In case you were wondering what had happened to the long lost ghost of Janis Joplin, she’s alive and well. Well, metaphorically—or is that metaphysically? —speaking. Her whole-bodied, gut-wrenching, full-throated passion has become something of a rarity in singers these days. That’s why it’s so exciting to hear new blues-rock artists like Mandy Lemons of Low Society and Lex Grey of The Urban Pioneers. Janis’s guiding spirit is certainly large enough to be ‘reborn’ in contemporary singers with their own unique range, power and passion, hinting at what she would have been capable of had she lived a long life. Added to this metaphysical sisterhood is the fabulous Sarah Benck of the Rex Granite Band, though to be fair, Benck’s clear, rich timbre is more evocative of vintage Bonnie Raitt than Janis. And if Janis is the mother of these Queens of the Gutbucket Blues, Keith Richards is their father.
Like Janis, these gals were savvy enough to partner up with smokin’ guitar players capable of a down ’n dirty electric slide. On Low Society’s Sanctified, the Rex Granite Band’s Spirit, Matter, Truth, Lies, and Lex Grey and the Urban Pioneers’ Usual Suspects, the atmosphere seems steeped in the free-flowing, bourbon-fueled spirit of the Exile on Main Street sessions. It’s a welcome return to form for the white blues via its Sixties and Seventies heyday. These queens of what I call ‘Gutbucket Blues’—blues that strips away the show-biz gloss to get at the raw, beating soul at its heart—are carving out new territory in a well-worn track.
On Sanctified, Sturgis Nikides commands a mean slide guitar, the perfect foil for Mandy Lemons’ gutsy vocals. Included amongst the album’s original tunes is John Prine’s timeless Angel from Montgomery. It’s a risky choice given how often this song has been covered, but Lemons infuses it with smoldering intensity. In the oddly-named Raccoon Song, she belts out the mojo with a pleasingly original take on John Lee Hooker’s famous vocal flourish, “how, how, how.” Lemons drops to a sexy simmer on The Freeze before riding the locomotive of Sanctified, a repurposed Train I Ride with vocals that blow its forebear off the tracks. It takes real talent to make songs we’ve all heard a thousand times sound original again, and Low Society pulls it off again with I’d Rather Go Blind, the song made popular by Rod Stewart and The Faces. Lemons manages it with her foot steadily on the gas pedal yet never losing control of the car, as Stewart and the boys could sometimes do live. But the real revelation here is Nina, the band’s tribute to Nina Simone. Nikides plays an eloquent, understated dobro and the passion in Lemons’ voice builds to a crescendo of raw, controlled power. It’s one of the longest tracks on the album but not a second of it is wasted. For more information visit https://www.screaminblues.com/bio
Rex Granite provides the smoky electric slide that allows Sarah Benck to propel her voice into the stratosphere. This woman has the most incredible set of pipes I’ve heard in ages, recalling early Bonnie Raitt circa Give It Up, before she turned to more commercial efforts. And Benck knows how to use her instrument, from the slight restraint necessary to propel rockers like Stop Doing What You Want and Cadillac Car to the slow, sweet burn of Curtis Mayfield’s Please Send Me Someone to Love. It’s a stunning performance by Benck, whose vibrato is used to breathtaking effect. The band almost veers into Prog Rock territory with Granite’s slide providing muted atmospherics on numbers like Sail Away and Spirit/Matter/Truth/Lies, a welcome diversion in contemporary blues, which too easily bogs down in note-perfect tributes to its past heroes. Benck’s voice would probably be capable of singing any genre with equal ferocity. It has a crystal clarity and at the same time a gutsiness that is perfectly suited to the blues but never descends to parody. Wisely, she opts for passion, pulling out all the stops yet always fully in control. Spirit/Matter/Truth/Lies is a consistently powerful album.
But if you’re listening for a voice that most closely resembles the passionate rasp and purr of Janis, you want Lex Grey. Grey is the New York to Janis’s San Francisco. Like Janis, Grey’s songs on Usual Suspects are gritty with urban disillusionment and heartache. Yet she manages to avoid the maudlin sentimentality of so many broken-hearted songs. “I’m not your dirty secret anymore,” she sings in Dirty Secret. The metaphors are sometimes coarse, like Chow Down, but it was Janis who taught female singers to be unapologetic about liking sex. (It wasn’t all that long before Janis—1959, to be exact—that Pearl Bailey’s album Pearl Bailey Sings for Adults Only had to be released on record only and would certainly never have had airplay.) The Urban Pioneers also tip their collective hat to the late great Stevie Ray Vaughn with SRV, smoothly emulating his Texas shuffle. But Grey’s tour de force—and if the band’s PR team knows what they’re doing, the top single from the album—is Renegade Heart. The lyrics here are both original and poetic, with the opening verse: “The tree outside looks like a man / reaching with his bleeding hands / scratching letters in the sand.” And when she sings “my heart’s in flames,” it’s no mere pose—you feel it with her. Throughout the proceedings on Usual Suspects, Lex Grey never gives less than everything, and then some. For more information visit http://lexgreymusic.com.