CD Reviews for 02/17/06 – Recent Releases from Arhoolie Records

Compact Capsules for 02/17/06
by Dan Ferguson

Raw music is just one way to describe the down-home, multicultural sounds one can expect to encounter on recordings from El Cerrito, California-based Arhoolie Records. From back roads Americana to releases with a decidedly worldly flavor, Arhoolie continues to dish out the goods in an honest, no frills kind of way. Keeping with a tradition since Compact Capsules originated nearly 14 years ago, it is once again time for another semi-annual roundup of the latest batch of releases from the Arhoolie concern. Let’s get to it.

Scared Steel Time

Since it first introduced sacred steel music to the masses in the late 1990s, no label has carried the torch as effectively as Arhoolie Records in presenting this unusual brand of spiritual music for listener consumption. The last year has seen two fine new additions to the Arhoolie catalogue of sacred steel recordings, an all instrumental various artists compilation and a full-length recording by family band The Lee Boys. For the unfamiliar out there, the sacred steel tradition originated at the Pentecostal House of God churches, mainly in the Florida area. The 14-track compilation Scared Steel Instrumentals (Arhoolie CD-515) presents a fine overview or Sacred Steel 101, if you will, of this sub-genre of spiritual music. Consisting of both live and studio recordings, it features such big guns of the sacred steel tradition as Sonny Treadway, Aubrey Ghent, Willie Eason, The Campbell Brothers, and a young Robert Randolph who has been chiefly responsible for taking the sound into the mainstream with both his own Robert Randolph Family Band, not to mention his contributions to a number of acts on the jam band circuit.

Consider the The Lee Boys one of Florida’s finest African-American Sacred Steel performing groups. Comprised of six members who are brothers and nephews, the groups struts it stuff to inspiring, not to mention rousing, proportions on the new recording Say Yes! (Arhoolie CD-516). It was the House of God church where each member of the band began making music while only tykes. It is there that these fellows honed their chops and in the process have become one of the hottest acts on the circuit. Whereas the foundation is gospel, the music itself as Say Yes! so clearly demonstrates, takes on many colors with elements of R&B, rock, jazz, funk, hip-hop, country, and world music all finding its way into the highly spirited song selections. The backbone of it all, however, is the steel itself which gives the music a dimension unlike that of any gospel these ears have heard. Say Yes! comes highly recommended.

Big Mama Blues

When it comes to ladies singing the blues, few could deliver it with as much gusto and robustness as Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton. In other words, they didn’t call her Big Mama for nothing. The 17-track In Europe (Arhoolie CD-9056) presents the lady in all her big voiced, Big Mama-ness. Recorded in October of 1965 at the Wessex Studio in London, England, the collection features the entirety of the original 11-track Arhoolie LP release of this session along with six previously unreleased bonus tracks one of which is a rare 15-minute interview with Big Mama herself as conducted by Arhoolie Records founder Chris Strachwitz. Thornton is at the top of her game throughout the session which features a to-die-for backing band that includes Buddy Guy on guitar, Eddie Boyd on piano, Walter “Shakey” Horton on harmonica, and the legendary “Mississippi” Fred McDowell on slide guitar on three of the selections. Whereas the Thornton interview by its lonesome is worth the price of admission, this album strikes with authority. Like I said, they didn’t call her Big Mama for nothing.

Border Sounds

Be it reissues or new recordings, one can always count on Arhoolie Records for keeping the sounds of South of the Border alive. The latest offerings from the label are divided between new recordings and archival material. First the new stuff.

El Corrido del Mono (Arhoolie CD9050) is the name of the new release from the Oakland, California-based Mariachi band Mariachi los Gavilanes de Oakland. A San Francisco Bay Area institution since the early 1990s when they were first released by Arhoolie on cassette and numbering some 10 members strong, El Corrido del Mono is a highly flavorful dose of traditional Mexican Mariachi-styled music that whets the senses wonderfully. All that’s missing is the Margaritas.

Also out recently is Asi Es La Vida (Arhoolie CD-9049) from the 13-piece group Banda Salvatierra. Based out of Northern California, the sounds are plenty on this album.

Moving to reissue compilations of the border variety, Arhoolie has recently released two excellent collections. The theme-based various artists set The Roots of the NarcoCorrido (Arhoolie CD-7053) zeros in on rare, historic recordings of corridos where the common thread is various aspects of smuggling. At the same time, this collection attempts to place the phenomenon of the currently widely popular Narcocorrido in its historical and cultural contexts. Consisting of some 26 recordings spanning the late 1900s to the 1970s and featuring informative notes by Professor James Nicolopulos, these ballads offer both an historical and facinating look at how an activity so potentially detrimental has come to play such a compelling role in the popular imagination.

Recorded live at the El Patio cantina in Piedras Negras, Coah in the mid 1970s, the collection Corridos de la Frontera (Arhoolie CD-9051) from the group Los Pingüinos del Norte represents one of the only live recordings ever made by an authentic Norteño conjunto on their home turf. Arhoolie’s first foray into Tex-Mex music upon its initial LP release in the 1970s and now available on CD for the first time with several previously unissued bonus selections added to the mix, the collection sticks primarily to historic narrative ballads in the Tex-Mex border tradition, sometimes thought of as the Mexican equivalent of American country music.

Blues with a Message

The various artists collection Blues With a Message (Arhoolie CD-510) gathers 18 tracks from the Arhoolie vaults by such legends of the trade as Sam Chatmon, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Big Joe Williams to go with some lesser-known, but equally worthy talents from the blues ranks. As for the song selections, the title of this collection says it all featuring blues songs with as much meaning as feeling. Featuring a wonderful booklet containing an assortment of photos by Chris Strachwitz and notes by Paul Oliver, Blues With a Message is a hands-down winner.

A Little Cajun Spice

Originally released on LP in the 1970s, traditional Creole music is alive and well on the collection titled Musique Creole (Arhoolie CD-512) from The Carrière Brothers. The 20-track affair combines the entirety of the original 1974 LP with 11 previously unissued recordings. All of the tracks come from the same session recorded deep in Cajun country at a locale just outside Lawtell, Louisiana in April of 1974. Featuring only Bèbè Carrière on fiddle and vocals and his brother Èraste on accordion and vocals, this is the stripped-down, no frills style of African-American rural Louisiana Creole music at its most authentic.

Fiddle Rags & Blues

Stop & Listen (Arhoolie CD-517) is the name of the latest recording from fiddle player Suzy Thompson. Featuring 17 tracks in all, Ms. Thompson and her accompanists serves up an assortment of circa-1920s and ’30s rags, blues, and old-time tunes to go with an original or two. Captured live in April of 2004 at the famed Freight & Salvage Club in Berkeley, California, Thompson is in her glory on this stellar outing. (Arhoolie Productions, Inc., 10341 San Pablo Avenue, El Cerrito, CA 94530, or

(Dan Ferguson is a free-lance music writer and host of The Boudin Barndance, broadcast Thursday nights from 6 – 9 pm on WRIU-FM 90.3. He lives in Peace Dale and can be reached at [email protected].)