Greg Burgess’s first album, “I Am Not Alone,” selected by Joe Miklos of the Billtown Blue Notes as the best blues album of 1999, was a solo endeavor. This is Burgess’s second recording of blues numbers as a sole frontman, and here he is joined for the first time by Grammy-winning drummer Steve Mitchell and bassist Andy Seal. Burgess has written all the songs on the recording (his wife, Beverley Conrad, is the co-writer of “All Day, All Night Long,” a tune which has been covered by blues singer Ann Kerstetter on her album “Duke Street Diary”). Except for “All Day, All Night Long,” “C Boogie,” and “High Water Boogie,” the tunes here were penned in preparation for the trio’s appearance at the 2003 Billtown Blues Festival. Burgess first started singing and playing blues piano in the early 70’s as a teenager with his guitarist friend Artie Renkel, who now resides in Clarksdale, Mississippi. In the 80’s, Burgess lived with his wife in Rochester, NY, and there for a time played with Augie Jr., later a notorious busker in New Orleans, and for a longer time as a sideman for bluesman Joe Beard. During his tenure with Beard, he had the opportunity to back up such luminaries as Big Joe Turner, Buddy Guy and Junior Wells, Taj Mahal, and soul singer Roy C. Burgess has been performing with Mitchell and Seal since 2000. This recording, made in Steve Mitchell’s rented trailer down by the river, was engineered and mastered by Andy Seal.
Following are the liner notes to the physical CD:
“Brother Blues and me, we’re two good lifelong friends. He can depend on me, and I can depend on him.”
from “Brother Blues, Nos. 1 and 2” Copyright 2003 Greg Burgess
“When you’re in trouble, the blues is your best friend,” sings Otis Spann in the archeological blues number, “Where Do the Blues Come From?” And so, sometime between 1955 and 2003, decades after and several states away from Mr. Charlie’s farm down in the Delta (answer to the above), I too discovered the same thing, despite our different backgrounds, as my first piano and vocal mentor had long before me.
How do you write a blues song? In a sense you don’t. One blues is every blues, communal in its essence. The great African-American art form has been documented for nearly a hundred years now, with songs enough to content anyone for a lifetime. I never considered penning a whole album of my own until I was hired, with Steve and Andy, to play at the 2003 Billtown Blues Festival in Hughesville, Pennsylvania, and thought to myself “better do some original material.” Yepper, I would’ve found as much camaraderie in singing “unlock the door and let me in” (by Jimmy Nelson) as “if you’ve ever pounded on the door” (from “Weasel’s in the Coop”), except that I felt a responsibility to the hiring committee to be, you know, top-notch.
But one blues isn’t all of the blues either. Jelly Roll Morton long ago could say “Michigan water tastes like sherry wine, the Mississippi water tastes like turpentine” but in the 60’s Buddy Guy felt the need to reply “I think I’ll go back down south, where the water tastes like wine; this Lake Michigan water tastes like turpentine.”
Long ago the inventors of the music all woke up in the morning, caught a freight train to ride, and put on their walking shoes. But in “The End of the Blues,” the man wakes up and doesn’t do either: “I looked around and my baby was still at my side.” Nor does he feel like Robert Johnson. “It’s soon in the morning, and I will not dust my broom; the sun’s as big as China in our 12 by 14 foot room.”
In the 50’s Percy Mayfield prayed “Heaven, please, send to all mankind, understanding and peace in mind, but if it’s not asking too much, please send me someone to love.” In 2003, a man listens to his wife recite the latest claims of tabloid journalism: “What’s this, baby, can I believe my ears? Someone built a car that runs on air? Someone learned to make gold from lead? And tonight you want me up in bed? That would be nice.”
The homage in my tunes is not always so obvious. Take Otis Spann singing “I ain’t educated, I can hardly read and write,” Jimmy Witherspoon singing “Gee, baby, ain’t I good to you,” and Charles Brown singing simply “Gee,” and you come up with “Gee, Gee, Gee,” about a man who acknowledges tongue-in-cheek to his domineering wife that he’d be lost without her, that she taught him everything he knows, even how to spell his own name: “Gee, gee, gee. There are three Gee’s in my name. But if you tell me there’s four, I’ll believe that just the same.”
“I’m a man. I’m the hootchie cootchie man. I’m the one they call the seventh son. I am the blues,” sing Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon. It’s not far from these declarations to “I’m a big, brown panther,” a song about the supposedly extinct brown panther, or mountain lion, of Appalachian Pennsylvania. “I like rabbits and squirrels for lunch, or anything from a garbage truck. I even eat dogs, coyotes, and fishes. I got long, sharp teeth and a tail that swishes.”
So you see it’s all one thing, but it’s not one thing too.
“If you can’t sleep, Brother Blues will be there in a blink. He’ll meet you down at the bar, buy you all you need to drink.” -- “Brother Blues”
“It’s the end of the blues. Baby, I do declare our blues are gone. My baby up and left me, but she’s still got my bathrobe on.”