WILLIE MCBLIND, BAD THING

CD REVIEW


Blues Revue Magazine

JAN/FEB 2011

by ART TIPALDI

As a side journey from the blues, during the late 1970's, I listened to the improvisational jazz championed by the German label, ECM. Experimental bands like Air, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and Keith Jarrett were as satisfying as the earthiest Delta blues. To me, those freeform ventures are what I hear in guitarist Jon Catler and vocalist Babe Borden's Willie McBlind band. The band is centered on the avant-garde guitar work of Catler. Throughout the nine songs (three covers, six originals), Catler fingers either a 64-tone Just Intonation or fretless guitars with sounds as oddly intriguing as what W.C. Handy must have heard at a rail station in Tutwiler, MS.

I know the sounds of a fretless guitar, but Catler explains the other. "The 64-tone system is pure just intonation, so every pitch is from the harmonic series." It's a custom guitar with 40 frets allowing Catler to explore notes between the notes, and find sounds and colors you won't hear from any other blues guitarist. With that futuristic foundation, Willie McBlind went to Hugh Pool's Excello Studios in Brooklyn (See Don Wilcock's review of Pool's Mulebone CD in this issue.), mixed half the songs there, and then had Jim Gaines mix the others.

Like many BR readers, I've heard numerous interpretations of "Nobody's Fault But Mine." But I've never heard it played on a Catler's twenty-second century guitar. Ditto Willie Dixon's "It Don't Make Sense (You Can't Make Peace). At times, Catler's enormous bends and dark feedback vibrations are reminiscent of mid-sixties' strobe lit experimentations. At the same time, Borden, a New England Conservatory trained vocalist, uses her expansive, octave-spanning

vocals to breathe fresh air into these up-to-the minute interpretations. The originals are just as exploratory. "Blood Moon" takes Missisissippi Fred McDowell's "You Gotta Move" from Como to outer space; likewise "Primo," which takes the "Pony Blues" idea into Hendrix's guitar landscape; "Storms" unfurls amid Catler's ominous fretless probings; and the title cut utilizes lyrical snatches of "Mystery Train" combined with Catler's gooey, fretless slide.

The record ends with "Lucky Man," an arresting, seven-plus minute highlight. With only six strings, Catler demonstrates a new wave array of sounds and colors. Is it blues? Not in the traditional sense, but Willie McBlind does have a radical answer to those who wonder what the future of the blues can sound like.

- Art Tipaldi

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