VARIOUS ARTISTS – Strange Angels: In Flight With Elmore James (Sylvan Songs Records)

Strange AngelsTaking its name in part from a James song, Strange Angels: In Flight With Elmore James reworks thirteen well- and lesser-known James songs in homage to his lasting influence on not just the blues, but far beyond.

To do justice to the roll-call of first-rate musicians appearing on this album would leave little room for discussing the music itself. Suffice to say, stellar names from soul, country, rock and pop feature large. Even the notional “house band”, Elmore’s Latest Broomdusters (an update of James’s own band name), consists of hugely respected musicians including producer/drummer Marco Giovino. Special mention here goes to Rudy Copeland whose mighty Hammond sound provides a meaty punchline to many of the tracks.

Wisely, perhaps, no-one tries to emulate the shimmering metallic thrust of James himself, and these covers are largely indebted to his influence on later blues rock. The resulting tracks are, broadly speaking, much heavier sounding, with plenty of what the Buzzcocks used to refer to as “tricky guitar solo(s)”.

Elayna Boynton sets the pace with a galloping take on ‘Can’t Stop Lovin’ You’, followed up by soul legend Bettye Lavette’s lived-in ‘Person To Person’. A briskly rollicking trot through ‘Shake Your Money Maker’ by country singer Rodney Crowell is followed by the unmistakeable grunt “Huh, yeah” as Tom Jones powers through ‘Done Somebody Wrong’. ‘Mean Mistreatin’ Mama’ is a triple-bill of Warren Haynes, ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons and Mickey Raphael’s storming harmonica.

Deborah Bonham’s ‘Dust My Broom’ unfortunately somehow manages to lose that classic raw slide guitar wailing riff under a country rock beat, although Jamey Johnson’s ‘It Hurts Me Too’ keeps the bar room piano firmly on tap.

‘Strange Angel’ (singular: as listed on the promo CD) brings together the stunning sibling harmonies of Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer over a long, slow, jazzy beat embellished with more of that Hammond sound, plus a fat, gritty guitar riff, all underpinned with a twanging county steel.

Triple Grammy award winner, Keb Mo’, lends an almost fairground-ride motion to ‘Look On Yonder Wall’, with maybe just a soupçon of the Grange Hill theme. In contrast, Mollie Marriott delivers an impassioned vocal on ‘My Bleeding Heart’, bringing real pathos to lines like “People, people, you know what it means to be left alone”.

The ringing phone that opens Chuck E Weiss’s take on ‘Hawaiian Boogie’ is followed by the most gorgeous dirty, fuzzed out guitar, with just a taste of New Orleans. Weiss said of his choice, “After careful consideration the vocal work for Elmore was too perfect for me to touch… So I chose my favourite instrumental!!!”

Perhaps the most radical interpretation here sees Addi McDaniel’s smooth lounge vocal smouldering over a slouchy, loose gypsy fiddle-led blues with touches of banjo and a Spanish-inflected guitar. Then the house band winds up proceedings with ‘Bobby’s Rock’, another scuzzy, fuzzy rendition, with that driving Hammond in place of the sax of the original.

And if all of this collected talent offering updates on some classic songs is not enough of a feel-good factor, profits from the album go to benefit two US charities. C’mon, what’s not to like?
Su O’Brien

If you would like to order a copy of an album (CD or Vinyl format), download a copy or just listen to snippets of selected tracks then click below to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website (use the left and right arrows below to scroll along or back to see the full selection).

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Artist website: www.elmorejamesstrangeangels.com

Rodney Crowell – ‘Shake Your Money Maker’:

ERJA LYYTINEN – The Sky Is Crying (Tuohi THC 001 CD)

SkyIsCryingA female Finnish slide guitar player isn’t the sort of musician you come across every day, particularly one who makes music like this. The Sky Is Crying is a tribute to Elmore James marking the 50th anniversary of his death. Erja Lyytinen loves James’ music and goes a long way towards emulating him. She has a powerful voice and a tendency to turn the volume up to eleven. Her seven-piece band includes two brass players, keyboards and a second guitarist, co-producer Davide Floreno.

Oddly, the opening track isn’t an Elmore James original. ‘Person To Person’ was originally recorded by Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson and later by Little Willie John and James himself but it’s a good place to start. James’ fans will know most of the titles but even casual listeners will be aware of ‘It Hurts Me Too’ and ‘Sho Nuff’.

There are two Lyytinen originals here. The first, the cheekily titled instrumental ‘Erja’s Contribution To Jazz’, has a wonderful “let’s do the show right here” feeling and is heaps of fun. The second, ‘King Of The Slide Guitar’, is her personal tribute to James, a contrast to the hard-bitten blues-shouter persona she presents elsewhere on the album.

The album closes with a nine-and-a-half minute live version of ‘Dust My Broom’, an epic blues riff according to Erja’s sleeve note and she’s not wrong. Of course, having got a verse or two out the way, this is just an excuse for some playing but it’s not a jam – there’s a lovely quiet passage a couple of minutes in with a solo guitar and minimal backing before rock’n’roll takes over again.

It’s true that The Sky Is Crying is some way from the Mississippi delta blues that James was brought up on but just imagine what might have happened if he’d lived a few years more and met Jeremy Spencer and Peter Green. If you love the blues this album is for you.

Dai Jeffries

If you would like to order a copy of an album (CD or Vinyl format), download a copy or just listen to snippets of selected tracks then click below to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website (use the left and right arrows below to scroll along or back to see the full selection).

Buying through Amazon on folking.com helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us.

Artist’s website: www.erjalyytinen.com

‘Dust My Broom’ live – a different take recorded in 2012: