Right off the bat, longtime fans will notice the new-and-improved bomb-ass beats, perfect for "smobbing the back streets." And C-Fresh has elevated his rapping skills, especially on "Shining Star," his tribute to a candy-painted Impala. Of course, the backbone of I.M.P.'s ghetto flava is Cougnut's distinctive voice, which growls and rips through verses like a hungry pit bull on songs like "Public Execution," "Last Breath," and "Don't Get It Twisted." One of the best Bay Area rap albums this year, Ill Mannered Playas might just let the rest of the country in on what has been one of Frisco's best-kept secrets.

-- Eric K. Arnold

Alvin Youngblood Hart
Big Mama's Door

Fed up with sound-alike axemen who cop their licks directly from electrified scorchers such as Albert Collins or Buddy Guy, raw blues enthusiasts often turn to preamplified reissues for their down-home fix. Given the steady stream of deep-rooted compilations available from labels like Legacy, Yazoo, and Fantasy, it's easier to turn to Bessie Smith, Mississippi John Hurt, and Lightnin' Hopkins than to plow through the racks in hope of finding a distinctive keeper of the flame. True, you can't beat Hopkins for bare-bones authenticity, but youthful Bay Area bluesman Alvin Youngblood Hart is about to skew the paradigm.

Drenched in the marshlands of the Mississippi Delta, yet resonant with a mighty, original voice, Hart's debut, Big Mama's Door packs more meat on the bone than any platter in Alligator's overhyped, house-rockin' hall of shufflers. Though thoroughly versed in the backwoods traditions, Hart doesn't adhere to one single school. He performs "Hillbilly Willie's Blues," by 12-string Georgia strutter Blind Willie McTell, and "Pony Blues," by granddaddy of the Delta idiom Charlie Patton, with reverence, soulfulness, and, most significantly, invention.

The multi-instrumentalist attacks "Hillbilly" on banjo, saving his 12-string chops for the solid original "Them Fair Weather Friends" and two classics, "Things 'Bout Comin' My Way" and the chugging "Gallows Pole," which dusts Jimmy Page and Robert Plant's worthy Unledded rendition. Also a formidable presence on lap steel and the standard six-string, Hart recalls Taj Mahal in his gutsy country blues interpretations: staying true to the spirit of the originals but maintaining a modernist's conviction that the music is relevant today. Not surprisingly, a formidable Taj accompanies Hart on a few tracks, notably hard-picking pure smoke on the mandolin for a chunky "France Blues." In the liner notes, Taj Mahal sets the record straight: "As the old folks would say, 'Boy got thunder in his hands!' "

Alvin Youngblood Hart plays Friday, May 24, at the Fillmore, 1805 Geary, S.F.; call 346-6000.

-- Sam Prestianni

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