The dawn of a new year is a great time to look forward, and just as importantly, to reflect on what has passed, and 2012 proved another great year for Stony Plain.
We were delighted to work on two projects with Eric Bibb, who ends 2012 with two nominations in the Blues Music Awards, including in the "Acoustic Artist" category that he won in May. His first release of the year took us on a relaxed float on a Louisianan bayou with Deeper In The Well. Then, on a collaboration with Habib Koité, the renowned Malian singer/guitarist, the duo crafted Brothers In Bamako, a touching blend of Blues and World music - an exhilirating journey for us as, after 37 years, this was our first foray into World music.
Maria Muldaur, with ....First Came Memphis Minnie, called on her Sisters in Music (Rory Block, Ruthie Foster, Bonnie Raitt, Phoebe Snow and Koko Taylor) to create a touching tribute to Memphis Minnie, the trailblazing blues woman. This is Maria's 40th album, and that excellent catalogue earns her recognition from the Blues Foundation with a nomination in their Koko Taylor (Traditional Blues Female) category for 2013.
Ian Tyson, the legendary Canadian songwriter that was recently bestowed the name "raven that sings" by the Stoney-Nakoda First Nation, honours that name with Raven Singer, Tyson's 14th release for Stony Plain. We're looking forward to All The Good 'Uns II, a second "best of" that Ian's currently putting together with the highlights from his albums since his 1996 best of, All The Good 'Uns.
Rory Block, who The Blues Foundation says is "regarded as the top female interpreter and authority on traditional country blues worldwide," released I Belong To The Band: A Tribute To Rev. Gary Davis. It's a "hauntingly accurate, soul deep, and moving" tribute, effuses Mark S. Tucker, who writes for the FAME website.
Peter Karp and Sue Foley, the pairing of accomplished male songwriter, guitarist and pianist with the inimitable guitarist, followed up their critically acclaimed debut, He Said She Said, with Beyond The Crossroads.
And to 2013? Well Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters had a celebratory year, performing live at a number of venues in the eastern US. Just For Today will be released in the Spring, and will grant you front row seats with recordings from three of those intimate shows.
MonkeyJunk, the blues trio from Ottawa who in 2012 won a Juno award and three MapleBlues Awards for To Behold, are heading back in to the studio. We're expecting the fruits of that labour to be ripe by late-Spring.
Then, Duke Robillard, one of Stony Plain's linchpin musicians, and renowned blues guitarist and singer, will have a new project out, also for the Spring.
We can't wait for you to hear those new projects, but in the meantime, please pull up a chair and have a listen to some of the amazing music we've already had the pleasure to release.
By Mike Rick
Guitar Week continues: Ronnie Earl & the Broadcasters' Just for Today more like one for the ages
By Tom Hyslop
From his beginnings in Roomful of Blues through various incarnations as a bandleader–never mind an unparalleled resume of projects as sideman or producer that would be enviable, even legendary, on its own–Duke Robillard has set and exceeded the highest standards of taste, tone, and style. It seems that Robillard has been on a hot (or, more accurately, a hotter) streak of late, with a jumping brace of blues albums in Stomp! The Blues Tonight and Low Down and Tore Up; a jazzy trio project, Wobble Walking; exciting production work for Sunny Crownover, Joe Louis Walker, and others; and an upcoming tour as part of Bob Dylan’s band.
His latest album extends that run of successes. Augmenting his rhythm section (Bruce Bears, keyboards; Brad Hallen, bass; Mark Teixeira, drums–a trio that seems as telepathically linked as it is stylistically unlimited) is guest guitarist Monster Mike Welch, a fellow New Englander who regularly gigs as one of Sugar Ray Norcia’s Bluetones–that is, when he is not recording albums as a front man (I count five or six to date). Robillard maneuvers this superb and sympathetic cast through and around a dizzying scope of blues, jazz, and roots music on Independently Blue.
The album opens with two of three compositions penned by Robillard’s former Roomful bandmate, Al Basile. “I Wouldn’t-a Done That” is a swaggering shuffle with a pair of snarling, tangled-in-barbed-wire solos. Believe it or not, the tune modulates into different keys at least twice, an exceedingly rare move in the blues that makes for a very cool and compelling structure. “Below Zero” is a bluesy, moderately paced rocker that rides out on a duel between Duke’s bright single-note lines and Monster Mike’s bassy, fuzzed-out licks.
