Click on [+Show] following each title to read the entire review
Iuka, Mississippi [+ Show]
King Features Syndicate by Rheta Grimsley Johnson (7-27-2011)
I thought about France last night while attending a concert in this town's pretty little Episcopal church. Couldn't help myself.
In the summertime, almost every French village hosts a music festival of some sort, with featured music running the gamut from accordion to rock 'n' roll. Each town claims a genre as its own and milks it. The charming tradition gets the villagers out and together, which is what music is supposed to do, after all.
Iuka's concert was the work of two brothers, Frank and Eddie Thomas, who keep trying to drag the rest of us toward a civilized society. Frank began the show behind the red door by saying the performance would be in memory of the late Bob Brown. Bob was a true gentleman who always went out of his way to make newcomers and outcasts feel welcome. Years ago, he was instrumental in saving the wee Carpenter Gothic church when the diocese had planned to move or demolish it.
When Eddie started picking, you were glad such a venue still exists, that somebody bothered. For when Eddie Thomas plays the blues, it is a religious experience.
At intermission, a cadre of local ladies served lemonade and homemade cookies, and we all stood outside for a few minutes, enjoying the summer's sweet smells and humidity. I thought once again about France, about seeing, late one August night on a Seine boat ride, French couples picnicking and dancing all along the famous riverbank. The Parisians seemed to be embracing the warm night, as well is one another.
Eddie's songs come with stories, and he has that knack all good storytellers share: using the evocative detail. He explained that long ago, during the Great Depression, when the great leader 1 FDR was holding things together, his mother had a friend working for the Federal Writers' Project, a WPA program designed to keep writers writing. Yes, Virginia, there was such a thing.
One night, the two lady friends went across the Mississippi state line, into the Freedom Hills of Alabama. The writer wanted to experience firsthand a "house party," one of those mysterious gatherings deep in the woods where folks gathered at a private home, rolled up the rugs and let down their hair.
The party made such an impression on Mrs. Thomas, she later told the story to her boys, who now tell it again to all of us in the title song to their new CD called "Maggie's House." "Follow the sound of that stride piano/To Maggie's house over in Alabama/Drag up a chair everybody is staying/Hard to go home with this jug band playing."
As the light faded and the stained glass went inside-out, we heard enough good music to keep us humming through the next workweek. The event had seemed not only vaguely foreign, but completely nostalgic. Like something the New Deal might have sponsored.
In hard times now, the first budget cuts always target the arts -- music programs in the schools, library funding -- which are keystones to a civilized society. It often seems this country is moving the wrong way, toward chaos and alienated pockets of self-interest. Away from things that bring us together and make us smile on a hot June night.
Maybe, for once, we should look at countries that have been around a lot longer, where age has rounded and smoothed the sharp edges of human nature and selfish intent. We could learn a lot and have a good time in the process.
-Rheta Grimsley Johnson
(Internet - Review) [+ Show]
The Daily Vault by Jedediah Pressgrove 6-17-2011)
I’ve lived in Mississippi my entire life, but I’ve never been to Iuka, the home of Eddie (vocals, instruments) and Frank Thomas (production). Listening to Maggie’s House is a visit of sorts; it certainly has a strong sense of time and place. While the album sometimes reminds me of where I grew up (Cascilla, Miss.), I have an urge to see this town “within a hoot and a holler of Tennessee and Alabama,” as the liner notes say.
I’m most interested in the mischief of Maggie’s House. When the guitar playing starts in “White Lightning,” you already know the boys are up to something. Eddie’s finger picking brings to mind the late Jerry Reed, whose notes told you everything you needed to know. But I’m glad “White Lightning” isn’t an instrumental, as I wouldn’t have learned that white lightning is a term for moonshine. Eddie’s story involves a chase after a raccoon, but the important part is the misplaced bottle of moonshine in the woods. Besides the fun of it all, I find “White Lightning” culturally significant. At one point Eddie sings “that jug of mountain dew,” and I was taken aback because my brain initially brought up the disgusting soda. Corporate America has stripped away a nice phrase involving illegal activity and slapped it on a product that messes us up anyway. As imaginative as it might be (after all, memory is tricky), Maggie’s House is about bringing one back to what’s real and cherished.
Another fun track is “Drive This Train,” which seems to be a bit of wish fulfillment on Eddie’s part. He doesn’t want to have anything to do with cars or boats and is “a rocket on a rail in a cast-iron overcoat.” The song is as old-timey as it is rock ‘n’ roll.
And then you have the title track that describes a recurring Saturday party in an Alabama home. Eddie shares detail after detail of the event, but I think it can be summed up with this great bit: “Too much wine, too much cheese / I lost my car, found my keys.” Along with “Dancing With Bonnie” (which features some tasty trumpet playing), “Maggie’s House” is an entertaining portrait of small-town people getting down back in the day.
The remainder of the album deals with quieter, sweeter themes. “In Perfumed Air” captures both a fleeting group of moments (punctuated by smell) and the almost unbearable nostalgia that comes with remembering them. “Marie” concerns a single dance in the dark with what sounds like Eddie’s first love. “Young Boy” is perhaps the strongest of these tracks – indeed, our interactions with nature, a horse in this case, define our humanity.
The only weakness in Maggie’s House is that a couple of tracks (“You And Me” and “Did You Know?”) don’t translate as vividly as the other songs and thus don’t seem as important. But there’s no question that Eddie and Frank Thomas have created a well-produced and honest album with a lot of personality.
(Internet - Review) [+ Show]
bluesinthenorthwest.com by Lionel Ross (5-13-2011)
This CD delivers an affectionate and nostalgic journey through the lives of the Thomas brothers, Eddie and Frank, in their home town of Iuka, which lies in the hill section of North East Mississippi. All ten songs have been written and performed by Eddie while Frank has undertaken the recording, mixing and graphics.
The brothers made a considerable impression in the UK in 2005 when they completed two tours with their Angels on the Backroads show, which combined Eddie’s musical skills and Frank’s film-making expertise to depict the route on Highway 61 from Memphis to New Orleans.
