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Author Topic: This Old Hammer - John Miller  (Read 2881 times)

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Offline Slack

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This Old Hammer - John Miller
« on: November 17, 2011, 06:22:21 PM »
This Old Hammer - John Miller       
Written by Andrew Mullins

This Old Hammer - John Miller
Orb Discs Orb-1010

This Old Hammer is John Miller's first solo blues outing in over three decades, so one can understand how some people may have been getting a little impatient waiting for this record to appear. His LPs made for Blue Goose in the 1970s are highly regarded -- and nearly impossible to find. Shortly after those albums, John was off exploring different musical directions, with projects over the years ranging from jazz to bluegrass to world music. While those who have had the opportunity to see him perform live in recent years have been able to catch tantalizing snippets of this new blues album at a gig or workshop, finally that music is gathered in one place.

(I should say in the interest of full disclosure that I know John and have studied with him at the Port Townsend Country Blues Workshop for years. Like a lot of people, a great number of them his fellow musicians, I admire his talent and the depth of his knowledge of country blues styles. But given the strength of this album, any possible bias I might have seems irrelevant to me.)

The overall creative approach taken on This Old Hammer is to reinvent country blues originals that have caught John's ear over the years. As he explains in his notes for the CD, "I wanted to retain particular aspects of the songs that I was starting with, but always to be introducing different elements, as well -- perhaps a new melody, different lyrics or a new harmonization, in addition to, in every instance, a different accompaniment." The other element that I think is at least in part being reinvented here is an approach to solo blues guitar playing. John is an extraordinarily creative guitar player in several genres, so it was unlikely that he would stick to tried and true guitar formulas and vocabulary when he is a master at creating his own. Still, these are some startlingly fresh and thoughtful arrangements. Sometimes he will exploit different tunings and positions on the guitar to achieve sounds and textures that open the genre up, while at others he just dazzles with what can be done with a few chords in standard tuning. All of it, however, is in the service of solid music, never simply to appear flashy or impress.

The album opens with the title track, played on an old guitar converted to a 9-string instrument by Todd Cambio of Fraulini Guitars. The melody of this John Henry-themed song originally comes from a collection of field recordings made by Dr. Cortez Reece available on a CD called "Work and Pray". Done here with an accompaniment in Spanish tuning at G, but played in C, the arrangement is a perfect example of how John is able to take a musical idea and build something that is completely new, yet still has a timeless sound to it.

Following is "New Cairo Blues", a standout track here among many remarkable songs. John transforms a classic recording by Henry Spaulding and creates an instant classic of his own. The song mixes traditional lyrics with verses from "Cairo Blues", and it features a hypnotic, drop-dead-catchy signature riff played out of cross-note tuning. The whole thing feels like it walked straight out of the St. Louis of the 1920s and 30s, yet is very much its own tune. As has been noted on Weenie Campbell, a couple of us hear vague strains of Lane Hardin's "Hard Time Blues" in here. To my ear, this is because the guitar part has rhythmic echoes of the song, with a similar pulse and groove. The original Cairo has somewhat lighter time. Regardless of the inspiration, this song is just perfect, and my favorite track on an album where favorites are hard to pick. I'd go so far as to say it is one of the best compositions I've heard from any country blues revivalist, and can't say how may times I've listened to it since receiving this CD.

"My Easy Rider" features tricky guitar work set mostly to the lyrics of Lemon Jefferson, and like Lemon's version of the song is played out of G position. It puts me in mind of what might happen if Bo Carter covered Lemon: cheerful, full of technical brilliance and musical humor, a pleasure. It's followed by a superb jazzy instrumental blues written by John for pianist Erwin Helfer, "Smooth Blues for E.H.", played once again on the 9-string guitar.

The recasting of Lottie Kimbrough's (or Lottie Beaman's) "Rolling Log Blues" is likely to be the other standout track of the record for many people and has a real elemental beauty to it. John preserves the great melody and then creates a new guitar part that rivals the original accompaniment in how immaculately it sits under the vocal. Not so easily recreated (I've tried and failed miserably! You'll need to tune to DGDFAD, equivalent to E standard tuning with the fourth string raised to the tonic, and be masterly and relentless with your glissandos). This is arranging of the highest order: to take one of the most striking songs in the blues catalog and create something equally striking and original.

"Wild About My Lovin'" turns a song done by both Jim Jackson and mandolinist Lonnie Coleman into a decidedly more grown-up version, pianistic in its execution. This is another of my favorites from the collection, the John "Killer" Miller moment of the record, with one of its best, understated vocals too, along with New Cairo. The mood then shifts to a more rural sound with "Walking Boss", the Clarence Ashley tune, transferred here to a laid-back interpretation on an unusual, fretless six-string banjo (built by Jere Canote) and played in Spanish tuning.

"Keep It Clean" is a bit of fun that sets Charley Jordan's lyrics to a new melody and guitar part -- "When it comes to lyrics, you've got to have words," quip the notes -- while the breezy Miller original, "Cool Baby Cool", makes me think of Holly Golightly-era Audrey Hepburn for some incomprehensible reason. It's not necessarily country blues, but it's got tremendous charm. "I'm Gettin' Wild About Her" takes the very country Big Joe Williams into more of a cool blues territory, and Blind Connie Williams' gospel tune, "Milky White Way", has masterly guitar playing -- a redundant statement about this record, but still -- done out of Vestapol, with a break that recalls the nifty octave playing of jazz guitarists like Wes Montgomery or Jim Hall.

The album closes with a beautiful, hymn-like tune, "When We All Get Home", composed in honor of Elizabeth Cotten -- and played out of the lazy man's key of open B-flat! -- that segues into a lively instrumental piece dedicated to John's wife, "Ginny's Frolic."

The fact that a lot these songs don't sound like experiments at all, and more like lost versions of great country blues and traditional songs, is a key element of their success. Others simply dazzle with their humble virtuosity: there is a real depth to the deceptively simple-sounding arrangements. John's right hand technique in particular is quite astonishing on repeated listening (having seen him perform many of these songs, I can attest to the fact that the left hand work is no walk in the park either). His touch and tone -- produced with bare fingers on a Martin OM-28CH and OM OM-18V as well as the aforementioned 9-string and guitjo -- are extraordinary. The recording process here sounds very clean, and the wide tonal variety one hears on the record is all John, with no studio tricks discernable to me.

Musicians love John Miller because he always takes things to a higher level. They show up regularly in his classes at the Port Townsend Country Blues Workshop, sitting alongside the other students. The kind of musical wisdom they pay tribute to when doing that shines through on this album. It's also music that's sure to put you in a good mood -- there's a pleasure in music-making audible in every note of these performances. This Old Hammer has definitely been worth the wait.   

This Old Hammer
New Cairo Blues
My Easy Rider
Smooth Blues for E. H.
Rolling Log Blues
Wild About My Lovin'
Walking Boss
Keep It Clean
Cool, Baby, Cool
I'm Getting Wild About Her
Milky White Way
When We All Get Home/Ginny's Frolic
« Last Edit: December 13, 2014, 08:32:12 AM by Slack »


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