Sunday, September 29, 2013

Music Review: Tony Joe White, 'Hoodoo'

In 1969, Washington D.C.-based Monument Records released Cajun-blues inspired Tony Joe White's first single - "Polk Salad Annie" - a delectable blend of swamp rock and funky Mississippi Delta Blues, that was immediately likable and addictive, and unlike any other Top 40 record of the era. After 9 months of circulation, the single never broke into the popular charts and was deemed a failure and written off by the record company.

Yet requests for the single trickled in from remote Southern U.S. locales, where White had toured, and a few visionary disc jockeys, recognizing the excellence and hit potential of the record, continued to play it. The unlikely hit single that sang of "poke sallet", a food product of the pokeweed plant known to Southern culture, started to nudge up the charts and didn't stop its ascension until it reached #8 on Billboard's Hot 100.

Here's hoping it doesn't take blues music fans as long to find Tony Joe White's new album, Hoodoo (Yep Roc Records), as long as it took record fans to find "Polk Salad Annie". At 70 years old, the songwriter of one of the most beloved blues songs to ever hit the popular charts - "Rainy Night in Georgia" - has released a low-key and stunning guitar driven blues record featuring a low and thumping bass line sure to fondle the beat of your blues hungry heart and shake the beer in your glass.

The blend of instruments - guitars, thumping bass, a touch of harmonica and keyboards - have such an organic and impromptu sound it is no wonder White boasts that much of the record was recorded live to tape on first takes. It sounds like a flawless live performance. White's fluid sliding guitars merges seamlessly with Steve Forrest's bottom-feeding bass and Bryan Owen's steady percussion, to create a simple but atmospheric and seductive blues music.

The autobiographical songs of hungry life in the rural South are heartfelt testimonies from a master of Blues philosophy. "Alligator, Mississippi", with its chugging chainsaw guitar, has all the muscle and drive of an alligator wrestling its dinner. "Gypsy Epilogue" fuses the dying embers of a gypsy campfire with a reverberating slide guitar adorning the sentimental philosophy - "can't eavesdrop on the future, can't dance with the past".

The most striking songs are eyewitness accounts of natural disasters so familiar to the people of the deeply southern U.S. The cyclic familial narrative of "Storm's Comin'" invokes a warm bond as White's patriarchal, controlled voice sings with just a measure of desperation - "Kids get up, get your clothes on, storm's comin'". The catastrophic 2010 Nashville floods are documented in "The Flood", where a higher ground vantage point reveals an unrecognizable Nashville with "guitars floating down the river and drum sets washed up on the road". These storm-themed songs come from a voice that has experienced and a respect for the ravages of nature.

Listening to White is like listening to the elder father at the family supper table, who holds you spellbound with tales of storms, lovers and family bonds. He grips the listener in a warm cocoon of fascination while never abandoning a rich and rowdy blues spirit. Hoodoo is a splendid blues album, maybe the best we'll hear all year.

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