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Ken Yoshioka – Underground Lonesome Blues

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Artist: Ken Yoshioka
Album: Underground Lonesome Blues
Genre: Blues, roots
Influences: John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Little Walter, Big Walter, James Cotton, Sonny Boy Williamson 1 & 2, Sonny Terry, Kim Wilson, Robert Jr. Lockwood, Lightning Hopkins, Gatemouth Brown
Review By: Lee Mellor


Sumida Delta Blues

Fresh from the ebullient and fascinating melange that is cultural globalization comes Ken Yoshioka: an effortlessly cool Japanese harmonica virtuoso who has been eking out a living in the Toronto music scene for the past sixteen years.  A native of Kamakura, about 50 kilometres south of Tokyo, Yoshioka is regarded as a tasteful and versatile backing musician in Toronto’s blues scene.  January 2012’s release Underground Lonesome Blues sees Yoshioka strike out on his own with thirteen tracks inspired by the likes of John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, and Robert Johnson.  So what does a young Japanese man tackling black southern blues in Toronto sound like?  Unique, and often pleasing, to say the least.  The opening track, “Naked Swing”, showcases Yoshioka’s killer harmonica chops — his bread and butter — blowing like an old freight train over the steady rhythm of hand claps.  With a memorable melody, raunchy sounds, and a jubilant bounce, it kicks off the album nicely.  Yoshioka’s raw guitar work and voice are first introduced in “Alberta Woman,” which boasts a sneakily catchy chorus.  Unlike note blistering blues heroes such as Stevie Ray Vaughn, Yoshioka’s approach to the guitar is primarily rhythmic, pumping a steady bass line with his thumb as he picks out choice licks on the treble, ala John Lee Hooker.  He has a remarkable ability to play just the right amount — a quality that is particularly rare, and priceless, in the genre.  Even more interesting is Yoshioka’s lyrical phrasing.  Though it is apparent that he has drawn much of his inspiration from John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters, the Japanese inflections in his voice, perhaps inadvertently, result in a performance that is appealing and original.  In both his guitar playing and vocal style, Yoshioka tends to clip his notes rather than milking them.  This produces a more staccato realization of the blues, which gives the listener plenty of aural space to appreciate Yoshioka’s strengths and weaknesses as a player.  To his credit, it’s a narrow tightrope he is walking.

Tracks 4, 5 & 6, “Goodbye Blues,” “Furuchin Blues,” and “Who’s Loving You Tonight”, are the real standouts on this album.  Given our cultural saturation in the blues and its many offshoots over the past sixty years, it is a true challenge for a songwriter to craft an original tune that feels as authentic and non-contrived as the standards.  Yoshioka manages to accomplish this with “Goodbye Blues”, a jazzy composition featuring an upright bass and saxophone.


His vocal performance here is at its most soulful, the lyrical content is simple but serves the melody well, and the few extra chords and fuller instrumentation are a welcome departure from the sparser production on much of Underground Lonesome Blues. It’s the kind of tune you can imagine Ella Fitzgerald making a meal of, and for that Yoshioka deserves a tip of the hat.  “Furuchin Blues” is an instrumental that should get anyone with a slide guitar fetish off somewhere within its 3:14 duration.   “Who’s Loving You Tonight” couples an imaginative, hypnotic riff with beautiful harmonica work and shakers.  If not for some problems with the rhythm, these songs would be spellbinding.  Unfortunately, things just aren’t quite tight enough to get us there.  Alas, the groove we are looking for is present on some of the later numbers on the disc: “Kenny’s Shuffle” – an instrumental study in the merits of harmonica versus saxophone, and the gritty “Love Me Till I Die.” These tunes, though enjoyable, lack the hooks of the earlier tracks.


Towards the end of  Underground Lonesome Blues the tempos and ideas behind many of the songs begin to repeat.  “Johnny Lee”, “I Heard Crossroad Blues,” and “Namazu Blues” seem cut from the same cloth as many of the introductory tracks.  If you really dig that style, then it’s a good thing, but I found myself expecting something additional that never materialized.  Though listening to Yoshioka’s album was certainly a positive experience, there were some tracks that could probably have been left by the wayside.  Ultimately, if you love the blues and are looking to expand your horizons outside the box, I recommend giving Underground Lonesome Blues a listen.  It has the potential to float your boat, and is a testament to how a love of good, honest music is transcending cultural boundaries in the 21st century.


The Good: A unique and authentic sound, soul bending harmonica, vocal nuances that grow on you, some stellar original blues songs (harder to write than one might imagine), stylistic diversity on the first half of the album, imaginative guitar riffs.


The Bad: The most glaring weakness of Underground Lonesome Blues is the stilted feeling of the rhythm on about 2/3 of the tracks.  The recordings simply do not swing like they should, and this prevents us from becoming fully immersed in the charm of Yoshioka’s music.  Also, a little more variety in the tempos would have kept things fresh through the thirteen track duration.


The Ugly: Undoubtedly, there are going to be purists who turn up their noses at Underground Lonesome Blues for not being “the real deal” (ie. made by a black man with a bad ass nickname seventy-five years ago).  What these individuals will fail to realize is that the blues is like play dough — a simple foundation which anyone can mould and manipulate for the purpose of self expression.  The only “real” way to play is with love and respect for the genre, which Ken Yoshioka clearly has.  It is my hope, that while he continues to refine and perfect his vision, he stays true to his engaging personal style.


By: Lee Mellor

Ken on myspace