Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Victim of the Blues reviewed by Mark Thompson

Victim of the Blues
Tracy Nelson
Delta Groove Music, Inc.
11 tracks/40:41

First order of business – this is the Tracy Nelson recording I have been waiting on for several decades, one where she unleashes her magnificent voice on a collection of solid blues tunes and takes us deeper into the music than we've been in a long time. It is a perfect summation of a career that stretches from her stint with Mother Earth that brought her wider fame, through her collaborations with stars like Willie Nelson, Marcia Ball and Irma Thomas, and a batch of solo projects that embraced her country, blues and rock influences.

Second point – this is an early contender for the best blues recording of the year. Spurred on by a strong supporting cast, Nelson seems to wring emotion from every note her voice touches. Mike Henderson's guitar work almost matches the intensity of Nelson's vocals. He had several acclaimed discs in the 1990's with his band the Bluebloods and is now a member of Grammy-nominated bluegrass band, The Steeldrivers. Byron House on bass and John Gardner on drums provide the essential foundation. Longtime member of the The Robert Cray Band, Jimmy Pugh, fills out the band with his marvelous keyboard work.

Ironically, the album title had been picked out before a fire last summer destroyed Nelson's 100-year old farmhouse in Nashville. The tracks she had recorded for this project somehow survived the destruction, thanks to the efforts of the local fire department. The theme of the disc was simple – get back to singing some of the blues songs that had inspired Nelson in the early stages of her career. She attacks “You'll Be Mine” just like Howlin' Wolf did and then romps through “Howlin' For My Baby” with an assist from Angela Strehli. Henderson's wicked slide guitar sparks “Shoot My Baby”, a duet with Marcia Ball with both singers expounding on their plans of revenge for their unfaithful lovers.

One transcendent performance occurs on Jimmy Reed's “I Know It's a Sin”. Nelson takes her time, her powerful voice under control, steadily building to the closing catharsis when she holds the final note for more than ten seconds, almost pinning your ears to the wall. She delivers another exceptional performance on the title track, written by Ma Rainey. Henderson switches to the banjolin and Pugh plays barrelhouse piano while Nelson shakes your soul as she bemoans her troubled life. Another highlight is “One More Mile”, a Muddy Water's song Nelson first heard on an Otis Spann record. The backup vocalists add a touch of church to tune as Nelson's voices caresses each line until she again displays the power of her voice in the closing flourish.
Nelson mixes soul and gospel on her rendition of “Lead a Horse to Water” with stellar slide guitar from Henderson. Pugh's organ dominates the arrangement of Percy Mayfield's “Stranger in My Own Home Town” while Nelson sings with soulful conviction on “The Love You Save(May Be Your Own)”. John Cowan joins Nelson the final track “Without Love (There is Nothing)”. Her commanding vocal will send shivers through your soul.

The liner notes describe the events that helped shape this project and Nelson provides brief notes on why she selected each of the songs. But all you need to do is listen to her honor the music that she loves with one majestic performance after another. This one gets our highest recommendation!

Reviewed by Mark Thompson

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