Listening to: Heritage Blues Orchestra, And Still I Rise

A surprising and delightful accomplishment: Heritage Blues Orchestra wields the full potential power of the modern blues arsenal but has the taste and restraint to deliver a varied album full of genuine dynamics, subtlety and intelligence.

What often ails contemporary releases in the ‘blues’ genre is that a new electric orthodoxy has taken root stemming from the 1960s electric blues revival. This “contamination” (as another reviewer called it) has become the new baseline assumption, the way we think the blues should sound—to the unfortunate exclusion of a whole slew of former related sub-genres. Electric gospel with harmony singing, field hollers/work songs, spacious country blues with minimal instrumentation: instead of remaining an organic part of the continuum of African American music, these have all become surprising ‘rediscoveries’ for us (witness, for instance, the sudden popular resurgence of the Blind Boys of Alabama when Peter Gabriel’s Real World label took them on a few years ago).

Heritage Blues Orchestra—a blues super group of sorts—re-assert that continuum. On paper (or on this screen), it may sound like a high wire act with little possibility of success (certainly, that was my assumption before actually hearing it): this sort of thing can go so wrong so quickly, taking a false step into pastiche or silliness by failing to bridge a 60+ year gap in our listening habits.

They succeed spectacularly, making a brilliant album from beginning to end that strikes me as the single most successful blues record I’ve heard in years. I’ve seen other reviewers lump HBO into the same category as the wonderful Carolina Chocolate Drops (revivers of the black folk tradition—of African American music prior to the blues, as it were), but that’s not entirely right. Heritage Blues Orchestra mostly reflects the sounds of black music from the beginning of its migration to the cities, but in its full richness. There’s juke joint blues, an intelligent working-up of Nina Simone’s “See Line Woman,” the aforementioned electric gospel (“Get Right Church”). The work songs that appear are presented through a modern blues lens, a respectful (and certainly accomplished) acknowledgment of one’s roots, but they aren’t the main thrust of the album. (They are, however, highly intelligent acoustic resting points between the faster, more electric tracks here, providing a counterpoint to the faster pieces. As a result, there aren’t any typical ‘slow blues’ numbers here—also a welcome change from modern electric blues orthodoxy.)

Some of my favourites here are harder to characterize: “Chilly Jordan,” a traditional gospel piece, is presented with a wide-screen, gentle acoustic blues backing. “Going Uptown” is a country blues shuffle that’s elegantly adorned with horns. “Hard Times,” the closer, is a 7-minute journey from country blues, via a standalone horn section arrangement, to an ecstatic electric blues jam (or is it more like ‘fusion’?—hard to say, really).

These pieces confirm that what defines a great album is the conscious inclusion of tracks that are, perhaps, a slightly uncomfortable fit in the context of the majority of the material presented. Our ears hold on longer to odd material than even; all the great albums in the history of popular music are masterpieces of sequencing, the tension between ‘the track I love’ and ‘the track I bristle at’ sometimes defining the listening experience more than the music itself.

I can’t recommend this highly enough. It’s both a dazzling achievement for a blues record and a must-hear album for anyone interested in American heritage music.

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