The warmth and humanity that shone through those tours reappears in abundance in Maggie’s House. The album opens with the title track in lively, Hank Williams style before “Dancing With Bonnie” provides a rolling trip down memory lane with 1960s references and some mellow trumpet and harmonica embellishment. Warm memories are recalled in the slow and dreamy “In Perfumed Air”, which boasts lovely chord progressions while “Dancin’ ’Round The Table” is a gentle, country-style fable.
“Drive The Train” bounces along brilliantly with driving guitar work, which changes to a lovely finger-picking style for “White Lightning”, a pseudonym for home-brewed moonshine. The final four tracks comprise three beautifully performed love songs and “Young Boy”, a heartfelt reminiscence of happy childhood, to complete a delightful compendium of nostalgia. It is a timely reminder that a return trip to the UK by these hugely talented siblings is grossly overdue.
(Internet - Journal) [+ Show]
Sleeping Hedgehog by David Kidney (4-25-2011)
“Maggie’s House is a real place in an imaginary sort of way…” That’s what the one sheet tells us. And listening to the album (which starts off with the title song) it’s easy to believe there’s a real place like this. Actually, there are probably real places like this all over the world. Listen to the description, “Follow the sound of that stride piano / to Maggie’s house over in Alabama / Drag up a chair, everybody is staying / hard to go home with the jug band playing…” I think I’ve been there, and I’ve never been to Alabama.
Eddie & Frank Thomas manage to bring you in to their gently rocking world, all acoustic guitar punctuated by a harmonica and the kind of harmonies that only come from siblings. Eddie is the singer/songwriter while brother Frank is engineer and producer. The songs take you back to another world. First you’re transported to the South, and then to another decade. An earlier time, before facebook and Twitter, when you would go “Dancing With Bonnie on the Saturday TV show,” or possibly sitting around the campfire telling ghost stories (as in “In Perfumed Air”). It was a slower, kinder time, and this is slower, kinder music. Quiet guitars, and warm vocals singing melodic songs of this otherworld.
If you remember that world, you’ll be immediately drawn in, and if you don’t recall it yourself…this is a great introduction. Stop by Maggie’s House for a visit. You won’t regret it.
Visit SLEEPING HEDGEHOG: A Journal of An Untraditional Nature
Iuka, Mississippi [+ Show]
Daily Corinthian by Bobby J. Smith (4-14-2011)
Eddie and Frank Thomas -- two of Iuka's native sons -- recently celebrated the release of "Maggie's House," their first album of original music and lyrics, at the Iuka Public Library. "Friends, Iukians, Mississippians. Fellow citizens of planet Earth -- thanks for coming to the "Maggie's House" kick-off party," said Frank Thomas, welcoming guests to the Monday release.
With Eddie on the acoustic guitar and handling the vocals and Frank setting the groove on an electric bass, the duo played a selection of songs from their new album, including the title song, a homage to all the old train songs called "Drive this Train," and a rollicking number titled "White Lightening" that was inspired by a rabbit-hunting trip that ended up being more of a jug-hunting trip.
The idea for the song "Maggie's House," explained Eddie Thomas, came out of the years of the Great Depression, when the Library of Congress and the Farm Association were paying regional writers to document rural life in America.
As part of the Federal Writer's Project, Iuka native Vivian Skinner, an older cousin of the Thomas Brothers, invited the brothers' mother to join her as she documented a house party in the Freedom Hills.
"During that evening, Vivian wore out her pencil," Eddie said with a laugh. He explained that while the brothers weren't able to locate the text of Skinner's Freedom Hills party description, and the song "Maggie's House" was more inspired by the idea of the event than any specifics.
The album, "Maggie's House," was recorded at the brothers' home in Iuka, across the road from the Iuka Baptist Church. Frank said while they were recording tracks for the album there were many perfect takes that had to be re-recorded because of a car with a loud muffler driving by or the sound of a train passing through Iuka.
"Maggie's House is a real place in an imaginary sort of way ," is the official line on the Thomas Brothers' website. The album is a tip of the hat to growing up as part of the Baby Boomer generation in the North Mississippi hills. The album is packed with references that will resonate with the generation that grew up after World War II.
During their performance in the library, the line, "Grab a pack of Nabs and a New Grape," received the most attention from the audience. The appreciative laughs and spontaneous applause showed how deeply the Thomas Brothers understand the time and place they're singing about --and how people can connect with it.
"Eddie writes songs about what you experienced growing up," Frank said to the crowd consisting primarily of their fellow Baby Boomers.
After their childhood in Iuka, the brothers spent over 30 years working together as Thomasfilms. While some of their early experience was in New York and Los Angeles, the bulk of the brothers' careers has been in Iuka, focusing on film, video, and audio productions that tell Mississippi stories.
From 2004 through 2007, the brothers toured throughout the United States and Europe presenting the multimedia stage-show "Angels on the Backroads," also the title of a 4-disc box-set that follows the origins of American music from Memphis to New Orleans and on the legendary Mississippi Highway 61. On the "Angels on the Backroads" tour, the brothers presented 50 concerts to over 25,000 high school and college students in their native state in addition to the national and European tour.
The brothers closed their set with a song called "Chasing Butterflies" from their upcoming album, a romantic, wistful kind of narrative about a young girl looking for paradise and the changes she faces in the world and herself. The new album --also recorded in the brothers' Iuka home-studio -- is scheduled for release this summer.
"We're planning to release the second album this summer -- if it gets done," said Frank. "And that'll mean another release party."
(To take a trip to "Maggie's House," order a copy from the Thomas Brothers' website at www.eddieandfrank.com.).
-Bobby J. Smith
Iuka, Mississippi [+ Show]
Tishomingo County News by Pamela McRae (4-14-2011)
Thomas Brothers Thrill Crowd at Maggie’s House Release Party
More than 100 people joined Frank and Eddie Thomas at the Iuka Library on Monday to celebrate the release of their first collection of all-original music, "Maggie’s House."