This friendly competition continues in the next track, Welch’s hard-hitting instrumental “Stapled To The Chicken’s Back,’” a Texas-flavored shuffle that arrives loaded with impressive guitar breaks. Chicken-picked single notes and double-stops practically pop out of the speaker during Duke’s solo, which slips easily between blues, country, and jazz feels. Welch’s darker-toned choruses are slinkier and recall the no-prisoners attack and idiosyncratic phrasing of Albert Collins. Duke picks up on this biting approach and returns it during the thrilling back-and-forth exchange that follows the individual solos.
A bouncing roots-rocker, “Laurene” expresses Duke’s devotion to Mrs Robillard, and sports a pair of distinctive rhythm guitar approaches as well as two wickedly pointed, Chuck Berry-inspired solos. It sounds like Howlin’ Wolf’s “Evil” provided the inspiration for the arrangement behind Basile’s “I’m Still Laughing.” The trebly lead guitar part is laden with a menacingly heavy vibrato. Welch’s “This Man, This Monster” begins as a laid-back, jazzy after-hours stroll, which escalates as more pointed, bluesier tones and lines overshadow the mellow mood, then develops a languid, almost Hawaiian feel: What an incredible ride in five minutes’ time!
Several sides of the extended range of Robillard’s imagination are on display. “Groovin’ Slow” rides a Southern soul groove reminiscent of “Ode To Billie Joe.” The relaxed but deeply funky middle solo seems perfect for this sort of Muscle Shoals feel, as do the jazzier leads in the outro. “You Won’t Ever” is a different kind of animal, opening with a Latin-inflected trumpet line over a minor key lope before moving into something I think of as Love Boat soul: a little like an arrangement from Willie Mitchell’s Royal studio in Memphis, with pop accents in the vocal melody, and a fleet, George Benson-esque guitar ride out.
The band reaches back to the 1920s with a cover of Red Allen’s “Patrol Wagon.” Doug Woolverton’s trumpet and Billy Novick’s clarinet snake around each other, evoking the feel of vintage jazz records, while Duke waits until the song’s end to uncoil an extended solo that’s mellow but swinging, and oh-so-finely syncopated. Robillard’s bluesy yet unique “Moongate” serves as the album’s centerpiece, midway through the program. A hip arrangement and canny production ideas, like balancing one tremoloed guitar against another, far-off and heavily reverbed–and layering others atop that instrumental bed–lend an ethereal, evocative air, in keeping with its lyric about a Chinese garden, to the track, which would seem out of place either leading off or closing the album, yet is sublime where it sits.
Still, the heart of every Duke Robillard project is the blues, and here the best comes last, in “If This Is Love,” a hard-hitting number based loosely on Otis Rush’s “Right Place, Wrong Time.” Robillard’s lyric and singing are impressively strong, and Welch absolutely kills it with a stunning lead guitar part, marked by angular phrasing, cutting bends, and a disconcertingly aggressive attack. Go to the head of the class, son! It marks a fitting close to the latest Duke Robillard Band long-player. Savvy music fans have long recognized Duke Robillard as the go-to guy for inventive and pitch-perfect playing in virtually every blues-based style of American music, and Independently Blue demonstrates again his mastery as bandleader and producer, his excellence as a performer, and his stature as a visionary creator of American music.(less)
By Stephen A. King
LIVING BLUES – FEBRUARY, 2013
HABIB KOITÉ AND ERIC BIBB
Brothers in Bamako
Stony Plain Records - SPCD 1362
On his highly successful Deeper in the Well (2012), songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Eric Bibb found musical inspiration down south in the bayous and Cajun country of Louisiana. On his latest release, Brothers in Bamako, Bibb turned east to Africa and combined forces with noted Malian musician Habib Koité. According to the disc’s liner notes, Bibb and Koité met a decade ago during the recording of Mali to Memphis. The two developed a friendship and Bibb recently decided to travel to Bamako, the capital of Mali, to record 13 songs with his new musical partner. The results are impressive. Brothers in Bamako is worthy of a Grammy nomination.
Brothers in Bamako is a real partnership. Bibb and Koité contribute individual songs and collaborate on four songs including Touma Ni Kelen/Needed Time and Tombouctou. Koité and Bibb stretch out on a variety of stringed instruments, including acoustic and electric guitars, banjos, and an assortment of ukuleles. They are accompanied by Mamadou Kone on percussion with cameo appearances by Kafoune (backing vocals) and Olli Haavisto (pedal steel guitar). This partnership has created music that truly transcends any individual influence, whether it be blues, folk, gospel, or West African/Malian.
