A taut, finger-picked guitar riff sets the stage. Then 'bomp' goes the bass and the snare drum, as the riff settles in for a comfortable stay. A lonesome harmonica floats overhead, and then the vocal enters, firm, pure, and full of pride. “Clarksdale’s the town laid heavy on my mind/I can have a good time there and not have one lousy dime.” The rhythm is kicking hard and solid, the guitar and harp are dancing nimbly and elegantly, and there is more to tell us about this town. “Clarksdale, Mississippi is always gonna be my home/that’s the reason why you hear me sitting around here and moan.”
Now adding new punch, there are horns, packing more harmony into the sonic equation. They separate and come back together; the harmonica sounds mournfully in-between their dissonant blasts, and “every day of the week I go down in the town drunk/give me a bottle of snuff and a bottle of alco-rub.” “Nobody knows Clarksdale like I do/the reason why I know it I follows it through and through.” Those horns are digging deep into the singer’s soul, capturing his mingled feelings of love and hate and fear and hope for his home. And always that stomp from the drums, the guitar sticking to its riffing guns, the harp moving back and forth between joining it and commenting on the horns or vocal. And a final bit of moan before the guitar concludes the journey...
Heritage Blues Orchestra's And Still I Rise
We’ve heard Son House’s “Clarksdale Moan” before, but it’s never been delivered quite like this. House sang it alone and let his guitar-picking do all the heavy lifting of commenting on his vocal. But this version, sung by Junior Mack of the Heritage Blues Orchestra, brings an entire community into the song. The guitar doesn’t have the freedom House gave it but, in tandem with the rigorously whomping drums, grounds the performance, allowing all these other musical events and emotional resonances to come forth. This is the sound of imagination, of desire, of freedom held down, to be sure, by the self-imposed limitations of too much drinking, but not eliminated by any means.
It’s not fair to focus too much attention on one track from the Heritage Blues Orchestra’s wonderful debut recording And Still I Rise. After all, there are three distinctive vocalists at play here, and there are field hollers and gospel songs mixed in among the blues. The cover photo features the three vocalists – Bill Sims, Jr. (who released a pretty decent record on Warner Brothers back in 1999), his daughter Chaney Sims, and the aforementioned Junior Mack (who has worked with the likes of the Allman Brothers Band, Joe Louis Walker, Chaka Khan, and Robert Randolph). The band also includes Vincent Bucher on harmonica, Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith (rapidly becoming the most sought-after player in contemporary blues) on drums, and a horn section of Bruno Wilhelm (tenor saxophone and arrangements), Kenny Rampton (trumpet), Steve Wiseman (trumpet), and Clark Gayton (trombone, sousaphone, and tuba).
Muddy Waters, Leadbelly & Eric Bibb
Chaney Sims sings an earthy yet controlled version of the traditional “C-Line Woman,” with just Smith’s second-line delirious drumming behind her. The performance is worthy of comparison to Sweet Honey In The Rock, the incandescent female a capella group. Her father brings a sly winking sexual desire to “Big Legged Woman,” which benefits from a country-style blues groove and a city-style jazzy horn chart. The band tears it up on a version of Muddy Waters’ “Catfish Blues,” with two guitars chugging away, the horns punchy, the harp getting down and dirty, and drums driving full throttle. Bill Sims takes the lead vocal on this one, not trying to ape that of Muddy, but riding the white hot groove of the band with his own style. Bucher takes a particularly stunning harp solo on this one, making a powerful statement of purpose in the middle of such a strong band performance.
Leadbelly’s “Go Down Hannah” gets a feminist emphasis as Chaney Sims sings this work song, with the male vocalists grunting in response to her lyrics about the ways the women were worked as hard as the men. The traditional gospel song “Get Right Church” rides Mack’s slide-guitar all the way to heaven; he plays here in ways similar to the sacred steel players, though of course he’s not playing a steel guitar. The spiritual feeling continues on Eric Bibb’s “Don’t Ever Let Nobody Drag Your Spirit Down,” another one on which the horns add so much spice with their commentary on Mack’s soulful vocal.
Bill Sims takes the lead vocal on “Going Uptown,” a traditional song with the telling line “My baby’s so highbrow the white folks all think she’s white.” “In the Morning” takes things back to church, with each vocalist taking a verse over the double-time Gospel fury of the band. Everybody sounds full of spirit, vigorously predicting a more glorious morning to come. Mack’s a capella take on “Levee Camp Holler” brings us back down to earth, however, as it reminds us of the hard labor some are forced to endure. But his original gospel song, “Chilly Jordan” comes back hard, showcasing two ringing acoustic guitars and Smith’s shuffling, toe-tapping beat.
The album ends with another traditional tune, “Hard Times,” performed as a three-part suite. Chaney Sims sings honestly and directly of the difficult aspects of life, with the men joining in on harmonies at the end of each line. Then comes a dazzling display from the horn section, which starts off echoing the melody of the tune before modulating into some gorgeous directions halfway between 20th century classical and the complex arrangements of Gil Evans for Miles Davis and orchestra. Finally, the band returns to the song, hard and stomping with the abandon of a frantic Saturday night in a Mississippi juke joint.
Steve's Bottom Line
The Heritage Blues Orchestra brings something new and exciting to the world of blues. They draw from the rich traditions of the music, yet manage to make them distinctively original and inventive. This debut gets deeper every time you play it. But the possibility is strong that we’ve only heard the beginning of what they are capable of doing. This combination of musical personalities seems likely to continue to surprise and delight for a long time. (Raisin' Music, released February 28, 2012)
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