I can avoid all puns on this fine artist’s performing name, simply because I got them out of the way when I reviewed his last album (Evangeline, which you can read here on Bluesdoodles). So I will do a quick recap on him and his name…the real inspiration for the name is one of the seminal blues artists of all time; namely Blind Lemon Jefferson. If you don’t know him, do yourself a favour and listen to See That My Grave is Kept Clean by him (and the Stuart Smith version). He was truly a phenomenon. This Blind Lemon, however, is the alter ego of a certain James Byfield. From his San Francisco base, he has entertained as a solo artist as well as with his acoustic band, also rather confusingly known as Blind Lemon Pledge (to be called BLP from now on to save my fingers!)
This new release, his eighth, is called Goin’ Home and embraces blues and country in an inimitable style; apart from a couple of his own compositions, BLP showcases his interpretations of classics from across the generations that have informed his own writing and multiple styles. To give them bite and a new authenticity, this is just him and the ingenious Peter Grenell on bass, a variety of acoustic guitars topped with a voice that suits the genre so well.
Opening with one of Muddy Waters early, and lesser-known songs, I Feel Like Going Home, BLP plays a slide intro that shows an innate sense of how to use a bottleneck with panache: every glide up and down the neck has a shiver-inducing sound and the vocal is perfect…a magnificent start. Fever, written by Eddie Cooley and John Davenport is next and (thankfully) utilises the craft of the original by Little Willie John, rather than the more ‘showbiz’ version from Peggy Lee. That means it’s back in the blues where it should be and at a decent pace too. BLP’s picking is a delight and even though you may find it difficult to erase the jazzy Lee version, this will soon take prominence over it. The picked solo is so clever and works so well, albeit way too short.
Come Back Baby by Walter Davis was released in 1940 and, although covered by many (Lightnin’ Hopkins’ and Hot Tuna spring to mind; although the brilliant Bert Jansch version is my preferred one) this one has a difference that makes it almost new. BLP pours the emotion into every string pick behind the vocal and then the solo reaches new heights of skill and passion. Crazy Mama from JJ Cale gets a fairly faithful render but with his deft slide lifting it above the more somber tones that JJ employed. Just listen to the inflections he manages to fit into the solo and then sit back in awe: I know I did and, after attempting to replicate it I was reminded of the way Rory Gallagher used slide as I have also tried and failed many times to ‘do a Rory’! Sugar Rush is an original that delights in confectionary analogies for a lady and various body parts…maybe not the first to do this, but still original and fun with a magnificent and complex picking style that is rooted in country.
Somebody Loan Me A Dime by the underrated bluesman Fenton Robinson. This version seems to me to call on Fenton’s original 1967 version rather than his more widely known update from ’74. Somehow BLP plays jazz style guitar and yet keeps this firmly in the blues and the slow picked solo is mesmerising. Big Road Blues by the great Tommy Johnson goes back to 1928 although I first heard it courtesy of Alexis Korner. BLP gives its origins from the Mississippi Delta due deference and again puts in a superb slide solo that has depth and passion in every note…still too short for me. Sweet Celine is an updated original and moves it slightly out of the country feel but using (I think) a twelve-string with Peter’s clever ‘walking bass’ line make it sound acoustically orchestral.
It’s Too Late To Cry by the second Johnson (Lonnie Johnson) may be better known for the immortal He’s A Jelly Roll Baker, but this is a far more structured and immediate song…especially in BLP’s hands. Slow crystal chords on the intro and behind the vocal set the right mood. The equally slowly picked solo is a too short but unadulterated treat. Love In Vain is by the third Johnson, and probably the most important bluesman of them all…Robert Johnson. The slide is true to Johnson’s loose but precise style and follows the original faithfully but with BLP’s own character flowing through the bottleneck…and the solo is delicious.
I Know You Rider was a ‘Traditional’ (i.e. writer(s) unknown) although Hot Tuna did a version and BLP uses a sprightly country blues template to bring it traditionally up to date…don’t you love a well-placed oxymoron?! The extended chord work is inventive and fits perfectly. Little Black Train is another Traditional but this gospel revival song, done a capella here, works well with the powerful message transcribed brilliantly.
This is a fantastic collection of acoustic blues performed with skill, passion, and understanding of the blues and all of its sub-genres. Blues does not have to be sad; blues is as full of celebration and humour as it is a catalogue of hard times and BLP embraces it all to come up with yet another fine album that deserves to be heard.
Bluesdoodles rating: Wonderful – acoustic blues by a master of the genre
- I Feel Like Going Home (McKinley Morganfield)
- Fever (Eddie Cooley, John Davenport)
- Come Back Baby (Walter Davis)
- Crazy Mama (JJ Cale)
- Sugar Rush (James Byfield)
- Somebody Loan Me A Dime (Fenton Robinson)
- Big Road Blues (Tommy Johnson)
- Sweet Celine (James Byfield)
- It’s Too Late To Cry (Lonnie Johnson)
- Love In Vain (Robert Johnson)
- I Know You Rider (Traditional)
- Little Black Train (Traditional)
Blind Lemon Pledge: guitars, vocals
Peter Grenell: bass
(My iTunes run on track was, inevitably, another Blind…performer. Back in 1927 Blind Willie Johnson sang It’s Nobody’s Fault But Mine. Then I just had to listen to Blind Willie McTell with the fabulous Statesboro Blues…an original as good as the Pat Travers and Moody/Marsden versions, which are magnificent.)