David “Honeyboy” Edwards

Blue Suit 102

It’s always interesting to hear what a blues traditionalist does to keep well-worn ideas fresh. Some veteran artists adopt a museum-piece approach, rehashing famous folk themes and affecting quaint “living legend” personas. The most adept rustic survivor from a bygone era was probably Big Bill Broonzy, who played in the 50s for European audiences that were largely ignorant of the sophisticated urban blues he’d been playing in Chicago for decades.

Broonzy pulled off that role primarily because he was a master showman and versatile musician who brought equal amounts of enthusiasm and skill to a wide range of blues styles. Others, however, find themselves forced to play the role by their inability to develop or to remain interesting to new audiences–and are rarely successful outside the limited context of a folk circuit or a traditional blues festival.

Guitarist David “Honeyboy” Edwards lives and plays at the edge of this predicament. His music is one of contemporary Chicago’s purest examples of vintage Delta blues. In many ways his sound has remained virtually unchanged since the 1930s, when he scuffled around the south with the likes of Tommy Johnson, Charlie Patton, Robert Johnson, and Son House. Edwards’s recordings for the Library of Congress in 1942, in the words of historians Stephen Calt and Gayle Wardlow, “virtually summarized what Delta musicianship of the decade had to offer.” Although he has never acquired the status of his famous contemporaries, Edwards is generally acknowledged as a skillful and occasionally brilliant purveyor of one of the most important blues traditions.

Conventional wisdom has been that Edwards’s music, while still interesting, has declined in recent years. The driving impetus of his rhythm work–interspersed with fiercely picked flurries at eccentric tempos that showed the influence of Big Joe Williams–has largely given way to simple walking-bass patterns only occasionally interrupted by leads that are sometimes imaginative, sometimes weak or even dissonant. But his voice retains a good measure of the dark urgency he acquired working with Patton and House, and his slide playing is still effective.

This LP is an accurate portrayal of the current state of Honeyboy Edwards’s art, but it takes a while to show him to his best advantage. “West Helena Blues,” the opening cut, features his smooth vamping bass line and still-powerful voice, imbued with appropriate country mournfulness. But the treble work is sloppy to the point of being irritating. Obviously, the intent was to capture some of the spontaneous informality of a folk style, and the overall feel is that of an elderly gentleman on a back porch picking acoustic guitar for his own amusement. Authentic, to be sure, but one wonders whether this is really LP-quality material.

Fortunately, things pick up in a hurry. It’s possible that at this stage in his life, the smoother action of an electric guitar is more suited to Edwards’s abilities; his slide on “Don’t Say I Don’t Love You” (actually a cover of Muddy Waters’s “Country Boy”) rings out with crystalline purity. His playing here is graced with that eloquent combination of introspection and fierceness that early southern bluesmen and their 50s-era Chicago progeny seemed able to summon almost at will. Blues musicians have been trying to recapture it ever since. Edwards extends the song a little longer than necessary, but it’s still an exhilarating performance.

Listening to Edwards’s electric-guitar work on this LP, one can understand why the music’s sensual, easy-rolling eroticism used to send plantation women chasing after juke-joint bluesmen. On “Drop Down Mama,” based on the 1929 Sleepy John Estes classic and embellished with some new lyrics, the guitar lurches around like the horny tomcat of one of the verses. Although Edwards’s voice sounds a bit tired here–he lacks the greasy raunch that Yank Rachel, for instance, brought to his LP on Delmark last year–he performs the number with a fitting combination of delight and sexual mischievousness.

“61 Highway,” however, is a pastiche of well-known and obscure road songs, walled out with the intensity of a man stranded on a country highway scanning the horizon for relief. Edwards did a lot of hoboing as a young man, and it’s safe to say that he sings this from experience. He brings some welcome imagination to the song, even inserting an affectionate nod to his old buddy Sunnyland Slim with a reference to the Sunnyland Train. The spirit of the performance and the care with which it’s crafted make it one of the album’s highlights.

Edwards’s LPs and live shows in recent years have been characterized by attempts to update his sound by inserting more modern material into the set. It doesn’t always work. His version of “Next Time You See Me” on his late-70s Folkways LP sounded forced; his live performances of it are sometimes almost embarrassing. On this record Edwards takes on Tampa Red’s “Don’t You Lie to Me” with a little more success. He sounds uncomfortable flailing away at some of the chords, and the song itself isn’t really suited to Honeyboy’s musical sensibilities; Tampa’s sly urban sophistication was as different from Edwards’s Delta roots as anything could be. But there’s a nice interplay between bass line and chording toward the end, and Edwards concludes the tune with an engaging combination of passion and understatement.

Edwards is usually most effective in his own milieu. He returns to acoustic guitar for “Build Myself a Cave,” a topical World War II song that Edwards first recorded in 1951. The slide whines clear and keen above the bass pattern, and although there are a few missed chords, the performance is cleaner and has more energy than he summoned on “West Helena Blues.” The reference to “Japs” will be jarring to contemporary ears, but it reflects the spirit of the times in which it was written.

Throughout this album, Edwards demonstrates that the music of his youth has remained fresh and relevant for him. He never really made the transition from solo or small-ensemble playIng to the larger bands that developed in Chicago; his timing is eccentric, and his improvisational ideas are far too quirky to fit comfortably into a group context. Despite his occasional forays into the uncomfortable territory of pop tunes and modern blues, Edwards is really an unreconstructed blues original, one of those rare artists who can give us an unself-conscious glimpse into the past. That he continues to make music that speaks to modern audiences is a tribute to his abilities and the inherent richness of the music.


