Handicapping the Handys 

Taking stock of this year's Blues Album of the Year nominees.

If we can believe Handy Award voters, then these five Album of the Year nominees capture the heart of the blues today:

Reservation Blues -- Eddy "The Chief" Clearwater (Bullseye): The 66-year-old Clearwater is a Mississippi-born veteran of the Chicago blues scene, and most of Reservation Blues is a standard if extremely accomplished example of electric Chicago blues. Clearwater's command of the Chicago style is captured by the slow burn of the title cut and the over-seven-minutes-long "Running Along" and the deep-grooved stomp of "Find Yourself." In addition to being a first-rate blues songwriter -- most of Reservation Blues features Clearwater's original compositions -- Clearwater has long been known for mixing Chicago blues with Chuck Berry-style rockers. On Reservation Blues, Clearwater offers up an original, "I Wouldn't Lay My Guitar Down," that's an obvious Berry homage and closes the record out with a spirited cover of Berry's "Sweet Little Rock and Roller." Clearwater further expands the scope of this fine effort with a cover of Dale Hawkins' rock standard "Susie Q" and a couple of social commentary songs -- the self-penned "Walls of Hate" and the Song of the Year nominee "Winds of Change" -- that, taken together, are a bit too heavy-handed.

Lettin' Go -- Son Seals (Telarc): Another Chicago blues veteran with Delta roots, the 58-year-old, Osceola, Arkansas, native Seals made his Telarc debut with this 14-song, 70-minute opus after many years with Alligator Records. Driven by Seals' gruff vocals and stinging guitar leads and by some prominent horn work, Lettin' Go showcases a rawer Chicago blues sound than that on Clearwater's record. Seals' power is best captured by the straightforward five-song blast that opens the record. After that, Lettin' Go is a bit more varied: "Osceola Rock," essentially a rewrite of "Jailhouse Rock," is very expendable on this marathon of a record, but "Rockin' and Rollin' Tonight," which has a gentle country feel, is a much more successful departure from Seals' trademark sound.

Roots Stew -- Big Jack Johnson (MC Records): A son of the Delta and former member of the blues trio the Jelly Roll Kings, the 60-year-old Johnson was introduced to many by his appearance in Robert Mugge's 1991 documentary Deep Blues. With Roots Stew, he delivers a great but entirely individual blast of Southern juke-joint blues. Conventional room-shakers "Jump for Joy" and "Hummingbird" set up more eclectic excursions, like the mandolin-driven country blues "Cherry Tree" and a lap-steel, instrumental take on Ivory Joe Hunter's "Since I Met You Baby." But the songs that make Roots Stew special are "Going Too Far" and "So Long, Frank Frost." "Going Too Far" is an instrumental medley as patriotic tribute to American song. "Baby Please Don't Go" segues into "She'll Be Coming Around the Mountain," and I swear I hear "Old Time Religion" and "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" in there somewhere. The Song of the Year nominee "So Long, Frank Frost" is a loving, even hushed, tribute to Johnson's late Jelly Roll Kings comrade.

Wicked -- Shemekia Copeland (Alligator): Pegged as an inheritor of Koko Taylor's crown as Queen of the Blues, this daughter of blues great Johnny Copeland has become a major star on the blues scene despite the fact that she's still in her early 20s. Copeland leads this year's Handy field with five nominations, including one for Entertainer of the Year. Wicked, her second album, is hard-driving blues that puts Copeland's powerful vocals front and center. Song of the Year nominee "It's 2 a.m." features Copeland belting over a riff-heavy, almost hard-rock track. The soul ballad "Love Scene," the country blues "Beat-up Guitar," and the good, gritty R&B workout "Miss Hy Ciditty" show her range. But the highlight of the record might be her duet with soul pioneer Ruth Brown on "If He Moves His Lips."

Vu-Du Menz -- Corey Harris and Henry Butler (Alligator): This acoustic tour de force joins two of the brightest young stars on the blues scene: New Orleans piano man Butler and Harris, an amazingly diverse and intelligent musician perhaps best heard on his, at times stunning, 1999 album Greens From the Garden. With their guitar/piano sound and mix of originals and traditional songs, Harris and Butler evoke the bawdy feel of '30s blues while still sounding contemporary. Harris may be unrivaled for his ability to convert a scholarly interest in blues styles and history into soulful, vibrant, fully alive music, and this set with Butler is as much a testament to that as anything else he's done.

And the winner is: I don't have enough experience with the Handys to accurately pick what will win, but I can sure tell you what I think should. Clearwater's and Seals' records are expert documents of a style that rarely excites me, though I have a slight preference for Lettin' Go. And Wicked definitely makes the case for Copeland's formidable talent. But Roots Stew and Vu-Du Menz were two of my favorite records of 2000 -- no blues qualifier needed. So I'll be pretty happy to see either Big Jack or Harris/Butler take home the prize Thursday night. But I'll be rooting for Vu-Du Menz. n

You can e-mail Chris Herrington at herrington@memphisflyer.com.

A Selective Schedule Of

Handy Weekend Events

Thursday, May 24th

The 22nd Annual W.C. Handy Awards

7:30-10:30 p.m.

The Orpheum

Scheduled performers include: Dr. John, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, Taj Mahal, Corey Harris and Henry Butler, Eddy "The Chief" Clearwater, and Big Jack Johnson.

Friday, May 25th

Blues on Film: The Films of Robert Mugge

3-8 p.m.

The New Daisy Theatre

Includes the debut of Mugge's latest film, Rhythm and Bayous.

Blues Symposium: "Setting the Standards: W.C. Handy, Louis Armstrong, and Bessie Smith"

2:15-3:15 p.m.

Blues City Café

"The State of the Blues" -- A Blues Music Association Town Hall Meeting

4-6 p.m.

B.B. King's Blues Club

Handy Awards Festival

Starts at 8 p.m.

Beale Street

Blues performers at Beale clubs.

Saturday, May 26th

BluesAid Hall of Fame Ceremony

Noon-3 p.m.

The Memphis Rock 'N' Soul Museum

The Children's Blues Festival

Noon-5:30 p.m.

Handy Park

BluesAid Benefit Concert

Starts at 7:30 p.m.

The New Daisy Theatre

All-star concert benefiting a blues musicians' assistance fund.

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