Tuesday, March 30, 2010
Steve HOWELL - Since I saw You 2009
Singer/guitarist Steve Howell has been honing his craft for well over forty years as one of the finest interpreters of the American roots music songbook, and his dedication to and deep understanding of the music becomes more evident with each release. Since I Last Saw You is the latest and best testament yet of his exceptional talent.
Steve Howell is one of those rare musicians who has taken his roots -- which just happen to be deep in the heart of Texas blues -- and turned them into a style all his own.
He's been doing that for many years, with his elegant finger-picking guitar, and he continues in fine style on his new CD, "Since I Saw You Last' (Out of the Past Music).
Steve covers, but in in his own way, classic music from some fine singer-songwriters, including Frank Stokes, Mance Lipscomb, Jim Mize and Buddy Johnson. This is definitely roots music, with more than a hint of the blues in all its subtle picking and playing.
The songs include a host of little gems: "Downtown Blues," "Red Cadillac & A Black Moustache," "Farmer John," and " "Little Red Hen." And then there are a couple of real chestnuts like "Easy Rider" and "Crawlin' King Snake."
Howell doesn't work alone here. He's assembled some excellent musicians -- Joe Osborn (bass and guitar), Arnie Cottrell (mandolin and guitar), Darren Osborn (drums), Chris Michaels (guitar), Dave Hoffpauir (drums) and Brian Basco (keyboards). These meager descriptions don't do justice to the variations they play on their instruments. You have to read the liner notes to get the full effect. I'll just say that there's a blend of music and musicians here that elevates their music to almost sublime levels.
In addition, Howell has a nice warm voice that envelops the music he picks (the tracks, some obscure, some not, all flow almost too effortlessly). He says they are all songs he's played for years, and the knowledge and affection are obvious. If you like rootsy, folky acoustic blues styles, Stevel Howell and this CD should be music to your ears.
It would seem superfluous to mention at this late date that the great strength and vitality of indigenous American music stems from its remarkable “melting pot” of influences. European, African, Northern, Southern, Anglo, black, white and brown, urban and rural. Equally remarkable is the number of contemporary recording artists who choose to work far outside the current commercial system and draw upon this vast treasure trove of music. Singer/guitarist Steve Howell has been honing his craft for well over forty years as one of the finest interpreters of the American roots music songbook, and his dedication to and deep understanding of the music becomes more evident with each release. Since I Last Saw You is the latest and best testament yet of his exceptional talent.
Howell was born on October 24, 1952 in Marshall, Texas, in the culturally historic eastern part of the Lone Star State. As a lad he strummed folk songs, but hearing Mississippi John Hurt at 13 turned him around towards becoming a master blues fingerpicker. A move with his family to Shreveport, Louisiana when he was 17 would expose him to the rhythmic dexterity found in the region and a tour of duty in the Navy beginning in 1973 would take him to South Wales where he played regularly with British guitarist and mandolinist Arnie Cottrell. When he returned home to Shreveport he rambled on the local scene in the late 1970s and 80s in a succession of blues and rock bands, as well as the duo Howell & Caskey that has opened for a variety of national acts including Country Joe and the Fish, Anson Funderburg and Bugs Henderson and shared the stage with Brownie McGee. The 90s and into the new millennium found him gigging in northwest Louisiana, northeast Texas and a bit in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Howell struck out on his own in 2006 with the appropriately-titled Out of the Past featuring country blues and traditional prewar jazz, followed by the equally evocative My Mind Gets to Ramblin’ in 2008 containing even more lowdown country blues classics. Both records were hailed for their authenticity, easygoing expressiveness and instrumental excellence. It was during this period that Howell first met in Shreveport Sandbox Recording Studio owner and drummer Darren Osborn and his bassist father Joe. The resulting ongoing relationship involving co-production and backup continues with the new release. Stretching his chops, Howell was executive producer and sang for Buddy Flett on Mississippi Sea in 2007.
Since I Saw You Last presents Howell in his most eclectic mood with 12 tracks that include country blues, rockabilly, folk and R&B with a mostly acoustic bent. “Downtown Blues” is old time, good time Memphis blues by the legendary Frank Stokes that spotlights a great ensemble groove. “Acadian Lullaby” is likewise the kind of timeless “Americana” that could have come from the Band, but was actually penned by Howell’s friend Jim Mize. Warren Smith, one of Sun Record’s most talented singers and most under appreciated artists, originally cut “Red Cadillac & a Black Moustache” that Howell turns into a wistful lament containing a tasty, twangy, electric guitar solo by Chris Michaels. “Farmer John,” by the rock and R&B duo Don and Dewey, is one of the highlights of the set. Rocking with attitude, sexy slide guitar from Cottrell and a suitably raunchy lead guitar break from Michaels, it is also one of his best and most insouciant vocals. On a roll, Howell turns Texas songster Mance Lipscomb’s “Charley James” into a magical, mystical, hypnotic meditation on loss and survival. The portent line, “Since I Saw You Last,” appears in the lyric and inspired the CD title.
“I Won’t Cry” from the acclaimed singer Johnny Adams catalog has classic chord changes that meet at the intersection of R&B and doo wop, also allows Howell to croon with deep emotion. The traditional country blues of “Wild About My Lovin’” has a melody that sounds like it may have influenced Johnny Cash on “Folsom Prison” as Howell takes it at a chugging pace and embroiders it with delicate fingerstyle and with Cottrell’s slide guitar while maintaining a respectful nod to the jug band version by the Kweskin outfit. “Since I Fell for You” is an early classic of R&B from the pioneers Buddy and Ella Johnson. Howell performs it masterfully on solo guitar complemented by the Osborn rhythm section, letting the gorgeous melody and unabashedly romantic lyric shine through.
The blues come in for another good shaking out in the next two selections. “Easy Rider Blues” from the legendary Blind Lemon Jefferson, like “Wild About My Lovin’,” is so damned authentic that it sounds like it could have been performed on a street corner in the deep South during the Depression. Deceptively light and jaunty, it provides an excellent counterpoint to the John Lee Hooker classic “Crawlin’ King Snake” that follows with a dark and menacing vibe that Howell sings and plays with obvious relish. “Picking” on a modern master, Howell next does justice to Taj Mahal’s “Little Red Hen,” a playful acknowledgement of the Willie Dixon classic “Little Red Rooster” that contains a brief, understated electric guitar solos by Howell and Michaels. Closing the set is Gus Kahn’s “Ready for the River” from the 1920s that shows equal parts vaudeville and blues influences. Fittingly, it is a delicate acoustic solo that sends the listener off into the night warm and satisfied.
Howell has noted that his mother always taught him that, “You shall be known by the company you keep” and his fellow musicians do him proud. The crackerjack combo of Joe Osborn (bass, 12-string guitar), Darren Osborn (drums, percussion and keyboards,), Chris Michaels (electric guitar and bass), Dave Hoffpauir (drums and vocals) and Brian Basco (keyboard strings) are joined by Arnie Cottrell (acoustic and slide guitars, mandolin, vocals) in perfect symbiosis with Howell. And, taking the sentiment a step further, fans shall be known by the artists they favor. Close acquaintance with the music of Steve Howell will only shed enlightenment and joy.
01.Downtown Blues 3:00
02.Acadian Lullaby 4:13
03.Red Cadillac & A Black Moustache 3:16
04.Farmer John 3:28
05.Charlie James 4:49
06.I Won't Cry 4:07
07.Wild About My Lovin' 4:53
08.Since I Fell For You 4:55
09.Easy Rider Blues 4:17
10.Crawlin' King Snake MP3
11.Little Red Hen 3:35
12.Ready For the River 3:18