Brothers in Bamako begins with a travel tale, the lilting On My Way to Bamako. Calling Koité a “good friend” and a “great musician,” Bibb sings of his impending visit: “It’s my first trip to West Africa / But I’m pretty sure / In some kinda way / It’s gonna feel like comin’ home.” The song really feels like the two are at home, and it previews the disc’s beautiful musical synchronicity. Listen to every track, especially On My Way to Bamako, Touma Ni Kelen/Needed Time, Nani Le, Foro Bana, and Mami Wata, and hear the two musicians weaving their individual musical parts together in the spirit of genuine collaboration. Because Koité and Bibb play essentially the same instruments, it is difficult to determine who is playing what on Brothers in Bamako, but perhaps this is by design. Brothers in Bamako is not about separation, but interdependence and unification. The four songs the two wrote and composed together find Koité and Bibb trading verses (one sung in English, the other in French, the official language of Mali). Bibb and Koité also wrap their voices around each other, and when these moments appear, especially on Khafolé, it’s as if the two are singing with one voice.
Beyond the exquisite musical interplay that permeates every track, Bibb and Koité are social critics, casting a skeptical eye on a seemingly unfair and unjust world. Given the recent eruption of violence in Mali, it’s not surprising to find Send Us Brighter Days, a cautiously optimistic song that calls for “brighter days” and “blues skies” to heal a world “so sad.” Socio-political commentary can also be found in With My Maker I Am One and We Don’t Care. The latter comments about the disconnect between labor and consumption: “We want the gold / As long as we don’t have to mine it / Don’t care who suffers / Or who’s behind it.” Other songs, including Khafolé, do not include English translations, but it is safe to assume that the lyrics are not throwaways—the words have some story to tell. Similar to Deeper in the Well, Bibb includes a Dylan song and this time it’s Blowin’ in the Wind. Commenting on both human rights and war, Blowin’ in the Wind is a perfect choice.
This cross-cultural experiment could have been a disaster, but it wasn’t. In the disc’s liner notes, Etienne Bours traces the intriguing musical similarities between Bibb and Koité and makes an argument for why Brothers in Bamako sounds so right: “What could be more natural than for this Malian and African American to join the rhythms of their guitars and voices in some transatlantic blues?” Brothers in Bamako’s “transatlantic blues” sounds natural and it sounds right. Although divided by geography and culture, Bibb and Koité share a beautiful brotherhood of sounds and words.
—Stephen A. King
First Came Memphis Minnie
Maria Muldaur & Special Guests
Stony Plain Records, Canada
This tribute compilation to Memphis Minnie is, in some ways, a form of musical emancipation of all women. The blues are undeniably a very male dominated genre. A case can be made that the great pioneer female blues singers never received their rightful place in the blues annals as bestowed on their male peers. Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Sippie Wallace, Victoria Spivey, Lucille Bogan, Albert Hunter, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Big Mama Thornton, Big Maybelle, and even Billie Holiday, were well acknowledged but not always respected and honored in the same way their male compatriots received acclaim – some of whom were exalted and venerated to great, sometimes exaggerated heights. A case can be made that in blues radio, print and performance, the female singers unfairly took a diminished, minor role. In several decades of interviewing blues musicians and reading blues biographies, this writer cannot think of a single instance when a male blues musician has cited one of the great female singers as a major influence on their musical development. No wonder that it has been the mission of today’s leading blues women to give recognition and awareness to the women who proceeded them – because these trailblazing classic women should be listened to. The women rightly insist on some respect and honor for their musical inspirations. In 2003, they already paid tribute to Sister Rosetta Tharpe on “Shout, Sister, Shout” and now it’s time for the tribute of the musician who has been championed by Maria Muldaur for so many years, someone she has loved since 1963, the one she most often quotes as a major source of inspiration and the musician she has covered most often. Maria Muldaur called out some of her female blues compatriots to take matters into their own capable hands, and voila, here is a fine tribute done with love and admiration.
Let’s start by overcoming the likely objections: A fair number of the tunes included on “First Came Memphis Minnie” were previously released. Indeed, all eight tracks featuring Maria Muldaur came from her previously-released Grammy-nominated albums. Only three of the songs on this album are new recordings by Rory Block, Ruthie Foster and Bonnie Raitt. “First Came Memphis Minnie” also features two classic songs from Koko Taylor and Phoebe Snow. Koko’s track comes from her CD, “Old School”, released in 2007; and Phoebe’s from “It Looks Like Snow”, released in 1976.
That means, if you already own the albums from which Maria took these reissues, you may just want to get the new tracks from i-Tunes and not pay for the whole new CD.
On the other hand, chances are that most people do not have all or most of these songs, so this compilation becomes a convenience. That having been said, the fact that this “loving tribute” is heavy on reissues is far surpassed by the many wonderful aspects of the album.