The event was the kick-off to National Library Week at Iuka Library, of which Frank and Eddie have long been supporters.
"Maggie’s House" is a collection of just a few of the dozens of songs that Eddie Thomas has written in the past 35 years, explained Frank Thomas.
Dressed in tuxedos to commemorate the event, the brothers Thomas took to the stage to not only play music from the new project, but also to tell stories that clearly wove their way through the crowd’s collective memories.
Eddie told of how the song "Maggie’s House" was inspired by the house parties of the Freedom Hills, and everyone clearly related to the poetry of "Hot June Night," complete with "honeysuckle choir" heard through rolled down windows on a Southern summer night.
"Dancing with Bonnie," with its references to drive-in movies on a Saturday night, and nabs and NuGrape made some in the crowd laugh out loud.
The performance of "Drive This Train," was similarly understood by the Iuka crowd. Eddie said that he and Frank estimated they had heard about 587,000 trains come through Iuka from their homes through the years just a few 100 yards away. Many of them during their attempts to record this album in the kitchen of their Eastport Street home.
Eddie, of course, was masterful with the storytelling/singing, and guitar playing, but Frank surprised many with his excellent accompaniment on the bass guitar, which he confessed on stage that he’s been playing for a whole two weeks.
Frank and Eddie also announced their forthcoming new project, "Chasing Butterflies," and performed the title track for the crowd.
The music, explained Frank, is not only theirs, but it belongs to the entire community.
"As a community we share talents, interests, and the same stories; and its success also depends on how much you put into it," he said.
The Thomas brothers will be performing a full show of original music in the Church of Our Savior, universally referred to as "the little Episcopal church," on May 14th. The proceeds will benefit Iuka Heritage, Inc., which is the group responsible for maintaining the historic church on Eastport Street.
Colorado Springs, Colorado [+ Show]
King Features Syndicate by Rheta Grimsley Johnson (4-06-2011)
Some women inspire songs. Consider Simon and Garfunkel’s Cecilia, always breaking the boys’ hearts. And Buddy Holly’s pretty, pretty Peggy Sue.
There was a lovely Rita immortalized in song, but she was by profession a meter maid, one job I’ve never had, and spelled her name differently.
Once, decades ago, Bill “Catfish Willie” Austin struck up “Behind Blue Eyes” when I walked into the Holiday Inn lounge where he was playing for a wedding reception. Other than that, inspiring songs has not been my lot in life.
Something far better has happened. Brothers Eddie and Frank Thomas of Iuka, Miss., my hometown, next week will release a CD called “Maggie’s House” that includes a song inspired by my house. And, no, it’s not the title song. Last I checked, my name isn’t Maggie. It’s another song called “Dancin’ ‘Round the Table.”
I live in a little house in a picturesque hollow that everyone still calls “the Red Brown house,” because a man named Red Brown built it. The song recalls “memories of a kitchen lit by a young family’s love and a bare, 40-watt light bulb hanging from the ceiling.” The song is about my house, true, but at a time long ago and largely in the Thomas brothers’ imaginations. Hearing the song, I wish I could have been here then. But enough about mi-mi-mi.
“Maggie’s House’’ is a comfortable front porch of an album, with original songs written over a span of 35 years and performed using “voice and guitar with an occasional salt and pepper of vocal harmonies, trumpets they’ve owned since high school, harmonicas, a bass and drums.”
I read a recent story in The New York Times about how manual typewriters are making a comeback. Seems youngsters who have never used them before are smitten, “fetishizing” the old machines, as The Times put it. New converts are staging “type-ins” to “unplug and reconnect.” Crowds are gathering in hotel lobbies and parks to type together, with the occasional ironic website devoted to the odd hobby.
Frank and Eddie have tapped into a similar nostalgic longing in these simple songs about first loves and last dances, transistor radios and the original television dance shows, when participants wore bobby socks, not high heels. The album has the feel of a scrapbook stored in the attic, with soda straws, movie tickets and scalloped-edged black and white photographs taped to fading pages. It makes you want to, well, dance around a table. To simplify.
The music has a Southern flair because Frank and Eddie grew up in Mississippi. But natives of small towns everywhere will relate.
Eddie writes and sings the songs and plays all the instruments. Frank does the recording. Their recording studio is in the attic of an old hotel they renovated and where their mother grew up.
There are no fancy marketing firms getting ready to bombard the world with word about the release. The brothers do everything themselves. Frank designed the album cover and wrote the liner notes. Soon Eddie will sing his heart out at our home library.
I’m always astounded by my two friends and their endless talents, the way they see things most of us miss and remember them as poetry. I’m proud of Frank and Eddie. Never more than right now.
-Rheta Grimsley Johnson
Iuka, Mississippi [+ Show]
Tishomingo County News by Pamela McRae (3-24-2011)
Local artists Frank and Eddie Thomas are releasing a new album that sounds like the soundtrack for a movie about life in small-town Mississippi.
“Maggie’s House” is a collection of just a few of the dozens of songs that Eddie Thomas has written in the past 35 years, and it offers a timelessly classic sound throughout the ten-song collection. Recorded, engineered and mixed by Frank, it’s at times country, and sometimes a little jazzy. But the album always manages to sound like what you’d hear coming from inside the screen door, as you sit on a porch swing in the country.
The talented Thomas brothers are nationally known for projects like “Angels on the Backroads” a collection of celebrated blues songs played and recorded in historic landmarks throughout the Mississippi Delta, and “The Natchez Trace: A Road Through the Wilderness,” a narrative and musical accompaniment designed to listen to during a drive down (or up) the Trace.
Most recently, the brothers Thomas enjoyed internet acclaim with a Telly award for their “Pennyland” video project in June of 2010. But this album, which Frank says is named after “Maggie’s House – a real place in an imaginary sort of way,” is purely Eddie’s poetic words with his own accompaniment, often on acoustic guitar. Recorded right here in Iuka, the world class, folk-inspired music is combined with lyrics that could easily stand as sweet poetry on their own. The melodies evoke images of life; of family times, party times, private and public times.
