Dr. G’s Summertime Blues Playlist
Hey guys, it’s Dr. G. checkin’ in with you. My, has time flown since the last issue. Spring is already here, but summer is rapidly approaching – what better way to prepare than to start shopping for listening items to help us beat the heat? Well, I got just the thing to get you through – my “island” list of feel-good grooves that will never fails to relieve what ails ya. So let’s take a little blues cruise together, shall we? It just might be the most fun you’ll have all summer.
Before we get started, we do have to establish a few ground rules: These tracks are based on sheer enjoyment only. In other words, this is not a “best-of-anything” list. The selections only represent a sliver of my own arsenal of music that I have loved over the last three or four decades. The tunes aren’t ranked, ordered, or categorized in any way other than the fact that they make me feel incredible when they enter my ears. So don’t bother judging – just sit back and enjoy the rid. That’s all this list is meant for.
For this limited edition, I tried to include a wide variety of styles that featured some familiar names paired with a few slightly unfamiliar tracks! What glues them all together is that they all swing like mad – that’s always my common denominator. Two other components that had a direct influence on my choices here had to do with the presence of a) exceptional rhythm section support, and b) outstanding vocal performance. So here we go – ten tunes to enhance your summertime blues.
Kim Wilson, “Tigerman” (from the CD Tigerman, Antone’s Records, 1993)
One of the swinging-est blues grooves on wax, mainly because of its straight-forward simplicity – no messing around from the rhythm section here. Not only are the meaty parts delivered in Kim’s beefy tone (as always expected), but also the juiciest parts are served up by his attentive and responsive guitarist, Junior Watson. In this tune you will find the most wicked interaction between harp and guitar found anywhere – it’s an absolute masterclass on how to weave a delicious guitar countermelody and wrap it over, under, and around an already strong statement offered by Wilson. Their lines blend and melt together like hot ham and cheese – and it’s so tasty, baby.
Muddy Waters, “You Can’t Lose What You Never Had” (Folk Singer, Chess Records, 1964)
This track is, by far, the one I use when I want to teach the next generation of blues kids what the concept of “pocket” is. This tune cruises at such a perfectly steady medium-tempo that it feels like you’re being gently swayed in a hammock while the breeze is blowing in the backyards of Mississippi. Imagine the stinging slide guitar from Muddy, perfect percolation of rhythm guitar of Pee Wee Madison, the thumping bass of Willie Dixon, and the sparkling, ticklish piano riffs of Otis Spann, all blended together in a perfect concoction to form the best blues cocktail you ever drank – it’s a dream come true. So if you haven’t yet heard this track, life as you currently know it is not complete.
John Mooney, “Doggone Thing” (Against The Wall, House of Blues, 1993)
People who are already hip to John Mooney know he’s as gritty a guitarist as anyone who ever emerged from New Orleans. This track is such a beautiful mashup of Son House inhabiting the body of Dr. John. Mooney’s got a similar swagger as Dr. John, and his killer slide tone (think mid-’50s era Muddy Waters) is so perfectly suited to his wail-and moan vocal style that simply drips with emotion in every phrase. The sparse rhythm section of second line drumming and washtub thumping acoustic bass is a case-study in perfect execution of the idea that less is more. So grab some crispy, sweet beignets from Café Du Monde and stroll with this one – laissez le bon temps rouler!
Robert Cray, “Passin’ By” (Shame + A Sin, Island Def Jam, 1993)
Well, I would have loved to have included Cray’s classic R&B scorcher “Smokin’ Gun” in this collection, but that’s taking the easy way out. Instead, let’s go in the other direction, and allow me to submit to you this particular honeydripper. Here’s a gorgeous ballad that allows Cray to do what he does best – sing torch songs while slow-roasting your chestnuts with his fire-breathing Strat. Nobody delivers the Memphis-flavored tale of sorrow like young Bob, with his singularly unique and bone-chilling left hand vibrato that has become his trademark. My favorite aspect of this tune, besides the obvious wicked stinging solo? When Cray gets to the bridge, he employs the same “machine-gun” buzz saw technique in his right hand that Stevie Ray Vaughan used for that entire solo in “Dirty Pool” from Texas Flood. It’s such a beautiful special effect, and I just can’t get enough of that gargling growl.
Keb Mo’, “Soon as I Get Paid” (Slow Down, Sony, 1998)
This is a real treat if you haven’t heard it – a vicious medium-up shuffle with a bumping bass and kick drum driven by the rhythm section. Kevin Moore (Keb Mo’ in case you didn’t know) is a veteran acoustic blues player who earned his stripes dozens of years and albums ago, and this track stands out to my ears as one of the best smack-downs I’ve ever heard him deliver. The deft fingerwork on his Martin acoustic is enticing in its sophistication and syncopation, and you think it’s the ride you’re destined for until – wham!! The band kicks the door in and suddenly it’s Mo’ better blues. And the hilarious lyrics are classic Keb, who knows how to turn a phrase with the best of them. A whole lotta blues fans might not have seen this one coming – I’m glad I did, which is why I’m sharing it with all you cool cats.
