Let’s get the definition portion of the review out of the way first. “Hokum” is a style of music that grew out of Southern Minstrel Shows and were novelty songs that relied heavily on double entendres to entertain and titillate audiences. It became a staple of vaudeville and chitlin’ circuit routines and was a big part of early blues and country music.
Hokum is still with us. Many of us remember songs like, My Ding-A-Ling, Big 10-Inch Record, and Tube Snake Boogie. It’s not only the province of musicians, a number of comedians have tried their hand at it, and while it’s not called hokum as much now, it’s still there and often appears on shows like Saturday Night Live.
Which is perfect for Chris “Bad News” Barnes, a talented musician and satirist who has written for comedy shows like Saturday Night Live, 30 Rock, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Seinfeld, and The Carol Burnett Show. The name of the album is Hokum Blues, and it is available on VizzTone Records. Some of his bandmates have played on Late Night With Conan O’Brien, Late Show With David Letterman, and one more played on SNL.
They all have had regular musical stints as well, performing with the likes of Jimmy Rogers, Levon Helm, James Brown, Chaka Khan, Billy Joel, Elton John, Bette Midler, Whitney Houston, and Aretha Franklin.
You know, a bunch of people we’ve never heard of before…
Besides Barnes on the vocals; the band includes Steve Guyger on harmonica; Jimmy Vivino on guitar; Will Lee on bass; Shawn Pelton on drums; and Bette Sussman on piano.
All of the songs on the album are covers of Tampa Red, Georgia Tom, and Big Bill Broonzy otherwise known as The Hokum Boys.
The album starts off with a great reproduction of that old-school sound on It Hurts Me Too. Guyger’s harp adds a little flavor to Lee’s bass and Vivino’s guitar. Somebody looking for a heavily electrified lead guitar solo might be disappointed, but I’m having a great time already.
Next up is the swinging number Let Me Play With Your Poodle that relies heavily on bass and piano. It’s one that’s been covered by several artists and Barnes does a great job playing with the lyrics without going over the top. It’s a wink and not a leer.
What follows is a song that added a nod to recreational pharmaceuticals, I’m Gonna Get High. It’s a quick number that sounds about as innocuous as a dinner at a Shakey’s pizza, but it’s a lot of fun.
The next number, It’s Tight Like That, as a great Bo Diddley beat driving the song. The song tosses in a few well-known phrases and plays with some barnyard metaphors. Four songs in, and they’ve all been fun.
There’s a real New Orleans feel to I Had To Give Up Gym. The horn section has a lot of fun with the song and I know a lot of people who can identify with it! He follows with a slower number, Things About Coming My Way, that seems a bit more serious than the previous songs.
There’s a little ragtime flavor to You Can’t Get Enough Of That Stuff. It’s a great song about those little pick-me-ups that seem to always be available if you know where to look. Great job on the bass!
The title track, Hokum Blues, follows. It’s a snazzy swinging tune with some great harp and tight shuffle beat. Musically, some of these songs may sound simple, but the instruments intersect as tightly as a good jazz combo. Some who may not be as familiar with the style just might find themselves learning more about it.
Another slow song, Somebody Been Using That Thing No. 2, follows. It’s the longest song on the album at just over five-and-a-half minutes, and the lyrics are a little darker but still has that wink. Cool song.
Next up is a swinging version of Keep Your Mind On It. There’s some good guitar work and the percussion gives it kind of a mambo fell. Definitely one you want to get up and move to. Would love to see this one done live…
For the next song, Let Me Pat That Thing, I quickly pictured Cab Calloway performing the song. It’s one where the double entendre is more like a single entendre, but it’s still a cool number.
For the next song, Caught Him Doing It, the band plays like it needs to catch a train in five minutes. It’s fast-paced, but not rushed and the lyrics are funny.
You can’t go wrong with a song about a great bar, so Gin Mill Blues delivers a bouncy punchy number that showcases Sussman’s piano. I really like this song a lot and I’ll be slipping it into an upcoming episode of Time For The Blues.
The album closes out with the holiday themed Christmas & New Year’s Blues. I know this one will be trotted out on several holiday shows, most likely including my own, and it just might become a staple.
Chris “Bad News” Barnes has several careers going including blues musician, comedian, and actor. And from everything I can tell, he seems to do them all very well. Makes me quite jealous. I probably won’t get much of a chance to write up his other two careers, but I can tell you that he has great skill as a blues man.
Hokum Blues is a cool choice for someone to release. So many artists play it safe, but Barnes has taken a different path. However, hokum has such an important part of popular music and I am delighted to see that someone with real talent has done a great job of recreating it.
Check out Barnes at his website, http://www.chrisbarnesnyc.com/blues-man/, and follow all of his careers.