On one level What My Eyes Have Seen . . . is a tasteful, if pretty straightahead, electric blues album. But on another, it’s something remarkable. The difference lies in its sensitive presentation as John Blues Boyd’s memoir, folding together vignettes of both social commentary and personal reflections from a life that began in Mississippi in 1945. As such, it’s also a sharp reminder that the blues isn’t just a musical genre, it’s an expression of the African-American experience.
There are ten actual songs on display here, separated by a succession of brief interludes. These interludes blend a semi-spoken vocal with church-like organ, and together create a
sense of Boyd sitting in his chair, eyes closed in a state of reverie, drifting into the memories encapsulated in the songs, which have been written by various combinations of Boyd, producer Kid Andersen, and songwriter and label boss Guy Hale.
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The opening track ‘In My Blood’ sets out their musical stall, with a feel reminiscent of BB King, Andersen knocking out zinging guitar licks here and there, amid washes of organ and flares of sax. Boyd, meanwhile, sings of having the blues in his blood in a resonant, authoritative voice – perhaps not superlative, but his excellent diction is a real asset in communicating his story. The title track is slower and more soulful, with an unusual, pulsing and shifting rhythm and subtle sax underpinnings as Boyd starts to recall “oppression and injustice”, while Andersen chips in with another helping of excellent, expressive guitar.
‘I Heard The Blues’ recounts his discovery of the music over a halting riff led by Andersen, on Farfisa this time, while harp licks from Ryan Walker evoke the music that provided the epiphany. But ‘Ran Out Of Town’ provides a sharp contrast to that happy moment, with Boyd’s voice carrying a darker tone as he recalls that “in 1963 I had to leave my home” because of his support for the Civil Rights movement, over a shuffling tempo and tooting organ and sax, to which Andersen adds a typically precise, stinging guitar solo. In a similar vein, ‘Why Did You Take That Shot?’ recounts the shooting of Martin Luther King, with a reflective air redolent of picking up the news from a barroom TV, perhaps, all downbeat sax
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But then on a more domestic note, there’s the easy swing of ‘A Beautiful Woman (For Dona Mae)’, about Boyd’s love for his wife, and the later ‘Forty Nine Years’, a slow blues that contemplates the passing of “my woman and my best friend”, with rippling piano and guitar mingling with smoky saxophone. It’s elegiac but accepting – because he still has the memories – embellished by a lovely piano from Jim Pugh and some low-end guitar from Andersen.
In between these two fall ‘California’ and ‘The Singing Roofer’. The former is so jaunty it almost makes the sunshine audible as Boyd tells of moving west in 1978, while the latter is a jump blues full of swinging guitar and honking sax as he recalls that his day job is "doggone hard", but “when I start singing everybody shakes it loose”.
‘I Got To Leave My Mark’ summarises the motivating force for the album, with funky bass playing from Quantae Johnson and chiming piano from Pugh well to the fore, before a final interlude of ‘My Memory Takes Me There’ rounds things off in solemn fashion.
What My Eyes Have Seen . . . is John Blues Boyd’s story, and he tells it in clear, plain-spoken terms. But Guy Hale and Kid Andersen deserve credit for their role as joint midwives, delivering these vignettes from the 75-year old’s life with both empathy and style, making these musical memories stand out from the crowd.
What My Eyes Have Seen . . . is released by Gulf Coast Records on 4 March.
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