SOLOMON BURKE: The soul master explored the links between country and blues.
Two-thousand-six was a black year for blues. Important members of the first and second generations of the music’s electric pioneers joined the death list. Delta guitarist Robert Lockwood, Mississippi-hill-country diva Jessie Mae Hemphill, harpman Snooky Pryor, six-stringer Etta Baker, St. Louis juker Henry Townshend, R&B singer Ruth Brown, pianists Floyd Dixon and Jay McShann, and African synthesist Ali Farke Toure were among them. The local community was shocked by the sudden death of one of its most beloved figures, pianist and promoter Teo Leyasmeyer. And 95 North Recordings, which held the promise of a leg-up for many regional performers, fell victim to the current bleak conditions in the music industry. The recent collapse of Tower Records, the last deep-inventory chain of music shops in America, also promises mean repercussions in blues, where labels often survive on catalogue sales.
And yet, certain artists refused to be marginalized — or at least found ways to thrive in the margins. Brookline’s own Bill “Watermelon Slim” Homans made a national debut, Watermelon Slim & the Workers (NorthernBlues), that combined lonesome hound-dog vocals, wry songwriting, raw slide guitar, and soulful bare-boned arrangements. Nicole Nelson and Dwight Ritcher left their bands and moved to New York City, where they fermented a potent, versatile repertoire as a duo who’re winning more acclaim than their past work did. And the World’s Greatest Sinners started tearing up local clubs with a little-big-band distillation of R&B, blues, and bare-knuckled rock and roll that’s an absolute must-see.
Nonetheless, when it came to recordings, the classics and a host of well-established performers triumphed. Here are the year’s best blues CDs:
1. T-BONE BURNETT | THE TRUE FALSE IDENTITY | Columbia | Modern, edgy, and unconventional blues at its most compelling.
2. SOLOMON BURKE |NASHVILLE | Shout! Factory | The soulful, feel-good disc of the year explores the enduring links of country and blues.
3.BUDDY GUY | CAN’T QUIT THE BLUES | Sony/Legacy | How eloquent and expressive can guitar get? Guy provides the answer on three CDs and a DVD.
4. WATERMELON SLIM & THE WORKERS | NorthernBlues | Hands-down the debut of the year.
5.CHRIS THOMAS KING | RISE | 21st Century Blues | The deepest look at post-Katrina New Orleans and the broken American spirit by a blues artist to date.
6.CHARLIE MUSSELWHITE | DELTA HARDWARE | Real World | A nasty old-style pilgrimage to Musselwhite’s Mississippi home.
7.THE WOOD BROTHERS | WAYS NOT TO LOSE | Blue Note | Crafty and playful bass and guitar duets that stretch the genre while respecting its soulful axis.
8.OTIS TAYLOR | BELOW THE FOLD | Telarc | Another terrific, and more upbeat, outing by the style’s best contemporary songwriter.
9. JAMES HUNTER | PEOPLE GONNA TALK | Go/Rounder | The year’s most over-hyped blues disc. Still, Hunter’s energy, live charm, and marvelous singing counter his lack of originality.
10. JOHN LEE HOOKER | HOOKER | Shout! Factory | Finally, call me biased, because I wrote the liner notes, but this four-CD box is a moving portrait of one of the genre’s most important and profound artists. From his early, and late, solo sides to his final recordings with acolytes like Carlos Santana and Bonnie Raitt, Hooker was a one-man history of the blues. His sensibility spanned its most primal, moving, and mysterious aspects and its most overblown incarnations.