Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Don Scott's new CD "Blues and Trouble"

Don Scott is a Minnesota musician specializing in austere, acoustic blues. Scott lives near Chatfield and performs in the upper Midwest (and nationwide) during the warm months. In the winter, he works mostly in Mexico. He has toured Europe frequently where he enjoys, perhaps, more acclaim than in the States. In concert, Scott makes a modest appearance, eschewing theatrics and preferring that the music speak for him on its own merits. He sits with his guitar on a stool or chair, wears a white fedora, and looks down at his feet as he plays.  Scott is usually accompanied by a musician playing harmonica or Rosanne Licciardi who provides percussion. On this CD, Scott’s songs are arranged for accompaniment by percussion, standing bass, and piano. Scott provides vocals, guitar, and plays the harmonica.

When I have seen him perform live, Don Scott has played a mixture of original 12-bar blues tunes, compelling covers of old, lesser known traditional blues, and jaunty upbeat instrumentals. Although he is undoubtedly immensely accomplished on the guitar, Scott’s playing is understated, elegant, and tasteful – he doesn’t engage in showy exercises in virtuosity. His best instrument is his voice: Scott sings in a high, piercing tenor that's highly expressive. Scott’s range is the shivery upper register most familiar to blues fans from Robert Johnson. Like Johnson, Scott’s high voice sometimes takes on a keening aspect and, at other times, exudes suave menace. Unlike the delta Blues singer, Scott articulates clearly and his words can almost always be easily understood. (And Scott doesn’t essay the spooky falsetto whoops, howls that Johnson sometimes uses.)

Don Scott’s 2017 CD, Blues and Trouble is a handsomely designed recording that simulates a set that the musician might perform live in concert or at a tavern. There are 13 tunes on the CD, six of them original compositions by Scott – three of Scott’s original songs are instrumentals. The remaining seven songs are by well-known blues artists such as T Bone Walker and Bobby "Blue" Bland – although a deep-dyed blues fan might know these tunes from the original, I hadn’t heard any of the covers on this album in other performances. The songs are all strong and varied. Some of them are funny, others are tragic, even, perhaps, horrific – the instrumentals chug away in an unassuming, and pleasant way: these numbers are, in effect, smooth jazz designed to state a theme and, then, develop improvisation by the musicians. Each instrument gets a break and Scott’s side-men (and women) play their riffs with ingenuity and style. If the CD has a defect, it’s the sonic mix on some of the songs. Scott’s voice, particularly in its lower register, sometimes gets lost in the guitar licks and keyboard. To my ear, the recording engineer should have turned Scott’s voice up about 20 % on about half of the tunes.

My critique of the mix doesn’t apply to the first song on the CD, "Street Walkin’ Woman" (T Bone Walker) which seems to be almost perfectly performed and beautifully recorded. The song is a little blues gem. Of course, it sounds familiar, like its embedded in your DNA. (As far as I can determine, a variant of the song appears on T Bone Walker’s Stormy Monday album in 1967 under the title "Cold-hearted Woman." This tune in turn relies upon Robert Johnson’s 1936 "Kind-hearted Woman Blues" in which the singer pronounces the word "kind" as to be indistinguishable from "cold" – a point that is made clear in the final verse in which we learn that the "kind-hearted woman studies evil all the time." There are only about ten or twelve 16-bar blues tunes and these melodies get recycled endlessly. In the version recorded by Mr. Scott, the "Street Walkin’ Woman" is primarily promiscuous and a drunk – instead of "studying evil all the time" she’s "she’s tall and twisted all the time," presumably from pounding the pavement.)

"Devil Ride" is a moody cover of an Aaron Neville song. The lyrics warn against taking a ride with the devil. It’s an effective song in the voodoo Delta tradition – Robert Johnson, succumbing to satan’s temptations, demanded that his body should be buried on "the highway that my old evil spirit can get a Greyhound and ride." "Devil Ride" is less hopeless and more monitory – but it invokes the old inclination toward voodoo and the dark arts integral to the traditional blues. Almost equally dire is Jr. Parker’s morose "Mother-in-Law Blues". The name promises comic relief but, in fact, the lyrics are melancholy – a drunk loses his woman when her mother-in-law rescues her from the inebriate singer. The song is an interesting combination of angry indignation and sorrow and Scott sings with raw, authentic emotion.

