It was back in the days when vinyl records were the primary means of music delivery. I mostly shopped at a store in Northtown called The Recordworks (which would eventually spawn The Works). Unconcerned with the latest hits, I always checked the cut-out bin, where remaindered treasures could often be found. At some point I took home a few records by a somewhat obscure soul artist, O.V. Wright, a former gospel singer from Memphis, who I later learned was a prime influence on the Robert Cray Band. O.V. mostly worked the chitlin circuit down south; he had an amazingly emotive voice, backed by a band that managed to sound smooth without being slick. The singer's hard-knock life killed him in 1980 and I never got to hear him sing. I have heard his music director/guitar player however. Johnny Rawls is in the O.V. mold -- he's the real deal, smooth as butter, soulful as the day is long.
Born in Mississippi, son of a mill worker and grandson of a blind blues guitarist, Rawls took the music path early on. With help from his high school band leader, he found work in a show band that backed artists like Z.Z. Hill, Little Johnny Taylor and Joe Tex before going to work for Wright, playing music that's typically described as blues, although I'd call it soul.
"Back then, they considered everybody blues," Rawls explained in the liner notes to a recent album. "James Brown, B.B. King, whoever had a hit, had a hit. Then Earth, Wind and Fire came in, then people started saying, 'Well that's blues, I don't want to hear no blues'."
After Wright's death Rawls led Taylor's band for a time before striking off on his own. Now in his 50s, he's at the top of his game. His latest disc, Red Cadillac, on Texas-based Catfood Records, hit No. 1 on the blues charts when it came out last summer. In the Blues Foundation's upcoming Blues Music Awards (BMAs) Red Cadillac is nominated for "Soul Blues Album of the Year," and Rawls in the running for "Soul Blues Male Artist of the Year."
You may be able to see Rawls at Blues by the Bay come September -- organizers says he's "under consideration" as a headliner. You definitely will be able to hear him play his soul blues Saturday at the Riverwood Inn, Humboldt's home of blues and soul. Coming to the Riverwood the following Saturday: Janiva Magness, who's up for four BMAs including "Album of the Year" and "Entertainer of the Year." (More on her next week.) Friday, Jan 23, it's Lady Bianca; Feb. 6, John Lee Hooker Jr. plays his blues at the Inn.
Brightblack Morning Light returns to Humboldt Brews Monday, Jan. 12, for another dose of their unique swamp dub. Naybob and Raybob are on their "West Coastaling Crystal Totem Tour," where they ask you to "bring a nice crystal." Special guests with BbML include 'Lectric Meara O'Reilly (from Feathers), Matthew Davis and Tommy Rouse, plus, opening on the tour, Daniel Arcus Incus Ululat Higgs, a musician/artist from Baltimore, Maryland who once fronted the reclusive post-punk/drone band Lungfish. More recently Higgs has been touring solo, backing his mystic incantations with long-necked banjo and Jew's harp and handcrafting albums like Atomic Yggdrasil Tarot, combining his music with iconic paintings. As the folks at his label, Thrill Jockey, explain, "The Yggdrasil is the great tree of Norse myth that connects all worlds of cosmology. Passing into Christian folklore, the tree is said to connect Heaven and Earth. In his relentless pursuit of the indivisible, Higgs travels up and down this spine and hatches a new transubstantiation of sound and image into life-form."
Here's what worries me: When BbML played HumBrews last October, Meara O'Reilly opened the show as Avocet, a one-person band where she plays guitar and an elaborate homemade instrument called a Bella Donna, constructed from forks and knives strung on horsehair. As she started out with her guitar, it was instantly apparent that most of the crowd at HumBrews that night was there to drink beer and/or eat, not necessarily to hear the music. The space is long and narrow, the reverberating voices were much louder than her singing, and it was impossible to hear her. She gave up and didn't even try playing the Bella Donna. That was a Friday night; perhaps a Monday will be different. I hope so.
Around the corner at the Jambalaya that same Monday, Warsaw Poland Bros, a band from Arizona that I heard in the mid-'90s, at the height of the neo-ska era, when they were called simply Warsaw. I still have their Warska and Battle Ska Galactica albums; Warska starts with a jumpin' tale of a band on the road, "I'm a Tramp," warning: "We're on the road and we're coming to your house; after the show, we're gonna sleep on your coach ... We're on the move and we're ever so smooth, we need some food and we're goddamn rude," as horns blare over a herky-jerky punk/ska rhythm. The Brothers Poland, Crix and Aaron (aka Double A), are still the heart of the band, but as their MySpace indicates, they're now a "dub-ska-punk" band, moving more towards stretched-out reggae stylie.
On the roots reggae side, you have Woven Roots playing Saturday at the Red Fox Tavern to celebrate the release of a new CD (I think the disc is called Foundation). DJ Tanasa Ras opens the show. Lead vocalist Travis and guitarist Gueren started Woven Roots a little more than a year ago. As they explain on their MySpace, "We both homestead in the beautiful woodlands above the majestic South Fork Trinity River near Willow Creek. Our music is inspired by living off of the land, growing our own food, and doing the best job we can as being stewards of the land." Filling out the five-piece are bassist Eliam and drummer Mike, both from Arcata, and keyboardist Alex from Bridgeville. "Our music is all about spreading a message of love, peace and respect for the Earth, all plants and all animals, so we may build a more harmonious future on this planet," they conclude hopefully.
Friday night in the Ink People space in the back of the Muni: the 2009 Jump Off, an all ages hip hop party with Thic Family, DVS, B. Inc. and Maniac Krew benefiting the Marz Project and Eureka High's student club Rappers Delight. The show was assembled by teenaged MC/producer/poet Terra Stolberg, aka $nub, aka Lil Maniac, a member of the high school hip hop club and leader of Maniac Krew. She asks the rhetorical question: "Who the fuck is that kid Lil Maniac???" The answer: "I am the one who's gonna be taking hip hop back from crank that bullshit back to the Rebirth Of Slick -- real hip hop -- not this sugar-coated, watered-down mainstream bullshit. I hate what rap has become -- I want hip hop back -- so I'm doing something about it. Join me or be overrun!"
Also on Friday evening, in another town, and in some ways a different universe, there's the first house concert of the year at Holly's place in McKinleyville with violinist Kim Angelis playing a mix of classics and her own version of gypsy music accompanied by her guitarist husband Josef Gault. Angelis, who hails from Astoria, Ore., traces her roots to British gypsies and has a certain East-Euro flare in her fiddling. If you're interested in going, give Holly a call at 834-6300. That show gets underway at 7:30, and having attended a house show at Holly's, I can assure you the intimate crowd will be attentive and definitely not more interested in beer than music.