James Blood Ulmer

No Escape from the Blues: The Electric Lady Sessions

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What a glorious mess this album is. No Escape From the Blues assembles the same team that issued the brilliant and soulful Memphis Blood for a second chapter, assembling in the legendary Electric Lady Studios in New York. In making their second stop on the legendary studio tour -- Memphis Blood was recorded at Sun -- Ulmer and company move through a program of blues standards and originals that come off as mysterious and oddly organic considering the numerous textures and sounds in the home of Hendrixian adventure. The band includes Vernon Reid (who act as co-lead guitarist and producer), Odyssey violinist Charles Burnham, pianist and keyboard whiz Leon Gruenbaum, harmonica player David Barnes, and the rhythm section of Mark Peterson and Aubrey Dayle, as well as guests like Olu Dara, vocalist Queen Esther, tap dancer Maya Smullyan Jenkins, and John Kruth. Opening with a laid-back country rag blues tune like Mary Lee Reed's "Goin' to New York" with Reid on banjo already makes the listener look twice, but to follow it with Eddy H. Owens' Chicago-style piano stride blues "The Hustle Is On" done in T-Bone Walker fashion is even more bizarre -- especially with Reid's screaming electric guitar solo in the break -- is a freak out. Surprises like this keep the entire album experience off-kilter for the listener. Arrangements are unique and mix and match from the many blues subgenres, from juke joint to jump. Burnham's wah-wah violin on "Who's Been Talkin'" keeps the deep-talking blues from sounding maudlin or comical. The read of Johnny Copeland's "Ghetto Child," with Ulmer's guitar and Gruenbaum's spooky keyboards, echoes the Animals version of "House of the Rising Sun," and Burnham makes the ghost factor rise by ten. The nearly acoustic Delta blues take of "Are You Glad to Be in America" is one of the more startling versions of the song Ulmer has recorded. The most rollicking track on the set has to be Earl King's "Come On (Let the Good Times Roll)," which evokes both King's intention and Jimi Hendrix's spirit in Reid's guitar playing twinned with Burnham's wah-wah rave up. Interestingly, these loose, party blues that goes way over the acid rock top is a beautiful tribute to King, to whose memory the album is dedicated. The gorgeous version of Muddy Waters' "No Escape From the Blues," and the haunted, lonely version of "Trouble in Mind" (complete with fills by Reid on electric sitar and Gruenbaum on Fender Rhodes piano) set up for a killer finish, with a barrelhouse read of "The Blues Had a Baby and Called It Rock N Roll." No Escape From the Blues features Ulmer in a unique role, that of the blues singer and shouter. Never has he sounded so expressive, emotionally compelling, or convincing vocally; and his guitar playing, while less present here than on his other recordings, is still there, snaking its way through this weird yet wonderful set. Highly recommended. This recording is indeed "future blues."

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