The Boston Phoenix
July 20 - 27, 2000

[Music Reviews]

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Boston's blue bloods

Ronnie Earl, Mighty Sam McClain, Paul Rishell & Annie Raines

Cellars by Starlight by Ted Drozdowski

The late pianist Roosevelt Sykes, also known as the Honeydripper, said, "The blues is a talent. You can't learn it. You got to be born with it."

Certainly the Boston area artists Ronnie Earl, Mighty Sam McClain, and Paul Rishell and Annie Raines all sound born to the blues. For Earl and Rishell and Raines, their respective journeys -- from Queens, Connecticut, and, well, in Annie's case, just outside of Boston -- to the apex of their art have been accomplished through a combination of study and intuitive soul. Same for McClain, though as an African-American born in the Deep South who began singing in church as a child, he seems closer to the Sykes credo.

Even if Roosevelt's notion of blues in the blood is a bit of an oversimplification, there clearly is something in the combination of technique and unfiltered emotionalism in these artists' work that sets them apart. And this year they've all won deserved recognition. In May, Rishell and Raines and Earl received W.C. Handy Awards, the blues industry's version of a Grammy (Ritchell describes it as looking "like a giant testicle"). And McClain has gotten not only recognition but cash for the frequent use of his spiritual/blues "New Man in Town" on Ally McBeal. McClain and Earl have also just released outstanding new CDs on the Telarc label.

For Earl, a veteran guitarist who's spent almost 25 years on the road in Sugar Ray and the Bluetones and Roomful of Blues and as a commanding solo artist, the award for Best Blues Guitarist (his second) and his new disc arrive at a poignant time. "I haven't been able to play since January because of depression," he confides. "To me, the music on Healing Time is the music of depression, because I was struggling with it as I recorded."

Healing Time does seem to have a bit more melancholy in its melodies than Earl's previous albums. But its blues-jazz hybrid is no less beautiful. From the opening organ/guitar spiritual, "Churchin'," to his potboiling take on Muddy Waters' "Catfish Blues," Earl again displays the gracfe and soul that's the heart of his playing.

The session's guest star is the jazz-organ legend Jimmy McGriff. "That alone is worth the price of admission," Earl offers. "He phrases like nobody else, and that's not even talking about his tone." Tone is also one of Earl's strengths, so it's a pleasure to hear the two musicians mesh.

"It felt a little dangerous to do `Catfish Blues,' " Ronnie continues. "Muddy Waters' music is untouchable. But I thought that if I did it with B-3 [on this track, by Boston's Bruce Katz] it would be different enough that I gave myself permission.

"My favorite song I wrote for my wife, `Bella Donna.' On that I might be one of the first blues guys to play classical guitar on an album."

Earl jokes that he may also be among the first to do nothing to promote his latest release. "I dropped out of the rat race. I don't have a band. I don't have a manager. At age 47 I've been able to pull away and say no." But not before the pace of his previous major-label deal and constant touring drove him to exhaustion. He was also diagnosed as diabetic last year. Now he's battling depression, too -- it's as if his life were almost as full of blues as his music has long been.

Nonetheless, he's been drawing on the support of his wife, Donna, and his spiritual convictions. And his interest in performing is returning. He recently appeared on local stages with soul singer Irma Thomas and Chicago blues giant Otis Rush. He's also planning an all-blues album, and he'll return to headlining at the Regattabar in September. Meanwhile, he's been teaching, and he plays every Wednesday for a group of retarded adults in Chelmsford. "They don't know Ronnie Earl from Savoy Brown. It's beautiful."

He adds, "I hope other people get some healing from my record. Depression is a very isolating illness. I hope that maybe by me talking about it, some others who are going through this might realize they're not alone.

"For now, I'm always looking to play better, always looking for the perfect slow blues. I used to pray that God would give me the ability to play blues, so everything else is gravy for me. That's all I ever really wanted. So when I'm feeling unfulfilled, I remind myself: it's important to have gratitude."

