Hard blues for hard times


Michael Hill's Blues Mob
Alligator Records through Festival
Reviewed by Jenny Long

For any person doubting the relevance of blues today and for the future, Michael Hill's Blues Mob will make you think again. Combining a varied musical approach — from driving electric blues to slower, funkier ballads — and stories about social fragmentation and suffering in our divided community as well as matters of the heart, Michael Hill's Blues Mob answer their own question. "Are you ready for the blues?" — yes, because the blues are for everyone fighting in the face of social problems.

The CD starts out with uncompromising guitar blues in "Can't Recall a Time", an explanation of where lead guitarist Michael Hill and drummer Tony Lewis are coming from: "Can't recall a time, so many children had the blues ... can't recall a time, so many elders lived in fear". Hill expands with funkier track two, "Why We Play the Blues": "The billionaires are saying, the economy is fine, but that doesn't help the people on the unemployment line ... and that's why we play the blues."

The theme broadens with songs on emotional commitment ("Promises You Can't Keep") and violence in the community ("Evil in the Air"), before returning to the problems faced by activists on the front line of a struggle to turn around social breakdown in disadvantaged communities in "Hard Blues for Hard Times". This jazzier track is my favourite, urging us to keep the faith by reaching out of individual isolation to be part of "one hundred blue jams".

Another favourite is "Soldier's Blues", by Vernon Reid, previously unrecorded. Tuning in to Vietnam veterans sent to kill and die for no good reason, Reid says: "Winning every battle but can't seem to win the war/ I wish someone would tell me what the hell we fighting for/ Old men fight in armchairs, send the young ones off to die/ Asked the captain to explain and he could not tell me why/ I got a soldier's blues and I really paid my dues/ I fight the enemy abroad and in my home town too."

Other highlights are the ballad, "Righteous Love", African tradition-inspired "Signifying Monkey/Watch What You Say", and the passionate attack on the US gun lobby in "Soul Emergency".

Michael Hill's Blues Mob is a member band of the Black Rock Coalition, a non-profit, member-sponsored organisation dedicated to promoting those forms of black music — jazz, blues, funk, rock, conscious reggae and others — that don't get much commercial look-in. Bloodlines explains why — this music is about putting problems in their social context and bolstering us in the struggle for something better.