submission. A live cover of the R&B standard "Can't Sit Down" is even more frenzied than the LP version, rocking and rolling out of the box like an uncaged beast. If you're looking to upgrade your worn antique vinyl copy of Green Onions, this is the CD version to grab. (Stax Records, released July 24, 2012) Grade: A
Grady Champion – Shanachie Days
Mississippi bluesman Grady Champion is a pretty damn talented singer, songwriter, and guitarist and an above-average harpslinger in the Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson vein. The winner of the 2010 International Blues Challenge, Champion has since been slowly but surely building a worldwide audience for his R&B-drenched, old school blues sound and throwback soul-shouter vocal style.
It's hard to tell by how easily he's slipped into the blues world, but Champion began his career in the early 1990s as a rapper, later falling in love with the blues and incorporating a hip-hop edge into his music similar to Chris Thomas King's "21st century hip-hop blues" sound. A self-produced album, 1988's Goin' Back Home, lead directly to a deal with Shanachie Records, the eclectic roots-and-traditional music label best known in the blues world for reissuing essential blues albums acquired from Yazoo Records.
Champion recorded two albums for Shanachie at the turn of the century, 1999's Payin' For My Sins and 2001's 2 Days Short Of A Week, both of which earned a degree of critical acclaim but eventually went nowhere fast. In the wake of Champion's Blues Music Award nominated 2011 disc Dreamin', GSM Music has released Shanachie Days, a seventeen-song compilation that draws upon material from Champion's two albums for the label, reprising eight songs from the first and nine from the second. This is some of the singer's earliest performances, and thus a scattershot affair, but there's something to be said for the raw blues approach.
The material here is entirely original, either written by Champion or co-written by cohorts like underrated guitarist Eddie Cotton and producer Dennis Walker. The more polished songs from 2 Days Short Of A Week, which include a guest shot from guitarist Duke Robillard, stand a bit taller, whether it’s the soulful groove backing the social commentary of "Policeman Blues" or the slinky serpentine blues of "Lady Luck" which includes some fine, Robert Cray-styled git. The title track of Payin' For My Sins is a throwback blues confessional with bleeding vocals while the John Lee Hooker-styled groove of "My Rooster Is King" rocks the house with reckless abandon. Overall, Shanachie Days provides a valuable glimpse at the roots of an up-and-coming albeit underestimated blues talent. Grade: B- (GSM Music, released May 29, 2012)