Soul of the Blues Festival

The Soul of the Blues Summer Festival is going extremely well. We’ve had three nights in a row of great music with enthusiastic audiences who are spending money – and we’re only just now getting to the weekend.

Props go to the Downstate New York Blues Assocation for not only hooking us up with some of Long Island’s best blues acts, but arranging for them to come and play our Festival even though we aren’t able to offer them a guarantee. Many of these highly accomplished regional acts rarely play in New York City for precisely the reason that clubs here can’t or won’t pay the talent except with a cut of the door. That’s just the way things are, and as a result, there’s a lot less blues in the greatest city in the world than there should be.

Our home for Soul of the Blues, Cornelia Street Cafe, is an ususually supportive venue for the arts. We appreciate – among other things – their toleration of music that gets a little rowdier (i.e. louder) and goes a little later than they’re used to. Long live the Soul of the Blues!

Details on this weekend’s Festival shows are here.

CD Review: Corey Harris, Daily Bread

Corey Harris has that rare ability to sound like himself and always at home no matter what musical veins he’s tapping. His spiritual-musical journeys to Africa, explorations of Caribbean styles, and American blues and soul roots all contribute to the smooth pleasures of his new CD.

It’s possible to appreciate this collection on two levels. You can listen for Harris’s scholarship (he was featured prominently in Martin Scorsese’s PBS series “The Blues” in 2003), observe his absorption and re-transmission of musical styles from all over the African Diaspora, identify the different roots – or you can just let it move and groove you. It may take a listen or two for the second approach to work, but Harris’s unprepossessing vocals and straightforward yet slinky songwriting run through the whole effort like ice in coffee, making it easy to adjust quickly to his wide-ranging palette.

The CD is heavy on reggae and ska jams, which are made extra sweet by Harris’s subtly artful arrangements and masterful variety of guitar sounds. But the soulful, down-and-dirty “A Nickel and a Nail” and the funny, Mali-inspired “Mami Wata” are more unusual and memorable. The snappy instrumental “Khaira” and langourous, vaguely Afropop-ish “Big String” are also stirring, in very different ways: even when Harris sings of lost love, terror or war, his melodies and music keep to a life-affirming mode. Only in the true love songs “The Sweetest Fruit” and “More Precious Than Gold” does his deft touch lose the faint, warm tension that makes most of this music so satisfying.

“The Bush Is Burning,” as you might guess from the title, raises the specter of terrorism and sharply condemns the Iraq war, but it’s the only overt political statement on the album. Elsewhere Harris hews to more spiritual or personal lines. He visits the blues tradition with “The Peach,” abetted by jazzman-turned-griot Olu Dara, who also adds some laid-back trumpet to two other tracks. The other contributing musicians are very good as well, most notably the percussionist Harry Dennis, Jr.

Recommended for fans of real soul music, “world music,” reggae, and most anyone who likes to groove.

[Cross-posted at Blogcritics]

The Passion of the Right

Opponents of the death penalty may have finally found their “smoking gun” – a case in which an innocent person may have been executed.

Many people have been exonerated while on death row, but the United States has never had a case in which an executed person was later proven innocent. Now, as the New York Times reported earlier this week, St. Louis’s top prosecutor has decided to reopen the case of Larry Griffin, who was executed ten years ago for the murder of a drug dealer. A reappraisal of the evidence has indicated that others may have been responsible for the crime.

The death penalty is the prime example of a public policy based on passion rather than reason. It has been shown time and time again that the death penalty does not deter crime. Rather, it exists in many U.S. states because executing those guilty of heinous crimes fulfils a basic desire – both individual and societal – for revenge.

The thoroughly understandable animal instinct to strike back in kind against someone who has attacked you or your loved ones can be opposed only by reason. Opposition to the death penalty, common among liberals, is sometimes based on emotion or religious convictions. But unlike the pro-death penalty position, it can also be based on reason. In that sense it follows a pattern I have noticed in many domestic issues of the day, namely, that the political differences between “right” and “left” (or “conservative” and “liberal”) often map closely to the human mind’s perpetual internal conflict between instinct and reason.

