Bought For A Dollar Sold For A Dime

Little Axe, 2010

Everyone gets the blues, says Skip McDonald, who should know. The legendary guitarist gets them - like, really gets them - more than most. "The blues are a fact of life," he adds in a Dayton, Ohio twang undiminished by two decades of UK living. "It doesn't matter where you are. The blues have no boundaries."

An old school bluesman in the tradition of everyone from, say, Howling Wolf and Leadbelly to Blind Willie Johnson, McDonald channels the past into the future through his internationally regarded project, Little Axe. A project that is more than just a band: "We're a collective of different people who, at certain periods, come together to create great work." Founded in the early 1990s, with five acclaimed albums to their credit, Little Axe are redefining the blues for the current generation.

Their melting pot is large, and bubbling. Here are addictive rhythms. Soulful vocals. Pinches of dub and funk, reggae and gospel. Oh-so-subtle samples and innovative electronics. And underpinning it all, McDonald's shimmering blues guitar licks, conjuring a space where the dirt roads of the Deep South meet the shiny lanes of the Information Superhighway. "We take the tones and feelings of the old blues and put today's stamp on it," says McDonald from his north London base, a home/studio that doubles as Little Axe headquarters. "We make music you can feel, taste and touch."

Little Axe, then, are in constant motion. After a series of studio-based, effects-laden albums - and that's albums, not records ("I like to play tunes that connect, tell a story") - they have returned to their roots on Bought For a Dollar, Sold For a Dime. For the first time in 17 years the original crew met, pressed flesh and played live. "Its old school thinking," muses the diminutive McDonald. "Back in the day when Stax and Atlantic were doing albums everyone would pile into the studio and played together. That was the 60s, the boom time for live music. That was my era: it wasn't enough to look good. You had to know how to play."

A host of musical heavyweights assembled in the Big Room at Real World for this rare and privileged session, with all but the London-based McDonald and his co-producer, British dub maestro Adrian Sherwood, flying in from across the USA. Titans such as soul singer Bernard Fowler, whose voice has graced sets from The Rolling Stones, Sly and Robbie to Ryuichi Sakamoto. "Bernard's voice has got everything. Its emotional, changeable and incredibly powerful. We call blues singers like him 'elephants', cause they sure know how to trumpet."

Bought For a Dollar, Sold For a Dime boasts not one but two Tackhead covers. Take A Stroll - itself a cover of a 1930s blues track - is a rhythmic gumbo of dub-reggae and blues that "let us go back to our roots and rediscover ourselves." The rousing, cinematic Hammerhead, a reworked chain gang song refreshed with gutsy horns, big blues voices and compelling female harmonies. "It's all part of a body of music that I know can be confusing to some people," says McDonald of his collectives various side projects (Bernard Fowler's Bad Dog, Mark Stewart and the Mafia, and a reformed Tackhead among them). "It's music as a lifestyle rather than music as a career." "I understand the blues better now that I'm older," he continues. "But doing this album..." He flashes a grin. "This album has made me feel young again."

Reviews

  • ...contender for album of the year. Sherwood and Wimbish have always been at the heart of Little Axe, and have total empathy with Skip's desire to hover between many forms, holding the essence of blues, rather than just playing it "straight". Debut album The Wolf That House Built did this brilliantly with a strong reggae-funk slant, and now almost 20 years on, Bought For A Dollar, Sold For Dime could have surpassed even that....if anyone gives fusion a good name, it is Skip McDonald. Dollar is highly sophisticated, but never po-faced or showy. To Son House's Grinning In your Face, Sherwood brings a lustrous jazziness to the drumming...the gorgeous soul-blues of Can't Sleep appears to contain the spirit of Massive Attack and features legendary rocksteady singer Ken Boothe. Beautifully made, deeply felt and richly subtle. Bought For A Dollar, Sold For A Dime is a contender for album of the year. Daily Express (UK)
  • This record deserves a much wider audience and Skip McDonald given much wider acclaim, as a consequence of it 4/5. allgigs.co.uk (UK)
  • Bought for a Dollar, Sold for a Dime cuts to the heart. Little Axe is a big deal It's encouraging to hear these wonderful songs that evoke such emotion and pay such respect for a much-loved genre. pennyblackmusic.co.uk (UK)
  • ...a gem that deserves to be in everyone's record collection. Vangaurd Online (UK)
  • Superb! This is a wonderful collection of songs...LA (Little Axe) has a magical voice that caresses each song with the deepest empathy. If you have a love of the blues, this album is a must-have. 4/5 Shakenstir.co.uk (UK)
  • ...a compelling reminder that McDonald is a master of the contemporary blues Skip McDonald, aka Little Axe, is a blues guitarist with roots in the classic American tradition, who has been a key player in the history of contemporary black music. Born in Ohio, he was taught to play blues guitar by his father, but made his name in the early 1980s in the Sugar Hill house band, before moving to London to work with Adrian Sherwood's On-U Sound team. But he never forgot the blues. Since the mid-90s he has released a series of albums that have mixed blues with contemporary influences, and this set is as brave and intriguing as anything he has done. Joined by his old Sugar Hill colleagues Doug Wimbish on bass and Keith Leblanc on drums, and with help from singers including Bernard Fowler (of Rolling Stones fame) and reggae star Ken Boothe, he switches from a rambling, powerful treatment of an old Son House song Grinnin' in Your Face to a stomping reworking of Hammer Head, dressed up with dub effects, or an edgy blend of harmony gospel singing and blues lament on Another Friend Gone. This is a compelling reminder that McDonald is a master of the contemporary blues. The Guardian (UK)
  • Totally on the money American-born Brit-based guitarist Skip McDonald is reunited with such past collaborators as Bernard Fowler and Doug Wimbush as he negotiates a sure and certain path through trippy rock, deep blues and unsettling dub. Totally on the money. Mirror.co.uk (UK)
  • A lush and exquisite production (This) album positively drips with class wringing out the blues with his moody guitar licks and highly soulful vocals. A lush and exquisite production really pushes thing along gingerly reggaefied blessedness and silky smooth, this funky new platter really sees the axe man cometh! Just check 'Take A Stroll' that swirls in the dustbowl and emanates pure blues angst with every choice note. The master of sound does not allow any fluff in these tightly honed nuggets. This is a well paced album and the different shades of the blues keeps this fab collection varied yet unified. 'Can't Stop Walking Yet' spacious and sumptuous like so many on this offering is a little gem. This album is turning into a masterpiece! Great to have the Axe back. He is a fully paid up card carrying prince of the blues and I hope real world records really give him the commercial push he so handsomely deserves. B&S Online (UK)
  • Skip scores some of his deepest, genre-defying cuts to date Axe-man Skip scores some of his deepest, genre-defying cuts to date. Some, like Son House's bitter song of alienation, Grinning In Your Face, are dealt out crisp and moody; Hear Me Cry, conversely, is like Dr. John in dub, with a jazzy twist...Avid pigeonholers will throw in the towel come Hammerhead, a chain-gang blues once rebooted by industrial-strength Tackhead, and now taken back to a different dazzling future. MOJO (UK)