Saturday, September 17, 2011

Barrelhouse Chuck, Erwin Helfer and the Piano Blues

I remember when the D.C. Blues Society presented Barrelhouse Chuck with Mark Wenner and Ben Andrews for what was a very magical evening of acoustic blues. He was supposed to have recorded an album at the time but it never was released. Thankfully we have an absolutely wonderful disc Prescription For the Blues (The Sirens) by a man who was mentored by legends like Sunnyland Slim and Little Brother Montgomery and the lessons he learned from these giants are evident in his strong playing that evokes the great piano blues of the past and his own vocals.

Several tracks are introduced by a short homage to the original artist whether Montgomery on the title track (Erwin Helfer plays the piano on this while Chuck sings), Sunnyland Slim on Johnson Machine Gun and Going Back to Memphis (Slim’s variation on the Rollin’ and Tumblin’ theme taken by Chuck as an instrumental), or Leroy Carr on Barrelhouse Women, Mean Mistreater Mama, Straight Alky Blues, and My Own Lonesome Blues as well as his own renditions of blues standards like Sitting on Top of the World, Tin Pan Alley and Corrine Corrina.

His renditions of many of these numbers are truly a joy as he displays a touch and sense of time that many heralded pianists’ lack. He really captures the flavor of Montgomery and Carr with his playing along with his natural singing. With Sunnyland Slim’s material, he evokes the flavor of Slim’s originals, but doesn’t duplicate Sunnyland’s own distinctive sense of phrasing. On Ain’t Nobody’s Business Erwin Helfer joins him for a piano-organ duet on this blues standard. Handsomely packaged, Prescription For the Blues is an absolute delight that piano blues enthusiasts will want.

Barrelhouse Chuck is also present on 8 Hands on 88 Keys (The Sirens) along with pianists Erwin Helfer, Detroit Junior and Pinetop Perkins. Chuck opens with a fine rendition of Sunnyland Slim’s It’s You Baby, followed by a fine slow instrumental, Rooster’s Blues, is backed by Helfer on Pinetop’s Blues where Helfer plays some stunning runs inspired by Pinetop Smith’s original, and by Detroit Junior on Miss Ida B, an old Roosevelt Sykes number that Pinetop Perkins frequently performs.

Detroit Junior, a member of Howlin’ Wolf’s last band, is also represented on disc and it’s a delight to hear him on the rollicking I’m So Unhappy and the slow country-inflected Ella although his rendition of Staggerlee, based on Lloyd’sPrice’s hit is simply pleasant. Helfer backs him for Ain’t Nobody’s Business, which is followed by a fine original boogie woogie and Jimmy Yancey’s 4 O’clock Blues. Helfer accompanies Pinetop Perkins vocal on the Ivory Joe Hunter classic, I Almost Lost My Mind, which is followed by Perkins’ typical renditions of Grinder Man Blues, How Much More and How Long Blues. There is perhaps nothing new from Pinetop, but his performances provide a fine end to a collection of top-notch piano blues performances. It should be mentioned that Helfer has an excellent disc on The Sirens, I’m Not Hungry But I Like To Eat – Blues that was nominated for a Handy Award as Comeback Blues album of the year.

Another highly recommended piano blues album is Christian Dozzler’s All Alone and Blue. The Austrian born Dozzler was for years a member of The Mojo Blues Band, one of Europe’s leading blues aggregations. He played with Larry Garner for a period and now is based in Dallas where he plays with Robin Banks (he can be heard on her two excellent discs I reviewed a few months ago. This disc features some strong piano and vocals with the title track and Midnight Hour Blues being strong renditions of Leroy Carr numbers while his rollicking piano drives along John Brim’s Be Careful. A couple of tracks display his strong boogie woogie piano style and he even takes out the harmonica for a track. You can order this as well as the discs on The Sirens thru, and likely better stores and online cd retailers.

This review of several piano blues albums appeared originally in the September 2003 DC Blues Calendar, then the newsletter of the DC Blues Society. I likely received review copies of the albums on The Sirens and purchased the Christian Dozzler CD.  These are still available.

No comments: