I don’t pretend to be any expert on the blues. I could probably name a couple of the “classics”, but what I do like is one of its bastard offspring – blues rock. There are plenty of bands out there taking those classic blues scales and tones, giving them just a shot of adrenaline and extending the life of one of music’s most respected genres.
Black Stone Cherry are one of those bands and, through hard work, talent and a smidgen of luck, they’re one of the biggest out there today. At the end of this week they release a six-track covers EP paying tribute to their musical roots. No surprises, it’s a belter.
Tracks covered are by the original artists Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Freddie King, and Albert King. Honestly? I’ve never even heard of any of them bar Muddy Waters (that I can recall), and the only song on the collection I was even remotely familiar with before chucking the CD on was “Hoochie Coochie Man” – and I’d not even say it’s a song I’d listened to all the way through before. This, though, has been one of the great pleasures of listening to Black to Blues – it’s been an educational experience as well as an entertaining one.
“Built For Comfort” (Howlin’ Wolf) kicks off with a thunderous beat that’s pure Black Stone Cherry. The intro settles down into more of a traditional blues sound, including wailing guitars and stomping rhythms. Chris’ gritty vocals are as good as any blues singer could ever wish for and the instrumental break at the midway point lets Ben widdle some nice quiet, clean guitar before the beast gets going again. The play-out at the end is lengthy and you get the feeling this was almost recorded “live”, or at least with the mindset of performing it on stage. Certainly, it begs for applause.
Again, “Champagne & Reefer” (Muddy Waters) definitely comes across as more blues rock than pure blues as BSC have made this track their own. A shorter number than “Built…”, the guitar solo in the middle is far more up-tempo and rocky, but there’s a harmonica in there to keep the blues sound going. And a funky section with female backing chorus. Because why not?
Listening to the intro to “Palace of the King” (Freddie King), you’d definitely think this is a straight-on heavy rock song. And then Chris’ vocals kick in. The simple fact that it’s a person talking about himself is enough to tell you this is a blues song. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that this is the least “bluesy” of the songs on the record. The rock side of things has really been cranked up.
“Hoochie Coochie Man” (Muddy Waters), as I said earlier, is the only song I’ve any previous exposure to, along with its famous “Dadada-da-dum” rhythm. The opposite of the previous song, this is by far the most blues-oriented track purely because of that awesome riff. Carrying on from Kentucky, Black Stone Cherry have learned when to chuck in some brass and this track has just been swelled out of all proportion. It’s blues with balls. If your foot isn’t stomping holes in the floor in time to John Fred’s bass beats by the time the chorus kicks in, you’re most likely clinically dead.
Albert King’s “Born Under A Bad Sign” is another track that comes across more brash and brazen than bluesy until the singing starts. The wave-like main riff carries through until the second verse when the bass is silenced until the chorus. As such, when it kicks back in again, it’s all the more satisfying. It’s one of those riffs you can hum or sing and it will be rolling round in your head for weeks to come!
Closer “I Want To Be Loved” (Muddy Waters) kicks off old-school with the harmonica right there at the start. Again, a wonderful main riff that really sets fire when the first guitar solo kicks in. This is music to be danced to – with men dressed in shirts and women wearing big skirts. This song is the fifties and the only thing really wrong with it is that it lasts a scant two minutes and eleven seconds.
One thing every track has in common is that they all sound huge. I’ve dug out some of the originals (easy on YouTube) and Black Stone Cherry have been faithful in tone to each and every one… but dare I say that they’re improved them all as well? Even if in no other way than re-recording these classics with the far superior production we have in the modern era, these six songs just carry so much weight it’s staggering. They’re big, brash, and simply incredible.
To record the perfect cover, you need to pick a decent song in the first place and then make it your own. Black Stone Cherry have done this in spades with Black to Blues. These classic artists have provided the blues. BSC have provided the rock. The two have been mixed in perfect harmony and then they’ve just added more layers of magic to create a truly wonderful covers EP.
Black to Blues is out on September 29th
Header image by Gavin Lowrey