Bill Morrissey, who passed away in 2011 at the age of 59, recorded these songs by Mississippi John Hurt with the stated intention not to record them note for note, as ‘I didn’t see the point’. And of course Mississippi John Hurt has done this better than anybody else ever could, so inimitable and singular is his totally relaxed and fluid, yet swinging guitar playing and equally laid-back singing style. This can never be heard better than on his exceedingly brilliant 3-CD compilation The Complete Studio Recordings, which I am fortunate enough to own and which has given me hours of unadulterated joy since I bought it. So the arrangements on here are somewhat embellished in comparison, although Morrissey’s guitar playing is naturally influenced a great deal by Hurt’s style and his vocals are well-suited to these songs. I have to confess that it took me a bit of getting used to the, for me and my expectations, unusual arrangements. As you may have guessed already by judging the posts on my blog, I like my music rather stripped down and kept simple. Avalon Blues for example featuring a rolling piano and a saxophone (which isn’t my favorite instruments in general) – but it works very well I have to say after getting used to it. Likewise, Louis Collins and I’m Satisfied are adorned by trumpets which I am especially fond of on the former song. The decidedly old-school sounding Funky Butt, Joe Turner Blues and Hey, Honey, Right Away are not merely fabulous songs but arranged on here exactly to my liking so are natural favorites on Songs Of Mississippi Hurt for me. An album holding high the flag for old-style Folk Blues (although there are other influences evident on various tracks), and I can’t think of many people who could have interpreted this batch of classic Mississippi John Hurt songs as convincing as Bill Morrissey.
What a guy.
Peter Case’s new album will be released later this year, but as he’s in his early 60’s now, he’s got quite a long career to look back on to, although unfortunately he’s not quite blessed with the amount of success he definitely deserves. Starting his career in earnest in the mid-1970’s in San Francisco, he played with seminal Power Pop heroes The Nerves and The Plimsouls in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Most interesting for me however, was the solo career which he started with his self-titled album in 1986 and 1989’s The Man With The Post-Modern Fragmented Neo-Traditionalist Guitar. Both are very fine albums taking me right back to, what was for me, the most formative and probably the most exciting musical period of my life, with bands such as The Blasters, The Beat Farmers, The Long Ryders, The Del Lords, Jason & The Scorchers, X, Los Lobos, Lone Justice and countless others. Haven’t listened to both albums in ages (a fact I plan on rectifying rather sooner than later), and the same is true for Sings Like Hell.
Like all albums close to your heart you never completely forget about them though, so I picked it up again recently – and, nor surprisingly, I love it as much nowadays as I did back in the mid-1990’s. I got hold of it through the record label, Glitterhouse Records, for which I was working for around that time and who released the album in Europe in 1994 (it was released on his own Travellin’ Light label in the US and was thankfully re-released through Vanguard Records which means it is still widely available). And if you are, like me, into primitive, old-fashioned and (at times) raw Folk-Blues sounding a lot like an updated version of Case’s Blues heroes from the first part of the 20th Century, it’s an album that should not be missing from your record collection.
More than his first two solo records, Sings Like Hell was for him a return to the styles and sounds he was inspired by as a guitar player, as his early inspiration were artists like Lightnin’ Hopkins, Robert Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt and Skip James. Where he was accompanied by a host of other players in those first two solo records, here it’s only a small group of fine musicians, accompanying him on a limited number of tracks, drums and bass for example are only to be heard on Walkin’ Bum and Well Runs Dry.
Naturally, I like the more folk-influenced songs on here best, especially Lakes Of Ponchartrain, Roving Gambler, Rose Conolly and How ‘Bout You. Lakes Of Ponchartrain, like most of the songs on here, is a traditional, but I don’t think there was ever a better version recorded. It’s slow and sweet, with Tammy Rogers’ violin coupled with Case’s harmonica and guitar making it one of the most gorgeous songs I have ever heard. Roving Gambler is even more simply arranged with only Case and his acoustic guitar – but that’s all you need when a great song is done by somebody as talented and good as Case.
Rose Conolly’s pretty tune (much like that other famous murder ballad Knoxville Girl) belies the gruesome story about a cold-blooded murder. Jesse Winchester’s How ‘Bout You is another track arranged in a very understated manner with just an acoustic guitar and (producer and ex-Lone Justice) Marvin Etzioni’s mandolin. Waltz Of The Angels is another slow and tuneful ballad (again graced by Roger’s violin).
