Wednesday, February 3, 2010

CD Review, Since I Saw You Last

Steve Howell -
Since I Saw You Last
(Out of the Past Music, 2010)
By Steve "Fly" Klein, Chicago Blues News

We all have our musical influences and most here latched on to the blues at an early age. I grew up in Chicago in the 1950s and 60s and although the best blues in our city's history was being produced less than 20 miles from where I lived, I didn't hear it until I was 17 or 18 years old. I approached understanding blues music from a slightly different angle.

When I was young there was a program on WGN television early Sunday mornings called "The Jubilee Hour". It was on just before the Flash Gordon serials (sponsored by Community Discount Stores) at 6 AM, if memory serves.

After rising too early one Sunday morning to watch "Flash", I instead discovered a man playing an organ and a group of singers performing like I had never heard before. Wow. Over the following weeks I'd try to get up early to catch parts of the program. Different African-American preachers would do sermons and a choir would rise up and sing. A service for shut-ins I suppose. The cast changed from week to week – an organ playing preacher one time, a small band the next. How I loved that gospel sound: the soloist, the call and response choir, those full chords and the unique bass line.

If you've never attended a service in an African-American church, let me try and describe what I saw back then. Think of the scene in the "Blues Brothers" movie where Jake and Elwood go to see Rev. James Brown preach. Take away the choreography, two thirds of the choir, relocate them into an local television studio with blank walls, and turn the visual into black and white. Keep the robes and the energy. Now you've got it.

Sometimes the most interesting bands would only consist of a man with a guitar that was plugged into a small amplifier (usually a Silvertone combo) and a drummer with just a snare and high hat. [I later found out that famous bluesmen from around the city would come to play for their pastors; sometimes just after a gig or a party was over; perhaps still inebriated.]

I've read that Steve Howell (vocals, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, bottleneck guitar) heard Mississippi John Hurt for the first time in 1965 and that it set his course for playing rural acoustic blues. His knowledge of American roots songs does seem to acknowledge that and he has the taste to put together a nice sampling on this CD.

Since I Saw You Last is a fine collection of country acoustic blues, jazz, and roots rock and roll. His supporting cast of musicians are an outstanding group: Arnie Cottrell (vocals, acoustic guitar, bottleneck guitar, mandolin), Dave Hoffpauir (vocals, drums), Chris Michaels (electric guitar, bass), Joe Osborn (bass, 12-string guitar), Brian Basco (keyboards), and Darren Osborn (drums, percussion).

A song like "Crawlin' King Snake" is an good example of how Howell can combine an acoustic guitar with a small combo of bass and drums. This gives a different feel to the John Lee Hooker classic, not the electrified sound that most have come to expect. "Wild About My Lovin'" is a nice ensemble piece for guitars and bass with good interplay between players.

Finally, "Ready For The River" showcases Howell's superb mastery of his guitar. This Gus Kahn number comes to life with Steve's skilled fingerpicking, belying its Tin Pan Alley origins. It's a bluesy rendition that sounds at home with other numbers on this CD such as "Downtown Blues" and "Charlie James".

The only misstep I found on this great CD is the inclusion of the synth strings during a jazzy rendition of "Since I Fell For You". There seems to be a strange concession to the romantic appeal of the song, but a nice acoustic guitar solo or a Ray Brown-like bass solo would have seemed more in keeping with the overall tone of the CD.

No one will mistake Howell's voice for a crooner, however his slightly horse singing gives each performance the sound of a bluesman that's travelled the long road, inhaled dust and whisky, and is awfully glad to sit down and play a few numbers for you.