For this active listening exercise I chose a 5-song set influenced by the blues. I always think of the blues as the great grandfather of modern music. Since it started in the late 1800s in Mississippi, the blues has influenced many genres of modern music: country, jazz and rock to name a few.
Understanding the foundation of what makes a great blues track can help you play, improvise and write songs in many other genres. The five songs chosen for this set demonstrate how blues elements can be found in widely different sounding songs.
So, open your ears and join me for some great new blues-y tunes.
Some Cold Rainy Day by Sleepy Eyes Nelson
The 5 Song Set opens with a prototypical blues song. This song has all the elements of a classic blues track, and nothing else.
It’s recorded in a lo-fi way that makes you almost wonder if you have time-travelled back to 1930s deep south. That lo-fi twangey guitar sound, the relaxed male vocals, simple blues scale solos and 8-bar I-IV-V chord progression all help to create that well-known bluesy feel.
The Standard by Jeff Collins
On first listen you might wonder why this track is on a bluesy playlist. It’s certainly a big change from the classic blues of the previous track in this set. This one has a much more modern blues rock sound to it.
The pulsing bass-line and light banjo and guitar accompaniment allow the listener to focus on the vocals and lyrics. Listen for how the addition of backing vocals in the second verse reinforces the lead singer’s part and adds variety without distracting from the central narrative of the lyrics. You can hear an electric organ here and there too, another blues staple.
On The Road (Not Again) by John Meeks
This track has more of a country blues feel to it (or “night-time Mexican desert surf-y exotica” as the band put it!) but it’s a real blend of genres.
The fiddle accompaniment in the right stereo channel and the vocal harmonies and pronunciation in the chorus clearly say “country” while the lead guitar pushes the track towards blues rock with its gentle distortion and occasional pitch bends. The vocals are so soft and slow in the verses it sounds like indie rock, and then the yearning chorus melody brings it back strongly to country territory.
Bellevue by Royal Chant
This song has a really fun upbeat, jive feel to it. Despite the serious nature of the lyrics, this song makes you want to get up and dance! Notice how the rhythm guitar slightly anticipates the beat and interplays with the vocal rhythm to create this exciting upbeat feel from the outset even when it’s just a very simple vocal + guitar combo.
The mix of this song is unusual, with the drum kit quiet and muted while the vocal and guitar are much more present. The reverb on the main vocals and subdued percussion create quite an empty, spacious sound. Having the drum kit muted and the guitar mixed off to one side gives the song a distinctive sound and allows the lead vocal to stand out clearly throughout the track.
What do you think: would you call this one “blues”?
Bad Bad Dream by Marble Boy
Listen to that classic left-right alternation of bass-and-chord in the piano parts in the intro! This continues through the first two verses before a slower-paced waltz-like spin on the same kind of arrangement in the 6/8 chorus, moving into pounding block chords at the end of the chorus. Discordant seventh chords give the track a bluesy/jazzy flair.
I love the dominance of the piano in this song. The lead singer has a strong distinctive voice, and the heavy-handedness of the piano part provides a rock-solid foundation for her vocals to float over the top. Although the lyrics are fast-paced the underlying melody actually moves quite slowly. The changing time signature brings great variety to the track, it feels like a real emotional journey from start to finish.
This 5 song set is a great demonstration of the variety and influence the blues has on other genres. Now that you’ve opened you ears to the blues, listen out for its influence in other genres you enjoy.