“The only proof he needed for the existence of God was music.” —Kurt Vonnegut
- Here’s the Illness…
During these times when things seem to go from bad to worse and then worse again, music is one of the few things that can lift the spirit and soothe the aching heart. It’s one of the great ironies of life that singing about feeling bad can make us feel so much better. No wonder novelist Kurt Vonnegut said the above should be his epitaph when he died. Put another way, as playwright George Bernard Shaw said: “Without art the crudeness of reality would be unbearable,” especially during these Covid times. The irony is doubled when we read the words of freed slave and writer Frederick Douglass, who after the American Civil War was dismayed to find that Northerners thought slaves sang when they were happy. “It is impossible to conceive of a greater mistake. Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears.” And thus the Blues was born, in the broken-hearted field chants and hymns of a terrible slavery.
Today of course we’re a long way from that era of crushing oppression. Or are we? Covid lockdowns are taking a heavy psychological toll on the population, both adults and children. As the World Economic Forum admitted in a careless moment, “With some 2.6 billion people around the world in some kind of lockdown, we are conducting arguably the largest psychological experiment ever.” Psychologists are witnessing up to a quadrupling of depression amongst children and adolescents and predicting that the impacts of lockdown will continue to resonate negatively in their lives for years to come. In one review of 63 studies with more than 50,000 participants, “Social isolation and loneliness increased the risk of depression up to 9 years later.” As psychiatrist Dr. Mark McDonald puts it: “It’s up to us adults to fix this, because children are not going to be able to fix this themselves. The true public health crisis lies in the widespread fear which… evolved into a form of mass delusional psychosis.”
- And Here’s the Medicine…
But enough about Covid! We’re here to pay tribute to some of our greatest living blues artists and thank them for relieving this gloom. In this review I profile three such artists and their new or recent albums: Chicago blues harp master Martin Lang, Canadian blues guitarist Jack de Keyzer, and San Francisco bluesman Big Harp George.
Martin Lang: Bad Man. This CD came to me via the Frank Roszak agency and became an instant candidate for heavy rotation on my stereo. I’ve always been a huge fan of the late great blues harp master Paul Butterfield, and it’s hard not to hear his influence here, although Lang claims Little Walter as his blues godfather. Lang’s tone is fat, rich and just a little bit dirty; the title of Butterfield’s greatest hits album, Golden Butter, describes it beautifully. When I asked Lang directly, this is what he said about his amazing tone: “No, I didn’t deliberately model my tone on Butterfield’s. It is definitely a combination of instrumental technique and the rig I’m using. I blew straight into the amp for most of Bad Man.” That Lang was able to get such a rich tone with no effects whatsoever is all the more admirable a feat. According to the liner notes to Bad Man, Lang arrived in Chicago some 30 years ago, “determined to make a name for himself as a blues harmonica player. ‘I bought a cassette of Little Walter’s greatest hits on Maxwell Street right after I got to town, and when I heard it, it was like there was a crystal chandelier hanging in my brain and somebody fired a twelve-gauge at it.’” Definitely a Saul on the road to Damascus moment, then!
What’s equally impressive is the fact that Lang spent much of his career as a session player and sideman, never seeking to develop his vocal chops. “I worked on my craft, showed up and blew, collected my cash, and went home.” But when Rick Congress of Random Chance Records called, Lang was told, “This time you’re going to have to write your own songs and you’re going to have to sing them.” (Seven of the 12 tunes on the album were written by Lang.) As Lang recalls, “I had some songs. And I had done a little singing on the bandstand, but I didn’t have any confidence as a singer.” He needn’t have worried, as his vocals on Bad Man attest. He has a natural blues voice that could easily be mistaken for some of the blues greats of the past. At times, as on the lead track “Reefer Headed Man,” he fills out the vocal dimension with a backing chorus, dipping into the tradition of the “blues shouters.” Lang’s voice is reminiscent at times of the late Brownie McGhee, with just enough of a whiskey edge to give him street credibility as a bluesman.
