Thursday, June 09, 2011

Ken E Henson gives the blues his best shot

Kenny Henson (as he then was) and Brian Finch played somewhat enervated, desiccated country rock back in the Seventies or early Eighties and then split up and went their separate ways. The last time I saw Brian Finch it was at Obz Sessions, a (now defunct) bar on Main Road Observatory Cape Town, where he played a solo gig, back pressed against the window to the road, the crowd literally under his nose. I would be surprised if any punter in the place care about Finch or whatever music he was playing. They would not have been able to hear it.


I have never seen Henson perform at all and though I vaguely knew both of them were still around, and that Finch had even released a new album, Henson slipped so far beneath my radar he might as well have left the music business. Maybe, he too was playing soul destroying solo gigs to uncaring punters.


Anyhow, I was in the Rhythm Records online store, looking for something completely different, when the Ken E Henson album Rolling and Tumbling came up on my screen as an example of South African blues. I had to have it, seeing as how I consider myself to be a connoisseur of blues and am always interested in South African bluesmen. It is not always a rewarding interest; for every Delta Blue there is something like the Boulevard Blues Band. Not that the latter are technically deficient or untalented musicians. They are simply not part of anything like a vital blues tradition. I feel the same way about Dan Patlansky though I have had a lot of stick for this apparently unfounded and controversial opinion. He is a consummate guitar player but he just does not bring anything new to the table. The wow factor is his technical skill; he does have the ability to breathe new life into the blues genre.


I had never thought of Kenny, or Ken E, Henson as a bluesman and the tracks from Rolling & Tumbling have done nothing to persuade me otherwise. Ken has pretty much taken a trip back in time to the late Sixties when a lot of White blues bands started infusing their take on the blues with a lysergic ambience and extended fuzz tone guitar solos. I am in particular thinking of Henry Vestine from Canned Heat, a band that started out as something of a purist blues band but after a couple of years, probably influenced by the Summer of Love, went all progressive with Vestine's rock inspired guitar playing that could at times go on at tedious length. It was still based on blues progressions bur raga rock and psychedelia motivated a flaunting of virtuosity that soon paled.

Not that I want to say the Ken E Henson sounds like Vestine or is as tedious. The point simply is, that Benson's take on making his blues sound more contemporary, I guess, and not like slavish retreads, is to hark back to the halcyon days of the Woodstock generation when blues underpinned a lot of rock, particularly from the San Francisco bands, but the musicians held that progression meant using lots of guitar effects to kind of disguise the blues licks.

The tunes on offer comprise a selection of old blues favourites from what I would call a boogie perspective. My guess is that he made these recordings at home with only a computer programme as friend. It makes the songs sound like second cousins of J J Cale's "Call me the Breeze", especially the insistent drum and bass patterns.

After listening to the album I would not call it a blues album as such. The concept simply seems to be that Ken E Henson probably chose a bunch of his favourite blues standards and decided to record them his way, with a more innovative approach and fresh slant to some hoary blues tropes. He was not about to do a Dan Patlansky or a Blues Broers.

Any blues aficionado knows these tunes only too well, not only in the original versions but probably also as recorded by many other bluesmen. The albums pays homage to Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker, Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Billy Boy Arnold and even Peter Green and (I guess) Jeff Beck.

"Baby Please Don't Go" is a venerable blues standard (Big Joe Williams) but Ken clearly knows the more rocking late Sixties psych-punk version by The Amboy Dukes and he amps up his drum machine and bass guitar and drives it down the road at a pile driver pace. The urgency of the vocal plea is echoed and emphasised by the stinging, floating bottleneck guitar that is the closest thing here to the Williams original.

"My Babe" is more of the same, though slightly more subtle on the beat, and with effects laden syncopated country picking guitar solos. Could have used some blues harp.

"Boogie Man" has a riff that is the bastard child of Slim Harpo's "Shake Your Hips" and John Lee Hooker's "Boogie Chillen" (quoting that famous spoken bit), with a side order of "La Grange." The song tells the story of Ken's own life in the blues. Apparently. This tune can be called a homage to the late great boogie man.

"Judgment Day" quotes a Robert Johnson blues ("If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day") and starts off like a disco infused blues, with more country style guitar in the vein of the Tulsa school, and then detours into "Rollin and Tumblin" before returning to the original verse.

In "Smokestack Lightnin" Ken plays a spooky blues with delay and echo on the lead guitar that gives a Hawaiian effect and he does a kind of ghostly Howlin' Wolf talkin' voice. The identifying riff is present but the song is so trippy-slow and hypnotic it is almost voodoo.

"Spoonful" has an equally insistent riff but this time the lead guitar is fuzzed out like something from Barry Melton (Country & The Fish) and an acoustic guitar swings gently along the bottom.

"Who Do You Love" gives the responsibility for the muted Diddley beat squarely to the rhythm section while the guitar soars across the top. Unfortunately the vocal does not do the Diddley original proud and it does not come close to either Ronnie Hawkins' or George Thorogood's versions of the song. Ken just cannot get the dangerousness and badness into his vocal inflection.

"Love That Burns" sounds like a live recording with a somewhat noisy audience. It does do justice to Peter Green's song, at least the vocals do, but the lead guitar is not quite as spine tingling as Green can get. The acoustic guitar backing, saxophone and percussion are the great elements of the performance especially in the rave up in the middle section. Right at the end, Ken, if it is he, gives us a bit of Hendrix style lead guitar and jousts with the saxophonist to crowd pleasing effect. The deep blues meaning of the song is lost though. Peter Green is not about this kind of showboating.

My earlier reference to J J Cale was not so far from the mark. "Travelling Light" is indeed the Cale song and given a Henson reinterpretation of the Tulsa style that brings a new, fresh feel but remains true to the Okie kind of vibe. There is even a bit of guitar picking that could almost be called shit kicking.

"No Money Down" is a really different, somnolent version of a Chuck Berry tune that is normally far more sprightly than Henson's take on the song. It is not rock and roll and it is not even very much a blues; in fact, I would say that this is Henson asking himself: how would J J Cale do this song?

"You Can't Judge A Book" is a psychedelic guitar drenched vamp with a less than inspiring vocal. If you want to do Bo Diddley you gotta have some of that man's badness in your soul. Ken just don't seem to have it. Neither does his rhythm section.

"Jigsaw" is another live take and is a stomping blues harp breakdown that mutates into a lonesome cowboy camp fire tune before turning back into the screaming, wailing juke stomper it really wants to be. This is the one that would get me onto the dance floor and make me get all stupid.

I guess "Blues for Beck" is homage to Jeff and not to Mr Hanson. The drum beats sound almost hip hop but the guitar sounds like the jazz rock fusiony thing Jeff Beck did back in the Seventies when heavy blues rock no longer worked for him.

So: my conclusion is that Rolling & Tumbling a rather fun collection of tunes that I know and love in all kinds versions by all kindsa musicians and if it is not truly blues or even very essential it is very much an album I would listen to a lot and play very loudly when I cook. You cannot beat the blues if it they are done right and Ken E Henson does it right enough. He does not attempt slavish imitation; he does not attempt to pretend to be a dyed in the wool suffering bluesman. He is a musician with a mission to inject some innovation into what is so often just a cliché and he has done it well.