“Marie” and “You and Me” make you feel like you are dancing close with your sweetheart – maybe wearing one of those full-skirted dresses of the fifties and sixties, on a gymnasium floor. But lyrics like “my heart fell away right from the start, the very first time I danced with you in the dark” and “My life began with you,” from “You and Me” have a timeless ability to melt a romantic’s heart.
The music is overflowing with references to hill country life like evenings at the drive-in, grabbing nabs and NuGrape, 4-H clubs, coon dogs howling, and whippoorwills. There’s even a lenient sheriff at the door who offers more ice (for the party) from the machine down at the station, and troublesome process of trying to remember where you hid your jar of White Lightning. Eddie includes just ‘nough conversational abbreviations, soft drawl to his words, and poor subject/verb agreement (that we accept as perfectly fine ‘round here, even from learned folks like school teachers) that we feel right at home.
Most disturbingly, Thomas paints pictures of dancing around the kitchen to the radio or a jug band that I personally wonder if he’s been driving down my own little country road on Saturday night during the bluegrass show on public radio! He assures me he has not, but that is how realistic it seems, even to my limited experience in Tishomingo County.
The Release -- “Maggie’s House” will officially be released Monday, April 11th at a very special Friends of the Iuka Library Lunch Break, from 11 to 1PM. Albums will be available at a special price of $12, and Frank and Eddie will be available to sign copies. At 12:15, Frank and Eddie will perform songs from the album live, for free. More information available at www.eddieandfrank.com. Lunch is $2.
- Pamela McRae
Crown Hotel, Nantwich, England [+ Show]
Blues in Britain by Lionel Ross
This appearance in Nantwich formed part of the second tour of the UK by Eddie and Frank Thomas within the space of six months. The brothers from luka, Mississippi, received rave reviews from their first tour in the spring of this year and were in great demand to make a return visit. Furthermore, their Angels on the Backroads 65-song, four-CD tribute to blues and jazz was awarded a '10' by Mike Mager in the June 2005 edition of Blues In Britain. On witnessing this performance, it is not surprising that their talent, warmth and charm touched the hearts of so many people.
Eddie and Frank wonderfully combine their respective skills of musicianship and filmmaking to provide a riveting melange of music, history and geographical images around a journey along Highway 61 from Memphis to New Orleans. Eddie sings and plays the music and delivers a commentary on Frank's sensitively compiled film, which depicts the Mississippi river, the railroad and Highway 61 itself and the cities and townships along the way. It also gives a flavour of the ancient and modern aspects of the cotton industry from the old buildings on legendary plantations to the current machinery that has replaced the labour-intensive cotton picking methods that inspired and nurtured the blues.
The musical element of the show fully demonstrates Eddie Thomas's remarkable versatility, embracing fine vocals, intricate finger-picking on acoustic guitar, authentic slide on his 1932 National, occasional blues harp and some beautifully controlled artistry on muted trumpet. The first set of the programme began very appropriately with Rice Miller's "Good Evening, Everybody", followed by the "Downtown Blues" of Frank Stokes. The National was introduced on terrific versions of Charlie Patton's "High Water Everywhere", describing the devastation caused by the flood of 1927, and Robert Johnson's "Crossroad Blues", while the trumpet was initially employed to accompany footage of Po' Monkey's (the Poor Monkey Lounge juke joint in Merigold, MS). The acoustic guitar was reintroduced for Mississippi John Hurt's "Avalon Blues" and the steel for Patton's "Pea Vine Blues" over pictures of the Dockery Farms. To end the set, we were treated to another helping of fine trumpet playing, which included "Hotter Than That" in affectionate memory of Louis Armstrong.
The delight was undiminished throughout the second set, which featured music by Arthur 'Big Boy' Crudup, Gus Cannon, Bukka White, Big Bill Broonzy and Lonnie Johnson. In contrast and by way of acknowledging the simultaneous and influential development of jazz and country music, it also contained a splendid rendition of "Mr Jelly Lord" in homage to Jelly Roll Morton and Jimmie Rodgers' "Mississippi River Blues". Finally, this unique presentation of superb entertainment was brought to a close by Louis Jordan's "Let The Good Times Roll", which, in truth, was an entirely inappropriate and superfluous exhortation, as the good times had already rolled in abundance all evening.
- Lionel Ross
Bluesnights@Dorchester Arts Centre [+ Show]
Blues in Britain by Lewis A. Harris
Kicking off this, their second tour of the UK, Eddie and Frank Thomas from the tiny town of luka, Mississippi, brought their fascinating show Angels on the Backroads to Dorchester. Frank, the photographer and filmmaker, and Eddie the multi-instrumentalist and vocalist, had taken for their theme the famous Highway 61, focusing on the southern section which runs from Memphis to New Orleans. As the film rolled Eddie provided a verbal commentary and at various points along the route they stopped off and checked out the history. This was a very rich and illuminating experience, encompassing the origins of Delta Blues and its evolution.
Eddie played harmonica, trumpet and two guitars -one being a National Steel evidently once owned by Bo Carter. As this journey unfolded we heard the music of artists who had played a significant part in the development of blues and jazz - Sonny Boy Williamson, Frank Stokes, Jim Jackson, Charley Patton, Son House, Robert Johnson, Muddy Walters, Mississippi John Hurt; the roster even featured Jelly Roll Morton, Lester Young and Satchmo himself. Eddie's playing and singing were superb, delivered with grace and panache. He is a natural entertainer and made everyone feel at home. The visual and audio quality of the film were excellent helping to bring all the well-known place names into focus and bring the audience closer to the music and those who created it. This was a very informative and well thought out concert. Two particular highlights for me were Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup's "Mean Ol' Frisco" and Mississippi John Hurt's "Avalon Blues". The tiny auditorium, with just 90 seats, was full to overflowing, proving that shows like Angels on the Backroads offer not just great live music, but also an opportunity to discover some of the rich history that has shaped blues and jazz. I would highly recommend it.
