Danny Marks is somewhat of a fixture in the Toronto and Canadian blues scene. He hosted a popular TV series on HIFI TV which covered many of the regional varieties of blues across North America. You could call this album the companion piece to the TV show. Yes, it’s a concept album, not the most common of endeavors in blues music.
As such, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, at least lyrically. Musically, it is strong all the way through, and for the most part, Marks hits the key elements that define each city’s sound. Distinct echoes of T-Bone Walker, along with Marks’s smooth guitar and the sweet touch of Julian Fauth on the piano, all backed by a swinging horn section make “Kansas City Shout” a stand-out track.
“Heading Down To New Orleans” features the unique chord progression, and the percussive emphasis on the first and third beats of a bar which define the Nawlins sound. Made me want to climb on board a paddle steamer and head down river.
It’s tricky, lyrically, when doing a tribute to cities not to fall into the trap of simply inserting some of a particular city’s most famous landmarks or streets into the song. Marks does get caught up in this a little bit, especially with “Hey, New York Town!”. You can understand what he’s going for, but “City so nice, they named you twice” and “The city that doesn’t sleep, cream of the crop, top of the heap,” is just too much borrowing of clichés. Too bad, because the music is great and the background singers really kick it up.
My favorite songs on the album are the ones that don’t have a particular city style to emulate. “Belt Line Blues” is about a boy and his mother living a hard life. It is written in that most difficult musical styles to pull off well – the one-chord song – and Marks makes it work measure after measure. “Once I Was Crazy” could have been written and performed by WC Handy, with elements of the Saint Louis sound tempered with Western Swing rhythms, great melody and a muted trumpet you want to follow all the way home. The last of these non-journey songs is a gospel-inspired gut bucket howl that truly harkens back to the Mississippi Delta where the blues began.
What makes these tracks work so well is that while all the city songs are about the blues, these three ARE the blues. Marks is a gifted songwriter and musician so I would have preferred to hear him writing lyrically gritty, real blues songs in the style of each city’s music rather than a blues travelogue about them.
But this is a nuanced, musically varied album that is steeped in the blues, and it is very refreshing to be reminded that blues does not have to be standard 12-bar blues. I found this album growing on me the more I listened to it. The music is strong enough for me to put aside my quibbles with his lyrics in a few songs.
The one thing I have to mention is that the track “Land Where the Blues Began” uses an auto tune effect on Marks’s vocals. This doesn’t appear to be intended to correct pitch (Marks can hit notes without any problem). No, I think it may be an attempt to take a very traditional Delta song and make it “relevant” to new listeners. But it will do nothing to attract younger listeners and is likely to put off more traditional fans. It’s a gimmick that does not work. This is still a good track, in spite of the annoying auto tune, with nicely picked acoustic guitar and some authentically good dobro.
This song circles back nicely from the opening Texas Swing style of “Houston to LA”, showing off Marks’s ability to write and play in many of the most popular shades of blues. This is definitely an album I’ll keep loaded on my phone.