THE BLUE RIDER TRIO:
Harp, Steel and Guts
Blues Revue says one of the best acoustic blues albums of the year comes from three white boys from Maryland. Serious blues lovers and recent converts alike rave to us about the Trios first CD, Preachin' the Blues. Eight years in the making, this follow-up was worth the wait. Ben Andrews voice has gained that seared-by-life bluesiness; Mark Wenners harmonica cuts even deeper; and Jeff Sarlis bass adds layers of subtlety to his knock-you-down drive. The first CD has become a legend among lovers of good sound in blues. A tough act to follow, the richer vocal detail, stronger dynamics and cleaner overtones of this recording are startling. All that adds extra excitement and authenticity to this tasty collection of Chicago, Delta and Texas acoustic blues. (#06932)
IF YOU ENJOYED PREACHIN' THE BLUES, BE SURE TO CHECK OUT:
The fact that one of the best acoustic blues albums of the year comes from three white boys from Maryland might surprise you that is, until you realize that its the return of the Blue Rider Trio, who kicked up a lot of shit out of nowhere with their 1992 release Preachin the Blues and then cruelly disappeared back into their main gigs, leaving us sick with need.
Now everyones gonna get well, because theyre back, and what was not broken has not been fixed. Harp, Steel and Guts is the second round of acoustic boilermakers you were ordering, with guitarist/vocalist Ben Andrews, harp wailer Mark Wenner (The Nighthawks) and bassist Jeff Sarli (Big Joe & The Dynaflows) serving up the same mixture of jazzy, dark-around-the-edges folk-blues choogle as last time. The differences that do exist are: no Blind WillieMcTell, a little less Robert Johnson and a little more Leadbelly. The good news, besides the trios continuing musical evolution, is the sonic purity of the recording; its the same hear-yourself-think purity that had audiophiles drooling in 92.
Youve never heard em? No problem. Youre gonna hear a lot of classic-rock touchstone blues riffs (Johnsons Last Fair Deal Gone Down and Andrews impressive original Easy Rider), some jazzy, traditional cakewalks straight off the streetcorner (Salty Dog, Ride Till I Die, Leadbellys Silver City Bound) and a little serious rustic apocalyptrica (a stunning Death Have No Mercy in This Land, taken from the pages of American history and filtered through the Rev. Gary Davis). Its all shockingly authentic, despite the reverence. These white boys aint interested in framing roots traditions, or updating them, or even re-creating them. They simply want to live them again, to breathe life into the common clay of ancient blues and make it walk and talk. That they do with the necromancy of wizards.
Just for fun, the next time youre passing a musical instrument store (I worked my way through college in one), go in and see if someone will blow a harmonica in your face, or strum a few licks on an acoustic guitar or play a little slide on a National steel. Then amble into the drum room, ask for a stick and give a snare drum a really good, hard smack. Or two, or three. Its a great reminder what transient speed and dynamics are all about.
This is what Mapleshade Records has always been about. Recorded through producer/engineer Pierre Spreys ultra-low-mass pressure-zone microphones, Guts was mastered live on two-track analog with digital conversion via a custom analog-to-digital sampling at 2,823k per second. The result is a recording of electrifying immediacy that rivals work from the direct-to-disc workshops of another era (recently reincarnated by Acoustic Sounds and Groove Note), but without the artistic constipation that accompanied those sessions. This trio just sits down and wails through a variety of folk and blues classics as if they were playing for friends.
The Blue Rider Trio are Ben Andrews on guitar (both acoustic and National steel) and vocals, Mark Wenner on harmonica, and Jeff Sarli on acoustic bass. Andrews gravely voice adds to his fresh and uninhibited readings of classics like Stagolee, Salty Dog, and Black Betty. The percussive attack of his National, some great slide work, and the heavy handed finger-picking reveal blazing, ballsy exuberance.
