Album reviews

Matchbox Bluesmaster Series. Set 11 ‘Black Diamond Express’

Matchbox Bluesmaster Series Set 11: – 6 CDsBlack Diamond Express

(MSESET11. Album Review by Chris Parker)

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Disc 1: Blues Piano

Disc 2: Kokomo Arnold

Disc 3: Peetie Wheatstraw Vol. 1

Disc 4: Peetie Wheatstraw Vol. 2

Disc 5: Little Brother Montgomery: (1930–1969)

Disc 6: Black Diamond Express to Hell

Blues piano, as David Harrison (note-writer to Disc 1), points out, is an under-represented and under-researched area of the music. He attributes this neglect to the perceived “inauthenticity” of the instrument in what was seen as a predominantly rural, country artform by its champions in the Blues Revival. The examples of the form included on most of the discs in this collection (Kokomo Arnold’s tracks feature him on guitar) demonstrate just how short-sighted this view was.

 Disc 1, Blues Piano, features a representative selection of pianists, beginning with one of the most justly celebrated: Cripple Clarence Lofton, whose two tracks (recorded in 1939 and 1943) showcase the Tennessee bluesman’s jaunty, spirited playing complementing his pleasantly laid-back vocals. Blind Roosevelt Graves then contributes two vocals, backed by his own guitar and the piano of Will Ezell. “Crazy ’Bout My Baby” and ‘Bustin’ the Jug” are both jook-band-type numbers featuring Graves and his half-brother Uaroy Graves; two later cuts, “Skippy Whippy” and “Dangerous Woman”, are by a similar outfit, named the Mississippi Jook Band, with which Cooney Vaughan performs on piano. The former tracks are relatively relaxed affairs with a semi-competent (unknown) cornet player; the latter, though tighter, are similarly informal. Shorty Bob Parker is a somewhat mysterious figure, his reedy vocals on “Rain and Snow” and Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “So Cold in China” ably supported by the guitar of Kid Prince Moore. Little Brother Montgomery needs no introduction; he contributes a single characteristically robust piano solo track, “Farish St. Jive”. Springback James, on the other hand, is “almost a biographical blank”, according to Harrison, as is Lee Brown, who is accompanied by the better-known pianist Sam Price, a widely recorded contemporary artist. The St. Louis-based brothers Aaron and Lindberg Sparks conclude the selection, which more than vindicates Harrison’s assertion that these recordings are “neglected classics”.

     If ever this last description applied to the oeuvre of anyone in early blues, it surely applies to the work of the performer on Disc 2, Kokomo Arnold. His fourteen tracks here showcase all his considerable strengths: a blisteringly urgent vocal style, powerful (left-handed) bottleneck guitar playing, lyrical inventiveness. He started his career (in 1930) with a bang, his two greatest sides “Paddlin’ Blues” and “Rainy Night Blues”, but it was in 1934 that he launched his career proper with “Milk Cow Blues” and “Old Original Kokomo Blues”, the Scrapper Blackwell song that gave him his name. The cuts on this disc were recorded between 1935 and 1938 in Chicago and New York, and they demonstrate just why he was such a powerful influence on contemporary blues singers, most notably Robert Johnson. Arnold is arguably at his best heard solo, but he is also highly effective on the tracks featuring piano accompaniment (mostly from Peetie Wheatstraw). His lyrics, like those of many of his contemporaries, are often violently misogynistic (“Says I feel just like mama, throwing my slop jar in your face (x2)/Said you done lost your mind, and let that old out‑minder take my place. Now I could cut your throat mama, and drink your blood like wine (x2)/Because you’s a dirty old buzzard, and you sure done lost your mind”), but they can also be surprisingly poetic and reflective. He refused to record after 1941, and died (in Chicago) in 1968, still cruelly under-appreciated.

     Another highly influential bluesman, Peetie Wheatstraw was extensively recorded in in the 1930s, and Discs 3 and 4 comprise 32 tracks made before his premature death (in a car crash) in 1941. He plays rather basic, percussive piano on all these cuts, accompanied (on Disc 3) by guitarists such as Charley Jordan, Will Weldon and Charlie McCoy and (on Disc 4) by Kokomo Arnold and Lonnie Johnson, his voice a somewhat slurred drawl, his lyrics the customary mixture of what liner-note writer Jack Parsons calls “bragging off-handedness” and “attempts to catalogue some of the types of no-good women the singer has known”. Although Wheatstraw stands out from many of his more introspective contemporaries by prioritising informality and sheer entertainment over soul-searching (his “Throw Me in the Alley” here, backed by a lively band of trombone, clarinet and violin, is a highlight of Disc 3), Tony Russell perhaps hits the nail on the head when, referring to the lack of variety in Wheatstraw’s repertoire, he comments: “Anybody listening to long stretches of his recordings is likely to go stir-crazy”; the two discs here are therefore probably best listened to separately.

     Disc 5 documents the varied talents of a man liner-note writer Derrick Stewart Baxter refers to as a “barrelhouse pianist, blues singer and entertainer extraordinary”: Little Brother Montgomery. During a long career, he played everything from straightforward blues to jazz, opera and even torch songs and popular fare such as “A Long Way to Tipperary”. His voice is an affecting plaintive warble, but it is his virtuosic but always propulsively swinging piano that immediately captures and holds the attention. The 16 cuts on this disc come from a 40-year span in his career (1930–69) and include his first recordings (the somewhat tricksy “Vicksburg Blues” and “No Special Rider”), the ragtime-tinged “Mule Face Rag” and – with a “jazz blues band” –  the richly atmospheric “In the Evening” and “Michigan Water Blues”, and are rounded off by three trio recordings (with drummer Red Saunders and bassist Truck Parham) from 1969. A legend on top form.

    Concluding with 26 Gospel tracks, divided equally between those recorded pre- and post-war, and ranging from the downright sentimental (“Mother’s Prayer” by A. C. Forehand) to the fiercely evangelistic (“Arise and Shine” by Lonnie McIntorsh) or joyously celebratory (“I’ll Fly Away” by Rev. B. C. Cambell and his lively congregation), this six-CD set (the eleventh in Matchbox’s excellent reissue series) provides yet more evidence of the inestimable value, both cultural and social, of the blues and related music.

The series is to be completed in September 2023 with a twelfth volume, documenting the British Blues Boom.

LINK: Chris Parker has reviewed the entire series, starting in January 2021. COMPLETE SET OF REVIEWS

Bluesmaster at Wyastone – Set 11 is released today 7 April

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