One way of dealing with the blues, I have realised, is to listen to the genre itself. The past few weeks or months have been difficult for most people around the world. In India, particularly so. But when depression, helplessness and despair prevail, music can act as a balm.
The genre known as the blues is said to have originated in the deep southern parts of the US in the second half of the 19th century when African-Americans, many of them slaves or former slaves, created the early incarnation of the genre, a derivative of songs and chants associated with working in the fields and spirituals.
The word “blues” itself came to signify sadness and melancholia—but blues songs were in some senses a celebration of those emotions. Remarkably, the genre has not only survived but has thrived. For while blues musicians rarely achieve the stardom that rock musicians (many of whom, by the way, are influenced heavily by the blues) do, the sheer volume of new blues music is pretty astonishing, and pretty good. So, without further ado, here is a list of five lesser-known blues musicians who have released new albums that are absolutely worth checking out.
Oliver Wood is one half of The Wood Brothers, a folk and blues band, a Grammy-nominated outfit that has achieved acclaim since its formation in 2004. But Wood’s new project is a solo album, Always Smilin’, on which he collaborates with artists such as Susan Tedeschi and John Medeski. A couple of singles from the forthcoming album are out; check out Fine Line, a groovy tune with lyrics that urge you to sing along (It’s a fine line/ Between love and lust/ Between truth and trust/ Dreams and dust/ It’s a fine line between a hope and a prayer).
Bill Toms is a Pittsburgh-based musician whose band Bill Toms & Hard Rain plays a form of blues that marries gritty, rough-hewn vocals with carefully arranged instruments: Toms’ guitar licks, of course, but also, surprisingly, a horn section in the background. Their new album, Keep Movin’ On, was recorded while each musician was in isolation, and its songs can be described as healing music. One track from it, Everybody’s Talking, is particularly soothing: Its lyrics talk of hope and the horn solos are calming.
Not all blues songs have to be tinged with melancholia. Not My Circus, Not My Monkey, the latest album from the New York-based Hitman Blues Band, fronted by Russell “Hitman” Alexander, has bittersweet but fun songs. The opener, Not My Circus, is a funky track with humour-laced lyrics (I met this lady with a winning smile/ We had some drinks and then we talked a while/ She leaned in close and whispered in my ear/ I hope my boyfriend doesn’t show up here). The album also has a gritty, funked-up version of Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A Changin’. Totally worth checking out.
Also read: Bob Dylan's rough and rowdy return
The blues are an infectious genre. Over the past several decades, besides influencing legions of musicians from other genres, its influence has spread across the world. Finland’s Jari “Jarkka” Rissanen is a veteran blues guitarist and composer who has played with many bands. A music teacher whose guitar riffs have a classical bent, Rissanen has come out with Cargo, a nine-track instrumental album with his band, Sons of the Desert. Rissanen’s talent and intricate style of playing the guitar are the highlight of Cargo, which combines traditional Chicago blues with deep Delta blues, adding a hint of classical music. The go-to track is titled The Bull.
The harmonica is a key instrument in many blues songs. Shawn Ellis Amos is an American bluesman and harmonica player who plays under the name The Reverend Shawn Amos. His forthcoming album is titled The Cause Of It All. And a single from it, Can’t Hold Out Much Longer, is a cover of a song by Little Walter, the great blues harmonica player and singer who died in 1968, aged 37. Amos’ version of it is in a back-to-the-roots traditional style that evokes nostalgic memories of early blues music from the American deep south.
Blues musicians don’t get the sort of fame and acclaim other contemporary popular musicians do, yet blues remains the most influential genre of all time. Its impact can be heard in almost every popular modern genre, call it rock, jazz or country. As Keith Richards, the lead guitarist for the Rolling Stones, a band that might never have been had it not been for the blues, once famously said: “If you don’t know the blues... there’s no point in picking up the guitar and playing rock ‘n’ roll or any other form of popular music.”
The Lounge List: Five tracks to bookend your week
1. Soul Of This Town by Oliver Wood (single)
2. I Got No Use (For What You’re Selling Me) by Bill Toms & Hard Rain from Deep In The Shadows
3. The World Moves On by The Hitman Blues Band from The World Moves On
4. Hipston by ‘Jarkka’ Rissanen and Sons of the Desert from Hybrid Soul
5. I’m Ready by The Reverend Shawn Amos (single)
First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.