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(Rounder 2186 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 5/31/2006)
The revival in the popularity of the blues has not only helped a new generation of blues artists to emerge, but has also given new visibility to veteran performers. And one of the great things about the blues is that most artists tend to get better as they get older.
This week we have a fine new recording by veteran soul and blues singer, in fact since the 1960s she has been known as the "Soul Queen of New Orleans." She is Irma Thomas and her new CD is called After the Rain.
A Louisiana native who moved to New Orleans with her parents at an early age, Irma Lee, her maiden name, grew up on blues, soul and African American Gospel. Her first recording was done while she was still in school performing with a Baptist quartet. But she ended up leading the life that rather epitomizes what the blues are all about. She got pregnant at age 14 and was forced to drop out of school. Her father insisted that she marry the father of the child, but the marriage was a short-lived one. She was still in her teens when she married for a second time to Andrew Thomas, and with him her family grew in further in numbers, though that marriage did not last long either.
In 1959 while working as a waitress in a New Orleans club, she was invited to sing with the band there led by Tommy Ridgley. But her boss did not approve of her singing rather than waiting tables, so Ms. Thomas was fired. But Ridgley used his connections in the music business to bring Ms. Thomas to the attention of some just-forming record labels in New Orleans, and her recording career began in 1960. It was sometimes a bumpy road as she moved from one record label another, releasing mainly singles during that period. Along the way she worked with some great New Orleans musicians like Allen Toussaint. She also wrote some of her hits, like Wish Someone Would Care. She recorded for Imperial Records during the middle 1960s, but was dropped by the label in 1967, and after some commercially unsuccessful recordings for Chess Records, moved to California and took a job as an auto parts clerk.
In the mid 1970s, she again did some recording which failed to have much commercial success. But after performing in New Orleans, where she had a regular following, she was signed to Rounder Records in 1986, and began a series of recordings with producer Scott Billington which put her in a more favorable and authentic musical context. One of those, a live album, was nominated for a Grammy in 1991.
Her new CD, After the Rain marks a number of milestones. It had been six years since her last recording, she turned 65, and it has been 20 years now since she began her association with producer Billington. The CD was also recorded in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which is turning out to have a profound effect on many of the musicians who have long been associated with the city. Ms. Thomas appeared on the outstanding collection Our New Orleans 2005, recorded shortly after the storm by New Orleans refugees at the time. Ms. Thomas says that with the exception of one tune, all the material on After the Rain had been selected before the storm hit. Ms. Thomas, by the way, was touring in Austin, Texas, the day of Katrina, but returned to find that she, like so many others, had lost her house and almost all her possessions.
Ms. Thomas is accompanied by musicians all from New Orleans, and the CD was recorded there and in nearby Southern Louisiana. The players include jazz pianist David Torkanowski, acoustic bassist James Singleton, drummer Stanton Moore, plus Dirk Powell, playing a variety of string instruments from guitar to banjo and fiddle. Guests include guitar sensation Sonny Landreth, and bluesman Corey Harris. The backing arrangements are sparse, and the sound is intimate. And that tends to give the songs, and especially Ms. Thomas' excellent vocals, all the more impact.
The material is a mix of mostly unfamiliar songs by other composers, but there are a couple of traditional songs, along with one original. There are a couple of old R&B classics, and one track that sounds vaguely country.
Leading off is an Arthur Alexander song In the Middle of It All, which epitomizes the understated, but powerful sound of the CD. <<>>
With a kind of "down-in-the-swamp" sound is a song called Flowers, a song basically about the consequences drunk driving. Sonny Landreth appears on the guitar, while Dirk Powell is heard on the fiddle. It's an interesting combination, and it works quite well, held together by Ms. Thomas' very authoritative vocal. <<>>
I Count the Tears is an old song by Doc Pomus that goes back to the "girl group" days of the early 1960s. It's given a distinctive treatment with the only accompaniment being a bass, percussion and the backing vocals. <<>>
A creative choice of songs is the Billy Taylor standard I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free. It's a given a treatment not far from the original intent, influenced by Gospel music. Ms. Thomas and company turn up the heat and the result is one of the highlights of the CD. <<>>
Ms. Thomas rewrote the lyrics of the old traditional song Another Man Done Gone, to reflect the events of Katrina. The bowed bass and the Sonny Landreth's swampy guitar give the song further impact. <<>>
Another Lonely Heart is an interesting combination of soul and country. It's a good song with a worthy performance by Ms. Thomas, but stylistically, it just does not jell as well as the others. <<>>
Two of the most striking tracks on the album are traditional songs. Make Me a Pallet on the Floor, which has been done as everything from rural blues to bluegrass, here is done in a soulful treatment, with mostly acoustic instrumentation. The result is outstanding. <<>>
The other traditional song Soul of a Man also features a distinctive treatment with guitar and fretless banjo, all the better to frame Ms. Thomas' memorable performance. <<>>
There is one new original song by Ms. Thomas, These Honey Dos, co-written with David Egan. The lyrics reflect the independence and self-determination that have marked many of Ms. Thomas' self-penned songs. The jazzy rhythmic feel and piano style proves to be a very effective little twist. <<>>
Irma Thomas has been recording since 1960, and I think this one of the best albums of that lengthy career. She's in top form, reminding us why she is known as the "Soul Queen of New Orleans," and she is joined by a fine very understated band who provides just the right sonic colors to back up the songs, as well as to cast an interesting light on them. The selection of material is also a strong point, with songs running from traditional to a contemporary original piece.
Our grade for sound quality is close to an "A." Ms. Thomas' vocal is well-recorded, and the sonic treatment of the instrumentation underscores the intimate sound of the session. The dynamic range is also reasonable.
Irma Thomas is living proof of the adage that blues and soul performers tend to improve with age. Her new CD After the Rain makes for great listening that takes on even greater resonance in the wake of Katrina.
(c) Copyright 2006 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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