Maria Muldaur said of her idol, “At a time when women were ‘kept in their place,’ both personally and professionally, Memphis Minnie was tough, independent, outspoken, and played a mean guitar! But, she was more than just a guitar hero of early country blues. She ably adapted to newer trends and modernized her style, which helped account for her years of popularity. Memphis Minnie was one of the few figures to make the successful transition from the rural, acoustic guitar-dominated blues of the 1920s to the urban nightclub styles of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s. She was tough, determined, talented, and courageous enough to defy and overcome all the racial, social, economic, and gender barriers that existed in her time, forging the life she envisioned for herself on nothing but her own terms!”
That may well be an overly romanticized description of Minnie’s life and career as some sort of feminist icon, which certainly was not the whole picture, as Minnie (whose birth name was Lizzie Douglas) did not walk an easy road as some sort of superwoman heroine. While she was a successful blues artist in her time, she nonetheless had a hard life that included running away from home as a 13 year old kid and making her way on bawdry Beale Street in Memphis in the turbulent year of 1900, which was, at the time, one of the wildest black entertainment districts in the USA. Besides playing guitar and singing on the street corners, she slipped into prostitution. She was married three times. All indicators are that she fared a bit better in her musical career than most women of her time (or most blues musicians, period) she nonetheless lived a tough life that was not free of exploitation and abuse. Unquestionably, Memphis Minnie was a gutsy woman, a bit wild and headstrong, with all her raw sensuality and sexy juke joint teasing. Mostly, she was a powerful singer and songwriter, an incredible guitarist and a huge influence on all women in the blues who followed her footsteps. She was also a pioneer as one of the first women to bring the electric guitar into her performances.
This album showcases not just some of the great songs written or performed by Memphis Minnie, it brings these songs to life with passion and truehearted love for this great singer. The protagonists honor their lascivious and headstrong heroine with graceful versions of the original. Maria Muldaur’s ardent eight covers are exquisitely performed with sheer devotion. Her love for Memphis Minnie comes through unencumbered, as perhaps Minnie’s greatest fan and advocate. The set of Minnie’s songs as performed by Maria Muldaur is backed by some of the finest instrumentalists in the acoustic blues: Alvin Youngblood Hart, Del Rey, and Steve James on guitar and slide guitar; Dave Earl and Steve James on mandolin
Bonnie Raitt has only one song on this album, “Ain’t Nothin’ but Rambling” which will drive Bonnie’s large fan base wild. Steve Freund accompanies her on acoustic guitar with tasteful subtlety as she takes you back to Bonnie’s early days as an acoustic country blues singer, and this wonderful cover alone make it worth to buy the album. Rory Block showcases her refined skills, mimicking Memphis Minnie’s sexy charm, on “I’m going back home” which she sings in her sultry, captivating way, accompanying herself superbly on guitar. The late Phoebe Snow’s version of “In my Girlish Ways” , backed by David Bromberg, reminds us what a wonderful blues singer we lost. Her captivating rendition of the famed song, so often performed by Maria Muldaur, is sung in her trademark sweet and angelic voice, perfectly and pointedly. Ruthie Foster’s version of “Keep Your Big Mouth Closed”, also with Steve Freund on acoustic guitar is simply wonderful, a testament to Ruthie’s status as one of today’s most important blues women.
The late Koko Taylor, one of the true heir to Minnie’s legacy closes the album with “Black Rat Swing” backed by a full electric blues band featuring Muddy Water’s guitarist Steady Rollin’ Bob Margolin on guitar.(less)
By Reverend Keith A. Gordon
"Bibb has delivered another gem"(more)
By Sheryl and Don Crow
For those unfamiliar with Rev. Davis' music, he was a brilliant guitarist who employed dazzling finger-picking and slide techniques, with unique syncopations within the melody lines. In the liner notes, Rory laments her difficulty in getting the finger picks to stay in place, finally opting for the use of duct tape to keep them on, at the painful expense of her first layer of skin!
However, she plays these songs with unbridled passion and emotion. Listen as she runs thru the changes of "Samson And Delilah" with ease. The title cut finds Rory on slide and the gospel-infused backing voices lending the "Hallelujah" chorus. She becomes a modern-day Biblical storyteller in "Great Changes Since I Been Born," and "Twelve Gates To The City." The set closes with the chilling "Death Don't Have No Mercy," and the poignant lyrics that remind us "when Death comes to your house, it won't stay long," but "someone in your family will be gone."
Rev. Gary Davis took predominantly spiritual music and played it in a country-blues style, successfully melding the secular with "the Devil's music." Rory Block has shown us the deep respect she has for his music, and the difficulty that went along with mastering his styles and techniques. "I Belong To The Band" is one of her crowning achievements!(less)