However, the decidedly more blues-oriented songs on here don’t disappoint at all either. Album opener Brokedown Engine is as raw as they come on here and setting the mood of the album in fine style. Case’s version of Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup’s classic So Glad You’re Mine sounds quite different, but at the same time as authentic as you can hope to, about 50 years after it was first recorded. Especially good too is Blind Lemon Jefferson’s Matchbox Blues, it’s very cool, highly entertaining and downright catchy with some very fine guitar work by Case. Down In The Alley, for a change, is arranged only with a glorious, stomping honky-tonk piano, harmonica and vocals. The shouty Well Runs Dry is piano-led too, but, as noted before, arranged with bass and drums so it’s the fullest-sounding and most ‘rocking’ track on Sings Like Hell. Case’s only composition on here, the fabulous North Coast Blues is testament to his songwriting skills and fits on the album perfectly well and in convincing style.
Quite a few songs on Sings Like Hell remind me of Dylan’s early work, the rough-around-the-edges guitar playing and overall sound, and the rather high and nasal, raspy voice. What was working for Dylan on Another Side Of is working on here brilliantly too. Another album springing to mind as a comparison, is the Alvin Brothers’ 2014 record Common Ground, if not exactly in sound, but in spirit. Having yet to listen to the first two records again in depth, my verdict ist still out, but Sings Like Hell might very well be my favorite Peter Case album, it’s most definitely the most original and the coolest.
Another new discovery for me – as usual, I am late discovering fine artists who have been around for ages. The Cape is taken from his 2004 release Friends
Until very recently I only knew Taj Mahal by name and from his fabulous contribution to Michelle Shocked’s Arkansas Traveler . I am not really the biggest Blues-aficionado but I like some every now and then, especially when it comes to the more rural Folk and Country Blues artists. Then I bought The Best Of Taj Mahal and discovered this gem of a song. It makes me grin from ear to ear when I listen to it.
About time I’m posting a video/song by Dave Van Ronk on here, this one from his fantastic ‘Inside Dave Van Ronk’ (THE album to get if you only get one of his records – and I suggest you do) record. Have been listening to (and enjoying it a lot) this album again these past few days. I really should be writing something about it for this blog, if I could only find the time. Well, someday, I promise. Anyway, enjoy!
He was the inspiration for the Coen Brothers’ film Inside Llewyn Davis btw. – a film I have yet to see I have to admit.
In March 2013 I finally, and belatedly, discovered the music of Greg Brown and through his albums, also that of Bo Ramsey, his long-term musical partner, and not only in my opinion I guess, guitar genius. How fond I have grown of either artist should come as now surprise if you have browsed through this blog before. I posted raving reviews of Greg Brown’s album If I Had Known and Bo Ramsey’s very fine album Fragile and have been listening to both artists a hell of a lot of time last spring and summer (and still do, actually). When planning last year’s trip through the Midwest which lead me, only partly coincidentally, through Iowa, I was looking to find out if Greg Brown was playing any shows in the 2 weeks I was there – without too much hope that would actually be the case. So I guess you can imagine that I was more then overjoyed to discover that both were playing a show in the central Iowa town of Ames which I could easily fit into my schedule. After spending about 10 exciting and interesting days on the road travelling through Nebraska and Iowa their show on the 27th of September was ideally timed towards the end of my trip so the timing was right too.
Unfortunately I neglected to take notes about the songs they played but it was, naturally, an excellent show. I was especially surprised and delighted about Bo Ramsey’s brief 7 or so song set in the beginning. He sounded quite different compared with his album Fragile, which was the only album of his I currently know (a fact I plan on rectifying soon). He sounded very energetic, slightly rough, with songs, as far as I could follow the lyrics, mainly about travelling on dirt roads, trains and other similarly rustic subject matter, which was of course much to my liking.
Their set together was also splendid, but as I wrote above I can’t really remember exactly which songs they played. As Greg Brown has released about 25 studio albums throughout his career, they have obviously got a wide variety of brilliant songs to choose from. Unfortunately I wasn’t really able to take good quality photos as the show was packed and I was a bit locked in the middle of the audience, so the photos on here are rather poor, sorry about that. But just being there was a dream come true and most probably a chance to catch them playing a show together I won’t have again, so I am absolutely happy with how things went.
Pretty much the only song I do remember hearing is Here In The Going Going Gone. As I didn’t possess The Poet Game at the time, it was brand new to my ears. It immediately became one of my favorite Greg Brown songs, in my opinion it’s one of his finest compositions, both musically, but especially lyrically. It was also immediately stuck in my head, so back in my hotel I tried to find a video of it on YouTube, I didn’t find one of his versions but I found this absolute gem of a cover version. I must have watched the video about 10 times that night (and many more since). The guys playing this seem to be only gigging in the Seattle area and I could find very little information about their work, and, sadly, no recording. I was a little bit sceptical about the singer’s voice at first, but have become quite fond of it in the meantime. And that violin is just wonderful. A cover version doing a great song more than justice.