Monday, July 30, 2012

Butch Thompson and Pat Donohue Have The Vicksburg Blues.

Vicksburg Blues (Red House Records) is the first collaboration between pianist and clarinetist Butch Thompson and singer-guitarist Pat Donohue. The two have been staples of the blues, jazz and folk scenes in the Twin Cities, and have been regular performers for several decades on the national radio show, A Prairie Home Companion.

Donohue is one of the leading fingerstyle guitarists alive, while Thompson is amongst the leading interpreters of traditional jazz and ragtime piano. Thompson, mentored by the late Little Brother Montgomery, shows himself here to be quite a fine blues pianist, while Donohue got to see Big Joe Williams, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Jesse Fuller in the seventies before becoming one of the most accomplished guitarists in the tradition of a Blind Blake and Big Bill Broonzy, both of whom were comfortable playing with jazz musicians. Blake for example recorded with the likes of Johnny Dodds.

The album has them interpreting a number of classic blues from Leroy Carr, Blake, Jelly roll Morton and Little Brother Montgomery as well as early jazz numbers from Clarence Williams and Clarence Johnson, and King Oliver. The pair also contribute five originals as well as a composition Thompson collaborated with Little Brother. From the opening moments of Carr’s Midnight Hour Blues to the closing Thompson original Yancey Blues, their deft and imaginative playing and Donohue’s natural and heartfelt singing make for a truly delightful recording.

The opening Midnight Hour Blues certainly displays the empathy the two have four each other (and the melody was lifted by Robert Johnson for From Four Until Late). Its followed by Carr’s most famous song, How Long, How Long Blues with Thompson’s playing evidencing his love for Jimmy Yancey’s wistful style. The vocal and playing on Blind Blake’s gambling blues, Poker Woman (“I won a woman in a poker game, I lost her to another just the same”) evokes to me some of Big Bill Broonzy’s recordings with pianist Black Bob. Thompson conjures up Little Brother Montgomery’s piano style for Vicksburg Blues with Donohue singing strongly and sparely adding his guitar here.

Thompson’s velvety clarinet comes to the fore on If I Had You, while another Leroy Carr, Papa’s On the Housetop is a playful and rollicking performance, true to the spirit of the eighty year old original recording and followed by the pensive rendition of Jelly Roll Morton’s 219 Blues. Better Days is a lively feature for Donohue’s fluid playing followed by his Blues For Two, where he plays National Resonator style guitar in the vein of Tampa Red with Thompson adding his solid piano. Sunday Rag is a lovely original rag that Thompson and Montgomery co-wrote. Thompson plays straight ragtime here with Donohue’s complimenting him in a fashion I think Reverend Gary davis would have approved of. More lovely clarinet is heard from Thompson on James P. Johnson’s You Can’t Lose a Broken Heart.

Instrumentals, such as King Oliver’s Workingman Blues, takes us back to the early twenties with the interesting, if subdued playing. After the lively original “That D Strain,” the album closes with the melancholy Yancey Blues, Thompson’s tribute to the legendary Jimmy Yancey. It concludes this truly splendid album of traditionally oriented blues and jazz. This is simply the finest album of blues piano and guitar duets in a number of years and certainly one of the finest new blues albums I have heard in 2012.

I received my review copy from Red House Records.  This is scheduled for release on August 14. Here is Butch Thompson doing an instrumental How Long, How Long Blues in the vein of Jimmy Yancey and then Pat Donohue doing Mississippi John Hurt's Spike Driver Blues.

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