Local label Inside Sounds gives us the blues. And we don't mind a bit.
Typically, record labels like to space their releases out a bit -- to keep from cluttering the market place, to focus promotional resources on one release at a time.
But this month, local label Inside Sounds will take the unusual step of releasing new studio albums from its three flagship artists -- Charlie Wood, The Billy Gibson Band, and The Daddy Mack Blues Band -- on the same day, with a national release date of December 12th.
Label owner Eddie Dattel points to how "musically intertwined" these artists are as a rationale, and it's true in a very tangible sense. In addition to being blues artists on the same Memphis indie label, the three acts all
contribute to each other's work: Wood plays organ and piano in both Gibson and Daddy Mack's bands. Wood's Lucky features Gibson on harmonica and vocals. The Billy Gibson Band's Southern Livin' was recorded and mixed by Wood at his own Studio Daddy-O, with Wood providing horn arrangements and a songwriting credit and Mack some lead guitar work. And the Daddy Mack Blues Band's Bluestones was produced by Gibson.
But in a city constantly striving to "keep the blues alive," these artists have formed something of a de facto collective committed to that task. All three have been Beale Street regulars, with Gibson (a former mainstay at Rum Boogie Café) and Wood (the house act at King's Palace for 15 years until giving up the gig last year) each recent winners of the Beale Street Merchant Association's Entertainer of the Year award. And all three have taken on the difficult task of expanding those Beale Street gigs into viable recording and touring careers on the larger national (and international) blues scene. And as these three new records indicate, each artist tackles the genre from a different angle.
The sublimely talented Wood might be the aesthete's choice of the bunch. He's a brainy but entirely unpretentious songwriter and a player with jazz chops and soul feel. Wood is justly famous on the local scene as an organ and piano player, but on Lucky he does a Prince/Stevie Wonder impression, playing everything but horns and harmonica on an album he also produced, recorded, and mixed.
Wood is often thought of as a jazz player, but Lucky is a blues-themed record. The opening "Can't Teach That Stuff" jumpstarts the record with a blast of barrelhouse piano and a sharp tribute to hometown blues culture.
"When I was just a kid I used to go downtown/Hit this little blues joint that was down underground," Wood sings. "You bought a $3 set-up/You didn't need no I.D./But that piano player down there/One night he put the blues on me."
When Wood sings, "He was tearin' it up/He was having big fun/He was 79 going on 21," it's easy to picture the late Mose Vinson, a Beale regular during Wood's earlier years on the scene.
Wood also shows off his songwriting chops on the stirring tribute "Can't Stop New Orleans." Over some strutting Crescent City R&B, Wood tosses out some prickly, pointed lines: "The people in the Quarter might have caught a little break/But the people in the 9th Ward got more than they could take/They had to fight to survive," Wood snaps.
Musically, Wood offers a kaleidoscopic vision of the blues. In addition to these barrelhouse and N'awlins variants, there's some serious slow-burn blues on covers such as Percy Mayfield's "The River's Invitation" and the Doc Pomus-penned, Ray Charles-identified "Lonely Avenue." And on the Soulsville groove of "Ear Candy," Wood makes like a one-man Stax rhythm section, playing Skip Pitts (who provided the iconic guitar on Isaac Hayes' "Theme from Shaft") and Booker T. Jones.
Wood ends the record by bringing the sound back to something like its source, teaming with Gibson on a playful reading of the W.C. Handy classic "Beale Street Blues."
If Wood's Lucky is a record collector or music historian's blues album, then Gibson's Southern Livin' is the truest to the good-time, party-blues vibe of modern-day Beale Street. The record might be accused of false advertising. The album cover and title suggests an easy-going paean to family-friendly life below the Mason-Dixon. There are burgers smoking on the grill while friends lounge around a pool. But hit "play" and what you get is a pure nightlife record, a potential soundtrack to a single guy's evening on the prowl at Beale clubs.
This theme is introduced with the breathy background vocals and lyrical double-entendres of the opening "Fireman," and is fleshed out song-by-song: "Mississippi" is more interested in the women to be found there than Faulkner and fried chicken. "I'm Single" is an advertisement of availability. "Hey Hey Pretty Baby" is a bluesy blast of seduction and love-man braggadocio.
The Daddy Mack Blues Band's Bluestones, with liner notes from Living Blues magazine's Scott Barretta, is the record most apt to appeal to the genre's true believers. This is straight-up, bone-deep blues. Stylistically, it variously evokes the rough, raw blues of Howlin' Wolf, the tough, bracing blues of Albert King, and the down-home soul blues of artists such as Little Milton and Z.Z. Hill.
Bluestones is Mack's second album of 2006, following Slow Ride, a collection of classic-rock covers that became a blues-circuit hit. But here, rather than nodding to the rock-oriented foundation of much of the contemporary blues audience, he stays true to the real roots of his music. It's a take-it-or-leave-it record, and one imagines most of the blues world will eagerly take it.