CD: 14 Tracks, 59:32 Minutes
Styles: Spectacular Piano Blues, Blues Covers
In this particular review, yours truly has done two things she has never done before: 1) put the word “spectacular” in the “Styles” heading, and 2) use this descriptor regarding “blues covers”. On principle, Ms. Wetnight saves any superlatives for the main body of an article. Also on principle, she doesn’t cheer about covers. Who has caused her to make such exceptions to her long-standing review rules? His name is Erwin Helfer, absolute master of Chicago piano blues. Mentor and collaborator to the late, great Barrelhouse Chuck – RIP, lifelong friend of the art – Helfer himself is still going strong at four-score-and-none (that’s 80 years old). From the very first notes on his latest CD, Last Call, he’ll hold listeners rapt with every ring of the ivory keys to which he has dedicated his life. Even on songs they might literally have heard hundreds of times before, such as “St. James Infirmary” and “Bright Lights, Big City”, those who hear Erwin’s versions will feel rejuvenated from head to toe. This Sirens Records release will lure fans galore.
According to the biographical section of his website, “The sounds and personalities of past boogie-woogie and blues pianists have nurtured Erwin’s musical growth. For many years, Erwin accompanied Mama Yancey, the wife of Chicago blues piano patriarch Jimmy ‘Papa’ Yancey, and later recorded one album with her. He was also mentored and influenced by Cripple Clarence Lofton, Speckled Red, and Sunnyland Slim.” Three historical recordings starring Mama Yancey are indeed featured here (tracks eleven, twelve and thirteen). Also collaborating with Helfer are lead vocalist Ardella Williams, daughter of Jazz Gillum, who wrote “Key to the Highway”, lead vocalist Katherine Davis, tenor sax virtuoso John Brumbach, bassist Truck Parham, and drummer Odie Payne Jr.
Every musical track on the album is an artistic masterpiece, but which ones are the most vibrant? This reviewer submits these three piano tapestries:
Track 01: “Make Me a Pallet on the Floor” – More than anything, a weary traveler needs a place to lay his head. This CD’s opening number, originally composed by Jimmy “Papa” Yancey and recorded on March 14, 2016, is a gut-wrenching plea for the humblest of beds. One can almost hear the sound of rain on one’s roof, smell encroaching ceiling mold, hear the drip-drip-drip of a persistent leak, and understand why the subject of this song wants only a warm, dry pallet.
Track 02: “DC Boogie” – Causing a happy case of ‘mood whiplash’ after the last track, this one is the only original one on Last Call. It brings to mind the excitement of our nation’s capital and its nightlife, with more than a trace of the sound of rapid-fire political slogans. Sometimes you don’t know which way is up in the District of Columbia, or when to take your turn on one of the city’s infamous roundabouts. “DC Boogie” brilliantly captures all of this colorful chaos.
Track 13: “Operator Blues” – This thirteenth number is luckier than most, because it’s a fantastic historical recording starring Helfer and Mama Yancey. “He was a cruel old farmer, low-down dirty engineer,” she explains in a strident, mid-pitch trill that would make any actual telephone operator sit up and pay attention. “He’s taken my baby away, left me standing there.” Recorded live circa 1979, it’s a terrific example of what much older, pre-war blues sounded like.
As an added bonus, the fourteenth track, “A Conversation with Erwin,” is an autobiographical revelation about Helfer’s early life, friends, and blues mentors.
Every single piano blues fan needs Last Call – as in NOW!