What a year it’s been for roots music. So much wonderful, high quality work by a host of artists in a diversity of styles – variously with country, blues or folk to the fore. That being the case, it’s hard to suggest a best of list. But here goes. We’ve grouped them into two sets of ten and then a group of six. Each set is in alphabetical order.
Here’s our Top 10
Amy Helm This Too Shall Light
In an album produced by Joe Henry, Amy Helm, daughter of late Band drummer Levon gives us ten songs tinged with soul and gospel, featuring uplifting lyrics and beautiful nuanced singing. A wonderful set of interesting, sometimes obscure covers and lovely originals.
Birds of Chicago: Love in Wartime
This is simply an outstanding album of classic Americana. JT Nero and Allison Russell’s vocals and rich harmonies, as usual, meld wondrously, and the song arrangements are innovative and imaginative while, at the same time, warm and inviting.
Eric Bibb: Global Griot
Double album of wonderful songs, brilliantly presented by the blues troubadour. As much world-music as Americana or blues, this is surely one of Bibb’s best accomplishments. There’s joy, love and hope inhabiting these songs, as well as a dose of righteous protest – whether it’s at the materialism of the age or the frightful tweeting of number 45.
Jayhawks: Back Roads and Abandoned Hotels
Reworking of some of the songs Gary Louris, has co-written with other artists, including the Dixie Chicks and two new songs. It’s a great Jayhawks album, with the band in great form over the course of 11 songs of magnificent alt-country.
John Hiatt: The Eclipse Sessions
In his first album in four years, Hiatt is in fine form, his crusty vocals accompanying a largely pared back band. This is an album that draws you in and enchants you the more you listen to it.
Larkin Poe: Venom and Faith
Quite simply this is an extraordinary album from the very talented Lovell sisters in their 4th studio album. The two sisters play every instrument, aside from some wonderful slide guitar in one song by Tyler Bryant, creating a wonderful variety of sounds and textures. Classic but innovative, with traditional, primal sounds mixed with electronic beats.
Lori McKenna: The Tree
Lori McKenna is a brilliant song writer. Here she gives us 10 songs about family life and the tensions of everyday existence in a fabulous, understated record, produced by Dave Cobb. Outstanding.
Parker Millsap: Other Arrangements
Melodic and bluesy, rock and roll-ish outing from Oklahoma born singer, songwriter and bandleader, Parker Millsap. The depth and range in Millsaps vocals are terrific, across twelve rollicking, pulsating songs.
Paul Thorn: Don’t Let the Devil Ride
Unabashed album of gospel music, with Paul and his band, and a group of top notch collaborators including the Blind Boys of Alabama, the McCrary Sisters, Bonnie Bishop and New Orleans’ Preservation Hall Jazz Horns, all in scintillating form. Check out our interview with Paul Thorn here.
Ry Cooder: The Prodigal Son
An album of wonderfully reinterpreted old gospel songs and hymns, from the guitar virtuoso. Cooder’s first album for six years has been hailed as “destined to become an instant classic” the produce of a “musical mastermind” and “completely fresh and contemporary.” These are songs that will speak to anyone, believer or unbeliever. There’s humanity, decency, inspiration, hope in these songs, that anyone can feel. You can find more comment on this album here:
Here are our picks for 11-20, again in alphabetical order:
Down at the Crossroads’ artist interviews: 6 things we learned
We interviewed 11 artists this past year. Here are some of the things they told us:
1. The blues legacy: A common theme in the artists we interviewed was the debt they owed to the blues legacy they have inherited. Veteran New Orleans bluesman Bryan Lee told us about how hearing Freddie King as a young man first hooked him on the blues. He went on to say that “the blues is a universal language…it goes to our make up in our soul.” Acoustic blues maestros Brooks Williams and Hans Theessink talked enthusiastically about playing the blues together, “combining some country blues, a little bit of Texas blues, some of the Delta, some really nice Broonzy-style finger picking.” Eric Bibb talked to us about “connecting the history and the situation in the American South and the blues tradition with what’s going on in the rest of the world,” and when we interviewed Mandy Brooks she spoke about the healing and connection that comes in the music of people like Blind Willie Johnson and Fred McDowell, and about the truth that we are able to connect with in these artists. Brooks Williams noted the way that the early blues artists were trying “to make some sort of living, to make a way in the world playing music, and that is powerful, considering what some of those players would have been up against, socially, economically. Those were some pretty huge mountains to cross, and just the fact that they did it and we’re still listening to it. And it’s still vibrant!”
2. We love what we do: All 11 of the artists we talked to this last year are hard-working musicians, touring constantly, giving their best, no matter what the size of audience is, night after night. Can’t be easy, especially as you get older, yet Eric Bibb said that “the joy of performing never goes away.” Blues guitar virtuoso, Ana Popovic, talked about playing with her great band and the wonderful fans that support her, while Chris Smither said that “as soon as I get on stage I realize, this is what I do, this is what makes me happy.”
3. The touring life:Eric Bibb told us he doesn’t “want to stop touring. It’s an essential part of what I’ve enjoyed and still enjoy doing” The physical side of it, however, “especially the hauling of your instruments around from place to place and so on – that can be a strain.” Chris Smither who still plays over 100 shows a year says he’s slowed down some, but admits in some ways it’s become easier – “I can afford nicer accommodation!” Luke Winslow-King, way younger than both these artists, confessed he’d “like to settle down and lead a more normal life, have a more stable relationship, have a home life as well. But I’ll never stop touring and taking this music around.” It’s the love of the music, the love of performance which keeps these fantastic people going – for which we are all grateful.
4. The state of the world: There’s a lot to be discouraged about looking around the world – not least in the United States. Some of the artists were quite outspoken: Eric Bibb spoke about racism – the “tremendous prejudice against what is referred to in the news as people of colour…[an] orientation [that] is so ingrained, so institutional, that people don’t think about it.” Shemekia Copeland talked about the song she has recorded called Would You Take My Blood which directly addresses the problem of racism. “All I want is some respect,” sings Shemekia. How can the problem be addressed, we asked her: “An incredibly difficult question,” she replied. “A good start might be if people actually lived according to beliefs espoused by their religion. The golden rule would be a good place to start.”
