november 2008

Reflections Writ In Flame

By David McGee

Photo by Jennifer Wheeler

Elvin Bishop
Delta Groove Music

Don't look now but Elvin Bishop has cut not only one of the best blues album of this or any other year, but one of the best blues albums he's ever been part of, going back to the Butterfield Blues Band days. That's a seriously deep thing to say, but it's true. Teaming up with a multi-generational breed of blues players, from the unassailable King of the Blues, B.B. King, to the pre-pubescent hotshots (okay, one of them was 14 at the time of the session) of the Homemade Jamz Band, Bishop cedes plenty of ground to his guests, but make no mistake: Elvin's spirit is omnipresent in the disc's inexhaustible energy and buoyant high spirits, and most certainly in the elevated level of the playing and singing throughout.

As the title suggests, the concept centers on the timelessness of the blues, how the music is constantly reinvigorated by new generations of players. Elvin emphasizes this fact in several ways. For one, as noted above, he calls on a variety of players to help him out, with the veterans ranging from B.B. King to Kim Wilson (who adds some absolutely fierce, shimmering harp work to Elvin's self-penned title tribute to the music in support of Elvin's assured vocal and the stinging guitar sorties provided by Elvin and Warren Haynes) to Angela Strehli (who adds a sizzling, sultry distaff vocal in contrast to relative newcomer John Németh's gritty lead vocal in a steady grinding version of Ray Charles's "Night Time") to George Thorogood, who burns up the track with his driving attack on a lean, mean treatment of Hound Dog Taylor's "Send You Back to Georgia," which also features Elvin cutting loose with a searing, howling bit of solo editorializing of his own. The B.B. cut is magnificent. It begins with Elvin questioning B.B. about his friendship with Roy Milton, which elicits a warm reminiscence from King about playing shows with Milton and his tight unit known as the Solid Senders. Then the music begins, an easygoing reading of Milton's "Keep A Dollar In Your Pocket" notable mostly for a sweet, no-frills guitar solo from B.B. over the gentle sway provided by Elvin's small combo, which includes Ed Earley adding some atmospheric muted trombone solos throughout, lending the track the feel of some of B.B.'s best work for the Crown label in the '50s. After the music ends, B.B. asks Elvin, who had referred to him at the outset as "the king of the blues worldwide," if Elvin had ever heard him "say I was the king of the blues."

"No," Elvin replies, "but everybody else says that."

"Well," B.B. notes, "people talk."

That exchange is typical of the warm feeling suffusing an album on which a younger tier of stellar blues folk blends in nicely with the, shall we say, old timers. The former would include the aforementioned Németh, who offers some affecting, high wailing harp to a churning instrumental treatment of Jimmy Reed's "Honest I Do," a swaggering vocal to the sturdy midtempo groove of "Who's the Fool," an obscure Smokey Robinson number originally cut on Tamla (and produced by Berry Gordy Jr.) in 1960 by Singin' Sammy Ward (who could affect an uncanny vocal resemblance to Little Willie John), and a tender/tough growl of a lead vocal on a little-known Junior Wells single from1966, "I Found Out," which also features some rousing harp work by none other than James Cotton (recording with Bishop for the first time since 1963) and Angela Strehli pitching in with some sultry moans at the fadeout. Derek Trucks makes only one appearance, but it's memorable, as he teams with Elvin, Haynes and members of Elvin's great 1970s band for a funky-plus update of one of the Bishop Group's calling cards, "Struttin' My Stuff," a track prominently spotlighting Trucks's soaring, ethereal slide work in between Haynes's and Bishop's call-and-response guitar tandem.

A still younger blues generation gets in its two cents' worth here, too. The kids in Tupelo, Mississippi's Homemade Jamz Band-14-year-old guitarist/vocalist Ryan Perry, 11-year-old bassist Kyle Perry and their nine-year-old sister Taya Perry on drums-grind Junior Wells's "Come On In This House" into a mighty fine powder on the strength of their powerhouse stomp and Ryan's impressively mature, emotionally rich lead vocal, and they leave plenty of room for Elvin to step in with a couple of pungent solos of his own. Another young player, Norwegian native Kid Anderson, also makes a favorable impression with his personable guitar solo on the abovementioned "Who's the Fool."

So Elvin does a great job of showcasing how the blues rolls on, with his supporting cast representing a half century of blues practitioners working exciting contemporary variations on mostly well-worn, but not always well known, material. In the end, the most powerful moment of all belong to Elvin alone, with only his guitar and his rhythmic footstomps accompanying one of his grittiest spoken-sung vocals on record on his stirring autobiographical flamethrower titled "Oklahoma." Herein Elvin traces his journey from Tulsa to Chicago to San Francisco (during the Summer of Love) and back to the south in the '70s for the rise of Southern rock, every stop at which he made an indelible mark on the blues. He even takes the opportunity here to answer back to Charlie Daniels, who referred to him as "ugly, right there on his record" ("The South's Gonna Do It Again"), adding, "He was too big to fight so I just had to accept it/He said, 'I always knew you was funky/but where did you get that little touch of country/Said I come all the way from Ooohhhh-klahoma..." As compelling as is the personal history-and it is utterly amazing how much significant music he's found himself in the middle of since leaving Tulsa and arriving in Chicago in the early '60s-the strength of Elvin's vocal is doubly enhanced by the jaw-dropping ferocity of his guitar work. Sputtering, wailing, howling, working the top strings for all they're worth and cutting loose with flurries of searing notes at the bottom of the neck, he makes those six strings write his reflections in flame, in those most dramatic, illuminating statement he's ever made about himself as an artist. You don't even have to listen to the tale he tells; the guitar says it all. 'Twas ever thus, and ever more will be.

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024