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The blues has produced countless instrumental virtuosos, but the genre has always been a singer’s medium. Young and explosive or wizened and world-weary, the best blues singers scale the heights and plumb the depths of the human condition, as heard on these recent releases.
Mississippi bluesman Leo “Bud” Welch was 82 years old when he cut his first record in 2014. His third and ultimately last session, The Angels in Heaven Done Signed My Name (Easy Eye Sound), concentrates on religious themes. The results are powerful and personal, thanks to the affectionate sonic goosing of producer and guitarist Dan Auerbach.
Released posthumously, the album begins and ends with Welch alone. His well-worn voice and barbed guitar crackle with emotion on the opening title track, a song of redemption, and on “Sweet Home,” the closing song accurately predicting that his time on Earth was not long. But the set is hardly downbeat. Welch sings classics such as “Jesus Is on the Mainline” and “Don’t Let the Devil Ride” with great vitality, backed by Auerbach’s stinging leads, the late Richard Swift’s pounding drums and Leon Michel’s piano and organ fills. Comprising all first takes, the album captures a raw immediacy, warts and all. Among the highlights, “I Came To Praise His Name,” complete with call-and-response vocals and a churning backbeat, conjures a raucous church service and underlines Welch’s deep religious conviction and an unshakable commitment to groove.
Chicago blues singer Mary Lane is another octogenarian performer who’s released a revelatory late-career recording. Her first album in more than two decades, Travelin’ Woman (Women of the Blues) finds the 83-year-old Lane at a mature peak. Lane surrounds herself with Chicago-blues experts, including guitarist and bassist Jim Tullio, who produced the album and co-wrote most of the songs with Lane, and guests such as guitarist Dave Specter; harmonicists Corky Siegel and Billy Branch; and saxophonists Gene “Daddy G” Barge and Eddie Shaw, the latter of whom actually plays harmonica here. For the most part, Travelin’ Woman contains the rollicking, old-school blues you’d hear in Chicago clubs, fattened with barrelhouse piano or Hammond B-3. But Lane’s lyrics and character-rich vocals elevate this to something special. Standouts include the hard-grooving “Leave That Wine Alone,” the simmering “Blues Give Me a Feeling” and the stunning acoustic country-blues “Make Up Your Mind,” a duet between Lane and Colin Linden on dobro.
Japan’s version of Roomful of Blues, Bloodest Saxophone, teams up with a handful of Lone Star blues divas on the roof-raising Texas Queens 5 (Vizztone). Saxophones scream and honk and swing like mad behind some of the hottest voices in the region. Diunna Greenleaf sets a high bar with her growling read of “I’ve Got a Feeling,” Crystal Thomas digs in on the sultry “Losing Battle” and Jai Malano offers a humid and sexy “It’s Your Voodoo Working.” Bloodest also serves up a couple of sizzling instrumentals, the chorus-shouted “Pork Chop Chick” and the sweltering “Cockroach Run,” the latter of which features the swaggering talents of guitarist Johnny Moeller and saxophonist Kaz Kazanoff.
Another revue-style recording, Tony Holiday’s Porch Sessions (Vizztone), pairs the Memphis-based harmonica blower and vocalist with an all-star cast. True to the album title, Holiday recorded these unvarnished tracks on the porches of many of its participants. The variety of voices is a real treat, with veterans such as James Harman and John Primer and generation-nexters Jake Friel, Holiday and the remarkably soulful William G. Kidd providing session highlights. And the skills of guitar virtuoso Kid Ramos and harmonica masters Charlie Musselwhite, Bob Corritorre and John Németh all but torch the porch. - Bob Weinberg
Featured photo of Leo "Bud" Welch by Alysse Gafkjen.