The 20th Annual Handy Awards ceremony is being held in Memphis on 27th May, 1999. It almost goes without saying that all of the nominations have one thing in common: they are all very very good, whether they be songs, albums, or musicians. To review all of the nominations would be a major work in itself, so what follows is a subjective round up of the nominated albums, some of which you may have missed over the last year or so.
There are five nominations in the Traditional Blues Album of the Year category. Among the nominees are David Honeyboy Edwards' "The World Don't Owe Me Nothing" (Earwig 4940), which is a companion to the excellent biography of the same name. The other veteran nominated in this category is Robert Junior Lockwood for "I Got To Find Me A Woman" (Verve 5374482). Detroit's Johnnie Basset who is nominated here for "Cadillac Blues" (Cannonball CBD29103), ties with B.B. King for the most nominations (five each). The last two nominees are John Hammond's "Long as I Live" (Pointblank VPBCD44), and the comparative baby of the group, Guy Davis, for "You Don't Know My Mind" (Red House RHRCD113).
The next category is Contemporary Blues Album of the Year. It's nice to see a couple of old stagers still making music that is regarded as contemporary some decades after they started out. Otis Rush's "Any Place I'm Going" (House of the Blues 514161343) is regarded by many as his best for a long time, if not his best ever. The other elder statesman is B.B. King for "Blues on the Bayou" (MCA, MCD 11789; 15 tracks: 64 mins. 11). This is B.B. King and Lucille at their very best. He got his current band together, picked 15 of his "own" tunes--some old, some new--and moved them all down to Louisiana to record. Everything was cut live in the studio in just four days, with the man himself doing the production. It's a real treat to hear the band in such fine form, and with a real horn section to boot! The choice of material is just right, and fits the band like a glove, giving you a chance to hear them at the peak of their powers. There's not a weak track here, and whilst B.B.'s favorite is "I'll Survive", I would give the edge to the last track, the instrumental "If That Ain't It I Quit", which has the feel of a jam session. B.B. winds up the track by saying "If That Ain't It I Quit", and believe me, he's not going to be quitting.
The only very slight quibble I have is B.B.'s claiming credit for "Mean Ole World", which my sources say is a T-Bone Walker tune, and "Shake It and Go" which sounds very much like Tommy McClennan's "Bottle Up and Go". That aside, B.B. says in the sleeve notes that he thinks this is his best band ever, and on this evidence, I'm not going to argue with him.
The other contenders in this category are Shemekia Copeland's debut "Turn the Heat Up" (Alligator ALCD 4587), Susan Tedeschi's "Just Won't Burn" (Tone Cool CDTC 1164), and the ever impressive Joe Louis Walker's "Preacher & the President" (Verve 5334762).
In the Comeback Album of the Year category, there's a number of artists making a welcome return to the studio. As a Brit, I'm pleased to see the resurgence of Peter Green (ex-Fleetwood Mac, from the days when they were a Blues band) who gets nominated for "Robert Johnson Crossroads" (Artisan SARCD002). On the down side it's very sad to report that Al King, nominated for the well received "It's Rough Out Here" (Forevermore FVR 4604-2), recently passed away.
The only American name that was familiar to me in this category was Dave Myers who played bass with the Aces and worked with a host of famous names in the 50's and 60's. He gets nominated for his first solo effort, "You Can't Do That" (Black Top CDBT1142), on which he's gone back to playing guitar again. Texas has two representatives in this category. Pete Mayes, gets selected for "For Pete's Sake" (Antone's 10040), and Texas Johnny Brown is nominated for "Nothin' but the Truth" (Choctaw Creek CCR 00012; 12 tracks: 59 mins. 05). It's hard to believe that this is Brown's first album, given that he first recorded some 50 years ago, and that he has written songs of the caliber of "Two Steps From the Blues", which is included here. In the interim, however, Brown put his family first in 1963, and has only returned to full time music since his retirement in 1991. There are two sad notes to report, however: Charles Rhinehart, who plays keyboards on several tracks, died during the recording, and Teddy "Cry Cry" Reynolds, who features on piano and Hammond B-3, passed away last Fall after a lengthy illness.
If you're expecting straight Texas Blues, you'll be in for a rude awakening when you hear the opening track, "Cheatin' and Stealin'" which is very much big band Blues. There's something here to please just about everybody, however, from the slow late-night feel of "There Goes the Blues" through the lively swinging "Your House, Your Home" and the funky edged soul of "No Part-time Lover" to the Johnny Winteresque "Once Was". The mood of Brown's guitar playing is light and soulful throughout, even on the more uptempo numbers. All of the tunes featured here are Brown originals except for the instrumental "Ain't No Way". The autobiographical "Nothin' But the Truth, So Help Me John", which includes the first Blues flute solo I've heard for a while, brings the proceedings to a close. It's a shame we've had to wait so long for this very fine debut album.
The final nomination in this category is Johnny Jones' "I Was Raised on the Blues" (Black Magic 9036; 11 tracks: 50 mins. 38). I'd always equated Nashville with country music, until I recently discovered that Fred James was trying to revitalize the once bustling Nashville Blues scene. Nashville-based Jones originally worked with Gatemouth Brown backing luminaries such as Etta James, Little Milton and Freddie King. He left the business for a while, returning briefly in the late 70's when Bobby Bland persuaded him to go out on the road. After favorable reviews of his appearance at the Blues Estafette in the Netherlands in 1997, Jones recorded "I Was Raised on the Blues" in Nashville in 1998.
