Heritage Blues Orchestra
And Still I Rise
[Red General Catalog (2012)]
And Still I Rise is, simply, one of the best and most sophisticated takes on traditional blues I’ve heard in a long time. Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about this album is that sounds so, well, classy without losing any of the necessary rough, authentic edge of the country blues, gospel, and spirituals that gave birth to modern blues and jazz. These older forms of music are a significant portion of the material found on And Still I Rise, but there’s Delta, Chicago, New Orleans, St. Louis, work songs, jump blues, and more to be found in the arrangements without sacrificing a core sound and vision.
The vocals in particular here are informed more by gospel than the blues shouters that made their way into modern blues and rock. And with three singers with distinctive voices to trade leads and mini-choir backing vocal duties, Heritage Blues Orchestra offers something special for those of us who want to get away from the “one man with a smokin’ guitar” paradigm.
“In the Morning” is the best example of Heritage Blues Orchestra’s collaborative spirit. But there are a good number of tracks that show off the strengths of each individual voice. One of the most spectacular is their melodic and soulful take on “Go Down Hannah.” Though they use the worksong framework laid down by Ledbelly, when Chaney Sims (center in the photo on the cover, and daughter of singer and guitarist Bill Sims) sings these lines, the song takes on a broader meaning:
Go down to the river, about 1910
You’ll see they work the women just as hard as the men
The album opener, “Clarksdale Moan,” is another standout. The groove is impossibly heavy for being just bass, drums, guitar, and harmonica. There are rock bands that have to turn up to 11 to hit this hard; here, it sounds effortless. And it’s hard to think of another song that sounds like their version of “C-Line Woman” — there’s just a touch of a children’s clapping games in the percussion. Really, the only track that just doesn’t work for me is their overly excited jump blues take on “Catfish Blues,” though they make the same style work elsewhere without issue.
And Still I Rise winds down with two equally perfect quiet tracks, “Chilly Jordan,” which is just a voice and an acoustic guitar, and “Hard Times,” a looping West African-style guitar line doubling the melody with voices so interwoven that it’s hard to tell what’s the lead and what’s the harmony. Some soft horns come in after this tune fades, and then suddenly we’re left with one last party number: the same song with an upbeat, almost Motown, arrangement.
Don’t miss this one.