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(Northern Blues 0024 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 11/10/2004)
Since the blues-rock boom in the 1960s, there have been basically two camps: those who believe that the blues should be treated as authentically as possible, and those who believe that the blues can be a starting point for music that ends up going elsewhere. The origins of rock and roll itself are, of course, a mix of blues with country and folk styles. The 1960s British blues movement further mixed the genres and set a direction for many years to come. More recently other performers have taken the blues and mixed in more wide-ranging styles, such as Corey Harris and his work with traditional African musicians, and at the other extreme, Corky Siegel and his fusion of blues and classical string quartet music.
This week, we have another artist who uses the blues as a starting point and creates an interesting and eclectic CD. His name is David Jacobs-Strain, and his new release is called Ocean or a Teardrop.
David Jacobs-Strain was born in Connecticut, and grew up in Eugene, Oregon. When he was nine, he started playing the guitar, and was performing within a year or so, inspired by a concert he saw by Taj Mahal. This is Jacobs-Strain's fifth CD, and he's still only 21, and this fall went back to studying at Stanford University. Unlike many young blues artists, his main instrument is the acoustic guitar, and in addition to playing classic slide style, Jacobs-Strain also gets into some fancy picking sometimes reminiscent of Michael Hedges. In a way, he recalls another outstanding blues-influenced guitar player, Kelly Joe Phelps, though Jacobs-Strain features more band-oriented material than Phelps, and also has a rather different vocal style.
Jacobs-Strain does mainly original music, but also includes some old folk-style blues classics like Kokomo Blues, and Soul of a Man. His band is an interesting one. His biography notes that he usually performs live in a solo setting, but wanted the recording sessions with the added musicians to be as spontaneous as possible, so reheearsals were kept to a minimum. The CD was produced by veteran studio musician Kenny Passarelli, who has worked with people like Elton John and Joe Walsh. Passarelli played bass and keyboards. Other notable guests include Joe Craven, a member of mandolinist David Grisman's group. Craven, who often does percussion with Grisman, played fiddle and mandolin on Ocean or a Teardrop. An interesting addition is Peter Joseph Burtt who plays the west African harp-guitar instrument the kora. Jacobs-Strain, as mentioned, plays mainly acoustic guitar, as well as the metal-resonator guitars favored by bluesmen.
This CD does cover a lot of ground musically, most of it successfully, though sometimes when the band lapses into more straight-ahead rock, it loses its distinctive quality. Jacob-Strain's vocals sound like those of other young white musicians who have wanted to sound like a real bluesman, a little forced, in the manner of George Thorogood or a youthful John Hammond. But all the pieces come together surprisingly well on this CD by such a youthful performer.
The album leads off with one of the old blues songs, Kokomo Blues done with the full band, and featuring the backing vocals of Anne Weiss. The electric guitar player is Danny Click, who gets a solo as Jacobs-Strain plays mainly resonator guitar. The arrangement takes the song in a somewhat unexpected direction. <<>>
Taking a rather different approach without losing the bluesy atmosphere is the title track Ocean or a Teardrop. The eclectic sound is aided by the presence of both Joe Craven's vaguely Celtic fiddle and Burtt's kora. Lyrically, the anti-war lyrics are not exactly typical blues fare. <<>>
Jacobs-Strain assumes the role of a rock-oriented singer-songwriter on the track called Sleepless Dream. It's a good song, but the performance is rather undistinguished, and not the CD's strongest suit. <<>>
Also with unexpected lyrics for a blues album is Take My Chances about a guy surreptitiously growing marijuana among the California redwoods. The frenetic pace of the song helps underscore the lyrics, and keeps the piece away from being formulaic. <<>>
Another of the traditional songs on the CD is Soul of a Man, which Jacobs-Strain attributes to Blind Willie McTell, though I'm sure it goes back further than that. Jacobs-Strain does some good slide guitar work while the Anne Weiss' backing vocals evoke hints of Gospel music. There's also loops of distorted vocals to confuse the issue further. <<>>
The CD does include one instrumental called Yalapa Breakdown. Joe Craven appears on the track that hints vaguely at rumba. <<>>
Jacobs-Strain does include one solo acoustic performance. The Sleepy John Estes song The Girl I Love, which has also has been known as Brownsville. Jacobs-Strain does a good job with his fancy guitar work and spirited performance. <<>>
The track featuring the most audible world music influence is Earthquake, which features prominent use of the kora as well a vaguely African rhythm, which contrasts with the rather apocalyptic lyrics. <<>>
At the age of 21, David Jacobs-Strain has made a very impressive new CD, his fifth, and second with national distribution. His mixture of the blues with other genres and unexpected instrumentation makes the CD engaging listening from start to finish. Jacobs-Strain's vocal efforts at sounding like an authentic bluesman do sometimes fall a little short, but he more than makes up for that with all the creative ideas he brings to the music, and his own first-rate guitar playing. One might wish for more tracks emphasizing his acoustic guitar work. But the backing players add a lot to the CD, as does his distinctive songwriting with the kind of literate lyrics more often seen in a folk singer-songwriter than in a bluesman.
Our grade for sound quality is about a "C+." There is far too much volume compression in the recording, giving an in-your-face sound that kills the dynamics of the performances and can be fatiguing to listen to at much more than a background level.
Blues continues to flourish, both in authentic form and among artists who mix it up. David Jacobs-Strain, in his new CD Ocean or a Tear takes the latter direction, demonstrating his versatility and worthy level of musicianship.
(c) Copyright 2004 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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