The Blues That Got Away: Etta is Betta Than Evvah? Maybe Not So Much...

A powerhouse soul/blues/R&B performer "with a voice that could take you to hell or take you to heaven" (according to Keith Richards), Etta James needs no introduction. Starting her career in the 1950s, she survived decades through thick and thin, troubled relationships and lifestyles, and changing musical trends to become one of the most well-loved women of R&B and the Queen of Soul/Blues/R&B/what-have-you. She recorded for many record labels over the years, but her recordings for Chicago-based Chess Records, including such classics as "Tell Mama" and "At Last", are arguably her most definitive.

In 1976, Etta James recorded and released her final LP for the Chess Record label, titled Etta Is Betta Than Evvah ('A' for effort on the creative title, not so much the spelling!). By this time, Chess was a shell of its former self. Leonard and Phil Chess, founders of the label, had sold the company to General Recorded Tape (GRT) (which later sold the label to All Platinum Records) in the late '60s (with Leonard passing away shortly thereafter), and the company gradually wound down in terms of the quantity (and some would say the quality) of their recorded output. To make matters worse, the musical climate was not healthy for the blues and old-school R&B; although many blues artists continued to work into the 1970s (albeit with increasing difficulty), it was not until artists like Stevie Ray Vaughan and Robert Cray emerged in the 1980s that the blues would see a revival as a commercial entity. That being said, there were still some great early '70s Chess records. Was Etta is Betta Than Evvah one of them?

Etta is Betta Than Evvah consists of 10 tracks, 9 of which were newly recorded in 1975-1976 (curiously, the other was a reprise of a song that was originally included on Etta's self-titled Chess release from just three years earlier). All of the songs are moulded in the contemporary R&B sound du jour, with slick quasi-disco rhythms, funky guitars and/or clavinets, popping basses, and frequent horn and string punctuations. It was likely arranged just so in an effort to reestablish Etta James as a contemporary R&B/funk diva (much like how Chess originally revived her career as a balladeer and soul artist in the early '60s, after her initial heyday in the '50s). The result of this is that a lot of the performances on the record have a slightly mechanical feel, providing great dance music but ultimately feeling deficient in the soulful rawness that distinguished Etta's earlier efforts for the label. Similarly, Etta James sounds a bit tentative in certain parts of this album (although she looks like she's having a good time on the cover).

Still, Etta is Betta Than Evvah is not without its merits. The album begins with a rewrite of a song that she originally recorded in the '50s for Modern Records, this time titled "Woman (Shake Your Booty)". As she states in her autobiography, the tune was subtly rewritten to include more of a contemporary message reflecting women's empowerment issues than the original, and it works wonderfully in the context of the new arrangement. The interplay between the trendy-sounding clarinet and skittish guitars is compelling. In the same autobiography, Etta admitted that the words of "I've Been a Fool" and "Blinded By Love" reflected her personal life at that time; the latter is an especially interesting mix of art and commerce, where she produced a great, danceable tune with confessional lyrics that reflected where she was at in her life at that point. Etta brings back some of the passion of her earlier Chess platters to King Floyd's "Groove Me", an outstanding funk tune that works well in this setting (she later rerecorded it for her final album, The Dreamer, in 2011). A similar grit graces "Jump Into Love", although the male background vocals seem off-putting, awkward, and unnecessary. My favourite song of the album, however, is "Leave Your Hat On", a slow-burner that features a sultry vocal from Etta (along with her trademark growl, double-tracked in places to provide a nifty texture) and some terrific ensemble playing by the band. The remaining songs on the record are listenable but not particularly memorable.

The CD reissue by Kent Records adds 10 bonus tracks, an assortment of Etta's other early '70s Chess recordings. They rang from good to excellent (in some cases, I prefer them to the original album's tracks). My favourite among these is "Feeling Uneasy", originally tracked for her 1974 platter Come a Little Closer; it's a short but very sweet showcase for Etta's humming, moaning, and generally wordless vocalizing that actually manages to convey an uneasy feeling, which reflected how she felt during this era. The closing bonus track, "Lovin' Arms", is also a wonderful ballad with excellent instrumentation by several top session musicians from that era (including Cornell Dupree, Steve Gadd, and Richard Tee).

