Recently, we told you about a 100th birthday set celebrating blues singer and guitarist John Lee Hooker. While that extensive collection consisted of Hooker’s own recordings from throughout his career, this centennial tribute to blues slide guitarist extraordinaire Elmore James offers a baker’s dozen of James’ songs interpreted by contemporary musicians including Tom Jones, Bettye LaVette, Warren Haynes and Billy Gibbons, Rodney Crowell, and Keb’ Mo’, among others.
Recorded in various cities throughout the U.S., from L.A. to Nashville to New York City and Boston, Strange Angels: In Flight with Elmore James (Sylvan Songs Records) features a mostly house band (dubbed Elmore’s Latest Broomdusters) joined by a rotating line-up of guest vocalists and musicians. Although not all of the interpretations here are presented in a straight blues fashion, with Rodney Crowell and Jamey Johnson, for example, adding a country-fried flavor (through both their vocals and acoustic guitars) to songs like “Shake Your Money Maker” and “It Hurts Me Too”, respectively, and other tracks having a jazzy, Americana, soul or pop style, the end result is a diverse, intriguing set that blues fans will easily appreciate and welcome to their collections.
James’ signature slidework is of course much celebrated here, often emanating from the guitar of the Broomdusters’ designated slide man Doug Lancio, but also by others such as fellow Broomduster Larry Taylor, who contributes both slide and upright bass on Tom Jones‘ punchy “Done Somebody Wrong”; Joe McMahan; Duke Levine; longtime Saturday Night Live bandleader G.E. Smith, who appears on Bettye LaVette‘s soulful, scratchy-throated “Person to Person”; Warren Haynes, who not only backs Johnson on “It Hurts Me Too” (where you’ll also hear some terrific piano and B3 organ from Billy Earheart) but sings and is joined on slide by ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons for a gritty “Mean Mistreatin’ Mama” that also features Cowboy Eddie Long on pedal steel and Mickey Raphael on harmonica; and Keb’ Mo’, who provides vocals and National guitar on a jaunty “Look on Yonder Wall”, accompanied by McMahan on electric guitar, Lancio on mandolin, and Sonny Barbato on accordion. A jazzy, brooding “Dark and Dreary” with breathy vocals from Addi McDaniel is, in fact, the only track here absent of slide, relying (quite successfully) instead on the violin of Darol Anger along with accordion from Barbato, acoustic guitar from Levine and Thomas Juliano, and bass clarinet from Bob D’Ambrosio for a nice change of pace.
Unlike many similar tributes to the blues legends, which might include tracks from one or two female vocalists if any, Strange Angels has a particularly strong representation from the ladies; in addition to LaVette and McDaniel, you’ll also find songs from Elayna Boynton, who helps open the collection with the groovy, uptempo “Can’t Stop Loving You”, her husky, accomplished voice sounding like a female version of Michael Ledbetter; Deborah Bonham (“Dust My Broom”); sisters Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer (a captivating, slow-dragging “Strange Angels” that also includes Peter Parcek on guitar); and Mollie Marriott, whose impassioned vocals in the vein of Susan Tedeschi and Bonnie Raitt help to make the simmering “My Bleeding Heart” one of the album’s very best numbers.
Chuck E. Weiss joins the band on washboard and vocals for a stinging “Hawaiian Boogie” that features Lancio on slide and Tony Gilkyson on electric guitar, with Elmore’s Latest Broomdusters (Rick Holmstrom on electric guitar, Lancio on slide guitar, Rudy Copeland on Hammond B3, Viktor Krauss on upright bass, and Marco Giovino — who also produced the project — on drums) closing out the set on their own with the instrumental “Bobby’s Rock”.
A must-have for fans of the both Blues and Rock hall of famer or any of the artists who have covered his songs through the decades (so just about everyone!)… Profits from the sale of the album go to MusicCares and Edible Schoolyard NYC.