In some respects Bad Man is an album that has a time warp feel to it. With Lang’s buttery harp tone, Gerry Hundt’s Farfisa organ, and the spare but stinging guitar of Little Frank, I couldn’t help but be transported back to the first two Paul Butterfield Blues Band albums, circa 1965–66. Or the early John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers albums. And that’s not a bad thing! It’s also a reminder that the Hammond B3 isn’t the only contender on the block for rendering a classic blues sound, although the Farfisa hasn’t fared as well since that era as an instrument of choice for blues players. Lang too pulls some dark horses out of his kit. As the liner notes explain, “If you need any more proof that the 16-hole chromatic harmonica is one of the most evocative of all blues instruments, take a listen to Martin’s ‘Mood Indica.’ ‘It’s All Gone Now’ is a classic South Side harp shuffle played on the little-used Koch chromatic harmonica…”
It’s not often one can say this anymore, but Bad Man is an instant blues classic—pick it up!
Jack de Keyzer: Tribute. Jack de Keyzer is Canada’s living answer to the late great Stevie Ray Vaughan. There’s the by-now famous quote from Bob Dylan about de Keyzer that, “If you were from Chicago, New York or Los Angeles you’d be famous.” A close contender would be fellow Canuck Sue Foley, but this would be an unfair comparison because their tones are so different. Both are virtuoso guitarists. For one thing, Foley’s chosen instrument is the Fender Telecaster, with its uniquely stinging tone, while de Keyzer—like Vaughan—is primarily a Stratocaster player. Both err on the side of what I like to call a ‘clean’ tone, though the Strat rounds out and warms up the tone more than the Tele. In the blues, a basically simple musical form, it’s not necessarily virtuosity but tone that matters. Among the blues greats—BB King, Albert King, Muddy Waters to name only three—you know who it is almost from the first note. It’s all about tone, whether it was BB plucking out crystalline notes on his Gibson ES-355; Albert King, a giant of a man with great meat hooks for hands wringing and bending his notes almost to snapping on a Gibson Flying V; or Muddy Waters’ glass-shattering slide guitar tone, never heard before or since.
From the up-tempo opening of “Are You Ready?” the listener is launched into a seamless flow of original songs by the guitarist that lands you at the final track before you realize it’s over. As the best artists know, leave ’em wanting more. As the album title suggests, many of these songs have distinct echoes of other artists, although all these songs are original de Keyzer compositions. When I first heard “Let’s Do It,” I could’ve sworn it was a Bonnie Raitt tune. The opening bars of “Forever” echo Clapton’s “Layla” before becoming recognizably de Keyzer’s own. Though I asked de Keyzer to name names, he politely declined: “I realized after the album was recorded that I was wearing my influences like my heart on a sleeve. So I mean it as a way of showing gratitude to all the artists (guitarists, singers, song writers) who have influenced me over the course of my career. There are many—I’ll leave it to the listener to have fun and decide who.”
Since the topic of guitar tone keeps cropping up in this review, I asked de Keyzer about his approach. Guitarists and music geeks alike will be fascinated to read his answer: “I do use pedals, pretty well the same ones I’ve used throughout my career. Overdrive (Boss Blues Driver), wah-wah, Dunlop echo pedal (custom made), octave pedal (Boss)—all through my Fender Twin Reverb amplifier. Guitars for this album: ’62 Fender Stratocaster re-issue (main guitar ), ’57 Les Paul re-issue (“Keep The Fire Burning” and “Supernatural”), Gibson J45 acoustic ’62 (reissue), and Custom Telecaster (for some rhythm parts).”
de Keyzer’s track record is excellent—so far I haven’t heard a single album that isn’t consistently fine. He gets my vote as Canada’s reincarnation of Stevie Ray. Buy anything by him.
Big Harp George: Living in the City. I’ve reviewed past recordings by Big Harp George and wrote the liner notes for his album Uptown Cool, so it’s been enjoyable to see the steady growth in this artist from his first album Chromaticism. That title tips the hat to his chosen instrument, the chromatic harmonica, not generally seen as a signature blues instrument, though I was surprised to learn of its use on Martin Lang’s Bad Man. And Big Harp George has proven that with the right technique and song stylings, it’s a worthy addition to the blues arsenal.