Janiva Magness spoke about the need for more gun control – she said, “thoughts and prayers and all that – it’s the time for action and not simply platitudes,” while Chris Smither spoke about a song in his new album which references the “clown with a comb over, tweeting on his phone.” Eric Bibb drew attention to the fake news consumed by many people, saying, “with a diet of that and little else, it’s very possible to get a very distorted view of the world – where a guy like Donald Trump could be appealing.”
5. Women in the blues: The history of the blues is peppered with misogynistic lyrics and the abuse of women. Thankfully things are changing and two of our women interviewees made important points. Janiva Magness said that “there are certain disadvantages because I have different plumbing than you – that’s real. That’s not based on skill, or ability, it’s certainly not based on talent, so those prejudices are based on some very old distorted thinking and philosophy. And I have to raise my hand on the #metoo movement…I have absolutely dealt with sexual harassment my entire life. I’m a woman in the world. Anyone who is surprised by that is either not paying attention or is on some level some kind of perpetrator.” Ana Popovic told us the theme of her new album, Like It on Top is “female empowerment,” which leaves us in no doubt that women should have equal pay and equal benefits. “There’s nothing crazy about it. It’s just the new world.”
6. Faith, hope and spirituality: Dana Fuchs spoke about her song, Faithful Sinner, and said, “Ultimately, aren’t we all just flawed beings who are trying (I hope) to do the right thing?” Paul Thorn, who grew up the son of a Pentecostal minister, hit the same note: “Whoever you look up to the most in life, your hero, whoever that may be, you have to understand, that person is very flawed. We’re all flawed. Nobody is all good and nobody is all bad. That’s the thing I think this record also says – we’re all in it together.”
Photo: Mike White
Despite the difficulties we face inside ourselves or without, our artists expressed hope for the future. Eric Bibb said, “I see no choice but to hold out in my music and my songs a message of hope because otherwise, everything becomes pointless.” And when we asked Shemekia if, as she looks around at America today, she has cause to be hopeful, she replied, “Totally, it’s still the greatest country on earth. I love it and it will always be my home.”
Talking about the need for faith, Bryan Lee said that “we just need to go to that place of sanctuary, where it’s real still, it’s real quiet, where you can really touch the good Lord and find answers to your problems,” while Mandy Brooks insisted that “God gives us the strength to “press on” and “move on up”.”
Bringing it all down to the personal and practical, Janiva Magness said that love is an action – “it begins with us, it begins at home. Helping someone who is in need. It begins there. Do it. Do something every day to help someone else.”
A trip to Memphis and on into the Delta has been on the cards for a long time. I’d originally planned to do this trip when I was researching my book (The Gospel According to the Blues), but ill health had prevented me. Having now visited the Mississippi Delta, and experienced the land, the people, the pace of life, for sure it would have been helpful to have done this trip before now. No matter, I was in better health and a trip to New York City with my wife gave me the opportunity to slip down to Memphis and meet up with a couple of pals from Texas and see what Tennessee and Mississippi had to offer.
The journey began clearing US customs in Dublin airport, where previous experiences of surly US customs officials was repeated. Our guy was an unsmiling, unfriendly fellow – young, but looking like he had the cares of the world on his shoulders. My wife was quite unnerved, getting her right hand and left hand mixed up for the fingerprint taking and got no sympathy from our guy. After he finished dealing with me, I thanked him and told him he was doing a great job – quite sincerely, actually. I’m sure it’s no fun doing what he does all day long. He cracked the glimmer of a smile, so I hope he was a bit more pleasant with subsequent passengers.
We shared US customs war stories with the passenger beside us on the plane – who’d had a truly awful experience. As the conversation wore on, he told us his life story, which was quite heart-warming. John’s a retired Englishman. A northerner, affable, good talker, big guy. He’d been married as a young man for three short years and then divorced; he then lived his life for 40 years working in Scandinavia, having remarried happily. A few years ago his wife became very ill and before she died he heard from his first wife for the first time since they’d divorced. She needed some documentation relating to the divorce. She’d lived all her life happily married for a second time in the US. As it happened, her husband was also dying at the time. John and she supported each other from separate continents until both of their spouses had passed away. In due course, they got together again, now in their senior years, living half of each year together n a rural Southern State and half the time in Ireland.
Somebody ought to make a movie of this story.
The great thing about clearing US customs in Ireland is you can just walk off the plane as if you are an American. Our New York adventure began.
We were blessed with blue skies and sunshine, along with near freezing temperatures. No matter – the warmth of New Yorkers everywhere we went more than made up for that. You hear reports of New Yorkers being rude and short. But everyone we met – hotel and restaurant staff, people manning the subway, people in stores, police, people we stopped to ask directions – were all unfailingly courteous and pleased to help. Topped off by the woman who approached me in Harlem when I was struggling to get the bus ticket machine to work so I could get to LaGuardia. She topped up her MetroCard in the machine, gave it to me, and despite my protestations, would not take any money from me.
But hey – music’s the reason you’re reading this, right? The Saturday night we were there was the night before the Grammys. And I’d booked us into the City Winery on Pier 26 to see Guy Davis and Fabrizio Poggi play, along with Eric Bibb. Three of my favourite artists and all three nominated for a Grammy in the Traditional Blues Album category. I’ve interviewed all three of them recently, so was especially looking forward to the gig.
When we arrived the small restaurant was packed with tables and diners, with a small stage for the performers. We got seated – right beside Shemekia Copeland, whom I’d also interviewed a while back and whom I was delighted to chat to; and across the table from Dom Flemons, ex-Carolina Chocolate Drops and Grammy winner. Guy and Fabrizio sang some songs from their outstanding tribute to Sonny and Brownie, Sonny and Brownie’s Last Train. Eric Bibb was up next and performed an utterly spine tingling unaccompanied version of “Refugee Moan” from his album Migration Blues. Eric live is always a wonderful experience, but this song, sung in this way, at this time in New York City, was very special.
