Veteran blues-rocker Bernie Marsden has just released his second blues solo album in one year. Chess, released on November 26th, is the follow-up to his Kings album from July 23rd, in which he specifically paid homage to Albert King, BB King and Freddie King, three of the most influential blues guitarists in history – the first new solo material he had released since Shine in 2014, which featured a laudable guest spot from his old Whitesnake bandmate David Coverdale. This time, he spreads his net somewhat wider, with covers of some of the iconic blues recordings to be released on the classic Chicago blues label Chess Records. Marsden sees these as the first two albums of a series he is calling Inspirations, and says that the project grew out of a conversation he had backstage in 2019 with Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top. “Wouldn’t it be great if we could all record the songs we grew up with as we learned to play the guitar?” said Gibbons – well it might be a tall order, but Marsden decided to have a go at it, and these two blues albums are the fruits of his labours so far.
The lineup is largely the same, with Jim Russell on drums and John Gordon on bass, with harmonica supplied by Alan Glen – he has added a keyboard player for this session though, in the shape of Bob Haddrell, Glen’s bandmate in both The Barcodes and The Incredible Blues Puppies. Bernie himself handles the vocals and all the guitar parts and the result is a really full sound and pin-sharp production, with plenty of variation in the tones employed by the guitars, the harp, (which switches between clear notes and full-on, raunchy, overdriven power), and even by the bass, which sounds suspiciously like an acoustic upright on occasion.
All of which sounds very laudable, but I can’t shake the feeling that Marsden just hankered for days of old, when you could turn up with a bunch of mates and have a good, old-fashioned blues jam. I mean, Gary Moore put a lot of effort into writing some great, hard-hitting rock songs back in the day, but when he reverted to playing some basic 12-bar inspired by Peter Green and Fleetwood Mac, his career seemed to switch up a gear as the complexity of the tracks clicked down. And for all Bernie Marsden’s great contribution to the history of rock, writing or co-writing Whitesnake classics like Here We Go Again and Fool For Your Loving, it’s just so nostalgic to hear him and his cronies slamming out some traditional 1970s-style pub rock.
Set opener Just Your Fool was written by no less a luminary than harp supremo Little Walter, with Alan Glen demostrating a tremulous, highly controlled harp style, in contrast to some of the following numbers, where he lets loose with a fat, fuzzy sound that bowls along like a hurricane. Back in the USA at track 2 is clearly Chuck Berry material, although it probably says something about my musical influences, or perhaps my tenuous grasp of real, grass-roots blues, that it’s not a Chuck Berry track I was previously familiar with. In fact, most of these songs I either didn’t know, or else knew from early ‘80s covers from the likes of the Paul Jones-fronted Blues Band. The next two tracks for instance, Grits Ain’t Groceries, penned by the relatively obscure Titus Turner, and I’m Ready from Willie Dixon, are known to me almost exclusively from their Blues Band renditions. Marsden’s version of Grits Ain’t Groceries is a lot more upbeat than the Blues band’s fairly stern version, whereas he plays I’m Ready with a bit more feel and a bit less boogie, including some neat vocal harmonies.
And so it goes on, with covers of songs from the likes of Elmore James, Sonny Boy Williamson, and even sneaking in Won’t be Hanging Around from Albert King, which evidently wasn’t included on the Kings track list. Who’s Been Talking is a cover of a Chester Burnett song, but to me it’s a dead ringer for Loved Another Woman by Fleetwood Mac, which is an indicator of how these songs tended to do the rounds and morph and change into other songs, which is kind of how the blues works – and how Led Zeppelin managed to include bits and pieces of so many existing songs and pass them off as new compositions. It means that a set of decent blues players can get together and make a great sound, because they always know where the track is heading, even if they’ve never heard it before.
The set concludes with two original numbers inspired by the Chess classics, which are really short 12-bar jams, which give Marsden a chance to stretch out and just play the blues. Cor, those were the days. Makes me want to pull my old amp out of the shed, plug in and turn up. In fact, I think I might just do that.