Hot chops in the city
A preview of some releases to come from Portland’s new blues label Sideburn Records
Since its inception some two decades ago, Portland, Oregon’s Burnside Records has issued over 40 albums of blues. This indie outfit has recently branched out and formed a subsidiary label, Sideburn Records, dedicated to “rockin’ roots music.” Four new releases indicate the scope of this adventurous company, which has a local connection via its 1992 CD, Have Mercy—Live featuring the Lloyd Jones Struggle in a superb performance recorded at the Sierra Nevada Brewery’s pub.
Alice Stuart’s Can’t Find No Heaven features an eclectic musical veteran in a program of traditional blues and originals. Stuart got her start in the ‘60s as a folk singer who shared stages and toured with Joan Baez, Mississippi John Hurt, Muddy Waters, Jerry Garcia, Albert King and others, as well as being one of the original Mothers of Invention! A handful of records (on Arhoolie, Fantasy and her own label) and appearances at the Strawberry Music Festival (and elsewhere) helped cement her reputation as “a major talent” (Rolling Stone)—one who has played Chico before and made many instant fans.
Stuart is a double threat: Her finger picking, as demonstrated on Furry Lewis’s “Turn Your Money Green” and Skip James’s “Rather Be the Devil,” is fluent and precise, while her clear voice rings out with feeling. She can whip out the electric stuff, too, as she effectively demonstrates on a gender-switching version of Mississippi Fred McDowell’s “Drop Down, Mama,” where she and label mate Terry Robb get down on slide guitars. Purists may dislike the fact that she incorporates her own verses into some of the songs, but that was standard practice in the old days when lyrics were frequently “borrowed” and added to one’s own repertory.
Guitarist Terry Robb’s fourth album for Burnside, When I Play My Blues Guitar, finds this deft fingerpicker going the solo acoustic route on 13 numbers that range in scope from three ragtime medleys through such traditional fare as Furry Lewis’s “Judge Boushay Blues” (where he gets that same high-ringing tone that Lewis was noted for) and Tommy Johnson’s “Bye-Bye” (which the composer of “Canned Heat Blues” recorded in 1928). Also included are his own intriguing compositions, such as “Fahey in Bush Park” (which celebrates John Fahey, his late mentor, whom he produced and with whom he performed) and “Goin’ to California” ("[where] I’ll stay dry all the time"), certainly an admirable goal for the Pacific Northwest resident. Like Stuart, Robb is also affiliated with the Port Townsend Country Blues Festival.
Guitarists John Bunzow’s and Tim Carroll’s CDs (Darkness and Light and Always Tomorrow, respectively) feature their own originals, and it was this desire to keep writing and singing their own songs that drew them to Nashville from opposite sides of the country.
As Bunzow puts it, “I found myself fortunate to work in venues where original material was appreciated.” Recorded in a friend’s basement in Nashville, Bunzow’s CD finds him in the company of several other instruments (e.g., pedal steel guitar, harmony vocalists) plus a rhythm section. Besides the typical songs of loving and leaving—"Love Is the Only Rescue,” “Long Gone Train” (he’s on it), “Chasin’ Trains” (the one with his baby on board), the title track posits the duality of good and evil to be found at the corner of darkness and light ("I’m callin’ on my good intentions to help me do what’s right. … There’s a lit up sign, ‘Walk, Don’t Walk,’ keeps flashin’ through my mind"), while the deathly slow “I’m Just Tryin’ to Get By” chronicles a newly laid-off worker ("They call it consolidation, just a word for obsolete"). One of the most harrowing songs, “Choices Come Easy,” is about a 16-year-old who fled an unwholesome home situation, only to start working as a stripper and using drugs—"choices sure come easy when they’re down to none.”
Tim Carroll’s CD hews more to the honky-tonkin’ side of Nashville, where it too was recorded. Carroll’s nasal vocals and raucous guitar are wedded as much to rock and roll as to C&W, especially on “Puts the Sugar On,” which, with the horn backing, seems straight out of the Stones’ Exile on Main Street period. One of his most unique songs, and this in a collection of true originals, is “The T.G.V.” (I wonder how that goes over in Nashville), a solid country kicker about the Trains a Grand Vitesse, the French streamliners that can hit 200 mph with the line, “I wonder what the Singin’ Brakeman up in heaven might be thinkin’ if he saw this orange streamlined thing.” Yeah, me too! Songs like “(Why Do I Need a) Job"—"These hours are great and I’m never late"—and “Get Me High” show his lighter side.
That’s just a brief preview of some fascinating goods (to be sure!) arriving from this new blues label in rainy Portland—artists who will undoubtedly be headed our way for some great live shows in the future.