'So To These Blue Notes, I Say Goodbye.'
By David McGee
Blues listeners will find themselves drawn to a newly released recording Blues For Too Long by Country Blues Revue for a number of reasons. We hear in Blues For Too Long the intimacy of blues: its hard, angry feelings, its jubilations, its regrets, its busting out laughing over nothing particular . . . the whole gamut of emotions that makes the blues a long-beloved musical form.
For instance, there’s the tight shuffle rhythm of “Hey Baby,” written and sung by co-leader Michael Handler, and reminiscent of Stax Records in its hey-day. Yet, Country Blues Revue, from Santa Fe, NM, pays homage to a primal blues style, the great incubator of the modern blues styles of Buddy Guy, Eric Clapton, Muddy Waters, and B. B. King that followed country blues.
The recording includes covers of M. Travis’s “Cannonball Rag” and W. Brown’s “Mississippi Blues.” There’s a country feel to “Love Flows Round My Heart” by Marc Malin, Country Blues Revue’s other lead vocalist and guitarist. Malin contributes six original songs, one of which is co-written. His “Jasmine and Gold” evokes country blues’s classic images: “Way down on the Mississippi where the air is thick and slow. Well, I can hear my baby calling, but I just can’t seem to go . . . she goes to my head just like cherry wine.” Malin and Handler set up the song with several instrumental choruses before the vocals start; this was a wise choice. The introduction emotes a nice-and-easy feeling that’s unhurried, just like all good country blues does.l-r, Marc Malin and Michael Handler
Handler and Malin began Country Blues Revue as a duo and have added support musicians who are quiet capable of setting up the grove for the two vocalists. In addition to singing and performing guitar, Handler plays blues harmonica, his choice instrument since the mid-1960’s. There are obvious influences from country blues forefathers who come to mind listening to Blues For Too Long: Robert Johnson, Reverend Gary Davis, Son House, and Blind Blake. “Cannon Ball Rag” features Malin’s adept finger picking and a walking bass line on guitar that blends nicely with sideman Vin Kelly’s mandolin work. Blues For Too Long excels because the musicians are all willing to share the limelight. It’s clearly a group effort, and the ensemble supports each member as they take chances in their solos. An interesting arrangement of “Love is Blind,” another Malin composition, presents a seldom heard harmonic device in the blues. The lyric laments, “Love is blind, and that’s a damn good thing . . . . If love wasn’t blind, I couldn’t see a thing.” In three-part harmony, the band’s vocalists sing “I . . . I . . . I” adding an intriguing tension to the song which the quip line pays off with: “I couldn’t see a thing.” Here, Country Blues Revue milks a blues technique of tension and release to the hilt and delivers drama the master country blues musicians from long ago created so well.Country Blues Revue in action on stage in Santa Fe, NM
The joyful vibe of “Funny Feeling” features Cozy Ralston drumming a Charleston rhythm along with Larry Diaz’s bass setting up the groove on Handler’s song. What’s the inspiration for “Funny Feeling”? “Man, I think I was on a long drive, and I pulled over to write this song at a diner,” Handler recalls. “It is not based on fact as far as I know.” Again, winning backing vocals echo Handler who’s singing lead. Here, the band really stretches out. Throughout Blues For Too Long, Handler has matured as a blues harp soloist compared to his previous recordings. He’s tighter on the groove and matches the other soloists and vocalists superbly in the emotions they evoke. “My momma got a chicken,” Michael intones in a whimsical image, “she thought it was a duck, she put it in the oven with the legs all straight up. I know she’s got that funny feeling.”
Malin’s title song “Blues For Too Long” starts off with a reminiscent feeling accompanied by Handler’s plaintive and wistful harmonica playing. The song refers to the harmonic structures of Willie Nelson’s “Nightlife” and Ray Charles’s “Hard Times.” “When you first . . . said goodbye, I was alone, I couldn’t understand why. Even in my heart, I knew was wrong . . . . I’ve had those blues for too long.” Kudos goes to vocalist Stephanie Hatfield who makes a cameo appearance with some spirited vocals.
What’s a blues recording without a good traveling song? Country Blues Revue delivers one with “Goin’ to Taos,” another Handler original where the band reveals its harder, rocking side. It’s “mostly a true story,” Handler says, “A date that went bad, then driving back to Santa Fe from Taos, and a story about a storm on the high road . . . . Folks love it, a real dance tune.” A blues tune inspired by jilted romance? Let’s alert the media on the big news!
“Now baby, don’t turn that love lamp low . . . . Cause I’m heading down the highway baby, to Taos, New Mexico.” “Taos” features Malin’s tasty country guitar licks. A New Yorker, Malin spent many years in the Boston and Cambridge, MA, areas teaching country and finger-picking guitar. He’s played the blues for 35 years and is the lead guitar player for Santa Fe’s the Rattlerz in addition to the County Blues Revue. A “Taos” highlight is the versatile Vin Kelly’s lyrical fiddle playing. In the stop-time chorus, Handler shouts: “There’s thunder on the left of me, lightning on the right, you know I’ll be lucky if I make it home tonight!” It makes you want to hit the road too, jack! Handler seems fond of Taos, Santa Fe, and the Southwest he now calls home, as opposed to his former city Oakland, CA, with its hard street life: “violence, rape, and murder everywhere,” he laments in “Taos.” Since relocating to Santa Fe about five years ago, Handler has played with Michael Hearne, the HooDoos, Joe West, The Three Faces of Jazz, Felix y Los Gatos, Magdalena’s Dream and the Rattlerz, and has recorded with Bill Hearne and Bethleham and Eggs.Country Blues Revue
Handler points out, “The ‘live feel’ we were after comes courtesy of a great engineer we had in Bill Palmer at Santa Fe’s Frogville Records, and his wife Stephanie Hatfield sang great and added SOOOO much to the title track ‘Blues for Too Long.’ I can’t thank them enough.” The live feel gives Blues For Too Long an immediacy that’s sustained throughout and allows for enjoyment of repeated listening. Listen for a surprise, as the band breaks into a jubilant cadence breaking from the slower nostalgic groove of “Blues For Too Long.”
Asked why he plays the blues, “How can I not?” Handler responds. “It’s all about inspiration that’s either there or it’s not . . . . Anyway, I learned finger-picking guitar years ago. Jerry Garcia was one of my teachers, so why let it go to waste?”
And what of Handler’s affinity to country blues? “It’s what I was listening to in the early- to mid-1960’s along with Texas style, Mississippi delta, Chicago style, so that’s what I learned to play. I was inspired by Lightin’ Hopkins, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Mance Lipscomb, then Dave van Ronk, Tom Rush, Bob Dylan, folk festivals and hootenannys, Monterey Folk Festival, Monterey Pop Festival . . . . I had a lot of influences.” He adds, “I’m glad to be in a band that respects that tradition.”
Blues For Too Long’s title song rejoices: “So to these blue notes, I say goodbye. You had me down, well you sure didn’t have me tied. I’m going to leave here with a happy song, yeah ‘cause I’ve had those blues for too long.” No doubt, listeners will find in Blues For Too Long the happy songs they’re longing for.