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Paul Geremia "Gamblin' Woman Blues" Red House Records

March 18, 1993|MIKE BOEHM

Like John Hammond, Taj Mahal and not many others, Paul Geremia has made a career of playing traditional, acoustic blues, usually alone with a guitar in his lap and a harmonica in a brace around his collar. Geremia (pronounced "Jeremiah") may have a lower profile--this is only the sixth album in a 25-year recording career--but this New Englander is no less of a talent. He knows the tradition of Robert Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Skip James so well that he can do what only the very best contemporary trad-blues players can: take this venerable style as a starting point for expressing a musical personality all their own. You won't encounter a guitarist with a more engagingly idiosyncratic sense of rhythm than Geremia, who incorporates ragtime as well as Delta blues influences. As a singer, he is a skilled character actor who sees the blues song as a living form of comic or dramatic monologue that's about the people in it, not as a static hand-me-down to be re-enacted in the style of the singers who first created it. Consequently, the eight vintage covers here, as well as the four originals, breathe with life.

If the estimable Hammond (who doesn't write original songs) embodies the blues at its darkest, most driven and crazily wired, Geremia's blues more often amble with a light, hopping gait and wear a grin--a grin, judging from the amiably blurry drawl on many of these tracks, that may have been aided by bottled spirits. Del Long's blithe piano plinking further energizes several cuts. But Geremia's wryness does not trivialize the meaning that courses through one of the most thematically cohesive traditional blues albums you'll encounter.

The album opens with the original title song, in which Geremia celebrates a love he's sure will endure and sustain him. He then embarks on a journey through some of the uncertainties, pitfalls, traps and obsessions that can undermine our lives--even if he does seize upon the humor in many of the precarious situations involved.

We meet the "Cocaine Princess" ("Thank God you don't snort up the Mason-Dixon line"), the woman isolated by her own social snootiness ("Nobody's Sweetheart Now"), the gambling addict of "Skin Game Blues" and the merrily dedicated booze-hound of "Good Liquor Gonna Carry Me Down." Each song is a tragedy wrapped in a comedy.

Down the homestretch, though, Geremia lets us know that tragedy is, well, tragic. In "One More Last Time," the romantic certitude of "Gamblin' Woman Blues" has vanished as he asks, "One more last time, will I doubt my love for you?" He broadens the scope with another original, "The Things That Used to Matter," a lament for what he sees as lost values and lost gumption in the nation that gave birth to the blues and the New Deal. Switching to the piano, keeping the music jaunty, singing with a voice that hides a razor blade in his customary cotton, Geremia envisions the Statue of Liberty turning on her pedestal in disgust at her greedy, whining family:

Yeah, it's lucky for us Miss Liberty still stands facing toward the sea.

If she saw what went on behind her back, she'd forsake you and me

Saying, 'Where's your guts and soul? Take care your own! Clean up your own back yard!

If it's a fight you want, there's one right here

To ease these times so hard.'

This album is a valuable and engaging reminder that, in the right kind of conservator's hands, the traditional acoustic blues is not a mere artifact, but a well of insights.

(Red House Records, P.O. Box 4044, St. Paul, Minn. 55104)

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