Elvin Bishop Trio
That would have been good enough for me – but next on the bill was the 75-year-old John Hammond, Blues Hall of Fame inductee and multiple Grammy nominee, who has lost none of his resonator and harmonica prowess. Then we had Elvin Bishop – also nominated in this year’s Traditional Blues Album Grammy category for Elvin Bishop’s Big Fun Trio – with a couple of pals. Elvin settled himself on the stage and evidently was hoping someone would loan him a guitar. A few moments later, someone duly obliged and we had a short set from Elvin.
The biggest surprise of the evening was that Keb’ Mo’ also turned up and took the stage. Keb’ Mo’ deservedly took the Grammy along with Taj Mahal the next day for Best Contemporary Blues album. I’ve seen Keb’ Mo’ play a few times – and he never disappoints. He’s an outstanding guitarist, singer and song-writer. Congratulations on the Grammy, Keb’.
Disappointing, however, the next day was the result of the Best Traditional Blues Album. Nominated along with R L Boyce, Guy Davis & Fabrizio Poggi, Eric Bibb and the Elvin Bishop Trio was the Rolling Stones. Guess who won? Now the Stones’ album I quite enjoyed and we ranked it in our Best of list for 2016. But a traditional blues album? Come on. Especially when pitted against the other contenders here. It seemed to me that the result of this category was more about the alliance of two big brands – the Grammys and the Rolling Stones – rather than the merit of the artists and albums.
But the City Winery event, which also featured Dom Flemons, R L Boyce and Barbara Blue, was something special. It had the feel of a private party and we felt privileged to be a part of it. And thanks to Fabrizio for the warm welcome! We’ll see you again, my friend, on down the road – and many congratulations for the Grammy nomination.
So from the blues in New York to the home of the blues – on to Memphis and the Delta.
Walter Trout is the elder statesman of blues rock, with a solo career going back some 28 years. Sixty-six years old and just three years on from a liver transplant that saved his life, he says that he feels like he’s “in the best years of my life right now.” He says he “has a whole different appreciation of being alive, of the world, of my family, of my career, and that he wants “life to be exciting and celebratory.”
And that’s why his new album, We’re All In This Together, sounds so joyful. It’s fourteen songs, with a guest on each song, trading licks and runs with Walter. All but one are original songs – the odd one out is the outstanding The Sky Is Crying, with Warren Haynes. The songs are upbeat, melodic, feature blistering, smouldering guitar work and are hugely enjoyable, each tailored by Trout to the style of each guest. His guests – all friends – are all musical stars in their own right, and include John Mayall, Joe Bonamassa, Sonny Landreth, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Joe Louis Walker, Robben Ford, Mike Zito, Eric Winter, Charlie Landreth, Eric Gale, John Nemeth and Randy Bachman. Walter’s son Jon Trout, himself an exceptional guitarist, also features on one song.
Walter Trout has been hard at work, on tour with the new album, but Down at the Crossroads caught up with him before he takes his show to Europe in October.
DatC: Hello Walter. Thanks very much for taking the time to talk to us. First of all, I take it that you’re well and healthy? Hale & hearty, as they say!
WT: Hearty as I can be! Yeah, I’m feelin’ great.
DatC: Congratulations on the new album, Walter, which is only just out, but which has already got great reviews from both critics and fans. I loved one of the Amazon reviews, which described it as “a face meltingly amazing blues rock album.” You’re pleased with how it’s been received?
WT: Oh I’m very pleased. I think it’s getting the best reviews I ever got. I’ve done 26 albums, and this was my first album that in the United States was at number 1 on the Billboard Blues Chart. And it was also number 1 on Amazon and on iTunes Blues. So that was the first time I hit number 1 on the triumvirate on the market over here. And it felt great!
DatC: Tell us what you were hoping to achieve with the album – because it’s very different from your previous one,Battle Scars.
WT: Well, how do you follow up Battle Scars? That was my dilemma. That album was so personal and so intense and so…dark. How do you follow that up? I put a lot of thought into what do I do now. Do I just write 15 more songs and play ‘em with the band? And what do I write about? So it was a bit of a dilemma.
Then I did a gig at Carnegie Hall with Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Edgar Winter. And I was hanging out with both of them and I said, “Why don’t we record something together,” and they were both like, “Yeah, OK, let’s do it.” And then I got this idea that that was what I needed to do – something completely different, where I just jam with my friends and we have fun. And it’s about the guitar playing and the music, it’s not all these deep depressing lyrics. So, I wanted to do something that was the exact opposite of Battle Scars.
DatC: And that comes across. You’ve got a stellar cast of musicians on this album– was it difficult to organize such a diverse set of people?
Warren Haynes (Photo: Jeremy Williams)
WT: You know, it wasn’t difficult to get in touch with them and talk to them. Two weeks after Carnegie Hall I played in Toronto with Sonny Landreth and Randy Bachman and I talked to them and they said, “Yeah, that’d be great.” And then a week after that I had a dinner in LA with Warren Hayes and Robben Ford we sat around for about four hours and had a great evening, and I talked to them [about it].
So it was easy to get in touch, but the difficult part of this album was the logistics. My wife handled that. ‘Cause all these guys are touring, they’re hard working players, so she had to schedule with each guy. A lot of ‘em were on tour – so she had to talk to them, get their schedules, “when do you have a day off? Do you think you could get in the studio?” And one guy would say, “In two weeks I have a day off in Cleveland.” So my wife would have to find a studio in Cleveland, set it up, find an engineer, go through all that stuff and then get in touch with Eric the producer, and have him get through to the engineer and send him the track. It had to be done with so many – what I don’t understand – so many bits and megabytes – all this stuff that I don’t get! And she really had the rough part of it. I just talked to my buddies and I had to write some songs and then go in and play! But the logistics of this were kind of a nightmare. She really put it together. I couldn’t have done what she did.
DatC: Did you write each song with the particular artist in mind?
WT: Yes, of course. I had to sit down and think – what do you write for Kenny Wayne Shepherd? OK, I got Kenny Wayne. I listened to a lot of his current stuff and it’s very blues-rock, like what I do. But then I think to myself – you know what, his roots are the blues. And my roots are the blues. So instead of writing some rocking thing, let’s play an up-tempo blues. Let’s play a shuffle, that’s where we come from.
