Adventures of a University Finalist

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

BA Baracus Ain't Got Nothing On Bobby


Bobby "Blue" Bland - Anthology (Universal, 2002)

Bobby "Blue" Bland - Lead Me On
Bobby "Blue" Bland - Cry, Cry, Cry
Bobby "Blue" Bland - Farther Up the Road
Bobby "Blue" Bland - I Pity the Fool
Bobby "Blue" Bland - You've Got Bad Intentions

Hello again, my musical brethren. Despite my penchant for the epic recently, I'll try and keep this missive brief not due to lack of invective but because I ain't no expert when it comes to the blues. The fact that I refuse to pad this blog out with biographies straight from the pen of AMG and amusing anecdotes that I located via Google probably doesn't help either.
As you all know, I've been on a rather large Lester Bangs trip recently but this particular artist, Bobby "Blue" Bland, was discovered thanks to another legend of American music journalism Dave Marsh. One of the greatest presents I have ever recevied was Marsh's 'The Heart of Rock n' Soul: The Greatest 100 Hits Ever Made' and one holiday I decided in my ennui to locate every single one of those 1001. I got as far as 350 I believe before stopping but in doing so I discovered bands such as The Rascals and the Stylistics, Billy Ocean's guilty pleasure 'Get Out Of My Dreams and Into My Car', and of course, Mr Bland who has numerous entries in that mystical tome.
'Lead Me On' is the song that really got me hooked on Bland and following repeated plays on my computer I rushed to the nearest Borders and picked up his two-disc Anthology set released by Universal. 'Lead Me On', accompanied by the Sam Cooke flavoured, 'Call On Me' (with its rhythm section doing that hip shakin' tropical shuffle), shows how Bland is seen by many as the first to really bridge the gap between blues and soul. 'Lead Me On' is the ultimate torch song with its howling strings, spectral flutes and plaintive piano melody that form the perfect musical background for Bland's voice to work in. You see Bland wasn't like BB King shooting out hot buttered licks from Lucille. Bland is a crooner, plain and simple, and his work is definitely up there with the true greats like Nat King Cole with his eclecticism often tantamount that to the Bobby Darins of this world. Back to the song and we rejoin Bobby's beautific plea of "Here's my hand/here are my hands/take it darling/and I'll follow you" and the subsequent introduction of the backing singers that accompanied by the echoing acoustics give the song this wonderfully funereal texture. It's as if the man is singing in a chapel and it begs the question? Who is he singing to? Jesus? He talks of the subject of his pleas understanding loneliness and persecution in "an unfriendly land". So, rather than the usual jive talk about ex-lovers who he wants to poison or commit suicide so that he doesn't have to spare the effort ("You've Got Bad Intentions" - the most bluesy cut I've put on offer) it appears that he's venturing toward gospel and redemption. It is a truely haunting track and one of my top five favourites of all time. I myself am not a deeply religious person with a preference for the safe ground of agnosticism but, unlike so much shouting from the pulpit, this song does sometimes make me reconsider the power of faith.
'Farther Up the Road' has become a blues standard since Bobby cut the definitive version with the version that you probably all now being The Band and Eric Clapton's collaboration for 'The Last Waltz' and the ensuing blues solo duelling between Robbie Robertson and E.C. The Band's version certainly has the musical chops but I always felt that, like with almost all his stuff, it's ultimately left hollow by Clapton's gruff and mumbled vocals. Isn't the purpose of the blues to get across your own personal sense of hurt and individual injustice? I've always felt that Clapton saw it as a vehicle to show off his knowledge of pentatonic scales. I mean where is the malevolence that Bland shows as he utters those words "Now you're laughing pretty, baby". As the piano starts to hammer like chattering teeth, you just know what business Bland sees in his lover's future and so does the guitar, his confidant, as it begins this low moan in response to his verbal taunts. The man ain't lyin'.
Moving on to the inspiration to my usual non sequiteur of a title, 'I Pity the Fool'. It's your typical 12 bar blues moving along at its own pace. However, Bland is just like Sam Cooke. He can transcend the most simple of material and turn into gold. Remember some of those awful tunes that Cooke had to sing such as the jailbait lovin' 'Only Sixteen', the bland 'Everybody Loves to Cha Cha Cha' and the simplistic 'Win Your Love'. In anyone elses hands, they would surely (well maybe not 'Win Your Love') be mocked as either perverted or formulaic. But he turned them into flawed works of art with his unbelievable grasp of how to deliver with a perfect idea of pitch and measure. You just have to hear Bobby Bland's voice. I've heard it compared to a rasp before but I feel that's a swing and a miss. He definitely can't hear the high notes and in 'Cry, Cry, Cry' you can hear the faint trace of lisp but the way that he emotes lyrics that he didn't even right is incredible. He shouts, hisses and spits without ever losing control. Often losing control is the easiest way out
but only the true greats don't deign themselves to such easy fixes.

Post-Script: Just remembered that Sam actually wrote most of those songs; the man was a great arranger as well as one of the greatest ever singers. His lyrics sucked sometimes though. Rough meet smooth.

Buy - Bobby Bland - The Anthology