Song of the Day: The Continued Life of “John the Revelator”

Very few musicians have attempted to combine the holy and the sinful by trying to play the gospel and the blues together. Perhaps the most prolific gospel blues musician was the somewhat filthily named Blind Willie Johnson. Johnson started life as a street performer and corner preacher; why he decided to try to play the devil’s music, we’ll never be quite sure, but he nonetheless played it better than most. There are many great slide guitar players, but few who capture the raw and mournful potential of the style like Willie.  His most famous song, though, emphasizes that gritty and guttural voice that Tom Waits seems to have made his career trying to emulate. The song, popularized by Harry Smith on “Anthology of American Folk Music, is “John the Revelator.”

Maybe it’s the rhythm, maybe it’s his voice, maybe it’s the basic story, but this song has become a surprising standard in the blues and rock worlds. It has been covered by Son House, Sam Moore (of Sam & Dave with the Blues Brothers backing), Gov’t Mule, Dave Matthews, R.E.M., Beck, and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, to name a few. Each band has brought their own spin to it.

Perhaps the most surprising version I’ve heard is by Steve Vai. Vai has veered between being Frank Zappa’s sidekick, David Lee Roth’s Van Halen replacement, and finally a gifted composer with a knack for futuristic and creative compositions. (For the skeptical, see his collaborations with the Metropole Orchestra on Sound Theories.) All of which is to say I never imagined that he’d visit this gospel blues classic. Yet here he is at his Hendrix-fueled best, supported by the fiery  Beverly McClellan, a hammond B-3 organ, and a full gospel choir. It’s a version that pays homage to gospel and hard blues, while never losing sight of everything that Vai has built his career on. If you’re an old blues listener whose open to change, you just might appreciate this.



Happy 45th Anniversary to “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay”

So I missed the song yesterday, so let me leave you with a classic. Otis Redding was gone far too early, but he closed his career with one of the most passionate and sensual catalogues in music history. His final and most famous single came out 45 years ago yesterday, back in 1968.

Here’s a particularly warm and sexy version courtesy of Sara Bareilles.

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