Eye Pea Records (Release date 23.10.17)
It’s over 15 years since Ian Parker originally signed to Ruf records and confounded his fans and probably his record company too by cutting a deeply introspective album that became a best seller.
Since then he’s been an independent force both lyrically and stylistically, albeit he remains grounded in blues-rock. So it’s possibly no great surprise that when it comes to his first album of covers, he’s opted for his own take on the Willie Dixon song book, with a dozen songs that span 1952 to 1990.
You suspect that unlike so many similar blues tribute albums in the market, Parker’s take on possibly the greatest blues songwriter of all time is going to be on his own terms.
And so it proves as ‘Spoonful of Gold (Blues For Willie)’ is an album full of poise and restraint. He’s sourced some lesser known songs to go with the inevitable big hitters, while digging deep for real feel and emotion with his own soulful phrasing and nuanced guitar playing, on an album full of rich textures, dulcet tones and subtle rhythms.
You don’t have to know that he researched a lot of the material, or indeed about his meticulous attention to detail, but it does help explain the way he gets inside the songs.
Even with a recent trickle of albums and even less gigs, Parker still remains a beacon on the contemporary blues landscape. He’s transformed the post war genre into something all of his own over the course of 7 albums, excluding his contribution to ‘Pilgrimage’ and indeed his own indie release.
Overall it’s a career development that echoes Dixon’s famous quote about his preferred musical genre: “The blues are the roots and the other music’s are the fruits.”
Perhaps the biggest obstacle standing in the way of this project was that of overcoming people expectations and then bringing a fresh vitality to the Dixon songbook. To this end Parker pays particular attention to his arrangements which perfectly frame his emotional connection and vocal range, while leaving plenty of space for his contrasting guitar tones that magically illuminate the mood of the respective songs.
And there’s no braver way to start than with the opening brace of grooves as he opts for both ‘Evil’, and ‘Back Door Man’, two songs that are ingrained in any self respecting blues fans’ consciousness and both popularised by Howlin’ Wolf.
He eschews the raw Chicago feel for a subtler white boy soul approach, well suited to a surprisingly low key intro that sets the template for the rest of the album.
Parker revels in his role as an interpretative singer who brings his own style to bear on a thoughtful selection of songs. He’s thoughtful in terms of both the time span and the decisions about what to leave out in his search for a balance between the familiar and obscure, while being comfortable enough to add his own style.
He takes a huge gamble and wins by meeting blue fans expectation head on. There’s none of the urban grit of say Howlin’ Wolf, but rather the beguiling presence of one of the great white boy soul singers of our time.
By the time the band works up a head of steam on the outro of ‘Evil’, you know that Parker is really on to something, while his version of ‘Back Door Man’ opts for a relaxed insistent approach. A gnawing riff, distorted tone and some sprightly piano perfectly frames his aching vocal.
On tracks like the stop-time ‘Spoonful’, ‘I Just Want To Make Love To You’ and ‘The Seventh Son’, there’s only so much you can change from the original, apart from the tempo. What gives the trio of songs their USP is the way he gives precedence to his vocal, while on ‘Spoonful’, he adds a gently inflected wah-wah acts as a backdrop rather than a primary focus of the track.
He not only varies his guitar tones on tracks such as ‘Evil’ (distortion), ‘Back Door Man’ (slide), ‘I Can’t Understand It’ (some stellar lead guitar and slide interplay) and ‘The Seventh Son’ (belated muscular guitar), but he cleverly uses a noticeably different vocal on tracks that require a different emphasis.
Listen for example to the way his vocal wraps itself round the lyrics of ‘I Can’t Quit You Baby’ mirroring the writers intent, or indeed the close-to-the-mic delivery and falsetto of ‘My Love Will Never Die’, to witness an artist pushes himself to the emotional limit.
Perhaps the highlight of the album is the most contemporary track of the Dixon cannon. Co-written in 1990 with Los Lobos’s Cesar Rosas, ‘I Can’t Understand’ marries the spirit of Chicago with a fusion of Tex Mex and r&b, complete with a lovely ascending slide part and some subtle guitar interplay at the heart of the song.
Again Parker is in his element as his lightness of touch makes the most of the time and space and a keening rhythm section that colours a gem of an arrangement and an absolute delight.
Parker’s version of the little known ‘Weak Brain, Narrow Mind’ (previously covered by unlikely bands such as Great White and Widespread Panic), bubbles up soulfully on the back of a glorious sludgy stuttered rhythm. It gives his keyboard player Morg Morgan a platform to stretch out on electric piano and organ before Parker takes it on with an abrasive solo either side of a defining vocal. Mellow blues never sounded so good.
That leaves us with ‘Spoonful’ – transformed here into a deep groove – to perfectly round off a very soulful album full of rich delight and musical depth that reveals more of itself with sundry plays. ****
Review by Pete Feenstra
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