Best of the blues: John Kessler's most memorable tracks of 2023
Some songs are on this list because of their poetry and imagery, some for their unique musicality. Whatever it is, they all have that thing that makes a song memorable long after the sound has faded.
Eric Bibb — “I Got My Own”
Eric Bibb is a master story-teller who draws you in from the first line: “Son House came to me in a dream, and he was singin’ just like this…” It turns out that blues legend Son House has an old railroad car parked in his backyard, in which he travels the world...in his mind. Bibb creates a dreamy acoustic soundtrack for the tale, punctuated by stinging electric fills from North African guitarist Amar Sundy.
Jackie Venson — “Rollin’ and Tumblin #evolution”
Ablum: Evolution of Joy
After studying composition at the prestigious Berklee College of Music, Jackie Venson turned away from academia, picked up an electric guitar and proceeded to rock. She takes a rhythmic and minimalist approach on this venerable blues standard, saving her searing guitar licks for just the right moments. Her joyful personality comes through her guitar in a way that would make Jimi Hendrix smile.
Bai Kamara, Jr. — “Miranda Blue”
Album: Traveling Medicine Man
Bai Kamara, Jr. is a Belgian guitarist who taps into his cultural roots from Sierra Leone, combining electric blues with a percussive and relentless African beat. Kamara calls his music “afro-blues” and his slashing guitar lines connect the musical dots between West African melodies and modern blues. After all, blues music was created by enslaved Africans and their descendants. If John Lee Hooker had grown up in West Africa, this is what he might have sounded like.
Bettye Lavette — “Plan B”
Now in her mid 70s, Bettye Lavette has no more patience for compromise. That attitude spills out of the album in general, and this song in particular. All the songs Lavette chose were written by veteran songwriter Randall Bramblett, and there is a consistent thread of accepting the realities of aging. “Ran out of ideas a long time ago, still goin’ hard, just a little bit slower…I ain’t got no plan B,” she sings. While Bramblett may not have written this song for her, Bettye Lavette sings it as if she has lived it.
Bobby Rush — “I’m Free”
Album: All My Love For You
At age 89, Bobby Rush seems to have achieved a serene wisdom resulting from a lifetime spent singing the blues. And it’s been a journey for Rush, who was a child laborer, hauling water and picking cotton, to arrive at a place where he is one of the most celebrated bluesman we have. This song celebrates the growth of a man who has removed the literal and figurative chains from his body and mind and is at peace with himself and the universe. It’s also one of the funkiest tracks of the year!
Leonard “Lowdown” Brown — “Find a Bridge”
Album: Blues is Calling Me
This song is simple and memorable. The river allegory may be ancient, but it’s still with us for good reasons. In this case Brown’s not using the river as a religious reference, it’s very literal: he needs to cross the river but there’s no bridge, he can’t swim and an alligator is waiting for him. “Find a Bridge” has a mournful quality despite the fast zydeco-flavored blues rumba beat.
Candice Ivory — “You Can’t Rule Me”
Album: When the Levee Breaks: The Music of Memphis Minnie
Memphis Minnie was a fascinating and influential blueswoman, a prodigious guitarist and prolific songwriter. Jazz singer Candice Ivory gives Minnie’s 75-year-old blues song a modern makeover, that sounds nothing like the original. What does come through the translation is the anger expressed by a woman tired of being taken advantage of. Produced by progressive jazz guitarist Charlie Hunter, this tune percolates with an unexpected Latin-sounding beat.
Big Daddy Wilson — “Rise and Shine”
Album: Plan B
Big Daddy Wilson is an American ex-pat who’s been living in Germany for three decades. He has a unique sound that includes blues, funk and trance-blues. This song is a lament for oppression and injustice with a hopeful message: “Over and over and over again, they keep changing the rules, ‘cause they don’t want us to win. Time after time... they keep tryin’ to hold me down, but still I rise.”
Joel Astley — “Born Cryin’”
Album: Seattle to Greaseland
NW-based Joel Astley has been recognized multiple times by the Washington Blues Society, with ‘Best of the Blues’ awards for songwriter, vocalist and harmonica. One reason this song is successful is that it’s built on the image of something we all have in common. This memorable lyrical hook makes the song a winner: “You know the blues has been around since the dawn of time, that’s why every baby born was born cryin’.”
Faith and Harmony — “Crying in the Streets”
Album: I Heard the Voice
There are six voices in Faith and Harmony: Two sets of three sisters, who are also first cousins. As you might expect, the combined sound of their related voices is rich and expressive. This gentle but insistent song reminds me of the 1960s when artists like The Staple Singers, Sam Cooke and Curtis Mayfield used music as a form of gentle protest and a rallying cry for the Civil Rights movement. While the group and this song are explicitly religious, the universality and simplicity of the lyrics should appeal to people of all backgrounds.
More worthy tracks from 2023:
- Blind Boys of Alabama — “Wide River to Cross” from Echoes of the South
- The Wood Brothers — “Pilgrim” from Heart is the Hero
- Kim & Brian — “Lewis County Jail” from In the Valley of the Blues
- Nat Myers — “Ramble No More” from Yellow Peril