Corey Harris & Henry Butler
Reviewed by Micah Holmquist
Sunday, April 30 2000, 1:59 PM
It is an unfortunate and sad fact that the blues is a musical strait jacket for artists as often as it is a vehicle for the expression of real human emotions. Traditionally, the lyrics of any number of contemporary blues artists fall into the cliched "my woman/my man done me wrong and now I just sit here and cry/drink/pray" variety. It is tough to relate to such sentiments as they seem more rote than real. And the music that accompanies it has similar problems. There is lots of fine playing but little imagination. Copping bits from Robert Johnson isn't the same thing as playing them for the first, or even second or third, time! It is not that tradition has no place. Robert Cray, arguably the best blues artist of the last twenty years, certainly wears his influences on his sleeve but he also mixes them up in interesting ways and keeps the sound from getting stale and predicable.
You can put Corey Harris in the same category as Cray. Since 1995, this bluesman has released three solo records on Chicago's Alligator label which stand out both because they blend the Delta blues sound with more contemporary R&B, reggae, and hip-hop influences and because Harris often writes lyrics which address contemporary political issues like police brutality. On his most recent release, Harris joins veteran New Orleans piano player Henry Butler for the rip roaring set of 15 songs that is Vu-Du Menz.
Lyrically there is some interesting work here. "Mullberry Row" looks at the now infamous relationship that Thomas Jefferson had with his slave/mistress Sally Hemmings. "What Man Have Done" tackles the inability of people to escape the injustices of this world no matter how much they want to while "Song of the Pipelayer" has pretty apparent drug connotations.
The real highlights however appear in the music. Harris and Butler move adeptly between sinful blues and ragtime tracks like "Shake What Your Mama Gave You" to the reverent sounds and themes of pieces like "Why Don't You Live So God Can Use You." On "There's No Substitute For Love" -- one of the best tracks on Vu-Du Menz -- the duo put the soulful sounds of African American spirituals to decidedly secular lyrics.
The entire disc runs just short of 55 minutes and while there is little groundbreaking material here, there is a lot to like. Moreover, Vu-Du Menz contains contemporary blues music that avoids sounding trite or played out.
Vu-Du Menz is available from Alligator Records