Monday, February 20, 2012

Son Seals

Son Seals plays guitar with a fluid ferocity and sings in an enraged tone of voice. He's been to church and he's been to the juke joint.

He died in 2004 at the age of 62 after a career spanning more than 40 years, from the early Seventies when his brand of blues was no longer hip or popular through the Eighties blues revival driven by the more commercial and smoother sounds of Robert Cray and Stevie Ray Vaughan, and into the Nineties when the interest in rootsy blues had been sustained and elevated into a much more commercial approach for working bluesmen.

I used to own the LP version of The Son Seals Blues Band (1973), his debut album on Alligator Records, and it was also the first Seals CD I bought, through at no little expense and effort. This record has one of the great album covers: a fish eye lens shot of Seals' hands on the neck of his guitar, his contorted face in the background. A last remnant of 60's psychedelia for a working bluesman who will probably never number amongst the pantheon of true greats, but who made some fine blues in his time.

On the debut album Seals plays in the busy, melodic style of Magic Sam, backed by a small, tight combo that drives really hard. The recording might have been a long time coming and the performances were well-honed and highly pleasurable. "Your Love Is Like Cancer" is one of the most intense pain-in -my-heart type of blues I have ever heard and the metaphor is quite clever. From opening track, "Mother-in-Law Blues" to closing track, "Now That I'm Down", the backing musicians cook with gas and Son Seals wields his ax with maximum fiery power and deep emotional effect. Truly one of the great modern blues albums.

After that I bought Bad Axe (1984) and Nothing But The Truth (1994) on CD and was quite disappointed. The Son Seals band now included a horn section, absent on the debut album, and a far less swinging rhythm section. The joyous exultation of the debut had given away to the sound of journeyman blues player who has to rely on outside songwriters for his material and who somehow must conform to a more contemporary take on how blues is to sound. Son Seals had become more like Little Milton, which was not as such a bad thing, but the execution was lacking. Bad Axe sounded especially stodgy to me. This was by no means an essential blues album.

A couple of days ago I was digging around in one of the boxes in our backroom that houses the bulk of my CD collection, mostly the albums I had bought in the many years before we moved into our house about 18 months ago, and came across some blues albums I had not listened to for a long time, and one of them was Nothing But The Truth. I then listened to it again, on earphones, whilst I was whiling away the time with FreeCell and I was surprised by the quality of the material and the production on this album.

Opening track, "Adding Up", a cheating blues in the vein of Robert Cray, is a blast of fun. The guitar soars and cavorts and Seals sings in an outraged bellow that almost sounds like he's having the fun of his life discovering how his woman is running around. It is a loud, assertive, swinging performance that sets the tone for the rest of the album. All in all Son Seals stamp his authority on our world and on the blues world and shakes off the journeyman's careful and measured approach to his craft. The man can play the guitar alright and he can sing with the going-to-church soul intensity of a Bobby Bland. The best part is that the band behind him has that backbeat swing going on, the lightness and deftness of touch that means a horn section that accents rather than emphasises and a rhythm section that bounces rather than plods. The guitar solos are searing, nimble, exultant, melodic and always make a point that resonates. I truly, truly had a great time revisiting a record I had written off in the past, for no good reason that I can now think of. I must not have listened to it properly the first time around, or perhaps the lacklustre Bad Axe prejudiced me. Hmm, maybe I should look for Bad Axe and re-evaluate it, too.

That Nothing But The Truth was released in 1994 may perhaps have been its saving grace. The terrible production techniques and methods of the Eighties no longer applied and it was once again cool to apply old school values to old school music. With this album Son Seals managed a successful mix of uptown R & B sophistication, which used to be a death trap for him, and the Chicago West Side sound he espoused at the start of his career.

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