Johnny Never (also known as John Carleton) released a remarkable lesson in finger-style guitar playing and an ability to make his new blues sound like they came fresh from the 30s…no mean achievement and one that I applaud. His album, Blue Delta, has a title that explains it all.
A well known and respected performer across the East Coast of the US, doing many gigs solo or as a three-piece, he’s now put down on tape (or whatever it’s called now) of his authentic style on a mix originals and inspired covers.
Opening with an original, Blue Delta Blues, he shows immediately how his picking style (whilst not typically delta) suits the blues so well; his voice too has an authenticity as he sings in the way a lot of the greats did…imagine a melange of Leadbelly, House and Johnson. On this track the bass and harp bring this original to life and helps make it sound like it was new in 1920 as well as 2020…lovely.
A brave choice next as Last Fair Deal is one of the great blues songs by the equally great Robert Johnson; his original is still the best (although Clapton does well and Moody Marsden delivers a cracking live version on their ‘Live In Hell’ release) and now Johnny stands proud as his version adds a clarinet to the lilt…it’ll never replace RJ but his picking is gorgeous, and the clarinet is actually effective. Black Smart Phone is Johnny’s genius take on Sam Hopkins’ Black Cat Bone (in hoodoo, this bone could break down a potential lover’s resistance or bring fame; usually followed by an untimely death, to musicians who use it for their own gain…it was also Paul Kossoff’s pre-Free band). The basic of Hopkins’ song is developed cleverly and the lyrics suitably amusing…the guitar is the star however as Johnny so deftly utilises all six strings.
Death Letter is by the, in my opinion, finest blues guitarist of his day: Son House was a genius and his song Pearline remains my favouritest ever blues song, although I love all of his stuff including Death Letter Blues…once again Johnny does the song proud both vocally and guitarly. The harp provides a bit of added depth but the bottleneck work is simply fabulous…and the slide solo could/should have lasted at least an hour!
A Never original, Shake It Up and Boogie, is next and does just that as the excellent guitar is joined by clever bass and delightful backing vocals on the chorus. Canned Heat was a 1929 release by Tommy Johnson that Johnny does a great job of reinterpreting; it’s faithful, respectful and yet does bring something new to a song by one of the delta guitar pioneers. Yes, this is the song that inspired the name of the band and, incidentally, Canned Heat refers to a type of heating fuel in a can which, because it was alcohol-based, was also popular for drinking! As with the other covers, Johnny does an empathetic and clever update to make it fresh and the guitar once more is excellent although, like them all, it rewards repeated listens to appreciate how his picking style would take some guitarists a few overdubs to achieve what he does in one.
Falls Off The Bone (The Blues In 7/8) is next and that number isn’t a fraction, it’s a damnably hard time signature that he falls into effortlessly. The guitar playing again brings the adjective authentic to mind: you can hear every string stoke, although I cannot get anywhere near reproducing it. Vocally, he uses timings that confound but it works rather well. The percussion is damn fine and imaginative too. 44 Blues was also a 1929 recording, this time by Roosvelt Sykes although it had been ‘doing the rounds’ as an instrumental before Sykes added lyrics using the “44” part of the title as a gun, train and a cabin number. I will admit that, apart from the original, I only listen to the Little Feat and Tommy Castro versions as I never really thought The Wolf or Big Joe did it justice. Johnny, however, most certainly does. He gives the notes space and each one is audible…a difficult thing to achieve, especially as he plays with so many different strengths that give bite while the lighter strokes bring the lilt of the original; a nice harp solo fits in nicely.
Three Never originals follow: Witherin’ Heat Blues is big band blues by only a few people! We also get a nifty guitar solo that, for me, should have stayed instead of the clarinet. Whiskey Glass is a slow paced, almost funereal, song that has emotion, a washboard and sublime picking, but it’s allowed to be overshadowed by the clarinet again…picky I know, but I love his guitar tone and style and it that I want to hear more of. Dark Night Blues (Murdoch Blues) is folk/blues with more stunning picking and fret work with a lovely solo that sounds effortless but is hugely complex. Hey Hey, known as Hey Hey Baby when Big Bill Broonzy released it toward the end of his career in 1952; notable for his dextrous picking and superb sense of rhythm and, despite the sound, no bottleneck, Johnny brings upright bass and snare into play behind quality guitar, especially in the foot-tapping-ly glorious central section…Big Bill would approve methinks. Wrapping it up is another original that is as delta as you could wish for…Blue Eyed Girl has heart, harp and more stylish picking, proper solo and is another 1920 song written in 2020…lovely.
It may take a while to get into an album like this; the vocals are so close to many of the past masters that it takes little getting used to…perseverance will pay off and add even more to the sparkling skills that pepper every track. Johnny is one helluva guitar player and deserves to be heard.
Bluesdoodles rating: 3 Doodle Paws – a great listen, especially for the dazzling guitar skills on display throughout a very authentic blues album.
Track listing – composer:
1. Blue Delta Blues – Johnny Never
2. Last Fair Deal – Robert Johnson
3. Black Smart Phone – Never
4. Death Letter – Son House
5. Shake It Up and Boogie – Never
6. Canned Heat – Tommy Johnson
7. Falls Off The Bone (The Blues In 718) – Never
8. 44Blues – Roosvelt Sykes
9. Witherin’ Heat Blues – Never
10. Whiskey Glass – Never
11. Dark Night Blues (Murdoch Blues) – Never
12. Hey Hey – Big Bill Broonzy
13. Blue Eyed Girl – Never
Johnny Never – vocals, guitar
John Colgan-Davis – Harp
Dave Young – Bass
Paul Patchel – Percusion
Ken Pendergast – Bass
Mark Shustak – Percussion
Mac Given – Clarinet
Back-up vocals – Holly Hoffman and Shannon Davidson
Produced by Johnny Never and Peter Richan
(iTunes decided to take me back to 1946 and the blues of Johnny Temple; Yum, Yum, Yum is fun, smutty and high-quality blues from a lesser-heard artist.)