Some albums have a great story behind them, but the story doesn’t play into the music. No Border Blues is Johnny Burgin’s tribute to the passionate, underground Japanese blues world, with the Chicago-formed singer/guitarist performing with different permutations of Japanese blues artists he connected with on his Japanese tours, as well as some Japanese ex-patriots now plying their trade in the United States. It’s a fun album of strong performances and quality songs—most of them covers. It’s a smart album concept, but not an overt one: all you hear is blues. And some snippets of Japanese.
Which is fine. If you want a story, you’ll watch a movie. If you want blues, you’ll put on this album. Burgin developed a clever hook to showcase some top-notch Japanese blues artists and he wisely chooses to leave the genre alone, not attempting to make it into something it isn’t, but instead diving in on some serious blues, occasionally dipping a toe into blues rock, but mostly keeping things traditional. Burgin’s voice and guitar are solid. He gives himself space to show off his old-school goods, but he also chose some great players to bring his vision to life and makes sure we get to hear them.
For instance, Burgin’s take on Tampa Red’s “So Crazy About You” is raw, with everyone fighting to play most behind the beat, giving the tune an authentic blues sound and sense of drama. Burgin duets with Lee Kanehira, both singing in unison and locked in on a desperate sound. Neither has a traditionally blues smokiness, but they convey the emotion of the track. Ataka Suzuki’s drums are subtle, steering the song but never containing it or overwhelming it, acting more like a sheep dog trying to guide the flock to where it needs to go. Burgin and his band aren’t breaking new ground, which is the point of the album. They’re doing the blues right.
But of course, there are Japanese indications across the album. One of the best is “Mada Sukinanda,” a Japanese-sung version of Little Walter’s “I Just Keep Loving Her.” Kotez handles the vocals and harmonica and proves the blues’ global nature. On the one hand, you have a blues vocal in another language, that somehow makes sense to those of us who don’t speak Japanese. Lyrics are important, but there’s also a lot to be done with the sentiment behind the words. At the same time, Kotez’s harmonica work is everything you could want, tearing through the track like a heat-seeking missile chasing Kanehira’s piano. Apparently harmonica, unlike Esperanto, is a universal language. The album concludes with “Sweet Home Osaka,” a version of the standard “Sweet Home Chicago,” with seemingly everyone on the album joining in on the fun. Nacomi Tanaka sings with Burgin here, showing off the bluesiest voice on the album, the perfect conclusion. The blues is home to many, transcending geography. So even as Burgin and Tanaka name-check Japanese cities, the message is more that the blues is everywhere.
In a weird way, this album would have been much more interesting if the musicians’ nationality was hidden until the end, the big reveal, like when you could harass people in restaurants by switching their coffee, film the humiliations, and then let everyone laugh at the victims’ rube-like coffee palates. Sadly, there’s no practical way to do that for an album. However, the few Japanese-specific touches are fun. Burgin smartly keeps this a straight-ahead blues album, showcasing a previously-unknown-to-me blues community that has wonderful blues chops.
The Review: 9/10
Can’t Miss Tracks
– I Just Keep Loving Her (Mada Sukinanda)
– Sweet Home Osaka
– One Day You’re Gonna Get Lucky
– So Crazy About You
The Big Hit
– So Crazy About You
Review by Steven Ovadia