At age 82, bluesman Leo ‘Bud’ Welch rocks the stage like a teenager — dancing and spinning as he beats out jagged chords and grimy solos on his pink, sparkle-covered guitar. That raw youthful energy and Welch’s old-school juke-joint jones blend full-throttle in the 10 songs on I Don’t Prefer No Blues, his second release for Fat Possum Records’ subsidiary Big Legal Mess. The album is a garage-blues manifesto that weds waves of prickly six-string distortion and gutbucket drums with Welch’s smoke-and-ash voice and mud-crusted guitar — and lives up to Fat Possum’s history of producing edgy but deeply rooted recordings by artists like Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside.
I Don’t Prefer No Blues is the follow-up to last year’s Sabougla Voices, an all-gospel disc that marked Welch’s debut as both a recording artist and a songwriter. That album was heralded as a fresh breath of rust-bearing air — a throwback to an era of rural music free from outside influences and a reminder that blues-fueled primitivism is still personified by a handful of living Southern artists.
I Don’t Prefer No Blues is what the preacher at Welch’s church said when he found out Welch was making a blues album. “Up until Sabougla Voices came out, I had only played spirituals in the church and in tents for about 50 years,” Welch explains.
But these days Welch does prefer blues. Playing blues on stage since Sabougla Voices’ release has proven transformative for the octogenarian resident of Bruce, Mississippi. He’s toured parts of the U.S. and Europe, and played for audiences of all ages at international festivals and such prestigious events as the Americana Music Association Festival and Conference in Nashville.
“I’m doing things I never thought I’d do,” Welch relates. “I never thought I’d get to play outside of Mississippi or travel to other countries. Now I’m playing for all kinds of people and seeing the world. Just so, the first time I had to go on a plane I thought they’d have to blindfold me, knock me out and tie me up to get me on board. I’m also keeping all my bills paid up to date, which I couldn’t before.”
Getting on board for his first blues album was easier. Big Legal Mess owner and house producer Bruce Watson took the wheel, steering Welch into crunching, genre-blending sonic and creative territory. “The deal I made with Leo was the first record would be gospel and the second would be blues,” Watson says. “Honestly, I was just trying to do something different than your typical blues record — trying to fuck things up a bit. I think I succeeded.”
That’s clear from the opening cut, a take on the traditional “Poor Boy.” The tune, which is the sole track produced by Mississippi neo-trad firebrand Jimbo Mathus, frames Welch’s scorched-oak singing with a rattling drum kit, upright bass, a choir and the angelic voice of Sharde Thomas — a doyenne of ancient Mississippi music who inherited the Rising Star Fife & Drum Band from her late grandfather Othar Turner. The contrast between the innocence in Thomas’ honeyed tones and the weathered experience in Welch’s woof antes up the drama that’s maintained throughout I Don’t Prefer No Blues.
Mathus also added clangorous guitar to the album. “Girl in the Holler” thrives on his and Welch’s angular, dueling riffs. And Mathus provides psychedelic fuzz for the Watson-penned “I Don’t Know Her Name,” where Welch literally barks for his would-be lady like a lusty dog.
Welch’s “So Many Turnrows” is about his many years plowing behind a mule during his youth and young manhood. “I grew up on a farm and had to walk two miles to school in the rain and mud,” he recounts. “Most of the time we didn’t have no money from March to November, when the crops came in, but I made it through eighth grade and then I started plowing mule and hoeing cotton.” Welch worked as a logger for the 35 years before he retired in 1995. “I stood next to that chain saw all day, so that’s why I don’t hear too good.”
Which explains the consistently raw, buzzing volume of Welch’s guitar, both live and on I Don’t Prefer No Blues, where his guitar colors even the blues classics “Sweet Black Angel” and “Cadillac Baby” with a patina of rock ’n’ roll overdrive.
“Playing guitar is my favorite ‘like,’ ” Welch says. “I learned by hearing records by Jimmy Reed, B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, Muddy Waters … and I saw them when they came through Bruce. I once even had a chance to audition for B.B. King’s band, but I didn’t have the bus fare to get to Memphis.”
“Right now is a great point in my life,” Welch continues. “I’m doing things I’ve never been able to do before and I feel good doing them at an age when a lot of people are dead. So as long as I can I want to go around the world trying to send satisfaction to people. Doing that is a great feeling to me.”
