Chris ‘Bad News’ Barnes – Hokum Blues | Album Review

Chris ‘Bad News’ Barnes – Hokum Blues

Vizztone – 2017

14 tracks; 52 minutes

Chris Barnes has appeared on many TV shows in the States, including Saturday Night Live and Seinfeld, where his stock-in-trade is taking a humorous look at life using the blues as the musical medium. This album is therefore perfect for him as he tackles a series of songs associated with the Hokum style of the 20’s and 30’s. Chris puts his distinctive style to songs about booze, gambling and loose women and you can almost hear Chris winking as he sings the lines. Of course, merely taking a few old songs would be OK but here Chris has the benefit of a first-class band, many of whom play in regular TV slots: Jimmy Vivino is on guitar, Will Lee on bass, Shawn Pelton on drums, Bette Sussman on piano and Steve Guyger on harmonica. Horns are added to some tracks by Steve Bernstein (trumpet), Charlie Pillow (sax and clarinet) and Clark Gayton (trombone). Will produced the album which was recorded in 48 hours with everyone in the same studio. The songs are all drawn from the repertoire of the Hokum Boys, Tampa Red, Big Bill Broonzy and Georgia Tom, the CD package giving details of where the originals can be found.

We open with two well-known songs: “It Hurts Me Too” is stripped back with Jimmy’s slide and Steve’s harp while “Let Me Play With Your Poodle” has the horns added and Chris’ vocal really brings out the double entendre nature of the song. “I’m Gonna Get High” has Jimmy playing what sounds like banjo and Bette playing a storm on the piano and Chris updates the lyrics a little to include a reference to ‘tweets’ and exclaims ‘Don’t blame me, I voted for her’. “It’s Tight Like That” sounds very modern with slide and harp on another risqué song but the less familiar “I Had To Give Up Gym” is very twenties with the muted trombone giving a wah-wah sound behind Jimmy’s plucked banjo. The tune of “Things About Coming My Way” sounds very similar to “It Hurts Me Too” and is one of the few songs here that takes a serious look at life, Chris sounding appropriately relieved that the tide seems to have turned for him. Back to the funny stuff with “You Can’t Get Enough Of That Stuff” which takes us right back to the days of Prohibition, understandably poking fun at the law which many flouted anyway, hence the title.

The second half of the album has fewer familiar songs but just as strong a performance level. Instrumental highlights include Steve’s harp lead on “Hokum Blues” and Jimmy’s down-home slide on “Somebody’s Been Using That Thing” which has a relaxed feel with a full band and more amusing lyrics. “Keep Your Mind On It” has a latin feel with great drum work from Shawn and Spanish guitar from Jimmy while “Let Me Pat That Thing” features the clarinet and piano on a series of dubious tales. The uptempo “Caught Him Doing It” finds people continually getting caught in compromising situations, Jimmy taking a very rock and roll solo though the sleevenotes identify the song as dating from 1939. “Gin Mill Blues” returns to the booze theme and the album closes with Tampa Red’s “Christmas & New Year Blues”.

The band does a terrific job in recreating this old-time music and Chris gives the lyrics a ‘nod and a wink’ approach as well as adding a few sly references to contemporary issues. Overall a fun listen.

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