Album Review: Jackie Venson’s “Jackie Venson Live”

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by James Fleming

The label “indie” gets thrown around a lot these days. It emerged in the 80’s as a term for bands who were on an independent record label, a band who were kicking ass and taking names and doing it on their own terms. It was a useful signpost towards a really interesting and exciting alternative.

Now, in the 21st century, it’s come to mean a watered down “alternative.” Pseudo-soul and lyrics so shrouded in “metaphor” they’re buried deep in the writer’s own arsehole.

So, you’ll forgive me when I say I cringed when I saw the term “indie-blues” attached to this record. If any two genres have been misused and abused, it’s indie and the blues. Both have suffered a terrible watering-down at the hands of the major record labels and misguided young groups shooting for stardom. The term didn’t exactly fill me with excitement…

Jackie Venson though, a Berkeley educated pianist before she decided to pick up the guitar, grabs the raw soul of the blues and the inventiveness of the original indie pioneers and melds them together in the most thrilling example of mongrel music I have come across in a long time. Thank God.

Jackie Venson Live captures the pure, undiluted thrill of great music in a performance setting. Venson herself is clearly as enthralled by her audience as they are by her. Her recorded onstage banter doesn’t sound forced or rehearsed, and there’s a spontaneity to her playing that’s difficult to find even among supposedly accomplished blues players.

Very often, these players confine themselves to a pentatonic scale box. Which, I grant you, worked very well for BB King. But sounds merely ripped off in lesser hands.

Venson is as inclined to bust out a squall of delay-soaked Hendrix-style feedback as she is to play scorching pentatonic licks. She can go from smooth to red raw, blues to soul to reggae, often in the space of three to four minutes.

Lost in Time is almost dub. And her flaming guitar solo, complete with the aforementioned feedback, is a thing to behold. As is her scat singing on opener Show My Light, where she channels Rory Gallagher’s own scat singing from Live! In Europe, matching her guitar’s notes perfectly.

Ultimately though, it’s her courage in her approach to music that really captures the listener. She merges blues, rock, reggae, soul and jazz into a universal style that’s distinctly American but with an international edge. And its a sharp edge that she wields with deft skill and grace.

In a time where purists abound, it’s refreshing to hear such experimentation being so well received by the audience. The crowd explode into applause after every solo, which was wisely left on the recording.

A live album is a tricky one to pull off. The benchmark is high and so are the expectations. But, Venson pulls it off. In her own inimitable style no less.

Jackie Venson is a master. But she’s a master who’s not afraid to jam on that whammy bar or step on that pedal to get a sound you haven’t heard before. And people are scared of anything different. Hopefully, we’ll overcome our fears the way she overcame her guitar. And we will all benefit from it.

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