Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Album review: Clay Swafford – Rooster

Good day!

This CD review was originally published in the July 25, 2013 edition of Blues Blast Magazine. Be sure to check out the rest of the magazine at thebluesblast.com

Clay Swafford – Rooster

Lost Cause Records



14 tracks / 48:56

I am a huge boogie-woogie fan, but also understand that this kind of blues music might not be everybody’s cup of tea. However, if you are a fan of the blues you are shortchanging yourself if you write off the genre completely, especially with artists like Clay Swafford out there. This young man is the real deal and the maturity, talent and emotion he displays with his performance on his debut album, Rooster, will make a believer out of you.

Clay Swafford was born in 1983, but this pianist is not new to the blues and boogie-woogie scene. Raised in rural Alabama, he discovered the blues at 15 (Otis Spann with Muddy Waters, no less), and by the time he was 16 he was on stage at the Pinetop Perkins Homecoming Celebration. At the age of 20 he was featured in the boogie-woogie piano documentary, Falsifyin, alongside established legends such as Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis. Both of these men recognized Swafford’s talent and were quite vocal about their respect for his talent. Since then he has played at festivals and clubs all over the south, both by himself and with established artists, such as the late Willie “Big Eyes” Smith.

For Rooster, Swafford did things his own way, dragging an old upright piano into the studio and miking it well. There is no digital wizardry or overdubs, so everything you hear is exactly the way it sounded when he laid it down, with every rattle, overtone and pop caught on tape for posterity. And it is glorious! The first eleven tracks include five originals, and he is joined by the lovely Texan Diunna Greenleaf on five of the covers. No drums, bass or guitar, just a piano master and one of the best blues singers out there.

“Rooster’s Boogie” is a short warm-up track that gives a preview of what Clay is capable of, which includes wielding a left hand that is like the hammer of Thor and a right hand that moves so fast that it sounds like there are two guys sitting on the piano bench. Pinetop Perkins said of Swafford, “I have ten fingers; it looks like he has twenty! He’s tearing the keys down on that piano, man!”

From there he alternates original instrumentals with cover tunes that feature Greenleaf, the first of which is Big Joe Turner’s “29 Ways.” After Turner’s original, this is by far my favorite version of this classic. If you are not familiar with Diunna, it is time you made your acquaintance with this living legend. Her voice is amazingly powerful, and the raw recording style of this disc conveys her inflections and emotions beautifully.

The standout original track on Rooster is “Olympic Strut,” because Swafford is able to slow things down from the usual breakneck boogie-woogie tempo and the listener gets a chance to focus on the feel of his astounding right hand work. He also keeps the speed down for Willie Mae Thornton’s “Sometimes I Have a Heartache,” which Diunna just tears to pieces. The heart that she puts into her singing is a high mark that any up and coming blues singer should aspire to measure up to.

Rooster finishes up with three neat bonus tracks. Clay recorded the first two in Clarksdale, Mississippi with his buddy, singer/guitarist Bob Margolin. They laid down their own versions of Muddy Waters’ “Mean Disposition” and Elmore James’ “Fine Little Mama” that feature Margolin’s gorgeous slide guitar work and his well-weathered voice. The final track is a live cut of “Tin Pan Alley” with Swafford joining Bob Corritone and the All Stars from the Rhythm Room in Phoenix, Arizona. These tracks show how well Clay plays with others, and that he is not a one-trick pony.

Whether you are a boogie-woogie fan or not, if you enjoy the blues and/or slick piano playing there is something for you to like in Clay Swafford’s Rooster. By the way, if you do like what you hear and decide to buy the album, be sure to read the liner notes, as there are neat tidbits about all of the tracks. This is a fabulous first effort, and surely there will be great things to come for this prodigy!


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