ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, MAY 25, 2000
By Steve Newton
Until now, Alvin Youngblood Hart has been best-known as an acoustic folk-blues performer. His first two albums—1996’s Big Mama’s Door and 1998’s Territory—showed him carrying a traditional torch similar to that of blues revivalists Taj Mahal and Guy Davis. So it comes as quite a surprise that the Oakland-born musician is rocking out with an electric guitar on his new CD, Start With the Soul. The transformation is no big deal to him, though.
“It’s nothing new or anything,” he points out from a payphone at a Berkeley café. “The thing was, I’d just sorta made a conscious decision back in 1984 to concentrate on solo folk music, so by now it was gettin’ a little stale.”
Start With the Soul is partially dedicated to former Thin Lizzy leader Phil Lynott, and includes a cover of a tune by ’70s southern-rockers Black Oak Arkansas. Does anybody out there remember “Jim Dandy to the Rescue”? Well, Hart does. But he recorded BOA’s “Cryin’ Shame” instead.
“I thought that would really set me apart, man,” he says, chuckling. “But it’s a great song anyway—the content is just really cool. And when we were talkin’ about it we found out that Jim Dickinson, who produced my record, has known [BOA singer] Jim Dandy for 30-plus years, so he was a fan also. I mean, I’ve got a few of their records. I’m sure David Lee Roth has a few of their records too, man.”
Hart is in Berkeley “rounding up the troops”, getting his new rhythm section of bassist Bill MacBeath and drummer Ed Michaels together for a tour that brings them to the Yale Hotel next Thursday (June 1). Although his new album also includes smart covers of Chuck Berry’s go-go–era “Back to Memphis” and the early-’70s R&B chestnut “Treat Her Like a Lady”, it’s the curious Black Oak selection that keeps me intrigued. Considering the Confederate flag–waving theatrics and redneck stance of southern-rock bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd, I find it a little strange that Hart, an African American, is a devotee of the genre. But it turns out he didn’t have that much say in the matter.
“I grew up in the Midwest and then in the South, so I sort of got bombarded with it, heard it on the radio all the time. Some of it’s a parody of itself, but some of it’s cool, you know. I mean, if you ask whether I’m a fan of the Allman Brothers, yes. Oh yes. I was an Allman Brother for a night once, you know.” (Hart sat in with the ABB—trading licks with current Gov’t Mule guitarist-vocalist Warren Haynes—when founding Allman Brother Dickie Betts failed to show up for a gig.)
“Warren’s great, man,” enthuses Hart. “I love the Mule, actually.”
Gov’t Mule is a three-piece band, heavy on the slide guitar, that pushes the boundaries of blues-oriented rock. Now that Hart’s gone electric, his group is doing that too. But he’s still not quite ready to assume the “power trio” stance.
“Well, whatever,” he replies to that superficial suggestion. “Power or no power. If the lights go out we’ll still play, you know.”