Two years ago, in February 2013, I wrote an adulatory review of a concert at the Liverpool Phil by the Heritage Blues Orchestra. At the time they were pretty much an unknown quantity in the UK, having only recently released their first album, And Still I Rise.
Last night they were back – and gave a show that like the first was a tour de force, and a tour of the blues in all its historical forms. With some variations, the numbers performed were the same as the last time (I had thought there might be more new material since a second album is imminent). This time the orchestra was an eight-piece, since trumpeter Michel Feugère was absent.
‘The blues isn’t all about sadness and hard times’, insisted Junior Mack as he introduced his solo performance of ‘I’m So Glad’. Nevertheless, although Mack proceeded to prove his point with a stirring rendition of the traditional spiritual whose chorus affirms that ‘ Troubles Don’t Last Always’, it is true to say that the HBO’s repertoire of field hollers and work songs, chain gangs chants and prison laments, speaks insistently of hard times, flood waters rising, sweat and labour, and dreams of leaving for a better place down the line. But at the heart of all their songs lies the expression of an indomitable human spirit.
The HBO mission is to reclaim African-American music as expressed in hollers, spirituals, gospel and the blues for the 21st century. Their shows offer a celebration of a tradition that embraces Mississippi work-songs, Delta blues and urban blues, the hand-clapping fervour of gospel, and horn arrangements that evoke the marching bands of New Orleans.
Every member of the band is an outstanding musician: Bill Sims Jr sings, and plays guitar and piano while Chaney Sims, his daughter is an expressive and passionate vocalist. It’s great to watch these two working together as they employ some of the lost arts of back porches in the South where the blues were sung: handclaps, tambourines, foot-stamping and thigh slapping. Junior Mack plays lead guitar and seated at the drums is Kenny Smith whose dad played drums for Muddy Waters. Vincent Bucher is a harmonica ace, while the brass section comprises Bruno Wilhelm on saxophone and Didier Havet on tuba and slide trombone.
The band’s opener was the same as last time – the old Leadbelly number, ‘Go Down Hannah’ – though this time performed in the fully-orchestrated form found on the album, rather than the spine-tingling acappella version I recall from two years ago. The show continued with most of the numbers from And Still I Rise. On ‘Clarksdale Moan’ Bill Sims Jr took lead vocal, while Vincent Bucher provided thrilling harmonica embellishments. A personal favourite, ‘C-Line Woman’ began with Chaney Sims and her father seated opposite each other doing their handclap routine before Chaney’s lascivious vocal was powered along by driving percussion and stomping tuba.
There were powerful versions of ‘Get Right Church’, the salacious ‘Big-Legged Woman’ which Bill Sims has made his own signature tune, and the Eric Bibb song, ‘Don’t Let Nobody Drag Your Spirit Down’. Muddy Waters’ ‘Catfish Blues’ featured tremendous harmonica from Bucher and guitar licks from Sims and Mack, while Mack introduced his spine-tingling solo rendition of ‘Levee Camp Holler’ as echoing the thoughts of a prisoner wondering ‘how did I get here?’
Whoo, I woke up this morning and I was feeling bad
Whoa, babe, I was feeling bad
I was thinking about the good time that I once have had
‘Levee Camp Holler’ is a work song recorded by Alan Lomax in the 1930s when prison gangs on the Mississippi were employed to build the levees higher, living in work camps that were wild places where the only law was the boss.
A highlight of the show was to hear Bill and Chaney Sims perform their outstanding version of ‘St James Infirmary’ in which Bill provides soulful piano accompaniment for Chaney’s expressive vocal that ranges from high calls to deep moans. In this YouTube clip, the duo play the song in Rottterdam in March 2013:
Another highlight – and indeed my favourite track from the album – was Skip James’ classic ‘Hard Times’ which the HBO present in three movements.
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…
They begin with a traditional call-and-response between Chaney’s lone voice and Bill’s guitar before the trombone and saxophone enter with a mournful section sounding like a marching band at a New Orleans funeral or ‘homecoming’. Finally, the entire band raise the roof with a stomping, funky jam designed for the dance floor.
There were new tunes, including the gospel classic ‘If I Could Hear My Mother Pray Again’ (like ‘Levee Camp Holler’, another from the 1920s) and the song performed solo by Mack when he returned to the stage after the interval, ‘Delta Slide’. He introduced it as ‘a dream of leaving for a better place down the line’: the Delta Slide was the name given to a railroad line that linked the Mississippi River with Greenwood. It was written and recorded by Tommy Johnson after the flood of 1927
The Delta Slide done been here and gone.
Take me out of the Delta, baby, before the water rise…
‘Joliet Bound’ was another prison song, first performed by Memphis Minnie:
Well the police coming
With his ball and chain
With his ball and chain
And they accusing me of murder
Ain’t never harmed no man
Well Now some got six months
Some got a solid year
Some got six months
Some got one solid year
Well now me and my buddy
We got a lifetime here
The encore was a foregone conclusion: ‘In the Morning’, the song whose chorus lends its title to the Orchestra’s debut album And Still I Rise. It brought the house down.
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 is the HBO performing ‘In The Morning’ at Celtic Connections, Glasgow, in 2013:
The Heritage Blues Orchestra are an outstanding group of musicians. Now all we need is the new album!