January 1, 2010 Volume 23, Number 20
From shadow into the full sunlight
Danny Brooks playing at the top of his game
By D.S. Martin | ChristianWeek Columnist
Should I admit I'm not a huge fan of live albums? Often they're echoes of better studio recordings, only released to stay in the public eye between more worthwhile projects.
Forget all that for Danny Brooks. Live at the Palais Royale marks the moment, after years of paying his dues, when this long-time Canadian bluesman has finally hit his full creative stride. He calls this the third instalment in his Soulsville series. I really like the first two CDs and his 2007 foray into the American market, No Easy Way Out, but this album has me excited in a whole new way.
Brooks' roaring slide guitar rips out of the very first track, sounding so much like the opening to Eric Clapton's From The Cradle that I almost had to check what disc was in the player. This new harder edge, Brooks has hinted, will be featured on his next studio album. His nine-piece band The Rockin' Revelatorswhich my son and I saw crammed onto the tiny stage of a club near the Toronto airport for the CD release partyis as good as those behind major names at major venues.
Brooks has the ultimate blues voicea well-controlled gravely growland he coaxes a lot of soul out of a harmonica. Put him in front of such players as guitar acrobat Papa John King, Lance Anderson on the Hammond B3 organ, bassist Dennis Pinhorn and drummer Bucky Berger, and he's in his element. Nowhere are the musicians just adding random layers of sound; Ed Zankowski on sax and John Verweel on trumpet humbly lurk at the back of the stage until it's time to punctuate a chorus, fill a transition or take their moment of glorious power.
Half of the songs on Live at the Palais Royale are new compositions, which adds both freshness and familiarity. The others span his long career. The Soulsville connections are "Other Side of the Cloud" from his 2003 Souled Out 'n Sanctified, and "Down on my Knees" and "Hold On" from Rock This House (2005). There's nothing here from his American CD.
One surprise for me was the reinterpretation of "Still Got This Thing For You" from his younger days. It seems back then his record company was trying to give him a more commercial sound. This new version drips R&B soul: rich organ, sweet saxophone and the perfect vocal accompaniment of Amoy Levy. Levy and her sister Ceceal do the same thing for Brooks that the McCrary sisters do for Buddy Miller's recent music.
The one cover on this CD is of Blind Willie Johnson's "Somebody On Your Bond," which Brooks learned from listening to Taj Mahal long before becoming a Christian believer. It's more than just a simple copy, for it has it's own flavour and transitions after the first verse with the tempo shifting into high gear.
"Carry Me," one of his new songs, combines the wisdom of Job and New Testament faith with the blues tradition:
"Man was born for trouble
It's almost as though Brooks has stepped from shadow into the full sunlight after the death of his former producer Richard Bell (who first made his mark with Janis Joplin). This album is superbly produced by Brooks' long-time friend and former bandmate, Alec Fraser (who has produced Jeff Healey). Perhaps it's just that Fraser understands Brooks better than anyone has before.
Brooks is as real as they come. He wears his influences front and centre, nostalgic as Van Morrison for the music he grew up on: Solomon Burke, Bobby Blue Bland, John Lee Hooker, Howlin' Wolf and others. It may seem strange for a Canadian to have so identified with the music of the southern U.S., but no stranger than the 1960s British blues obsession with Eric Clapton, Eric Burdon and the Rolling Stones.
He also wears his faith boldly, taking it where it's rarely otherwise encountered. Yet he is accepted for who he is by blues fans.
D.S. Martin is the author of a new poetry collection, Poiema (Wipf & Stock, 2008), available at www.dsmartin.ca.
DANNY BROOKSLIVE AT THE PALAIS ROYALE
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