12 tracks / 45:59
When is the last time you heard a blues album from Finland? Well, Country Boy from “Dr.” Ilkka Helander is a rare set from the land of a thousand lakes, and it is a fine collection of hard-hitting classic acoustic blues. The Dr. has previously released three albums of mostly original electric blues, so this unplugged album is a big departure from his proven methods as it has ten covers and only two originals. But, apparently this man knows the blues in all of its forms, and this disc really clicks.
For this project, Helander sings and provides the most of the acoustic guitar parts, and Mika Railo joins him on double bass for many of the tracks with Topi Kurki behind the drum kit on four songs. There are also a few outstanding guest artists, as you will soon see.
The Muddy Waters-penned title track is up first, which features none other than Grammy winner Charlie Musselwhite on harmonica, and Esa Kuloniemi on slide guitar. “Country Boy” is an awesome song to start with, and this crew does this slow blues jam justice with Muselwhite leading the way along with the doctor’s hearty vocals. In case you were wondering, the vocals are all in English, with appropriate inflections and a touch of gravelly Midwest twang.
If you like Muddy Waters, there is one other tune from his Folk Singer album on this disc, “My Home is in the Delta.” Like many of the other songs on this release the instrumentation is kept to the minimum, this time with just Helander’s acoustic guitar and Railo’s stand-up bass. He dials things back even further with Son House’s “Walking Blues,” with only his voice and dobro. Mr. Helander has a nice touch and feel on the six-string, and he does a pretty mean job with his slide on this one.
There is also a pair of neat Junior Wells tracks to be found on Country Boy: “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl” and “Hoodoo Man Blues,” both of which feature Little Willie Mehto on the harp. His style is a little more laid back than Musselwhite’s, which allows Helander’s voice to take the front of the stage and he does a marvelous job of howling out these tried-and-true lyrics.
A standout track on this disc is Charley Patton’s “Green River Blues” which has quite a bit going for it. Kurki lays down a slick up-tempo drum rhythm that meshes well with a walking bass line provided by Railo. Also, Kuloniemi’s mandolin is a cool counterpoint to Helander’s well-picked guitar. Of course, it also helps that this is just an incredible song that was written by a blues master.
There are plenty of other cool classic blues covers to be found here, including “Mean Old Frisco” by Big Boy Crudup, Lightnin’ Hopkins’ “Hello, Central, Give Me 209,” and Little Walter’s “Just a Feeling.” But as wonderful as these songs are, there is one song that is a little outside the box, and that would be Mike Bloomfield’s “Hey Foreman.” This is probably the newest of the covers (from the mid-1970s), and its original folk blues would have seemed a little out of place if Helander copied it exactly. But he re-worked it with slide guitar from Olli Haavisto, making it a little more Delta than Bloomfield’s version. It works, and it integrates seamlessly with the rest of the songs on the CD.
Helander and Kuloniemi wrote one of the two original tracks on the album, and “$100 Bills” fits right in with the rest of the set. This tune has a driving roadhouse beat with Musselwhite adding his harmonica and Kuloniemi picking his mandolin. This is a very well written track, and is the standout track on the album. The other original, “Big Cold Beer,” also cuts the mustard with its jaunty guitar leads and witty lyrics. Hopefully we can get a full album of original blues from Helander, as he certainly has the writing chops to pull it off.
Dr. Helander did an impressive job with his first acoustic blues album, and Country Boy is a winner. It is a cool history of the blues greats, played with respect and talent, and it is not a record you will listen to once and put away. Check it out for yourself, and also take a listen to his catalog of original electric blues if you get the chance. This fellow is the real deal!