Okay, so Alvin Youngblood Hart may not exactly be the first name that jumps to mind when you’re talking bluesmen who are also quite capable of rocking out. The California singer and multi-instrumentalist has been entertaining and delighting music fans for decades now, largely through such folk/country blues-style offerings as “Gallows Pole”, “How Long Before I Change My Clothes”, “Will I Ever Get Back Home”, and “Mama Don’t Allow”, to name just a few of our personal favorites, and collaborations with the likes of Guy Davis and Corey Harris (True Blues), Jimbo Mathus and Luther Dickinson (South Memphis String Band), and fellow Bay area musicians Paul Pena and Big Bones.
A few may of course be aware of Hart’s sometimes rock trio called Muscle Theory, and those who have or remember Hart’s 2005 album Motivational Speaker will also already have experienced a nice sampling of Hart’s more rocking tendencies, including, for example, the shuffling, Hill Country-style reprise of Hart’s earlier “Big Mama’s Door”, the terrifically funky title track, and a Hendrix-like “Stomp Dance” that help get the album off to a strong start, not to mention later tunes such as the gritty, in-your-face numbers “My World is Round” and “Shoot Me a Grin”, a blistering “Necessary Roughness (A Power Move)”, and the groovy instrumental bonus track “Shootout on I-55”. Some who are only familiar with the acoustic blues side of Hart’s repertoire might be surprised to learn that Motivational Speaker is Hart’s favorite album from his own catalog, although the more observant will note that there’s plenty of evidence of that on Hart’s Twitter account, where his handle is @MotivSpkr6L6 and his tagline is “#RockandRoll is in a critical condition”, one of the lines from the album’s title track.
That said, it’s been a long time since Hart rock and rolled, at least in the studio, which makes his new debut single on Fat Possum Records’ Big Legal Mess label a rather welcome and intriguing development, as well as a nice reminder of just what Hart can do when he lets his dreadlocks down. Available only on 45 r.p.m. vinyl, the single was recorded in Mississippi with Hart joined by his rhythm section of drummer Rick Shelton and bassist Mark Stuart.
The A-side is a hard-driving punk-flavored number entitled “Helluva Way (for a Man to Make a Livin’)” that recounts some of Hart’s experiences on the road and features a stinging guitar solo midstream. That’s backed with a quieter, creeping “Watchin’ Brian Jones” that also incorporates some harmonica and is chock full of Memphis grit.
“For me, this 45 is just another piece of the puzzle,” explains Hart in the press release announcing the single. “My family goes back generations in Mississippi, so the blues is in my DNA, but when I was in high school I listened to everything and absorbed it, and now it’s a part of what I do. I keep playing and hitting the road, hoping to defy the stereotypes that were set up for me.”
“I really hate genres,” continues Hart. “It’s become such a stifling thing, especially with blues… What I like to hear, and what I like to play, is just good music.”
And Hart’s new single is precisely that, proving that the 51-year-old musician still has what it takes to compete with modern blues-based rockers like the Black Keys and Gary Clark Jr. The only bad news here is that the record isn’t slated for release until the second week of November but, in the meantime, here’s a nice taste of “Helluva Way” as performed by Hart’s Muscle Theory in the fall of 2012.