So then I had to come up with some lyrics. And I thought about when I was a drug addict, what it felt like when you run out of drugs. I’ve been sober for 30 years, but I thought about when I was young and when I was addicted to drugs, and what was it like when they ran out. It felt good for a little while but then it hurt like hell. So, OK, I got a song here.
But yeah, the songs were written with the person in mind. For instance, Eric Gales. To me Eric is more of a kind of a funk fusion guy. He doesn’t really come out of the blues, he’s from a different genre. So I need to write something for him that he can jam over, but it’s got a bit of a funk feel to it. So I just approached each artist like that.
Photo: Michael Weintrob
DatC: Walter, as you say, the album is great fun, it’s good time music, But there are some serious bits here and there, aren’t there? Crash and Burn with Joe Louis Walker is a quite hard-hitting song. “Are we ever gonna learn, I’m getting mighty worried…” Is that a commentary on what’s going on in the United States at the moment?
WT: Well, of course, that’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? If I get going on this…That song is directly about what’s going on.
DatC: And then We’re All in this Together with Joe Bonamassa. “It’s up to you and me – black and white, left and right” speaks to the divisions in the country?
WT: That‘s exactly it. And you know what’s really funny, is three days ago my wife became an American citizen, and I went to the swearing in ceremony. And there were 5,000 new citizens being sworn in, and a lady got up and gave a speech, and she said, “All of you, you come from different countries, but now you are all American citizens, and I want you to remember something: we’re all in this together!”
DatC: Cue guitar solo!
DatC: It’s such a pleasure to hear you and Joe Bonamassa playing together. That interplay between both guitars at the end of the song is really something.
WT: Well, I’ll tell you, that was a lot of fun. What you’re hearing on there is the rehearsal! The only time we played the song! We were rehearsing it and I said to the band, “Here’s how the song goes,” and I said to Joe, “Here’s the lyrics I want you to sing.” Let’s see what happens. And at the end of it, I looked at Eric in the control room, because we were rehearsing, and I said, “Did you record that?” And he said, “Yeah.” And we all looked at each other and laughed and said, “There’s no reason to do that again!” So that was one take, spontaneous, no fixes, no overdubs, no nothing. And that’s the first and last time we played that song! And I think it gives it a real urgency.
DatC: So looking back, Walter, you’ve been immersed in the blues for a lifetime; you’ve played with John Lee Hooker’s band, Canned Heat, John Mayall, and artists like Big Mama Thornton, Lowell Fulson, Bo Diddley and the list goes on – what, for you, is the blues – is it the form of the music, is it the lyrics, is it the feeling? And what is it about this music that has such enduring appeal?
WT: To me it’s the feeling. You know Count Basie said, “Blues can be approached in many, many different ways , but it still remains the blues.” So, when I run into purists that say the blues has to be played a certain way, I just start laughing – you need to broaden your vision. I think the reason it’s enduring – and the reason it’s in a very healthy state – there’s a lot of young, great blues players coming up through the ranks – is that it’s the basis of modern music. It is about human emotion and human feelings and I this era we’re in of corporately produced computer stuff that has absolutely no soul to it, the blues is all about human feelings. It’s a person with an instrument playing and singing from their heart, and there’s always gotta be an audience for that, for music that makes people feel something. That’s what it’s about. It’s about making people feel it.
DatC: Let me ask you this, Walter: There’s a spiritual dimension to some of your music, Walter – whether it’s Gonna Live Again, or Fly Away or Bottom of the River, Turn Your Eyes to Heaven. How important is that dimension of life to the blues or to you as a person?
WT: How important it is to the blues – that I can’t answer. But I know that to me it’s very important. Something that I feel very deeply. I don’t want to call it religious; I want to call it spiritual, that’s a great word. I believe we all have a soul, there is more to life than what you perceive with your five senses. There are things we don’t understand, and we are all connected. We are all in this together.
I want to produce music that reaches out to all of our common humanity, and the common problems that we share, and our common joys, our common concerns. And to me blues has the potential to go very, very deep. And I strive for that and I aspire to that.
DatC: And let me ask you about one of my favourite songs in your catalogue, Brother’s Keeper, on Blues for the Modern Daze – where you’re quoting Genesis, you’re quoting the Gospel of Matthew. It seems to me that you’ve got right to something very important here about Christian faith in this song – that is a quite remarkably spiritual song, would you agree?
WT: The teachings of Jesus have been very prostituted and perverted over the years. And especially right-wing evangelicals over here forget what it’s about completely. There was a video put up recently of me doing that song. And somebody went on there and said, “You’re a heathen, you’re putting down Christianity.” I’m actually a Christian and I’m calling out the hypocrites.
The right wing in American who go around talking about God and Jesus – are so far away from Jesus’s teaching. Health care for the poor? – no, no way. Feed the hungry? – no way. You’re on your own. Well, that’s not what Jesus had in mind. And then they go to church on Sunday. It grosses me out, really.
DatC: Over quite a number of years, you’ve written songs bemoaning the way the world is going (e.g. Can’t Have It All, Welcome to the Human Race), culminating, I suppose in your 2012 album, Blues for the Modern Daze – songs like Money Rules the World; Turn Off Your TV; Lifestyle of the Rich & Famous and so on – you get a lot of the modern world in your sights there, Walter. Whether it’s getting trapped by technology, or global warming or corruption in politics or the corporate world – that’s the way of the world – how do we escape it? How do we live in such a world?
WT: I don’t have any answers for that. But I do know the sooner we realize that we are all in this together, the better. I hate to keep quoting that phrase – but the sooner we figure that out and we get past our divisions and past our tribal mindsets, the better it’s going to be. I don’t want to be pessimistic but I’m not sure there’s really much hope for mankind – because we don’t seem to learn from our mistakes. I’m hoping the younger negation is going to do a much better job handling the world than my generation has done.
I’m from the sixties hippy generation and we had all these high ideal, but it all turned to s**t. And we have done more to screw up the world than any other generation. It’s sad to me, it’s embarrassing. Because the hippies had a wonderful idea – they were really talking about the teachings of Jesus. Let’s love each other, let’s help each other. And then they grew up and went out in the world and it turned into the quest for the almighty dollar. And my generation has really screwed up the world royally, and I’m just hoping the younger generation is going to do a better job.
