Tag Archives: Blues

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”

Benjamin-Booker-by-Neil-Krug-600

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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Death Is Not The End Unearths Lost Gospel and Blues Treasures

Death is Not the End, Luke Owen
Luke Owen

These days, it’s not hard to make anything old sound new again. With digital technology leading to greater fidelity in audio recordings, it’s easy to make a dusty, old blues recording sound fresh and new. But Luke Owen, who runs the London-based label Death Is Not The End, isn’t interested in that. He relishes old blues recordings that crack and pop with history.

“I think there has been a tendency to focus on the more ‘clean’ recordings of bluesmen and vocalists from this period in recent years,” he says. “I think the value in a lot of this stuff lies in the simplicity.”

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A Ten-Album Guide to the Canadian North

Over the course of the last several years, Canada’s three Territories in the North—Yukon, Northwest Territories, Nunavut—have become home to a community of musicians dedicated to pushing creative boundaries, sharing stories with the world that are as unique as the places in which they were made.

Thousands of years before Europeans arrived, Indigenous peoples sustained themselves in the North, but it wasn’t until the Klondike Gold Rush in the late 19th Century that Europeans started to settle in large numbers above the 60th parallel. Today, the rich natural resources continue to be a primary reason why people move to the North, settling in modernized cities like Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories, Whitehorse and Dawson City in the Yukon, and Iqaluit in Nunavut. Within these culturally diverse cities, and beyond, are vibrant arts communities that celebrate fellowship and foster unique artistic expression. Ranging from synth-pop, to folk, to electronic, to rock, the 10 records in this list are just a small sample of the diverse music being produced in the Canadian North.

Tanya Tagaq—Auk/Blood

Tanya Tagaq
Tanya Tagaq

With her blend of improvised Inuit throat singing and electronic and classical elements, Tanya Tagaq has become one of the most important creative voices in Canada. Her music is so richly detailed and direct: in 2004, Tagaq’s unique sound caught Björk’s attention, which resulted in the pair collaborating on Björk’s record Medulla. Tagaq’s 2014 record Animism was her most successful to date, garnering raves from around the world and winning the prestigious Polaris Music Prize. On her 2008 Auk/Blood, Tagaq’s work is enhanced by a range of sonic filigree, from delicate strings to beat-boxing, but it never loses its visceral feeling. The pain and beauty are on full display on “Growth,” and the tense standoff of “Blood-Auk.”

Willie Thrasher—Spirit Child

Willie Thrasher
Willie Thrasher

At the age of five, Aklavik, Nunavut-born Willie Thrasher was taken from his home and forced to attend residential school—an initiative by the Government of Canada to assimilate Indigenous peoples into European culture. As a way to heal from this trauma and reconnect with his culture, Thrasher began playing music with his brother and friends in the 1960s. He embarked on a solo career in the latter half of the decade, and travelled throughout North America playing music in the ‘70s and ‘80s. In partnership with CBC’s Northern Service initiative, Thrasher recorded his album Spirit Child in 1981 which, 35 years later, Light in the Attic Records have re-released. Spirit Child is a beautiful blend of western folk-rock (think Neil Young and Creedence Clearwater Revival) and the music of Thrasher’s Inuvialuit culture. In “Silent Inuit,” you hear quiet translations of Thrasher’s verses, while “Intuit Chant” mixes steady folk-rock instrumentation with a traditional chant. In all, the album is a powerful celebration of the Inuvialuit culture in the North.

Indio Saravanja—Indio Saravanja

Indio Saravanja
Indio Saravanja

“There’s nothing in the world like my Northern town,” sings Indio Saravanja in the anthemic “Northern Town,” from his self-titled debut record. Saravanja’s “Northern Town” is an endearing love letter to Yellowknife, Northwest Territories—the biggest city in the North, known for their close-knit community and hospitality. The song is cherished by its residents, and expresses the steadfast love they have for their city. Throughout the record, this Northern troubadour tells imaginative stories influenced by both his travels and his Northern home, adeptly capturing simple emotions that, in less-deft hands, would seem maudlin.

