Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Bernie Marsden - Chess

In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a whole spate of covers albums and tribute albums pouring forth right now, a lot of them by big name artists.  Bernie Marsden has already contributed to it this summer with his album Kings, a tribute to BB, Albert and Freddie.  And before you can say “sweet home Chicago” he’s back with the second volume in his Inspirations series, Chess, reflecting the influence of classic blues label Chess Records.
This, I would suggest, is a different kind of proposition from its predecessor.  Whereas the focus with Albert and Freddie King, if less so BB, often lay on their guitar playing, the Chess material
"Where do I plug this in then?"
Pic by Fabio Gianardi
Marsden has selected here tends to be of a simpler, more singer and song-led nature.  And on some tracks, it seems to me, that presents our Bernie with a bit of a challenge in the vocal department.
Marsden is a good singer, but I doubt if even he'd claim that he’s a great one.  But the issue isn’t so much quality, as personality.  On ‘I’m Ready’ he lacks Muddy Waters’ resonance, so that if he sounds laid back about being ready, it’s possibly out of necessity as much as choice – though he opts to chuck in some double-tracked/harmonised vocal lines that add a different flavour.  On ‘You Can’t Judge A Book By The Cover’, which rattles along nicely on a skiffle-esque drum rhythm, and features a zinging guitar break, he can’t really match the oomph brought to the tune by Bo Diddley.  And while Chuck Berry wasn’t the most powerful of singers, the twinkle in his eye always came across, whereas on ‘Back In The USA’ Bernie sounds – well, too English really.
These examples aside though, Marsden shows the kind of feel for the material that you’d expect, right from the opening ‘Just Your Fool’, on which Alan Glen’s harmonica is much to the fore, reflecting the song’s origins with the harp legend Little Walter, while jangling piano and some bursts of organ from Bob Hadrell decorate the simple R’n’B riff, and Marsden contents himself with a brief, patient, but piercing solo to close.  Little Milton’s ‘Grits Ain’t Groceries’ is a given nice working over, with a modern sound and a punchy arrangement.  Jim Russell’s shuffling drums and John Gordon’s bass bring hints of funk, complemented by peals of organ from Hadrell, while Marsden gets himself into a vocal zone that’s satisfyingly strong and soulful.  On ‘I Can’t Hold On’ he finds similar vocal attack to go with some big, ringing slide guitar to do justice to Elmore James – all and sundry sounding as if they’re having fun as they suggest a singalong vibe with the “Talk to me baby” segment.
They do some slow stuff nicely too, firstly on ‘Won’t Be Hanging Around’, where a touch of reverb on the vocals helps him to produce extra feeling to go with some tasteful, on the money guitar interjections.  Meanwhile on ‘Who’s Been Talking’ Bernie wisely opts for a regretful vocal tone rather than competing with the weighty bitterness of Howlin’ Wolf, while successfully ‘British-bluesifying’ the song in a spooky and melancholy Peter Green fashion, courtesy of bags of sustain in his guitar tone and some haunting organ from Hadrell.
There are a couple of brief, self-penned instrumentals.  ‘Lester’ features some discordant guitar work counterpointed by the organ, over a snappy backbeat, while ‘Johnny’ is a strutting affair akin to the Fabulous Thunderbirds ‘Wait On Time’.  But nifty as they may be,  both tracks are fairly perfunctory.
Chess doesn’t perform any kind of alchemical transformation of its base material, but it’s a pleasing and respectful nod to some of Bernie Marsden’s inspirations.  But as I’ve suggested before, I’d prefer to hear him plough some fresh blues-rocking ground.
Chess is released by Conquest Music in association with Little House Music on 26 November, and can be ordered here.
Bernie Marsden has released a YouTube video about the making of Chess, with snippets from the songs, which you can watch here.

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