Saturday, 2 June 2018

Chris Rea - Blue Guitars


Released October 2005

This really is a phenomenal piece of work, and that is an understatement. While undergoing a period of ill health, Chris Rea decided to record eleven albums covering eleven different styles of his beloved blues genre, covering its development through from its early roos to more modern incarnations.

One can never listen to it too much, because it is such a gargantuan collection, one will always discover new delights in it. Just pick an album at random, play a few, or play the whole caboodle at random. Or else plough your way through it every couple of years.Here are the various albums:-


This goes back to the style of the first blues songs, handed down, by word of mouth and the teaching of musical skills, by West African “griots”, often in slavery in the USA. The life was unbearably hard, brutal, oppressive and generally a colossal strain. This is reflected in the heartfelt music, with titles such as “Cry For Home” and the sadness is often inextricably linked to a deep religious faith in songs like “Lord Tell Me It Won’t Be Long”, “Praise The Lord”, “Sweet Sunday” and “Sing Out The Devil”. The spectre of slavery is present too - “Boss Man Cut My Chains” and “White Man Coming”. “The King Who Sold His Own” indicates that many slaves were sold into bondage by their own rulers. Many of these songs are dubbed with false crackling noises at the beginning to give them an “authenticity”. Eventually the crackling fades away. It can be a bit irritating after a while, but I understand the intention behind it.

The music is very much that of West Africa - Mali and Senegal, as opposed to the blues as we have come to know it. Here, though, is it where it began. Just listen to that percussion on “West Africa”. African blues as its best.


Now we move properly to the Southern slaving states of the USA, for songs that tell their own sad story - “Man Gone Missing”, “KKK Blues”, “If You’ve Got A Friend In Jesus”. More crackling noises, like the original blues recordings from the 1930s and 1940s. There is some hope for freedom and salvation on some of these songs though - “Head Out On The Highway”, “Going Up To Memphis” and “Ticket To Chicago”, to the emancipated North, of course. There was also aimless wandering and alcoholism expressed in “Walkin’ Country Blues” and “Too Much Drinkin’”.The African percussion-based instruments had been replaced now by, more often than not, a single guitar or a harmonica.


When the African rhythms and the Southern states guitar and lyrics found their way to Creole and Cajun country, new instruments were added - banjos, accordions, mandolins, clarinets, piano and, of course the French influence - “Dance Avec Moi” and “Le Fleur De La Vie”. Jazz roots also came from this music. The blues mixed with cajun rhythms and stylings and the Delta Blues were born.


Now, by the time the blues reached Memphis, crowds were getting bigger to watch the musicians play and this coincided with the the appearance of the electric guitar, which was just made for the blues. The artists needed to be louder to be heard above the crowds. Electric blues are what influenced the great sixties British blues groups - The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds, John Mayalls’ Bluesbreakers, Fleetwood Mac, The Kinks, Duster Bennett, The Animals, Chris Farlowe and so on. The influence went on to blues rock bands like Cream, Free and Led Zeppelin. “Electric Guitar” and “Electric Memphis Blues” need no explanation.


Another state, yet another direction for the blues - take the basic concept, move it into the "modern wild west" and what you get out of it is straightforward Texas Blues. It's all in there, endless highways, run-down trucker bars, oil, dirt, cowboy boots, stories about life on the move, all down in Texas, all just as sad as the original Blues  - “Lone Star Boogie”, “No Wheels Blues”, “Truck Stop”. Romantic ones appear too - “Angelina” and “Houston Angel”. Life wasn’t all bad. The mixture of the basic blues concept with more country and western styled instruments such as slide guitars and harmonica gave the Texas blues a rawer, yet again still instantly recognisable sound, which has played a major role in music ever since including such artists as Stevie Ray Vaughan and ZZ Top.


As mentioned earlier, Chicago was a destination for the Afro-American diaspora to move North, to a new and hopefully happier life, to an extent. Here the blues developed even more electrically than those in Memphis and Texas. The music was tougher, harder, edgier. The jazz tradition in Chicago helped incorporate the saxophone into the blues sound. Lyrically, the hope of freedom and religious devotion were far less important than the making of money, the bedding of women, the taking of drugs and the surviving the bitterly cold Northern winters in impoverished ghetto-like housing developments. “Maxwell Street”, “She’s A Whole Heap Of Trouble”, “Catwalk Woman”, “To Get Your Love” and “Jazzy Blue” all exemplify these conceits. “I’m Moving Up”, of course, is about moving “up” to Chicago from the South.


The blues fused with jazz to express love, lost love and lust over a laid-back, smoothy, polished backing far removed from the blues’ primitive African roots. The old sadness and hardship is still there, though, in songs like “Deep Winter Blues” and “I Love The Rain” and “My Deep Blue Ways”. These songs still express the essential blues sensibilities.


Using the basic rhythms of the blues, the poppy commercial sound of Detroit’s Tamla Motown saw those original African influences producing prefect two-three minute chart hit singles. The religious fervour of those early days found its way to soul singers who learned their trade in Church gospel choirs. Love songs such as “Sweet Love” and “Break Another Piece Of My Heart” and spiritual gospel songs like “Ball & Chain” and “Gospel Trail” show both genres as being inextricably linked to those original blues.


Across the waters to mingle now with white Celtic and Scottish indigenous music, blending the integral sadness of the lyrics from those cultures with the blues rhythms meant an intoxicating blend, originally played by artists such as Van Morrison and Them and progressing to rock acts like Rory Gallagher and Thin Lizzy. Drinking and being a long way from home are favourite subjects - “Too Far From Home” and the self-pitying “Last Drink” are good examples, together with the Irish folk mysticism of titles like “Wishing Well” and “Lucky Day”.


Does the blues have anywhere else to go? You bet. To Brazil and Cuba, often the destination for African slaves. Blues guitar mingling with Cuban style piano and Latin guitar styles and Latin rhythms. Even Jamaican reggae had that “down at heel, life is a challenge” blues mentality in its lyrics, together with a strong cultural awareness of the problems caused by slavery over 400 years. “Immigration Blues”, “Sun Is Hot”, “Bajan Blue” express blues-like problems in an idyllic, warm surrounding.

11. 60s & 70s

The British blues explosion of the mid-late 60s saw respect being given from a largely white audience and largely white bands to what now seemed to be a music from a long time ago, sung by octogenarian black men called “blind” something or other. The blues had come a long way. 200 years down the line, it had a new audience. The songs are all different, no real lyrical link as compared with the others, other than they had the blues, in one way or another. As we all have. There is even a song about TV motoring presenter Jeremy Clarkson in “Clarkson Blues”. I wonder what those poor slaves long ago would have made of that?

I think those people would listen to this music and love it. Chris Rea has recorded his own history of the blues here. As I said before, a remarkable achievement.


No comments:

Post a Comment