Bluesdoodles rating: 5 Doodle Paws – a Stupendous album. Bernie has done it again: he’s taken tracks that mean a lot to him, moulded them in a unique way to bring a fresh and yet reverential approach and made them his and ours…another masterpiece.
After receiving the superb first instalment of Bernie Marsden’s “Inspiration Series” in July called Kings (you can read all about it and my Bernie collecting passion here on Bluesdoodles) we have in quick succession (pun intended) the superb second album…Chess.
This follows the format of Kings, in that it is a collection of known and lesser-known songs that inspired Bernie and helped create the formidable talent he is. It also sticks to his instinctive interpretation of the songs: not reworked or plain cover versions, but created around the original with his inimitable touch on guitar and his passion feeding into the vocals.
It’s based around the legendary Chess Records label: Chess came into being in 1950 in Chicago and specialised in blues and rhythm and blues…although there were many more artists on their roster, from a brilliant stand up comedienne called Moms Mabley who, in my humble opinion deserves more recognition for acting, comedy and (in 1921) for being one of the first openly gay comedians. Other lesser knowns on the label include doo-wop group The Flamingos, Dale Hawkins (an influential writer and rhythm guitarist), R ’n’ B group The Moonglows and so many more.
It was established and run by two brothers, Leonard and Phil Chess, and released many singles and albums that helped expand the blues around America (and the world) and also helped kick start what developed later into rock. An interesting bit of rock trivia: their address was 2120 South Michigan Avenue…which to Rolling Stones fans will be instantly recognisable as an instrumental from 1964, and much later, a George Thorogood album too.
The fact that Bernie has picked some as some slightly more obscure from the Chess catalogue, for which I applaud him…there are a plethora of artists from those times that were as impactful as the ‘big names’ and yet seem doomed to unfair obscurity. He has also (again) added a couple of instrumentals to illustrate how the styles of some of the featured artists can be moulded into something new and refreshing.
Just Your Fool is a song that dates back to 1953 when the composer Buddy Johnson released it…it was a big band song until a certain Little Walter got his hands on it and (through the Chess subsidiary Checker Records) released a true Chicago blues revamp.
The Stones made a decent fist of it on Blue and Lonesome but here is my new favourite. Bernie keeps the swagger and harp of the original and, with the help of his talented band, makes it newly old…a suitably empathetic harp solo and, toward the end, delivers a short solo that is so right, with each carefully picked note resonating deep.
Back In The USA is from one of Chess’ big names: Chuck Berry. The intro is very Chuck but, somehow, he manages to add subtle flourishes particularly in the solo that makes it special. I’m not a huge Berry fan, but I have Johnny Winter and Mike Zito’s version, and this one is more…genuine whilst still adding a modern feel.
Grits Ain’t Groceries is another Checker release, this time by Little Milton, although the song was written by Titus Turner, a talented blues singer who released it in 1955. He keeps the wry humour and pours some neat chord and lead work throughout while the band add a great shuffle to lift it even higher…the Hammond and guitar are a real treat.
I’m Ready is from the great Muddy Waters (written by Antoine Domino, Al Lewis and Sylvester Bradford or Willie Dixon depending who you ask…Muddy did many Dixon songs, so I’ll go with that one. Regardless, it is instantly recognisable (especially as this is the thirteenth version in my collection) and deserves the ‘classic’ appellation. If you could recreate, to the last whiff of smoke, the atmosphere of the 50s blues clubs, then this transports you straight there. This version is simply superb: the original feel is here, the harp is spot on and the short guitar solo is exemplary.
You Can’t Judge A Book is another Willie Dixon song from the Checker label, this time by Bo Diddley. The original had the typical Bo chord work backed with superb walking upright bass: Bernie somehow loosens those chords and makes them more accessible and the bass is suitably treated. It is a romp across the years as he again achieves the nigh on impossible…it has Bo touches but you’re in no doubt whose deft fingers are playing those chords.
I Can’t Hold Out by the great Elmore James and he is treated royally here. The intro is shiver-inducing as harp and guitar spar and then, oh blissful bliss, Bernie gets the bottleneck out and makes that guitar sing beautifully…a slight pause in the review occurred here as I listened to it five times before forcing myself to move onto the next track.
Then nearly doing the same again as we revise one of the stars of Kings…namely Albert who showed his peers how a traditional blues trope can be made different and wonderful. Bernie adds a few ‘Bernie-isms’ to the gorgeously toned introduction and the pace is a gnats slower as Won’t Be Hanging Around keeps up the standard of stunning interpretations.
