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DA BLOOZ! (And Then Some)

Don't Blame the Blues (Independent)

Susan O'Neil

Skeptictank (ear X-tacy Records)


By Tim Roberts

The blues is arguably the mother (or, more precisely in the genre's vernacular, the Big Momma) that gave birth to all other American music forms. It is the river from which the streams of country and rock branch off, from which the tributary of jazz is fed, from which the creek of Bluegrass flows. And like a river, it can run slowly and smoothly in the twilight, or rage and crash against the shores that contain it. And it also allows music reviewers to stretch their river metaphors to nauseating lengths.

Two recent releases (one from a local performer, the other from a band based out of a city just down an Interstate from Louisville) provide examples of the best of what the blues can be. Or to keep with the metaphor, both dip their ladles into different parts of the Blues River. One comes up with something sweet and clean, the other comes up dirty and full of grit.

Susan O'Neil, who has been part of the Louisville music scene for a number of years, has released her do-it-yourself project Don't Blame the Blues. Recorded at Jeff Carpenter's Reel to Real basement studio, O'Neil and a host of talent that includes bassist Jimmy Brown, guitarists Greg Walker and Butch Morgan, trumpeter Roger Dane, vocalists Martha Brewer and Robbie Bartlett (Louisville's own Blues Queen) and O'Neil's husband, Rick, take their water from Blues River and parcel it out generously into songs that slide between smoky and straight-ahead traditional.

Whether she's singing about a wife's gratefully thwarted infidelity in the sultry "Thank Another Man," or good vibes in the slow rhythm-and-blues, affirmation-loaded "Come Tomorrow," or in the title track with its whipcrack drums and growling Hammond organ, O'Neil's voice has a the kind of light rasp that flavors her lyrics with experience. It isn't the rasp of a woman who has burned her life away with two packs of cigarettes a day while wallowing in gin-tinged bitterness. Instead, her rasp is the kind that belongs to someone who speaks out and often, unafraid to let folks know what hurts and what feels good.

Besides the tracks already mentioned, O'Neil brings some fun to the bouncy "Calling All Doctors," but she also provides some scowling social commentary on the thuggery that abounds in pockets of some of the city's neighborhoods in "Down on the Corner" and of the indifference and fear that feeds it. Proof that blues aren't just personal: They can be political, too.

If the sweet, clean waters from Blues River give us Don't Blame the Blues, then the dirty, gritty cupful we get from another part of the river gives us Skeptictank from Lexington's Taildragger. Putting it bluntly, this is blues with mondo cajones: guitar heavy with trip-hammer drums and bass lines that can rattle the bunions off your feet. This is the music the Norse god Thor plays on his stereo after hurling lightning bolts all day.

Consisting of guitarist Jon McGee, bassist Mark Hendricks and drummer Rob Hulsman (the latter two also appearing as half the lineup of The Mighty Jeremiahs, whose latest release was reviewed in last month's LMN), Taildragger blends the best kind of rock (loud and tight) with the best kind of blues (dirty and scorching) in Skeptictank. Best examples are the two lead tracks "Had it Comin'" and "Honey Hole," and, later in the disc, "Wrong by Me," which includes bass work from Hendricks that rumbles like the thunder that sounds far away but is muscular enough that it makes your windows rattle. We also get Texas-style blues in "Below the Bottom," a surprisingly gentle country-Bluegrass ballad called "Mary Virginia," and the eerie "Hey Lil' John," where McGee's vocals are filtered so that they sound as if he's singing from an old scratchy 78 record, where the ghost of Robert Johnson is woven into the grooves and lives among the scratches and hiss.

In both their respective releases, Susan O'Neil and Taildragger don't just pay tribute to the blues, or use it as a basis for a one-off experimentation. They add to the genre's already substantial catalog that now spans one full century. Or, to keep it within the metaphor, they may have dipped a cup of water from Blues River, but they've given back gallons.

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