DatC: And the thing I always think about when I listen to the blues, is that often the song starts off when things are very bad – you know, Trouble in mind, I’m blue – but at the end of the song there’s that little note of hope – Sun’s gonna shine in my backyard someday. And you gotta hold on to that, I guess.
WT: Yeah, well, I believe that too. You have to hold on to hope.And my hope is in the younger generation. I see a lot of great kids out there.
Fabrizio Poggi is one of Europe’s finest exponents of the blues. Hailing from the north of Italy, Fabrizio has recorded over twenty albums and has shared stages with numerous top blues artists including The Blind Boys of Alabama, Eric Bibb and John Hammond. He’s the author of four books on the blues and has been touring this year with Guy Davis, promoting their new Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee album. Down at the Crossroads was delighted to get the chance to chat to this blues enthusiast and master of the blues harmonica.
Photo by Riccardo Piccirillo
Fabrizio – you’re a blues harmonica player. Tell us a bit about how you started on this blues journey and what drew you to the harmonica.
To quote my good friend and harp legend Charlie Musselwhite, music in general “overtook me when I was a little child.” While other kids spent their spare time playing soccer or riding bicycles, I stayed inside all day long listening to records. Every kind of music. My favourite toys were a drum, a toy piano and, of course, an out of tune harmonica. Then one day I saw Paul Butterfield playing Mystery Train in a movie called “The Last Waltz” and my life changed forever.
Maybe nowadays it seems a little strange but most of the things I learnt in my younger days came from records. There were no computers, Google or YouTube, and musical instructional books were very difficult to find. It was hard, very hard. It took me six months to learn something that today a kid can learn in one day. Also with English language was the same. I always make a joke of it but my English teachers really were Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf.
What is it about this music that you find compelling or attractive? Is it just entertainment or is there more to it?
Oh yes, much more. To me the blues is a miracle and a miracle is always difficult to explain with simple words. The miracle of the blues is that it’s so full of power and wisdom that it touches every heart throughout the world. Mine too! It doesn’t matter where you were born, what language you speak, or what colour your skin is. Blues and spirituals, and music in general, are amazing gifts – often from wonderful unknown singers – to heal people’s souls. With the blues I have my own connection to the shared human conditions of struggle, darkness, and pain cloaked in redemption, overcoming, and freedom.
Blues taught to be simple and humble. To love and respect people that come to my shows. To be nice with them. Because often they tell me some precious words that keep me going on when the wind of life sometimes blows too hard against me.
The blues taught me to play from the heart. Always.
I know you’ve played with a lot of well-known blues artists. Tell us about some of the people your played or toured with.
I had the privilege to share the stage, and to record with The Blind Boys of Alabama, Charlie Musselwhite, Guy Davis, Marcia Ball, Ronnie Earl, Kim Wilson, John Hammond, Sonny Landreth, Garth Hudson of THE BAND and Bob Dylan, Eric Bibb, Ruthie Foster, Mike Zito, Bob Margolin, Flaco Jiménez, Steve Cropper, Otis Taylor, Richard Thompson…
They are so many that it’s impossible to talk about them all. We’d need a big book!
Most of them were heroes of my youth (and still they are). When I was sixteen and I was in my little room in a little town in northern Italy listening to their records, I didn’t imagine that one day I would play with them. I really feel blessed.
There are not enough words to explain how moving it was to play with these people. I still have goose bumps talking about that. It was amazing. Great artists and wonderful human beings. But having the opportunity to sing with the legendary Blind Boys of Alabama was one of the highest musical privileges in my life. Every time I listen to my recordings with them I still sit in humble disbelief hearing my voice singing with theirs. Most of them called me brother and every time I think about that I am moved to tears.
And you’ve released a couple of albums with Guy Davis, one just this year, a homage to Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, which has been very well received. How did this collaboration come about, and how do you find collaborating with Guy?
My first encounter with Guy Davis dates back to 2007 when we met at a blues festival in Italy. Between us was born almost immediately a deep friendship based not only on mutual respect but also about the passion we both have for the most authentic acoustic folk blues. Over the past years, our close personal links materialized in live shows, and then Guy recorded a couple of tracks on my album Spirit & Freedom. After that we did Juba Dance which I also produced artistically and I also was a special guest on Kokomo Kidd. To play at his side is something that always amazes me and makes me proud because Guy Davis really is one of the last great masters of the blues, a direct heir of Robert Johnson and John Lee Hooker.
Guy and I are extremely fascinated by the primitive sound of the blues and spirituals — the music that was played “without electricity” under the front porch of those shacks scattered among cotton fields of the Southern States. Also, the acoustic sound allows us to better tell the stories that are in and around this mysterious and magical musical genre. Every album we did together is a perfect picture of the encounter, the embrace, and the total and complete fusion between two musicians from seemingly distant worlds, light years away. Sometimes I think that this happened just because probably in another life, Guy and I were brothers and already playing the blues just for fun on the porch of our house… not just for us … but thinking about what would come next.
Tell us about the album, Fabrizio, and why you wanted to record it?
It’s another album we recorded together that I produced and is titled Sonny and Brownie’s Last Train. The CD, as the subtitle says, is a “A look back to Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry.” I think that now it’s the time to celebrate them for a new generation. I completely agree with what Guy wrote in the liner notes explaining the concept of the recording: “Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry were two musicians whose work will not be surpassed, let alone improved on… It features our combined musical talents, and is not meant to compete with the originals. It’s meant to be a love letter to Brownie and Sonny signed by the both of us. They were two of my favourites.” The idea for the album came from my lovely wife Angelina. One night she told me: “I’ve seen you and Guy playing together many, many times. I love it when you play together and I think that you two need to do a record dedicated to Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. Nobody’s done it yet, so you have to do it! You and Guy are the right musicians to do that record.” Guy and I stayed for two days in a recording studio in Milan and recorded all the songs live. The album is the result and I hope people like it. We put all our passion, love and respect for those two wonderful musicians and their music into it. I felt like they were seated in the studio with me and Guy, looking and smiling at us. The title track theme was my idea, and Guy in my opinion wrote a masterpiece just on the spot. When the song Sonny & Brownie’s Last Train was finally finished and recorded, Angelina and I were in tears. It is really a wonderful love letter to them.