On Living in the City, George subsumes his instrument to the collective sound of the band and a large cohort of guest players, focusing instead on developing his vocals. You can hear his voice developing more resonance and subtle cadences compared to his early songs, particularly on slower numbers like “Heading Out to Itaipu.” And as with Uptown Cool, this album reflects his “growing addiction to playing with horns,” which tend to carry the tunes. Little Charlie Baty, who sadly passed away in 2020, once again makes his tasteful, adept guitar work indispensable. There are tastefully blended world music instruments that grace tracks such as the Paraguayan harp played by Carlos Reyes on “Itaipu” and “Enrique.” The intro to “Itaipu” also uses a tastefully blended violin.
George’s Palestinian heritage surfaces in the powerful anthem “Meet Me at the Fence,” dedicated “to the memory of Razn al-Najjar and to all the young Palestinians yearning for freedom in the Gaza Strip.” The song features a distinctly Middle Eastern intro, a “taqsim” or free improvisation on an Arabic instrument called the qanun played by Palestinian artist Firas Zreik. George duets with Zreik’s mother, Amal Murkus, a major star of the Palestinian music scene. She sings the final verse in a Palestinian dialect of Arabic.
It’s no small achievement to create music that’s simultaneously toe-tapping and politically engaged without overwhelming the listener, but Big Harp George does a fine job of it. There are not just one but two songs about America’s medical system, “Copayment” and “Pusher in a White Coat.” “Copayment” is based on a series of exchanges George had while being treated for heart arrhythmia. “I went in for one check-up, prepared to pay my $20 co-payment, and ended up with a bill for something like $600! And it was just like the lyrics say: every little component of the visit was broken out, requiring either a copayment or a deductible (the big one was for the EKG and the dialogue at the end of the song is almost verbatim what I was told by the medical office). So the song as a whole is a commentary on the absolute inanity of our medical/insurance system and how it is organized (or not), and how we end up confused and exploited as a result.” Makes me glad to be a Canadian with a universal healthcare system!
“‘Pusher in a White Coat’ is an indictment of over-prescribing doctors, and particularly how they fueled the opioid crisis among working class people who came to them initially due to work injuries. It was inspired by work I did as a consultant on a criminal case in which I learned just how common that trajectory is: work injury, chronic pain, prescriptions, addiction/self-medication with illegal or illegally obtained drugs, other criminality to support addiction, (and finally) incarceration or other entanglement with law enforcement.” The song could also become an anthem for the Covid era, with experimental vaccines being foisted on whole populations despite sketchy evidence of their efficacy.
No surprise then that George Bisharat, a.k.a. Big Harp George, a former human rights lawyer, laces his lyrical content with social justice concerns. But as an artist, he has learned how to do so with grace and good humour, as on “Try Nice,” “Don’t Talk,” and “First Class Muck-up.” On “Meet Me at the Fence,” he filters his human rights concerns through a fine ear for moving, inspirational melody.
In these dark and darker times, Living in the City is excellent medicine. Highly recommended.
Martin Lang: https://www.martinlangbluesharp.com/
Jack de Keyzer: https://jackdekeyzer.com/
Big Harp George: https://www.bigharpgeorge.com/
 “Global rise in childhood mental health issues amid pandemic,” John Leicester, Associated Press, March 12, 2021; the article notes that a Paris hospital “has seen a doubling in the number of children and young teenagers requiring treatment after attempted suicides…” https://www.cbs19.tv/article/news/health/coronavirus/covid-rise-in-childhood-mental-health-issues/507-e14920ef-5cf0-4f25-a37b-d9aa8c04f297 Psychiatrist Dr. Mark McDonald, who specializes in adolescents and children, cites recent CDC statistics showing there’s been a 400% increase in adolescent depression compared to one year ago…”
 “New Findings About Children’s Mental Health During COVID-19,” Karen Dineen Wagner, MD, PhD, Psychiatric Times, October 7, 2020:
 “The World Is Suffering From Mass Delusional Psychosis,” Dr. Mark McDonald, February 18, 2021: https://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2021/02/18/the-psychological-state-of-america.aspx?ui=86f5700b015aead328078889a81fd3058a7c45ddb035c2d25d4bb455c02f6e95&sd=20201211&cid_source=wnl&cid_medium=email&cid_content=art5HL&cid=20210222Z1&mid=DM804608&rid=1090306278