Hurricane Ruth,
Ain't Ready for the Grave
(independent, 2017)

John Mayall,
Talk About That
(Forty Below, 2016)

At a certain point in performers' professional lives -- I mean, if they manage to stick around long enough -- their recordings become reviewer-proof. They've occupied the studio so often that rookie errors, or even the rarer mid-career ones, fade into oblivion. If you like what they do, you'll pick up their latest release in full confidence of satisfaction. That could be the entirety of my review of John Mayall's Talk About That.

I suppose, though, that I am obligated to say a little more. Those of you who know of Mayall at least by reputation, surely most of you, are aware that he is a British-born exponent of hard-core, in-the-tradition electric blues. He's been putting out albums since the 1960s, happily disregarding those who objected that a white man, and not even an American white man at that, had no business engaged with so notably an African-American music. Clearly, blues spoke to him in a not-to-be-defied voice, and though blues is further from the popular mainstream than it was decades ago, he's persevered, leaving a whole lot of exemplary music in his wake.

The simple fact is that he's always been good and at ease at it. Inevitably, time, experience and maturity have rendered him all the more so. Nobody who likes blues, especially those of us who prefer it in its no-frills, no-nonsense form, will not like Talk. Its 11 cuts feature eight Mayall originals, plus songs by Bettye Crutcher ("It's Hard Going Up"), Jerry Lynn Williams ("Don't Deny Me") and Jimmy Rogers (the Chicago standard "Goin' Away Baby"). The disc highlights his then band (since shaved down to three members after guitarist Rocky Athas's departure), plus guest horns and (on two cuts) celebrated rock guitar-slinger Joe Walsh. Mayall himself switches from guitar and harmonica to piano and organ with aplomb, and his singing is sturdy and perfectly attuned to his style of blues.

Though I have no complaints about any of the material, I am particularly fond of the Professor Longhair-influenced "Gimme Some of That Gumbo," which triggers hunger pangs at every spin. The gumbo here is the real, literal thing, not another sexual metaphor. You could make the case that blues has always been the musical language of food.

Hurricane Ruth is Ruth LaMaster, and Ain't Ready for the Grave lives up to its promise. No sweet young thing, LaMaster will blow you out of the room, though you are unlikely to resent how that departure came about. She's out of the belter school of blues and r&b, and a master of it. Happily, she also demonstrates her mastery of slow blues, always trickier, in "Far from the Cradle" and "My Heart Aches for You," LaMaster co-writes, as are most of the album's dozen numbers.

I've never seen her perform, but those who have been so blessed often remark on the disparity of her big voice and tiny (5-foot) stature. Regardless, LaMaster is always in control; no screeching or other forms of excess, in other words. The material is sufficiently consistent that judgments on respective degrees of quality amount to so much wind. She tackles standard blues themes -- sex ("Good Stuff," "Beekeeper"), adultery ("Estilene," "Cheating Blues"), hard partying ("Barrelhouse Joe's," "Hard Rockin' Woman") -- with authority.

Produced by music-business veteran and drummer Tom Hambridge, evoking blues as the most human of musical forms, Ain't Ready rocks the joint without neglecting blues' emotional truths. LaMaster calls up raucous moments and melancholy longings, and all points between, in a manner that for all its sound and fury exposes a core of wisdom and grace.

music review by
Jerome Clark

1 April 2017

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