Barbara Blue – Fish In Dirty H2O
Big Blue Records
13 songs – 63 minutes
Barbara Blue bills herself as “The Reigning Queen of Beale Street”, a not inaccurate title, given that she has been performing five nights a week for over 21 years at Silky O’Sullivan’s on Beale Street. Fish In Dirty H2O is the Pittsburgh, PA, native’s 11th album, and is a wonderful showcase for one of the great modern blues voices.
With seven originals and six well-chosen covers, Fish In Dirty H2O is a modern gumbo of blues, soul, R&B and even a dash of hip hop (the title track is an unusual but very successful duet with rapper Al Kapone), all superbly produced, engineered and mixed by the legendary Jim Gaines. Blue co-wrote five songs with keyboardist Mark Narmore and Sandy Carroll, one track with Narmore alone, and penned “Accidental Theft” by herself. Narmore is also a co-writer on the R&B ballad “Slow Burn” with its painfully accurate images of heartache: “I burned your picture. I cursed your name. Poured gasoline on those letters. Watched them go up in flames. Stood over the ashes, until there was nothing but smoke. There’s no denying that memories burn slow.”
Blue has a sharp ability to re-imagine new routes and new voices for the songs of others. In addition to the title track, which was originally an old Koko Taylor b-side, Eric Hughes’ “Meet Me In Memphis” is given a healthy shot of funk in the arm; Scott Sharrard’s “Angeline” is re-imagined from a female perspective and re-named “Johnny Lee”; and Robert Johnson’s “Come On In My Kitchen” starts off with just a resonator slide guitar and Blue’s voice, but quickly evolves into a full band grind that neatly brings out the underlying threat in the lyrics.
Barbara Blue has been described by Ronnie Earl as having a voice that is “somewhere between an earthquake and a hurricane” and it really is a remarkable instrument that Blue wields with virtuoso precision. She is also however much more nuanced than this description might lead you to believe, with a refined understanding of the essence of each song, articulated through every line of each lyric. Equally happy on the full-throated roar of the gospel-shuffle of “Dr Jesus” or the understated pain of the Etta James-styled ballad, “Walk Away”, Blue has the ability to fully inhabit each track.
Of course, it helps to have stellar musicians in support and Blue’s band on Fish In Dirty H2O are the real deal. The core band features the rhythm section of Bernard “Pretty” Purdie on drums and Dave Smith on bass, Will McFarlane on guitar (beautiful playing on “Slow Burn”), Lester Snell on keys, Lannie McMillan, Jim Spake, Marc Franklin and Steve Graham on horns and Maureen Smith, Linette “Sue” McCracklin, Candace Mache, Celia Purdie and Lorina McMinn on various backing vocals. There are also guest appearances from Johnny Lee Schell (who adds BB King-esque fills to “Johnny Lee”), Michael Tols and Scott Sharrard (who contributes dirty, dirty slide guitar to “Accidental Theft”) on guitar, Rick Steff on B3 and Mark Narmore on keyboards.
Fish In Dirty H2O is a very impressive release from Barbara Blue. Tremendous stuff.