Clarence "Gatemouth" BrownSHCD-3891
Sugar Hill Records
A review written for the Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange
From the moment Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown first cries out, "here am I, here am I . . . feeling so sad, feeling so sad . . ." you can tell you're in the presence of a seasoned bluesman. As his CD, Blackjack, continues you may begin to feel a little disoriented. For a recording made in Bogalusa, Louisiana, those horns sure sound straight out of Chicago. And for a blues album, it sure seems to swerve off frequently toward jazz, zydeco, rockabilly, country-western, and even hints of big band standards. |
If Blackjack is all over the musical map, it simply reflects the musical wanderings of Brown himself, whose appetite is as wide and varied as North America itself. Originally released in 1977 and now reissued on CD, it shows that Brown had already traversed a wide terrain. The result is always exhilarating and truly funky no matter what the genre, and straight out fun.
Born in 1924, Brown learned guitar and fiddle from his father, who was an amateur musician with a taste for Cajun, bluegrass, and country and western. Gatemouth took in all this music, as well as the blues in his father's collection of 78s. By the age of twenty-one, he was playing drums professionally for a band in San Antonio. Legend has it that in 1947 he was attending a concert by T-Bone Walker in Houston, when Walker took sick in the middle of a number and left the stage. Up jumped Brown, who grabbed Walker's guitar and started improvising something he named on the spot: Gatemouth Boogie. The audience went wild, an agent signed him up that night, and a recording contract soon followed.
From there, Brown's career took many different turns. He fronted a 23-piece band in Hollywood; was featured in a syndicated r&b television show out of Nashville; toured extensively and, for a time, exclusively in Europe and Asia; and even retired from music temporarily for a gig as sheriff of Durango County, Colorado. But toward the mid 70s, he returned to recording and performing in the United States, and Blackjack was one of his first releases.
There isn't a cut on this recording that doesn't grab you by the shirt and pull you onto your feet. After the aforementioned Here Am I, the band veers off into a jaunty jazz instrumental, Tippin' In, and then a slow blues jam called Song for Renee," both of which feature Gatemouth's idiosyncratic fiddle work, as well as the soulful flute of Bobby Campo (Campo also shines on trumpet and flugelhorn, especially on the jazz piece Pressure Cooker).
From there, the band bops into a twangy zydeco piece, When My Blue Moon Turns to Gold Again, which features Don Buzzard on pedal steel, and Gatemouth again with a playful, jittery fiddle. Then, on a genuinely weird and manic cut called Street Corner, Gatemouth blows a madcap blues harp, repeatedly breaking off to mutter and snarl like some old wino under a street lamp.
And on he goes, through a musical terrain as American as his trademark cowboy hat. Brown surrounds himself with first-rate sidemen, with whom he often shares the spotlight. Indeed, oftentimes in concert he'll step aside to let the band play on their own, explaining that as long as you have good musicians you may as well let them show off. However, Gatemouth's own inventiveness is always evident, whether in his astute, funky arrangements or his versatile musicianship. On Dark End of the Hallway, he makes his fiddle wail like a broke-down drunk. On Chickenshift, he makes his guitar cluck like a chicken. On every song, he can make his gravelly voice growl like an angry lover, or bemoan his heartbreak with dignity and forthrightness.
And by the time Gatemouth and company reach the last track, a rockabilly stomp called Up Jumped the Devil, he'll make you want to search out more of his recordings. As soon as you catch your breath from dancing.