Bought For A Dollar, Sold For A Dime

Little Axe

Released 01 June 2010

  1. Guide My Feet
  2. Soul Of A Man
  3. Grinning In Your Face
  4. Take A Stroll
  5. Hands Off
  6. Can't Sleep
  7. Hammerhead
  8. Can't Stop Walking Yet
  9. Hear Me Cry
  10. Too Late
  11. Another Friend Gone
  12. Tell Me Why
  13. Return
  14. When The Sun Goes Down

Liner notes

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 doesnʼt 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: “Weʼre 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, McDonaldʼs 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 todayʼs 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 thatʼs 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. “Itʼs 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 ʻ60s, the boom time for live music. That was my era: it wasnʼt 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 Ryuchi Sakamoto. “Bernardʼs voice has got everything. Itʼs emotional, changeable and incredibly powerful. We call blues singers like him elephants, ʻcause they sure know how to trumpet.”

There, too, was drummer Keith LeBlanc, a percussionist with a similarly impressive solo CV. Bassist Doug Wimbish, erstwhile axeman for rock outfit Living Colour and session player extraordinaire. All of whom made up the seminal British outfit, Tackhead (1987-1991 CK), a band whose futuristic beat was once likened to a thousand iron doors shutting at once— and whose pioneering devices are now integral aspects of rap and pop. LeBlanc, Wimbish and McDonald had previously blazed a trail as The Sugarhill Gang, house band of the famed early ʻ80s rap label Sugar Hill Records; they were, quite probably, the most important rhythm section on the planet.

“Iʼve worked with a helluva lot of different people over the years,” says McDonald, who learned blues guitar from his father, Willie, a steel mill worker who would lull his son to sleep with bedtime songs instead of stories. Young Skip made his live debut in a jazz band aged 10; aged 12 he was playing with a gospel quartet and an R&B band soon after. “Everyone has their own skills, their own way of doing things,” he continues. “Seeing things done from all these angles has been like breadcrumbs to me. So I like to take something old, something new and put a little bit of me in there. Oh yeah— and then I like to have a good time.”

And itʼs blues that offers the best time of all. Such vibrancy is deftly captured on Bought For a Dollar, Sold For A Dime, buoyed by the almost psychic connection of all involved. “We played as if we were doing a gig with an audience. The colours, the feeling, the rhythm —everything matched.”

Skip McDonald at Real World Studios, 2010. Photo credit: York Tillyer

Real Worldʼs state-of-the-art facilities opened its arms to other collective regulars: impassioned vocalists Saranella Bell and Kevin Gibbs, harmonica player Alan Glen and brass ensemble, The Crispy Horns. Deep-throated guest vocalist Ken Booth recorded his parts —for the affecting ‘Canʼt Sleep At Night’ and the measured, spacious ‘Temptation’— in Jamaica. Guest drummer, the Paris-based Cyril Atef, uploaded his contributions to the mixing studio, where McDonald and Sherwood put their final touches to tracks both new and reworked. The result is a live album, Little Axe-style.

“Adrian comes from an era of doing it one way,” says McDonald of Sherwood, the lap-top-leaning mixologist behind the ongoing dub/roots/sound system project, On-U Sound. “And I come from an era of doing it another. That whole exchange and mix and match and push and pull is what makes us good together.”

Sherwoodʼs cut-and-paste aesthetic extends to lyric writing. Tracks co-written with McDonald (under the names B Alexander and A Maxwell) mix original words with new phrases as they variously blend vintage blues with electronic triggers and the haunting dynamism of the Little Axe crew. ʻA man has to go back to the crossroads to find himself,ʼ intones Fowler on the dramatic, harmonica-laden ‘Soul of A Man’ (“Thatʼs about realising that lifeʼs right in front of you”); ‘Canʼt Stop Walking’, reconstructed from a 1930s blues track, is flecked with McDonaldʼs deft, intuitive chord changes. ‘Canʼt Sleep At Night’ borrows from a song by redoubtable Depression-era singer, Big Mama Thornton. And ‘Come Back Home’? “Cause youʼve been gone too long,” offers McDonald, mercurially.

“We take the tones and feelings of the old blues and put todayʼs stamp on it. We make music you can feel, taste and touch.” Skip McDonald, Little Axe

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. “Itʼs all part of a body of music that I know can be confusing to some people,” says McDonald of his collectiveʼs various side projects (Bernard Fowlerʼs Bad Dog, Mark Stewart and the Mafia and a reformed Tackhead among them). “Itʼs music as a lifestyle rather than music as a career.”

‘Another Friend Gone’ is an uplifting, gospel-flavoured number with a clap-happy choir, a sample of the old hymn ‘How Great Thou Art’ and always, McDonaldʼs blues guitar: “Itʼs for all my friends who have passed away,” he says. “Itʼs for all those fallen angels.”

‘Too Late’, with its admonishing lyrics (ʻAre you a sheep or a man?ʼ) and ambient yet urgent blues vibe, is an environmental call-to-arms: “Everyone knows about global warming, but they should be stepping in to fight. Weʼre saying do something now, while you still can.” Then thereʼs ‘Temptation’, which insists that people take their own advice instead of doling it out to others.

McDonald has. “I always say there are only two kinds of music. The music you like and the music you donʼt like. I only make music I love.” Before starting work on Bought For a Dollar… he listened to a lot of his favourites. “I always do my research. I go through everyone from Beethoven, Skip James and Charlie Parker to Janis Joplin, Howling Wolf and Son House. In terms of feeling and emotion thereʼs nothing thatʼs said now that hasnʼt been said before.” He pauses, smiles. “A lot of times I think people try and create the wheel again when you just have to do enough research. Itʼs better to work hard than wait for divine inspiration.”

Bought For a Dollar, Sold For a Dime hints at God-given greatness, nonetheless. McDonald might not have sold his soul at the crossroads, but heʼs looked both ways —down the road of the old blues, up the highway of the future— before proceeding.

“I see myself as a time traveller,” he says. “I started out live and went into studio culture. Iʼve gone all the way back and come full circle, though this time Iʼve got the advantage of technology as well. Hey, Iʼm even doing covers of my own songs. Itʼs all part of the same puzzle.”

“I understand the blues better now that Iʼm older,” he continues. “But doing this album…” He flashes a grin. “This album has made me feel young again.”

Words by Jane Cornwell

Listen

Reviews

  • Skip scores some of his deepest, genre-defying cuts to date MOJO (UK)
  • 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. The Mirror (UK)
  • A compelling reminder that McDonald is a master of the contemporary blues The Guardian (UK)

Further Listening

  • Champagne and Grits

    Little Axe

    Released 20 September 2004

    Little Axe is the project Ohio musician Skip McDonald started in the early 1990s to reconnect himself with the blues of his childhood. His dad, a bluesman and steel mill worker, taught him blues guitar before he was ten years old.
  • Never Trust A Hippy

    Adrian Sherwood

    Released 24 February 2003

    Never Trust A Hippy is Adrian Sherwood's eclectic, compelling, and lovingly crafted solo debut. "It's a logical marriage," Sherwood says. "I was thinking about myself in conjunction with the bulk of what Real World has done. It's my own version of a kind of world music-sci-fi-dub-dancehall record, made contemporary by using such great people as Sly and Robbie, Lenky, Jazzwad and Bubblers."

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