The Mike Eldred Trio,
Baptist Town
(Great Western Recording, 2016)

Mark May Band & the Soul Satyr Horns,
Blues Heaven
(Bad Fork, 2016)

Most recordings sold today under the blues rubric are more accurately characterized as guitar-rock exercises, from styles one can trace to the relatively recent past. In other words, to the latter 1960s during the brief fad for blues or its approximation, often as performed by young, white hot-shot electric guitarists with more bombast than heart.

Not all of the resulting music is bad, of course -- like so much else, it has to be taken on its own terms -- but my own tastes have always leaned to the real stuff. Two new discs attest to the durability of hard-core blues.

While bowing to moments of rock, the Mike Eldred Trio trafficks mostly in unhyphenated blues with raw, raucous Southern roots, most immediately evident in its adaption of modern, though tradition-referencing, Mississippi hill-country music. That's not all it is; there's also rockabilly (the opener "Hunder Dollar Bill"), more or less acoustic folk ("Roadside Shrine," the title tune) and an early-Band soundalike ("Bess"; perhaps not coincidentally, the actual Band wrote a comparably themed "Going Down the Road to See Bessie Smith"). Still, Baptist Town is fully charged and grippingly infused with downhome spirit.

Recorded in at Memphis' legendary Sun Studio, with guest appearances on assorted tracks by notables David Hidalgo, Robert Cray and John Mayer, the album conjures up both a soundtrack culled from the deepest South and a landscape on which extraordinary music and racist violence once abounded in something like equal measure. Robert Johnson's ghost hangs heavy in the humid Mississippi air, observed specifically in the gospel-cloaked "Somebody Been Running" (about Johnson's rumored midnight deal with the devil at a rural crossroads) and the folk-balladish "Baptist Town" (after the tiny burg in which Johnson was killed in 1938).

Only one of the songs -- an inspired reinvention of Lennon-McCartney's "Can't Buy Me Love," carried off as if a late-night juke-joint jam -- is not an original. Guitarist/vocalist Eldred is responsible for the rest, with musical assistance from John Bazz (bass) and Jerry Angel (drums, percussion). For a blues CD Baptist Town is politically laden, directing a fierce gaze into the abyss of the South's -- and America's -- enduring social ills.

Notwithstanding the Mississippi folk traditions -- of the kind you can hear in undiluted form on everything from Lomax field recordings to first-generation Fat Possum releases -- the Mike Eldred Trio has fashioned a music and a perspective at home in the 21st century, if in a modern-day America with a still-unsettled past whose discontents continually threaten to overwhelm us. It' may be a lot to ask of a collection of songs, but it's all accomplished brilliantly here, pungent as moonshine and muddy water.

Based in Columbus, Ohio, the Mark May Band engages with a more urban vibe than Eldred's group. The Soul Satyr Horns underscore the outfit's love of brassy, 1960s-style r&b. May himself plays strong electric leads but unlike many of his Caucasian compatriots on the blues circuit manages to keep everything in hand. He plays for the emotion and the melody, ensuring that the resulting sound owes more to true blues than to exhibitionistic rock. There's plenty of the latter around, not so much of what May and associates pull off so capably.

Another major virtue is May's talent as a songwriter. He doesn't write simply to provide frameworks for pounding jams. These are distinctly interesting stories, funny or sad, set to melodies that draw your attention and stay inside your head afterwards. Though a talent like this shouldn't be that rare among May's contemporaries, it is. Blues Heaven boasts a generous hour's worth of it, a serving of meat-and-potatoes sounds that stick happily to ribs and ears.

music review by
Jerome Clark

28 May 2016

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