Cal Williams Jr. – Luma
The nature of Australian Blues is iconoclastic, sub-category defying and deeply emotive. See the Queen of Aussie Blues Fiona Boyes, solo guitar wonder Lloyd Spiegel, C.W. Stoneking the down-under Leon Redbone (RIP Mr. Redbone) or the Chicago Blues and Soul of Rhythm X Revival. Cal Williams Jr. is a distinct and deeply personal member of this crew; singing in an unassuming tenor and accompanied by his own acoustic guitar, double bass, harmonica and mandolin. On his 10th album Luma, Williams spins a frothy atmosphere for tender stories of travel, love, loss, oppression and home.
Cal Williams Jr.’s music is sweet and soft so it is easy to dismiss it as Folk a la Joni Mitchell or James Taylor (not that there’s anything wrong with that). But, Cal is a Country Bluesman. No doubt about it. He finger picks guitar with a clear upfront tone like Blind Boy Fuller but without the bravado; like a more muscular Mississippi John Hurt. He sings with a borderline countertenor, think a slightly less falsetto Alan “Blind Owl” Wilson from Canned Heat. Although there are none of the pyrotechnics of John Hammond Jr. or the deep pocketed cool of Eric Bibb, there is unquestionably Blues grit.
Williams knows how to lay it down in a way that it sneaks up on you, due to his great talent and to his musical support. The near hypnotic consistency in the timber of his voice crashes waves of empathetic pleasantness over the listener. Long time musical partner Kory Horwood adds double bass and harmony vocals to nearly telepathic effect. Occasional additions of Will Kallinderis, harmonica and additional backing vocals, and Anthony Stewart on mandolin fit right. Each of the 10 confident and fluid performance add flavor and variety to Luma, allowing for a varied and engaging straight through listen and helping the record stand up to multiple passes.
The 5 original songs on this record sparkle and chug. They often veer off the straight ahead Blues path but are still deeply rooted saplings from the mother Blues tree. “Cannot Keep From Crying” is a propulsive boogie about loss and sadness. “Eileen” a bouncy meditation on the complexities of love and “Old Town” an up-beat Blues about the humanity of the red light district (what we here in Boston used to call the “Combat Zone”). “Redwood City,” a lush landscape piece. The solo instrumental title track “Luma” is a chromatic finger-picking workout that shows Williams’ deft skill and talent. This short guitar piece has a beautiful melody and contrasts Cal’s economical playing on other songs with complex fluidity.
The other half of Luma’s performances are covers. Classic pieces, Bukka White’s “Aberdeen Blues” and J.B. Lenoir’s “Down in Mississippi,” get the “full band” treatment (meaning simply bass, mandolin and background vocals) and these performances shine as a result. Both songs have elements of protest and commentary about the oppression people of African heritage have had to suffer in the United States. Lenoir’s lines are the most plain spoken and powerful. Daring words to be conjuring up in our modern world:
They had a huntin’ season on a rabbit
If you shoot him you went to jail
The season was always open on me
Nobody needed no bail
Luma’s closing track is a ruckus take on Furry Lewis’ “Turn Your Money Green.” This is a fittingly celebratory end to an album that could be misconstrued as being melancholy. In Williams’ voice their is weary sadness, in his playing strength balanced with meditation. However, when listened to closely, for this record benefits from active listening, the thrall and intoxication of the most celebratory Blues is alive and vibrant. “Turn You Money Green” renders the joyous side of Cal Williams Jr. visible and immediate and reflects back the joy throughout the record.