Beth Garner,
Snake Farm
(The Music of Nashville, 2016)

Cee Cee James,
Stripped Down & Surrendered
(FWG, 2016)

As I've had occasion to remark on previous occasion, I find much of 21st-century blues more exasperating than engaging. More accurately characterized as guitar rock than as unvarnished blues, it is at its core an idea of electric pop with some claim to deeper authenticity. In short: throw in some blues chords, play them as loud as you can, and you command more credibility than does some naive garage musician who hasn't heard that old-fashioned teenage-oriented rock 'n' roll isn't cool anymore.

Well, OK, that's unfair, maybe even unkind. The fact remains, even in its heyday up to the middle years of the last century, blues was harder than it looked. Its creators and masters took it everywhere, from raw rural folk song to jazz improvisation to urban soul. By the time white musicians got involved in significant numbers in the 1960s, it was rapidly shedding the young African-American audience. When I was living in Chicago in the 1970s and 1980s, some excellent black blues performers -- Koko Taylor, Son Seals, Lonnie Brooks and others -- were active, releasing thrilling albums on locally based labels, but they were playing in good part to white club-goers on the city's North Side and elsewhere.

These days, when I hear blues almost exclusively on CD, I often am discouraged by the thought that neither tradition nor innovation within the genre is being served. So it's a relief to hear the likes of Beth Garner and Cee Cee James. Each has arrived at a kind of synthesis, a summing up of blues in its various iterations in a way that affirms the genre's continuing vitality even after its dozen (or however precisely many) decades' existence. However it's done -- no doubt some interaction of instinct, brains and talent -- that isn't done all that often.

As I prepared to write this review, I reread what I had said about Cee Cee James's previous release, Blood Red Blues (reviewed here on 20 October 2012), and find that just about everything I said then I could say now, specifically: "Her music, while undeniably modern, still feels as if tied to no particular moment." The only difference is that now, as it should, it feels a little deeper, the inevitable consequence of living, performing and continuing to think through what one is doing. James's strengths remain, notably a toughness of spirit coupled with a conscientious artist's sense of nuance. With her set of pipes, she could go in a whole other direction with her vocals -- toward a predictable form of naked exhibitionism -- but the restraint in evidence instead gives her singing a stirring subtlety and power.

The production brilliantly draws upon both acoustic and electric sounds, though interestingly more the former than the latter, even as one ordinarily associates James's singing with blisteringly plugged-in arrangements. Confounding expectations, the result simultaneously quotes classic blues and restates it startlingly. It's dazzling.

The dozen songs, co-composed by James and her husband and musical partner Rob "Slideboy" Andrews, give the impression of an autobiographical cycle, a narrative of a harrowing life at last redeemed by love, faith and music. The musical language in which the story is related is blues, of course, but also gospel and r&b, with a detour into jazz with "Love Done Left Home," among the album's standout cuts. Elsewhere, "Cold Hard Gun" is genuinely scary. So, I might add, is the photo on the back cover, clearly of a woman you don't want to cross.

Beth Garner is not only a singer but a guitarist. Her music consists of expertly cooked meat-and-potatoes blues, boogie and r&b. Snake Farm may put you in mind of an early, bluesier Bonnie Raitt, except that Garner's earthy sound is rather more to my taste. If not as original as Cee Cee James, it doesn't intend to be. It just wants to do what it does effectively, and if that's not good enough for you, you're immune to blues' charms, and you can leave the building. In fact, please do.

"Used to Be" takes its inspiration from the Chicago slide masters Elmore James and J.B. Hutto. Garner struts into the room, guitar blazing, and -- metaphorically speaking -- blows your head off. That sort of thing, done as joyfully as it is here, will never fail to be one of the universe's great aural concoctions. The EP's one non-original, the title song, is a smart choice, a weirdo folk-blues by Ray Wylie Hubbard, accounting for those menacing serpents on the front, back, and interior photographs. Swaying into a suitably snaky rhythm, Garner and band miss no chance to remind us of the Freudian overtones, even as they insist all the while, faces straight, that it's just, really, a "reptile house." Even those of us who turn pale at the very thought of snakes will struggle to keep smiles at bay.

music review by
Jerome Clark

25 February 2017

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