Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Bottle Tree reviewed by Mark Thompson

Bottle Tree
Virgil Brawley
Circle J Records
11 tracks/38:39

Virgil “Big Juv” Brawley hails from Mississippi and is a member of the Juvenators, whose recordings have received praise from Crossroads reviewers. This release is his first solo project, featuring a batch of original tunes and three covers. Brawley has one of those soulful voices that oozes that backroads, country feel that can only come from living the life. And he is a talented guitarist, utilizing a variety of instruments on this project.

It wouldn’t be a blues record without at least one tune lamenting a lost love - and the disc starts off with some humor as Brawley promises to show the world his feelings about being left alone by painting his “White House Blue”. Jimmy Jarrat provides a boost with some fine work on the piano. Jarrat makes one other appearance on piano and Hammond organ on “Solid Ground”, with Brawley’s heartfelt vocal making this one of the highlights of the disc. “Little Susie” is pure acoustic, country blues with Brawley on slide guitar and Steve Chester picking out a strong rhythm on acoustic guitar. Brawley switches to the country gospel style on ”Fish Tale”, a song that relates the biblical tales that examines the disciple Peter’s relationship with Jesus.

Brawley continues in the gospel vein on “Walking Through Eden”. seeking redemption from life’s troubles before the inevitable judgment day. Chris Gill helps create a walking-past -the-graveyard feel with his slide work a National Triolian Resophonic guitar. The final track on the disc is a solo rendering of Lightnin’ Hopkins classic “Needed Time”, with Brawley using a dobro to support his world-weary vocal. “Eudora’s Jitney” is pure country as Brawley uses the evolution of the local country store as a metaphor for our rapidly changing world.

The spirit world is addressed in the title track as Brawley tells about discovering a bottle tree, used to captured evil spirits. Brawley decides to start his own tree but first he has to empty some bottles, creating a battle with spirits of a different nature as he hopes the “dead soldiers” won’t prove to be his undoing. Brawley handles two guitar parts, one on a resonator and the other on slide, to create the appropriate atmosphere. The rhythm section of Tyler Bridge on bass and Ted Gainey on drums lay down a strong foundation.

“Delta Woman Blues” is a Tampa Red composition that Brawley handles on his own, picking the rhythm on an acoustic guitar and overdubbing the slide guitar lead past. He lays the guitar down in favor of a bass drum for Muddy Water’s “Louisiana Blues”. The spotlight shifts to Gill, playing slide on his National Resophonic with support from Louie Munn on acoustic guitar.

This release shows that “Big Juv” has a deep understanding of the blues idiom. He eschews the raging guitar solos and pounding beats, opting for a simpler approach that focuses on the storytelling, not the musicians. The fact that this recording was selected as one of the twelve finalists for this year’s Best Self-Produced CD award from the Blues Foundation is ample proof that he succeeded on a number of levels. Be sure to check this one out the next time you want some honest, down-home blues.

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