Yank Rachell

Delmark DS-649


Hip Linkchain

Black Magic 9011

In recent years the well-crafted, modern sounds of such smooth young blues musicians as Robert Cray, Albert Collins, and Lonnie Brooks have achieved an unprecedented level of mainstream acceptance. Less obvious, but even more important to the long-term survival of the music, has been the popular rediscovery of the rawer, street-level sounds of more traditional artists, who’ve begun to share the spotlight.

“Rediscovery” of famous musicians has long been a mainstay of blues record collecting, but in the wake of the new visibility of pop-oriented blues stars, the music of pioneers like James (“Yank”) Rachell takes on added importance. Rachell, at 78, is one of the few surviving members of the generation that largely defined what we think of as blues, and he’s one of even fewer who specialize in the mandolin. In a career that spans decades, beginning in Tennessee playing with the likes of Sleepy John Estes, John Lee (“Sonny Boy”) Williamson, and Big Joe Williams, and is still active, Rachell has assimilated the best of several generations of blues and yet never lost his traditional Delta roots.

Chicago Style, Rachell’s latest LP, testifies to the perennial strength of both the music and one of its most eloquent practitioners. The mandolin intro to “Depression Blues,” the opening cut, sets the tone for the album. Tubular and sensual, a little eerie with its shimmering, catlike wail, Rachell’s mandolin combines the traditional folk sound of the instrument with a harsh, almost guitarlike picking style and a hard-edged bluesiness that few mandolin players are able to attain.

Rachell’s style is fleet, sure-fingered, and surprisingly innovative within the confines of his traditional approach to blues improvisation. He soars into rapid-fire treble tremolos and then flails away in the middle registers, achieving a dirty, raucous sound that most guitarists–let alone mandolin players–need electronics to achieve. Rachell makes his mandolin sing as if it were the instrument for which the blues were invented. Behind him, the band–guitarist Pete Crawford; Floyd Jones, here featured on bass; and drummer Odie Payne–provides exactly the right combination of support and propulsion for Rachell’s innovative, slightly eccentric flights of fancy.

Medium-tempo shuffles dominate the LP; in fact, the only complaint I’d have about it is a certain sameness to many of the songs, largely because Rachell confines himself to one or two keys most of the way through. There is variety, however; it’s just subtle. “Roll Me Over Baby” combines traditional blues raunch with an elusive tenderness illuminated by the sensuous, ear-tickling whisper of Rachell’s mandolin flurries, even as his voice grinds lecherously over the top of the music. “Early in the Morning,” on the other hand, is a straight-ahead boogie, not a shuffle, propelled by Crawford’s powerful chording and Payne’s understated, dancing rim shots. The song then jumps into an almost country-rock boogie at the bridge.

Payne’s drumming throughout will be a revelation to those whose only knowledge of him stems from his famous live shows around Chicago. No cowbells, no clowning, just straightforward blues percussion, with a hint of the jazz sophistication that is his trademark. Apprentice drummers take note: Odie Payne proves you can be technically proficient and still be a first-rate blues drummer. You don’t have to bang and thrash to be real.

“Diving Duck,” the opening song on the second side, is something of a history lesson. It was Rachell’s first recording, as he reminds us in his spoken intro, cut in 1929 with Sleepy John Estes, and it has become one of the most widely used of all blues themes: “If the river was whiskey and I was a diving duck / I would dive on the bottom, never would come up!” This is Rachell’s showcase piece, and the rest of the band is content to sit back and let him have the spotlight. Yank makes the most of the opportunity: grinding out his mandolin solos in a unique, loping, modified stop-time, he overlays a youthful energy with a gritty, knowing, worldly voice.

