Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Now Spinning: Digging Roots and Willie McBlind

As noted here, I spent my teens immersed in electric blues music as purveyed by The Allman Brothers Band, Johnny Winter, Paul Butterfield and the like. Through them, I cycled back through time to Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and Elmore James, then further back to Son House, Bukka White and Robert Johnson. Without access to the Allmans or their peers in the flesh, my friends and I spent many a night soaking up electric blues—and soaking up quart bottles of Molson Export—via guys like Dutch Mason, Morgan Davis and David Wilcox (unwittingly, in the same barrooms as Dan Aykroyd, as it turns out).

What turned me on about guitarists like Wilcox, Winter and Duane Allman was how they took the blues form beyond what their predecessors had created, spinning out longer forms, using amplification for expanded dynamics and applying more advanced techniques than some of the early blues players possessed.

When I moved on to other forms of music—and, for the most part, gave up my wicked, beer-soaked ways—it seemed that electric blues guitar had been taken about as far as it could go. I began to realize this wasn't true when I heard Sonny Landreth wailing behind John Hiatt, and Derek Trucks began to outgrow the long shadow of Brother Duane. And, while they may be the highest profile players, Landreth and Trucks aren't the only guitarists who are taking the blues genre further out. Recently, two new releases have me as hopped up as I used to get after a couple of quarts of Ex.

The first recording—Digging Roots' We Are—reacquainted me with a guitarist I first met at the Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville. Raven Kanatakta was—still is—a striking-looking young man who was studying at the Berklee College of Music. The last time I saw him, at the jazz festival in Ottawa, he was worried that a repetitive-strain injury would force him to quit guitar and focus on composition. He needn't have worried; he has developed into an exceptional, distinctive player. Sharing leadership of Digging Roots with his wife, singer ShoShona Kish, he's creating a compelling blend of blues, rock and urban dance music. I've been spinning We Are off and on for weeks.

The second guitarist who's caught my ear is Jon Catler, an inventive player who uses harmonically re-fretted and fretless guitars in his band Willie McBlind. Catler also collaborates with a creative singer, Meredith (Babe) Borden, who has a three-octave range. Both Catler and Borden have worked extensively in art music—he with La Monte Young, her with Meredith Monk and Philip Glass—and those influences flow into strains of Blind Willie Johnson and Mississippi Fred McDowell with a solubility that seems unlikely but sounds right. While I haven't warmed to Borden's voice as much as I have Kish's—purely a matter of taste, and mine is simply that—I'm sure many listeners will find Willie McBlind's Bad Thing indispensable. They certainly stir up an exciting racket that takes you way outside of where you might have imagined the blues going.

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