Blues Shock represents the first studio-recorded release in nearly fifteen years from veterans Billy Branch and the Sons of Blues, and their first for Blind Pig.
“Part of the reason it took so long,” says harmonicist / singer / songwriter Branch, “was I wanted to do something different.”
The result is a fascinating mix of daring, and full-bodied new compositions and fresh-sounding standards that followers have long savored at their live shows.
“I wanted to do something that I felt was honest,” says Branch. “Most of the material is original. And it took that long for it to come together.”
The entire production seems enveloped, too, by the capacious shadow of Branch’s mentor, the great bassist, singer, songwriter and arranger Willie Dixon. His echoes can be heard not only in Crazy Mixed Up World, which he authored, but in most of the songwriting and story telling, which was a hallmark of Dixon’s work and credo.
“He was constantly admonishing us to write,” reflects Branch. “He is very much in my thoughts and I revere the time that I had with him. I think this CD is the most concrete example of his influence on me.”
Speaking of ‘blues shocks,’ it hardly seems possible that Billy Branch—once touted as one of the ‘new generation’ of blues musicians—is verging on elder statesman status in the blues community.
Over a career spanning close to forty years now, Billy Branch has become one of the blues’ most eloquent spokespersons and an ardent evangelist and teacher of the blues, not to mention an award-winning veteran artist on the Chicago, national and international music scenes.
Born in the Chicago area in 1951, Branch was raised in Los Angeles and returned to Chicago to attend the University of Illinois at Chicago, graduating with a degree in political science. At UIC he thrived under the influence of poet and professor of Black studies, Sterling Plumpp and others, and he received a parallel education in the blues from his friend and fellow student Lucius Barner, a step-son of blues harmonica great, Junior Wells. Barner introduced Branch to the blues crucible of Maxwell Street as well as to Theresa’s, the fabled basement blues tavern where Wells held court. And through another student, Branch met Willie Dixon, who in short order brought him into the studio to record on The Last Home Run, a 1974 single commemorating Hank Aaron’s breaking of Babe Ruth’s record 714 lifetime home runs.
In 1977, Branch was among a group of young ‘next generation’ Chicago blues musicians (along with Dixon’s son, Freddie, and Carey Bell’s son, Lurrie) who were chosen to travel to the Berlin Jazz Festival. They were billed as “Sons of the Blues,” the name his band carries to this day, 36 years later. Concurrently during the early years of the ‘SOBs,’ as they came to be known, Branch toured with Dixon’s All-Stars for about six years.
“I can’t over-stress how influential he was,” says Branch of Willie Dixon. “He ate, slept, talked blues all the time. He was deeply, very, very proud that he was a blues man and that his people were the inventors of blues.”
Branch also learned from other first generation blues musicians such as house rent pianist Jimmy Walker with whom he and the SOB's recorded on Red Bean’s Where’s My Money in 1984, and was on the scene with arguably the best living practitioners of the harp, recording with James Cotton, Junior Wells and Carey Bell on Alligator’s Harp Attack in 1990 (for which he received a Handy Award), then with Cotton, Charlie Musselwhite and Sugar Ray Norcia on Telarc’s Grammy-nominated Superharps in 1999.
“I’m on close to 200 recordings at this point,” estimates Branch.
But this one feels destined to be one of the standouts.
Branch’s title track, Blues Shock, is about that moment when you find yourself with a sudden, insatiable appetite for the blues—you’re hooked, you’re gone—you’re all in. Billy once stood at that precipice—and took the leap.
Sons of Blues, also composed by Branch with lyrics by his former UIC professor Sterling Plumpp, is fascinating as a proto-blues rap that proclaims the birth of the modern bluesman.
Crazy Mixed Up World and Boom Boom, are well-loved standards on which Branch plays with all the hungry energy of a much younger man, substituting fat harp for John Lee Hooker’s traditional guitar hook on Boom Boom. Another revitalized track, Shorty Long’s Function at the Junction, almost reads like a Dixon composition, and is bursting with funk.
“That was a song from my teenage days that I loved,” recalls Branch. “We put our little twist on it, with the call and response with the girls.”
The SOB's bring more than mere backing, with pianist Sumito Ariyoshi contributing his swinging instrumental, Black Alley Cat, and drummer Moses Rutues singing Branch’s comic blues number, Slow Moe. Ronnie Baker Brooks joins the proceedings, trading licks, vocals and spoken lines with Branch on Bobby Bryant’s humorous Dog House.
Rounding out the set is Song for My Mother, penned by Branch and Minoru Maruyama, a beautifully nuanced instrumental track with lovely warbling from Billy.
However the centerpiece of this recording is clearly Going to See Miss Gerri, a tribute to Gerri Oliver, whose 47th Street Palm Tavern was a landmark and a center for Bronzeville nightlife for decades until City Hall removed it in order to build an as-yet unfinished “Blues District,” the pet project of the “lady in the hat.”
“I wanted it to be historically accurate and a fitting tribute and I wanted it to be creative. I got a lot of the historical information from Timuel Black [historian and author of Bridges of Memory about the Great Migration to Chicago].
“Gerri called me her son. She used to come to my shows. And I used to spend a lot of time down there. Gerri is in a nursing home in Jackson [MS]. We took the song down to her, and I played it for her. She’s 93.”
“That’s the most difficult song I’ve ever written,” says Branch. “And I think the best song I’ve ever written.”
“But I’ve been kinda like this underground person,” says Branch with a laugh, referring to his 15 year studio hiatus. “Hopefully this will, like the title says, create a ‘blues shock.’ ”
While a shock is not guaranteed, listeners are likely to be surprised, impressed and perhaps even dazzled.