Modern Country Blues are alive and well and living in Turin, Italy.
Every so often an album comes along that takes you by surprise and puts a smile on your face. “As the Tide Gets High and Low” is one such album. There’s nothing new about it. It breaks no barriers and creates no new sounds; it’s nothing you haven’t heard before, but this album rings with fun and creativity and joie de vie, or perhaps, in this case, gioia della vita, that you just have to surrender to the music. And that’s no mean feat when the music in question is the blues! To be fair, this isn’t blues blues. This is country blues – and there’s quite a bit of outlaw-style country music and attitude contained in these songs. Apparently, Waylon Jennings is something of an inspiration and you do hear aspects of his music here, though you probably hear more of the musician’s other musical heroes, Doc Watson and John Fahey. I was reminded a lot of the music of Chris Smither, a fine player and a writer of insightful, observational songs that contain a fair bit of humour, along with some pertinent musings on life. So far, so American – so it may come as something of a shock to discover that The Blues Against Youth is Italian singer and guitarist, Gianni Tbay and that this album wasn’t recorded in Louisiana or around the Mississippi delta but at his home in the stately city of Turin, in Northern Italy.
This is Tbay’s sixth album and, on the strength of this release, it’s surprising that he’s not better known outside of his native Italy. He does tour extensively in Europe and the U.S, when such things are allowed, and it would seem that many of the songs on this album have been inspired by his travels, particularly, according to the press release, by his U.S tours in 2018 & 2019 – but there’s another theme clearly running through the album and that’s one of displacement and the plight of those running from persecution. Lyrically these are clever songs, as well as being very listenable. ‘Goin’ to Chicago’ can obviously be about Tbay’s own experience of visiting Chicago on one of his tours but it can equally be about black migration from the Southern states to find work in the North, especially for musicians; “I’m going to Chicago with a song in my head, it’s in my head/ Got a blues that seems too hard to shake/ Grab my guitar, hop the train.” Similarly with stand out track ‘Goin’ to East Texas’ – it could be about a bluesman going to meet up with a girl he knows, but it could also be about Tbay going to collect a guitar he wants; “I found her in Chicago/ Displayed at Sloppy Joe’s/ I smirked at her and she just did the same to me/ I took her in my arms and hint a little harmony/ She filled that filthy air with happy tones”. This song is particularly enjoyable for the clever use of the Greyhound Bus conductor’s address to passengers that has been used at the beginning and end of the track, it tells a great story.
This possibility of dual intention is there right from the opening track of the album. ‘Refugee’ is another track where the meaning seems intentionally blurred. It could be a track about slavery, just as so many early blues songs were – but its lyrics can equally apply to the plight of modern refugees, desperately trying to find a way to the West. This is, very much, a song for our times. Italy is a front-line state when it comes to being a target for refugees, particularly from Africa. The country has taken in over 400,000 asylum seekers in recent years and the boats crossing the Mediterranean in search of refuge make the numbers coming across the Channel seem like the proverbial drop in the ocean. Tbay’s song addresses the plight of all refugees – “Nowhere I’m running/ No way to go/ No mercy given/ Covered in blood/ In raging waves drifting/ I’ll be among the dead just floating”. When you get inside the songs on this album many of them carry real weight and have a timeless quality, addressing issues that have been with us for centuries and are with us still. This is what good roots music is all about – telling the stories that need to be told. This may sound like it’s all doom and gloom but that’s the other clever aspect of this recording because it does, as mentioned earlier, have a clearly celebratory feel about it and there is that sense of overcoming obstacles and arriving at a better place, even if it wasn’t the place you were aiming for.
The other triumph of this album is the quality of the recording. Considering this album was produced during lockdown, and with Gianni Tbay doing all the recording himself, the sound is superb and you can clearly hear the constituent parts of each song. There’s some terrific country blues guitar from Tbay himself but mention has to go to the other musicians on the album for their input – Joost Dijkema (bass), Meek Hokum (guitar, saw), and Simone Pozzi (drums) who provide solid backing on all the tracks. Margherita Patrignani deserves special mention, for her backing vocals that really make a couple of the tracks stand out, as does Gulielmo Nodari who did a great job of mixing the tracks but also contributed upright bass and played organ on a couple of tracks.
It should be said that the album’s not completely without a couple of minor issues. These mainly come from Tbay’s own guitar style and the heavy use of slide. He’s an excellent player but, if you’re not a fan of slide playing, you might not take to his playing and he needs to guard against the danger that the songs start to sound a little samey as you progress through the album. His audience is likely to be a little niche but, if you do enjoy well-played country blues, then this is definitely an album for you. Gianni Tbay has shown with this album that the blues can be a joyful experience as well as a study in misery – he’s also shown that good country blues playing is not restricted to the Mississippi Delta or Chicago Juke Joints.