When Yank’s sidemen do assert themselves, it’s pure joy. Crawford’s playing is consistently fresh and up-to-date, even as it incorporates half a century of blues guitar tradition; to my ears, the influence of Eddie Taylor is particularly strong. I can’t think of another young guitarist, with the possible exception of Johnny B. Moore, who can play as proficiently in traditional styles and not sound self-consciously “authentic” or affected. Floyd Jones is better known as a singer and songwriter than as a bassist, but he comports himself admirably here. His blues feeling is so deeply instinctive at this point that he’s incapable of playing entirely wrong, even when his patterns diverge from what one might expect.

The highlight of the album, for me, is “Let Me Tangle in Your Vines.” This is blues so funky it’ll set cats to yowling for miles around: “I know your ‘tatoes need digging / The milk run out of your potato vines / But you got one plant in your garden / I swear, baby, is resting on my mind!” Rachell’s voice leches all over the place, the band humps along in an unabashed slow grind as if they’re trying to reinvent the original dirty boogie, and the mandolin solo again achieves a guitarlike intensity. Next time Stevie Ray Vaughan and his contemporaries claim they know what “dirty blues” means, let them listen to this one and weep.

The next cut, “I Don’t Believe You Love Me No More,” has a slightly faster tempo and during the verses departs a bit from the standard 12-bar format, although the instrumental breaks are straight 12-bar blues. Again Rachell’s voice impresses: he can take standard “My baby done me wrong” lyrics and make them sound fresh, simply by the emotional force of his delivery. The band might not have been entirely prepared for the eccentric timing on this one–Floyd Jones, especially, has some trouble on the turnaround–but the song works because of its spontaneous honesty, offering an exhilarating glimpse into the rough-hewn soul of blues improvisation.

Quite different is “Going to St. Louis,” which closes out side two. The song has a jaunty, breezy feel that the lyrics–about a wrong-doing woman–do nothing to dispel, a welcome feel after the grinding crunch of “Let Me Dig in Your Vines” and the hard-edged anger of “I Don’t Believe You Lvoe Me No More.” Again much of the credit goes to Payne, who propels the band with a deft, almost jazzy touch.

Even among the (rapidly disappearing) survivors of his generation, Yank Rachell is nearly alone in his persistent use of traditional, even preblues forms. The instrument he plays and his rhythmic and harmonic ideas, which harken back to such folk styles as work songs and field hollers, all recall the landscape of Rachell’s musical journey. Even the one cut on which he plays guitar–“Check up on My Baby”–is characterized by his trademark departure from the harmonic restrictions of contemporary blues; instead he lays the blues over a bedrock of other, earlier forms.

Rachell, Payne, and Jones share a rich musical tradition; Crawford demonstrates that a young musician with a feel for this tradition can play the music with respect, craft, and honesty. The result is a kind of blues record that’s all too rare: as “authentic” as any purist could want, yet utterly current and unself-conscious. Yank Rachell is no relic; he’s an important contemporary musician.

It takes more than active elder statesmen to carry the flame; new generations have to take over. Throughout blues history, some of the best music has been made by musicians who didn’t necessarily have the stars’ spectacular virtuosity but could combine solid musicianship with deep blues feeling. At his best, Willie Richard–aka Hip Linkchain–is just that. Airbusters captures him at his best.

Hip is a find guitarist and an expressive but not flamboyant singer. Still, he needs a solid band–both to keep up the energly level and to control his occasionally eccentric timing. He’s put together three bands for this LP, each made up of reputable Chicago session men, and each providing him with exactly the right combination of support and flexibility. “House Cat Blues,” the opening cut, demonstrates this admirably: from the rocklike introductory chords to the echoes of classic Chicago-style piano in Barrelhouse Chuck’s solo, a very subtle blend of styles and influences makes the song work. This cut sets the tone for the LP: nothing fancy or spectacular, just good, craftsmanly blues playing.

Hip Linkchain has claimed that he used to try to imitate other musicians but that everything came out sounding distinctive anyway. The myriad influences are certainly here–Jimmy Rogers, Hip’s occasional musical companion; Magic Sam; and of course the inescapable Muddy Waters and B.B. King. But Hip’s style does remain his own, well crafted and tasteful, avoiding pyrotechnics and excess. His lyrics are good too–“I dreamed I was in heaven / I woke up, I was still in hell’ (“I Had a Dream”). Dealing for the most part with the usual blues themes of love, infidelity, and hard ghetto living, they never descend into cliche.