Unlike the boastful title, on Etta is Betta Than Evvah, Etta was not quite better than ever (probably more "average" than anything else), but it was still a fairly dignified way to end her tenure with Chess, with some good songs and competent performances gracing the final LP. She would bounce back later in the '70s and beyond with improved recordings.

Tune in to CJSR's Señor Blues every other Saturday to hear tracks from Etta is Betta Than Evvah and other similarly underrated, rare, or lesser known blues genes as part of the semi-regular "Blues That Got Away" segment.


Señor Blues Early 2016 Schedule

Happy Holidays, everyone!

Here is the schedule for Señor Blues (which alternates with The Toast Marketing Board on CJSR 88.5FM) in early 2016:

January 2
January 16
January 30
February 13
February 27
March 12
March 26

Thank you for continuing to listen to and support Señor Blues on CJSR! All the best in 2016!


The Blues That Got Away: Buddy Guy Breaks Out

Born in Lettsworth, Louisiana, Buddy Guy is one of the last living legends of the blues. A master guitarist in the Chicago blues tradition, Guy has been considered the living link between blues and rock 'n' roll, and he has influenced many guitarists in both genres and beyond, including Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix, and Eric "Guitar" Davis, among others. It wasn't always that way, however; Guy initially struggled in his career. Although he was a revered session guitarist with Chess Records in the early 1960s, his raw, uninhibited style was dismissed by founder Leonard Chess as "noise" and Guy struggled to expressed himself artistically satisfactorily on subsequent solo recordings with Chess, Vanguard, and Atco Records. Meanwhile, popular rock guitarists as diverse as Carlos Santana, Eric Clapton, and Keith Richards were inspired and blown away by his wild style in concert.

By the late '70s, Guy's career was in the doldrums (along with the blues in general). While he was still performing regularly with his harmonica-wielding partner Junior Wells and running a blues club in Chicago (the Checkerboard Lounge, which recently closed -- RIP), Guy was without a recording contract in the US. However, a couple of European record labels, Isabel Records (in France) and JSP Records (in England), were interested in capturing Guy's style on tape. With this label support, he cut four records between 1979 and 1981 that were more representative of his unique trailblazing sound than his earlier recordings. Among these was Breaking Out, released by JSP Records in 1980.

The second of his three JSP discs, Breaking Out found Guy employing heavier, more overdriven guitar tones in the studio, the likes of which he had helped to pioneer in his concerts (including use of feedback as early as the late 1950s) but that were more commonly associated with rock guitarists such as Hendrix. This created a raw, distorted sound that was perhaps a shock for dedicated blues listeners who were more familiar with Guy's cleaner Chess and Vanguard recordings (the original release may also have suffered from less-than-optimal sound quality, as the Penguin Guide to the Blues described it as a "sonic dustbin"), but was overall more representative of Guy's artistic vision. Indeed, the powerfully raw sound was probably also a sort of catharsis for Guy during this difficult period, which JSP founder John Stedman described as "a cry of pain". The lyrics for most of the songs are fairly generic in the blues tradition, but Guy is in stellar form throughout on both vocals and guitar. Highlights (for Me) include a remake of a song that Guy recorded in the '60s called "Poison Ivy" (here retitled "Break Out All Over"), where the distorted guitar is texturally akin to an ivy-associated rash, and "You Called Me In My Dream", which is a fairly early recorded example of Guy's blend of heavy blues and funk (something he later did more overtly during his 1990s comeback). The guitar tones are tamer on a sublime cover of the R&B classic "You Can Make It If You Try" and the slow-burning blues of "She Winked At Me". My favourite track, however, has to be the instrumental "Me and My Guitar". It is pretty much what the title says -- Guy and his guitar duking it out for five minutes over a funky blues-rock track, with some adventurous bass playing and lush supporting chordal work in the background. The 2008 CD reissue includes 5 bonus tracks by Guy's brother Phil that were recorded and released by JSP during the same era (with Buddy backing him up). Among these is a bouncy jazz-tinged instrumental, "Breaking Out On Top", which features Maurice John Vaughn on saxophone and Phil handling the bulk of the lead guitar (although Buddy contributes some smooth complementary leads throughout and a brief fiery solo). Another interesting bonus track is "Ice Around My Heart", a 9-minute jam that is very loosely based on T-Bone Walker's "Cold, Cold Feeling" lyrically, but with a different melody entirely; Buddy contributes a playfully timid solo halfway through, while keyboardist Professor Eddie Lusk plays both piano and a textural synthesizer throughout, likely imitating the sound of a string section a la "The Thrill is Gone" (although it ends up sounding like a distant persistent vacuum cleaner at certain points!). Overall, with the bonus tracks, you can hear some similarities between the two Guys' (no pun intended) sounds, but they have distinctive qualities in their tone and approach to the instrument that complement each other superbly.

