Any regular reader of this little slice of the world should know by now how much I love the blues. The blues speak to me with a sexy seductive voice luring me into the blissful darkness. She’s wicked and sly and she knows all of your special weaknesses that always make you come back begging for more.
But every so often she shows up and she’s just a little different than she was before. She’s still wicked, but now she has a slightly different look that you know you can’t resist.
Oh yeah, the blues make us all a little weak in the knees.
That’s how I feel about listening to veteran bluesman Willie May’s new release BLUES MONA. It’s definitely the blues, but with a few other genres mixed in to make a unique and wonderful sound. There are mixes of country, Caribbean, surf, and a little zydeco layered on top of a tight blues song that excites me.
May has a lot of help on the album with Chris Panfil on fiddle; Evan Laedke on organ, piano, and keytar; Harvey Murello, Tom Corsi and Robert Parker on bass; Hayden Fogle and Ron Kain on guitar; Jim Whitford on the upright bass; Ken Parker and Larry Cheeley on saxophone; Kevin Espinosa on harmonica; Owen Eichensehr, Tom Lafferty Randy Corsi, Ray Hangen and Randy Bolan on drums; and the versatile Mark Panfil on accordion, banjo, dobro, piano, harmonica and backing vocals; other vocals are provided by Dwane Hall and Sharon Bailey.
But it is May himself who is the heart and definitely the soul of BLUES MONA. Besides playing guitar and suppling the vocals, he also plays bass, dobro, baritone guitar, ukulele, kalimba, and jaw harp. If you’ve never heard a kalimba on a blues album, you’re not alone – neither have I. It’s an African-Caribbean instrument (also called a M’bira or a thumb piano) and is perhaps most famous for being used in an old Seven Up commercial.
May designed the album cover and also wrote nine out of the ten songs on the album, so start to finish – top to bottom, this is his vision and the album has a lot to say and May takes us down several different roads to get there. And speaking of the album cover, Neil deGrasse Tyson, if you are reading this, don’t be upset that it shows an astronomical impossibility of a star or planet being seen behind the moon’s penumbra. Remember, it’s art – it’s not an issue of Sky & Telescope.
The first song on the album, Lock It Up, is a solid medium tempo he said-she said kind of song. I’ve always enjoyed that style of duet and this is a fun number with a very nice piano break. The interplay between May and Sharon Bailey (I’m assuming) is clever and they have real chemistry.
Big Legged Woman picks up the tempo and the song has a real country feel. I’m not talking about what passes for country now, more old school than that. The kind of country that edges into blues territory and doesn’t apologize for it. May’s lyrics are good and the song is lively.
The third selection, Mona’s Watching Eye, starts off with a slow tempo swampy feel then quickly morphs into a kick ass party song that should get everybody out of their seats and onto the dance floor. Everybody in the band gets a workout with this hard driving song. The party is still going on with Stop Hurting Me, and the music belies the lyrics. It’s more country in its approach and since both genres rely heavily on the “somebody done me wrong” type of song, this one fits in nicely.
The instrumental, Surf Mona Blues, is the most unusual song on the album as I swear I thought was listening to some of Dick Dale’s best recordings. It’s rare to find someone who truly appreciates surf music to the point of putting it on an album, but here it is, and I for one am glad.
The next song, Children Be Free, is the only one on the album not written by May himself. This one has the feel and spirit of a protest song from the ‘60’s – another genre not generally represented today, but one that has strong roots in the blues. Oppression in any form gives rise to music that strikes back. An interesting choice for the album.
Not Gonna Love Ya’ is more of a straightforward rock blues song with a strong driving tempo and growled vocals. It’s a fun number and should be a crowd pleaser when performed live.
The accordion gives You Don’t Know Much a down-home feel and the lyrics are good. It strays slightly into zydeco territory, but doesn’t go all the way, letting it fall somewhere in between. Who needs labels, let’s dance!
There’s almost a feel like the Doors started playing with country and Spanish rhythms with Gloria. The background fiddle gives the song an ethereal feeling and it just pulls you in. I like this song a lot
The album ends with In My Dreams, a slow number that pulls everything together with a slight psychedelic rock feel. It’s definitely different, but hypnotic and May sings deeply from his soul on the song.
What can I say? I enjoyed BLUES MONA very much and thought that the experimentation was great. Did all of it work? Not for me, but most of it did. It’s up to artists to push envelopes and see just how elastic their art really is. Sometimes the efforts will work, maybe some other times it won’t. The important part is to experiment and evolve while honoring the classic blues of the past.
For blues purists, this may not be their cup of tea, but with the country flavors, it’s definitely a good cup of moonshine. And it has a kick like moonshine and delivers on a lot of fronts. Since this falls somewhat under other genres, I’m going to cross post this review on washboardtimes.blogspot.com for the Americana fans.
In the meantime, be sure to check out Willie May’s BLUES MONA at your first chance and check him out at www.williemaymusic.com.
(Picture of the artist taken from his website. If you are the copyright holder and wish for it the be removed, let us know and we'll take it down. But next time we see you, we'll stick out tongue out...)