Release date: June 1, 2020
By Greg Easterling
Put on this album and close your eyes. What you hear will make you think you are sitting in a vintage Chicago blues club on the South or West Side circa 1960 while listening to a classic Carey Bell number sung by a voice that resembles that of Junior Wells. No small feat for a record that was actually recorded last year in Osaka, Japan by a group of Windy City blues devotees, most of whom have never visited the 312 area code.
No Border Blues Japan from Delmark Records is the latest musical labor of love from onetime Chicago blues man Johnny Burgin who, along with his wife/producer Stephanie Tice, assembled a collection of Japanese blues musicians who revere the music. Four different drummers, three bass players, four guitarists, three harp players and six singers all contribute to what Delmark describes as the “first-ever American compilation of some of the best Japanese bluesmen and women today.” As Burgin explains in the liner notes, No Border Blues is inspired by the talented Japanese players he encountered during several
tours of Japan he made over a 20 year period beginning in 1996.
It's been no secret for quite some time now just how much enthusiasm there is for American culture in Japan post World War 2. From blue jeans to guitars to rock and roll, there has been an active market there for specialty products made in America even as retail shelves over here are filled with items made in Japan or Korea. Originally crafted as a Japanese only release, Cheap Trick's legendary live album, At Budakon became their big breakthrough album over here after being released domestically due to overwhelming demand. The seeds of the modern blues scene in Japan were sown in the 1970s by Chicago blues legends who toured there: Otis Rush, Jimmy Dawkins, Eddie Taylor and others who acquired a following among Japanese music enthusiasts. Now it's time to repay the favor by acknowledging the abilities of the current generation of Japanese blues artists who Burgin has pulled together for this groundbreaking No Border Blues Japan project.
The album commences with the first of a string of songs that give no clue as to their Far Eastern origin. “One Day You're Gonna Get Lucky” comes from the pen of blues harp legend Carey Bell, sideman to Muddy Waters and accomplished solo artist in his own right. Iper Onishi provides a vocal reminiscent of Junior Wells while also contributing the harp solo. He's joined by Burgin on guitar plus guitarist Yoshi Mizuno, Hironori “Zee” Yanaga on bass and Takagiman on drums, one of Burgin's favorites who he worked with while touring in Osaka. Together these players form a solid unit capable of delivering the goods on this Sweet Home Chicago-like groove.
Burgin steps to the mic for a slower reading of the Elmore James jam “Sunnyland” next. Between his vocal and an outstanding harp solo by Kaz Nogio, there's a real feel here for the sound of Paul Butterfield, legendary harpist, band leader and member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Burgin and now Nogio are supported by Mizuno and Takagiman again, joined by Yoshimi Hirata on bass and keyboardist Lee Kanehira, who's played locally with the Cash Box Kings. She steps up vocally to duet on the next track, a Tampa Red number, “So Crazy About You” with Kaz Nogio, who is featured on harp once more.
Next the stage clears for some different players to have a go at one of two Burgin originals on No Border Blues. “Hurry Up Baby,” is a fast blues rocker with a couple of stinging guitar solos and another gal lead vocal, this time from guitarist Nacomi Tanaka. The lineup is filled out here by Hirata on bass and Fumiko Maejima on drums along with Burgin on guitar as well.
Then pianist Kanehira is back with a keyboard driven song of her own called “Pumpkin's Boogie” that really rocks. She sings it with further accompaniment from an artist known as Kotez on harp, Yanaga on bass, and Ataka Sukuki on drums plus Burgin. Kotez sticks around to sing a Little Walter song in Japanese. “I Just Keep Loving Her” is transformed into “Mada Sukinanda”, the first real audio clue to inform the listener of the multi-national nature of this No Border Blues project. That's not bad at more than halfway through the album! And it's a credit to these skilled Japanese blues players and their single-minded devotion to Chicago blues.
Careful to let the spotlight shine on his friends throughout, Burgin returns a little over halfway through the album to sing the “Hound Dog” sound alike “Rattlesnake” which replaces a mammal for a reptile. It's one from the vaults originally by the “Ice Cream Man” John Brim, onetime Chess Recording artist and inspiration for at least one song most famously on the first Van Halen record.
Johnny hangs in for lead vocals on the next two songs, the first of which he wrote, “Old School Player.” It's a sly one that celebrates the quality of experience in certain areas of life concluding “I take my time and do it right.” It’s plenty of time at least for Burgin and Mizuno to solo with Onishi providing the necessary harp. “Two Telephones” is about sweet talking with your baby.
As the album nears its conclusion, look out for “Samurai Harp Attack”! It's a three harp blues jam that showcases Kotez, Nogio, and Onishi in the tradition of the classic Alligator Records’ harp record, “Harp Attack” that united legends Junior Wells, James Cotton, Carey Bell, and Billy Branch. It's a harmonica intensive session that sets us up for the album's final track and coda. “Sweet Home Chicago” becomes “Sweet Home Osaka” in the voices of Burgin, Kotez, and Tanaka. The record ends with applause and chatter from Osaka's Fukuda Studio, recorded in early May of 2019. Steve Wagner mixed and mastered in Chicago at Delmark's Riverside Studio. Delmark owners Julia A. Miller and Elbio Barilari are credited with album production and supervision.
It's another exclusive for Delmark as they forge ahead into a new decade. And also it's another great effort to expand the reach of Chicago blues globally. No Border Blues is a first but let's hope not the last of these kinds of recordings to showcase Chicago's greatest musical gift to the world. Nobody can do this like Chicago can with great new releases in a time of challenge. Let's keep it going.
Greg Easterling hosts American Backroads on WDCB (90.9 FM) Thursdays at 9 p.m.