10 tracks / 35:16
In the last half of the 20th century there was a fundamental change to blues music as electric guitar, electric bass and keyboards breathed new life into this age-old genre. But, there is a still a primal allure to the purity of pre-electric blues, and this is where Barry Big B Brenner excels.
Barry Brenner grew up on the south side of Chicago where he taught himself to play the guitar and sing. Although he became more than proficient with the electric guitar, he decided that his career would be centered on a more acoustic sound. After being in bands and playing along such notable musicians as Albert King and Eric Burdon during his 30 years on the stage, he is now on his own playing a seemingly endless series of solo acoustic club gigs near his new hometown in the Verdugo Hills area of Southern California.
His third self-released CD is Keep it Clean, a collection of ten original and traditional blues and folk tunes. If there is anything you do not like about this release it is all on Barry, as he pretty much did all of the work on this disc. He took care of all of the vocals and instruments (including acoustic six-string, twelve-string and National guitars), as well as all of the production and arrangement. That being said, chances are good that you are not going to blaming Brenner for anything, as this album is a neat piece of work.
The album starts off with “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” a song that begs more research. The exact history of this song is unclear before it was first published in the 1920s, but it is rumored to have connections with the Underground Railroad. Legend has it that the gourd that is referred to is The Big Dipper constellation that slaves used to help to navigate their way to the north. It is a somber folk tune sung in Brenner’s distinctive whiskey voice and accompanied by a few layers of strummed and fingerpicked guitars.
This recording project uses overdubs that allow Barry use vocal harmonies and have more than one guitar on each track, but there is none of the usual big-label polish here. There is a vibrant feel that carries over from his live show (I have attended one of his gigs), and there is a great variation in volume and presence within each song that that adds drama and interest to tunes that have inherently simple words, as well as his amazing instrumentals.
The three instrumentals each have a unique feel, letting the listener know that Brenner is not a one-trick pony on the guitar. “Reap what You Sow” is a slow blues song with heavy National guitar, “Cochinonas” has a jaunty Latin feel and “St. Elmore’s Fire” is a folk blues. They are all very good, but the last one on the list is the standout of the instrumentals, as it has the most interesting melody and harmonies, as well as exceptional slide guitar work.
Some of the tracks are more folk-oriented, but their lyrics carry the spirit of the blues down deep in their soul. These include “The Back of His Hand,” a song that implores the listener to appreciate what they have and to remember that fortunes can change in a heartbeat — this is not the Dwight Yoakam song, in case you wondering. The other is “Stack O’Lee,” which was a #1 hit for Lloyd Price in 1959, though the best version is the one that Mississippi John Hurt cut in 1928. The lyrics are an the intriguing story of Billy Lyons’ murder on Christmas day of 1895 by notorious St. Louis pimp “Stag” Lee Shelton. Brenner brings both of these songs to life with his pleasant voice and harmonies, showing that his guitar is not the only thing he has mastered over the last three decades of his career.
The strongest track on Keep it Clean is Blind Boy Fuller’s 1938 song “Pistol Snapper Blues,” and you may be familiar with the version that was recorded by the Irish blues guitar legend, Rory Gallagher. Barry kept a traditional country blues sound for this song, and when listening to it there is no way to tell that it was not recorded during the 1930s: it is that timeless.
The album ends on a happy note with the title track, which was a hit for Charley Jordan in the 1930s, and more recently covered by Lyle Lovett while Barry was in the process of recording Keep it Clean (bad timing, I guess). Big B’s version benefits from sweet upbeat fingerpicking and the fun lyrics that make it seem more like a good-time summer tune than the southern blues that it actually is.
Keep it Clean is a solid album, and Barry Big B Brenner did a good job of keeping this project on track and arranging a collection of well-matched roots and blues songs that can stand by themselves or work together as a whole. If you like this CD, you should check out his live act, as he has plenty of shows around So Cal, including regular gigs at South Pasadena’s Firefly Bistro for the weekly Burgers, Beer and Blues show and their Sunday Blues Brunch.