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Lazy Lester – You Better Listen
13 tracks / 43:20
Lazy Lester is anything but lazy; at 78 years old he is still touring and recording today. Born in 1933 as Leslie Johnson, he is the living link to the Louisiana blues scene of the 1950s and 1960s, when he had a string of hits on Excello records. He did quite a bit of solo work, but is most notable for his work with Lightnin’ Slim.
Lester broke into the business on the strength of his harmonica playing, but has a unique voice and guitar chops to boot. The years have been kind to the man, and his voice has gotten more character and is pleasing to hear. He still blows a mean harp too. He describes his music as “swamp blues”, a combination of blues, early country music, and swamp pop. He says his main influences are the country singer Jimmie Rogers and legendary southern harp men Jimmy Reed and Little Walter, but I hear a bit of Detroit and Chicago blues influence in there too.
Lazy Lester’s latest album, You Better Listen, is an old-time blues album with non-traditional origins. Lester recorded this material at Juke Joint Studio in Norway, which is not exactly next door to his northern California home. The album was produced by guitarist Morten Omlid, who is part of Spoonful of Blues, which is the backing band on this project. This is the same group that Lester hooks up with for his annual tours of Norway.
The 13 tracks on You Better Listen are a compilation of original material, old blues hits, and a couple of classic country tunes, all in Lazy Lester’s swamp blues style. Through the usual studio magic, Lester is able to play guitar, sing and blow the harp simultaneously on many of the songs.
Staying true to his roots, Lester kicks off the album with the Lightnin’ Slim’s “Rooster Blues”, and this track proves that his voice is still amazing and his harmonica is as sweet as ever. The other thing this recording shows is that his Norwegian brothers from Spoonful of Blues have a great feel for the blues and are very good musicians in their own right.
It is more than cool that Lazy Lester covered Slim Harpo’s “Scratch my Back”, especially when you consider that Lester was a percussionist on Slim’s original hit recording. The raw drum sounds and guitar reverb come off perfectly for this old-time blues standard, and there is a great play between the harp and guitar. This turned out to be one of my favorite tracks on You Better Listen.
There is a classic country vibe in much of Lazy Lester’s work, and on this album he broke down and gave us a real-live country tune, “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain”. This Roy Acuff number has been thoroughly converted to a honkytonk song with a healthy dose of saloon piano, which is pretty cool in my book.
It would be easy to just cover old Excello hits, but Lester wrote four new tracks for this album. “Courtroom Blues” has a simple background with a slow tempo, but throws in plenty of harp as well as an old favorite, the Hammond organ. Prison lyrics always are a sure-fire hit subject for blues music, too.
Another Lazy Lester original is the “OJ Shuffle”, a quick-paced instrumental with just the bare bones of instruments: harmonica, guitar and the simplest of percussion. There is nothing like a good shuffle, and this one delivers the goods.
You Better Listen wraps up with the “Paradise Stomp”, an instrumental that honors his new hometown. It provides a change of pace and a healthy countrified dose of Lester’s harmonica to put an appropriate end to this project, sort of like the music over the credits at the end of a good movie.
Overall this is a great album with solid tunes and Lazy Lester’s inimitable voice. It sounds like it was recorded 50 years ago. The producer and mixer seem to be going for a retro vibe, because the background instruments are muddy and the lead vocals, harmonica and guitars are a bit gritty. It works for me, but if you are looking for rocket-ship modern production you won't find it here.
I will leave you with one last bit of trivia before I go: Excello producer Jay Miller came up with the nickname Lazy Lester not because of a poor work ethic, but in honor of Lester’s slow style of talking and his easygoing manner.
Reviewer Rex Bartholomew is a Los Angeles-based writer and musician; his blog can be found at http://rexbass.blogspot.com.