SODA PONY—Soda Pony

Whitehorse, Yukon’s SODA PONY explode with energy on their self-titled debut and, given the fact that this Yukon garage band are just a duo, their power is that much more impressive. Throughout this sparkling, punchy, power-pop record, Aiden Tentrees and Patrick Hamilton trade off on vocal duties while Hamilton plays percussion and a bass synthesizer (usually at the same time) and Tentrees mans keyboard and guitar. SODA PONY leave their home in Whitehorse on the shores of the Yukon River to dive into imaginary landscapes—they take listeners back in time to witness a “Stagecoach Robbery,” and to space in “Astronaut.” But they’re also not above everyday sincerity: One of the album’s highlights, “Friendship,” has the simplest message of all—give love back to those who love you.

Grey Gritt—Live at the NACC

Grey Gritt
Grey Gritt

Self-described as a “sub-arctic blues player,” Grey Gritt’s music has, well, grit. In this collection of live tracks recorded at the Northern Arts and Culture Centre in Yellowknife, Gritt takes the stage alone, but the combination of bluesy guitar playing and Gritt’s commanding voice is a big enough sound that it doesn’t need any accompaniment. Gritt’s lighthearted stage banter balances out the emotional weight of the music; on this album Gritt shifts between feeling sentimental (“Choking Out The Sun”), lustful (“Local Smoke”), and downright angry (“Ace & Queen”). Live at the NACC is full of heart and attitude, a live record that marks the beginning of a long career for this promising young talent.

Old Cabin—Old Cabin

Old Cabin
Old Cabin

Whitehorse-based musician Jona Barr (Old Cabin) makes music as warm and welcoming as his band name suggests. His self-titled record is a timeless Americana mix of folk, country, and rock, telling classic stories of hope, love, and loss. The smoky country sounds of “Borrowed Secrets” feel like they were born in a a dive bar full of people wearing cowboy hats; the playful rhythm of “Lighthouse” blissfully contrasts with the anxieties in the lyrics; and sorrow piles high as a snowbank in the sprawling “Winter Summer.”

Nava Luvu—Transport

The music of Yellowknife duo Nava Luvu (Ashley Daw and Sami Blanco) dances like the Northern Lights—meditative, but always in motion. The melody throughout “Imperial Loft” is like a warped carnival game; the muffled beat of “Liquid Halo” sounds like it’s spilling from a club; and the hazy, skittering keyboard of “Make Love” is as blissful as a late-night car ride with the windows down.

Erebus & Terror—Erebus & Terror

Erebus & Terror
Erebus & Terror

Erebus & Terror might be the most charming rockers in the North. Their self-titled release is steeped in wry observations about love (“You must be happy to feel angry,” they sing in “Going Home”) and driven by roughed-up pop-rock hooks. These solid rock songs are written to linger in listeners’ heads for longer than a Yellowknife winter.

Miraj—Dalhousie

The artist Miraj is a mystery. They’ve revealed nothing about their personal identities, preferring to let the music speak for itself. Their album Dalhousie is a dazzling addition to the North’s burgeoning drone scene—a collection of ghostly beats, toy-like blips and bloops, and a flurry of other unrecognizable noises that create stark sonic pictures. Miraj take inspiration from other worlds (“Interstellar”), their home (“Snowstorm”), and the light (“Canoe”) and the dark (“Absolute”) to craft an engrossing experimental record.

Scary Bear Soundtrack—Ovayok Road

Willie Thrasher
Willie Thrasher. Jess Deeks

Gloria Guns and Christine Aye now reside in Ottawa, but they haven’t lost their sense of allegiance to their original homes in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut—the inspiration for Ovayok Road. On this sweet and joyful lo-fi synth-pop record, they celebrate simple joys: personal strength (“Fault Lines”), the beauty of the Arctic (“My First Northern Light”), the beginning of summer (“Victoria Island”), and even the arrival of a water truck (“Water Truck”).

—Laura Stanley