Monday, July 16, 2012

Milton Hopkins and Jewel Brown Have The Houston Blues

A new release on the Texas Dialtone label is the eponymously titled released by guitarist Milton Hopkins and vocalist Jewel Brown. Hopkins, a cousin of Lightnin’ Hopkins, is a fleet guitarist with a clean tone and jazzy attack that is in the same vein as fellow Houstonians Texas Johnny Brown and the late Clarence Hollimon. He was in fact second guitarist for B.B. King from around 1971 to 1980. Brown made one recording for Don Robey’s Duke label, later moving out to the West Coast and spent a number of years in the 1960s performing with Louis Armstrong. after retiring from music for a number of years, she has returned to performing a few years back.

Producer Eddie Stout put together a solid band to back the two including Mike Keller on rhythm guitar; Corey Keller or Jason Moeller on drums; Nick Connolly on piano, Johnny Bradley on bass and Kaz Kazanoff on saxophones. They provide solid, swinging backing behind Brown’s vocals and Hopkins’ imaginative single note fretwork. Material is pretty straight-forward with the least familiar material perhaps having the biggest impact.

The opening Jerry is a nice uptempo number, while Can’t Get Enough Of You is a slow blues which she delivers with much feeling. While the years may have taken a toll on her range and vocal tone, on such material she shines while Hopkins lays in some stinging guitar fills behind her vocal. She also capably covers Ruth Brown’s hit, Daddy Daddy, and the band sparkles in accompanying her with Hopkins shining on his solo. It is followed by a surprising cover of J.B. Lenoir’s retelling of the Jonah story, The Whale Has Swallowed Me, with Hopkins on acoustic guitar. It is followed by jazzy instrumental showcase for Hopkins, Evening Breeze, that mixes flair and restraint.

There’s a Light is a nice gospel performance but followed by a decent, but hardly remarkable cover of Esther Phillips’ Cry Me A River, with the arrangement based on the one King Curtis engrafted behind Esther Phillips’s live performance (on Esther’s terrific “Burnin’ album) but Brown’s vocal certainly does not approach that of Phillips, nor is the band on the level of Phillips’ trio that was augmented by Curtis in the studio. Hopkins does take a couple nice guitar breaks, but overall a weak performance. Brown does better with her a cover of Little Willie John’s I’m Shakin’.

Another Hopkins’ instrumental, Back To The Shimmy, has a New Orleans flavor and has Hopkins’ playing off Kazanoff’s tenor sax. Another acoustic performance is the rendition of Lightnin’ Hopkins’ “I’m Leaving You Now,” as Milton channels his cousin’s guitar style, although Brown’s vocal sounds harsh at spots. After the rollicking gospel of How Can I Lose, the album closes with a jaunty instrumental Texas shuffle, Tater Tots.

The collaboration between Milton Hopkins and Jewel Brown is a mixed affair. Hopkins is among the last of the blues guitarists still playing in this sophisticated, jazz-tinged approach and he is terrific throughout. One wonders how much the years have affected Brown’s voice and she is uneven here. Several performances are very good, but others are relatively lackluster. While there are some faults here, overall the merits outweigh them.

I purchased this CD. Here is a short video clip of the two.

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