ACCLAIMED WILLIE MCBLIND BAND RELEASES SECOND HARMONIC BLUES ALBUM BAD THING
The Willie McBlind band’s timing is consummate. In this stagnant decade for the blues, with most of the idiomatic action sadly relegated to the obituary column, the New York City-based quartet fronted by virtuosic guitarist Jon Catler and talented singer Meredith “Babe” Borden offers a singularly exciting type of electric blues. Willie McBlind uses the pitches or tones found between the notes of the traditional Western scale to create a mesmerizing pitch-and-rhythm vernacular Catler calls “Harmonic blues.” Behind the entertainment, attentive listeners feel a fervid creative intelligence and a heart present in the microtonal blues of the new Willie McBlind album, Bad Thing--set for release on June 1, 2009, courtesy of FreeNote Records. In addition to Jon and Babe, Neville L’Green plays fretless bass and Lorne Watson adds drums and percussion. Guest Hugh Pool sings on one track.
Certainly no one knows the music better than Jon and Babe: “On this new CD, we have developed our approach to Harmonic Blues and taken it to a new level. The songs are more hard-hitting [than those of our previous album, 2007’s Find My Way Back Home], with more range in vocals and dynamics. There are adventurous arrangements of songs by blues heavyweights, and a couple of the songs also have some strong political/social undercurrents. Several were mixed by legendary producer Jim Gaines [whose extensive credits include Stevie Ray Vaughan and Santana albums].This release is dark and explosive, and energized by the experiences, gigs, and traveling the band has done since the release of the first CD.”
Paramount to Willie McBlind’s Harmonic Blues sound are Jon’s Harmonically re-tuned fretted and fretless guitars, all fascinatingly tuned to the 64-tone Just Intonation system. Pitches and intervals (the difference between two pitches) are the crux of Jon’s fascinating artistry, with his microtonal guitars modulating to different keys while sounding more or less in tune. His open tuning gets results, wondrous results, similar to modal Indian music, to John Coltrane’s sonic explorations, and to the psychedelic trance-music of the 1960s and recidivist jam-band present. There’s something of Otis Taylor’s droning blues to it also. Remarkably, Jon’s bottom-line aesthetic is both traditional and radical: he’s connecting with the subtle microtonal guitar sounds achieved by past pitch-and-rhythm masters Robert Johnson and Charley Patton. For good reason then, Willie McBlind’s Harmonic Blues is also known as “Electric Delta Blues.”
On Bad Thing, Babe’s three-octave singing now has something of the miraculous to it, and the unearthly aspect is her ability to enunciate words in a way that taps into the immediacy of Jon’s guitar playing and singing. “Finding the emotion, the simmer, in blues is challenging and that’s my own personal journey as a singer,” she says, having been raised up on opera and Aerosmith blues-rock. “I can easily travel this road for the rest of my life and still have a huge amount more to learn as a singer.” Monitoring her learning process pays off in dividends—Babe always cuts straight to the soul.
Bad Thing’s blue-ribbon program—consisting of six original compositions and three covers-- runs 47 minutes with nary a throwaway moment. The opening instrumental, “13 O’ Clock Blues,” sets a provocative groove while having an historic aspect. Catler explains, “Willie McBlind shows that, for the first time in music, the 13th Harmonic of each blues chord represents the new limit of consonance.” The edgy jump-blues “Bad Thing,” one of four numbers mixed by Gaines in Memphis, shows how flawlessly and naturally Catler unleashes his lava-flow of guitar vocabulary as Babe intones fractured epigrams like “train I ride off the track/cream don’t rise to the top” that stand as wry political/social commentary. Inspired by a visit to a horse’s stall (!), “Primo” rides hard with the bass line kicking against super-chromatic sliding guitar chords; the guitar-produced Harmonic Cloud that envelops the song near its end sure sounds like a mysterious sonic blessing from Jimi Hendrix.
