15 songs – 64 minutes
Sugar Brown’s Sad Day is the first full-length CD released by Toronto-based bluesman Sugar Brown and it’s a fine album containing just over an hour of classic 1950s-styled urban blues.
Born Ken Chester Kawashima in Bowling Green, Ohio, to a Japanese father and a Korean mother, Sugar Brown was given his nom de blues by Chicago blues legend Taildragger in 1992, who said to him “You ain’t black… but you sure ain’t white… You’re Sugar Brown.” Brown cut his musical teeth whilst at the University of Chicago, playing with Taildragger and other Chicago masters (such as Willie Big Eyes Smith) at venues like the now defunct Delta Fish Market.
Since receiving his Ph.D. in modern Japanese history in 2002, he has been based in Toronto. By day, he teaches as an Associate Professor of East Asian Studies at the University of Toronto. By night, he plays the blues. This, other than the geographical location, is a not dissimilar story to that of Mississippi’s Adam Gussow and Alan Gross. And like Gussow and Gross, Brown plays and sings traditional blues with deep veracity and authenticity. A fine, nuanced singer, displaying a vocal timbre that evokes the early urban blues of Jimmy Rogers and Sonny Boy Williamson II, he also plays impressively dirty guitar and blows a mean harp. And, although not featured on this album, he has recently returned to his original childhood instrument, playing Big Maceo and Otis Spann-influenced piano pieces.
Brown wrote eight of the 15 songs on the album, as well as entertainingly re-arranging Jimmy Rogers’ “Act Like You Love Me” and The Velvet Underground’s “Run, Run, Run”. The other songs are covers of blues classics such as Elmore James’ “Pickin’ The Blues” and “It Hurts Me Too”, Muddy’s “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” and the traditional “John Henry”.
Brown’s songs often openly tip their hats to his influences. “Sad Day” is a superb Muddy/Jimmy Rogers-style Chicago groove, “Hook-a-Boogie” sounds like a lost John Lee Hooker classic and “Run, Run, Run” has the irresistible foot-tapping rhythm of north Mississippi hill country blues. “What Are We Gonna Do” has more than a hint of Muddy’s “Walking Blues”, but none of these songs is a mere facsimile. Each stands on its own as a fully-realised, masterfully-performed retro-gem.
Brown receives admirably sensitive support throughout from harmonica maestro Bharath Rajakumar (who also contributes second guitar, maracas and backing vocals), Ben Caissie on drums and upright bass and Zak Izbinsky on guitar (for three songs). Together, they do an impressive job of evoking the great bands of the 50s, like the Aces.
Recorded at Rajakumar’s Regal Radio Studios in Montreal in June 2011, all 15 tracks were recorded live-off-the-floor onto a full track mono tape recorder, giving each song an old-school sound, reminiscent of the great Chess recordings of the 1950s. Rajakumar and Caissie recorded and engineered the album and deserve great praise for capturing that vintage Chicago sound.
The album is dedicated to Brown’s late father, Fujiya Kawashima, and a number of the songs were clearly written in the wake of his death. “Two O’Clock”, “Grim Reaper” and “Sad Day” are all deeply moving, but their highly personal nature does not diminish their emotional impact.
If you like the great Chess and Checker records of the 1950s, you should enjoy Sugar Brown’s Sad Day. The songs, the instrumentation and the production all hark back to that magical late-1940s/early-1950s sound whilst still retaining a modern punch. It is a very impressive first album and suggests that great things lie in wait for Mr Kawashima.