Review: Othman Wahabi, Blues for the Dead

Othman Wahabi, Blues for the Dead

14 Jul, 2015 Alex Henderson

othman

The blues have come in many different flavors over the years, ranging from the acoustic southern country blues of the Mississippi Delta and Piedmont, Georgia to the electric blues of Chicago and Detroit.  And then there is blues-rock, which can draw on anything from Mississippi Delta blues to Texas blues to Detroit blues (depending on what the artist is into).  On Blues for the Dead, singer/guitarist and songwriter Othman Wahabi favors a “north meets south” approach to blues-rock that draws on the influence of the Mississippi Delta as well as Chicago and the Motor City.

Blues-rock is often associated with loud, heavily amplified full-fledged bands.  Ten Years After, Cream, George Thorogood & the Destroyers, the Doors and Stevie Ray Vaughan did not hesitate to turn up the decibels.  Nor did Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, the Yardbirds or Canned Heat.  But on tracks like “The Devil’s Daughter,” “Midnight Rider” and “Soul for the Devil,” Othman offers a stripped-down approach.  He plays electric guitar on this album, but his approach is minimal in a good way that recalls the days of bluesmen from Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee and Georgia making their way north to Chicago or Detroit and starting to electrify their sound.  It is the sound of John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf not long after they left the Deep South and moved north, where they maintained their southern techniques yet developed a more amplified and  more urban sound.

Othman has obviously mastered the art of slide guitar, which started on the acoustic guitar in Mississippi but later found its way to the electric guitar in Chicago and Detroit.  Othman (who was born in Casablanca, Morocco on September, 26, 1983 but now lives in Montreal, Quebec in eastern Canada) has clearly learned a valuable lesson that Hooker taught us: the blues don’t necessarily have to adhere to a traditional 12-bar format.  Hooker, from the 1940s on, was by no means someone who felt he had to stick to a 12-bar format 100% of the time.  But when it came to lowdown blues feeling, Hooker did not let us down.  And even though “Midnight Rider,” “Gypsy Woman Blues,” “Goin’ Down to Mexico” and “The Devil’s Daughter” do not rigidly adhere to a strict 12-bar blues structure, they are absolutely oozing with blues feeling.  The feeling of the blues is never missing on this six-song album, and like Hooker, Othman has a knack for moody, dusky grooves.  Wahabi has no problem maintaining a swampy, lowdown type of sound on “Soul for the Devil” or “Working Man.”  Nor does he have a problem expressing himself in perfect English even though he has spent his life in heavily French-speaking environments.

In his native Casablanca, the dominant languages are French and Arabic; many Moroccans are fluent in both of those languages.  And in Montreal, French is the main language even though many quebecois are also fluent or proficient in English.  But the blues, for the most part, have thrived in English-speaking environments.  And when Wahabi is singing on “Goin’ Down to Mexico,” “Gypsy Woman Blues” or “Midnight Rider,” he sounds perfectly comfortable using the English language to offer an abundance of blues imagery.  In fact, Othman sings in English so convincingly on this album that one would never know he has lived in places where English is not the dominant language.

Being only 31 years old, he is not old enough to remember the 1960s/1970s heyday of blues-rock.  He was born 13 years after Jimi Hendrix’s death, and of course, he was born long after Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and John Lee Hooker left the Deep South and advanced their recording careers up north (Hooker in Detroit, Waters and Wolf in Chicago).  But there is no doubt that Othman has absorbed a lot of great blues and blues-rock from the past, and that knowledge serves him well on the engaging Blues for the Dead.

Review by Alex Henderson
3.5 stars out of 5