Throughout the album, Buddy Guy is backed by a stellar band that includes Phil on rhythm/lead guitar, Nick Charles (later of Billy Branch & The Sons of Blues) on bass, Ray Allison on drums, and the aforementioned Lusk and Vaughn, among others. These cats played together frequently in the late '70s and early '80s, and their musical chemistry and love for the blues are evident in spades on this disc.

Many fans point to Stone Crazy as being one of the few (older) Guy recordings that truly represented his groundbreaking live sound. While I agree that Stone Crazy is a great recording, I feel that Breaking Out features more of his live fire, and it likely provided the blueprint (or at least a good part of it) for his comeback recordings when Guy returned to the limelight in the '90s and beyond.

Tune in to CJSR's Señor Blues every other Saturday to hear tracks from Breaking Out and other similarly underrated, rare, or lesser known blues genes as part of the semi-regular "Blues That Got Away" segment.


Señor Blues Schedule - Late Fall 2015

Greetings, blues lovers!

Señor Blues returns to CJSR airwaves tomorrow (November 7) after a brief hiatus and will continue to air every other Saturday alternating with The Toast Marketing Board on 88.5FM or cjsr.com.

Señor Blues will be on the air on the following dates:

November 7
November 21
December 5
December 19

Stay tuned for further updates to the schedule.

In the meantime, good blues to ya!


The Blues That Got Away: North Mississippi Popstars?

The North Mississippi Allstars (NMA) are a Southern blues/rock group from (where else?) North Mississippi. Formed in 1996 and consisting of brothers Luther (guitar, vocals) and Cody Dickinson (drums, vocals) along with an array of other members over the years (including Dwayne Burnside, Lightnin' Malcolm, and Chris Chew), they have helped to bring the blues into the 21st century with their blend of North Mississippi hill country blues (a la Junior Kimbrough, R.L. Burnside, and Mississippi Fred McDowell), rock 'n' roll, and other more contemporary styles of music.

In 2003, the NMA released their third album, Polaris. Although it was critically acclaimed by some upon release, with Sean Westergaard of AllMusic noting its ambitiousness, many listeners were put off by the combination of the NMA's trademark blues/roots sound with elements of sunshine pop and even hip-hop/rap in parts. I imagine some fans may have been concerned about the band possibly selling out. Subsequent NMA albums returned to more of the roosty sound that they developed on their first two albums, and their live set since 2003-2004 has rarely included tracks from Polaris, making it something of an anomaly in their catalogue. Though they blended blues with more contemporary music in subsequent releases, they never did so as overtly as on Polaris.