The most fun song on the CD is a cover of Prince Partridge’s "How Come My Dog Don’t Bark". Scott channels Randy Newman in the way that he styles the vocals, an elaborately loquacious and paranoid rant about a dog that seems a little too fond of another man who’s been hanging around the singer’s attractive wife. This song features brilliantly eloquent keyboard work embroidering the singer’s outraged harangue. The tune reaches its climax in a hyperbolic, spine-chilling series of threats – the singer plans to kill everyone in sight and has acquired from his barber a special knife with two razor-sharp edges: "I cut you once, you bleed twice," the aggrieved husband sings.

"Black Night" is a gorgeous ‘lonesome blues’ tune. The song has morose lyrics that are both archetypal and timely – the singer’s brother is in Afghanistan." The guitar work in this song seems to emanate from a hollow cave deep underground and there is a particularly sepulchral low note in the guitar solo that resonates like an earthquake. "Lazy Walk," "Cody’s Funky Butt," and "Sunday Cruisin’" are good-natured instrumentals . To my ear, these tunes are more jazz than blues, basically opportunities for the musicians to improvise on the basis of melodies supplied by the guitar. "Sunday Cruisin" is particularly laid-back and cheerful, a brightly layered groove that sounds a bit like Pat Metheny.

Anchoring the album are two songs written by Don Scott, "Some Other Day." and "8 Days of Hell." Both tunes seem rooted in the songwriter’s personal experiences and are very powerful, perhaps, the best work on the album. "Some Other Day" is a fierce protest about social priorities that give tax breaks to the rich while systematically underfunding Veteran’s Administration hospitals. The words and import are clear and the lyrics succinctly expose the hypocrisy of "supporting the troops" when budget cuts covertly subvert the VA. Blues songs depend on repetition and here the words "come some other day," repeat in a way that suggests the frustration of the singer told over and over again that there’s no room for him at the VA – the line for admission is too long. The melody has a menacing edge and the song cuts like a knife. I’ve seen Scott perform "8 Days of Hell," one of his best songs, and was pleased to see the piece included on this CD. Although modestly entitled "8 Days of Hell", the song measures the impact of a serious war injury on a young man’s entire life. Badly burned in an explosion, the singer is hospitalized first in Saigon and, then, Tokyo where the "smell of death" surrounds the 21-year old soldier. He recovers but his body is permanently scarred and his mind damaged – he vainly tries to forget the episode with "whisky and drugs" before concluding that those means to oblivion are just "a waste of time." Presumably, transforming the experience into a blues song is healing in a way and, in fact, the tune’s melody is mild, even lyrical. On this song, the beauty of the piano and guitar solos seem, at first, incongruent to the bitter, matter-of-fact lyrics – but since the song seems itself a means for controlling the demons summoned up by the "8 days of Hell", the elegant musical accompaniment is probably justified.

"Glad to Have These Blues" is another number by Don Scott that concludes the album. It’s appropriately jocular and stands in contrast to the more anguished tunes on the CD. Rosanne Licciardi provide percussion on the album. Karyn Quinn plays the upright bass and Brian Werner’s piano eloquently supplements Scott’s work.

You can learn more about the Don Scott Duo (Don Scott and percussionist Rosanne Licciardi) at

(Some additional notes:  "Devil Ride" originated as a Gospel tune although its imagery is clearly related to Blues' tunes about transactions with the devil.  Since gospel and the blues are, often, simply two sides of one coin is not surprising that the lyrics tend to bleed into one another.  Scott describes Big Bill Broonzy as an influence on his music, much more so than Robert Johnson.  There is a wonderful version of "How Come My Dog Don't Bark Any More" on Dr. John's album Goin' Back to New Orleans, a record that Scott highly recommends.)





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