Saturday, April 8, 2017

Ken Swartz & The Palace Of Sin ~~ Smile Away The Blues

First off, you have to just love the name of this band. The Palace Of Sin. Now, that’s a blues name. How many songs have been written about those palaces? There’s that house in New Orleans that’s ruined many a poor gal, that’s a palace.
But there are others. Gambling joints, after hours clubs, those little shacks that everybody knows about but no one dares talk about. They are all palaces of sin.
It’s the sins that lets a working man or woman know they’re alive. On a bright Sunday morning, they can put on their best clothes, use their best manners and go into a church where they can pray for the temptation to be taken away.
Until Saturday night.
On Saturday night, those neon signs go off in our brain and we find our way back to those palaces and we worship on the altar of cheap booze, painted women, and the hard seven of a pair of dice.
Yeah, they have one of the most evocative names in the blues.
But it would all be meaningless if they couldn’t play a lick, and with Ken Swartz leading the band on guitar and vocals, these guys can play and play hard. Aside from Swartz, the Palace of Sin consists of Mark Grissom on bass, Tom Chute on drums and percussion, and Rick Weston on harmonica.
They had some help on their Adelphi Records album, Smile Away The Blues, to augment their sound on a few songs. They were joined by Kyle Astreux Cripps on sax, “Washboard” Lissa Driscol and Jimmy Sweetwater on washboard, Gina Forsyth on fiddle, Mike Hood on piano, Edward Lee on sousaphone, Roberto Luti on slide guitar on the opening song, Shaun Marshall on bass for one number, Chris Mulé on slide guitar for three numbers, St. Louis Slim on the Celtic drum, and Irene Sage providing back-up vocals.
Aside from writing three songs on the album Swartz did all of the arrangements as many of these songs are from a different era of the blues. He’s picked some great tunes from the likes of Sleepy John Estes, Elizabeth Cotton, and Percy Mayfield to name just a few.
Hey, if you’re going to do covers, why not tackle some written by the greats?
Swartz kicks in with some cool steel guitar on Sally Where Did You Get Your Liquor At? Yes, it’s some country blues but the music is as sweet as it can be and the guitar is solid. It’s a good song, and one that many people won’t know, but it has all the elements of a great blues song. Starting with a pedigree from writer Reverend Gary Davis, the number has been covered under its original title, Sally Where’d You Get Your Liquor From, by a lot of the greats over the years. This version deserves to stand alongside those.
Denomination Blues brings in the rest of the band and the sound is quite different. I would love to catch these guys live to see how they mix some of these older acoustic numbers with the more recent electrified ones. The song was composed by Washington Phillips and was previously covered by Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Ry Cooder. Cool song.
The first of three Sleepy John Estes songs, Drop Down Mama, is next. They make the song their own and a solid country blues tune. This is one that I could see playing on Time For The Blues in the near future. Estes version was recorded in the ‘30’s but Swartz and The Palace of Sin make it sound like it was written yesterday.
Reaching all the way back to the 1920’s for Crazy Blues, the song was written by Percy Bradford for Mamie Smith. While they use the swing of the original, they populate it with some cool percussion and Swartz’ voice pops. It’s very cool to hear these early songs re-done for today’s audience. Love it.
The first song on the album written by Swartz is Carrollton Station. It’s the longest song on the album at five minutes and the guitar work on it is beautiful and heartbreaking. I like the fiddle touches and this is one of those great songs that while blues through and through, has its heart and soul in the country. Beautiful song.
Swartz wrote the next song, Do Wrong Blues, as well. This one is more upbeat and makes use of Weston’s harp work. I like this one, it’s a fast trip through the wages of sin and what we might do as we approach our own destruction. A cool song, especially when you listen late at night…
The second Sleepy John Estes number is his classic, Black Mattie. Swartz and The Place of Sin have proven on several numbers that they are great interpreters of earlier artists’ work. This is no exception. The percussion and harp are very strong and drive the song.
They follow that with Blind Lemon Jefferson’s Beggin’ Back. Swartz gets a chance to do some hollering on the song and the band goes into a wild New Orleans swing. I would love to play this one on Time For The Blues, along with several of the other songs we’ve heard, and the album is only half way through.
The last song on the album written by Swartz is Mystery Girl (Love Is Good). It’s well written, with some beautiful guitar and harp work, and has its leanings towards country. Irene Sage’s lovely voice backing him up adds just the right touch to the song. They follow with Payday, a song with some country shuffle driving the song.
The traditional song, Gambler’s Blues, is next. Swartz paints a great picture with his vocals and Weston’s harp is delicious. This song has a great deal of backbone and the horns really make it a standout. Got to love this one!
The great Sleepy John Estes song, Milk Cow Blues (Ask Sweet Mama), may be the only song with versions recorded by both Robert Johnson and Elvis Presley. Here, Swartz and The Palace of Sin are much closer to Estes’ original 1930’s version rather than the raucous versions that were recorded from the 1950’s on.
Elizabeth Cotton’s Freight Train will always have a special place in my heart. To the best of my recollection, it’s the first blues song I ever heard, and if it wasn’t, it was the one that felt like someone flipped a light switch in my brain and turned me into a blues fan for life. So, I get a little excited when I see someone has recorded it, and pray that they don’t mess it up! I didn’t have to worry, these guys do it proud. I hope a few other readers and listeners rediscover this great, simple tune and find their own enjoyment in it.
Memphis Minnie’s Nothing In Rambling is the next song to get the Palace of Sin treatment. They do a solid version of the song, especially Weston’ harp. Mike Hood does a great job on the barrelhouse piano giving the song a real honkytonk feel.
Percy Mayfield was known as the “Poet of the Blues” for a reason, his lyrics were generally a cut above the standards of the day. Send Me Someone To Love was his biggest hit, staying on the R&B charts for 27 weeks. I wish more people recognized his genius today, but the band does a good job bringing it back to life on this album. It’s a soft ballad and the kind that really stands out. Such a good song.
The closing song on the album Crow Black Chicken, was originally done back in 1928 by the Leake County Revellers, a string band of some renown. It’s a very cool, dark song that was later covered by Ry Cooder. It’s an appropriate way to end this eclectic album, and you just might be tempted to hit the repeat button when it’s over.
I really enjoyed this album a lot. I’ve heard some very nice old-school sounds lately, and this one stands up to the best of them. I would truly like to catch them live to see how they work an audience, but as they stay mostly in the New Orleans area, guess I’ll have to put on my driving shoes and get there.
If you are interested, check out their website: and that’s where you can get their new release or make your own plans to catch ‘em. If you get there before I do, make sure you send me a report of your thoughts on the show.

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