Album reviews

Matchbox Bluesmaster Set 12 (of 12) – ‘Blues Like Showers of Rain’ (1966-76)

Matchbox Bluesmaster Series Set 12
(Set 12: MSESET12 – 6 CDs. Album review by Chris Parker)

Blues Like Showers of Rain

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Disc 1: Blues Like Showers of Rain (Vol. 1)
Disc 2: Blues Like Showers of Rain (Vol. 2)
Disc 3: The Inverted World
Disc 4: Blues Miscellany: Searchin’ the Desert for Blues
Disc 5: Hokum Miscellany: Selling that Stuff
Disc 6: Ragtime and Miscellaneous: The Nailbreaker

This, the twelfth (and concluding) 6-CD set of Matchbox reissues, documents not the original US blues recordings of the 1920s and 1930s but the British music scene which they inspired. Ian Anderson (later editor of Folk Roots, but in the late 1960s a sparkplug firing up the country blues scene in Bristol and beyond with his own performances and indefatigable promotional activities) introduces the set with a characteristically enthusiastic and highly informative essay. “Suddenly in 1968 the blues and folk worlds found that they had produced a number of artists singing the country blues of the 1920s and ’30s perfectly in the idiom, but with a quality and personal involvement which lifted them far above the level of mere copyists,” is how he remembers this heady time, and (the best of) the passionate, committed music caught on these six CDs of British blues and associated music goes some way towards vindicating his claim.

     The first two CDs stand head and shoulders above the last four. They are taken from two Matchbox albums, Blues Like Showers of Rain, recorded in Frenchay on the outskirts of Bristol in 1968. Singer/guitarist Jo-Ann Kelly is pictured on the album sleeve, but it is her brother, Dave Kelly, who kicks the first volume’s proceedings off with a spirited visit to Eli Green’s “A Few Short Lines”, setting his wailing vocals against driving bottleneck guitar. Jo-Ann Kelly interprets her chief inspiration Memphis Minnie’s “Nothin’ in Ramblin’” with great panache and does an unaccompanied version of “Black Mary”. Simon [Prager] & Steve [Rye] power through Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Dealing with the Devil”, the Reverend Gary Davis’s “Say No to the Devil”, and Steve alone provides a plaintive version of “Bread of Heaven”. Doyen of bottleneck guitar Mike Cooper plays a rag and an affecting version of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “Black Snake Moan” and Anderson himself contributes a couple of classics. The CDs also contain vigorous group music from The Panama Limited Jug Band (Gus Cannon’s “Going to Germany” and set-closing stormers, “Cocaine Habit” and “Wildcat Squall”) and The Missouri Compromise, whose singer Pete Hassel gives his considerable all on both Tommy Johnson’s “Dark Road Blues” and – an immortal classic – Robert Johnson’s “Possession Over Judgment Day”. Frances McGillivray sets her strident vocal version of “It Hurts Me Too” to the faultless bottleneck guitar of Mike Cooper, and the second volume also showcases the skilful picking of John James, his impeccable ragtime guitar liberally embellished with showers of harmonics. The albums were considerable successes on their release and it is easy to see why: what these committed practitioners inevitably lack (the grit that derives, in the originals, from genuine oppression and suffering), they make up for with love and respect for their source material and the unfussy virtuosity with which they interpret it. 

     The third CD features Cooper and Anderson picking their way through a selection of familiar country blues numbers (anomalously attributed on the original album not to individual blues composers but “trad.”). Cooper’s guitar playing, as ever, is simply faultless throughout, Anderson’s a great deal better than adequate, but their singing (especially when compared with the heart-rending, chilling vocals of Robert Johnson, the sly conversational informality of Blind Willie McTell or the affectingly plaintive emotional power of Sleepy John Estes, to take just three examples) does tend to let them down a little, and a novelty selection, “Beedle Um Bum” probably worked better in live performance than in a recording studio.

     Dave Peabody is heavily featured on the last three CDs, and he also contributes extensive liner notes in which he painstakingly charts his journey from Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan to John Lee Hooker, Sonny Boy Williamson and jug band music. This last form is strongly represented on CD 4,  much of which sets Peabody’s somewhat nasal, reedy vocals against a variety of textures created by, among others, the multi-talented Dave Griffiths (violin/mandolin), the harmonica of Steve Rye and the rollicking piano of Bob Hall. Tenor saxophonist Don Weller also appears on a couple of tracks. Peabody’s material is taken mainly from the likes of Tampa Red, Robert Johnson and Maceo Merryweather, but he does perform a few original blues compositions which, while lacking bite and intensity (“Scared at Night” is hardly “Hellhound on My Trail”, for instance, and “My Friend was Arrested” pales by comparison with a line such as “They got me jailed for forgin’, can’t even write my name”), do effectively showcase his neat guitar style and his considerable arranging skills. Peabody’s material is interspersed with a couple more Ian Andersontracks, guitar maestro Wizz Jones performs “Spoonful”, Al Jones contributes a couple of polite John Renbourn-style blues songs, and Strange Fruit (harmonica player Keith Warmington and singer Pete Keely) perform “Shake That Thing”.

     CD 5 is devoted to hokum, and begins with the injunction “let’s have some fun”. Peabody contributes all of the tracks except “Dan Scaggs” (Al Jones), and for him “fun” consists, in the main, of salaciousness (Will Shade’s “Everybody’s Talking About Sadie Green”), outright misogyny (his original, “Shut Your Mouth”), or back-handed compliments (“She’s Alright with Me”, another original in a genre unforgettably satirised by Tom Lehrer’s “She’s My Girl”). The instrumental skill on show is considerable, but the songs will appeal only to devoted hokum aficionados.

     CD 6 is again mostly Peabody (highlights: neat rags with great mandolin playing from Dave Griffiths), but is notable chiefly for containing four cuts by the eccentric but adept ragtime pianist Quentin Williams, whose intriguing originals are as quirky as his suggestion that they are played with “plyers and a molewrench”. The Pigsty Hill Light Orchestra are also featured; they were apparently “national favourites” courtesy of their “humorous live act”, but their songs here are comparatively lame and their singer’s laid-back vocal style fatally lacks zip. Fleshed out with another Dave Evans instrumental, the delightful “Insanity Blues”, plus a pleasantly lazy vocal contribution from Chris Thompson, the CD is thus something of a curate’s egg, providing a disappointingly anti-climactic ending to an extraordinary reissue series. The British Blues Revival is justly celebrated for its respectful and spirited championing of a cruelly neglected artform (and for its spawning of rock behemoths such as the Rolling Stones and Cream), but on the evidence provided by these CDs, its major achievement was in sending a whole generation of listeners back to the originals of Robert Johnson, Bukka White, Sonny Boy Williamson et al.  

LINKS: Chris Parker has review the entire set of twelve 6-CD boxes Link to all twelve reviews

Set 12 from Wyastone

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