Big Daddy Kinsey and Sons

Blind Pig 3489

Lester “Big Daddy” Kinsey is as wedded to the mid-50s Chicago sound as Honeyboy Edwards is to the earlier Delta tradition. Mississippi born, he was exposed to the usual country blues influences as a child. He moved to Indianapolis in the 1940s but didn’t begin playing professionally until after the war. He says one of the main reasons he started was to encourage his sons to be musicians; it’s as the leader of Big Daddy Kinsey and the Kinsey Report–featuring his sons Donald (guitar), Kenneth (bass), and Ralph (drums)–that he’s best known.

In recent years the stylistic mix of Big Daddy and the boys has become increasingly strained. The younger Kinseys have grown farther and farther from their father’s blues roots. These days they often perform without him, concentrating on pop-reggae, funk, and contemporary rhythm and blues. When he does front them, he roars out straight-ahead Chicago blues and showcases his stinging slide-guitar work, while the band does its best to rein in its excesses and provide an understated accompaniment.

This musical tension is evident on Can’t Let Go. The opening cut and title song is a freaky attempt to embellish straight blues with a watery, reverb-laced mix that makes Kinsey’s slide guitar sound almost like a Jerry Garcia solo. Kinsey doesn’t quite seem to know what to do with the song; his singing is lethargic and, although his keen melodic sense is evident beneath the swirls and gurgles of the special effects, it’s a mystery why anyone would want to subject such a fine bluesman to this.

As the record progresses, the music improves, but it takes a while to really kick in. “Going to New York” is the Jimmy Reed standard, with a Reed-like harp break from Matthew Scholler and then a jarring guitar solo by Donald Kinsey that raunches all over the grooves, destroying the gently-rolling feel of the song and showing all too clearly the stylistic rift that seems to be growing between Big Daddy and his sons.

“Meanest Woman” is better. It’s loping funk blues, similar in feel to much of James Cotton’s recent work in its use of modern rhythmic patterns and bass lines to update traditional themes–a more successful fusion of the old and the new. The tightly arranged busy accompaniment complements Big Daddy’s growl, and Donald Kinsey’s high-octane solo is much more appropriate. Scholler contributes a trembling, wide-mouthed harmonica line that also echoes Cotton, although Scholler lacks Cotton’s leather-lung power. One wonders why Kinsey didn’t use Mad Dog Lester Davenport, the west-side harpist who traveled with the band for several years and who’s among the finest living purveyors of the classic Chicago style.

The most effective numbers on side one are the final two cuts. “It’s Over.” features a crisp solo by Donald Kinsey, who’s much more in control than before. Big Daddy’s deep-chested baritone is commanding, even if his phrasing is a bit pedestrian for a relatively sophisticated, ballad. The most striking thing about this cut is Ron Prince’s rhythm guitar. It modulates eerily down and up a full half tone, sounding like an off-center record or a faulty turntable. Gimmicky though it might be, it’s immediately arresting and doesn’t detract from the overall effectiveness of the tune.

“Dancin’ Shoes”–based loosely on several standards (“High Heel Sneakers,” “Everything Gonna Be All Right”)–again kicks off in a steamy Cotton-like blues-funk vein. But before long Donald Kinsey’s solo cuts in with fierce authority, running the length of the fret board and placing the song firmly in the 80s; his playing on this cut is lithe without being overbearing. Out in front, Big Daddy’s voice manages to sound lecherous, aggressive, and mellow at the same time.

Big Daddy and the band sound more at home with one another on side two. “Hard Life” kicks off with a reference to Muddy Waters’s “Walking Thru the Park.” It’s a standard blues tale of hard times and good women, complete with gospellike chorus and a crackling solo by Donald Kinsey, who shows an impressive versatility. Scholler gets off a few impressive bends, and the song chugs along in the good-natured groove that characterizes this record–medium-high emotion and proficient musicianship buoyed by a light-spirited sense of fun.

It’s unclear why so many LPs these days start off weak and save the best for last. “I’m a Lover” is full-bodied and raucous, with Scholler’s harp warbling over the top in a modified Big Walter pattern and the band cooking furiously behind him. Big Daddy’s sexual boasting is enhanced by the chunky percussion-bass interplay, and Ron Prince contributes an energetic solo that’s tubular and dexterous without the excesses that sometimes mar Donald Kinsey’s work. This piece captures Big Daddy’s stage persona perfectly; dominant and self-confident, with a hint of arrogance and a swaggering Strut that’s saved from being menacing by his sense of playfulness.

“Howlin’ Wolf,” the final cut, is Kinsey’s tribute to Muddy Waters. Muddy recorded the song in the early 50s, and it’s likely there was a bit of gauntlet throwing in his intent–the rivalry between him and Howlin’ Wolf was legendary. But for Kinsey it’s a loving memorial to a great musician. He brings it in with a piercing slide intro; his vocal phrasing is almost surreal in its similarity to Muddy’s, and he’s got the master’s latter-day slide style down perfectly. Scholler does his best to emulate Little Walter’s patented fusion of harmonica virtuosity and primal blues scream. Especially tasty is Lucky Peterson’s strong-chording piano solo, which invokes Muddy’s two great keyboardists, Otis Spann and Pinetop Perkins. Although the song drags on a bit at more than eight minutes, it’s deeply satisfying as the purest example of Chicago blues the LP has to offer.

Big Daddy Kinsey is an important purveyor of a rich tradition and link to contemporary blues. This disk indicates that he’d do well to find a working band that doesn’t have to strain as hard as his sons do to make music that’s appropriate to his style.