Full disclosure – I don’t really know a lot about the blues. While it’s a style of music that clearly pervades so much of what I choose to listen to, I’ve rarely dug into the genre proper beyond a few of, I guess, “the classics”. And that’s despite having played in a blues band for a number of years in my late teens.
That was when I first met Darren Watson, one of New Zealand’s blues greats. Though he really was just a few years older than us, his exemplary talent and relative success with Smokeshop was an inspiration, and he was always available as a mentor, with encouragement, and slinging a few support gigs our way here and there.
Watson’s never gone away, always working, producing an album every few years, each better than the last (2010’s Saint Hilda’s Faithless Boy was one of my favourite albums of that year, a real highlight of Watson’s career up to that point). But you’d likely be hard pressed to find that many people who were aware of or had heard his music; especially outside of Wellington. A living musical treasure who, for the most part, never troubled the average Kiwi.
Until ‘Planet Key’. Watson’s never been politically silent; he’s a passionate lefty, and the last six years of this National government have seen him more and more outspoken on issues he cares about. So, in the lead up to this year’s election he released ‘Planet Key’, a satirical song poking fun at the Prime Minister, accompanied by a scything video.
Suddenly, Watson’s name was back in the media, on the radio and television. Comment, discussion, a “quite professionally done” review from John Key himself. Then a complaint to the Electoral Commission, a decision that the song was an election advertisement that required a promoter statement, a subsequent ban on airplay, leading to even more discussion and debate. Until eventually a day in court. “I fought the law… and the judge reserved their decision”, as Watson himself says.
All the while Watson was putting the finishing touches on his latest album, the crowd-funded, home-recorded, Introducing Darren Watson. The title itself a little joke, surely. A welcome to all the people who’ve either forgotten about Watson or never heard of him at all over the three decades he’s been slinging his guitar and singing the blues until ‘Planet Key’ thrust his name, face and voice back into their awareness.
But the title also fits, because if you’ve never heard Watson’s brand of versatile, grooving blues then Introducing… is a damn fine place to start. Because on this latest album Watson’s continued his growth as a musician and songwriter to produce what is surely his best album yet.
It almost goes without saying that Watson’s an excellent guitar player, whether locking down a slow blues jam on an acoustic, or bending the notes with a sexy shimmer while soloing on the electric. Yet on Introducing… he’s slinging that axe better than ever, accompanied by a sympathetic, not-too-clean production that lets you hear the bends, the pick hitting the strings, the rattle and hum on the frets; intimate nuanced, exciting, and very bluesy.
Even more than the guitar playing, however, is the singing. Watson’s voice is finer than I’ve ever heard it before, across this album’s ten songs. Age continues to mellow and roughen his voice, a sultry timbre slinking into tenor voice, adding a soulful turn to the little tremolos and lifts that mark the singing of a fine blues vocalist.
And the songs – ten of them, eight self-penned by Watson with two more from the great Bill Lake. Funny and smart, with a lot of sexy sass – ‘Slow Cooker’, in particular, does that sultry thing of taking a song about food and making it just shy of being obscenely, hilariously filthy – “oh, please, baby spread the salt on the fish, you know I like to taste that thing.” But also, happy; apart from the two gorgeous, slower Lake songs (‘Thought I’d Seen It All’ and ‘I Wanna Be With You’) the songs on Introducing Darren Watson are mostly sweet, fun and uplifting. I suspect Darren’s in love, and it’s showing…
His band on the album is great too; just as much as Watson’s guitar it feels impossible to imagine this album sounding so superb without the rambunctious piano playing or soulful Hammond of Alan Norman. Or, perhaps even more so, the shuffle and groove bought along by Richard Te One’s drumming – a particular stylistic flourish of Watson is a blues grove that shuffles and almost stumbles, drawing your body with the beat until you’re dancing almost unconsciously, and that just wouldn’t happen without the drummer finding a groove to lock it all in and move the beat forwards while the song sways above.
Introducing Darren Watson is a great album, a fun, fantastically produced and performed blues album that will provide a great summer accompaniment, for listening to in the ‘Southern Sunshine’, as Watson himself celebrates on one of the album’s most upbeat tracks.
And it’s available now, from Watson’s bandcamp page. Get it. And head there now to check out how it sounds – normally at this point I’d embed a video; but so far none have come out for any of the songs on Introducing…, so I’ll leave it up to your own ears.
Beer Match: A groovy, fun blues album needs a fun, easy-drinking beer; something to enjoy on the deck on a summer’s afternoon as it pumps out of the stereo. And something local, too – a Wellington beer for a Wellington musician. I’d take this album out on the deck with a glass of ParrotDog’s ‘FlaxenFeather’, a smooth, easy-drinking, 4.7% golden ale, with just enough fruity hop flavours to keep the taste buds tingling while you put your feet up and soak in the blues with a smile.