When people think of Italian music, they might think of great opera or classical music, but the blues maybe isn’t the first thing people think of! So tell us about the interest there is currently in the blues in Italy.
I often say that among the great miracles of the blues is that it has become an international language; so nowadays you have great musicians playing great music all over the world. It doesn’t really matter where that musician comes from.
There are many people all around the world singing great opera tunes or playing classical music so behind the stereotypes, so why shouldn’t Italians be playing the blues? The important thing is the vibe, the connection, to be honest and sincere. So yes, there are great blues players here and many blues festivals. The blues is “alive and kickin’” in the land of pasta and pizza!
Also, I know that you’re a blues historian, Fabrizio, and have discovered that there are a number of threads that link Italy and the blues – not least that Italians that lived, worked and suffered alongside African Americans in a Mississippi plantation at the turn of the nineteenth century. Perhaps you could give us a flavour of that story?
It’s a story I discovered some years ago in Mississippi about Italian farmers and fishermen who, looking for a better life, around 1895, left their homes in Northern Italy to settle down in the cotton fields of the Delta. Their life was difficult because of the extreme conditions they had to endure: the mosquitoes carrying malaria, the frequent floods, and the racial discrimination all made their existence very hard. In 1865 at the end of the Civil War when slavery was abolished, a lot of black people, already free even if just by word of mouth, left the cotton plantations to emigrate to the northern States, leaving their owners “in difficulty.” Replacing tireless workers like the African-Americans wasn’t easy; so some owners decided to try and get other workers who were badly off but at the same time were expert labourers in the fields: the Italians. But they all were victims of a terrible trick. With the promise of a better life, men without scruples brought the Italians illegally into the United States, and then sent them on a “biblical” journey to the plantation of Sunnyside near Greenville, Mississippi, the world capital of cotton. The Italians lived and worked in close quarters with the black workers, and shared with them misery and misfortune.
Black people and Italians were not officially enslaved, but their life conditions were like real slavery. They lived in poor shacks on the sides of swamps infested by mosquitoes. Malarial fever was widespread and a lot of children died. The burden of debts oppressed Italian poor emigrants who worked hard, but were unable to emerge from a life made of “insects, scanty food and non-potable, green and stinking water.”
The Italians were often treated, if it is possible, as badly as the former slaves. And the African-Americans were the only ones who were gentle with them; they had passed through that hell, too. Together they withstood the racist vexations of the white ruling class. The Ku Klux Klan didn’t persecute just the black community, but also Italians. In the first decades of the 20th century, despite their sacrifice and their dignified misery, the Italians were considered just “ugly, dirty and bad.” In addition, some of them had dark skin and were thought of as black. In rural America, in the state of Mississippi, in that period of history, it often happened that groups of fanatical racists burned the houses, the stock pens, the schools, or the harvest of some poor Italian family. Together with black people, the Italians survived not only this, but nature’s fury: the frequent storms and floods that destroyed their poor houses.
Mississippi Juke Joint
So Italians were there when the blues were “invented.” In one book it says that “…outside Tribbett road, at Dean Plantation, there was a long wooden shed. In the first years of the 20th century, that was one of the places where black people met for playing and dancing the blues on Saturday evening, and the sound of blues was taking care of the pain of the Italians’ souls, too….” I don’t know if there are threads that link Italy and the blues. What I know for sure is that certainly the story of the “Delta Italians” is fascinating and proves that Italians along with black people, living and working together, have suffered strain and pain which gave rise to their singing. And for sure, African Americans and Italians sang in the fields. Maybe each one sang his own song. But they worked side by side in the same cotton fields, and perhaps the songs were mixed among themselves. Because music is like that; it is like the wind – it can’t be stopped.
You recorded an album with your band Chicken Mambo, entitled Mercy, which is mostly spirituals or gospel blues. Do you see some connection between the blues and faith or spirituality?
A few years ago, I read that for someone, “Hell is the experience of being separated from God.” After coming out of my deep depression, my own personal “hell on earth,” I realized that for me singing Blues and Spirituals was a way of staying connected to what I call “Heaven.” Just as it was for African slaves in America, blues and spirituals, to me are sides of the same coin, and are my key to carrying on in this “mean ol’ world.”
What’s next for you Fabrizio?
I know that maybe it sounds pretty corny but what I really wish for my future is to play my harp until the day I’ll die. I hope on a stage! But if you want to stay tuned with my world and keep updated please visit my website www.chickenmambo.com
Vicar Street, Dublin. It’s a few hours before the show and I’m shown in to a room backstage. Eric Bibb, looking very cool in his grey suit, pink shirt and grey hat looks up, as he strings a guitar which is sitting across his lap. He smiles welcomingly and invites me to sit down. There are no airs or graces, just a man who’s relaxed, at home with his art, his band and ready for another show.
I’m at ease now too, so we start chatting. I tell Eric that I first saw him play about seventeen years ago, and apart from the music and the incredible feel-good vibe of that evening, what I’d come away with were the stories he’d told about the songs and the blues artists – all of which had led me on a journey of exploration into the blues and the social history of the blues and resulted in Down at the Crossroads and my book, The Gospel According to the Blues.
He remembered the gig and appreciated the comment. We begin to talk…
Eric Bibb: It started out as a project inspired by Ollie Haavista the Dobro player. He was keen to do this project with Danny Thompson, and he knew that I had a connection to Danny, that we’d toured together. So I contacted Danny and asked if he’d be interested in making an acoustic band album with him on bass. And Danny said, yeah, if we can make the scheduling work, so we found a window of time last July where all of us could get together. The band which I put together called North Country Far is based on my friendship with the Haavista brothers, and they introduced me – quite some years ago when I lived in Finland, I now live in Sweden – they introduced me to another wonderful musician, Petri Hakala, a great mandolin player, and they all said, “Let’s do this thing, we’ll worry about the business side of it another time.” So we got a residential studio in the countryside near Norfolk, because we had a very limited time.
