Bill Bourne & the Free Radio Band,
(Linus, 2011)

To Behold
(Stony Plain, 2011)

Two Canadian electric-blues bands, two separate but equally satisfying approaches.

The Ottawa-based MonkeyJunk -- the title comes from a Son House truism that blues ain't "monkey junk" -- distinguishes itself with a nicely idiosyncratic, admirably conceived, fully accomplished approach, which among other things avoids the usual stale blues-rock gestures. I don't mean to imply that this isn't blues-rock. Rock, after all, is so integral to the blues vocabulary by now that except for acoustic folk-blues performers and a vanishingly small number of plugged-in outfits, it's a well-nigh inescapable element of the package.

Even so, MonkeyJunk, a trio, has no bass, which accounts for the initial confusion -- of a pleasant kind -- with which you'll likely greet the opening cut. The sound derives from various guitars electric and acoustic, harmonica, occasional organ and percussion. Throw in some humid swamp and some thumping funk, and put them in service of strong, noteworthy songwriting, and you have one exceptional modern blues band. To Behold is MonkeyJunk's second release, its first on the respected Stony Plain label out of Edmonton, Alberta, home to some of the continent's finest artists in blues, folk and jazz. Keep the name in mind. MonkeyJunk is destined to make its mark on the blues scene and possibly beyond.

Bill Bourne has a long history on Canada's roots scene, and he's won multiple Juno awards, the north country's equivalent to America's Grammy. On Bluesland, recorded more or less live over three days, Bourne and his Free Radio Band put down a good-natured, unpretentious groove that has the music seeming to come off a stage in your backyard. Beyond that, you will think of a better-produced, thus more listener-friendly equivalent to Bob Dylan's albums of recent years: as much bluesy as blues, wandering off on folk and rock byways, with sometimes sharp, socially tinged commentary. "Who's Knockin'" is a remarkably smart fusion of protest and gospel song.

Besides his appeal as a soulful vocalist, Bourne is a gifted songwriter who sets solidly crafted lyrics to stick-in-your-head melodies. There are only eight cuts, but their lengths range from 3:18 ("Home") to 6:05 ("Daily Bread"). Six are originals; the other two are tradition's "Columbus Stockade Blues" (not actually a blues) and Dylan's "Maggie's Farm," both revived in lively fashion.

If you hadn't heard Bourne before -- I confess I hadn't -- Bluesland will leave you wanting more.

music review by
Jerome Clark

15 October 2011

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