One of the problems with a free-market capitalist system is overkill. Take, for instance, tribute albums. What may once have been heartfelt and sincere has since become just another marketing move. The subject doesn’t matter as long as the product will sell, with the result a glut that’s diluted the pool.
At first glance, the idea of a multi-artist blues tribute to Johnny Cash seems like just another exercise in the crassly cynical. But it’s on NorthernBlues, a small Canadian label dedicated to challenging convention with music that invariably combines a healthy respect for tradition while stretching the boundaries of the form.
Johnny, currently enjoying something of a late-career renaissance thanks to a handful of superb outings for Rick Rubin’s American Music label and a critical reassessment of his earlier output, has always had some blue blood in his veins. So for the most part the artists involved in “Johnny’s Blues” don’t have to stretch all that much to find common musical ground. Yet no one plays it safe; each artist puts their individual stamp on their chosen track, which is, of course, how it should be.
Things kick off with “Train Of Love,” with Paul Reddick’s thick-toned harp and grizzled vocals supported by a busy arrangement with all the rhythmic urgency of a speeding freight train. Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown follows with “Get Rhythm,” aided vocally by Benji Davis (who sounds a lot like John Prine). Sadly, Gate needs the help – his vocals, always somewhat limited, are showing the effects of age, and there’s not a lot of elasticity left. He still swings like mad, though, and the song works quite well. Maria Muldaur checks in with “Walking The Blues,” accompanied only by Del Rey’s acoustic guitar. Anyone who enjoyed Maria’s “Richland Woman’s Blues,” her own tribute to Bessie Smith, will love Maria’s contribution here. Unlike Gate’s, Maria’s voice just gets better and better, age and experience adding a depth that allows her to plumb the very darkest corners of the heart.
Chris Thomas King gives “Rock Island Line” a quick run through that owes more to Sonny & Brownie than Mr. Cash before Garland Jeffries reinvents “I Walk The Line” as a Cajun two-step (it works!); equally inventive is Blackie & The Rodeo Kings’ take on “Folsom Prison Blues,” here given a dense, almost claustrophobic reading. Harry Manx, he of the Eastern influences, tackles “Long Black Veil” with his Mohan Veena front and centre, the result an ethereally lovely take that to me is one of the disc’s highlights (but then I’m a huge fan of Harry). Alvin Youngblood Heart appears next with a solo take on “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down.” Production here has a curious quality that seems to distance the vocals from Alvin’s guitar; it’s a bit distracting but not enough to diminish the song’s desolate mood. Sleepy LaBeef sounds much like Johnny himself on “Frankie’s Man Johnny,” Corey Harris delivers a rather daring take on “Redemption,” while Kevin Breit contributes the disc’s only instrumental with a mariachi-influenced “Send A Picture Of Mother.” Producer Colin Linden’s signature sound is all over “Big River,” like the tracks by Mr. Reddick and B&TRK’s a thickly textured ‘wall of sound.’ Things wrap up with Mavis Staples’ funkified take on “Will The Circle Be Unbroken,” one of the more unusual versions I’ve heard.
Apart from a somewhat underwhelming cover, packaging is exemplary, with each artist given their own page to explain their connection to Johnny’s music. Some are honest enough to admit they weren’t overly familiar with his oeuvre prior to this project, but with artists of this calibre it doesn’t really matter. As with any undertaking that’s both as focussed and as eclectic as this, there are moments that will appeal to some more than others, but every performance here is absolutely top-notch. Kudos to NorthernBlues and the artists involved for taking chances, for refusing to simply emulate the man himself, instead choosing to cast material associated with a towering figure in a new light. It’s a fascinating collection that shows there’s more than one way to interpret a tune, yet in the process showcasing the underlying strength of the songs themselves.
A fine collection and a fitting tribute indeed, and yet another feather in the NorthernBlues cap!
NorthernBlues Music, Inc.
225 Sterling Road, Unit 19, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M6R 2B2
Web : www.northernblues.com
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