Peter Parcek,
Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven
(independent, 2017)

Blues is an elastic genre, able to adapt itself (or be adapted) to jazz, pop, country, rockabilly and rock. In the last instance the claim is often made, as the Brownie McGhee/Muddy Waters title asserts, "The Blues Had a Baby and They Named It Rock and Roll." Blues, in short, is routinely decreed a part of rock's historical lineage. Today, any number of guitar-rock bands pass themselves off as blues outfits, their purpose to affect an air of roots authenticity they usually don't live up to.

A few select artists possess the knowledge and chops to fashion a successful blues and rock fusion. In the case of Boston-based Peter Parcek, on his latest in nearly a decade, Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven, the result is an atypically expressive contemporary guitar blues. Parcek can play it heavy or fluid or call up echoes of the distant era when one strain of the African-American folk tradition was evolving into a genre that for decades would shape the direction of mainstream popular music. To my hearing, modern-day blues works most successfully as a dialogue between origins and destinations. The consequent tension is what gives the blues its vitality. Parcek knows as much.

Even when he's jacking up the volume or finding new ways to transform familiar chords into surprising sonic variants, he stays in charge, the melodies consistently at the forefront and forming an unbroken dramatic whole. His voice, if hardly stereotypical for the genre, is attuned to blues' emotional nuances. Subtle and intimate, it commands attention without resorting to bombast.

On the stellar "Ashes to Ashes" he lands what in other hands would be a classic mid-century Chicago blues into the 21st century. The instrumental "Pat Hare" honors a long-passed, pioneering guitarist and ubiquitous sideman whose style influenced post-blues from rockabilly to metal. Hare is surely as much a precursor to Parcek as the Delta-inflected Muddy Waters.

Much as I admire Parcek's own well-crafted compositions, to me the special marvels are the covers, where Parcek's command of the blues tradition erupts into luminosity. "See That My Grave is Kept Clean" is best known from acoustic versions by Blind Lemon Jefferson and later by Dave Van Ronk and Bob Dylan. Jefferson recorded it in 1928, radically reworking a post-Civil War folk song into a brooding meditation on fading mortality. Parcek's swirling storm-cloud atmospherics evoke the singer's approaching end. The drum falls like a hammer on coffin nails.

"Aunt Caroline Dyer Blues," from a 1930 Memphis Jug Band 78, concerns a fortune teller and her down-on-his-luck client. The neo-downhome arrangement, driven by amplified fiddle and mandolin, carries the piece through the streets and highways of tradition. (I am afraid, sadly, that some current blues musicians have never heard of the Memphis Jug Band or, if they have, can't name one of its songs.) The title number -- composed by Don Nix and recorded by a number of worthy artists, most famously Albert King -- is a sardonic secular hymn, anchored in the uneasy refrain Everybody wants to go to heaven/ But nobody wants to die. Suffice it to say Parcek delivers the message with all the chilling clarity required.

A tip of the hat to the contribution of producer Marco Giovino, also responsible for drums, percussion and loops. Parcek has further recruited the likes of Spooner Oldham, Luther Dickinson, the McCrary Sisters, Dennis Crouch and more. Nothing goes wrong.

music review by
Jerome Clark

10 February 2018

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