Big Shoes: Walking & Talking the Blues
(VizzTone, 2012)

Mitch Woods,
Blues Beyond Borders: Live in Istanbul
(Club 88, 2012)

Two CDs and two accompanying DVDs document the lives of journeymen white blues musicians, struggling to survive as they labor within a genre that a century ago was an underground music and now, as one notes wryly, has "gone underground again." The blues revival of the 1960s a distant memory, those -- mostly Caucasian -- who still engage aren't in it for the money, of which there isn't an abundance, but for the sheer, one might say crazy, love.

Scissormen -- not "The" Scissormen -- consist of guitarist Ted Drozdowski (based in Nashville) and drummer R.L. Hulsman (Atlanta). They're preserved on disc and film (in the latter case by respected documentarian Robert Mugge) on a lonely winter tour through the desolate, mostly Indiana landscape, performing to tiny audiences in small venues. Underscoring the depth of their commitment, they're playing nothing like blues-rock, the lingua franca of most white electric "blues" musicians of the past decades, but an only slightly modified version of the Mississippi hill-country blues associated with Jessie Mae Hemphill, R.L. Burnside and Fred McDowell.

Drozdowski, a walking encyclopedia of blues lore, personally knew the three (all deceased) and, in occasional asides, recalls them fondly. Each inspires an original song, none exactly an attempt to copy the style of these distinctive artists but more an effort to recreate the feeling, with slide guitar, sometimes with crashing, cascading chords, of the unique North Mississippi African-American rural sound. The difference, besides Drozdowski's tenor voice (as opposed to the growls or keenings of his idols), is that Scissormen are not conjuring up a juke-joint ambience; rather, Drozdowski turns to the contemplative, melancholy, story-telling tradition of another Mississippi blues strain, the more celebrated one that came up from the Delta. The result is some impressively moody, moving music.

The California-based keyboardist Mitch Woods, who looks as if he could be the twin brother of MSNBC's Ed Schultz, recreates mid-century jump blues and r&b with his Rocket 88s band. Judging from the impressive size of the crowd (assembled for a blues festival in Istanbul; yes, there are blues festivals in Istanbul), one may well deduce that, as with other forms of American roots music, blues is better appreciated outside the United States than within it.

As with the Scissormen package, Blues Beyond Borders' two discs capture the audio and audio/visual sides of the concert, set forth with all the panache of veteran showmen who know how to deliver good times to the folks. Of course Jackie Brenston's "Rocket 88," the 1951 r&b recording claimed by some to be the first rock 'n' roll record, is on the playlist, as is another warhorse, "House of Blue Lights." If you have a problem with either, I don't want to hear about it.

Most of the numbers, however, are Woods originals, though sometimes you have to study the composer credits to be sure. I had assumed "Mojo Mambo" to be an obscure Professor Longhair song till I learned that in fact it's Woods's tribute to Prof (whose "In the Night" is covered elsewhere, credited to this legendary New Orleans piano master's birth name, Roy Byrd). Woods happens to be a marvelous in-the-tradition songwriter, and originals such as "Boogie Woogie Bar-B-Q," "I Got a New Car" and "Queen Bee" fall easily next to the older material.

Nothing profound is going on here. Woods and his four-piece band traffic in partyin' at full tilt, drinkin' beer and whiskey, and eatin' barbeque. As you listen or watch, you'll wish you were doing the same.

music review by
Jerome Clark

26 January 2013

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