10 songs – 39 minutes
Willie May has been around for decades, having started performing in the 1960s but, surprisingly, he did not release his debut album until 1986. After suffering serious injuries in the 1990s, which prevented him from performing, he disappeared from the scene for several years. Since his re-emergence in 2009, his output has been prolific, releasing six albums in just three years. His previous album, Moon Chillun, was favourably reviewed in Blues Blast Magazine issue 8-16 (17 April 2014) and now Shaken Tree Blues is another impressive release.
Opening with the Latin-tinged instrumental, “Dos Teresa”, it is immediately apparent that Shaken Tree Blues is not a run-of-the-mill blues album. Funky drums lead into a muted horn riff that itself meshes into a laid-back, sliding octave guitar pattern. It is atmospheric and airy. It is then followed by the upbeat blues-rock of “Talk Is Cheap”, which features a central riff not dissimilar to Grace Potter’s “Medicine” before morphing into the type of down-home rock ‘n’ roll beat that might be found on an early Fabulous Thunderbirds or Anson and the Rockets album.
May uses a variety of different musicians on various tracks, which reflects the wide range of different styles found on the record. Apart from drummer Owen Eichensehr, most only feature for two or three songs at most. May himself contributes guitar, bass, ukulele, Kalimba (an African thumb piano) and Ocarina (an ancient type of vessel flute), in addition to adding his rough-hewn, magnetic voice. Other musicians include Dwane Hall, Evan Laedke, Jim Bohm, Jim Whitford, Ken Parker, Mark Panfil, Owen Eichensehr, Randy Bolam, Robert Parker, Ray Hangen and Ted Lambert. The fantastic Mark Hummel lays down some seriously fine harmonica on the fast shuffle of “Everybody But Me”.
Several of the songs take unexpected turns. “Greta” starts in a folk music style, with gently strummed acoustic guitar and Mark Panfil’s accordion, before picking up the pace with drums and dobro and sounding like something out of Bayou country. In “Shaken Tree” however, May’s downbeat lyrics about impending environmental disaster are nicely contrasted by the upbeat rhythms, merrily strummed ukulele and curiously upbeat backing harmony vocals.
One of the (many) highlights on the album is “She’s Leavin’”, which sounds like Tom Waits singing an undiscovered Skip James song. Kevin Espinosa’s haunting harp perfectly fits the melancholy tone of the track.
May is a talented songwriter, with a clever turn of phrase and a great ear for a melody. He is also blessed with a lived-in, spit and sawdust voice that suits his songs perfectly. His songs contain hints of rock, country and folk, but it is the blues that is the key to his music, even on acoustic rock ballads like “Heartbreak”.
There are some curious moments, for example the falsetto singing on the closing track, “I’m Going Home”, but part of the attraction of the album is that May is constantly challenging his listeners. Nothing is quite as simple as it initially appears to be.
Shaken Tree Blues is May’s 15th album, but there is no indication that his apparently limitless musical imagination is becoming exhausted. With an intoxicating mix of electric and acoustic instruments and well-written and well-played songs, this is a great release, and will be of particular interest to fans of the likes of Tom Waits or Keb’ Mo’.