A wise man once said: ‘The blues is like a plain glass’ – I tend to agree.
The idea is that the basic structure and building blocks of the blues are so simple, so transparent, that there is nothing to disguise the contents, so all you get is substance without being distracted by style.
It’s a fair call. Blues is one of the most essentially simple music styles. Its harmonics and structures are possibly the most “limited” of any genre. But to an extent that’s like saying a bass guitar is simpler to play than a guitar, since it has four strings as opposed to six.
It’s that glass thing. The number of strings or the musical chord progressions in the blues are the vessel. It's not about that.
It’s about what you put in the vessel, and when you’re looking at a plain glass there’s nowhere to hide – only one thing matters and that's what you put in the glass.
Now, after a hundred years or more of the blues existing, there are certain dilemmas facing blues bands.
The big one is, do you mess with the vessel, or do you simply fill that plain glass with the best contents you can?
Auckland band The Flaming Mudcats have just released a new album ‘Cut Loose’. It’s their third and the first since the arrival of American bass player Johnny Yu. It makes no attempt to reinvent the wheel. It does not break the glass and start again with a new vessel.
It’s an absolutely straight-ahead blues album that could probably have been made 50 years ago.
And it’s absolutely brilliant.
The Mudcats are actually coming to town before the end of the year. On Saturday, December 29, they’re playing at The Barrel Room – and a wild and wonderful night it will surely be. And it’s free.
The band has been together now for 10 years and the most remarkable thing they’ve done is to take their blues back to its source, in America.
The Flaming Mudcats have now played twice at the Crossroads Blues Festival in Illinois, where they were the only international blues act invited to perform, alongside the likes of Lil Ed and The Blues Imperials and Tad Robinson.
These shows were supported by a series of gigs in Chicago and in Austin, Texas, including at two of Chicago’s oldest and most iconic clubs, Kingston Mines and B.L.U.E.S. in Chicago’s North Halsted.
This is the real deal. When I was in Chicago a few years back, I stayed just down the road and spent every night at those clubs. This is the pure beating heart of Chicago blues and The Mudcats were there.
So back to ‘Cut Loose’, an album that comes after the loss of the band’s main songwriter. Bass player Sean McCarthy wrote nine of the 14 songs on 2014’s ‘Mistress’ album and good they were too. But singer and great harmonica player Craig Bracken, whose voice has gained extra authority in the interim, has stepped up and ‘Cut Loose’ contains 10 new Bracken songs, two of them co-writes with the new bass player.
And the band has extended their range.
As well as patented Texas shuffles there’s a taste of New Orleans on ‘Cut Loose’ and Chicago grooves on ‘Getaway’. Subtle use of horns and some great piano add musical variety while the rock solid rhythm section has an authenticity and classic style very different from more rock-oriented modern blues bands, possibly due to the legendary Ian Thompson on drums.
Meanwhile, Doug Bygraves guitar playing is a thing of beauty, combining the incisive attack of a Jimmy Vaughan with the tricksy style of Magic Sam and other Westside Chicago players. He knows how to make each solo a mini-composition with maximum impact, each tailored to the specific song.
All in all, it’s my favourite blues album of the year.
And that's about it. Let me just sign off by wishing you fine folk who have followed this column through another year a wonderful Christmas.
May your wishes be realised and may you be surrounded by friends and family and kindness.