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Steve Matthews’ Razers - Don’t Turn Me In


undated - released 2009

Blues in the U.K. is a knotted knot of knots. The islanders have obviously taken the American blues guitar tradition and handed it back polished, enlarged, some say, perfected—others admonish, only, better crafted. We play with the idea that some of the iconic British voices in rock and roll—Mick Jagger, Joe Cocker, Rod Stewart—were blues singers of the first rank. I believe a prominent reviewer at this magazine has confessed that he really heard blues for the first time back in those famous 1960s, from the Animals. We honor Mayall as a father-figure in this music. We have tremendous respect and affection for individual players on the UK blues scene. For instance, you really should hear Big Joe Louis on guitar, Ian Siegal sing, and Errol Linton on harmonica, just to name a few. But for all that, and as much fun as it would be to go for an explore, very few of us would buy a ticket for London when we were looking for great blues.

London, as Blues Blast Magazine pointed out in this magazine last fall, is undergoing a surge in blues interest with the very notable opening of Charlotte Street Blues in Fitzrovia, Blues Kitchen in Camden Town, and ‘Round Midnight in Islington. London remains the global center for the “not the same old blues crap” movement. But thoughtful blues lovers in the UK are the first to tell you, they turn to the U.S. for the very best in blues. I once heard a U.S. band play in London, and had a man come up to me and say, “We couldn’t do that here. Even if we wanted to,” with the stress on the “if,” to emphasize with awe, “It would never occur to us to do some of the things you people do to this music to give it emotional life.”

People in the U.S. don’t take much interest in the difference, but blues fans and players in the UK have lots of explanations. They say the blues is in our American voices. Or they claim it is in infinitesimal “micro-nuances” in our play that can only come as cultural resonance. Several, have smiled wanly, and told me, “We play blues with this,” pointing to their head, “while you play blues with this,” pointing to their heart. This last certainly would offend British blues lovers, who I have seen standing on their pub chairs singing, swaying, and cheering—plainly, with no lack of heart. The occasion for writing this is receiving for review London’s Steve Matthews’ Razers 2009 album Don’t Turn Me In. It couldn’t be clearer: Steve Matthews has heart.

I’ve reviewed a number of blues cds that had at their core, as a sort of marketing device, the conceit that the player, the player’s hometown, or the player’s parentage was legendary. The musicians or some genius who advises them have tried to forge a persona as a blues legend in their packaging art and liner notes, but the result is always a forgery, a shoddy sales gimmick. Being a bluesman is not your hat or haircut, or shoes, or car, or the brand of amp you play through, or your hometown, or, candidly, who your father is; and it certainly isn’t something you invent and say about yourself. With Steve Matthews’ Don’t Turn Me In we meet a genuine blues man, a person and a persona. Matthews has been blowing the harp, singing, and using blues as a creative pallet for a long time. He is not easily impressed, not easily shook. The man is mellow. But he isn’t just flowing musically, he’s got a point of view. He has that exact “askance” point of view, that stand off on the edge of society to laugh or cry or plead, that is the blues.

Matthews is a South London harmonica player, singer, and band leader. His usual partner in music is Dave Briggs, a beloved London guitarist widely known for playing with Scottie Moore. Don’t Turn Me In is a powerful album of music, and Matthews’ persona is the core. Matthews is out front and assertive entertaining us, but subject to instant invisibility the moment we turn our backs; his band makes us laugh, and the joke is on them. We are attracted to this band’s remarkable prowess as performers from right out of the people; but, if we’re not too drunk to notice, we pick up that they’d get along without the middle class comforts more easily than we would, and that maybe they do. They are having more fun than we are, but are skating on much thinner ice. This is Steve Matthews.

There isn’t an original song on this album. Four of the eleven tunes are co-written by Gary Primich, showcasing Matthews’ admiration for the late Austin harp star. But the selection of the songs goes to the Matthews persona. “Angeline,” “Cold Hand in Mine,” and Guy Forsyth’s “Don’t Turn Me In,” the song from which the album takes its name, define the act as outcast and outlaw, numb, vulnerable, plaintive. No nostalgia trip, this album is music for grownups who are not in the mood to pretend they have ever had it all together.

The musicianship here is powerful. Toby Baron on drums, upright and out front, should be giving clinics for blues percussion. Besides Matthews, Briggs, Baron, and Jon Bankes on electric bass, Neil Cowley hits the keyboards, Richard Sadler does some double bass work, Bruce Knapp plays guitar, and Sean Genockey adds slide guitar. At key points, as in the song “Don’t Turn Me In” the band achieves a euphoric wall of blues sound. This is not supposed to be an album of virtuoso harmonica, but Matthews’ harmonica has a stunning emotional quail, and he rocks out whole songs with his driving lines. There is not a lick of mostly Briggs’ tremendous guitar on Don’t Turn Me In that was not available in blues and rock culture by 1965; but these traditional materials are exactly the idiom Matthews and his Razers intend to use to communicate with us. We get the message and more than a few of the subtleties. It goes way beyond this review to explore, but Don’t Turn Me In innocently reopens the question of true blues, real blues players, and, if anyone in the U.S. cares, the very possibility of blues in the UK. It is an album of music, and a provocation to some important conversations.

Reviewed by Dale Clark.

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