Eddie & Frank Thomas
Angels on the Backroads:
Volume 1 - Memphis to Clack's Store
Volume 2 - Robinsonville to the Valley Store
Misty Owl Music CDs
Volume 1: MOM 6613, 2002 (51:07)
Volume 2: MOM 6614, 2002 (49:09)
Really live recordings
Glenn Brooks, 16 February 2003
Eddie and Frank are brothers from Iuka, Mississippi. Eddie sings and plays the guitar (and other stuff - stay tuned), and Frank does the recording. I can't think offhand of another album where the recording engineer is listed as one of the artists, but in this case it is wholly appropriate. Angels on the Backroads is a unique project whose goal, in part, is to transport the listener to Highway 61, the Blues Highway, where blues history was made. Much of the recording was done on location, out of doors, along the highway.
There will be four CDs released by the time the project is done, covering the history of the blues and the length of Highway 61 from Memphis down to New Orleans in 61 well-known songs. (These first two CDs get us as far as Avalon, Mississippi, about a third of the way geographically.) Most of the songs are simply presented by Eddie and his guitar, with the natural sounds in the background as accompaniment. (I guess you could think of this as something like a blues version of the environmental new age CDs sold in airport gift shops - except these CDs are worth listening to.) Each song is chosen to fit the location. For example, here in the first two albums, we have the Memphis Jug Band's "Memphis Jug Blues," recorded in Robert Church Park at Beale and 4th in Memphis, Mississippi Fred McDowell's "61 Highway," in a pecan grove near Lake Cormorant, Mississippi, Robert Johnson's "Sweet Home Chicago," at the corner of Front Street and Old Commerce Road in Robinsonville, Mississippi, and Willie Dixon's "Little Red Rooster," at the site of the old Tallahatchie River Bridge in Swan Lake, Mississippi.
Eddie is a very good blues guitarist, and his love for these tunes is evident. (Who's going to go to all the trouble this project represents without passion?) He also has an agreeable and distictive baritone voice. This is good - after all, we have the original recordings. Eddie does stay close to the course, though; he is not "re-inventing" these songs. Willie Dixon's "Little Red Rooster" (as recorded by everybody) has all the right licks, even though they are on a solo guitar. On some of the tunes, he introduces the location or the song with a brief spoken sentence or two. For example, on Willie Brown's "M & O Blues," we hear cars going by on 61 as Eddie tells us we are outside of Coahoma, Mississippi. Then, he starts singing and playing his guitar while the sound of the cars accompanies him. Immediately after is a recording of Muddy Waters' "Country Blues" in a barn at Stovall plantation, where Muddy grew up. The location recording by Frank is clean and clear, and you can almost hear the heat in the air. Mississippi John Hurt's "Avalon Blues" starts with a car going by, ten feet from the front porch of the store where it was recorded. Occasional bird sounds add accents, and at one point you can hear a kerchuck, possibly a cash register or a distant car door. Frank Stoke's "Downtown Blues" is recorded in the back of a Memphis trolley, with rumbles and creaks, whistles and air brakes providing backup, and the conductor calling out "Next stop is Central Station!" at the end. And, true to the assertion, on the very next track, the brothers record Robert Wilkins' "That's No Way to Get Along" in the station where Wilkins worked as a Pullman porter. Songs like these are magical, even when the wind puffs the mike for some bass whumps.
Much of the project goes this way: clean recordings on location of Eddie and his guitar. Sometimes, additions have been made afterward in the studio. Eddie doubles up the guitar on Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe's "When the Levee Breaks" to give some of the richness of the original two-guitar recording. On Son House's "Depot Blues," he adds a vocal harmony line. These simple recordings of Eddie's fine voice and guitar, with discreet additions, are what make the CDs work.
When the arrangements get more complicated, and the work moves mostly or entirely inside into the studio, the results are less interesting. Eddie seems to be able play most anything, so we get to hear him on trumpet, keyboards, bass, and I am not sure what all. These additions come mostly when the tunes move forward in time, to capture Sam Cooke's "Bring It on Home to Me" or Jackie Brenston's (or is it Ike Turner's?) "Rocket 88." Again, Eddie and Frank stay close to the original arrangements, but the electronic keyboards, studio acoustics, and the loss of immediacy from multiple overdubs make these songs leaden compared to both the originals and the other songs on the CDs. The worst example is Louis Jordan's "Let the Good Times Roll," which should fly, but instead stumbles along. Little matter, these overblown songs are the minority. But if you have to pick between the two CDs (what, you're not buying both?!) then grab Volume 2; other than the Sam Cooke tune, this CD is pretty clean of excess.
This project-in-progress is a unique tribute to the musical history of the Mississippi delta. The CDs also make a swell introduction to this rich musical heritaqge. The booklets accompanying the CDs have copious notes about the artists and the recordings. (The Thomas brothers know and love this stuff.) Pick the songs you speak to you and explore further. Or, better yet, grab the CDs, take a drive down 61, and see and hear for yourself.
Volume 3, Mounds Landing to Crawford Street, is now available. We're in the heart of the Delta now. Charlie Patton, Jimmy Reed, Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup, Furry Lewis, Skip James, Elmore James, Willie Dixon - seventeen fine blues in all. Big Joe Williams' "Baby, Please Don't Go" is a standout, recorded by a barn in Rolling Fork, Mississippi. Can't wait to see what happens as the brothers get to New Orleans with Volume 4.
And here comes Volume 4, Catfish Row to Jackson Square. A wide-ranging album, from Louis Moreau Gottschalk and Lonnie Johnson to Jimmie Rodgers and Jelly Roll Morton (three songs!) to Leadbelly and Lester Young. And let's not forget Louis Armstrong, the godfather of us all. Lots of piano and trumpet this time around, as New Orleans dominates, the terminus of Highway 61 and the Thomas brothers' journey. My preference remains for the simple guitar-and-vocal songs, so I have to pick Volume 3 as the one to get if you are only getting one. But I'd hate to go without the beautiful slow version of "Jolie Blonde" here, or the fine guitar version of Gottschalk's "Bamboula" recorded in Congo Square. Or the beautiful old spiritual "Sweet Hour of Prayer" that ends this CD, slowly fading out into the sounds around St. Louis Cathedral.
to order Call 1-800-896-9892 (you are likely to talk to Eddie or Frank) or order online. For more information, see the Angels on the Backroads web site. See some movie clips of the recordings at Friends of the Iuka Public Library web site.
performers Eddie Thomas, guitar, vocals, bass, keyboards, trumpet, and so on
production Recorded mostly on location by Frank Thomas
Volume 1: Mississippi Bottom Blues · Downhearted Blues · Memphis Jug Blues · Boogie Woogie on St. Louis Blues · Downtown Blues · That's No Way to Get Along · Woman Blues Boogie · Memphis Blues · Rocket 88 · Mississippi Blues · Big Road Blues · When the Levee Breaks · Jim Jackson's Kansas City Blues · 61 Highway · Let the Good Times Roll · Shetland Pony Blues
Volume 2: Future Blues · Sweet Home Chicago · Cross Road Blues · Hollywood Rag · Born Blind · M & O Blues · Country Blues · Bring It On Home to Me · Ham Hound Crave · Depot Blues · Bullfrog Blues · Poor Boy Long Ways from Home · Special Streamline · Little Red Rooster · Pea Vine Blues · Avalon Blues