Reverend Freakchild – The Bodhisattva Blues
Treated And Released Records – 2020
12 tracks; 50 minutes
Reverend Freakchild is certainly prolific, this being his sixth album in recent years. His biography has been well covered in previous Blues Blast reviews but suffice to say that he really is an ordained minister, as well as a musician who has played in bands as well as solo. On this disc the Rev plays slide and rhythm guitar and handles the vocals, as well as playing harp on one cut. He performs in an electric band setting with a very long list of collaborators: Hugh Pool plays harp and also plays lap steel on two cuts, guitar is mainly handled by Mark Karan (Ratdog, Bob Weir, Live Dead) with ‘Alex The Dragon’ and AJ Fullerton playing on one track each. Keyboards are by Melvin Seals (Jerry Garcia Band) and Scott ‘Shack’ Hackle, drums are mainly by Chris Parker with Patrick Carmichael and ‘Gregor’ on a track each, bass is Robin Sylvester (Ratdog), Phil Marino, Jon ‘Bones Richie’ Robinson or Malcolm Oliver. Drew Glackin plays lap steel, Jason Hann (String Cheese Incident) percussion and Jay Collins Bansuri flute to one track. Backing vocalists Sean Condron, Mamie Mench and Paul Soderman contribute to two tracks. Recording seems to have been mainly in NYC and Boulder, Co (The Rev currently resides in Colorado) with overdub contributions coming in from San Francisco.
The album revisits some tried and tested blues standards and combines those with some songs associated with The Beatles and The Grateful Dead. Indeed, some of the musicians involved have history with the Dead and its offshoots and the Dead also played around with many of the blues tunes covered here. Whilst the title suggests an Indian influence there is only fleeting evidence of that here: a few seconds of the traditional Buddhist chant “Om Mani Padme Hum” (which translates as “Hail to the jewel in the lotus”) opens the album and then we go straight into three classic blues tunes. Muddy Waters’ “I Can’t Be Satisfied” is given a rough and tough makeover with the Rev’s gritty vocals and slide over a rocking rhythm track and the Rev adding some deep background references back to the opening chant. It works pretty well but the rather pedestrian version of Jimmy Reed’s “Big Boss Man” adds little to the many covers of this familiar tune. Willie Dixon’s “Little Red Rooster” opens with some more strange vocal noises but rapidly transforms into a slowed down take of the tune with some good piano work from Scott Hackler.
The musical style then shifts from slide-driven blues to the countrified sounds of lap steel on three Dead tunes. Interestingly The Rev’s vocals are far less gritty on these three tunes than on the blues tunes that preceded them. “Friend Of The Devil” is well done here in a straight cover of the original; the traditional “I Know You Rider” was a long-time staple of Dead shows and the Rev’s take on it is semi-acoustic; finally another Garcia/Hunter song “Black Peter” is given a leisurely treatment that runs to over six minutes, the Rev’s sleepy vocals sitting above slide and organ.
It is not at all clear why we then get the two Beatles-related tunes. “Yer Blues” is a return to the torrid approach we heard on the Muddy Waters tune. With keening harp and tough lead guitar, the Rev returns to his gritty vocal style in a slightly distorted overall sound before moving into a spoken section as the rhythm section ups the pace towards the end of the song. The Rev has recorded John Lennon’s “Imagine” before and it is not clear whether this is a reprise of that recording or a new version; the fact that the players on this tune are all different to the rest of the album suggests the former. This sounds like a mash-up of Lou Reed’s “Walk On The Wild Side” and “Imagine”, certainly vocally the Rev sounds like a lot like Lou here.\
The only original song on the album is “Sweet Sweet You” and, again, the musicians on this one are entirely different so it may be recycled from another recording. It’s a quiet country style tune with gentle lap steel, the song picking up on the style of the earlier Dead tunes while the lyrics reference a journey through the Delta with mention of Robert Johnson and other departed musicians such as Janis Joplin. The Rev continues the Dead feel by tackling the Rev Gary Davis’ “Death Don’t Have No Mercy”, another staple of the Dead’s live sets, this time in an acoustic version with Jay Collins’ eerie sounding flute, before closing the album with the Dead’s traditional set closer “And We Bid You Goodnight”, recorded live and acapella in Colorado.
Fans of the Reverend will no doubt want to add this to their collection of his work though whether it wins over new fans is more debatable.