It's rare to come across a young blues artist who is musically adventurous. In a genre like rock, young musicians are the ones taking all the risks; but in blues, it seems most up-and-coming players feel they have to prove they understand the tradition, the history, before they can get to the point of trying new things and developing their own identity.
John-Alex Mason's Jook Joint Thunderclap
That's sort of the path that Colorado-based guitarist John-Alex Mason has taken. His first recordings, about ten years back, found him performing solo acoustic blues heavily influenced by his Delta heroes. In the time since, he's experimented with the one-man-band format, a duo setting (on a 2002 album with string player Gerry Hundt) and some full-band performances. All of Mason's outings have been professional and tasteful, but rarely has he stretched out and given something new to the blues.
That's what makes Jook Joint Thunderclap such a leap forward for Mason. For the first time, it sounds like he's playing what he wants to play rather than what he thinks we want to hear. And what he's come up with is a veritable explosion of sound that crosses cultural and musical lines in ways young artists rarely do. Though it's essentially a North Mississippi Hill Country record, Mason adds elements of rap, African music, and roots styles, resulting in a sonic melting pot that feels wholly individual. It's filled with the most daring tracks he's ever recorded.
Mississippi Hill Country Blues
Several songs are straight Mississippi Hill Country blues of the hypnotic, one-chord variety. "My Old Lonesome Home" powers forward like a locomotive chugging down the tracks, powered by Mason's raw, nasty cigar-box guitar and guest Hundt's galvanizing harmonica. Mason first recorded the blues standard "Signifyin' Monkey" for his 2000 album Walking Tracks in an a cappella rendition; he completely overhauls the song this time, turning the jungle allegory into a trance-y single-chord stomp. And on "Free," frenzied-pace djembe drumming by Guinean player Fara Dolno combines with an Otis Taylor-like guitar riff for a volcanic eruption of pure rhythmic intensity.
"Gone So Long" and "Riding On" also encompass the Hill Country sound, but both songs are given a twist. "Gone So Long" is the first example of blues-rap I've heard that actually works. Other artists have tried this approach and ended up sounding gimmicky; here, it succeeds largely because it's done in such an organic, non-electronic way: Cody Burnside (grandson of the late R.L. Burnside) simply raps a verse over Mason's slithering, addictive guitar lines. "Riding On" is the most musically rich tune here, with Burnside rapping over a track that includes such exotic instruments as the bolofone (an African instrument that sounds like a marimba), the djembe adding an extra layer of percussion over the already propulsive drumming of Cedric Burnside (also a grandson of R.L.). It ends up sounding like something from late-period Captain Beefheart.
Rolled and Tumbled
Another highlight is "Rolled and Tumbled." On this cover of the classic by the Tennessee-based early bluesman Hambone Willie Newbern, Mason lets his words ooze out slowly like maple syrup from a bottle, resulting in an angular, John Lee Hooker-esque rhythm that also suggests the fractured blues of Los Lobos side project Houndog.
Not everything here has a Hill Country, or even a blues, flavor. "More Than Wind" is a gorgeous ballad that has Lionel Young's fiddle weaving around Hundt's delicate mandolin, and Mason singing one of his prettiest melodies."Diamond Rain" is a countryish tune with a minor-key Appalachian lilt, Young contributing a cheery fiddle solo that echoes the song's upbeat sentiment. And the album-closing "Whisper," performed solo acoustic, is a loving ode to Mason's wife that recalls his early work.
Ken's Bottom Line
Jook Joint Thunderclap marks John-Alex Mason's maturation as an artist. He has clearly moved beyond the stage where he's mimicking his influences and reached a point where he can himself influence other performers. In developing his own musical personality, he's recorded an album as rich, lively and just plain fun as anything that's come out this year. Ballads aside, it's so high-energy that you're practically exhausted – in a good way – by the time you finish its ten tracks. (Naked Jaybird Music, released February 15, 2011)
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