– Lewis A. Harris
Highway 61 Revisited [+ Show]
National Public Radio
There was a time in the South when the dusty back roads that connected the cotton fields to the juke joints were well traveled by heroes of American music. Journalist Francis Davis summed it up when he wrote that "something about the Delta inspired introspection on the part of men whose lives allowed little time for it." Clearly, something in the Delta soil served as the muse for legends such as Muddy Waters, Jelly Roll Morton and Mississippi Fred McDowell.
Brothers Eddie and Frank Thomas spent three years traveling Highway 61 between Memphis and New Orleans. They studied the history of the music created along that stretch of road, then they recorded their interpretations on location at significant spots along the way. The brothers Thomas went down to the very crossroads that inspired blues legend Robert Johnson; they visited "where the levee broke" to play Memphis Minnie. Frank records; Eddie sings and plays guitar.
"Our first interest was the music that came out of the Delta," Frank tells Liane Hansen for Weekend Edition Sunday. "And it seemed that the music in the Delta sort of flowed up 61 to Memphis, then down the Mississippi River to New Orleans."
"You can just feel it," says Eddie. It's in the land. It's in the breeze. It's in the birds. It's just there. It's everywhere. And the music just had to come out."
Later, the pair traveled Highway 61 again, recording interpretations of those songs at points significant to each song's origin. The resulting collection is called Angels on the Backroads. Hansen talks with the brothers about the road, the river, and the songs, from jazz to blues to ragtime. And she joins them for the last stop on their journey: the St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans, where they recorded the hymn "Sweet Hour of Prayer."
The 15th Banbury Blues Festival, England [+ Show]
Blues in Britain
Eddie & Frank Thomas...
...took to the stage armed only with a guitar and trumpet, well that was Eddie. Frank had handfuls of remote controls, a DVD player, projector and screen. These two brothers from luka, Mississippi, have been researching the history of the blues along Route 61, from Memphis to New Orleans. They have been back to many of the places mentioned in the history books and played a song or two that would have originally been played there. They have filmed the area as it is now and recorded the songs. This afternoon's performance was an extract from those performances. Eddie played the songs live while Frank played the films showing the locations, complete with their sounds. This presentation was so spellbinding and absorbing that your reviewer was left with a blank page in his notebook by the end. I can only sum it all up in the statement 'I've got to go there!'
The 17th Burnley International Blues Festival, England [+ Show]
Blues in Britain
I was not alone in wondering just who The Thomas Brothers were - and what they were going to entertain us with? It turns out that these two sons of luka, Mississippi have their own film production company. Their latest joint venture is Angels on the Backroads, a four CD set.
Eddie and Frank recently embarked on a musical tour of discovery down U.S. Highway 61. Filming and playing at every major location between Memphis and New Orleans, they captured the heart and soul of traditional US blues. The end result is a well-crafted film that we saw a large extract from this afternoon, complete with musical accompaniment and dialogue from Eddie, while Frank took care of the projectionists role.
Playing a variety of 6-string acoustic and Dobro guitars and the odd trumpet solo, Eddie ranged through a variety of material from the new CD, including Frank Stokes' "Downtown Blues", Jim Jackson's "JJ's Kansas City Blues", Charlie Patton's "Pea Vine Blues", and even a song from Satchmo himself, the 1926 "Hotter Than That". There were also tunes from Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup, Gus Cannon and Buddy Bolden, rounded off with Bukka White and Jimmy Rogers.
To hear Eddie range through this illustrious repertoire and see the accompanying film on the big screen is the closest thing to actually being there. The Thomas Brothers have produced a work of considerable achievement, and it is conveyed with a sense of total commitment to what they do.
Angels on the Backroads [+ Show]
Living Blues by Andria Lisle
Call it a labor of love, because there’s really no other way to describe this undertaking. Sixty-five songs, recorded not for posterity or for big bucks, but for the sheer love of the music. Sixty-five songs, recorded on the site the song was originally recorded, or, if that was impossible, on a site that proved inspirational to the original songwriter. Sixty-five songs, lovingly performed by Eddie Thomas and – just as lovingly – recorded by his brother, Frank Thomas.
The first disc in this collection, subtitled Memphis To Clack’s Store, follows the duo from the Peabody Hotel, where Eddie plays a stirring acoustic rendition of Kid Bailey’s laconic Mississippi Bottom Blues, before traveling over to Beale Street for Alberta Hunter’s Downhearted Blues, captured, appropriately enough, at the Orpheum Theater. Will Shade’s Memphis Jug Blues is cut outdoors in Church Park, while When the Levee Breaks is recorded not far from Memphis Minnie’s stomping grounds on the levee outside of Walls, Mississippi. The CD ends perfectly with a faithful replaying of Son House’s Shetland Pony Blues at the former site of Clack’s Store, just north of Robinsonville, where folklorist Alan Lomax first recorded that tune in 1941.
Robinsonville To The Valley Store continues the Thomas’ odyssey, as they follow the Mississippi River southward. Robert Johnson’s Crossroad Blues is played at a quiet intersection outside of Commerce, Mississippi, while Willie Brown’s M&O Blues is performed atop a railroad tanker car near Coahoma. Mounds Landing To Crawford Street captures Charley Patton’s pivotal High Water Everywhere on land that was probably flooded when he originally sang the tune, then moves south for Skip James’ Cypress Grove Blues, recorded at the Blue Front Café, a juke joint in Bentonia. Finally, Catfish Row To Jackson Square finds the brothers meandering through Vicksburg before they head to New Orleans to touch on Jelly Roll Morton, Lonnie Johnson, Leadbelly, and the Hackberry Ramblers.
Eddie Thomas excels at more than just guitar—he’s also a talented trumpeter, pianist, and harmonica player. His storytelling introductions pull the listener into the history of every song, while detailed liner notes in each disc further chronicle the selections. Frank Thomas captures every note with precision, somehow making the environment an unmistakable part of the mix. Inspiring in idea and execution, Angels On The Backroads deserves closer scrutiny.
