Feature Reviews: Spencer Bohren, Blackwater Music, The Blues According to Hank Williams, and Born in a Biscayne

Call it the final chapter of Spencer Bohren's previously uncompleted works. The New Orleans bluesman had scraps and pieces of unfinished songs that had been stacking up for the past quarter of a century since Bohren, well, was too busy being Bohren the booking agent, Bohren the educator, and Bohren the touring artist to be Bohren the songwriter. But after a few secluded days at a Gulf Coast beach resort, Bohren finally brought these songs—mostly random lines jotted down in scrapbooks—to life, resulting in perhaps his most realized piece of art yet. Playing a variety of vintage guitars—one of which is 114 years old and another is a 1922 Kalamazoo Carson Robison—Bohren transforms himself from Bohren the "All Strings Considered" wizard to Bohren the enchanting raconteur. "The Old Homestead," a warm acoustic number, recalls a musically inclined family that drifted apart; the lazy country blues of "Has Anyone Seen Mattie?" is based on the catastrophic 1927 Mississippi River flood. Interestingly, "Bad Luck Bone" was inspired by a young girl who seemingly appeared out of nowhere and advised Bohren not to touch a perceived ominous animal bone. "It’s a bad luck bone, you better leave it alone," Bohren recalls the girl saying.

Bohren judiciously alternates between his eight acoustic/metal-bodied/lap steel guitars for diversified sounds, tones, and arrangements. "Old Louisa’s Movin’ On" feels like a North Mississippi hill country artifact—sparse and raw but with a polished edge. The title track finds him sliding away on lapsteel for a sinister and swampy effect. Not all the arrangements are guitar-based, however; he’s sans guitar on "Your Love," accompanied only by son André’s New Orleans crash-and-roll piano playing. "Take Me to Rampart Street" is a joyful Dixieland strut with sax, tuba and Amasa Miller’s prancing ivories. No doubt, Bohren has raised the bar this time.

Besides Blackwater Music, Bohren has been industrious as of late, releasing a collection of Hank Williams tunes as well as reissuing his first album, Born in the Biscayne.

Bohren is no stranger to the Williams cannon: On 2004′s <em>Southern Cross</em>, he covered "I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry" and "Lovesick Blues." Those tunes are rendered here as well, but as fresh interpretations that are totally different from their predecessors. Instead of trying to emulate the honky-tonk daddy stylistically, Bohren interprets em his way with intricately rich acoustic guitar picking and occasional lap steel and dancing mandolin. The unencumbered ambience and the mid-tempo pace allow Bohren to really stretch into the songs and express them. Of course, most selections lean towards Williams’ bluesier side, but "I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry" finds Bohren playing lap steel as if he were part of a country dance band. Overall, a peaceful, relaxed interpretation of one of America’s most endearing songwriters.

Recorded in 1984, Born in the Biscayne is an early sonic snapshot of Bohren, who constantly toured the countryside with wife and family in a ’55 Chevy pulling a shiny Airstream trailer. Dr. John’s brilliant piano playing bookends this John Mooney-produced affair that opens with the sizzling "Straight Eight" and closes with the classic New Orleans-styled "Snap Your Fingers." On the comical, sax-powered "Shoppin’ For Clothes," the good doctor plays the role of the shyster suit salesman ('those buttons are solid gold’) while Bohren’s hustler protagonist attempts to sneak the suit out of the store. "Eloise" and Sleepy John Estes’ "Drop Down Mama" feature Bohren thrashing away on his National Steel guitar while the laid back "In-Between Friends" is Americana enough to feel like a Band chestnut. There’s a fair amount of diversity here—remarkable for a debut—but delta blues is at the core of these proceedings that, coincidentally, foretold of the fortuitous things to come.

—Dan Willging (Denver, CO)