Dr. Helander & Third Ward – Traffic Jam on the Back Street
Bluelight Records Records – 2020
10 tracks; 41:49
The amazing things about international blues is you often can’t tell if a band is from outside of the United States until you go to the liner notes. If there’s any kind of tell for international blues, it’s that it often sounds too perfectly vintage and American, recreating a pristine sonic moment that might not have ever occurred, a form of musical historical fiction. The charm of Dr. Helander & Third Ward’s Traffic Jam on the Back Street is that once the vocals kick-in, you know this is international blues.
Dr. Helander is Ilkka Helander, a Finnish blues singer and guitarist. His voice is calm and staccato, with a touch of accent around his English vocals, like the last stubborn remnants of snow on the ground in the thaw after a big winter storm. Blues vocalists tend to let their voices sway along with the music, but Helander’s voice is steady, feeling almost immovable within the swirl of blues music created by his band. His unique tone makes for fun blues songs that sound different, if not an evolution of the classic sound, then certainly a fresh take.
The take is so fresh, that even as Helander and the band work through a set of standard originals, ranging from 1960s electric blues to more rock-oriented numbers, his vocals make it all sound new. Helander’s singing give the tunes a futuristic shine that works well against the soulful, old-fashioned music. That means that on a track like “Ask Me About the Blues,” a slow blues, Helander’s voice channels the spirit of the style, if not its timbre. Every other element is classic blues, though, from Helander’s stinging guitar, to the Third Ward rhythm section (bassist Esa Kuloniemi and drummer Leevi Leppänen), which does a masterful job with the groove—on this track, and across the album—laying back so the beat feels welcome but not inevitable.
“Strike a Match” is John Lee Hooker simplicity filtered through a big rock sound, a la ZZ Top. “Blown Off With the Wind” is uptempo blues rock, and “Highway Shoes” is 50s-inspired rockabilly, with lyrical, raw slide guitar courtesy of versatile bassist Kuloniemi. Tomi Leino’s harmonica shines on the track, as it does during all of its appearances on the album. Helander and his band know the blues, but never take it for granted.
Lots of artists respect the blues, but many seem challenged by how to channel the reverence. It’s too easy for a band to transition into musical transcription, out of fear of offending blues purists. Helander and Third Ward do an incredible job paying tribute to the blues, but also inserting Helander’s Finnish roots, creating something both new and authentic, but most importantly, an enjoyable listen.