And it all just came together. I had some new songs that I’d been waiting with for the right opportunity and, yeah, it just came together pretty quickly live on the floor – some post production, but mostly live on the floor.
DATC: On the album we have a couple of songs we associate with the blues. Tell Old Bill is a classic blues song where Bill dies and his wife gets the news. Then there’s Tossin & Turnin’ – a typical blues song bemoaning, perhaps, the terrible conditions of African Americans in the Deep South when the blues were growing up.
Eric Bibb: Yes, that’s right, but not only African Americans – it’s kind of a story that could apply to folks who were part of the great migration from the South to the North; it could also be Okies who suffered during the Depression. I wanted to include all of that together.
DATC: And it has a resonance today as well.
Eric Bibb: Absolutely
DATC: But then we get the Happiest Man in the World; and the whole album is very upbeat. How does this sense of loss, of trial, cohere with a more upbeat, positive vibe?
Eric Bibb: Yeah, well, that’s me in a nutshell! I’m a lover of history, I read a lot and I’m inspired by the history of the people who make the music that really moves me. The broad term Americana, which includes blues, and all kinds of old time country stuff, folk, gospel music – that’s all in the mix for me. I called the record the Happiest Man in the World, named after that song which came to me because I’m just very happy with my spouse and my life with her, and I really wanted to talk about that.
It seems, as many people point out, fairly un-bluesy to call yourself the happiest man in the world! But the point is, there were people – many of my blues heroes – who lived the kind of lives that were difficult because of where they were born, and who they were, and how they looked – and all of that history that involves racism and post-slavery trauma and all of that. However, there were people who transcended those difficult experiences and were capable of living a fulfilling life, having long term relationships with loving spouses – though that was certainly not the rule – but I know there were people, who, by the grace of God, were able to transcend very rough circumstances and celebrate life anyway.
The person that comes to mind right of the top of my head was somebody like Mississippi John Hurt, who I call the Dalai Lama of the country blues. He just seems so serene and so magnanimous in his spirit. And I know there were others like him. So, I also thought it was pretty provocative to call the album the Happiest Man in the World – that’s a pretty big statement to make! But then I wanted to counterbalance that with the story of people having a hard time just making ends meet.
DATC: You do get that dual track in the blues, though, don’t you? On the one hand, the trials and difficulties, but then – “the sun’s gonna shine in my back yard some day?”
Eric Bibb: That’s the thing. Good point. That optimism, that hopefulness, seems to be an essential part of this culture. The ability to enjoy life and celebrate the good things in life and also to be aware of your own spirituality in the midst of all this difficulty and oppression is an amazing quality which is expressed in the genre we know as the blues and certainly in the spirituals.
And it’s been something that’s spread to all points in the globe. There are so many people who enjoy and play this music – whether they’re from Finland, or the Philippines, or Sweden or France – I mean you find this music everywhere, people love it, they know it, they’ve read about it, and there’s something infectious about that very resilient culture from which this music springs. So it’s a testament not only to the people who survived all of that and left us with this great musical expression, but it’s also like a cosmic statement of salvation and balance – despite everything, this is the music that has glued the world together and it sprang from people who were perhaps some of the most downtrodden people.
Eric’s set that evening illustrated perfectly how well this tension in the music between on the one hand, acknowledging the suffering and the pain, and on the other, celebrating life and a sense of hope, can be creatively balanced. He sang the soulful, mournful Wayfaring Stranger in a way that could move you to tears, gave us Jimmy Oden’s Going Down Slow with its sorrowful “My health is failing me, and I’m goin’ down slow,” and retold the tragic story of the destruction of an African American community in Rosewood. But he kept the show upbeat and joyful throughout, with songs like New World Coming Through and Don’t Let Nobody Drag Your Spirit Down explicitly pointing to the hope that things can be better.
DATC: There’s a thread through your music of humanity, of a yearning for peace; for things to be better – I’m thinking of Got to Do Better; Hope in a Hopeless World; Dream Catchers; Connected; Shingle By Shingle; and so on. Can music and musicians make a difference to the way we think about the world where there is so much inequality and injustice?
Eric Bibb: Absolutely. The thing about music when it’s good, it kind of bypasses the reasoning part of the brain and goes straight to the heart. It’s something you cannot really resist if it’s got a certain energy behind it. And that’s why this music has caught on all over the world. I think musicians have a role to play in uniting people in breaking down barriers that are false barriers, based on a myopic vision of culture and nationality and all that stuff.
There’s one race – it’s the human race. And I’m happy to see this music gluing people together. I attend festivals all over the world and there are local people from that part of the world and there people in from the Czech Republic, from Chicago, from Mississippi – the music provides a gathering place, a meeting place, and it really has made a difference. It’s really brought people closer together.
And I think it’s not only this genre of music; it’s music in general has that ability to transcend all of these identifications with sub-groups and make some kind of universal family of us, as we’re meant to be.
I feel it’s a privilege to be able to do what I love, to do what I do for a living and also to play some part in making the world a better place. That’s a responsibility and a blessing, you know.
DATC: The other thing that comes strongly through your music is a strong sense of faith – that’s a distinctive element in your music. I’m thinking of songs like I Want Jesus to Walk with Me or Don’t Let Nobody Drag Your Spirit Down or I Heard the Angels Singing. How important is that to you? And these songs always seem to be well received by your audiences – why is that, do you think?
Eric Bibb: Good point. The fact that they resonate with people who are not necessarily emotionally attached to the faith that those songs spring from – to me shows that behind whatever faith it is that you practice, or adhere to, there is something universal about spirituality. And when it’s genuine, one senses intuitively that it’s an honest, sincere expression of faith. And that’s contagious. Because we are all, really, at heart, whether we acknowledge it or not, faithful people, I think we have that faithful gene. We do believe in some kind of higher power, some kind of universe that supports us. And when people hear songs that come from that space, they recognise it.
And I don’t preach, I don’t proselytize, I’m just saying that I come from a culture that has had great success in using this Christian language to express their innate spirituality. And I’m happy with it, because I’ve grown up with it, and it’s familiar to me and it’s universal. And it’s inclusive – that’s the point. I want people to feel that. I don’t want people to feel like I’m choosing to separate myself or exclude because I have a particular belief system. So it seems to really work. And that’s gratifying.
