Producer Vernon Reid got James Blood Ulmer into Jimi Hendrix’s old studios with an electric sitar, banjo, a melodica and some electronic geek-box called a Samchillian Tip Tip Tip Cheeepeeeee. The result is a weirdly compelling recording mixing blues standards and a couple original tunes that’s well worth your time and money.
The disc starts to shufflin’ with Jimmy Reed’s “Goin’ To New York,” where Ulmer sounds a lot like Robert Bradley. Another Reed cover, “Bright Lights, Big City,” is spiced up with the pocket trumpet of Olu Dara and the tap dancing (yup, tap dancing) of Maya Smullyan Jenkins. Ulmer spent time in Detroit back in the day, and his take on John Lee Hooker’s “You Know, I Know” is aided by Queen Esther’s vocals; they will get together someday, as the song suggests, and you know they’ll be a helluva match.
There are ghosts of Hendrix following Ulmer down the hall as he covers and echoes Earl King’s “Come On (Let The Good Times Roll),” the tune Jimi made famous on Electric Ladyland. King died during the sessions for Ulmer’s album, and I bet he’d be smiling if he heard this tune. “The Blues Had A Baby And Called It Rock N Roll,” co-written by Muddy Waters, rocks just as hard as the King tune does; it sounds like Chicago’s South Side on a good Saturday night.
Among the strongest songs is “Ghetto Child” from the Johnny Copeland songbook; the eerie keyboards add to the mournful air about a boy whose teacher tells him, “when you come back, son, have on your shoes.” Another standout is Ulmer’s own “Are You Glad To Be In America?,” about a land where “slavery is obsolete.”
No, this doesn’t sound like every other blues album you’ve ever heard. Let the purists be offended. If they can’t handle the electric sitar and tamboura (a fretless lute) on “Trouble In Mind,” it just proves that they’re stuck in the same rut the blues is. This album blows like a fresh breeze across the land of the 12-bar boogie. We could use a few more like it.
Vic Doucette is the copy editor at Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.