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Various Blues Interpretations, From the Nuanced to the Masochistic

by Carol Cooper

The Holmes Brothers
State of Grace

Coco Montoya
Dirty Deal

Vesta Williams
Distant Lover

When Led Zep covered Kansas Joe and Memphis Minnie's "When the Levee Breaks," they thought they were making "rock 'n' roll." When the Pointer Sisters covered Koko Taylor's "Wang Dang Doodle," they thought they were making "pop soul." And when Kanye West looped a famous Ray Charles riff, he thought he was making "hip-hop." This only goes to show how the blues has always been wide and dynamic enough to contain and/or presage almost every subsequent American musical style. So naturally, these three albums manage to sound very different but remain recognizable as fruit or flower of the same tree.

For starters, on State of Grace, the Holmes Brothers offer marvelously nuanced and creative readings of songs like Hank Williams's "I Can't Help It if I'm Still in Love With You," Lyle Lovett's "God Will," and Wendell Holmes's "Standing in the Need of Love," with consistent blues character variously expressed via bluegrass, gospel, and Delta- or Chicago-flavored arrangements. Diverse songwriters, producers, and guest stars assist in the eclectic spirit of 1960s jug bands, which themselves resurrected Vaudeville and archival recordings of the '20s and '30s in sonic affirmation of American cultural unity across lines of race, region, and class. With less wide-ranging ambitions, guitarist Coco Montoya gathers fellow fans of hardcore British- and Chicago-accented blues on his equally celebratory Dirty Deal -- if his voice possessed more audible grit, this collection of bar-band material could've been equally great. Despite flawless instrumental performances, accusatory tunes like the title track still come across too mellow and slick to convey convincing emotional content.

Meanwhile, Vesta Williams drops Distant Lover, an easy-listening r&b compilation seemingly tailored to the new "Fresh" radio format, specializing in soft traveling music for soccer moms. Even during her A&M and Polygram years, Williams was never considered a belter, always veering more to the torchy, lounge-singer side of the blues spectrum. Yet as the title implies, the love songs covered here are full of the eager masochism ("Use Me," "Whip Appeal") and cautious optimism ("If You Want Me to Stay") that are seminal hallmarks of blues expression -- and it's past time that all America's crossover-mad, mixed-genre children proudly reclaimed the style as their own.

Published in: Village Voice, January 29, 2007