Wenner modulates his sound via the body language of harmonica playing the cupped-hand technique that amplifies and mutes and adds vibrato, according to artistic groove. Hes close miked perhaps a foot or so away and you can hear his grunts and breathing. Theres not much deep bass from the slap technique employed by Sarli on the authentic plywood acoustic, but theres plenty of foot-stomping reverberation. This recording pushes the limits of technology. Occasionally it sounds as if a mike has approached its dynamic bumper stops, but Sprey dopes not use limiters, EG, or compressors. The purity of recording makes it all worth it. This is as close to live as Ive ever heard a recorded trio get. The recording balances intelligibility of the instrument mix with the soundspace of the Mapleshade studio. The sound is up-front but three-dimensional. On a couple of tunes, I thought the vocal mike sounded a bit dry and bright, but never disturbingly so. I dare you not to fall in love with the sheer joy of this uniquely American music and this firecracker performance.
Warning: With transient information this immediate, bright systems or cheap transducers will be revealed in all their ignominy.
Bound For Sound:
Getting down and dirty with the blues, thats Ben Andrews, one member of the Blue Rider Trio. My first exposure to the Blue Rider Trio was back in the 90s with their first release on Mapleshade called Preachin The Blues. The kid, Ben Andrews, was a delta blues playing maniac capably backed up by Mark Wenner and Jeff Sarli. Almost ten years later the same music playing package is still intact, but theyre better now. Bens voice, though hes only 41 years old, sounds more mature, more gravely, more true to the character of the songs chosen. After all, how does one sing Sweet Home Kokomo, Black Betty, or Stagolee with a baby smooth voice? You cant, and from the sound of it Bens been sucking down a couple of packs of filterless Lucky Strikes a day to sound the way he does.
Considering the performance, a master of the medium knows and instinctively understands what a song needs to convey the original intent most effectively. Melody, lyrics, musicianship and mood all have to come together to make for a great performance. The Blue Rider Trio, by reason of their abilities, experience, whatever, capture just the right mood for each song with something a little extra to make it exciting. Whether it be a 1930s rag, or a rajun cajun rendition of a Robert Johnson standard, these guys cook. And be thankful that Pierre Sprey is there with his ultra customized, and tweaked to the max, recording studio which includes no mixing board, filtering, compression, equalization, noise reduction, multi-tracking, or overdubbing. Hows that for purity? If youre into Stefan Grossman (especially), John Renbourn or Bert Jansch, this is must have material.
All Music Guide:
Mix in a few measures of folk country blues with Georgia red clay with an occasional rock rhythm and you have the Blue Rider Trio's first album in nine years. They have come a long way, showing greater confidence and ease with the music. They're tough when they have to be, and tender, too. The program is a conglomerate of traditional tunes mixed in with original material. All of them are handled by the rough, down-to-earth voice of Ben Andrews. He also employs a mournful howl from time to time for emphasis. The traditional material is delivered with imagination and given new character. Don't think of Ray Charles as you listen to Andrews do "See See Rider." The version here has an almost Western country gait to it rather than the mournful blues feeling often heard with this tune. A favorite of New Orleans jazz musicians, "Make Me a Down Pallett" takes on a different meaning when done with that good old country boy feel to it. There can be a lot of fun in the blues, which seems to be a contradiction in terms. But the bouncy "Diddy Wa Diddy" is just that a good time. There seems to be stronger story telling ingredients than in the traditional blues as in Andrews' vocal recitation of the downfall of the mean "Stagolee." The entire proceeding is bounded by Andrews' hard-sounding steel guitar and Mark Wenner's crying harmonica weaving in, out, and around the melody. English piano player Larry Willis sits in with the group for three cuts. His piano takes the edge off some of the trio's roughness. Eight years is a long time to wait for a second album. But here the hanging in there was worth it. Recommended.
Billtown Blues Notes:
The Blue Rider Trio has been long overdue for a new release, but it has been well worth the wait. Harp, Steel and Guts brings Ben Andrews, Jeff Sarli and Mark Wenner back together for a delightful set of acoustic blues that confirms the notion that this material, in its most natural state, is as powerful in the year 2000 as it was in the 1920s. Individually, these are three of my favorite performers...each well versed in most styles of music...each deeply rooted in the blues. Bring them together and the results are absolutely magical. Their love of the music is evident from the opening notes of the first track. These guys make it sound easy...pouring out heart and soul with all the ease, power and passion of a man conversing with an old love. The album includes covers by Mississippi John Hurt, Rev. Gary Davis, Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker, Leadbelly and more, plus an original Ben Andrews tune. Quite frankly, the masters have never received a greater tribute. Harp, Steel and Guts is as sweet as it gets.