Gulf Coast Records
The blues went through an identity crisis in the mid-1980s. The generation of African-American bluesmen who had set the Chitlin’ Circuit ablaze in the 1940s and 1950s, and who were “rediscovered” by rockers in the 1960s, were dying off. The blues lost Howlin’ Wolf and Freddy King in 1976, Lightnin’ Hopkins in 1982 and Muddy Waters the following year; the Texas superstars Albert King and Albert Collins would both die only a decade later.
The transition to digital recording and compact discs hit the business of the blues particularly hard. Small blues labels, which had always operated at the knife-edge of solvency found the challenge of retooling for the digital age particularly difficult as music industry titans, fueled by the MTV explosion, and able to negotiate the technological transition with huge economies of scale, grew even larger.
The blues hit a rough patch.
Amid all the loss, there were faint signs of hope. The Blues Brothers movie, released in 1980, created a shiver of interest in the blues in a wider audience, and Eric Clapton, dried-out and finally fully-conscious after a decade-long bender, signaled a return to his blues roots with Money and Cigarettes in 1983. Both the movie and the the album contained pretty mediocre blues, but it was blues, nonetheless, and inspired young listeners like me to dig more deeply into the catalog to learn more about Sleepy John Estes, Junior Wells, and Johnny Otis.
The problem was that all of this seemed somehow alienated from all that had come before. It was all blues-as-commodity, or blues-as-artifact. It seemed somehow dead.
The Blues Brothers were literally a joke, Clapton’s slow-hand picking was strangely bloodless, even Stevie Ray Vaughan, the phenomenon from Texas whose album Texas Flood stopped blues fans in their tracks, sometimes seemed more of a technical virtuoso that a bluesman. “That boy can play a hundred notes to say what BB King says in one,” my friend Mel said as we shared a smoke walking along Northblues- Halstead street after a show in 1985. Mel was a Tennessean who’d come up to Chicago from the Delta looking for work in the 1940s with a guitar, a bottleneck slide and three harmonicas. Now, he was teaching me about the blues.
“I don’t know that I like what I hear these days,” he said. “The blues has lost something. If they ain’t dead, I’m afraid they’re dying.’”
Mel had a point. It was hard to see how the blues, especially the rhythm and blues cultivated and nurtured in the soil of Texas roadhouses, Chicago dive bars, and King Biscuit Time on KFFA in Helena, AK, had much of a future in 1985. Black kids on the South Side were listening to Hip Hop, while blues veterans like Mel were passing the tradition along to white kids from the West Side, and there was no guarantee that it would lay down roots in new soil. The Black musicians who had built and defined of the genre were dead or dying and, even from the vantage of Kingston Mines in Chicago, it really looked as if the only people coming up behind them were a Texas good ol’ boy, an English country gentleman, and a white hipster comedy team, one of whom was Canadian.
Then Robert Cray happened. It wasn’t just Cray, of course, and it didn’t happen all at once, but throughout the 1980s, he’d been the torchbearer for a new blues sound, steeped in soul, with some of its rougher edges smoothed-out. Music critics called “contemporary.”
Whatever you think of the “contemporary blues” style, and a whole lot of traditionalists can’t stand it, it helped revitalize the scene. In 1986, Cray’s major-label debut, Strong Persuader charted in the Billboard top-20, ultimately selling two million copies, and won the first Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues album – a category created just to give Cray the award. The blues was was back.
More than most genres, the blues is always in conversation with its history and traditions, but the fact that they continue to thrive in the 21st century is very much due to the foundation laid by Cray and other contemporary bluesmen thirty years ago. The very idea that the blues could be contemporary at all, instead of a dusty artifact for English aristocrats to play with and Hollywood to parody, was revolutionary, and tenor saxophone legend Jimmy Carpenter’s latest album Soul Doctor, released by Gulf Coast Records this fall, is a welcomed reminder that the contemporary blues style is still here.
Like much contemporary blues, Carpenter’s sound is not to everyone’s taste. It was the kind of thing that Mel, in a backhanded compliment he used to describe Cray, might have called “classy and glassy.” But for all of that, Carpenter has what every blues musician needs – fire and conviction. He is a true believer.
That much is absolutely clear from the opening track, the album’s title song. “Soul Doctor” is a blazing-hot raver, featuring Carpenter’s sax and Nick Schnebelen’s lead guitar. In some ways, it’s the perfect way to open a varied set. Swinging from a Texas-style 12-bar guitar shuffle reminiscent of Johnny Copeland to a major-key chorus, “Soul Doctor” signals that, while Carpenter respects the traditions, he’s more than happy to mix it up.
There are moments when the album channels the traditions of smokey Chicago nightclubs, as in Carpenter’s swinging, down-tempo cover of the Little Willie John standard “Need Your Love So Bad.” It’s a straight, honest interpretation that honors the history with a passionate vocal delivery and Chris Tofield’s restrained, moody guitar playing. At other times, Carpenter goes full-on soul in a cover of the Coasters’ 1951 single “One Mint Julep” and “Love it So Much” with a punchy horn accompaniment provided by the Bender Brass. Each one of these tracks is a highlight.
It can be a difficult balance to strike, however, and Carpenter occasionally falters. “Lofo Roulette” comes off sounding a little gimmicky and a lot over-produced; something of a long-lost Jerry Rafferty out-take from the 1970s, relieved only by Carpenter’s searing tenor sax. It’s a great performance wasted on an indifferent song that doesn’t really know what it wants to be.
But when Carpenter is sure of what he’s doing, he’s all-in. “Wrong Turn,” for example, finds a sweet-spot between blues, soul, and blues-inspired rock. It’s one of those songs that the blues is full of, in the tradition of Albert King’s “Born Under a Bad Sign,” about bad luck and worse life choices. Carpenter sings with conviction (I have no idea about the times that he “always went left when I shoulda gone right), and his guitar-playing, while not brilliant, provides the kind of workmanlike grind that any honest bar brawler needs.
Soul Doctor is a good album. It’s a solid outing by a bluesman who has been around since the beginning of the contemporary blues scene and who is still around. There’s something heroic about that. Admittedly, there are a couple of missteps, and I found myself wishing I could listen to Carpenter playing live in a dive bar, rather than in a slick, oh-so-digital production that has a bit too much class and glass. But there is no doubt that the blues is in good hands.