You Live in the Best of Times!

Your neighbor is a blues great, theres solid rockabilly on the local bill, and Rhino rereleases the Ramones

Sometimes—maybe once or twice a year, if you're lucky—you discover an album so fuckin' cool it moves you to ask, "WHO is this person? WHERE has he been all my life? And WHY didn't I hear about him before?" The encounter is made even more remarkable when the artist in question is living right in your midst, under your nose, on your beat, like some gold nugget buried in the back yard, waiting to be excavated.

FREDDIE BROOKS is a Costa Mesan by way of Phoenix and Wichita. The singer, harpist, bandleader and songwriter (yes, particularly a songwriter—a great songwriter, in the tradition of Lieber & Stoller or Doc Pomus) has just self-released what easily ranks as the best blues album I've heard so far this year—no small feat in a year of many, many fine blues CDs.

Rooted in the West Coast blues tradition of acts like Little Charlie & the Nightcats, Rod Piazza and the Mighty Flyers, and the James Harman Band, Brooks' One Little Word is one screamin' gem of manic energy, premium musicianship and transcendent tunesmithing. This humble-looking local with the graying temples, Ben Franklin glasses and prickly chin spinach is a world-class talent.

Brooks' harp style is light, fluid and swinging. He usually manages to avoid clichés—which ain't easy on blues harp—and his improvisations move in clever directions. His sound owes much to the usual suspects for West Coast blues guys—Little Walter and George Smith—but there's a powerful Sonny Boy Williamson II influence going on as well, best evidenced on the howling track "Boogie Bill."

As a vocalist, Brooks is limited but eminently expressive and honest. There's no minstrelsy; no shucking, jiving, embarrassing attempts to sound like a crusty old black guy from Mississippi. Brooks has an easy swing to his phrasing and a pleasant vibrato. There's a passion to his voice that lets you know he's feeling the words he's singing, rather than just going through the blues-lounge motions.

"Fun to Visit" is a great album opener; it jumps like Carl Lewis with fleas in his jeans and features classic double-entendre lyrics worthy of Wynonie Harris or Big Joe Turner: "Got a rocking horse and a pogo stick and an all-day sucker for you to lick—I'm fun to visit, fun to visit!" "So Damn Poor" is a swampy arm-wrestling match between Slim Harpo and Clarence Carter; "Jigsaw Puzzle" is a fervid, Otis Rush-flavored slow blues groove punctuated with lots of sweet, minor ninth-chord voicings; "Pale Hearted Woman" is a jazzy delight, with guitarist Jeff Ross mimicking T-Bone Walker note for note; "One Little Word" is a fun sidetrack into Western swing rhythm; "1000 Miles" channels the essence of Mose Allison; and the closing "First Day of April" comes off like a majestic, Brook Benton soul melodrama. In short, this is as eclectic a blues album as you'll find this side of Robert Jr. Lockwood.

While there's an excellent cast of supporting players on this CD, Brooks has no regular band: like many blues and jazz bandleaders, he uses a revolving revue of players from gig to gig, so it's difficult to gauge how much of One Little Word's splendid sound is captured in a live setting. But these are Brooks' songs, and that's his voice and harp you hear on the CD. So even if he had a crappy backup band on some given evening, he'd still have to be worth catching.

Meanwhile, One Little Word (co-produced by Brooks and Mighty Flyers' guitarist Rick Holmstrom) is available at Brooks' live shows (he plays Sunday afternoon at the Rusty Pelican) and through his Web site (www.kingace.com).

Like your rockabilly straight up—no frills, no nonsense? You could do a lot worse than catch HOT ROD LINCOLN on Saturday night at the Foothill. (Full disclosure: Hot Rod Lincoln is signed to Hootenanny Records, for whom I also record.) This San Diego-based trio have come a long way from their unassuming origins; when they first started out about six or seven years ago, Hot Rod Lincoln were so incompetent that mentioning their name elicited snickers among local fans.

No one's laughing anymore. On the heels of their third album, Blue Café, Hot Rod Lincoln have been touring the nation, picking up fans wherever they perform. While no one's ever going to accuse them of being blazingly original (even their choice of covers sometimes seems rather obvious—we do not need to hear any more versions of "Folsom Prison Blues" or "Lonesome Train on a Lonesome Track"), they have become among the solidest blue-collar 'billy bands on the circuit. It's almost impossible to reconcile snazzy, chop-slinging guitarist/singer Buzz Campbell with the rank novice he was a few short years ago; rarely has any musician evidenced so profound an evolution in such a short time span. Guess that's what you call learning on the job. Bassist/ singer Johnny G. d'Artenay has always been rock-steady, and with the addition of drummer Dave Bernson (ex-Billy Bacon & the Forbidden Pigs and the Blazers), Hot Rod Lincoln seemed to finally coalesce. The group's recent performance at Hootenanny (Del Mar version) was among the highlights of the day. Also, these are just about the nicest bunch of guys you're ever gonna meet, and you can't help but root for them as they continue to exceed expectations every year.

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