Blues feeling remains as unpredictable as ever. Who would have guessed that its strongest incarnation this year so far would be Ironing Board Sam’s Super Spirit?
By Milo Miles
There are no pure blues performers any more. Everyone who identifies with the mode now incorporates smidgeons or swaths of soul, R&B, rock, and even African polybeats. And any other borrowing that will enhance the “blues feeling” of the tune or the album. That feeling, which has something to do with evoking and then decimating adversity, is at least as mercurial and elusive as “swing” or “punk.” But what’s certain is that blues feeling has become harder to find. Thoughtful, well-made blues-identified albums come out every year and just lay there, no more than exercises in the form. (You know the blues is in trouble when a performer announces “here’s one you haven’t heard” before tossing off a line about cell phones.)
Blues feeling remains as unpredictable as ever, though, and nobody could guess its strongest incarnation this year so far would be Ironing Board Sam’s Super Spirit (Big Legal Mess). First of all, who the devil is Ironing Board Sam? A pan-Southern States bluesman now in his mid-70s, Samuel Moore got his stage name by attaching legless keyboards to the laundry-day stands, which made everything more portable. He’s had a classic, varied, journeyman career.
But, given the ease of media access nowadays, the discovery that catches you up about Ironing Board Sam is the couple of remaining clips that feature him performing on the mid-‘60s groundbreaking music-on-TV show Night Train.
Some 30 years later, he’s become an affable, determined old pro, fortunately documented on film. There’s also a 1996 interview on Blues Access and a short video documentary, Ironing Board Sam’s Return.
The scant set of recordings that feature the latter-day Sam cover too-well-known numbers like “Why I Sing the Blues,” “Phone Booth,” and “Come to Mardi Gras.” Add in a number of his laid-back originals on a program like The Human Touch (Orleans, 1996) and you have a charming though minor blues ‘n’ soul elder.
Thing is, that’s not that hot-smoldering guy on Night Train. Is he still available?
Unlikely as it is, heated Ironing Board Sam has come back on the new Super Spirit. When Sam went into producer Bruce Watson’s Dial Back Studio in Mississippi, the first inspired idea was to give him some serious backup, with players you wouldn’t expect: guitarist and co-producer Jimbo Mathus, drummer Barrett Martin (Screaming Trees), and bassist Stu Cole (Squirrel Nut Zippers). The capper notion was to assemble a program of tunes that knocked all the cobwebs and barnacles away from Sam’s blues feeling. “Hold On” by George Jackson is as sturdy as, say, Sam’s earlier choice of “In the Mood for Love,” but far less overexposed. Add in a couple of collector specials like Big Amos Patton’s “I’m Gone” and the gospel-soaked “I Wanna Be There” by the Four Kings and we have a wholly refreshed performer here.
The highest whoop is a couple numbers you might expect to hear from the Screaming Trees (if not so much the Squirrel Nut Zippers): “I Can’t Take It” by the Gories and “Loose Diamonds” by the well-traveled indie rocker Jack Oblivian. (The vocal finds exactly the right hint of Dylan lurking in this last number.) Sam chews up the harder numbers with aplomb, and closes out the album with the uplifting title rap, which cannot be faulted as philosophy, though I wonder how many times you might want to hear it repeated. No matter—it’s like a benediction after a party. Or maybe, Night Train for your iPad.
Milo Miles has reviewed world-music and American-roots music for “Fresh Air with Terry Gross” since 1989. He is a former music editor of The Boston Phoenix. Milo is a contributing writer for Rolling Stone magazine, and he also written about music for The Village Voice and The New York Times. His blog about pop culture and more is Miles To Go.