Tuesday, February 22, 2011

John-Alex Mason's "Juke Joint Thunderbolt"

Colorado based John-Alex Mason got the blues bug after hearing Muddy Waters’ “Hard Again” album and then seeing James Cotton and Johnny Winter in concerts and later getting the complete Robert Johnson recordings began a fascination with solo country blues. He has had several albums, the most recent having been “Town & Country,” which I never got around to reviewing but have it uploaded to itunes and on my ipod and every time I hear a track from it, I take notice. In the context of his new CD, I listened to the CD as a whole again, and remained impressed by his ability to handle the music of Bukka White, Skip James, Charlie Patton and others. These showed how much he has learned from the masters but made his ‘covers’ highly personalized and wonderfully played. His vocals capturing some of the delta haze of those who have inspired him. Mostly solo, the Cd also included some juking ensemble tracks including a lively Shake You Money Maker.

Mason’s new CD is Juke Joint Thunderbolt which sounds more in the vein of the Hill Country blues of North Mississippi mixed with a bit of Bukka White. The title is explained by the fact that a Juke Joint is an afro-caribe expression for a place or experience to have fun and dance and juke the trouble out of yourself while Thunderclap is when thunder and lightning are so close together that it seems that the thunder rolls away from you. In any event, the spirit of the title is present on the music here. Mason has an impressive group of guests including Cody and Cedric Burnside, grandsons of R.L. Burnside’ Lightnin’ Malcolm, Gary Hundt and others. The ensembles vary, but much of this has a trance-like vive characteristic of the Northern Mississippi Hills Country Blues. I find the playing a bit tighter and the rhythm less thrashing around than some other recent recordings in this vein.

The opening “My Old Lonesome Home” cranks out a hot, irresistible groove on a one-man band rig with Hundt wailing on harp as moans about the world getting better and we are getting older. Cedric Burnside is on drums for Gone So Long, as Mason makes use of repetition in his lyrics and his guitar accompaniment as he wonders has it been so long since you been gone while Cody Burnside adds a rap that is intertwined seamlessly with Mason’s lyrics and vocals. Its one of two tracks where Cody Burnside raps in among the most successful and natural integrations of the blues tradition and rap. More Than Wind, with Hundt on mandolin, has more of a folk-country flavor as Mason informs us “love don’t linger well up cool and fresh.” Riding On is the other song with Cody Burnside but in addition to Mason’s vocal and droning guitar, the accompaniment include Cedric Burnside on drums, Fara Tolno and Alya Sylla on djembe, Fasinet Bangoura on balafon, Hundt repeating a harp riff, Lightnin’ Malcolm adding searing guitar and Lionel Young playing crosscut saw fiddle creating a mesmerizing rhythm and making Mason’s vocal sound more compelling music.

Mason, using his one man band rig, provides a marvelous rendition of Rolled and Tumbled, with Hundt’s simple harp an effective foil for this slow-drag treatment of a pre-war blues standard. The philosophical lyric of Diamond Rain, is set to a folk country setting with Young adding some nice violin. Signifying Monkey, is taken from Oscar Brown’s recording of this bawdy number but is performed by Mason at a slow, dirge-like tempo with Lightnin’ Malcolm and Cedric Burnside helping instill the trance-like groove. Free moves back to a hill country stomp groove as Mason, as a one-man band, delivers his message of gonna fly because he is free and see what’s left of me with Fara Tolno’s djembe adding to the musical covering. Cedric Burnside and Lightnin’ Malcolm contribute to the exceptional rendition of Mississippi Fred McDowell’s Write Me a Few of Your Lines, with Mason adding his own effective harp along with the driving rhythm.

The closing Whisper is a solo guitar performance with Mason’s bluesy vocal matched by a spare, folky accompaniment that concludes this superb recording. In addition to the ten selections on cd, one can download two tracks on his website
johnalexmason.com. a prologue track, Delta Bound and an Epilogue that is a rendition of Robert Johnson’s If You’ve Got a Good Friend.

The review copy was provided by a publicist.

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