To my ears, Hip is most effective when he’s either evoking his music’s acoustic roots–as in “Bed Bug Blues” or “Bad News”–or driving straight ahead with raw-edged west-side blues energy. In the standard “Blow Wind Blow,” his guitar solo unleashes an intensity that is more muted on his medium-tempo numbers. The more acoustic-based “Bed Bug Blues” showcases Hip’s voice, with that rapid vibrato indigenous to traditional Delta bluesmen. Bassist Big John Trice lays down a gently propulsive bottom on “Bed Bug Blues,” allowing Hip’s emotional singing and clear, ringing acoustic guitar solo their full range of expressiveness.

The most satisfying cut on the first side, to my ears, is “Keep on Searching.” Introduced by a searing, passionate guitar line, it then plunges into a raw, biting shuffle with classic Chicago grit. Hip’s playing and singing are both full-force here; this is the rough-and-ready side of his musical personality, and it effectively complements the smoother, more refined style he uses on some of the other cuts. Rich Kirch, the rhythm guitarist, complements the high-energy Chicago style with solos that are slightly country flavored and more traditional than Hip’s post-50s, rapid-fire flurries.

The second side starts out, much as the first did, with a rock-tinged guitar intro, but again the music slides into a bluesier feel. “I’ll Overcome” features unique lyrics–“Take my hand, won’t you squeeze my thumb”–and Hip’s solo here uses long, drawn-out treble screams instead of the precisely stated staccato lines he uses elsewhere. Some of the songs on this LP occasionally dwindle down to a vague, unsatisfying conclusion–always a danger in using hastily assembled session bands–but “I’ll Overcome” has a well-crafted ending.

“Take Out Your False Teeth” kicks off with Kansas City Red’s notorious raunch line, “Take out your false teeth, mama / Let daddy suck your gums!” but the body of the song belongs to Hip, as he piles on delightfully obscene images and fires off a cutting guitar solo that sears through the song’s middle like acid. This is the kind of signifying, strutting blues that makes some people uneasy; in this song the relationship between men and women is strained, to say the least, and some might hear echoes of misogyny in the lyrics. But songs like this, a kind of “dozens” put to music, are a long-standing tradition–and hardly the sole province of men: Lucille Bogan’s ear-popping “Shave ‘Em Dry” is the all-time classic of the genre. Hip delivers his lyrics with just the right amount of humor to leaven the aggression.

Hip Linkchain is to the blues what Davey Lopes was to baseball: a solid craftsman, deserving greater recognition, whose workmanlike skills are sometimes overshadowed by his contemporaries’ flash and flamboyance. The cuts on this LP have the unhurried, spontaneous sound of the music you might hear at a neighborhood club on Chicago’s west side; especially arresting is the instrumental title cut, a joyful, boogying romp. Barrelhouse Chuck’s traditional Chicago-style piano once again punctuates the high-energy, post-50s approach of the other musicians. All too often an instrumental cut is a throwaway, but “Airbusters” is one of this record’s strongest tracks.

This LP is somewhat unusual by contemporary blues-recording standards. One does not sense a producer’s “agenda”–no attempts to water down the sound for a general audience; no buoying up of tghe sagging abilities of a once-great musician “rediscovered” past his prime; no pyrotechnics or posturing to hide the fact that this is blues instead of three-chord rock and roll. The influences felt on this album run the gamut from traditional Delta blues through the classic Chicago period, and into the rock- and funk-laced 70s and 80s. Though stylistically differnet from Yank Rachell, Hip Linkchain and his sidemen share Rachell’s honest, uncluttered expression. These are the best of the living blues heritage, the keeper of the flame and the recipient of the torch.