Fattening Frogs For Snakes is a great title by the great Sonny Boy Williamson II as he uses this slightly gruesome analogy for…well, let’s say marriage strife. With the harp of Alan Glen again capturing the essence of the original, Bernie brings clarity and original spin on a great song and the solo…the damn guitar communicates on so many levels the only fault is that it didn’t last two hours!
That’s Alright appeared on Chess with Jimmy Rogers, although it is his lyric and melody, many believe it was based on a Robert Lockwood Jr or Willie Love song…but Jimmy’s is the version Bernie has masterfully engaged. Another masterful reading with deft chords picked with clarity as the harp wails meaningfully in the background. The harp solo is a fine one leading to Bernie using bends in an exquisite way to make the guitar echo the pain of the lyrics…because it really isn’t Alright.
Who’s Been Talking is from the pen of the genius, Chester Burnett…better known of course as Howlin’ Wolf. I love the version from Joe Bonamassa with the spoken intro from The Wolf (and Samantha Fish’s too) and now there’s a new one to love. Bernie allows the clever drum pattern to introduce the song and a Peter Green like guitar piece then leads us to the “My baby caught a train” line and an impassioned vocal. The solo is genius with sustain melting your spine before he again shares his Greeny touch to perfection…if you doubt it, one listen to his ‘tribute’ from 1995 called Green And Blues, will show how good Mr Marsden is.
After the feast of blues comes the tasty dessert of Bernie’s instrumental ‘tributes’. The first, called Lester, presents a problem…which Lester? Well having listened to it numerous times, I think Bernie is being slightly playful and the Lester in question is Lester William Polsfuss. Who? Why? Well, as Bernie is the proud owner of a guitar known throughout the world as “The Beast” and it carries Mr Polfuss’ name…he is better known as Les Paul: a great guitarist as well as the inspiration to luthiers across the planet. Of course, I could be wrong and just made a right pillock of myself. Whatever, it is an instrumental, but with the fluid and expressive playing, it speaks for itself with clarity and skill…it is nothing short of genius. The second instrumental is simply called Johnny and again, with no more info, I have listened and listened and it has elements of Johnny Winter, John Lee Hooker and more than a hint of John Brim (who wrote Ice Cream Man, known well by Van Halen fans)…but then I can also hear Hubert Sumlin who isn’t a Johnny, so what do I know?! Again, who cares? It is a criminally short piece of sublime composition and playing.
So, Bernie has done it again: he’s taken tracks that mean a lot to him, moulded them in a unique way to bring a fresh and yet reverential approach and made them his…the song is always paramount and this isn’t a guitarist showing off their skills, it is a skilful guitarist sharing his love and gratitude to some remarkable compositions with a band of consummate skill to back him all the way. Another masterpiece and I look forward to the next instalment (as we’re promised three “inspirations” plus, he has teased “an exciting guitar project developing that I can’t say too much about at this time, but I’m very excited about it…” So are we.
I also heard the news…he is now officially a ‘Blues Lord’ courtesy of the Hard Rock Hell organisation who awarded him that title very recently.
Track Listing (performer):
Just Your Fool (Little Walter)
Back In The USA (Chuck Berry)
Grits Ain’t Groceries (Little Milton)
I’m Ready (Muddy Waters)
You Can’t Judge A Book (Bo Diddley)
I Can’t Hold Out (Elmore James)
Won’t Be Hanging Around (Albert King)
Fattening Frogs For Snakes (Sonny Boy Williamson II)
That’s Alright (Jimmy Rogers)
Who’s Been Talking (Howlin’ Wolf)
Guitar & Vocals: Bernie Marsden
Bass Guitar: John Gordon
Drums: Jim Russell
Keyboards: Bob Haddrell
Harmonica: Alan Glen
Chess is out on 26th November on the Conquest Music/Little House Music label and can be ordered direct from Bernie’s website and (if you’re quick) you’ll get a signed copy, sixteen-page booklet and free guitar pick. Pre-order HERE
(No surprise when iTunes moved on to more of Bernie’s solo work…but, because it’s alphabetical, I was served his blues-rock album from 1981, Look At Me Now…still as fresh as the day it was mastered….then, a long way further down came another Bernie: Mr Torme, another guitar genius of a different type entirely