Thursday, September 16, 2010

New Orleans' Icon Grandpa Elliott's Sweet Street Blues

This review is several months old, but during the broadcast on NBC of the NFL season opener between the saints and the Vikings, at one point they showed Trombone Shorty and Grandpa Elliott jamming in the French Quarter. This review originally appeared in the May 2010 Jazz & Blues Report (issue 324) and the review copy was provided by a publicist for the record label.

Playing for Change, according to its website (, began a decade ago, the brainchild of Grammy-winning music producer and engineer Mark Johnson. Utilizing innovative mobile audio/video techniques, it records musicians outdoors in cities and townships worldwide. 

For ten years, Johnson and his team traveled the globe, with a single-minded passion to record little-known musicians for what would become Playing for Change - its name evoking the coins thrown to street musicians as well as the transformation their music inspires. They have had a documentary on public television try to bring peace and positive change through music. Through Timeless Media they have an arrangement with Concord Music Group to issue some of the music they document from South Africa to Santa Monica to New Orleans, in the case of their newest release by Grandpa Elliott “Sugar Sweet,” (Playing For Change).

In September, 2006, they came to New Orleans as that city was in the beginning of its recovery from Hurricane Katrina to find Grandpa Elliott. Grandpa Elliott is a fixture of the French Quarter scene, regularly seen singing and playing harmonica on the street at the corner of Royal and Toulouse. While much of what Playing For Change does brings the studio to the street, in this case they did a studio recording session with the Playing For Change Band in Spring 2009 which was led by Reggie McBride on bass and included musicians from around the world with the guitars of Louis Mhlanga andJason Tamba, the keyboards of Michael Thompson, the drums of Peter Bunetta and the djembe of Mohammad Alidu worth notting. There are also guest appearances from Keb’ ‘Mo, Joe Krown and Kirk Joseph.

Elliott has a wonderful voice as he sings a variety of mostly blues & R&B classics including Bobby Bland’s “Ain’t Nothing You Can Do,” Jimmy Reed’s “Baby What You Want Me To Do,” Little Milton’s “We Gonna Make It,” and Sam Cooke’s “Another Saturday Night.” While Bland sings the opening song as someone suffering heartbreak, Elliott’s warm, rich vocal, set against an Afro-Caribbean groove is reassuring in tone, which also falls into the mood of the lyric of “Share Your Love,” another song from the Bland songbook as well as his wonderful reading of “We’re Gonna Make It,” with a soulful country tinge and a nice harmonica solo that owes as much to jazz players as Little Walter. “Sugar Is Sweet,” is a Caribbean a slightly saccharine love song that gives this disc its title. 

There is a spirited live club recording of Buster Brown’s “Fannie Mae,” followed by a rendition of Charles Brown’s “Please Come Home For Christmas,” backed by Joe Krown on Wurlitzer piano and Kirk joseph on tuba that concludes this somewhat short (37 and a half minutes) but thoroughly engaging recording.

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