Long John Baldry,
The Best of the Stony Plain Years
(Stony Plain, 2014)

John Mayall,
A Special Life
(Forty Below, 2014)

After more than half a century "British blues" should no longer be a puzzling, or an oxymoronic, concept. Still, I occasionally find myself scratching my head. In the mid-1960s, when I became aware of the phenomenon (by then a few years old), I wondered why Brits would choose a musical genre so far removed from their national experience, not to mention their own song traditions. Naive, I suppose; the British and for that matter the whole world have long displayed a curious, occasionally unwholesome fascination with America's popular culture.

For most British musicians who played blues (e.g., the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton), it was only a phase on the way to mainstream rock and pop. But for John Mayall, among the first to discover and record blues, it's been a lifelong commitment. Another of the first generation, Long John Baldry (who died in 2005 in Canada, where he settled in the late 1970s), returned to the music of his youth in his late years, signed to the Edmonton-based roots label Stony Plain.

A long time ago, when friends were buying Mayall records, I'd ask them, "Why aren't you listening to Muddy Waters?" Even then, I realized that Mayall was not exactly Pat Boone to Muddy's Little Richard, but I couldn't understand why anyone would want to hear the imitation when the original was so readily available. After that, until A Special Life showed up in my mail recently, I hadn't heard a single Mayall record that I can recall. I learned quickly enough that Life is a perfectly good and credible album, if anything an improvement on many blues discs I hear these days.

First, the material is solid, and if you don't have that, you don't have much that anybody is going to want to be exposed to more than once, however learned or flashy your chops. The songs are mostly obscure but worthy items from masters such as Albert King, Jimmy Rogers, Jimmy McCracklin and others. Mayall's originals (four in number) are consistently strong. Zydeco accordionist C.J. Chenier (son of the late legend Clifton), who shows up on a couple of cuts, wrote and sings the opener, "Why Did You Go Last Night?" Otherwise, the band is three tough, seasoned guys from the Chicago scene. Mayall's vocals have plenty of heft. At its core the sound is Chicago and Memphis circa the 1960s, but updated to 2014. There is, to summarize, nothing not to like.

Until The Best of the Stony Plain Years Long John Baldry was somebody I'd heard of but never heard. As I conducted my homework for this review, I learned of his post-blues career as a British pop star, actor and gay-rights pioneer. In his late performing life Baldry re-embraced his youthful musical loves, prominently the work of Lead Belly. Four of the 11 cuts are songs associated with that celebrated folk artist, though sometimes re-imagined inside more elaborate production contexts than the spare originals. Other cuts are drawn from eminent bluesmen Jimmy Witherspoon, John Lee Hooker, Leroy Carr and Willie Dixon.

Baldry may be fairly described as a decent, serviceable singer. The arrangements boast an entertaining, extroverted theatricality that doesn't take itself excessively seriously. In other words, this is no exercise in deep blues. Baldry is said to have been at his most effective on festival and club stages, and something of that manages to come through one's speakers. My sole complaint is "Black Girl" (a traditional song also known as "In the Pines") whose arrangement just feels misconceived. Otherwise, the various bands traffic in playful r&b, jazz, and folk, and everybody is clearly having a fine old time.

Nothing will change your allegiance to any of the original versions. Even so, I enjoyed this CD more than I expected to. If Baldry wasn't great, he wasn't bad, either, and his Best will certainly do.

music review by
Jerome Clark

30 August 2014

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