The blues ain't nothin' but a bunch of by-the-numbers genre exercises these days. There's not much new to say and certainly not many new ways to say it.
That's why this new album by Eddy Clearwater is such an especial joy. Clearwater may not be saying much you haven't heard before, but he's got a fresh point of view and an incredibly lively way of expressing it. He'll be 66 years old Jan. 10, yet he doesn't sound like some elder statesman revisiting the ways of his youth.
It's a little surprising, considering he mastered the styles on this album long ago. In order, we hear some soulful R&B; a raucous Chuck Berry imitation; some old-school Chicago blues à la Muddy Waters; a slow, jazzy blues; a reverb-drenched Staples-derived gospel number; a piano-driven slow blues, a bar-staple shuffle; a '50s rock & roll cover; another piano-driven slow blues; an R&B vamp blues; and a classic Chuck Berry cover. Clearwater had to play all this kind of stuff just to survive in the Chicago bars in the '50s and '60s.
Part of the secret lies in the songwriting. Clearwater writes most of his own material, and he can turn a neat phrase, both lyrically and musically. There aren't many modern blues records with 11 truly impressive songs, especially when only three of them predate 1960. Clearwater is part Cherokee, and his "Reservation Blues" draws from both that fact and his African-American background. "Plantation, reservation, you may pick whichever one you choose," he sings, "'cause if you were raised on either one, you know you really have paid your dues."
The highlight of a strong album is "Running Along," a patiently building exploration of a palpable sense of loss. He manages to find just the perfect details to convey the pain of a situation: "I open up my kitchen cabinet/And your favorite drinking cup is gone/You left me a note on the refrigerator/It said, "I'm sorry, but I have to be running along.'" And then his guitar cries and sings and wails and mourns and questions and stuns.
Co-produced by Clearwater and Duke Robillard, the album features impeccable musicianship and sound. It is that rare thing in the modern world: a blues album that cries out to be played again and again and again, always revealing new facets of detail and musical commentary. Reservation Blues deserves to be noticed by everyone who's ever loved the blues.