So does Sam Mcclain, another deeply spiritual man who has turned his blues into a musical ministry of sorts over the past few years. Even "New Man in Town," which became a theme for a new character on Ally McBeal last season, was actually about accepting Jesus. But the songs on McClain's new Blues for the Soul never trip over their believer's foundation.

For fans of no-holds-barred soul music -- the kind of emotionally naked performances that Otis Redding and Bobby Bland delivered in the '60s -- Mighty Sam's recordings and concerts continue to be manna. With the voice of a lion that's rolled in the red clay of the American South, his music today reflects the joy he's found in life. It also reflects his conviction that his '90s ascent from the gutters of New Orleans to the comforts of his New Hampshire home and family and international recognition for his work has been due not only to his own labors but to divine intervention.

"I worked for a long time not seeing many sparks," he points out. "Now I'm seeing sparks, though I'd still like to see a bigger spark. But I have my artistic freedom, and control of my own career, and I have found in [his wife] Sandra's family the family that I've always wanted. When I hear someone call me `Grandpa Sam,' I feel tears of joy and thankfulness come into my eyes." McClain himself had a rough childhood: he fled home in his early teens because of an abusive stepfather. And he was separated from his mother for decades -- they reconciled only a short time before she passed away early this year.

"Deep in my heart," McClain reflects, "I really think I'm right where God wants me to be, and that my time's comin'."

McClain himself has been nominated several times for Handy awards, but they've so far eluded him. This year he lost in the traditional soul/blues category to one of his inspirations, Bobby Bland. "That's okay. Bobby was sure here before me, and he's earned it. And I don't want to jump in nobody else's spot. I don't want someone as special as Bobby Bland to have to die so I can become a star."

The McBeal windfall not only has been a financial blessing but has reinforced his belief that his hard decades of struggle -- during which he plummeted from the top of the Southern R&B charts in the '60s to rock bottom and then slowly inched back up into the ranks of the most respected in his field -- were right. So right that he's about to write a song about the way he feels now called "Standing in the Middle of My Dreams."

"I'm just following my spirit into my music, and it's amazing how people respond to what I'm singing about. They hear me talking about God and share things with me about their family and their lives and troubles that I can't believe. That's because they know I'm real -- about the blues and about God."

Guitarist Paul Rishell and harmonica ace Annie Raines travel a more secular path. Through their profound understanding of what makes the music tick and their excellent musicianship, the duo have forged a sound that touches the deepest parts of the blues' history and character. The past few years have taken them increasingly to Europe and to teaching residencies and festivals around the US. And a growing audience has, in turn, taken Paul and Annie's blend of old-style country blues and the post-war Chicago sound pioneered by the likes of Muddy Waters to heart.

This May, the music also took Rishell and Raines to the Handy Awards, where they performed. "We were nominated for the acoustic-album category but figured we wouldn't win," Paul says. "We were wondering why we were there anyway, because playing the music is its own reward," Annie adds.

After they played for the Handy crowd, Rishell and Raines opted to spend the rest of the program at the far end of the auditorium, where the nervous jitters of the other nominees milling about wouldn't spill into their calm. "Everybody was kind of frenzied, so we wanted to have some space," Paul explains. "We could hear the ceremonies droning on in the distance. Then somebody came up to us and said, `You better run to the other end of the auditorium. They're announcing your category.' "

"Then it dawned on us that we'd actually won," says Annie.

"Hell, I haven't run since I was 16 years old," says Paul.

Nonetheless, they made it to the podium to receive Acoustic Album of the Year for Moving to the Country (Tone Cool), their 1999 release.

"The thing is," Paul acknowledges, "half the record's electric anyway. So I don't know exactly why we got it. But it's fun to win."

Also practical, as Annie points out. "It can be used to give promoters and presenters something to run with, and we're now on the verge of having booking and management, which we hadn't before." Their recent gig at a festival in Davenport, Iowa, was attended by a bigger and more enthusiastic audience than usual -- a common symptom of award fever.

"But getting an award or a manager isn't going to change what we do," says Paul.

"If anything," Annie adds, "having people help us may give us more time to work on the next album and the kind of music we want to do."

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