Your Complete Guide to the Chicago Blues Scene
Tongue 'N Groove Records
By Robin Zimmerman
From Bukka White’s incarceration in “Parchman Farm Blues” to melancholy tunes about the Mississippi River Flood of 1927, the blues has long served to capture historically significant moments. The same principal holds true today—and the recently released Blues Immigrant by Matthew Skoller offers sound proof of the genre’s ability to accurately convey events of the era.
While the word “immigrant” might give the impression that Skoller is a new arrival on the Chicago blues scene, that’s not the case. Skoller came to the city from New York in the late eighties and has played harp with an impressive list of artists.
Skoller’s blues resume includes an apprenticeship with Jimmy Rogers before moving on to the big leagues with names like Big Daddy Kinsey, Big Time Sarah, the Chi-Town Hustlers, Deitra Farr and many others. He has also produced a pair of award-winning albums for Lurrie Bell. Skoller continues to be in demand as a bandleader and headliner at clubs in Chicago and around the world.
A busy bluesman who won’t let any grass grow under his feet, Skoller has co-produced and played on the (R)Evolution Continues, which won “Traditional Blues Album of the Year” at the 2012 Blues Music Awards in Memphis. He also collaborated with his brother, Larry, to produce the Grammy-nominated Chicago Blues, a Living History.
As a keen observer of the current scene, Skoller touches on timely topics ranging from big box stores to climate change in Blues Immigrant. The opening track, “Big Box Blues” was adapted from Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Welfare Store Blues.” Here, in addition to his always peerless harp work, Skoller riffs on these behemoth operations and laments the fact that “they come to Chicago and shut down every mom and pop store in town.”
In Blues Immigrant, Skoller also keeps his rep as a highly regarded bandleader intact. He has assembled an impressive cast of talented artists on this new release. In an interview in Chicago Blues Guide, Skoller said that, “I wanted a CD that reflected decades of collaboration with most of the musicians on it and think we accomplished all of that.”
Musicians on Blues Immigrant include Johnny Iguana on keyboards, Felton Crews on bass and Marc Wilson on drums. Giles Corey, Eddie Taylor, Jr. and Carlos Johnson are the trio of guitarists showcased on various tracks. Mike Avery and Stevie Robinson handle background vocals.
Skoller penned the title song on Lurrie Bell’s 2012 Delmark disc “The Devil Ain’t Got No Music” and garnered a “Song of the Year” nomination at the Blues Music Awards. Skoller gives his own spin on the second track of Blues Immigrant. Here, Skoller’s world-weary delivery and deep harmonica grooves help give this new version of “Devil” its dues.
The title track, “Blues Immigrant,” is a highly personal take on Skoller’s own blues experience. As he sings, “I need a green card to play the blues,” Skoller is also calling attention to what he has called, “the elephant in the room.” As a white man playing the blues, Skoller feels that it is extremely important to study the history of the genre and address the fact that his relationship to the music “will always be different than that of an African-American artist whether they are from L.A. or Mississippi.”
The next tune, “Only in the Blues” is something that artists of all creeds and colors can relate to. Although humorous in nature, it tackles the subject of how difficult it is for blues artists to make a living. Skoller’s words of “His girlfriend is his manager. His brother books the gigs. Ex-old lady does the website and supports his only kid,” should ring true with anyone trying to make rent while working as a musician.
The homage to helpmates continues again on the ninth track in Blues Immigrant. “My Get it Done Woman” is a catchy little number with the refrain “mama don’t waste no time” sure to stick in your head.
“Tear Collector” is a timeless lament about the lady who “stole his tears,” making him feel as if “nothing’s gonna be all right.” With lyrics like, “She’s always warm in winter and loves it when it rains. She’s a cold-blooded woman with thunder in her veins,” Skoller’s song-writing skills are on full display. Skoller, along with Vincent Bucher, crafted most of the tunes on Blues Immigrant and also produced the CD.
Skoller deftly shifts back to music of a topical nature in his “Story of Greed.” With Standing Rock protests in North Dakota, climate change and big-money machinations in the news, lines such, as “Your contempt for the poor and your noblesse oblige. Mother Earth will remove you. Like a dog does its fleas,” really hits home. Brian Ritchie (from Violent Femmes) plays shakuhachi (a Japanese flute) on this track.
“747” is one of three high-powered covers on Blues Immigrant. This take on Haskell “Cool Papa” Sadler’s song made famous by Joe Louis Walker is a fun flight of fancy. Skoller’s harp skills are again front and center on Luther Johnson’s “Get Down to the Nitty Gritty” as well as instrumental versions of Skoller’s own “Organ Mouth” and Papa Lightfoot’s “Blue Lights.”
Whether it’s a well-crafted cover or a modern-day protest song, Skoller’s new release leads the listener on a multi-faceted melodic journey every track of the way. With each play, Blues Immigrant seems destined to garner enthusiastic stamps of approval from the global blues community. By the same token, Skoller deserves credit for making the trek west from his childhood home in Brooklyn to help keep the Chicago blues tradition alive and viable for years to come.
For info or to buy the CD:
For info or to buy the CD: