Tag Archives: Blues

Album of the Day: Various Artists, “Ann Arbor Blues Festival 1969, Vol. 1 & 2”

In 1969, a group of enthusiastic college students at the University of Michigan organized North America’s first music festival dedicated to celebrating the blues in all its varied forms. Captured on a new reissue from Third Man Records, Ann Arbor Blues Festival 1969, Vol. 1 & 2 offers a snapshot of a moment in time when the giants of Black music converged at a Midwestern college campus and delivered stunning performances.

The album opens with some slick stage banter from Arkansas-born, traveling bluesman Roosevelt Sykes. He warns the crowd that his tune “Dirty Mother For You” could be construed as “suggestive” or “smutty” before launching into a raunchy piano-based boogie jam. Chicago Blues legend B.B. King lights up “I’ve Got A Mind To Give Up Living” with wild, distorted guitar solos. But it’s Big Mama Thornton’s arresting downtempo ballad “Ball And Chain” that brings down the house. The song would later gain popularity via a cover by Big Brother & the Holding Company, but Thornton’s version here is a killer. With its otherworldly guitar solo, weeping brass, and rapturous vocals, Thornton’s rendition becomes a hot, screaming revelation of pain and longing. 

Rounded out by performances from Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Howlin’ Wolf, and more, the lineup reads like a who’s who of American popular music. By capturing these musicians in that moment, Ann Arbor Blues Festival 1969, Vol. 1 & 2 is an essential document of a dynamic, living history.

-John Morrison

This World is Just a Dressing Room: A Guide to Gospel on Bandcamp


Rev Johnny L Jones

Classic black American gospel remains one of the building blocks of contemporary popular music. The style that developed in black American churches combined emotive, improvisatory lead vocals with energetic call-and-response singing from the choir, and was driven by hard-charging rhythms. It was a major influence on everyone from Ray Charles to Al Green, and you can still hear it in Beyoncé’s powerhouse testimonies, in serpentwithfeet‘s soaring vibratos, and in the rhythmic flow of rap, which harkens back to the declarative delivery of black American pastors.

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A Tom Waits Listening Primer

Tom Waits

Photo by Matt Kramer

“The songs are coming all the time,” Tom Waits said in 1999, more than 25 years after he first debuted with 1973’s singer-songwriter classic Closing Time. “Just because you didn’t go fishing today doesn’t mean there aren’t any fish out there.” Continue reading

The Vitamin B12 Remains an Elusive Figure in European Improv

Vitamin B12

Some artists, like Beth Gibbons or D’Angelo, allow years—even decades—to pass between releases, so each new album becomes especially momentous and symbolic. Other artists, from Sun Ra to Lil Ugly Mane, release so much music so relentlessly, each album feels less important than the constellation it forms. And then there’s UK-based Alasdair Willis, who makes music under the name The Vitamin B12. Active since the mid ’80s, Willis is primarily known for A legendary 4xLP box set that compiled selections from various free improvisational sessions from his Brighton loft in 1986. In the intervening years, The Vitamin B12 has proven to be an elusive figure in the European free improvisation scene, which also includes acts like Nurse With Wound and H.N.A.S.

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Album of the Day: Various Artists, “Sweet as Broken Dates”

Although influenced by Black American funk and soul as well as Jamaican reggae, the music on Sweet as Broken Dates: Lost Somali Tapes from the Horn of Africa is strikingly unique, and the collection does an excellent job of capturing the high quality and musical sophistication characteristic of Somalia’s musical community during the ‘70s and ‘80s. These tracks, though, were nearly lost to history. They were originally located in the archive of Radio Hargeisa, the state-run public radio station; when authoritarian ruler Siad Barre, seeking to quash any potential dissent or resistance, bombed the station, a few quick-thinking radio operators hid the archive throughout neighboring countries, knowing that the preservation of musical culture was crucial.

Throughout the assortment of tracks from that archive, provided here by Ostinato Records, shockingly powerful and adept vocals sung in Somali twist and turn through haunting harmonic minor scale frameworks. Nimco Jamaac’s “Buuraha U Dheer (The Highest Mountains)” is a soaring mid-tempo rocker with winding synth and string parts running counter to the gorgeous vocal melody. With its slow-rolling blues tempo and chicken-scratch guitar hitting on the on half-note downbeat, Iftiin Band (featuring Mahmud Abdalla “Jerry” Hussen and Maryan Naasir)’s “Xuduud Ma Leh Xubigaan (This Love Has No Boundaries)” is reminiscent of a psychedelic, East African take on James Brown’s classic “King Heroin.” When Naasir takes over the start of the second verse, her shining soprano cuts through the mix with fire and passion. The majority of the tracks here posses many similar aesthetic characteristics: rickety electric organs, reverb, tape delay-saturated vocals, and the percussion-heavy rhythms of Northeast Africa.

