Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Lightnin Malcolm - Rough Out There - The Blues At Its Best 2013

Lightnin Malcolm is the real deal - he's steeped in the tradition of the Mississippi juke joint blues, and Rough Out There just may be the best pure blues to cross my path this year. Out September 10th on Shakedown Record, it's a very self-contained project with Malcolm being joined by drummers Cam Jones, and Carl Gentle White (AKA Stud), the grandson of blues legend T Model Ford (New York Times Obituary, 7-18-13), the latter with whom Malcolm cut his musical teeth for many years as a drummer. Yes, this record is steeped in it.

(Note: This edit deals with guitarists and drummers - when I reviewed the record, I wasn't ware of Cam Jones role - funny, because all the drum tracks are excellent, and it still comes across as pure cohesion. Cam plays on tracks 1, 3, 8, 12, and 13. Luther Dickson plays slide guitar on tracks 1, 5, 8, and 13.)

Malcolm also may be familiar to many as a touring member of The North Mississippi All Stars. This fall finds him touring furiously with the Dickerson brothers as the All Stars cross the US, then head out to Europe and the UK. He'll be holding down the bottom on bass for the band and opening up shows as a solo act. In his spare time he also found his way to aiding the All Stars on their excellent new record, World Boogie Is Coming. Busy is good, and Lightnin Malcolm is busy.

Workin kicks off the manifesto as Malcolm proclaims to be "Chasin' that blue sky, all down that road," and it sounds like it must be true. The beat is insistent and the guitars are as tough and thick as nails - when the slide comes out the soloing commences and Malcolm sounds like he was born to this. His tones are perfect - not too shrill, not mushy, but rather taut and on point.

If you told me that this record was where someone like Fogerty got his inspiration back in the sixties, I wouldn't blink. My Life's A Wreck is a choogling number, and the guitar riffs are perfectly nested under the story. Stud's drum fills do indeed sound like he grew up on Malcolm's lap as a youngster - they come off as joined at the hip in the best sort of style. They've known each other all their lives and in a genre in which timing is everything, they've got it covered.

Dellareesa reminds me of some long lost David Lindley record with its caribbean horns and beats that keep things moving - again, the drums are perfect as toms careen wonderfully alongside both Malcolm's vocals and the horn charts. Malcolm makes it all sound organic - there's no sense of genre jumping.

Wicked wah-drenched shards of guitar belch forth to form Reality Check - from a thick slurry of chords to some skronky and slick single string work, the intro leads into a reggae beat that has me dancing in my seat as Lightnin unfurls the tale. The way-wah comes back out for the solo, and now you hear that Malcolm did hear a Zeppelin record, or two - his solo sounds like it came out in one beautiful flow, and without the pentatonic predictability that makes most blues rock so boring. No, this is In The Moment 101, as Malcolm lays it down as it happens. Great stuff.

Malcolm's well versed songwriting keeps things from becoming rote, or a bore - So Much Trouble sounds like a Curtis Mayfield remnant, and the drums continue to contribute mightily to the arrangements - I often say that great drumming separates good records from great records, and this serves to prove the point. Redemption seems to play a part in Lightnin Malcolm's catalog - there's no sparing the dark, but it's always lit with sonic hope. This is some seriously soulful music.

Rough Out There is straight out of 1973, and I can envision a world in which the good fight was won. This one reminds me of my old boss, Bobby Womack - again, the story isn't pretty, but there's light at the end of the tunnel that ain't a train. Malcolm throws in some crazy echo and some nice atmospheric keyboard washes that add a great string-y sound to the very melodic mix. Brilliant drums are on tap again, and this is a soundtrack for our times.

Took Too Long stomps it's way back to deep blues, and Malcolm does his usual excellent job of singing along with his unison guitar parts. He layers things nicely, so there is not a time in which things get too samey, or stale. There's a tremendous art, a very difficult art to soloing in a minimalist context, and nobody is beating Malcolm at this game - he and Stud are sympatico deluxe.

Country music? Sure - Givin You Away finds Malcolm going loosely up to the neighborhood of Nashville, with some nice steely fills, and a fat backbeat - his slide solo is pure style and grace, a thing of pearly beauty. The story is a cliche, but it's done so well that you realize why this type of arrangement always wins.

The beat steps up to a steady rollin' shuffle on Money as the unison vocals and guitar attack continues - strange, but this sounds to my ears what would happen if you dipped Steely Dan in the waters of the Mississippi. That may sound a bit whacky, but Lightnin Malcolm excels at working in much more sophistication into these grooves than may seem apparent on the first listen. I'm guessing reading this would make Donald Fagen as happy as it might Malcolm - good company.

Chiefs - what the hell is this? American Indian blues? Oh hell yes - the big beat tom-toms and the pinched riffs are perfect. How come this hasn't happened before now? This reminds me of the perfection Jim Jarmusch achieved when he had Neil Young write and record the soundtrack to Dead Man - perfect.

Juke joint jumping comes back into focus on Young Woman, Old Fashioned Ways - Elmore is dustin' his broom up in heaven over material like this. Lightnin Malcolm has a PhD in this stuff, and when he starts slurring the guitars in the solo, he approaches blues genius.

Malcolm combines his guitar licks - thick and syrupy bass lines that lead into sharp chord stabs that are married to some sweet, 'Philadelphia by way of Stax' horns to lay the foundation of the big city blues that are Mama. Maybe the best mama song since Papa Was A Rollin' Stone. Again, this seems to retell the same tales that were told the last time this country was in slump of slums and wars back in the seventies. Sad to see such times return, but certainly some great music gets made from the rubble.

Things get a little gospel-tinged with Stomp Yo Feet, Clap Yo Hands - then the pace picks up as Lightnin Malcolm takes us uptown for a dance hall sermonette. A nice walking bass line tags along with some stinging slide guitar as the preacherman lays it down. Malcolm feels it deep, and so will you.

How Blessed You Are is a great way to wrap it up, as Malcolm gets contemporary - one foot in the past, one in the present - a great way to approach the blues, always wrapped in great rhythms and melody. I don't like a lot of rap, but I dig this one. Maybe because the message is reaching for my heart and not my wallet.

Lightnin Malcolm has knocked it out of the park with this record - as I'm fond of saying, Rock Ain't Near Dead, and this is a sound remainder - great music is being made and we are truly blessed to have great examples like this record.

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