So, is Polaris deservedly the black sheep of the NMA discography? Not exactly. While the pop elements certainly are striking, there are enough helpings of the NMA's signature sound that it still sounds like the same band that delivered updated classics like "Shake 'Em On Down" only a few years earlier. The album opens with a killer riff on "Eyes", which couples Mississippi John Hurt-esque fingerpicking in the verses with bright, sunny backing vocals on the choruses. It's a catchy number that kind of reminds me of The Wallflowers, but there's enough soulful grit to make you not feel guilty for enjoying it. "Conan" is similar in its combination of fingerstyle blues and modern sounds, but overall it's a little closer to the NMA's jam rock style. They cover Junior Kimbrough's "Meet Me In The City" in a laid-back, swinging shuffle, with an overall sound almost reminiscent of the Allman Brothers. There's also an Earl King cover with "Time For The Sun To Rise", although the thin, reedy lead vocals (it is not clear who is singing this one) are somewhat of a mismatch for this gritty New Orleans tune. There are solid blues riffs in "All Along" (a dark sounding, semi-acoustic piece), "Never In All My Days", "Be So Glad" (which also incorporates bits of rap, although in a creative and tastefully unobtrusive way), and the hidden instrumental "Goin' Home" (rerecorded 10 years later as a bonus track on their World Boogie is Coming album), which is probably the one track on this platter that is most reminiscent of the sound of their debut album, Shake Hands With Shorty.

What about the rest of the album? That's where the pop music elements come through most prominently. The tracks "Kids These Daze", "One To Grow On", and "Polaris" are well-crafted catchy pop tunes that are almost devoid of the North Missisippi hill country blues sound and sound reminiscent of the pop/emo-style music that was in vogue during that era (especially with the occasionally thin lead vocals). At times, the lyrics are generic and insipid. That being said, these pop offerings are still fairly enjoyable, even if they are unlike anything the NMA recorded before or since. "Kids These Daze" is a particular favourite for me, with a pump-it-up type of chorus that seems to capture and celebrate the vibe at live concerts, and "One To Grow On" has a quasi-gospel feel along with a string section. Another highlight for me is "Bad Bad Pain", which pairs a solid blues song with a drum machine, creating an overall sound that is reminiscent of Michael Jackson's "Thriller" (in a good way). My only gripe with this track is that it's too short; as soon as you start enjoying the groove, it packs up. Interestingly, Noel Gallagher supposedly guests on the album, but his contribution does not stand out (unless the liner notes were referring to a different Noel Gallagher and not the former Oasis songwriter/guitarist).

All in all, Polaris might not have been the most promising new direction for the NMA to pursue in their quest to continue the North Mississippi blues tradition in the 21st century, but it's not an effort to be ashamed of either. While I would not recommend it as an introduction to what this band is all about, it's still a solid record that is well worth hearing.

Tune in to CJSR's Señor Blues every other Saturday to hear tracks from albums like Polaris and other similarly underrated, rare, and/or lesser known blues gems as part of the semi-regular "Blues That Got Away" feature.


April Fools 2015!

Have you ever wondered what a blues cover of a Bob Marley song would sound like? How about Sammy Hagar singing the blues? Are you curious about how the blues would sound on a banjo?

If you answered 'yes' to any of the above, tune into the annual April Fools' edition of Señor Blues this upcoming Saturday (April 4) from 7-9am MT on CJSR 88.5FM or online at cjsr.com. You'll hear all of the above and more wacky laboratory experiments in the wonderful world of the blues!

Good blues to you!


Juno Awards 2015

Greetings, Señor Blues listeners!

On the last edition of Señor Blues, we listened to the five nominees for the Blues Album of the Year for the Juno Awards of 2015 (JW-Jones, Steve Hill, Steve Strongman, The 24th Street Wailers, and The Harpoonist and The Axe Murderer), as well as blues-related nominees from the Vocal Jazz (Molly Johnson) and Roots & Traditional (Matt Andersen) categories.

The winner of the 2015 Juno Award for Blues Album of the Year went to Steve Hill for his incredible one-man-band effort Solo Recordings, Vol. 2.

Congratulations to Steve Hill and to all of the other nominees for their awesome music, keeping the blues alive well into the 21st century! It was a close competition this year, that's for sure.

See you on March 28 with some more Señor Blues on CJSR 88.5FM.