DATC: So, how closely connected are justice and faith? Should they be connected?
Eric Bibb: Absolutely. Because – I know God’s plan for the human tribe is a just world based on love, as opposed to fear. I know that. And one of the great proponents of love and justice was, of course, the late great Dr. Martin Luther King. He was a hero of mine. He understood the connection between basically doing the right thing and speaking truthfully in the face of fear-ridden people. Somebody’s got to show the way when we’ve all been duped into buying to that whole fear thing. He was a man who, I’m sure, had moments of dread and fear, but basically he overcame that with his faith in a just world. And knew that that was what we’re supposed to be doing – creating that sort of world. So I think there’s a divine connection between justice and faith.
DATC: Eric, I’m really looking forward to tonight’s performance. You’re a hard working touring musician – that’s tough at times, I’m sure. What is it about performing that makes you want to do it night after night?
Eric Bibb: I get so much in return. Not only a way to make my living, but a kind of affirmation that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing – every night, with so many people. To know that I’m where I’m supposed to be is a great comfort in times when there are many people who feel very lost about their role in this very changeable society. So I’m blessed with that security. I don’t have to fret and worry about what I should be doing. I know that what I’m actually doing is right on point. It’s a great source of energy, actually.
The interview and the guitar stringing is finished; time for a few photographs before the sound check. Eric has been generous with his time, there’s no rush, no fuss, everything is well organized and working towards the show. Vicar Street fills up with more than 500 people, who are treated first of all to a wonderful set of jazzy, bluesy numbers by Eric’s daughter, Yana Bibb, before Eric and the band appear. The crowd listens attentively throughout the show but with whoops, hollers and cheers of appreciation at the end of each song. The energy flows back and forth between Eric and his band and the audience. By the time we reach Don’t Let Nobody Drag Your Spirit Down and Needed Time after nearly two hours, 500 people are singing and clapping enthusiastically with huge smiles on their faces. The feel-good factor is palpable, the sheer joy immense. This is what an Eric Bibb gig is all about – “I’m connected to you, to everyone, and everything.”
Compared at times to Bonnie Raitt, hailed as a “unique talent,” and “the real deal” in the music press, Irish artist Grainne Duffy has been wow-ing audiences all round Europe. Her superb recent album, Test of Time, has been described as having “soulful tone and real depth and emotion.” Down at the Crossroads caught up with her for this interview:
DATC: Hi Grainne – you’ve had a busy year, touring around Europe and the UK? You’ve played some places for the first time – how has all that gone for you?
Grainne: Hi! It’s been a flat out year indeed. But we have really enjoyed it. Playing new countries to new audiences and spreading the musical word…! Just great and meeting some lovely people and bands along the way which is always cool too.
DATC: You’ve two albums out, one from just last year. How would you describe the difference between them and how has your music evolved over the past 3 or 4 years?
Grainne: Well the first album, Out of the Dark, was mostly rootsy blues & Americana I suppose, while the second one was more pop & rock based. I think the main difference between them was that the second album was very song-based mainly. I try to keep evolving musically by listening to as much as I can and trying to improve musically all the time. So I hope my music just reflects this and I suppose my life experiences in my song-writing are always growing. The more you live, the more you learn.
DATC:Test of Time has 11 of your own songs on it – all very strong songs, very accessible, hugely enjoyable. Do you see yourself primarily as a songwriter or a guitarist or a singer? Or would that be a false distinction to make?
Grainne: Well thank you! I am glad you think so! I suppose I try to just be a musician expressing myself in songs. I don’t try to get too caught up in whether I am a singer or guitar player or songwriter. The reason I got into music was because of the way it made me feel. So I started to sing and then learned to play the guitar to accompany myself and then started writing songs to express myself. So I just see that as a natural evolution as opposed to being separate things. I hope I am all of these and at the same time just one person expressing myself through music.
DATC: As a guitarist, you moved from playing a Strat some time ago to playing a Les Paul – what does the Gibson add your music; why do you particularly like it? Tell us about the sort of sound you are striving for.
Grainne: Well I started playing the Gibson Les Paul after I was given it as a gift from my boyfriend. I just loved the feel of it, particularly how it feels for the slow melodic style of playing which I love. I always adored Peter Green’s playing and he was a Gibson player so I suppose anything near the tone and sound he creates would be amazing to me.
DATC: We can hear echoes of a lot of classic blues and rock in your songs – what have been the formative influences? And what are you listening to now that moves you?
Grainne: Well I started out listening mostly to old blues like Albert King and B.B. King and later artists like Peter Green and Eric Clapton and Rory Gallagher. So these were my early guitar influences. Nowadays I try to listen to as many varied influences as possible from The Kings of Leon to Gary Clarke Jr to The Common Linnets or Citizen Cope. Yet I still cannot put away my favourite records like Carole King’sTapestry or Fleetwood Mac’sRumours. These still inspire me, after 1,000’s of listens. Melodic songs are really what inspire me.
DATC: The sort of music you play has been dominated in the past by men. Thankfully that’s changing. But how has it been, making your way in this business as a woman?
Grainne: Yes it has been. Thankfully lots of great women have paved the way. One of my heroes is Chrissie Hynde. I like her attitude in the industry as a women. She never makes a big deal about being a woman, yet she is a very strong woman, and has a great energy and presence and is highly respected in the industry. I think this is the best way to be as a woman in the industry. Do your best and work hard. Let the music do the talking and you will get along just fine!
DATC: You’ve played on some big stages and have been on the same bill as a lot of major artists. But there’s clearly a lot more for you to achieve and do – what are your ambitions? And what’s up ahead in the immediate future?
Grainne: Well yes, we have been lucky to do some lovely gigs and festivals with some great bands and artists. My main aim is to try and continue to be the best I can be and to enjoy making music with those around me. In the near future we will be releasing some new material and touring more and this will be the main goal for over the next year but I am also looking forward to maybe collaborating with some new people in the future which I hope will be exciting also.