Boz Scaggs follows 2013’s killer Memphis with a second Tennessee album. A Fool to Care was recorded over four days with producer/drummer Steve Jordan and a core band of guitarist Ray Parker, Jr. and bassist Willie Weeks at Nashville’s Blackbird Studio. These 12 songs are primarily covers that reflect various sources, the most prevalent among them being R&B and soul. The band is augmented occasionally with strings, horns, and Music City luminaries including guitarists Reggie Young and Al Anderson and pedal steel boss Paul Franklin. Simply put, there is no filler here — virtually every song is a highlight. The opener is a swaggering, horn-drenched presentation of Dorothy LaBostrie and McKinley Millet’s “Rich Woman.” Scaggs’ reading is inspired by Li’l Millet & His Creoles’ 1955 version more than Canned Heat’s or Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’. The title track was cut as a country swing tune by author Ted Daffan in 1940. Scaggs reads it through the New Orleans R&B of Fats Domino. And speaking of NOLA, Bobby Charles and Rick Danko’s “Small Town Talk” is executed flawlessly with slippery breaks by Jordan and a simmering B-3 by Jim Cox. “Hell to Pay” is an original, a badass blues driven by Weeks’ funky upright bass. Sung in duet with Bonnie Raitt (who also plays mean slide here), Scaggs takes an all too rare guitar solo. “Last Tango on 16th Street” melds Carlos Gardel, West Coast jazz, and Brechtian drama. Scaggs’ delivery is full of restrained empathy, not pity. His version of Richard Hawley’s otherworldly waltz “There’s a Storm a Comin'” features Franklin’s pedal steel crying amid accordion, bass, bump organ, and B-3. It is an elegant outlier here. Scaggs offers Curtis Mayfield’s “I’m So Proud” with an expressive falsetto that would make the composer proud. Huey P. Smith’s 1958 classic “High Blood Pressure” is rendered raw, ragged, and raucous. That shimmering falsetto returns to Memphis in a grooving version of Al Green’s “Full of Fire” before slipping toward smooth Philly soul with a gorgeous take on the Spinners’ 1974 classic “Love Don’t Love Nobody.” But Scaggs saves the very best for last. He teams with Lucinda Williams for Richard Manuel’s (the Band) “Whispering Pines.” Franklin’s steel returns in a breezy, warm, atmospheric arrangement that relies on the depth in Jordan’s floor tom-toms. The contrast between Williams’ bluesy, grainy contralto and Scaggs’ soul-basted croon underscores the wrenching heartbreak in the lyric. Ultimately, A Fool to Care is not only a companion to Memphis, but also to 1997’s Come on Home and his earliest (pre-Silk Degrees) sides. Scaggs’ voice is unmarked by time. Whether singing new or old songs, he presents them in the moment as living, breathing entities. He remains a song interpreter who has few — if any — peers.
The last time Sonny Landreth released a stripped-down blues trio date recorded in a studio was 2003’s The Road We’re On in 2003, and his previous album to this was 2012’s maximal Elemental Journey, which ranged over blues, jazz, zydeco, and reggae and had ambitious arrangements that included everything from steel drums to strings and winds. Bound by the Blues features his longstanding group (bassist David Ranson and drummer Brian Brignac) and was recorded at his Comoland Studio in Lafayette, Louisiana. It was co-produced by Landreth and Tony Daigle, and includes originals and standards, vocal tunes and instrumental workouts. A raucous version of Robert Johnson’s “Walking Blues” opens it with blazing slide guitar. Courtesy of Daigle, it has an enormous (but natural-sounding) drum mix and offers a killer bridge. Landreth reprises Johnson’s “Dust My Broom” later and recombines Elmore James’ version with hard-strutting Chicago bravado and a Hendrixian flourish. Speaking of James, his “It Hurts Me Too” is also here; it has a roiling, midtempo churn with Landreth’s guitar playing extended by his soulful vocals. The title track is an original, with the guitarist on an acoustic National Steel with his electric, bumping, almost funky bassline and martial snare shuffle adding balance and illustrating the Como style. On “The High Side,” he offers an excellent modern take on the country-blues. The instrumental “Firebird Blues” is dedicated to the memory of Johnny Winter. Landreth evokes the late guitarist’s slow, wrangling, Delta-cum-Texas style in scorching form. But there’s a surprise in the bassline which is mixed like a tuba at a New Orleans funeral march. Landreth’s version of Skip James’ “Cherry Ball Blues,” with its strident pace and distorted, wrangling solo, offers an entirely new interpretation. On Big Bill Broonzy’s “Key to the Highway,” Landreth simultaneously pays tribute to Buddy Guy and Jimmy Reed. “Simcoe Street” is another original instrumental, this time a choogling boogie made for the roadhouse dancefloor. Bound by the Blues is certainly a welcome return for the guitarist and his trio doing what they do best, and well worth the wait. Here, Landreth reaffirms his commitment to the blues as a free-spirited and still vibrant creative form.
Joe Bonamassa designed his Red Rocks tribute concert to Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf as a fund-raiser for his Keeping the Blues Alive foundation, so it makes sense that the accompanying live album begins with a capsule history of the Mississippi Delta blues, and also has interview excerpts from Waters and Wolf peppered throughout. Bonamassa wanted this particular show to be instructive in addition to being entertaining, so he needs to explain the subjects of his tribute, even if they are two of the biggest blues figures of the 20th century. He divides his show in thirds, playing a set of Waters, then a set of Wolf, before concluding with an encore of his own material. Bonamassa isn’t supported by his usual band, so this has a bit of a more pure Chicago feel, although this would never be mistaken for something cut at Chess: the guitarist stretches out too far in his solos, plus there’s a pretty high quotient of jumping horns. That said, the new band does indeed goose the guitarist along and he sounds thrilled to be digging into these tunes, several of which aren’t standard selections, and that’s what makes Muddy Wolf at Red Rocks a cut above the standard Bonamassa live albums.
Separating from producer Kevin Shirley for the first time in three records, Beth Hart chose to work with Rob Mathes and Michael Stevens for 2015’s Better Than Home. A change in producers helped Hart change direction, letting her depart from the down-and-dirty blues belting she specialized in throughout her time with Shirley, reconnecting slightly to her singer/songwriter beginning while emphasizing deep soul roots. Despite opening with the tight Memphis groove of “Might as Well Smile,” most of the album is grandly introspective — majestic brooding ballads with a clear debt to early Elton John. This cinematic landscape provides a nice contrast to Hart’s raw, nervy vocals, accentuating the aching in her delivery. This emotional immediacy compensates for the sometimes elliptical songs, songs that take a little while to settle, but the risks Hart’s taken on Better Than Home pay off: this is a distinctive, ambitious record that takes advantage of her natural talents in surprising ways.