Blue Rider Trio, “Early Morning Blues, The Complete Blue Rider

Trio Sessions” [Mapleshade Records 12132]

May 2008




“Country music is three chords and the truth.”
Harlan Howard

From the first, slow building acoustic guitar chords pristinely strummed by Ben Andrews, followed by the blistering boogie of Mark Wenner’s harmonica and Jeff Sarli’s slap happy Bass, “Preaching Blues” begins this gem of a 2-disc collection from the brilliant Blue Rider Trio, three guys in love with Delta and Country Blues. Not only do we have three fine acoustic musicians plying their musical marvels on this recording, but their artistry is captured beautifully by Pierre Sprey of Mapleshade Records, who recorded these cuts in live sessions at Mapleshade’s own “mansion studio” in Maryland with no mixing, filtering, multitracking or overdubbing. The first disc in this collection is the Blue Rider Trio’s Preaching The Blues (recorded at Mapleshade in 1988-1989) and the second disc is their later collection, entitled Harp, Steel and Guts (recorded at Mapleshade in 1999-2000). The simple directness of both of these recording sessions is a joy to behold, crystallizing the essence of these great Delta Blues numbers, and their stories of everyday love and pain.

This collection spans Delta and Country Blues, rags, ballads and every acoustic boogie in between. The inner beauty and simplicity of each tune is mined by the spontaneous mastery of these three musicians, whether it be a hushed steel string strum or a deep slap pull of bass string. Ben Andrews is a Maestro on acoustic and National Steel guitar, evidenced by the thunderous ramble of his steel strings on the instrumental, “Freight Train Boogie” or the contrasting lightness of his touch on the twisting and pulsating “Gallow’s Pole.” See if your system can articulate that hollow, resonant pounding in the background of “Gallow’s Pole,” reverberating and haunting the background of this traditional ballad. Andrew’s voice is beautifully carved in the acoustic space of the Mapleshade studio: stark, husky and forceful. Other highlights from the first disc include the rag tag “Blue Goose Blues” featuring a deep, scampering bass solo performed by the late Jeff Sarli, to whom this collection is dedicated. Sarli grabs the spotlight here and runs with it with crisp bass lines, testing any system’s speed and pitch definition way down low. Another highlight is the meander of Mark Wenner’s harp work, on both “Early Morning Blues” and “Cincinnati Rag.” Wenner is possessed with every nuance of his harp, stripping it down to its breathy basics on “Early Morning” and rolling and tumbling crisply with the jaunt of “Cincinnati Rag,” propelled by Sarli’s pumping bass and Andrew’s wisps of acoustic guitar.

The second disc in this collection (recorded ten years later than the first), really shines as a glorious, eclectic set of acoustic gems from a talented trio that has clearly aged in the brine of the Blues. Andrews’ voice has deepened, with lots more husk and marvelous tonal color. Tunes such as the wily “Ride Till I Die” highlight Andrew’s darker shades of his bluesy vocals, alongside his furious guitar work. On this same tune, Wenner beautifully weaves in and out, squeezing short, then long, grunts and melodic rifts of harp color. His harp is recorded in all of its natural metallic tone, and the recording’s image dimensionality is so natural that you feel like you can walk up to Wenner and sit beside him as he wails away on his harp. Don’t miss out too on all of the acoustic percussive work of Sarli, providing the pumping acoustic bass backbone and wooden percussive effects. “Ride” is followed by the calm and traditional beauty of “Make Me Down A Pallet On Your Floor,” with added sparkle from Larry Willis’ piano. Again, Andrew’s craggy voice lurches and falls in beautiful unison with all of the instrumental color surrounding it. Ah, but don’t get lulled to a calm Blue place because the Blue Riders then blaze into a version of “Kokomo Blues” that will have you shaking and rattling. Andrews grinds out steel guitar chords that are all metal and fire, while Wenner drives the number with hurtles of staccato notes from his harp. Sarli pumps and scats in the background, all fired up. The disc concludes with a jaunty “Diddie Wah Diddie,” in which Andrews takes a guitar solo bending his acoustic strings here and there, with lots of percussive effects in between. Wenner and Sarli join in as they all stroll out. There is that final bass slap from Sarli to close the door, and a fading breathy vibrato from Wenner’s harp, just to keep us coming back for more.

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