Billy Branch & The Sons Of Blues – Roots and Branches
The Legacy of Chicago Blues is something that is unrivaled in The Blues as a Genre or as an American Phenomenon. Someone has to be the heir to the past, whether it be an heir to female or male vocals, Chicago blues guitar, or, in the case here, Chicago blues harmonica. Like our calendar, in Chicago with blues harp in my mind they (unofficially) have BLW (Before Little Walter, born Walter Jacobs), and ALW for After Little Walter. Little Walter created the amplified harmonica sound and style that is accepted today as what we expect in blues harp. Walter worked with the Chess Brothers and Muddy Waters as Chicago Blues was defined; he set the bar and he set it high. There was no one like him, before or after.
The harp torch goes way back in Chicago. BLW, Sonny Boy Williamson I (John Lee Curtis Williamson) moved to Chicago and defined the harp as a solo instrument. Rice Miller, better known as Sonny Boy Williamson II, also moved to Chicago and advanced an already pretty lucrative career. Big Walter Horton also was an icon in early Chicago harmonica. It was Walter Jacobs who made the harp what it is in today’s blues music. After Little Walter, guys like Junior Wells James Cotton and Carey Bell gained prominence and led the charge, especially since Little Walter passed away at a only 38. Caucasian harp players also flourished in Chicago in days past and even today. Charlie Musselwhite is perhaps the most famed and has had the longest career in blues harp, but there was also Jerry Portnoy from Muddy Waters band and Paul Butterfield who introduced the rock world to Chicago Blues Harp.
In 1969 a young man arrived in Chicago. played at the first blues festival and got noticed by Willie Dixon who produced the fest. Branch was born at the Great Lakes Naval Hospital and moved to LA with his family at age 5. Billy got his first harp at Woolworths at age 10 and never put it down. He came back to Chicago as a young man and then he went to college at U of I; he returned to Chicago and became part of Dixon’s Chicago Blues All Stars when Carey Bell left to form his own band. He later started his own band, The Sons of Blues with Lurrie Bell and Freddie Dixon and recorded with Alligator and other labels. His legacy as a great musician and harp player has gotten him dubbed as today’s top Chicago Blues Harp Player, the reigning king of The Mississippi Saxophone in the Windy City. He tours the globe regularly and appears at many major festivals each year and deserves every accolade he gets.
So here we have Branch doing what the kings of the harp in Chicago can do best, and that is pay homage to the man that invented the style of harp playing. Does the world “need” another record of songs Little Walter wrote or made famous? Well, “need” is perhaps the wrong word as nothing like that is needed. But perhaps the apt question might be is the music world better off having this album? I’d have to say yes. Here we have Branch at the top of his craft laying down classic tracks that Mssr. Jacobs made famous; he and the current Sons of Blues Band do a fine job in bringing them back for us to enjoy once again. The record has garnered international attention and has been noted as one of the top blues albums of 2019. In addition to Billy Branch on vocals and harp, the Sons Of Blues here are Sumito “Ariyo” Ariyose on piano, Giles Corey on guitar, Marvin Little on bass and Andrew “Blaze” Thomas on drums. Shoji Naito also appears on guitar on “One More Chance With You.”
From the opening notes of “Nobody But You” to the close of “Blues With a Feeling” we get solid and elegant dirty harp work that could make any blues lover stand up and take notice. Branch also sings with passion. The over blows and note bending are sublime. The piano and guitar also pay homage to the men who backed Jacobs as Ariyo and Giles lay out many a wickedly cool solo. The back line carries the tunes along almost effortlessly, but they are always there doing a fine job. The last track is Marion Diaz, Little Walter’s daughter, delivering a nice remembrance ,”Remembering Little Walter,” to close the album. She talks with love about her Dad and tells us he used to tell here there was “Nobody Like You.”
Most of my reviews go song by song; that’s just what I do in most cases. Here I don’t think I need to do that. Every song is handled with care and delivered with love and precision and passion. Classic after classic gets a new battery charge as Billy and the band play them with passion, reverence and intensity. I’d have a hard time saying one song out of the fourteen was my favorite. “My Babe” is Little Walter’s anthem and Branch gives it a fresh cover. “Mellow Down Easy” gives us a more subtle side and “Out Go The Lights” gives us Branch as blues shouter. These and all the cuts are just a lot of fun to hear done by the current master of Chicago blues harp and the fine musicians he staffs his band with. Kudos to Billy and Bruce Iglauer over at Alligator for delivering a fine tribute album. We would expect no less from Billy who learned directly from the masters of blues harp. Most musicians study recordings and try to learn and emulate the tricks and sounds they hear; Branch learned them directly from the royalty of Chicago Blues Harp. There is no better way to learn than that, and he was a great student!