Al Basile,
At Home Next Door
(Sweetspot, 2012)

Sunny Crownover,
Right Here, Right Now
(Blue Duchess/Shining Stone, 2012)

Though in recent years there's been a modest, welcome renaissance of African-American performers who have found their way to the blues, the fact remains that the bulk of today's blues musicians are white people. Not only that, but white people of a certain generation, brought to the music in the late-1960s blues revival. These days, young artists looking for roots forms are more likely to be drawn to acoustic string bands than electric blues outfits. At least at the moment blues, which once seemed sunnily eternal, appears to be a genre in its twilight.

It has not yet, however, vanished over the horizon. The good news is that by now the performers are seasoned at the craft to which they've devoted their lives, and thus they do it movingly and persuasively as ones who not only have sung it but have lived it daily. Two of the most able active practitioners are Al Basile and Sunny Crownover, nicely represented on new releases. Both have careers intertwined with that of Duke Robillard, founder of Roomful of Blues, singer, guitarist, songwriter, producer and blues entrepreneur. Robillard and his band are a large presence on the two-disc At Home Next Door, and Robillard produces Crownover's Right Here, Right Now. The two artists have performed, toured and recorded with Robillard.

Cornet player Basile, a prolific and much-covered songwriter, uses the first, more purely blues-oriented disc of At Home to showcase material from recordings he's made since 1998 on his own Sweetspot label. Only one song is new, the acoustic blues ballad "80 Bells," which draws on Basile's talents not just as a roots-music maven but as a respected writer of fiction and poetry. Disc one touches on a variety of blues styles but mostly of the horn-driven variety. Basile is plain-spoken in both senses of the word, which is to say he sings clearly and delivers straightforward narratives, almost entirely concerning the travails of romance.

The second disc, apparently of newer material (the notes are fuzzy on the matter), turns to songs with strong blues accents but leavened with r&b, pop, rock and jazz. The opener, "Too Much Like Fate," sounds vaguely Motownish if musically looser. A song or two, done in a different arrangement, could even make for decent country-pop material. I haven't heard the phrase "blue-eyed soul" in a while, but I suppose it applies here. A consummate professional, Basile does what he does with feeling and intelligence, and he makes you want to come back for more.

As with Basile, Crownover is backed by Robillard and various of his musical associates. Robillard produced Introducing Sunny & Her Joy Boys (reviewed here on 16 May 2009), a marvelous barebones yet sophisticated acoustic album of classic American pop songs. I would have been happy with a sequel, but Crownover has chosen to return to more familiar territory, populated with electric guitars, punchy horns and modern blues, on Right Here, Right Now. She covers Basile's "I Might Just Change My Mind," my favorite cut, but most of the songs are courtesy of the prolific -- one might say one-man song factory -- Gary Nicholson.

Crownover has plenty of lung power, but as a mature, smart singer she refrains from the temptation to exhibitionism. In common with her contemporary Maria Muldaur's, her vocals testify to lessons learned from the great female blues singers of past generations: they're witty and languidly erotic. Even the opening number, Nicholson's "Oh Yes I Will," would probably be delivered as a didactic lecture by a lesser performer. Crownover scores the point -- namely, that a woman has the right to make her own decisions -- while keeping her tongue playfully in cheek and the narrator complex, human and approachable Lots of sex on the tracks, too, to remind listeners that blues has always been as much about bedrooms as about bad times.

Right Here, Right Now is lots of good music and lots of good fun -- in short, both the blues and a sure cure for them.

music review by
Jerome Clark

16 March 2013

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