The Heritage Blues Orchestra: an outstanding show

Heritage Blues Orchestra

It was a privilege to be at the Liverpool Phil last night to see The Heritage Blues Orchestra at one of only two dates that this astonishing new band played in the UK.  I haven’t been so totally knocked out and blown away by a new band in a long time.  The group released their first album – the magnificent And Still I Rise – in 2012, and soon began receiving adulatory reviews from critics across the board.

The HBO are on a mission – to breathe new life into the blues in all its forms, whether that means work songs and field hollers, gospel, down home country blues from the Delta or urban blues from Chicago’s South Side, New Orleans marching jazz or rhythm and blues. This talented nine-piece do everything, and last night they electrified a full house at the Phil.

Every member of this band is a virtuoso. Lead vocals are taken by Bill Sims Jr., his and daughter Chaney Sims, and Junior Mack, who also plays blistering slide guitar. Bill Sims is no slouch, either, playing electric or acoustic guitar or piano.  Kenny ‘Beedy Eyes’ Smith is currently the most sought-after blues session drummer in Chicago, and you can see why: he was a powerhouse of varied rhythms that drew on on the rich tradition of blues drumming in new and inventive ways.

Adding to the richness and variety of sounds that the HBO can generate are Vincent Bucher on harmonica (considered one of the most experienced and accomplished harmonica players anywhere), and a horn section consisting of Bruno Wilhelm on tenor sax (he also provides the horn arrangements), Clark Gayton on trombone, sousaphone and tuba, and Kenny Rampton and Steve Wiseman on trumpet.

As the evening progressed we were treated to several different configurations of the HBO, ranging from the full, storming nine-piece to acoustic interludes of guitar and vocals, a simply stunning duet with Chaney on vocals accompanied by her father on piano, and a capella vocals by the three lead singers.And that was how the concert began, with Bill Sims call-and-response leading into a poignant version of Leadbelly’s chain gang work song ‘Go Down Hannah’, sung by Chaney Sims with the male vocalists grunting in response:

Go down, go down to the river around 1910
[Huh, hah]
You’d see they worked the women just as hard as the men
[Hah, huh]
Then, in the shimmering silence as the voices died away, Junior Mack’s guitar and Kenny Smith’s drums settle into a terrific modern day version of Son House’s ‘Clarksdale Moan’.  This is a perfect example of what HBO are about – bringing a sympathetic 21st century arrangement to a nearly century-old Delta blues.  I can’t describe it better than Steve Pick, reviewing the album on About.com Blues:

A taut, finger-picked guitar riff sets the stage. Then ‘bomp’ goes the bass and the snare drum, as the riff settles in for a comfortable stay. A lonesome harmonica floats overhead, and then the vocal enters, firm, pure, and full of pride. “Clarksdale’s the town laid heavy on my mind/I can have a good time there and not have one lousy dime.” The rhythm is kicking hard and solid, the guitar and harp are dancing nimbly and elegantly, and there is more to tell us about this town. “Clarksdale, Mississippi is always gonna be my home/that’s the reason why you hear me sitting around here and moan.”

Now adding new punch, there are horns, packing more harmony into the sonic equation. They separate and come back together; the harmonica sounds mournfully in-between their dissonant blasts, and “every day of the week I go down in the town drunk/give me a bottle of snuff and a bottle of alco-rub.” “Nobody knows Clarksdale like I do/the reason why I know it I follows it through and through.” Those horns are digging deep into the singer’s soul, capturing his mingled feelings of love and hate and fear and hope for his home. And always that stomp from the drums, the guitar sticking to its riffing guns, the harp moving back and forth between joining it and commenting on the horns or vocal. And a final bit of moan before the guitar concludes the journey…

The traditional ‘Get Right Church’ opened with Junior Mack’s slide guitar before the male chorus joined, transporting us to some backwoods church service: ‘Get right, church, and let’s go home. I’m going home on the morning train’.

There was a rousing cover of Eric Bibb’s ‘Don’t Ever Let Nobody Drag Your Spirit Down’, but whereas Bibb’s original might be likened to a relaxed jog on an old mule, the HBO come at the song like an indomitable force, drums kicking and horns blaring.

There were outstanding moments when Chaney Sims’ vocals took centre stage, none more so than a truly stunning version of St James Infirmary, on which she was accompanied beautifully by her father on piano.  This is not on the album – we can only hope that this spine-tingling performance will be on the next.  Chaney Sims was superb, too, on ‘C-Line Woman’, a traditional song, but with added lyrics, mysterious and sensual, by Chaney. The interplay between tuba, male response vocals and drums was just magnificent.  The performance reminded me a bit of Sweet Honey In The Rock, that wonderful female a capella group that was founded back in 1973 by Bernice Johnson Reagon with similar aims as the HBO.

That was followed by the equally raunchy ‘Big-Legged Woman’, with Bill Sims taking lead vocal – one of several more songs drawn from the first album.  Another spine-tingling moment came with the acoustic ‘Hard Times':

Hard times here, hard times all around
Well I believe hard times gonna carry me down
Got no flour, ain’t got no corn or meal
Ain’t got none, make me rob and steal

Cut your wood, I’ll light your fire
I’ll do any old thing your that heart desires

This was one of those times when you realise you’d have paid the entrance fee just to hear this one number. ‘Hard Times’ begins as an acoustic blues, before shifting into a New Orleans funeral brass midsection that abruptly gives way to a rousing jazz/blues climax.  This is Steve Pick’s description again:

The album ends with another traditional tune, ‘Hard Times’, performed as a three-part suite. Chaney Sims sings honestly and directly of the difficult aspects of life, with the men joining in on harmonies at the end of each line. Then comes a dazzling display from the horn section, which starts off echoing the melody of the tune before modulating into some gorgeous directions halfway between 20th century classical and the complex arrangements of Gil Evans for Miles Davis and orchestra. Finally, the band returns to the song, hard and stomping with the abandon of a frantic Saturday night in a Mississippi juke joint.

The band left the stage to a thunderous standing ovation, before returning to perform the number that gives the album it’s title: ‘In The Morning':

In the morning
When I rise
All my trouble will be over
There’ll be no more sorrow
I’m gonna rise up singing
in the morning
When I rise

This was a tremendous show that just about covered the length and breadth of African American music, revealing the depth of the musicians’ appreciation for the history, meaning and continued relevance of their music.  I wonder whether title of their CD –  And Still I Rise – might have been, at least in part, inspired by Maya Angelou’s poem ‘Still I Rise’ which exudes the same spirit and the same sense of a shared history – on of such terrible suffering, yet yielding so much pride and beauty:

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own back yard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

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