Sugar Brown – It’s a Blues World
CD: 13 Songs, 48:02 Minutes
Styles: “Traditional Contemporary” Blues, Ensemble Blues, All Original Songs
“There’s more than one way of listening,” wrote George Orwell in his novel Coming Up for Air. Case in point? If you only listen to the technical aspects of It’s a Blues World, the new album from Toronto-based Sugar Brown, you’ll hear mumbled lyrics, raw-sounding instrumentation, and a barely-audible sibilance throughout. However, if you ignore these surface imperfections and delve deeper, listening with your heart as well as your ears, you’ll realize one thing: This is how the blues used to sound, at its newest and truest, before studio polish and big-name stars catapulted their way to the forefront of the genre. Ere McKinley Morganfield became Muddy or Chester Arthur Burnett howled his first howl, folks sang blues tunes on their back porches or in the fields as they worked. All thirteen songs here are original, but they seem as if they’d been written by one of the old masters. That’s a tough feat to pull off for any musician, blues or not.
Sugar Brown, although he sounds African-American when he sings, was born Ken Kawashima, to a Japanese father and Korean mother who both immigrated to the U.S. in the mid-1960s. He was raised in Bowling Green, Ohio, then moved to Chicago to pursue his studies. He soon immersed himself in the Windy City’s consummate blues culture and heritage. He worked extensively with such local heroes as Taildragger and Willie “Big Eyes” Smith and Rockin’ Johnny Burgin. He reached the finals of the International Blues Challenge in Memphis last year.
Performing along with Sugar Brown (lead vocals, guitar and harmonica) are the aforementioned Rockin’ Johnny Burgin on guitar; Michelle Josef on drums; Russ Boswell on upright and electric bass; Minnie Heart on bass, guitar, fiddle and baritone saxophone; Nichol Robertson on guitar and banjo; Julian Fauth on piano and Farfisa organ; Chuck Bucket on drums for tracks seven, eight and eleven, and Bill Howard on tambourine and bass drum.
This CD has so many great songs that I’ll just go 1-2-3 for kicks.
Track 01: “Hummingbird” – Listen hard and listen fast. The opener is only two minutes and forty seconds long, and the lyrics just fly by. Nevertheless, this unique track brings to mind Will the Circle Be Unbroken, by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. It’s got that casual, free-flowing style that puts one in mind of a live jam session instead of a studio track. Dig those drums at the beginning and the kinky electric bassline that adds a 21st-century vibe to an old-fashioned-sounding ditty.
Track 02: “Love Me Twice” – With a guitar refrain that’s catchier than a cold, the second track will get anyone and everyone out on the dance floor. The subject? Romance, at high stakes and a metaphorically-high altitude: “Our climb up the mountain’s taken some new turns. Losing oxygen, I ain’t got much left to burn. Oh, I wonder how far the fall will be from the heights. You loved me once; will you love me twice?” I’ll sure love this song twice.
Track 03: “Lousy Dime” – Featuring piano and banjo, lucky number three might have been played in a saloon during the days of the Wild West. The subject matter, however, is purely postmodern: “Anonymity confuses the fuzz. Disappearing ammo, lock ‘em up in their cuffs. The bankers and police do their pantomime, and everybody’s scrambling for the same lousy dime.”
As Sugar Brown’s masterpiece proves full well, It’s a Blues World, and we’re just players in it!