Album Review of Johnny Never: Blue Delta
I’ll admit that, while I am a blues fan, I’m not well-versed in identifying the specific styles of blues, nor do I have an awareness of their varied histories. But I enjoy it, and I know what good blues sounds like. I also know Johnny Never plays a very specific style of blues, and that he is an exceptional purveyor of his style of blues. Still, I’ll have to accept the press information that this is Delta Blues but played in a Piedmont finger-style. I include that for readers to whom that means something. For the rest of us, Johnny Never’s Blue Delta is an absolutely top-shelf collection of a very specific style of blues.
You’ll find eight originals and five covers on this album.
Disc-opener “Blue Delta Blues,” a Johnny Never original, kicks things off with the sort of crooning warble, something you might recall if you’re old enough to have played your parents’ (or grandparents’) old 45s, with a warmth yet an almost grainy quality reminiscent of sitting in front of the speakers while listening to AM radio. It has a cool groove, a toe-tapping rhythm, and a nostalgic catchiness.
A harmonica drives another original, “Black Smart Phone,” while some guitar plucking provides texture behind Johnny’s somewhat gravelly croon.
Among the covers, I enjoy the almost vaudevillian flavor of Johnny’s energetic rendition of Robert Johnson’s “Last Fair Deal.” Johnny adds a shaky howl to his delivery of Son House’s “Death Letter.”
Original “Shake It Up and Boogie” is bit of a jam, with harmonica wailing and loose guitar picking supporting a number befitting a mid-sized room and a stage, especially as you picture the backup singers leaning in to echo “shake it up and boogie.” Its album placement is clearly by design, as it shares a similar rhythm to Johnny’s rendition of Tommy Johnson’s “Canned Heat.”
“Falls Off the Bone (Blues in 7/8)” has an intriguing rhythm, with Johnny’s vocals seeming to run long at times, start late at others. He seems to ignore the expected vocal pocket throughout the song but artfully, in a way that makes the song a compelling listen. And again I suspect song placement on the album was purposeful, as it almost seamlessly flows into Johnny’s version of Roosevelt Sykes’ “44 Blues.”
The disc continues with strength and variety, with the big blues sound of “Witherin’ Heat Blues,” the heartbreaking dirge-like emotion of “Whiskey Glass,” and the intricate picking-driven sway of “Dark Night Blues (Murdoch Blues).”
The penultimate track on the album, Johnny’s version of Big Bill Broonzy’s “Hey Hey,” has a nice travelling-song feel, an energetic near-final number that leans into Johnny’s hoarse vocal delivery – sounding as if he’s tunefully hoarse at the end of a long night of singing the blues – to deliver a tune that’ll get the joint hopping just before last call.
And that last call, Johnny’s original “Blue Eyed Girl,” can perhaps be that song of lament that sends you home at the end of the night. Or on to the next album (or Blue Delta on repeat) because, you know, this is a record and not a late night at the club.
Beginning to end, Blue Delta is constantly on-point. Especially on the more sparsely-instrumented numbers, I can see Johnny sitting in that folder chair on the beach, as on the album cover, just strumming, plucking, and crooning, though these songs are all equally well-suited to 2:00 in the morning at a dimly lit blues joint. Blue Delta is a solid recommendation for blues fans, regardless of whether or not you know “Delta blues” by name.