I consider myself to be a pretty big blues fan, but I must confess I'd never heard of Heritage Blues Orchestra until I noticed they received a Grammy nomination for Best Blues Album of 2012. The name of the band intrigued me, so last week I felt compelled to check out their album, "And Still I Rise", to see what the buzz is all about.
What I found was a remarkably diverse, perfectly named group with an album that's a magnificent tribute to black-American roots music. While blues based, it's also steeped heavily in gospel/revival, chain gang, brass jazz, slide guitar, with elements of classical and folk. It's a virtual celebration of early 20th century black music in America, with the benefits of some modern polish and pristine recording technology to clean up the scuffs.
Here's a brief, song-by-song breakdown.
1. Clarksdale Moan - Swampy, harp blowing, acoustic, foot-stomping Mississippi Delta blues tune originally recorded in the early 1930's by Son House. HBO (Heritage Blues Orchestra) has upgraded it substantially with powerful vocals from Junior Mack and some amazing instrumentation. Only criticism would be that the horns were a bit distracting on this arrangement. Everywhere else on the album, however, the brass kicks ass.
2. C-Line Woman - An old folk song dating back to the 1920's, this was most notably covered by Nina Simone in 1964. From start to finish there is a thundering African beat with impressively raw vocals by Chaney Sims. That said, despite my appreciation Sims' vocal tone I'm just not a big fan of traditional African music beats.
3. Big-Legged Woman - Written in the 1930's by Johnny Temple, and popularized in the early 60's by Muddy Waters, this Delta blues monster is another down-and-dirty swamp stomp. Horns swell powerfully with the guitar and harmonica, and you can't help but slap your leg and rock your head to the music.
4. Catfish Blues - A Muddy Waters classic that swings and jives. Horns really soar, harp is sick, vocals deep and rugged, and your feet will force the body up and dancing.
5. Go Down Hannah - Now we transition from the Mississippi Delta to the chain gain. This is an old prison song, performed 100% a Capella, and very powerful. Originally recorded by Leadbelly back in the early 20th century.
6. Get Right Church - Originally credited to the Rev. James Cleveland back in the early 60's, this church blues number is powered by slide guitar, harmonica and group harmony vocals led by Bill Sims. It's contagious.
7. Don't Let Nobody Drag Your Spirit Down - Originally composed by Eric Bibb, think Freddie King's Sweet Home Chicago goes to church with Stevie Ray Vaughan's Empty Arms. Bluesy swing jazz with a smokin' lead guitar by Junior Mack that's a dead ringer for BB King.
8. Going Uptown - Traditional black experience song, Grinding, straight forward, slower tempo blues that gets the job done.
9. In The Morning - Being a white Jewish guy, I've never been to a black church before. That is, until now, and it was fucking awesome!! [oops, sorry, didn't mean to cuss in church]. In The Morning is a full blown gospel revival in which all 3 lead singers: Junior Mack, Bill and Chaney Sims (father/daughter), take turns whipping us congregants into a frenzy! Raise your arms and dance with the spirit of the lord, people! Can I get a witness??
10. Levee Camp Holler - A Capella song telling of the traditional black hardship experience. Raw, organic, real and unfiltered.
11. Chilly Jordan - Gospel hymn infused with folk and country. Toe tapping flow that is very engaging. One of my favorites on the album.
12. Hard Times - Closing the album with a 3 suite masterpiece, this song starts with with a simple, haunting, traditional black experience vocal by Chaney Sims, transitions into a classical brass arrangement, before migrating to a rock edged guitar and vocal jam by Bill Sims that culminates with powerhouse horns and a smoking jazz sax solo. Awesome sauce. Check out the must-see live version below.
Hard Times - simply a masterpiece
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To conclude, I found this to be an incredibly authentic, refreshing album that spans so many different genres, yet never strays from the celebration of the rich, black musical heritage that effectively defines all relevant American music to this day. Kenny Poo scores And Still I Rise a MUST GET, and, with apologies to the great Ruthie Foster, will be cheering for HBO on Grammy night to win that trophy they most richly deserve.