Dave Arcari is Mississippi meets the Highlands
Stop me if you’ve heard this one: A Scotsman walks in to a Finnish record label to record an album of powerful Mississippi Delta Blues…
The Scotsman is Dave Arcari, the Finnish record label is Blue North and the album, Whisky in My Blood, is indeed powerful Mississippi Delta Blues (and a bit more). Arcari is currently touring the U.S. promoting his latest record (it is available on vinyl, as all good blues ought to be) and will be making an appearance at J.J.’s Bohemia on July 10.
“Positive” and “upbeat” are not words typically associated with the blues, an art form decried by Navin R. Johnson as being “too depressing.” This album defies that convention. Every one of the 14 tracks listed is toe-tapping and infectious—it’s impossible not to smile. This is quite easily the happiest blues album I have ever had the pleasure to listen to, and a large part of that comes from the fact that Arcari is clearly having a ball doing what he does.
The guitar work is phenomenal. It is pure bottleneck blues, simple and unadorned, and that’s a bit of a rarity. A great many guitarists get their start playing blues in some form and go on to muck it up with needless over-complication. Not so Arcari, whose considerable chops are tempered by the taste and restraint of a seasoned pro. Arcari learned his trade by listening to the classics (Blind Willie Jefferson is a particular influence) and has managed to maintain that raw edge found on good old scratchy records from the ’30s and ’40s. For a man who grew up across the broad Atlantic in a land better known for craggy peaks, impenetrable lochs and terrifying ethnic cuisine, Arcari’s blues are surprisingly, refreshingly authentic. Many a would-be Memphis busker would do well to pay attention to the William Wallace of National Guitars.
Whether the guitar licks complement the vocals or the vocals complement the guitar licks, his gruff Celtic growl is the perfect counterpoint to his soulful playing. In this respect, he is evocative of Tom Waits in that one suspects there is a diesel engine idling away deep in his chest. Yet for all its low, rumbling, scratchy, and whiskey-soaked qualities, there is the burr of a Scottish accent and somehow that makes it better. If it were any heavier, it might be a distraction, but as it stands, it is the perfect extra-ingredient to make a genuinely good blues album great, an unconventional component that enhances the overall impact nicely. This combination of “guts guitar” and unique vocals means this is an album you can listen to over and over.
The production work on the album is minimalist, which is absolutely appropriate.The album is unvarnished, and if it were any other way, it would be less than it is. Too often artists at this level come out with albums that are over-processed and over-produced, heavily laden with studio tricks to compensate for a lackluster performance. As a recording, Whisky in My Blood sounds like a group of hungry musicians and a rolling tape and that’s it—and that’s precisely what it should sound like. You half expect to hear the players telling each other dirty jokes between tracks. The spirit of live performance is so large that I doubt there was any overdubbing done at all. This has “one and done” written all over it.
Lyrically the tunes are well-written, solid blues tunes with a sly shot of humor here and there, Arcari being a man who describes the “morning after” a show as “a bad head and a mouth like a badger’s arse…” Hard to imagine Robert Johnson using that particular phrase but if he were to hear Arcari say it, there is no doubt he’d shake his head and say, “I know what you mean, man.”
Whisky in My Blood is an album strongly grounded in the Delta style, full of tradition (the unmistakable voice of a cigar box guitar is readily apparent on several tracks), but incorporating some slightly less conventional elements (a plaintive banjo broadens the sound nicely)and the result is an album that is just at home at a punk show, a blues fest, a honky tonk or a street corner. In Chattanooga we call that JJs Bohemia. Come down July 10. When Dave Arcari takes the stage, that’s where you’ll want to be.
Wednesday, July 10, 10 p.m. JJ's Bohemia, 231 E. MLK Blvd. (423) 266-1400, jjsbohemia.com