Steve Howell: never the Twain shall meet

As Steve Howell and Jason Weinheimer release History Rhymes

A seemingly strange headline, but when you see that Steve Howell and Jason Weinheimer featuring Dan Sumner and David Dodson (to give the artists’ official title) have taken part of a Mark Twain quote…”History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes” and called this latest release History Rhymes. I do love that quote with its hidden sideswipe to society…clever bloke that Mr Twain!

Steve is no stranger to the pages of Bluesdoodles, and I’d recommend his album from 2018 to you…Steve Howell and The Mighty Men. As he did on that last release, Steve has chosen some true classics all of which are firmly rooted in the rural acoustic blues and traditional jazz of the American South. As I said last time, I would call Howell a musical historian as he obviously has a wealth of knowledge about the birth and development of the blues, and he uses this to carefully select the songs he is going to interpret. So settle back and prepare for some clever translations of jazz, country blues, blues and traditional songs from times long past but that can still teach us a thing or two about music and, indeed, about life.

First up is a jazz swing number from 1921; written by Billy Higgins and Benton Overstreet, you might have heard Benny Goodman or Billie Holiday cover this one. The Howell team give it a polish with the beautifully picked guitar and suitable vocals keeping the swing but transforming it into a neat blues song.

Next is the genre standard, Blues In the Night; written by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer for a film, it has been covered by such diverse artists as Rosemary Clooney, Shirley Bassey and Chicago. Here it becomes a languid electric/acoustic song that lilts and sways and I spent each listen relishing the guitars’ subtleties and simple yet effective fretwork. This is followed by a song from the catalogue of the genius that was Blind Lemon Jefferson. Shukin’ Sugar keeps the feel of Lemon’s picking style, adds in some mandolin and makes it a lovely interpretation worthy of the original. The gentle solos in the middle and the clever details behind the vocals are a sheer delight. Jack Of Diamonds is a traditional folk song that is rooted in the history of the railroads and popularised by that man again… Blind Lemon. With the mandolin to the fore it does sound a bit too like an old western soundtrack, but just listen to the nuances on the instruments and it is still more than worth listening to. Plus, with lines like “if the river were whisky and I were a duck…” it deserves its place on my playlists. Frosty Morn stays with the traditional but moves continents, not unlike tectonic plates! This is a Celtic fiddle tune that receives a mandolin treatment that makes it soar to heights you would never imagine from listening to the original. The harmonising between the mandolin and acoustic is so clever as they are always together playing slightly different notes and phrasing but it provides a delightful little instrumental. Keeping it eclectic, we are taken next to the Old Testament and the revival hymn If I Had My Way. I am familiar with the Rev. Gary Davis version and this has similarities but is sort of laid back and yet could well be a tent revival preacher getting his message to the congregation. Once again the guitars are together and complimentary. Changing tack again, we get the Jack Palmer and Spencer Williams penned Everybody Loves My Baby, perhaps the most well-known version is the Fats Waller cover. This jazz tune is close to the original with the electric guitars illuminating around the verses and then the solo fits perfectly as the clever chords keep the background warm. Ray Charles’ hit, You Don’t Know Me was actually written by Cindy Walker and Eddie Arnold and Willie Nelson though so much of Cindy’s songs he recorded a whole album of them in 2006. This song was and is a little formulaic but is fascinating as, in it, you will hear many subsequent songs that have used this as their root. It’s still a nice enough love song that the guys treat respectfully but is not my kind of thing. However, when the band tackles another standard: I Got A Right To Sing The Blues, everything is all right. Written by Harold Arlen and Ted Kohler and covered by many over the years including Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Sam Cooke and Ella Fitzgerald. The acoustic/electric duo again provides a treat to guitar loving ears, as they show admirably how simple is complex: how subtlety can carry a very powerful message. Now let’s go out West again and hear a version of a traditional cowboy song. Texas Rangers – The Falls of Richmond is actually dedicated to Steve’s father and great, great uncles who all served in as Texas Rangers. This is undoubtedly a song of some historical and cultural importance…as well as Steve’s relatives, and it does have a lovely mandolin/guitar duet close to the end…personally, however, it has little to endear itself to an Englishman…even if the Mason-Dixon line has a very distant, ancestral connection. Now to one of my favourite bluesmen…Leadbelly and their version of his story of the Titanic. Huddie’s original is a bit laboured but still nearly as good as one of his best…Gallis Pole (give that a listen and you may recognise a 70s version by some well-known band whose name escapes me!) This is a brilliant version as the oft-missed uniqueness of Leadbelly’s playing are captured and expanded. (I must share a story from my visit to the magnificent city and people of Belfast. I visited the Titanic Experience and as I was queuing for tickets, I heard a man asking one of the stewards why they built a monument to a ship that sank on its first voyage…the steward’s response was superb. “It was all right when it left here!”) Final track, Pine Bluff, Arkansas, is a Bukka White song that gets the Steve treatment and, over the six-plus minutes, he and his cohorts make it a true country blues treat…laid back and in no hurry, it is sung and played with great sensitivity and skill. In summary, this is a wonderful collection of country blues, jazz, and traditional folk songs on an intimate and eclectic album. It’s not a CD I would choose for a party, but it is one I will return to time and again when I want to relax and be carried to and through different lands, moods and experiences

NINEpawprint half inchdoodle paws out of TEN …

Track listing:

  1. There’ll Be Some Changes
  2. Blues In the Night
  3. Shukin’ Sugar
  4. Jack Of Diamonds
  5. Frosty Morn
  6. If I Had My Way
  7. Everybody Loves My Baby
  8. You Don’t Know Me
  9. I Got A Right To Sing The Blues
  10. Texas Rangers – The Falls of Richmond
  11. Titanic
  12. Pine Bluff, Arkansas

Musicians:

Steve Howell: vocals, guitar, mandolin

Jason Weinheimer: bass

Dan Sumner: guitar, mandolin

David Dodson: mandolin, banjo

Steve Howell: never the Twain shall meet

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.