-- Andria Lisle
Review of 4CD Angels on the Backroads Box Set [+ Show]
Blues in Britain by Mike Mager
Eddie & Frank Thomas - Angels on the Backroads The Thomas Brothers are sons of luka, Mississippi, and have their own film production company. This latest joint venture is a mammoth four CD set.
Eddie and Frank recently embarked on a musical tour of discovery down U.S. Highway 61. Filming and playing at every major location between Memphis and New Orleans, they captured the heart and soul of traditional US blues. The end result is a well-crafted film that the Thomas Brothers have recently been touring. This is the accompanying CD set.
Eddie takes care of the performing duties and sings and plays all of the instruments heard on the CDs, whilst Frank does the studio and location recordings.
Volume 1. Memphis to Clack's Store kicks off in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis with Kid Bailey's "Mississippi Bottom Blues", originally recorded at the same location in 1929. It romps through a selection of tunes from the likes of The Memphis Jug Band and W.C. Handy before culminating at the site of Clack's store north of Robinsonville, with Son House's "Shetland Pony Blues".
Volume 2 continues from Robinsonville to the Valley Stores at Avalon, home of Mississippi John Hurt and inspiration for his "Avalon Blues". Along the way we are treated to songs from Robert Johnson, Sonny Boy Williamson. Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, all of whom lived and played in the locations featured here.
Volume 3, Mounds Landing (where the levee broke in 1927) to Crawford Street in Vicksburg, encounters Big Bill Broonzy. Robert Petway, Arthur Crudup and Skip James, before closing with Willie Dixon's "You Can't Judge A Book".
Volume 4, the final leg, documents the odyssey from Levee Street in Vicksburg to the journey's end at St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans. Tunes from the likes of Sleepy John Estes, Jimmie Rodgers, Huddie Ledbetter, Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong complete the final CD.
This is much more than a labour of love from the brothers. It is an inspired and visionary collection documenting the birth, infancy and subsequent progression of delta and country blues. Extensive liner notes and a map are included.
It should be an essential component in the collection of every blues fan (in spite of the cost).
Rating: 10 - Mike Mager
Highway 61 Visited [+ Show]
Acoustic Guitar by Michael John Simmons
Route 66 may have its partisans but the cognoscenti know that Highway 61 is the most important interstate in American music. As it winds its way north from New Orleans through the Mississippi Delta up to Memphis and on to Chicago, Highway 61 connects the birthplaces of blues and jazz, and it became the main route those styles followed before they spread out to the rest of America. No wonder Bob Dylan chose the highway's name as the title of one of his greatest recordings.
In 1994, two brothers from , luka, Mississippi, decided to honor the legacy of Highway 61 by recording some of the songs associated with the towns and cities that fell along the road's route. After nearly nine years of work, Frank and Eddie Thomas have released Angels on the Backroads (www.Angelsonthebackroads.corn) , a four-CD set of 65 blues and jazz songs that trace the musical path of Highway 61 from Memphis to New Orleans. "Our first idea was to make a spoken-word narrative recording that you could listen .to as you drove along the highway," Frank explains. "We had done a similar thing following the route of the Natchez Trace. But we realized that the songs could tell the story far better1han we could."
Eddie has played trumpet and guitar since he was in high school in the early 1960s, and Frank has worked as a sound engineer on location for various motion pictures. Together they founded their own company to produce industrial and independent films. For Angels on the Backroads, they came up with the idea of recording the songs in the actual spots mentioned in the lyrics. "After years of researching and learning old blues and jazz songs, we made our first recording on October 9, 1998, in a barn on Stovall Farms near Clarksdale, Mississippi," Eddie says. "That barn was about a half mile from the cabin where Muddy Waters grew up, so I thought it would be appropriate to play his song 'Country Blues.'"
That first session was fraught with technical difficulties, but when Eddie and Frank heard how well it turned out, they knew that they would just have to figure out how to make it work. "It was amazing to hear the difference between what Eddie practiced at home and what we got on tape in the field," Frank says. Eddie used a number of vintage guitars for the on-site recordings, including a Martin 00-18, 1930s National Triolian, 1930s wood-body National Trojan, circa-1900 Bay State parlor guitar, and 1923 Gibson L-1 archtop. "Time and again the location just seemed to inspire him," Frank notes. "'Mississippi River Blues' is a different song when you record it sitting on the porch of an old abandoned house at sunset looking out over the river than it would be in the studio. Leadbelly's 'Midnight Special' takes on a whole new depth when you record it at the Angola prison farm where he was once incarcerated."
Eddie has a hard time narrowing down the high points among so many treasured memories. "Our visit to Mississippi John Hurt's hometown of Avalon was exciting," he says. "We met an older gentleman there named Guy Duke who used to know John Hurt. He took us to the Valley Store, where John used to sit and play on the porch. When I played my version of 'Avalon Blues' on that same porch, Guy said, 'Sounds like old John to me,' but I knew he was just being polite."
The Thomases also made a visit to perhaps the most famous spot in the Mississippi Delta: Robert Johnson's crossroads. "We jokingly said that we were going to find the actual cross- roads, even though it's most likely a myth," Eddie says. "But we knew that Robert Johnson lived in Robinsonville, near the town of Commerce. We reasoned that he could have written the song inspired by a nearby crossroads. We spent the afternoon searching for a likely spot and finally found a set in a cotton field that was in the process of being picked. We didn't go at midnight because it would have been too difficult for us to see what we were doing, so we recorded 'Crossroads Blues' in the late afternoon. The sun was setting on the levee, the harvest moon was rising behind us, and we could hear the distant sounds of the machines picking cotton. It was a magical time."
Eddie and Frank ended their journey in New Orleans. On the front porch of Jelly Roll Morton's boyhood home, they recorded a guitar version of his "Mr. Jelly Lord," and in Congo Square, now part of Louis Armstrong Park, Eddie recorded his guitar rendition of 19th-century New Orleans pianist and composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk's Afro-Caribbean-inspired "Bamboula."