One could characterize the recording aesthetic here as “lo-fi,” but when listening to the songs of love, passion, devotion, and celebration compiled on Sweet As Broken Dates, it is abundantly clear that there is something deeper happening here. The musical choices made on these recordings were both borne out of necessity and are a reflection of the unique tastes and triumphs of Somalia’s musical community—and, by extension, the Somali people. As brilliant as this and similar compilations are, they will not stop the violence or free the Somali people from the cycle of war, poverty, and the aftermath of Western neocolonialism that plagues many nations on the African continent. Despite this grim reality, it is apparent that the salvaging, archiving, and distribution of these recordings is a small, yet incredibly important, part of the work of reconstructing Somalia’s rich and ancient cultural history.

—John Morrison 

King James & the Special Men Keep New Orleans Moving

King James

The story of the New Orleans-based King James & the Special Men starts a long way from the Crescent City—about 1,700 miles northwest, to be more precise. Frontman Jimmy Horn began his musical journey in Sanpete County, Utah. “It’s a lot of sheep, snakes, and dirt,” Horn says of his former home. But even before he made his way south and started digging into the Big Easy’s sonic traditions, he found ways to feed his soul with music. “My father’s record collection was where I started,” he says. “He gave me all his 45s from when he was younger. Little Richard doing ‘Tutti Frutti’ was my first favorite record.”

The raw, garagey mix of New Orleans R&B, blues, and first-gen rock ‘n’ roll that is Act Like You Know evokes images of Little Richard and Joe Strummer in a 1962 Chrysler getting into a fender bender with Professor Longhair and Fats Domino. Recorded in the 9th Ward region, it seems set to do for old-school New Orleans sounds what the Daptone crew has done for ’60s soul—honor what’s been while adding a contemporary spin.

King James

Horn has lived in New Orleans for 25 years now, soaking it all in and eventually spitting it all out. The Special Men have played weekly residencies in local haunts for years, and everybody from Elvis Costello to Robert Plant has turned up to see them perform. But they’ve only just gotten around to making an album. “I’ve always been a long-game guy,” explains Horn. “I knew for some time now that we needed a record, but I didn’t want to be the band that has eight CDs out before anyone hears a record, I wanted them to hear the first record, so I took my time.”

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Benjamin Booker Serves As His Own “Witness”


Photo by Neil Krug.

Benjamin Booker’s latest record, Witness, boldly explodes the garage-blues paradigm of his previous work. In an essay announcing the record, he detailed the dual inspirations for this radical shift: the work of civil rights activist and writer James Baldwin, and a trip to Mexico City. Booker visited the latter, in an attempt to escape the structures of American society. The former could almost be seen as a catalyst for that trip. Booker’s experiences during his Mexico City jaunt, and the conclusions he’s reached on Witness, feel like an echo of a letter Baldwin wrote to his literary agent in 1979: “I am saying that a journey is called that because you cannot know what you will discover on the journey, what you will do with what you find, or what you find will do to you.”

What Booker found, and what he shares on his new record, is anger, understanding, clarity—maybe even purpose. Many have heard the titular lead single as a call to action against police brutality and systemic violence against and subjugation of black bodies in America. And while these readings are accurate (“Now everybody that’s brown can get the fuck on the ground,” Booker spits before Mavis Staples sings, “Am I gonna be a witness?”), Booker recoils at the suggestion that this is a “political” record.

Instead, Booker’s gaze was turned inward, and Witness is a reflection of that; it’s an exploration of his role in America, a dissection of his own agency. In the end, Booker’s self-examination prompted action, and a dedication to “bearing witness to the truth,” be that an indictment of racist law enforcement, or an indictment of our own unspoken complicity in those systems. With Witness, he pleads that we have those conversations with ourselves. In 1963, on Dr. Kenneth Clark’s WGBH program, Baldwin pled the same: “There are days… when you wonder what your role is in this country, and what your future is in it. How precisely are you going to reconcile yourself to your situation here?”

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The Molochs Make a Virtue of Being Outsiders

The Molochs

Photos by Angela Ratzlaff.

Lucas Fitzsimons and Ryan Foster are used to feeling like outsiders. Growing up in an Argentinian household, Fitzsimons felt different from the other kids at school. Both of them are soft spoken, and neither of them are fond of the social climbing and extraneous noise that characterizes the LA entertainment industry.

That outsider mentality serves as inspiration for the music they create as The Molochs. The duo don’t kowtow to local trends; instead, they keep doing what they’ve been doing for years: making blues-based guitar music rife with lyrical honesty. While the songs have an upbeat musicality, there’s a palpable sense of somberness lurking beneath the grooves.

The band recently signed with Innovative Leisure, a label that hosts a roster of acts including Tijuana Panthers, Nick Waterhouse, De Lux, Classixx and Bad Bad Not Good, and have gone from playing shows at small dive bars to festival slots at Primavera Sound in Barcelona and Noise Pop in San Francisco. They’re also gearing up for tours in the U.S. and Europe.

We spoke with Fitzsimmons about returning to the country of his birth, operating outside the industry, and how a trip to India inspired him.

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