- The Prohibition Blues
- Karen Lovely
Reviewed by Steve Daniels
Way back in the 1920s and 1930s, there was less distinction between jazz and blues than there is now. Free form jazz barely existed, and the blues genre was dominated by bands with horns and by a pantheon of dazzling female vocalists. Few of them played instruments, other than their own voices, but that was more than enough. If you aren’t familiar with them, check them out; many fine compilations exist. The most famous sport names probably familiar to you: Ma Rainey, Victoria Spivey, Sippie Wallace, and of course, the Empress of the Blues, Bessie Smith. Don’t stop there; also worth a listen are Clara Smith, Mamie Smith, Ivy Smith (there are probably more Smiths!), Ida Cox, Margaret Carter, Bessie Jackson, Geeshie Wiley…the list is long.
Karen Lovely is a contemporary chanteuse of the blues from Portland, OR, with a compelling voice. “The Prohibition Blues” follows her fine 2010 album, “Still the Rain,” and maintains its high quality. Recorded live at Jimmy Mak’s in Portland, it combines the excitement of a live recording with a true reverence for the old-style blues of those almost-century-old distaff warblers of lust and woe.
For a live recording, the sound mix is very good. The jazzy horn contributions of Joe McCarthy, Bradley Lee Ulrich, and G. Douglas Bundy feature prominently, as does the terrific piano of David Fleschner. Alan Hager’s guitar makes several pithy appearances, and the bass and drums, though less audible, provide steady background support. Appropriately out front are Lovely’s vocals, which are appealingly brassy, as befits the songs of those assertive pioneer women, but also smooth and silky when called for. In my opinion, standout cuts include “Last Kind Words” and “Pick Poor Robin Clean,” both recorded originally in 1930-1931 by Geeshie Wiley (and available on the great CD compilation, “American Primitive, Vol. II,” on Revenant Records). On both songs Lovely is accompanied on vocals by guest guitarist Mary Flower. “Last Kind Words” is one of the most beautifully moving blues songs ever, and Lovely does it justice.
Other highlights include the finger-snapping “Everybody Loves My Baby”; the poignant slow blues, “Nobody Knows You,” with fine piano and clarinet accompaniment; and the raunchy “If I Can’t Sell It” [I’ll just sit on it!].
My only regret: composer and original performer credits are missing, and a history of these gems of the early 20th. century would be a worthy addition to the album. However, the album easily merits multiple listenings, and may lead many appreciators back to its sources of inspiration.
[This review initially appeared in Big City Blues magazine.]