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Some things borrowed, some things new

Greens From the Garden
Greens From the Garden
By Corey Harris

Alligator Records: 1999

Treat Me Right
Treat Me Right
By Eric Sardinas

Evidence Music: 1999

Under the Spell
Under the Spell
By Dave Hole

Alligator Records: 1999

These reviews first appeared in the May 22, 1999 edition of the American Reporter.

At long last, Taj Mahal has some company. For thirty years, Mahal has been one of the most imaginative and exploring musicians on the scene. Pulling in ideas and sounds from the Delta blues to Haiti's sugar fields, New Orleans' French Quarter to Hawaii's lava fields, Mahal's acoustic guitar and singing have not only had no competition, they've had no real company.

Until lately.

Corey Harris, the young bluesman who gained acclaim and attention for focusing on the acoustic in an electric age, is showing on his third CD that he is ready to join Mahal's ranks as a first-rate musical frontiersman.

This isn't mere emulation, either. Harris isn't copying Mahal, isn't simply doing what's been done. Instead, he's using Mahal as inspiration, is building upon what has gone before, while taking it in new directions with his own stamp and style.

(Of course, the similarities between Harris and Mahal are striking: Both are college-educated products of the black middle class whose passion for roots music is as intellectual as it is emotional; and a resonator guitar is the axe of choice for both.)

Harris' first two albums already showed a penchant for creating musical stews from a wide variety of traditions and styles, but it is on "Greens From the Garden" that he really finds his groove.

The disc opens with an Afro-influenced jam which gives way to the fully modern Delta blues of "Basehead." With Crescent City icon Henry Butler laying down some Professor Longhair-styled piano on "Honeysuckle," Harris and band hit their New Orleans stride. Then there's the French Caribbean Creole of "El La Bas," the Southern funk rock of "Wild West" (not too different from vintage Little Feat) and back to the Delta with "Sweet Black Angel."

And so it goes, round and round, with Harris bringing in a bit of this, a pinch of that, all of it combining for a very piquant dish as filling as it is tasty.

     ~ ~ ~

If Corey Harris is inspired and influenced by Taj Mahal, then the relationship between Eric Sardinas and Johnny Winter is much more direct. To wit: Winter sits in on the last track of Sardinas' debut, and it is nearly impossible to say which line is played by which guitarist.

While eerily like Winter's best blues work at times, Sardinas' first recording is not without talent or charm. He's got a definite knack for the hard-edged electric Texas blues that Winter helped popularize more than thirty years ago (following the path laid down by even earlier black bluesmen like T-Bone Walker, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown and Albert Collins.)

Sardinas isn't much for subtlety; his forte is the full-scale sonic assault: fast runs on guitar laid atop a feverish rhythm with a touch of distortion thrown in. The songs include a handful written by Sardinas (including the outstanding "Treat Me Right" and "Get Along Rider") and a series of covers that show excellent taste in choosing others' work: Muddy Waters' "I Can't Be Satisfied," Willie Dixon's "Down in the Bottom" and Mississippi Fred McDowell's "Write Me a Few Lines," among others.

Still, on the few songs where Sardinas trades in his stack amplifiers for an acoustic guitar, the results are actually more appealing. On the intro to "Goin' to the River," his National Steel playing is restrained yet intriguing; his vocals warm and relaxed.

As mentioned, too often here Sardinas sounds as if he's playing in a Tribute to Johnny Winter stage revue. But when he lets his guard down a bit and lets us hear what Eric Sardinas sounds like, it offers promise of a very fruitful future.

     ~ ~ ~

The old joke about hard rockers AC/DC was how could anyone take seriously the concept of a bunch of Aussies playing the blues?

Well, Dave Hole has been showing us how the past six, seven years, since his first album landed stateside.

Self-taught from imported American blues records he bought growing up in Perth, Australia, Hole also plays with a unique style of holding his fingering hand over the TOP of his guitar neck when playing slide.

His first four albums have all received top ratings from the various guitar magazines; among players, Hole now occupies the same hallowed status formerly held by artists such as the late Albert King or Freddie King.

For more general fans of the blues, Hole is equally appealing: No mere technician, Hole is a complete artist: His high, tenor vocals are increasingly polished and solid. He writes catchy songs and consistently surrounds himself with like-minded musicians who put the ensemble ahead of showing off.

The result is yet another outstanding electric blues album from perhaps the only foreign blues artist to make a mark here in the home of the blues.