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If you want to learn how to make songs yourself, you take your guitar and you go to where the road crosses that way, where a crossroads is. Get there, be sure to get there just a little 'fore 12 that night so you know you'll be there. You have your guitar and be playing a piece there by yourself... A big black man will walk up there and take your guitar and he'll tune it. And then he'll play a piece and hand it back to you. That's the way I learned to play anything I want - Tommy Johnson, to his brother

Author Topic: Willie Brown's Liquor  (Read 1745 times)

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Offline dj

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Willie Brown's Liquor
« on: January 18, 2009, 04:49:12 PM »
Willie Brown's Liquor - Waxwing John (John Cowan)
(Private label, no disc number)

(Full disclosure:  While I don't personally know Waxwing John Cowan and have never met him, I've known him for the last 4 years as an active poster to  When John asked for volunteers to listen to and comment on his work in progress, I volunteered, spent many hours listening to most of the songs on this CD, and made suggestions as to the strengths and weaknesses of the material and recommended track order.  Fuller disclosure:  Not wanting to step on any toes, I sent a copy of this review to John before posting.  He didn't ask me to change a thing.)

They don't make CDs like this any more.  Except for this one.  Willie Brown's Liquor is a CD of straight covers of prewar blues songs, played for the most part in arrangements that are very lose to the originals.  In an age when the original versions are easily available on CD, as downloads, and streamed over the internet, making a CD like this is not the easiest thing to pull off.  One can't be startlingly different, so the challenge is to figure out what a song is saying and breathe life into it, much like an actor creating a believable part from lines in a script.  I'm happy to say that, for the most part, Waxwing John has succeeded in accomplishing this.

The first thing one notices upon tearing the shrink wrap off of Willie Brown's Liquor is the packaging.  I love liner notes, and John Cowan has provided some good ones.  First, there's a brief explanation of why John sings the blues and why he's made the CD he has.  Then there's the usual credits and thanks.  And then we get to the best part: for every song, John gives the name of the original performer, writes a sentence or two about the song - some history or what attracts him to the piece, what instrument the song is performed on, and the tuning, playing position, and capo position, if any.  I hate to sound like, well, like a weenie, but I just love stuff like that!

On to the music.  The opening song is one of the strongest on the disc, a version of Clifford Gibson's "Tired Of Being Mistreated" that absolutely sparkles, giving the original a run for the money.  The voice and guitar here, as on the rest of the CD, are beautifully recorded.  John's vocal shines, convincingly conveying the seeming paradox that, while he's tired of being mistreated, he's feeling pretty happy about finally reaching this stage of the relationship.  Other standout songs include George Carter's "Ghost Woman Blues", on which Cowan demonstrates a beautifully delicate touch on the 12-string.  "Sportin' Life" (Brownie McGhee via Dave Van Ronk) has a bit of a Van Ronk roughness to the vocal that conveys an appropriate sense of world-weariness.  John Hurt's "Avalon Blues" is taken at a brisk pace that emphasizes the train-like rhythm.  On "Joliet Bound", Cowan and second guitarist Miller Wise successfully recreate a Kansas Joe/Memphis Minnie duet.  Tommy Johnson's "Canned Heat Blues" is a standout because of the vocal: though taken at a brisk pace, John's voice here manages to sound laconic and weary, as
if he's reallized that canned heat really will be his end.

Nothing's perfect, and I do have a few relatively minor quibbles with Willie Brown's Liquor.  While Cowan's guitar work on William Brown's "Mississippi Blues" is excellent, I don't think he ever connects emotionally to the vocal.  And Willie Brown's "Future Blues" is taken just a bit too fast.  On a general note, though Waxwing John's vocals are on the whole strong, well thought out, and varied (he can croon and he can growl), there are a few occasions, almost all long notes on slow songs, where one wishes he'd added a bit of vibrato or some other dynamic to dress the note a bit.

But these reservations are minor.  On the whole, Willie Brown's Liquor is a strong debut that never fails to bring a smile when I pop it in the CD player.

Edit:  Jeez, you'd think I'd at least be able to spell the title right on the subject line!
« Last Edit: January 18, 2009, 04:50:29 PM by dj »


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