february 2009

Blues In The Marrow

By David McGee

Danny Kalb performing at a benefit for Dave Van Ronk on February 3, 2002 at the Towne Crier Café in Pauling, NY

Danny Kalb
Sojourn Records

The pioneering psychedelic, blues fusion and folk-rock excursions of New York City's The Blues Project put guitarist Danny Kalb in the pantheon of a rising generation of young white blues guitarists—comparisons to Mike Bloomfield were neither uncommon nor undeserved—at least for the duration of the band's near-three-year run, which was fueled mostly by one terrific debut album, 1966's Live at The Café Au Go-Go. By 1967 TBP was coming apart: Al Kooper and Steve Katz left to form the original Blood, Sweat & Tears, Andy Kulberg (now deceased) and Roy Blumenfeld moved to the west coast and reconstituted themselves as Seatrain (a band remembered mostly for introducing one of the true progressive visionaries in violinist Richard Greene), while Kalb remained in New York City, working with a new Blues Project lineup, accompanying other artists, doing solo projects (a couple of live albums; a studio album, All Together Now, as a response to the 9/11 attacks; and check out the 2007 CD, Played A Little Fiddle, a trio effort with Stefan Grossman and his former Blues Project mate, Steve Katz), teaching, exploring music on his own, working below the commercial and media radar. Well, guess what? With I'm Gonna Live The Life I Sing About, Danny Kalb is back in a big way. Accompanied mostly by acoustic bass (Bob Jones) and drums (Mark Ambrosino, who also produced the album), with his son Jonathan Kalb playing some killer harmonica and slide guitar on a couple of cuts, and Lenny Nelson providing electric bass on four of the 14 tracks (some of which are newly recorded, some are from the artist's latter-day archives), Kalb demonstrates undiminished vitality on electric and acoustic guitar and, perhaps to the surprise of some, uses his weathered, conversational voice to great effect to get at the heart of his collection of original and evergreen tunes. There really isn't any style he tries here that doesn't come across as honest and deeply felt—no preservationist he, but rather a flesh and blood troubadour who feels these songs in his marrow.

Those who are fans of or curious about The Blues Project can get a sense of how the band attacked its material from the rocking pulse and Kalb's sizzling electric soloing on Jimmy Reed's "Shame, Shame, Shame" and what the band might have become in the shimmering beauty of Kalb's "Crazy Girl," a poignant ballad with acoustic and electric textures, an organ humming steady and low throughout, strings surfacing discreetly, and Kalb's howling bursts of wailing, distorted lines. You might also consider the Thomas A. Dorsey-penned title track in the same Blues Project light, with its gut-punching percussion, sizzling acoustic and electric guitar interjections, and Kalb's determined vocalizing.

Mostly, though, Kalb keeps it lean and mean. A single, trilling acoustic note kicks off and periodically reoccurs in a bluesy version of Little Richard's "Slippin' and Slidin'" that doesn't try to compete with its originator's frantic, gospel-tinged barnburner but rather explores it in slinky, sensual terms that surely would induce in Mr. Penniman a cry of "Shut up!" Jonathan Kalb's evocative slide work helps lend Little Walter's "Mean Old World" a hill country blues flavor that Kalb works to good effect with his weary vocal and crisp acoustic fills. That trilling note from "Slippin' and Slidin'" reappears to announce the dark seduction that is Kalb's solo acoustic treatment of John Lee Hooker's "I'm In the Mood," a slow boiling pronouncement fueled both by Kalb's suggestive, low vocal moans and his spare, top strings riffing. For an infectious bit of strut, swagger and good timey spirit, nothing tops the sprightly realization of the Rev. Gary Davis's "Samson & Delilah (If I Had My Way)," fueled by Ambrosino's shuffling brush drums and Kalb's energetic solos, alternately fingerpicked and frailing, supporting an amiable vocal. Two bonus tracks include a foreboding, thumping live treatment of Joe Williams's "Baby Please Don't Go," during which Kalb cuts out on a long acoustic solo comprised of passages both anguished and reflective before the song quietly winds down to a soft, winsome close; and a languorous, jazz-tinged ballad from Kalb's pen, the appropriately titled "Lazy Afternoon," a mellow, relaxed reflection that some may liken to the boozy milieu of the Kingston Trio's "Scotch & Soda," a memorable song in its own right but one not blessed by the tasty acoustic and electric guitar ruminations Kalb offers here, or by his warm-hearted vocal and whimsical lyrics contemplating "a jazz band on the moon." Danny Kalb may busy himself pondering such celestial matters, but on I'm Gonna Live the Life I Sing About he has most assuredly tilled the good earth of this planet, and its yield is abundant.

Visit www.dannykalb.net for information about all of the artist's recent recordings, as well as warm tributes he penned upon the passing of Andy Kulberg and his friend and mentor Dave Van Ronk. The site also features access to several RealAudio files, including three Blues Project tracks, two of which are previously unreleased live recordings from 1966, one of those being Willie Dixon's "You Can't Judge a Book By the Cover," which Kalb torches on I Live The Life I Sing About.

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
Website Design: Kieran McGee (www.kieranmcgee.com)
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024