John Frick was a founder member, guitarist and vocalist of the Blues Broers, still an institution on the South African blues scene, staring as part of the vanguard of the new blues scene in Cape Town in the early Nineties and now the grandfathers of the current revival of blues and blues based rock.
Frick left South Africa in the mid-Nineties to settle in the Netherlands where he has kept his personal blues flag flying. As far as I can tell there has always been a thriving blues scene in the Netherlands, since the Sixties, and it seems to be as alive and well today as ever. Certainly Mr Frick is doing his best to vibe it up and give it fresh, sustainable life
As a musical form blues is always described as deceptively simple and yet intricate and full of complications at the same time, with the infinite variations on the basic tropes a skilled bluesman or woman can work. The changes are well known and not difficult to master as such but it takes someone with real feeling and talent to innovate and to refresh the clichés. One can try to replicate the blues standards as closely or as loosely as possible or one can try to bring a new twist and interpretation by writing one's own blues.
John Frick does a bit of both. He knows and loves the standards and he writes his own tunes with an urban contemporary infusion of what the blues means today to a musician and an audience that did not grow up in the Mississippi Delta or the Southside of Chicago yet have troubles, trials and tribulations of their own, even in the Netherlands.
Most blues seem to be about a woman. You could write a song about the issues you're having with the woman in your life or you could disguise the issues you're having with your employer with the metaphorical reference to your boss as a woman who gives you shit. You could also write about generic tough times, such as the Great Depression so many of the original Delta bluesmen had lived through or the similar economic woes the world has been suffering from since the great stock market meltdown of 2007. Virtually any blues theme that was relevant in 1927, 1937, 1947 or 1987 can still be relevant today
John Frick wrote all the songs for the John Frick Band's latest album Urban Crossroads (2014), sings them and plays guitar and is backed by bass (played by Rob Nagel, John's old mate from the Blues Broers, who also contributes mouth harp) keyboards and drums, and with horns on a couple of tunes.
I would say that Frick is influenced by both the electric downhome style of the Southside and the more sophisticated Westside style of the Chicago blues school, with a bit of Texas blues too. He likes melody and punchy yet lyrical guitar solos and his slide playing does not seem to be influenced by any particular school, being neither completely as raucous as the Elmore James or Hound Dog Taylor approach nor as sweetly soaring and subtle as the Duane Allman way of playing. Inevitably it is an amalgam of influences that produces a strong, striking alloy. To top it all, the songs are masterfully arranged with all kinds of intriguing musical business going on to make each one an individually engaging experience that is not only rewarding listen after listen but also reveals new quirky twists each time. A lot of modern blues consists purely of a competent, if one is lucky, rhythm section, running through the tropes to allow the lead guitarist to play long, loud and technically intricate solos with almost no emotional depth in support of workmanlike songs designed to be no more than the excuse for the excessive guitar playing. That John Frick writes good songs is what truly makes it rewarding to take the time to listen to Urban Crossroads.
Urban Crossroads is what I would call a grower of an album, the kind that really settles into our psyche only after a few spins and then won't let go. I knew a few tunes from YouTube clips and they made the most immediate impact. In fact, my first thought on hearing the album for the first time in the car, was that "Blinded," the slow, loping opening cut, was misplaced as the kick off number and that the record started engaging me completely only from about the halfway mark. That just goes to show that the first introduction to a new album should not be via the car stereo.
By and by I sat down in my easy chair, hooked up the headphones and really listened to the damn thing carefully and with due attention and, damn, it revealed a whole bunch of cleverness and delights! The second and third cuts, respectively "Get A Load" and "Same Way Too," set out the brilliant wares of John Frick's stall in their different ways. "Get A Load" is a slide and horn driven, pounding, shuffle thing with one of the many intricate arrangements on the record. The interplay between the horns, the guitar and the rhythm section gives the track an infectious bounce that is hard to resist. Then Frick digs down deep into his melodic blues box for "Same Way Too," which is a deep Southern soul blues that echoes Little Milton to me. This tune is THE killer track on the album and the showcase for exactly how good Mr Frick is as songwriter, arranger and performer. You can absolutely not beat heartfelt emotion expressed through the medium of a solid tune.
The next 6 tracks alternate slow and fast blues, each one as inventive as the other. There is never a sense of same old, same old or of the band sitting back to jam on the hoary old changes. With "Sadder And Wiser Man," another slow blues lament for missed chances, the band pulls back on the reins for a little breather before gearing up for peaking on the last three tracks and a climactic set final. Penultimate cut, "She Got Ways," is so flat out good it could be an undiscovered Willie Dixon composition and once again has that wonderful interplay between slide guitar, horns, and tuneful chorus, and a fiercely melodic slide solo. The final track, "Gotta Be Worth It," is by far the shortest track on the album, apparently in order to secure airplay, and is a good, positive, funky shot of energy to say goodbye on.
There are a number of South African bands and duos currently giving themselves out as blues bands but hardly any of them actually play blues. The accrual trend leans towards heavily rocked up blues, blues rock or eclectic blues influenced roots music. Even John Frick's old band, the Blues Broers, nowadays is an adult rock band infused with the spirit of the blues rather than direct from the Delta. Their albums mix in blues with whatever else they have to offer. John Frick Band is the real deal. There is no mistaking the music for anything else than stone blues with the infusion of contemporary influences and attitudes, which is just what blues has always been about. No contemporary bluesman, whether in the Mississippi Delta or on the Southside of Chicago, or elsewhere, every thought of themselves as playing old-timey, traditional music. Each and every one was as hip and as modern as he could be, reflecting contemporary mores and woes rather than being stuck in some moribund folk tradition. In The Hague Delta this is what John Frick is doing. He mixes the tradition of blues with his view of life as he lives it, writes great tunes to go with the words and plays brilliant guitar parts that are understated when required and brash when required. The rhythm section swings solidly and Leo Birza's keyboard parts are the filigree detail. Tom Moerenhout's horn parts are proof that brass and blues should live in symbiosis.
By the way, by now I am also quite impressed with "Blinded" even if I still believe that is a very low key opener for the album.
So, I love this album. It is a good collection of blues. There are at least killer cuts that deserve to become standards over time. Can't wait for the next album.