I just had a terrific trip to the Kitchener Blues Festival in Ontario, a free festival with multiple stages, good production, and a bunch of really dedicated and friendly folks organizing it. This year they featured a number of Alligator artists, including JJ Grey & Mofro, The Holmes Brothers, Rick Estrin & The Nightcats, Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater, and Lil’ Ed & The Blues Imperials. JJ debuted songs from his brand new Alligator release, Georgia Warhorse, which hit #74 on the Billboard Top 200 chart the week of its debut (pretty great–we haven’t had a Top 200 album for 20 years.) My wife Jo accompanied me to Kitchener to celebrate our 15th wedding anniversary, and we danced to The Holmes Brothers performing Pledging My Love. Plus, the Festival was kind enough to honor me with their Mel Brown Award. Mel was a great guitarist and organist, a real “musician’s musician,” who spent the last part of his life in Kitchener. His distinguished career included playing rhythm guitar on Albert Collins’ Cold Snap album, which I’ll tell you more about below. The Festival also organized a week-long “blues camp” for aspiring young musicians, culminating with an afternoon-long performance at the Festival. It clearly inspired a lot of kids to delve more deeply into the blues. One more thing—the Kitchener Blues Festival receives over $100,000 in Canadian government funding! Maybe we have something to learn from the Canadians?
It seems like the second half of 2010 has turned into an Alligator harp fest. Besides our brand new Charlie Musselwhite CD, The Well, we’ve re-signed another of the all-time great harp men, James Cotton, and just released his new self-produced record, Giant. James cut three great albums for us in the 1980s and ‘90s, High Compression, Live From Chicago—Mr. Superharp Himself!! and finally Harp Attack!!, the supersession with his pals Junior Wells, Carey Bell and Billy Branch. In June, James tore things up at the Chicago Blues Festival, and his playing on Giant is just as strong, with his signature huge tone and amazing power that totally belies his age. With Rick Estrin, Charlie and James, Alligator can now boast of having three of the world’s finest harp players.
I’ve been telling you about the recording of Cold Snap, Albert Collins’ 1986 album. After the sessions with Jimmy McGriff’s great organ playing, we still needed to cut a few more tunes to complete the project. Albert had recorded everything he’d written and chosen for the album, so he encouraged me to suggest some tunes. Years before, I’d heard a San Francisco bluesman named Johnny Nitro perform an hilarious song called Too Many Dirty Dishes, and had managed to get a tape of the tune from him. I knew from the moment I heard it that it was perfect for Albert’s wry, humorous storytelling. I also suggested an obscure Lowell Fulson song called Bending Like A Willow Tree. Finally, I had been pushing a song on Albert for a couple of albums that he wasn’t really sure of for himself, but I believed in. It was an old, obscure Jimmy Liggins tune that I first heard performed on an Ike Turner album by one Ike’s many vocalists, Lonnie The Cat. This time, Albert agreed to give it a try, though he still wasn’t sure he could make it his own. As you probably guessed, the song was I Ain’t Drunk, which became one of his most-requested tunes. Albert flew into Chicago from Los Angeles on the overnight redeye flight, and, after he caught a couple hours of sleep, we headed for a little rehearsal studio, determined to work up the arrangements on these three songs and take them directly to the studio to record that same night. Drummer Morris Jennings, bassman extraordinaire Johnny B. Gayden and our old pal keyboardist Allen Batts, along with Mel Brown, who flew in again from Austin, comprised the band. Albert, who had never performed any of these songs before, jumped into them with both feet. He had enjoyed creating guitar sound effects for the tune Snowed In on the Frostbite album, and Too Many Dirty Dishes gave him the opportunity to invent a slew of new ones. If you listen, only one of these sounds is very slightly studio-enhanced; all the rest came straight out of Albert’s fingers and Telecaster, all invented that afternoon! For Willow Tree, Mel and Johnny created a funky, reggae-ish groove that took the song in a whole different direction from Lowell’s original and really fired up Albert.
More next time,