(5 / 5)
Harmonica player Giles Robson just made history. He’s the first and only Brit’ or European to land a record deal with the most famous active blues label on the planet.
That label is Alligator Records based in Chicago, which launched some 47 years ago. Before now, the sole non-American who has recorded for the label is Australian Dave Hole, but he lived and toured in the States at the time. Giles is one of ours!
But this deal isn’t for a solo album. Giles keeps good company; joined by none other than US blues legend Joe Louis Walker and US keyboard star Bruce Katz on this excellent new offering.
A 12-track acoustic album called “Journeys To The Heart Of The Blues” which was conceived in December 2016 when Joe Louis Walker and Giles Robson jammed together at a festival in The Netherlands.
The idea for an acoustic blues album was formed by Giles after he spent time on the road listening to a bunch of acoustic blues albums that year, by some of the classic blues artists that usually recorded with electric bands.
Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson and others, and the idea of recording something similar with Joe came into his head, so he contacted him several months later. Joe agreed and suggested adding Bruce Katz to the project. The result is now a reality and deserves to be heard far and wide.
Released by Munich Records, part of V2, in Europe and the UK, and simultaneously across North America, Australia, New Zealand and Japan by Alligator Records towards the end of October 2018.
Joe Louis Walker on acoustic guitar and lead vocal, Giles Robson on harmonica and Bruce Katz on acoustic piano, on 11 stripped-down, rare and classic traditional blues cuts and one newly penned instrumental.
There’s natural chemistry and the raw feel is there. That word “authentic” gets bandied about a lot when it comes to the blues, often accompanied by that other word, “honest”. Accurate here in both cases. Like back in the day; no fannying-about; three days rehearsal, three days recording, two days mixing and job done. As live as it gets.
Produced by the three musicians, and recorded at NRS Studio in Woodstock, New York during a sub-zero stretch of weather in January 2018 (12 inches of snow and minus 22 degrees), the record captures the passion and attitude of the blues originators from back in the day. A real meeting of minds. All credit too, to Scott Petito in charge of the recording, mixing and mastering.
A lot of mutual respect in that room, when those three cool cats got together. As Giles says when asked what it was like working with Joe and Bruce on the project: “Blues Paradise. Those two are the real deal; completely soulful with incredible technique”.
What you hear is what you get. Autotune? Overdubs? Racks of effects? Not a chance….It’s like they are sat in your living room, playing just for you with an impromptu late night session for friends. There’s no showboating or ego fest here. The songs are King, and the performances are ensemble, serving the material, not the other way round.
The record opens with Papa Lightfoot’s “Mean Old Train” and once the next two tracks are done: “It’s You Baby (Albert “Sunnyland” Slim) and Sonny Boy Williamson’s “I’m A Lonely Man”, it’s patently obvious that these songs are not the same old, same old you hear on every other blues covers album.
Next up, Washboard Sam’s “You Got To Run Me Down” and the dark lyric of Blind Willie McTell’s “Murderer’s Home”. Roosevelt Sykes’ “Feel Like Blowin’ My Horn”, is dedicated to Robert Jr Lockwood, who was Robert Johnson’s stepson, and who played on songs by Sonny Boy Williamson and Little Walter as part of the Chess Records house band. Joe Louis Walker and Bruce Katz both worked with Robert, and Joe was part of Robert’s studio recording of this same song.
St. Louis Red’s “Hell Ain’t But A Mile And A Quarter” comes in before the sole original in the set, the instrumental “G & J Boogie”, penned by Giles Robson & Joe Louis Walker. The next two written by Big Maceo Merryweather: “Poor Kelly Blues” and “Chicago Breakdown”, precede the penultimate cut, Son Bonds’ “Hard Pill To Swallow”, and the closer “Real Gone Lover” (Dave Bartholemew, Ruth Durand & Joseph Robicheaux).
This is not someone who has run out of ideas for their next contractually obligated recording and thinks, “Let’s do a blues album in tribute to my influences”. A lot do (as they do with swing albums!)
These are three guys who live, eat and breath the blues. Who love the genre and are as serious as a heart attack at what they do and how they do it. All about the feel, folks. But, more than anything, they have a bloody good time doing it and that enthusiasm seeps out of every track.
It’s no museum piece. This is a living, breathing, modern day affair; with affection and respect shown to the blues and its originators, but as Giles remarked when he heard the end result: “The songs sound fresh and vibrant and full of soul”.
Robson digs deep and uses the full range of his Hohner instrument; channelling the likes of his harp heroes Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson and Walter Horton, and maybe even Magic Dick from The J Geils Band on the high end of the register stuff.
Giles has been playing with Dick in the last couple of years. There’s more than a nod or two to the late and great Junior Wells perhaps, too. But Giles is his own man on that old harmonica, and probably the UK’s # 1 blues player on the thing. Lightning Hopkins and Bukka White spring to mind when listening to Joe Louis Walker here; and of course, Lead Belly and Robert Johnson.
Bruce Katz plays his part with ease, and is as versatile a player as they come; his vast experience working with such luminaries as the wonderful Delbert McClinton, John Hammond, The Allman Brothers, Greg Allman and others, shines through. Katz has nine solo records under his belt, and is heavily in demand on the blues scene.
The whole thing is intimate, played at low volume (nice change, that!) has light and shade and dynamics. Without the need for drums and bass, there’s much space that all three players leave alone and do not attempt to fill. They all adopt the “less is more” philosophy on all dozen tracks. Bravo for that. The interplay between all three on this record is delightful, and pure blues enthusiasts should lap it up.
Walker has 23 solo albums to his credit so far, after his debut release in 1986, and is among the blues genre’s most honoured artists. In addition to a Grammy Award, he has won four Blues Music Awards and nominated for a BMA 52 times. (Maybe this one will add another nomination or a win, and for me, it cries out for attention from the Americana Awards who now recognise the blues as a category).
The UK’s harmonica star Giles Robson is maybe a bit of a ‘best kept secret’ in many territories, but this will help to put his name on the map across the USA, for sure. He has three albums to his name so far, and plays regularly across Europe and the UK, and brings in visiting US bands and artists as a promoter too. His skills stand up to any current active blues harp player anywhere, for me.
Billy Branch, Sugar Blue, Charlie Musselwhite, James Harman and Magic Dick are all legendary US harp players who Giles has arranged tours for and has worked with on stage too. All of those guys have big respect for his talents on that ol’ licking stick, that gob iron, that Mississippi saxophone!
Their sold out live dates across UK and Europe just ended, but if the wind is in the right direction and the stars align, methinks they could be persuaded to hit the road again in 2019 and take another journey to the heart of the blues (see what I did there?)
By Simon Redley
(2 / 5) ‘OK Zone’
(3 / 5) ‘Decent Zone’
(4 / 5) ‘Super Zone’
(5 / 5) ‘Awesome Zone’