Their final recording was made in St. Louis Cathedral. "We chose to perform the old hymn 'Sweet Hour of Prayer,'" Eddie says. "As I finished the piece, the church bells started to ring. And as the sound faded, we could hear the sounds of bands playing for tourists in the square outside. It was a nice reminder that our journey down Highway 61 was over but that the music goes on."
-Michael John Simmons
The Thomas Brothers [+ Show]
Blues in Britain
Angels on the Backroads...
... is a live music and film performance, by brothers Eddie and Frank Thomas, who will be touring in the UK again in October and November. This email from Frank Thomas covers the brothers' history and explains what their performance is about.
Mississippi... both the River and the State have a certain exotic appeal, and for people interested in the growth of Country Blues, the Delta lies near and dear to the heart of an amazing story.
Eddie and I grew up in the hills of northeast Mississippi in the small town of luka. Culturally and geographically, the hills of Mississippi don't much resemble the Delta, and we grew up not realizing that the roots of the music that rocked our early lives in the 1950s and 60s ran deep in the soil of our native state, soil only a dusty day's ride to our west. It was the British musical invasion of the US in the 60s that really brought the importance of this land to our attention, but the extent to which the Delta in Mississippi has shaped our music didn't reach us until much later.
Eddie and I both played trumpet in our high school band and sang in the church choir (had to, our mother was the choir director). As a child Eddie was further inoculated with music by listening to obscure radio shows like Randy's Record Shop out of Gallatin, Tennessee, listening over a 6 transistor radio while hiding beneath his bed sheets late at night. He performed this music too, in small combos throughout his high school and college days. He began playing folk guitar in the 1960s and during the 1970s played in a musical duo along the rocky coast of Maine in New England.
When I finished college, the two of us formed a partnership to combine our talents, Eddie's music and my interest in telling stories with film and writing. We did promotional films - ski resorts, tennis camps and the like, and a few entertainment pieces of our own.
A film we planned for the Natchez Trace, an American Indian trail and frontier road that runs through Mississippi, turned into an audio driving tour instead. Travelers along the Natchez Trace Parkway now use our Natchez Trace: A Road Through the Wilderness to learn the history of this ancient roadway as they travel its 450 miles from Nashville, Tennessee to Natchez, Mississippi. Eddie wrote an album of original music as part of this audio tour, which led us to spend more time on our music.
Following the success of Natchez Trace: A Road Through the Wilderness we decided to do a similar tour for Highway 61, the blues highway, along the section from Memphis, Tennessee to New Orleans, Louisiana. This goes through Mississippi and the Delta. Rather than using original music for this journey, we focused on classic as well as obscure roots music created by the early heroes of blues and jazz. To make this a special tribute to these Angels on the Backroads, we recorded faithful renditions of their music while on location on the land and in places that inspired them. The resulting 65 song, 4 CD tribute to blues and jazz, Angels on the Backroads, has tunes we recorded in barns and cotton gins, atop parked train cars and a Memphis office building, alongside roads, rivers and a cypress swamp, in a hotel lobby, in theaters, at train stations, dusty store fronts, juke joints, churches and a cathedral choir loft....
Eddie performed all the music, and I recorded it. During our journeys we learned about the people, the land and the music. It surprised us that many of the people in today's Delta have lost the history of this music and the importance their land and culture played in the music's growth. We determined that when our CD tribute was finished we would return to help rekindle their interest. We were given the opportunity, by grant money provided through Delta State University, to make a musical tour to high schools in Mississippi during the fall of 2004. To help the story relate to students, we videotaped scenes of the land that we projected during Eddie's live performance. It was a delight to see children in the high schools of Mississippi connecting with their history and music.
John Morgan at the Carrick Music Agency in Scotland was planning our first tour to the UK for the spring of this year when he saw clips from one of our high school performances. He felt that UK audiences would appreciate seeing these Mississippi images too.
So... We made our first trip to the UK for five weeks in March and April and had the time of our lives lugging two guitars, a harmonica, a trumpet, and a video projector over 3500 miles of England, Scotland and North Wales. It was a whirlwind experience for two guys from Mississippi, and we were treated royally everywhere we went. I love the review Simon Heath posted on the Otterton Mill website following our performance at the mill on March 31:
"One of the best nights we've had here - an absolutely magical journey down the Mississippi with wonderful film and photographic images accompanying stories and songs - if you get the chance to see this show, grab it with both hands!"
Nice huh? Well, you will be the final judge of how we've done with our efforts, but that's the way I'll forever remember this first magical trip to the UK - five weeks packed with that kind of enthusiasm.
From time to time people have asked what makes Country Blues and the Delta so special. I hope our show helps audiences to ponder and come up with their own thoughts and answers to that. I know it can add a dimension to the music by taking a look at the Delta today. A lot has changed in the Delta and throughout the world since this music was created, and much hasn't changed at all, since the human heart is just as pure and innocent, just as corrupt and guilty as ever. What the Angels on the Backroads did with their music and their lives, perhaps without even intending it, is help give eyes and ears to better understand our world. How rare and important a gift for us today!
Eddie and I hope to see many of you when we return to the UK on tour in October and November 2005.
- Frank Thomas
The Music Continues [+ Show]
Mississippi Magazine by Carolyn Thornton
Music has always played a major role in the lives of Frank and Eddie Thomas. Growing up in Iuka, their mother was a choir director, a position Frank holds today. During the 1960s, Eddie played trumpet in an award-winning local band and later learned to play the guitar. Today, it's the blues that has captured the brothers' energies. Their latest project combines authentic Delta blues songs and arrangements with some of the very spots where those melodies were born.
