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Feature Review: Grandpa Elliot & The Playing for Change Band, Sugar Sweet

Grandpa Elliot and the Playing For Change Band do it right with Sugar Sweet, the band's first foray into a studio that doesn't move.

Grandpa Elliot & The Playing for Change Band
Sugar Sweet
[Playing for Change PFC-31841-02 (2009/2010)]

The Playing for Change project, a nonprofit that raises funds to build music schools throughout the world, is now six years old, with 33 episodes as of this writing, and Grandpa Elliot has been there from the beginning. His voice, a gentle, soulful, moving baritone, is the second one you hear on the project’s version of the Ben E. King classic, “Stand By Me,” a YouTube video that has racked up over 23 million views. In case you haven’t seen it, here it is:

He appeared in two of the project’s subsequent videos, and in November of last year he released his debut album, which for a long time was available only on Amazon, but can now be found out and about in the “IRL” world.

Grandpa Elliot has surely paid his dues, and any success he has enjoyed since that video (appearing on The Tonight Show and The Colbert Report and singing at Dodgers Stadium) is well earned. He has been the busker to see in New Orleans since he picked up his bags and abandoned the Big Apple to head for home almost 50 years ago. In all the time Grandpa Elliot was down there, apparently no one bothered to put a microphone in front of him and a band behind him. If they had, the album that resulted, Sugar Sweet, would have been a classic years earlier, and Grandpa Elliot could have been a household name like other soul singers of his generation.

Grandpa Elliot and his harmonica.

Before diving into the songs, we should start at the roots of the story: the Playing for Change Project. This is field recording for the technology and socio-political landscape 21st century. It’s impossible not to compare it with Alan Lomax’s work. Like Lomax, Mark Johnson and Enzo Buono went in search of great music in unconventional places and found it. The most meaningful difference is that, whereas Lomax’s recordings highlighted the individual, Playing for Change highlights global community and commonality. This is a development that comes about partly because of advances in recording technology—Lomax could not have overdubbed a dozen musicians on a field recording even if the idea had occurred to him. The other development, as my colleague Paul Hartman points out, is the existence of a lingua franca of pop music.

Ben E. King. Bob Marley. Peter Gabriel. The last two helped carry world music into the pop arena, whereas for decades things only went the other way. Toots Hibbert, another famous Jamaican singer, said in an interview on David Dye’s World Café that their radio stations in Jamaica just played whatever came along, both the island’s own traditional music and all this American pop music. All over his island you could find artists influenced by Motown, but good luck finding a Motown musician in the U.S. during the 1960s influenced by reggae. For much of the world, there was just “music,” not this strange segregation of genres like on radio stations here in the U.S. Michael Jackson made it to the furthest and deepest reaches of the world. K’naan, the Sudanese rapper, actually claims to have learned English by listening to American rap artists. Many Americans are as unaware of just how pervasive their own music is as they are of the rest of the world’s music that never makes it across the border.

Jason Tamba, one of the few artists on the record touring with the band in 2010.

This lingua franca of pop music provides aspiration as well as inspiration. The Playing for Change videos demonstrate this extraordinarily well. They say to the listener: “People everywhere like the same music. Don’t children everywhere deserve the same opportunities?”

Two soul pieces, right in the middle of the disc, are undeniable highlights of the album, but the best is yet to come. The slow and measured “Share Your Love with Me” (made famous by Bobby “Blue” Bland and Aretha Franklin) best allow the nuances of Grandpa Elliot’s voice to come through: the ever-so-slight grit on the powerful notes, a little bit of a lisp that just makes you want to be friends, the warm tone on the sustained notes, and the Nawlans accent that importantly reminds you of the singer’s roots. Little Milton’s “We’re Gonna Make It” is Grandpa Elliot’s bread and butter: upbeat but not fast, simmering but not boiling, a touch of swing, and a breathy harmonica solo. The band doesn’t overdo it—after all, it’s easy to take this song and play it with too much passion but bury the soul.

The song from which the disc takes its title, “Sugar is Sweet,” has a good soft island groove and might be the best showcase of the classic soul guitar tone on the record. A Gospel medley of “This Little Light of Mine/Tell Him What You Want/I’ll Fly Away” lets the band open up a little . . .

But where they really open up is on “Fannie Mae,” the only live take on the album.

These are street performers, after all. Put an audience in front of them and they’re home.

Keb' Mo' guest stars on the only live track on the Album, "Fannie Mae."

Everything about “Fannie Mae” will make you want to hear the ensemble in person. It’s not just the catcalls and talkback from the audience. Elliot’s voice gets grittier, and he starts to hit some falsetto notes. The whole band is more excited. (Having one of the planet’s best folk-blues slide guitarists, Keb’ Mo’, sit in with your band ought to get anyone excited.)

Charles Brown’s “Please Come Home for Christmas” is a little out of place on the album, even if it comes at the very end of the disc. It might have been included because the producers weren’t sure if they would ever get Grandpa Elliot and the band back in the studio together to record a Christmas album. Sure, it’ll most likely get a good spin on the radio come the holidays, but it’s not the sort of thing you want to hear all year round when you pop the record into your player in August.

Anyone into soul, blues, and gospel will be happy to pick up this album. It’s great music for a great cause. [www.playingforchange.com]

—Jon Patton (Baltimore, MD)

© 2010 DriftwoodMagazine.com, All rights reserved.

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