Named after witnessing the sight of the moon rising over the delta on a visit to Muddy Waters’ cabin near Clarksdale in Mississippi the blues outfit, Delta Moon, formed over twenty years ago. In the intervening years, founders Mark Johnson and Tom Gray have won numerous blues awards and toured extensively across the US and Europe. (Tom is also well known as a composer, having written songs for Cyndi Lauper, Manfred Mann and Bonnie Bramlett amongst others). They are now releasing their tenth album: called Babylon Is Falling, it contains five original songs and six covers that all reflect their trademark twin slide guitars…usually, guitar and lap steel blending seamlessly to give their sound a unique approach to the blues.
The album opens with Long Way To Go that has a wonderful call and response work song structure that evokes the fields of yore but is bang up to date with the electric slide and bass/drum interaction. The slide soloing around the ‘whoa-whoas’ is excellent. Second track, Babylon is Falling, has an interesting back story… known as a Shaker hymn it is believed to originate from the 18th century and the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, more commonly known as the Shakers. This term comes from their euphoric behaviour during worship and earned the epithet ‘Shaking Quakers”, soon shortened to just ‘Shakers’. There are a huge number of these hymns recorded in various manuscripts although, like many, the true origins of this one seem to be disputed…it could be from an English Civil War song or from the post-Mayflower Quakers. Regardless, it has had many interpretations over the years and my favourite (until now, that is) was the a capella version released in 1949 by The Trumpeteers who classed it as a spiritual hymn rather that a Shaker hymn…then again, as always, I could be wrong and this one is sourced from elsewhere. The drum beat rolls nicely and sets the tone for the electric slide to contribute in an apposite way. They have updated the lyrics somewhat to use the old patterns to comment on current political and social unrest…and they do it brilliantly. It all comes together to deliver a solid, enjoyable blues song. One More Heartache was written by Smokey Robinson and The Miracles and was a 1966 hit for Marvin Gaye…in the hands of Delta Moon it becomes a swampy, southern blues. The acoustic guitar starts us off with the electric expanding the backing for the vocals. The slide and lap steel solos are outstanding, if a little short for my unquenchable thirst for great guitar. We move up-tempo for the blues-rock with added country twang of Might Take A Lifetime. It follows a fairly standard construct but jogs along nicely with advice like “don’t treat your life like a photograph” putting context into it all. Their take on the RL Burnside classic, Skinny Woman, is to treat it to a twin guitar romp through blues from the hill country. This is a brilliantly realised version; it is immediately infectious and has great guitar playing using just the right amount of notes across the rapid-fire beat. The slide duet ticks all of my aforementioned desires! The next track is a timely tribute to the late Tom Petty as they cover his song Louisiana Rain. They give it the acoustic slide treatment with lap steel punctuations to make it into a classy ballad. It is a cover that strays far enough to be different but keeps the essence of the song intact…I think Tom would approve; this one does. Another slow blues ballad follows with Little Pink Pistol featuring a guest spot from drummer Adam Goodhue. Read into the lyrics what you will but my take is a ‘tribute’ to the assets of Gray’s girlfriend…real or imagined, I do not know. Once again the dual slide contributions are the highlights and the keyboards deep in the mix warm it all up. The gospel blues of Blind Willie Johnson’s Nobody’s Fault But Mine is next and, although I am risking the ire of many, I think this is better than the version of this song by that other band. The clever snare drum with subtle bass set the scene and then the piano lifts it up ready for the superbly judged slide. Howlin’ Wolf’s Somebody In My Home is given due deference with the great harp work and vocals. The simple lap steel exclamations (howlin’) give this a depth and feel the Wolf, I think, would approve of. Upbeat is the only word for One Mountain At A Time as a band backs its optimistic lyrics on full boogie setting. The basic ‘riff’ is four notes but they work so well in their simplistic way. The slide solo sounds a little like Baby Please Don’t Go at times, but is good enough to carry it off with panache. The album closes with the mildly incongruous Christmas Time In New Orleans…now I am the sort of person that makes the Grinch seem full of bonhomie during the festive season and the only Christmas music allowed in my house is Merry Axemas Vol 1 and Merry Axemas Vol 2 with selected tracks from We Wish You a Metal Christmas. So it was with trepidation that I listened to this original…but as it is essentially a swampy blues with the ‘C’ word in the lyrics, I can actually forgive the band and enjoy it as a very good slice of haunting slide infused blues.
This is a fine album that should satisfy most blues lover’s needs; the covers are very good and the inclusion of the updated Shaker hymn is genius. It may come across as a bit ‘samey’ on first listen but the variations in tempo and, after a few listens, the appreciation of the depth and sophistication will start to show. Well worth seeking out.
NINEdoodle paws out of TEN …
1. Long Way to Go
2. Babylon is Falling (Traditional)
3. One More Heartache (Smokey Robinson and the Miracles)
4. Might Take a Lifetime
5. Skinny Woman (RL Burnside)
6. Louisiana Rain (Tom Petty)
7. Little Pink Pistol
8. Nobody’s Fault But Mine (Blind Willie Johnson)
9. Somebody in My Home (Chester Burnett)
10. One Mountain at a Time
11. Christmas Time in New Orleans
Tom Gray – vocals, lap steel, guitar, keys
Mark Johnson – guitar, backing vocals
Franher Joseph – bass, backing vocals
Vic Stafford – drums
Recorded at Diamond Street Studio and Vick Stafford Studio.