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Bland Man's Blues

[whitespace] short picture description Memphis Man: Bobby Blue Bland.



Bobby Blue Bland turns heartbreak into pained beauty on 'Memphis Monday Morning'

By Nicky Baxter

Some musicians sing the blues because it makes them feel good. Some sing them because they enjoy making others feel good. Then there are those who do it simply as a way to make a living. Bobby "Blue" Bland, one suspects, sings the blues because he has no choice. When he bears down on classics like "Stormy Monday" or "Further on Down the Road," it's plain the man's not doing it for the money.

Some three decades after he recorded those gems, Bland is still crying the blues with a sense of smoldering urgency rarely evinced by contemporary artists. Memphis Monday Morning (Malaco), his newest release, finds him in fine form, wrapping his honey-coated larynx around 10 moody, mostly mid- and down-tempo tunes.

The Memphis-based vocalist made his reputation by turning heartbreak into moments of pained beauty, and Memphis Monday Morning proves the point. On "There's a Rat in My House," Bland suspects his woman is stepping out on him. His voice quivering with pent-up resentment, the singer details a litany of complaints: "You know, my icebox is empty every time I come home from work/Somebody's been eating my food ... and loving my woman for desert."

By the time he's done, Bland is slowly inching toward acceptance of a hard fact, the repressed pain in his voice turning into steely resolve. The musical accompaniment, excellent throughout, helps tell Bland's story. The horn section, in particular, underscores the singer's agony, with muted, blurred lines. Churchy piano and heaving organ, chime in with empathetic bluesy tones.

"The Truth Will Set You Free" is a gorgeous, minor-key lament whose melodic line is somewhat reminiscent of James Brown's desperation-driven "Prisoner of Love." Toward the tune's conclusion, however, Bland's band veers off into a jazzy mode, gradually picking up steam engineered by some swinging drums and smartly arranged horns.

Bland's vocal is wearily resigned; while the truth may set his lover free, he himself remains hopelessly obsessed with her. Repeating the wounded plea "love me baby" until his voice cracks, Bland expresses a pain that is nearly palpable.

The title track is the album's tour de force. A dirgy, big band blues, it boasts yet another stellar arrangement filled out with gauzy flutes and a mournful flugelhorn solo. Bland's vocal performance is understated yet churning with emotion. Each time he teases out the title phrase, he alters its emotional shading, demonstrating his mastery of jazz vocalizing, stretching, blurring and bending notes with apparent ease.

Not everything on Memphis Monday Morning is afflicted by the blues. "Lookin' for Some Tush" is a revved-up rocker fueled by aggro guitar and a battery of crisp, thrusting horns. Bland sounds positively frisky here, shouting and growling his way through this ode to lust like a hot-blooded young buck. But in the end, Bobby Bland is a man whose unshakable fealty is to the my-baby-done-gone-and-left-me blues. The man can't help himself, and the music is all the richer for it.

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Web extra to the March 18-24, 1999 issue of Metro.

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