CD: 11 Songs; 51:52 Minutes
Styles: Contemporary Ensemble Blues, Acoustic Blues
Why are the tried and true standard songs of the Blues so consistently popular? In some quarters, covers are seen as the “old bones” of the blues, so why do performers keep on playing and recording them? What is the key to their enduring power? The key is this: They point straight to the past, to the roots and the masters of the music itself, and therein they reveal the future. And, after listening to Australian Sugarcane Collins’ brand new album Going Back to Clarksdale, it is obvious that this “wonder from downunder” gets it. He speaks the old language of the blues. But he isn’t merely warming up “dem old bones” here. Collins is inventive enough to enrich everything he touches with new angles and fresh ideas and has fleshed out a tasty set of timeless tunes that, like the best of Fourth-of-July barbecue sauces, are intriguingly tangy and so savory that you’ll keep coming back for more.
Going back to Clarksdale, Sugarcane’s sixth studio album, was recorded in New Orleans and Clarksdale, Mississippi employing hot, talented musicians from these two great bastions of the blues, with the finishing touches added back in Australia in his home town of Cairns. As the first two locations suggest, the sounds move from the sizzle of big brassy swing and smoky Jazz/Blues N’awlins style, up to the raw, stripped back acoustic guitar and small band sounds of the Mississippi Delta.
Big Joe Turner’s “Flip Flop Fly” starts off the set with exuberant horn driven big band blues. New Orleanians Mac Carter – drums, Cornell Williams – bass, Bill Malchow – B3 organ set up an easy rolling groove on which Aaron Fletcher – saxophone, Glen Hall – trumpet and Terrance Taplin – trombone go to work punching out the accents. Sugarcane’s smooth, powerful vocal and sax / organ solos from Fletcher and Malchow round out a fine opening track. “Trouble in Mind”, Richard M. Jones classic tale of suicidal blues (“I’m going to lay my head on some lonesome railroad line”) and ultimate redemption (“the sun’s going to shine on my backdoor someday”) reveals Cairns regulars Ruedi Homberger on melancholy sax with Paul Green on slow-burning electric guitar. Next up, Collins delivers a husky vocal and some solo acoustic fingerpicking on a gentle, dreamy version of Mississippi John Hurt’s “Creole Belle”. Sugarcane’s imaginative arranging skills are highlighted to good effect on the following track – a fresh new reading of the traditional New Orleans funeral blues “St. James Infirmary”. The eerie atmospheric intro featuring spacious, reverb drenched organ, piano and clarinet creates perfectly the desolation felt by Big Joe McKennedy, the song’s protagonist/narrator, as he observes his dead lover laying on the cooling board “so pale so cold and so fair”. The full ensemble then kicks in to build to a joyous upbeat middle section as Big Joe invokes the band “to raise some hell as we go strolling along”. And to conclude this remarkable track, a suitably raucous New Orleans “Second Line” picks up the outro and fades it off into the distance.
The title track, the first of Collins’ three originals, harks back to those “old bones”, and when he sings “from New Orleans up to Clarksdale that’s a ten hour greyhound ride”, you know damn well this tough and talented Aussie troubadour, on his sixth tour of the USA, has traveled every inch of the way. Clarksdale luminaries Stan Street on harmonica and Lee Williams on drums combine seamlessly with Cairns guitar-slinger Paul Green and Wil Kepa’s bass on this light hearted ride from the Big Easy up to the world famous Riverside Hotel, his “home down in the Delta”, where room 2A was recently named the “Sugarcane Collins Room” in his honor. Stan Street’s harmonica alongside Sugarcane’s acoustic guitar takes center stage on the Mississippi Sheiks’ “Sittin’ on top of the World” and to spice the fast finger-picked ragtime on Blind Willie McTell’s “Baby it must be Love”, Collins brings in Peter Ella on mandolin and Homberger on clarinet.
“Hungry Broke and Blue” a sweet little swinger featuring bull fiddle, shaken matchbox, and Ella’s mandolin, and “Blind Willie” his solo tribute to the great Georgia bluesman McTell, are thoughtful Collins originals and good examples of his deft fingerpicking. “Walking Blues” the Son House hit rockets like a Roman candle into the 21st century with its modern day makeover. This penultimate tune has Stan Street on hot harp, Lee Williams on hard driving drums, Wil Kepa on booming bass, Ella’s melodic mandolin and Paul Green on electric slide guitar providing some tasty licks. Closing the album on an up vibe, Collins reprises a little known Leroy Carr number “Memphis Town”. Recorded in Clarksdale, Cairns and New Orleans, Sugarcane welcomes back Bill Malchow on steady rolling piano and Ruedi Homberger on tenor and soprano saxophones for an all-in romp from Clarksdale up to Memphis, replete with soaring harmony vocals.
If there was an award category for most uniquely recorded CD, Going Back To Clarksdale with its international mixtures and locations would be the blue ribbon winner. The resulting album is clearly and pleasantly distinct in the ears of this reviewer who has heard and critiqued 214 CDs in just the last four years. A person who moves to a different part of the US soon begins to unwittingly emulate the regional dialect there. Similarly, American blues musicians, listening to each other, have a homogenized sound. Here, from Australia, is a new and fresh approach and sound that are noteworthy, outstanding, and first rate on the entertainment meter. As Collins is Going Back to Clarksdale, travel along with him, and learn the secrets of the “old bones” yourself!
James “Skyy Dobro” Walker contributed to this review.