The Terry Schiavo affair was a case in point. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist’s “professional” opinion based on viewing a video was – even if we are generous and view Frist sympathetically rather than cynically – an example of emotion trumping reason. In spite of his medical training, Frist, along with many other Americans, had an emotional response to seeing Ms. Schiavo apparently smiling and following an object with her eyes. Reason was represented in this case by the various medical professionals who had actually examined Ms. Schiavo over the course of her vegetative state.

Opposition to gay marriage, a position generally identified with a conservative point of view, makes no rational sense. It’s based either on religious belief or on gut feeling rooted in fear of the unknown or the different. Reason tells us that increasing the pool of people who are allowed to marry should, at best, strengthen the institution of marriage, and at worst, have no effect on married heterosexuals. (To test this statement, try to think of a possible rational basis for a married heterosexual to think that gay marriages could threaten his or her own traditional marriage in any way.)

Fear of the unknown and the different is a ubiquitious and instinctive part of human nature; only reason can overcome it. In this case, as in others, the liberal line is more closely aligned with reason, while the conservative position arises from faith (the opposite of reason) or, at its worst, prejudice and hatred.

To be sure, liberals often cleave to their positions out of passions just as strong as those found on the other side. I am certainly not out to condemn the passions – without them we wouldn’t be human. It would not be possible to strive for social justice, for example, without a mix of idealism (fed by passions) and policymaking based on reason. But the difference I have begun to perceive is that where many social issues are concerned, though both points of view have their attendant passions, only the liberal position can claim reason on its side.

[Cross-posted at Blogcritics]

CD Review: Bobby Purify, Better To Have It

More than one man has worn the moniker “Bobby Purify” since the southern soul duo James and Bobby Purify – best known for its smash hit “I’m Your Puppet” – began its career in the mid-1960s. Though singer-guitarist Ben Moore wasn’t on board at the start, he’s been Bobby Purify for the past three and a half decades, and has now come out of retirement with an excellent new CD under the Bobby Purify name.

Produced by Dan Penn, the set consists of original songs composed mostly by the team of Penn, Carson Whitsett and Hoy “Bucky” Lindsey, laid down by Muscle Shoals luminaries including keyboardist Spooner Oldham and guitarist Jimmie Johnson, and sung with tender, good-natured soulfulness by Moore, who’s lost none of his smoky vocal lustre and gift for lyrical interpretation. From the gospel organ at the start of the title track to the Al Green-style “Things Happen” and the achy defiance of the Moore-penned “What’s Old To You,” the CD proves that old-style soul music lives on beyond the realm of nostalgia.

Purify and the writing team are adept at love ballads (“Forever Changed”) and social commentary (“Nobody’s Home”). The funkified “Somebody’s Gotta Do It” and the heartbreaker “Hate To See You Go” are also solid. And “The Pond” is a hilarious dog-eat-dog tale that reminds me of something Leon Russell might have come up with.

This CD is an enjoyable listen through and through, with plenty of well-crafted “songs of experience” and the rich, warm, classically soulful vocals you’d expect from Bobby Purify, who belongs in the pantheon of great southern soul singers. I’ll let Jerry Wexler (from his liner notes) have the last word: “Mr. Purify, along with his gospel and blues qualities, has that touch of the South and that pinch of country that puts him in the great lineage of the down-home r&b singers from below the Mason-Dixon line: the Arthur Alexanders, the Joe Simons, the Percy Sledges, the Clarence Carters – and yes, dare I say it, the Otis Reddings.”

NOTE: While the many comebacks, reissues and new soul music releases of the past couple of years may not constitute a full-fledged soul revival, they make it clear that the music is still here and ain’t goin’ nowhere. And that’s more than fine by me. The following are links to my recent articles on some other notable examples:

Janis Joplin
Victor Wooten
The O’Jays
Willie Hightower
W. C. Clark
Keb’ Mo’
Richard “Groove” Holmes
Gail Ann Dorsey

And allow me to plug the the upcoming SOUL OF THE BLUES SUMMER FESTIVAL in NYC, July 26-31, 2005, which I have organized with the help of the Downstate NY Blues Association. Readers in the area, please come by – I’d love to meet you.