Frank and Eddie first attracted attention several years ago when they created a unique audio cassette self-guided driving tour of the Natchez Trace Parkway. The 8 1/2 -hour series, "Natchez Trace: A Road Through the Wilderness," included original music and tales keyed to the historic road's mile markers. After experiencing success and critical acclaim, the tow realized they might be on to something, and they turned their attention to Mississippi's other famous road-Highway 61. The brothers planned to research, then record, 61 songs while journeying down the legendary "Blues Highway." Hours of listening to scratchy records at the Blues Archive of the University of Mississippi's Center for the Study of Southern Culture enabled them to figure out how original composers tuned their guitars for certain songs. They also learned where many songs had first been performed. They compiled a list of 120 significant song writers and musicians, whose work they whittled down to 65 songs-they couldn't bear to narrow it to 61-for the four-CD series, entitled "Angels on the Backroads." The first two CDs were released in the fall of 2002 and the third in April; the final CD is timed for release by this summer, since 2003 has been designated the Year of the Blues.
On October 9, 1998, they made their first recording amid the hay bales of a barn on Stovall Farms outside of Clarksdale. "I remember the date and associating it with the weather," said Eddie, who sings and plays the music while Frank handles the technical side of the recordings. "Muddy Waters had left Stovall Farms (where he had worked for much of his youth) to catch the train to Chicago, taking the blues with him. We has struggled so hard to set up in the huge red barn where Muddy Waters might have been, where he had walked around. Sitting in the barn, a huge flock of birds flew past, and the way the music sounded in that barn brought chills."
Later that day, they taped "Sweet Home Chicago" by Robert Johnson while sitting on a bench in front of a closed store in Robinsonville, and Willie Brown's "M & O Blues" while sitting on top of some tanker railroad cars sidetracked alongside Highway 61. "It's like a crow's nest up here looking out over ocean waves of cotton," Frank wrote in the liner notes that accompany the first CD. "This day lives a life of its own. A couple of chords, a few gusts of wind, and slowly our ship of blues begins to move us on a sunward journey."
Back in their Iuka studio, they realized two things: the wind could be heard along with the music, and this project wasn't going to be as easy as they had imagined. They considered recording everything in the studio, but they knew that wouldn't be true to their mission to use the locations to introduce folks to Mississippi and its musical heritage. "It was maybe a year before we made the next recordings," Frank admitted. While in Memphis on business, they decided to set up at the Mississippi River. "lt was an easy day," Frank recalled, "windy, but we got a good recording." Eventually they decided the serendipitous background sounds were an integral part of the settings.
Over the next few years, they worked their way down Highway 61 playing music and making audio and photographic records at each stop. They share that journey on their website, www.angelsonthebackroads.com. In Memphis, they recorded Frank Stokes' "Downtown Blues" while riding the Main Street trolley. "I couldn't hear what I was doing," Eddie said to Frank when they finished. "Was I in tune?"
Using a vintage trumpet, they re-created the opening notes of W.C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues" on top of Memphis' Falls Building. In 1914, Handy had played that song for the first time in the same spot -then the "swanky" Alaskan Roof Garden.
While playing "Shetland Pony Blues" by Eddie James "Son" House in a field near Robinsonville, a mockingbird landed on a telephone pole nearby and sang along. When the song ended, the mockingbird stopped. The brothers learned that in 1903, W.C. Handy had fallen asleep at the Tutwiler depot waiting for a train that was nine hours late. During the night, he was awakened by a little man playing the guitar and singing "Goin' Where the Southern Cross' the Dog." It was the first time Handy had heard the blues.
Frank and Eddie set up for "Yellow Dog Blues" in Moorhead, the destination of Handy's little man. They recorded in a gazebo near the tracks where the Southern Railroad crossed the Yazoo & Mississippi Valley Railroad, known by locals as the "Yellow Dog." Just as the music ended, a dog barked in the distance. "We couldn't have placed it better," Frank said. "We said at the time nobody would ever believe it was real."
At Mounds Landing, where the Mississippi River levee broke in 1927, they played "High Water Everywhere" by Charlie Patton. They found the spot near Vaughan where Casey Jones wrecked the Cannonball, and they recorded "Kassie Jones" by Furry Lewis almost a hundred years to the day later.
They received permission to record inside the derelict King Edward Hotel in Jackson. "The policemen waited outside...while we set up amid the rubble," Frank said. "This was a place where governors and dignitaries had once thrived. It's a bit frightening to think we might well be the last musicians to ever play there." In the studio, Eddie added layers of sound - piano, drums, trumpet and even a jug - to a few of the songs to make them sound as if a full band were playing. Frank engineered the sound mix and wrote the liner notes for the CDs with Eddie's help. "I enjoyed taking the old songs apart to learn how the musicians tuned and played their guitars," Eddie said. "Frank is the technical wizard, making sure the music comes out the way it's supposed to sound."
Along their journey, they made friends in unexpected places. In Avalon - the kind of place where the front of the sign says "Avalon" and the back reads "Avalon" - they found a man working on a motor in a repair shop. When they mentioned they were interested in blues music, the repairman said, "Folks from California, England, and all over ask about John Hurt all the time." An older gentleman leaning against the bench told them he had known Hurt. He led them to the Valley Store where Hurt used to play music. They set up on the same spot for "Avalon Blues." "I could almost feel John Hurt looking over my shoulder," Eddie said. "Sometimes there's such a connection. It took my breath away."
On the final day of recording, National Public Radio documented Eddie's performance of "Sweet Hour of Prayer" in the choir loft of New Orleans' St. Louis Cathedral. The song pays tribute to the warm and moving spirit of church music and its influence on blues and jazz. Frank said, "As the last notes faded away on Eddie's guitar, all of us there could hear music being played outside in Jackson Square, and then the cathedral bells chimed two o'clock. It struck us that nothing had stopped just because we'd completed our journey. The music continues."
The "Angels on the Backroads" CDs may be ordered by calling 800/896-9892, or through the Thomas brothers' website, www.angelsonthebackroads.com. Frank and Eddie now plan to take their music back down Highway 61 on a concert tour to high schools.
This article written by Carolyn Thornton
Read Pennyland Review in No'Ala Magazine