The equally compelling “Blood Moon,” based on a Mississippi Fred McDowell tune, with vocals by Jon and Babe, finds the band conjuring a wild musical-emotional climate appropriate for the song protagonist’s hard choice on whether to leave someone behind or stick around though one’s situation is precarious. Blind Willie Johnson’s old-as-sin “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” is transmogrified into a modern blues-guitar piece de resistance complete with fond nods to Johnson’s slide playing on the original recording. Jon and Babe mention that “Storms”—still another Just Intonation guitar stunner--“tells the story of people’s resilience while in the midst of navigating personal turbulence and loss.” There’s plenty of vocalized and instrumental “dark clouds rolling” before Babe sings at the chorus like a shining ray of hope. She reveals she “felt the presence of a recently departed loved one speaking through the guitar solo.”
The world would be a better place without all the lame renditions of great Robert Johnson songs in creation; fortunately, the four Willie McBlind band members seize “Stones in My Passway” as their own without sacrificing the essence of the original recording. The passion and conviction of Babe’s vocal matches up well with the dogged earnestness slammed out by Jon, Lorne, and Neville. The guitar solo is thrilling to hear. Willie Dixon’s “It Don’t Make Sense” (You Can’t Make Peace)” shows its durability and capacity for storing new emotional nuances in Willie McBlind’s treatment; Babe applies her personal stamp to this performance with assurance, every bit as secure as the rest of the band in evoking a state of war by song’s finish. A measured rumination over an ailing man’s last request to see his beloved again, “One Lucky Man” impresses as much for Hugh’s intimate singing as it does for Jon’s typically inventive guitar investigation, here in a lyrical mood.
Internationally recognized musician and composer Jon Catler may well be the most innovative blues guitarist active today. His keen interest in microtonal guitar and Just Intonation dates back decades to his Berklee College of Music days. Jon was mentored by the storied avant-bluesman/composer La Monte Young, performing in La Monte’s Forever Bad Blues Band on American and European tours; these days, Jon performs alongside La Monte in the Just Alap Raga Ensemble. Jon is the author of The Nature of Music, which has had several printings, and he founded FreeNote Records, whose CD catalog includes two Willie McBlind titles, the Catler Brothers’ Crash Landing, his Evolution for Electric Guitar and Orchestra, and a collection of microtonal transcriptions of birdsong named Birdhouse. He has performed at the Montreal Jazz Festival, at Quebec’s Festival d’Ete, at Lincoln Center and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan, and, among other venues, at various NYC clubs. Among many other projects, Jon organized the 2008 Blue Apple Blues Festival, held at Crash Mansion on The Bowery.
Meredith “Babe” Borden has been a featured singer in the premieres of works by Meredith Monk, Philip Glass, and Scott Wheeler, respectively. She’s been featured in settings like the American Festival of Microtonal Music, the Queen’s Chamber Band, the globe-trotting rock musical troupe Hair, the opera Waking in New York (as gospel-blues singer Compassion), off-Broadway theatrical and touring groups, as well as numerous regional and summer stock companies. Along with the two Willie McBlind albums, Babe also sang lead on the Birdhouse and Evolution for Electric Guitar and Orchestra albums. Originally from Massachusetts, like Jon, Babe has been a charter member of Willie McBlind since the first gigs in 2004.
Lorne Watson and Neville L’ Green are skilled musicians in a variety of genres but possess a special flair for Jon and Babe’s Harmonic Blues. Before settling in Brooklyn, Lorne studied with widely respected music teacher Robert Hohner at Central Michigan University and worked with the microtonal Stone Crazy Blues Band and others in Seattle. Among his many projects is Loop 2.4.3., an avant-classical percussion duo. Originally from Sydney, Neville L’Green made a name for himself in Down Under music circles before relocating to NYC several years ago. As with Lorne, he is in demand for all sorts of work, but nothing quite like Willie McBlind.