Can 15 years have gone by since Chicago blues master Billy Branch released a studio album as bandleader?
Apparently so, but he surely sounds as if he's trying to make up for lost time with "Blues Shock" (Blind Pig Records), a remarkably strong release that packs more musical information and creative thinking into 11 cuts than even Branch's more ardent fans might have expected.
In many respects, "Blues Shock" shows Branch pushing outside the restrictions and conventions of well-worn blues forms, thanks to his expansive songwriting, memorable instrumentation and poetic harmonica playing. For all the stylistically wide-ranging work on "Blues Shock," however, it hangs together surprisingly well, as if Branch were trying to convey an epic message through songs that hit very different chords.
But what took so long?
"Friends and fans kept saying, 'When are you going to put out a new CD?' – so I couldn't do the same old thing," says Branch, who will celebrate the release of the album Friday at Buddy Guy's Legends and Saturday at Rosa's Lounge.
"I had to give them something special."
Still, a decade-and-a-half rolled by since Branch put out "Satisfy Me" in 1999 (though he recorded prolifically on other musicians' releases), practically an eternity by modern-day music industry standards.
"The best response I can come up with is just that I knew what I didn't want to do, but I didn't know what I did want to do," says Branch, 62.
Or, to put it another way, "I wanted to do something unique, I wanted it to be original, and I don't know if it necessarily had to take that amount of time – I had a lot of offers in all those years.
"But for whatever the reason, just mentally I wasn't there. I wanted to do something that I felt mattered."
"Blues Shock" matters, thanks to the breadth of the material and the eloquence of several of its songs.
The most striking by far is "Going to See Miss Gerri One More Time," a soaring story-song that speaks poetically of Branch's admiration for Gerri Oliver, who owned Gerri's Palm Tavern on East 47th Street from the 1950s until it was unceremoniously shuttered by the City of Chicago in 2001. Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Lena Horne, Muddy Waters, Count Basie, Quincy Jones, James Brown, Dinah Washington, Nat "King" Cole and other luminaries who played the long-gone Regal Theater across the street spent off hours at the Palm Tavern, making it a landmark in Chicago history and American musical culture.
The demise of the place haunted Branch, who had been patronizing it since the 1970s, encouraged journalists to do their interviews with him there and became practically "a son" to Oliver, he says.
"I just felt that the way they closed the Palm Tavern, it was wrong," says Branch, in explaining what led him to write his blues aria.
"There was a futile effort to try to save the Palm Tavern, and even though (Oliver) was probably past the point where she could have run it completely by herself, it was just wrong that there was no celebration, there was no fanfare, there was no going away party. And the fact that this place existed since the 1930s, and she had it for 50 years, and the historical status of the Palm Tavern to be just erased without any mention – this song was my way of paying homage to Gerri Oliver and her legacy and the Palm Tavern."
The piece traces the arc of Oliver's life, from her origins in Jackson, Miss., to her journey north during the Great Migration to the glory days of life at the Palm Tavern. Along the way, Branch sings of a "47th Street (that) would never go to sleep" and a club where "all would come to see Bronzeville's black nobility." That the song features strings and sweet harmony from female back-up singers takes it well outside narrowly defined blues expression.
Last October, Branch and his longtime partner, Rosa Enrico, traveled to Jackson to play a recording of the song for Oliver, who lives in a nursing home there in her 90s. Though Oliver faces health challenges, says Branch, she seemed to appreciate the new opus.
At the very least, "Going to See Miss Gerri" unlocked new creative possibilities for its composer.
"What I see is that there's been a percolation of these elements that have been brewing inside of (Branch) all of these years," says Enrico.
"And it's interesting, because that song, 'Going to See Miss Gerri,' when he finally let that come out of there … then everything else followed. … It's very non-blues, it's more of a ballad, and it unleashed everything else....
"He's a very deep and thoughtful person, and I think he needed to find a way to express these deeper feelings and thoughts, outside of the 12 bars," adds Enrico. "I just see this CD as Billy Branch unleashed and unfettered and just totally revealed."
Certainly the album contains some of Branch's strongest work, no two songs sounding quite alike. "Sons of Blues," which opens the recording, surges forward with Branch's urgent vocals, poet Sterling Plumpp's evocative lyrics and Bill McFarland's punchy, jazz-tinged writing for horns. "Baby Let Me Butter Your Corn" comes closer to standard blues structure but bristles with rhythmic vigor and sensual innuendo. And "Song for My Mother," a purely instrumental piece that Branch penned with Minoru Maruyama, provides a sublime, nearly serene close to an album full of surprises.
The title of that final tune clearly references Horace Silver's jazz classic "Song for My Father" and represents a key statement for Branch, who lost both of his parents during the 15 years since "Satisfy Me."
"It's a profound loss that you never actually completely recover from," says Branch, and this, too, may help explain the depth of his new work.
"There was a very spiritual element to all of this," adds Enrico. "At the completion of (recording) this CD, when those girls laid down the vocal tracks, we were in tears in the control booth. … It was a very deep and profound experience. …
"For me, all these years, I've seen the things he has written – this man can write prose and stories that are so far away from the (blues) genre that he's linked with, that I just prayed for that to find expression in his music.
"And it happened."
Nevertheless, life as a blues musician doesn't get any easier in a music world that largely either ignores the genre or considers it anachronistic. Branch concedes that "there are times when we go through periods when we're not working as much as I'd like to. In this city, we're blessed that we do have more venues than probably anyplace to be able to play blues, but you're always faced with the challenge of getting compensated well enough.
"In many places, if you don't play for what they're offering, they can always get someone else."
He hopes that "Blues Shock" will help give him a little more leverage and win him increasing engagements at festivals around the world. Regardless of what happens, though, Branch seems to have packed a lifetime of meaning into this music.
Moreover, the Chicago bluesman who was considered a new voice in the blues in the 1970s now finds himself a kind emerging eminence grise of the art form, an inheritor of traditions he acquired playing alongside Willie Dixon, Junior Wells, Sunnyland Slim, Homesick James, Big Walter Horton and other past masters.
"Now they're calling me an elder statesman," says Branch, with a laugh. "What the hell happened in the twinkling of an eye?
"Where did the time go?"
It went into the music, and you can hear as much in "Blues Shock."
Billy Branch plays at 10:30 p.m. Friday at Buddy Guy's Legends, 700 S. Wabash Ave.; $20; 312-427-1190 or buddyguy.com. Also 10 p.m. Saturday at Rosa's Lounge, 3420 W. Armitage Ave.; $15; 773-342-0452 or rosaslounge.com.
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