The Nighthawks,
Back Porch Party
(EllerSoul, 2015)

Jay Willie Blues Band,
Johnny's Juke Joint
(Zoho Roots, 2015)

As I've had previous occasion to complain in this space, much of "electric blues" these days is at its core warmed-over 1960s guitar rock, peddled by careerists (nearly all of them, not incidentally, white) who are catering to what amounts to the nostalgia market. The audience is made up of baby boomers enamored of the rock of yesteryear with its heavily amplified sound and occasional blues notes. If that suits your taste, bless you. Personally, I prefer blues, which to me is a music with a more than curt nod to the tradition: Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, B.B. King and their respective contemporaries.

Not unrelatedly, the Jay Willie Blues Band's Johnny's Juke Joint is my favorite blues record of the summer. None of the gripes registered above apply to these six guys from Connecticut, plus two guests, one of them the idiosyncratic vocalist Malorie Leogrande. Leogrande doesn't sound like anybody I can think of, and her singing is sufficiently out of the ordinary that as her voice sneaked out of the instrumental background on the opening cut, "Wooly Bully" (the joyfully weird Sam the Sham novelty hit from 1965), I was actually startled. Her voice has a purring quality -- that in itself is not unusual -- but the grittiness that rolls beneath it subverts the listener's expected response (or a reviewer's supply of adjectives, e.g., sly, sexy, soulful). In her approach to blues, Leogrande is pretty much out there on her own. One does experience the impression, surely deceptive, of effortlessness. She isn't on every cut of Johnny's Juke Joint, but when she's there, she's more than welcome.

The album consists mostly of judiciously chosen blues covers. Only Robert Johnson's "Me & the Devil" is likely to be familiar to the average, casually informed listener. Jay Willie's two robust, in-the-tradition originals hold their own alongside the likes of compositions by Muddy Waters, Junior Wells & Buddy Guy, and Jimmy Reed. The shimmering neo-country blues that is the late Johnny Winter's "I Love Everybody" comprises 3:45's worth of heaven; Leogrande's intensely engaged treatment is just one part, if a critical one, of that. And that's not to mention readings of terrific songs such as Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready," Dee Clark's "Nobody But You" and Robert Parker's "Barefootin'." While these three are not ordinarily thought of as blues, they don't feel at all out of place. Jay Willie and his band offer up spirited, dynamic approaches that short-circuit any thought of how much better the originals were.

If your faith in blues is faltering, if you're worried (as I sometimes am) that the genre is dying of exhaustion, a trip to Johnny's Juke Joint will have you believing again.

The Nighthawks have been around forever. Well, since 1972, anyway, which amounts to immortality in popular music. Nonstop road warriors, they carry the gospel of hard-core blues and roots rock to all venues still amenable to such. Of course, "Nighthawks" is something of a corporate name (if "corporate" applies to a small, passion-driven labor of love); the band has seen many personnel changes over the decades. Still, whoever is playing -- there's a core of four -- the music is always ably performed by guys who love what they do and care enough to have acquired an encyclopedia's worth of knowledge.

Lately, no doubt so that they don't repeat themselves unduly, the Nighthawks have taken to releasing the occasional acoustic album. Last time, it was Last Train to Bluesville, which I reviewed here on 15 May 2010. The use of acoustic guitar and bass (along with harmonica and drums) doesn't alter the basic sound much. It's just the Nighthawks doing what they do but without amplification. What Back Porch Party brings in the way of special pleasures is in being recorded live in the studio, without application of the wizardry that shapes even many so-called roots recordings.

I like the way they do the Patsy Cline chestnut "Walkin' After Midnight," Nothing in their version will inform you, if you didn't already know it, that it was originally a country-pop tune. It's a Nighthawks song here, and a fine one. On the other hand, Muddy Waters' "Rollin' Stone," adapted from the Mississippi folksong "Catfish Blues," is pretty hard to match or even get close to, unless it's Robert Petway's (1941) or Big Jack Johnson's (on the 1992 soundtrack to the documentary film Deep Blues). The Nighthawks simply lack the vocal heft to compete against the originals. Then again, they're really not competing at all, just singing material they enjoy a whole lot, and as songs in general and blues in particular go, "Catfish Blues/Rollin' Stone" is impossible not to adore. Band bassist Johnny Castle contributes a couple of original rockabilly tunes, "Jana Lea" and "Hey Miss Hey," both album highlights.

Not intended to be taken overly seriously, Back Porch Party is just some road-worn pros relaxing and doing what they feel like doing. It's like a summer evening when music accompanies beer, dancing, and good times. You could do a lot worse than hire the Nighthawks for such an occasion.

music review by
Jerome Clark

22 August 2015

Agree? Disagree?
Send us your opinions!

Click on a cover image
to make a selection.

what's new