Donald Fagen, “Weather in My Head” (Sunken Condos, Reprise, 2012)
Okay, I know this sounds like it’s out of the blue, and not what you’d expect to see – Steely Dan’s main man? Well, before you pass judgment, take a listen to the track: the lead guitar work here has got some serious grease in the creases. And let’s be real about one other thing: Donald Fagen is no stranger to blues, either as a lyricist or keyboard player (surely you haven’t forgotten about how funky and soulful “Pretzel Logic” is, have you?) From the very start of the track, John Herington (a bona fide mofo!) skillfully designs curling lines that wind around the Fender Rhodes funk of Fagen, which is why John was chosen for that number in the first place – he’s an incredible player. If you listen even closer, you can hear some well-calibrated jazz inflections scattered here and there along the way, which only enhance the flavor. Albert King-inspired blues bends, cascading bebop arpeggios, chromatic connective tissue – they all work together to create one of the more finely crafted blues solos on any R&B or pop/rock album. So always remember: the residency of a good blues solo has no boundaries, and I will always gladly embrace the location, wherever my ears lead me.
John Mayer, “Come When I Call” (Where The Light Is, Sony, 2008)
Okay, this dude may get into way too much trouble for running his mouth, but there is absolutely no better example for why he should just “shut up and play yer guitar” than this one. My goodness, can this boy just flat out get it. With Pino Palladino on bass and the groove king Steve Jordan, this triad swings this “jump” blues with the funk of a jazz trio! Mayer’s vocal delivery is drenched in sass, while his Strat just kicks straight ass. In Mayer’s delivery, his comping and solo technique, you can actually hear Stevie Ray mixed inside T-Bone inside B.B. – oh, Johnny be bad!
Bob Dylan, “Summer Days” (Love and Theft, Sony, 2001)
Bob delivers one of his most intense performances ever in this non-stop romp with the one of the most blistering bands in his recorded history. Larry Campbell and Charlie Sexton are both laying down double-barrel guitar blasts underneath Dylan while Tony Garnier pumps the string bass in this brisk-paced jump blues. Meanwhile, Bobby Z. himself is spitting lyrics with a rhythmic ease and flow that would make Jay Z blush. The stop-time, double-lead breaks that occur after each two sets of verses are just fantastic – killer phrasing and tone fired from the hips of both guitarslingers. It’s nothing less than a six-stringer’s dream.
Nick Moss, “Baby Got Ways” (First Offense, Blue Bella, 2006)
This gritty, super-charged shuffle conjures images of what it would sound like if Chuck Berry’s band and Jimmy Vaughan’s Fabulous Thunderbirds got into a street fight. I dare anyone to keep their toes still while listening to this dirty groove. On this debut album, Moss pulls out all the stops and wears his influences on his sleeve with revved up Chicago grit doused in Texas barbecue – the relentless backbeat is enough to send you to the chiropractor. In fact, it’s serious business on every track of this disc – one of my all-time favorites. Nick Moss does an exceptional job of creating an album that is bursting at the seams with some of the most authentic, traditional styles of blues guitar. I don’t exaggerate when I say that at the flip of a mental switch, he becomes a dead ringer for B.B., Buddy Guy, Jimmy Rogers, and Freddie King, to name a few.
Eric Clapton, “Broken Down” (Reptile, Reprise, 2001)
I could have easily picked every single tune off of the From the Cradle album. But what would you have learned? Nothing! You already knew that album is legendary, so the good Doctor gotta offer something more here if he’s gonna earn his pay. I gotta tell ya, Eric went to church on this one, with that wonderful blend of electric piano, simmering organ and warm violins in the background. He peppers teasing, soulful acoustic guitar licks throughout the piece, and they perfectly complement his beautiful bluesy voice that gains gravel in all the right spots, just like all good reverends know how to do. And the lyrics are unbelievably good – simple and direct – “he’s broken down!” The guitar solo just reeks of passion and remorse, and his all-male background choir is so absolutely sweet and sorrowful on the ears. The swell of the strings and the bluesy acoustic piano riffs interspersed with Clapton’s lead riffs are almost too much to take. Don’t be embarrassed if you slip and shed a tear – chances are you won’t be the first. I’m here to tell you, that boy can preach.
Well, I hope you enjoyed our journey together on this blues excursion – I had a blast! So tune in next time and I’ll take you on another trip when we visit ten new stops along the sonic Highway (49 or 51? What a cliffhanger!!)
Until then, keep on swingin.’