For good or bad the blues, like pop music, is being squeezed into categories these days. Qualifications and quantification’s abound; there’s Chicago blues, blues-rock, soul-blues and swing blues, swamp blues, Texas blues . . .
Once in a while, though, a disc comes along that’s utterly definitive. One that embodies all that the blues should be. One we can simply call "the blues."
On "Blues From The Heart, Willie Smith reaches deep and delivers a virtual lesson on what the blues really are all about.
Willie manned the drum chair in Muddy Waters’ band for almost twenty years - and remember, Muddy’s band’s were widely acknowledged as the best in the business. Since then he worked with The Legendary Blues Band (a spin-off from Muddy’s band) before releasing a number of good, if less than spectacular, solo albums. His last, the debut of Toronto’s Juke Joint label, was a mix of live and somewhat hastily-arranged studio tracks. While unpolished, the sheer talent of everyone involved made that one a keeper.
"Blues From The Heart," though, has the benefit of better planning. The band’s been assembled with care . . . leader Al Lerman is one of the most versatile – hell, one of the best - harp players around, guitarist Jack DeKeyzer is a living legend in Canada’s blues-rock circles, Alec Fraser is first-call bassist for innumerable Toronto sessions, and (I suspect) there’s absolutely nothing keyboard man Michael Fonfara can’t play. And they all absolutely love to do this stuff.
Then there’s Wille. Willie pretty much invented a style of backbeat that became the heartbeat of Chicago blues. The beat that most people think of as real blues. And it’s a perfect match to his relaxed, laconic vocals.
The coolest thing, though, is the way Willie and friends manage to stay solidly within a very ‘traditional’ (for lack of another word) sound, yet make it fresh and exciting. All but a couple of tunes are originals, and while there’s nothing particularly earth-shaking or innovative in the writing, every solo seems to take a unique path, to find something new and different to say.
Production, too, plays a large part in the success of this project; the sound is just right, nice and thick on the bottom with just a hint of echo for that old-time feel.
Kudos to Juke Joint Records for what’s rather a courageous release. I sincerely hope this one does well, because it’s damn brave to even think of releasing a traditional blues album these days. But this isn’t just another disc – there’s something extraordinary here. Something called ‘the blues.’
And fans – the few who care, anyway – owe you a debt of gratitude.
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This review is copyright © 2000 by John Taylor, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved. Copy, duplication or download prohibited without written permission. For permission to use this review please send an E-mail to Ray Stiles.
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