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Reviews: Tracy Nelson, Victim of the Blues; Elvin Bishop, Raisin’ Hell Revue

Tracy Nelson
Victim of the Blues
[Delta Groove (2011)]

Elvin Bishop
Raisin’ Hell Revue
[Bloodshot Records (2011)]

In which two bluespeople whose careers encompass at least five decades each endeavor to reinvigorate the blues:

Now, I have to admit a natural reticence to Elvin Bishop and his blues band recording a live album on what’s billed as the “Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruise.” “Blues”? “Cruise”? Together? And I’m not sure why, but Bishop’s last few albums have had less and less of Bishop and more of a focus on his side singers and players. It’s a puzzle why this is happening. Sadly, that’s the case here, with the set organized as a vintage blues revue show, with a rotating focus on the various players—a potentially cool idea that doesn’t catch fire. Guitarist Kid Andersen brings some sparkle, but his solos mean less of Bishop’s. And featured vocalists Finis Tasby and John Nemeth just aren’t distinctive. So there’s relatively few of Bishop’s characteristic “aw-shucks” vocals, and his gutsy guitar playing often fades into the ensemble. Now, Bishop’s released at least two live albums in the past 10 years or so: 2000’s That’s My Partner, a hoot of a show with his early mentor Little Smokey Smothers, and 2007’s Booty Bumpin’, which lives up to it’s title. Both are worthy. Here, only a spirit-shaking extended version of his chestnut “Rock My Soul” really raises the roof. Bishop was so set on “cruise” that he never shifted into overdrive.

Luckily, Tracy Nelson scores strongly. On Victim of the Blues, Nelson resorts to a more tried-and-true format for her blues renewal—new versions of lesser-known tunes that inspired her younger self, especially the sounds of Chicago that she heard as a mid-1960s teenager. The trick here is picking songs that aren’t well known, so it sounds fresh to most ears. And she’s done that: other than “Howlin’ for My Baby,” “Stranger In My Own Home Town,” and “Feel So Bad,” the rest of the songs are suitably obscure but written by Willie Dixon, Jimmy Reed, Ma Rainey, and Howlin’ Wolf. The arrangements
are sparse for that old-time juke joint vibe, and Nelson’s paid particular attention to the sound of the instruments. In particular, Jimmy Pugh’s smoky B-3 organ ambiance kicks things up a notch (or two), especially on “It’s a Sin,” and John Gardner’s drums have a rattly echo that just sounds like they’re coming across a wooden barroom floor, but they’re not. The album was recorded at the studio in Nelson’s 100-year-old farmhouse. Which sadly burned down, and when the firemen said they could save one room, she pointed to the studio—saving this album, too. As for Nelson’s voice, it’s fulsome and brassy. No way could you peg her as an “old lady” just by listening. Kudos. Both the blues and Nelson sound deeply reinvigorated.

—Jeffery Lindholm (Montpelier, VT)

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