The opening "Chip Off the Old Block" provides a good taster of what's to follow. It sounds a bit like "Born Under a Bad Sign", probably because it was also written by Booker T. Jones and William Bell. Stylistically, Jones is pretty much his own man, although the influence of Albert King can definitely be heard on a number of the tracks. Considering this is his first album he sounds very confident and relaxed with the material showcased here, whether it be the searing Blues of "Chip Off the Old Block", or the bouncier "Galloping Dominoes". Although Jones only wrote one of the tunes here (the closing instrumental, "Baptism of Fire"), the choice of material allows him to demonstrate his dexterity on guitar, and show that he's got a great voice too. He's also helped by a sympathetic support band, which includes the aforementioned Fred James, who not only plays rhythm guitar and piano, but also handled production and contributed four songs. This is another debut album that's long overdue.
In the Soul/Blues Album of the Year category, the late Johnny Adams gets nominated for "Man of My Word" (Rounder 2155). Unsurprisingly Bobby "Blue" Bland's name crops up, with a nomination for "Live on Beale Street" (Malaco MCD 7489). Another couple of veteran performers also make the nominations: Etta James for the self-produced "Life, Love & the Blues" (Private Music 01005-82162-2), and Little Milton's "For Real" (Malaco). In contrast, W.C. Clark is a comparative newcomer. He gets nominated for "Lover's Plea" (Black Top CDBT-1145).
If I had to pick someone to keep Bobby Bland on his toes, however, I think Mighty Sam McClain would be the man. He gets nominated for "Journey" (Audioquest AQ1048; 12 tracks: 62 mins. 02), the follow up to the critically acclaimed "Sledgehammer Soul and Downhome Blues" on the same label. In addition to being a very fine vocalist, McClain is also a great songwriter, and had a hand in writing nine of the tracks. The only track by an outsider is a pretty straight cover version of Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come". My personal favorite, however, is "Other Side of the Tracks", a biographical song that was co-written by Sam's wife, Sandra.
From the opening "I'm a Man" (a McClain original, rather than the song we all associate with Muddy Waters), through to the closing "Somebody Help Me" this album is a prime example of how to make great Soul/Blues music. Whether it's slow ballads like "Other Side of the Tracks", or something more uptempo like "I'm Yours", the band always provide the perfect foil for McClain's testifying. There's just the right level of guitar, never trying to steal the show, but prepared to accept the limelight when it comes his way. Add a four-piece horn section to punctuate the proceedings in all the right places; an engine room of bass and drums keep things ticking over, and top it all off with piano and Hammond B-3 organ. If the music on this CD doesn't move you, then you ain't got no soul. Wonderful stuff.
The penultimate category is the Acoustic Blues Album of the Year. Guy Davis' "You Don't Know My Mind" appears to have been nominated in this category as well as the Traditional Album one. Alvin Youngblood Hart's second album, "Territory" (Hannibal HNCD 1431; 11 tracks: 46 mins. 37) is also nominated. It's much more eclectic than "Big Mama's Door" covering a range of styles, some of which can only loosely be called Blues, or even Blues-influenced.
One of the last people I would have expected to cover a Captain Beefheart tune, for example, is Alvin Youngblood Hart. As if to prove me wrong he does a version of the Captain's instrumental "Ice Rose". Initially it seems slightly discordant here, especially since most of the album consists of acoustic guitar based tunes. It does work, however, probably because it's one of Beefheart's more accessible tunes. And just to show that he isn't frightened to try almost anything, Hart follows it with the waltz, "Dancing With Tears in My Eyes".
Hart is a highly talented musician, but I don't think that "Territory" will be everyone's cup of tea. Blues purists will be a bit disappointed, especially if they compare it directly to "Big Mama's Door". The straighter Blues tunes here certainly would not have been out of place on "Big Mama's Door". On the remainder of the album, however, Hart is branching out in several directions, as the penultimate track "Just About To Go", a Ska tune, aptly demonstrates. I can't wait to see where he ends up next.
The other nominees in this category are Rory Block's "Confessions of a Blues Singer" (Rounder 11661-3154-2), blind pianist Henry Butler's "Blues After Sunset" (Black Top CDBT-1144), and Chris Thomas King's personalized blend of Delta Blues, Southern Soul and contemporary musical influences on "Red Mud" (Black Top CDBT-1148).
The last category is the Reissue Blues Album of the Year. Not all albums sound as good today as they did when they were first released, but all the albums nominated here are worth adding to your collection if you haven't already got them, especially since the repackaging often involves some bonus tracks. Pride of place in this category goes to Delmark who obviously must have got it right in the past, since they have three albums nominated. Jimmy Dawkins, who is still in fine form, is nominated for "Fast Fingers" (Delmark DD-623), alongside the influential Robert Nighthawk's "Bricks in My Pillow" (Delmark DD-711), and the late, great, Junior Wells' "Blues Hit Big Town" (Delmark DD-640). Another harp player in the reckoning is the underrated George "Harmonica" Smith with "Now You Can Talk About Me" (Blind Pig BP-5049). The late Luther Allison's first album for the German Ruf label, "Hand Me Down My Moonshine" Ruf 51416 1413 2) must also be in contention. It's unusual in that it shows Luther unplugged, with only bass for company on most of the tracks. Ruf Records from Germany deserve credit for giving the late Luther Allison the chance to record when he couldn't get a deal in the US. Last, but not least is B.B. King who is nominated for the remastered version of the classic "Live at the Regal" (MCA).
This review is copyright © 1999 by Gordon Baxter, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved.