Chicago Bluesman Johnny Burgin Presents His Favorite Japanese Players On ‘No Border Blues’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

The well-traveled and prolific Chicago bluesman singer/guitarist/songwriter Johnny Burgin is back with Delmark Records following his 2019 Live, a recording he made while in California. Burgin, of course, has graced many of the label’s albums prior to a brief hiatus in California, most notably with Tail Dragger. Burgin tries to bring something different each time he issues a solo album, and this one, although purely as deep and raw as any, may surprise folks, given that his accompanists are all Japanese players. Hence, No Border Blues.

We all can recall some great blues albums in Japan, my favorite being the soul/blues Otis Clay: Live in Japan, but that like tours from Otis Rush, Jimmy Dawkins, Eddie Taylor, and others were with U.S. bandmates. Nonetheless, they made an impact in Japan and this is the first-ever American compilation of some of the best Japanese bluesmen and women today, Burgin sings, plays guitar, offers a couple of originals, but the musicians from Japan do the rest. 

Burgin gives a lengthy overview in the liners, having first visited Japan in ’96 with his college friend and Tail Dragger bandmate Ken Kawashima. They had gigs with Tail Dragger in three cities in sic or seven days, publicized by a record owner in Tokyo. Burgin was struck by the talent of Kozy Ouchi, a musician who modeled himself after Lightnin’ Hopkins.  He met Kotez, harpman and singer, who plays on Little Walter’s “I Just Keep Loving Her” and his original “Samurai Harp Attack.” He also worked with drummer Takagiman, who plays on five of the eleven cuts.

Many of the Japanese musicians who appear are from Burgin’s 2013 tour as a headliner. They include bassist Yoshimi Hirata (3 tracks), pianist Lee Kanehira (piano on 6 tracks and vocals on “So Crazy About You” and “I Just Keep Loving Her.” Kyoto harpman Kaz Ohnogi blows on four tracks and adds vocals to the Little Walter tune. Yoshi Mizuna from Osaka plays guitar on six tracks, taking lead on the West Side Carey Bell opener “One Day You’re Gonna Get Lucky.” 

In 2018 Burgin returned to Japan, this time with his producer wife, Stephanie Tice. On that tour they met Nacomi, and original front woman who vocalizes and plays guitar on Burgin’s original “Hurry Up Baby” and sings on the closer “Sweet Home Osaka.”  On that same tour they met Carey Bell-styled harpist Iper Onsihi who can be heard on six tracks and is among those singing on the first track. There are others who appear in the credits that aren’t specifically called out in the liners and others still who managed tours and helped coordinate various arrangements.

If one were to play this album, the take for the unknowing would be – “pure Chicago blues.”   Interestingly, here is some related commentary from Burgin on that. “While here in the State there can be a stigma about being a “purist”—the label is usually not a compliment—in Japan, this purism is the basic starting point. The “purer” I played the blues –the more I stuck to the tone and flavor of the original blues masters—the more the musicians and audiences liked it!” Later he goes on to say, “Throughout my time in Japan, I was struck by the selflessness and discipline so many Japanese musicians displayed. The artists on No Border Blues don’t worry about being nominated for awards, because there aren’t any. They don’t compete for gigs, because practically nobody plays music for a living. I hope that their spirit, attitude towards their craft, and soul will refresh,, intrigue and impress you as much as it has me over the years, and that the rest of the world will come to know some of the hidden treasures of Japan’s underground blues scene.”

Delmark is today’s most “pure” blues label and it’s only fitting that they and Burgin present this showcase for the Japanese musicians.  This is so raw, that at times you may yearn for blues a bit cleaner, yet therein lies the beauty of this recording. Let it rip, play it loud, and rattle yours and your neighbor’s walls. 

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One Response

  1. Hi there…. Stephanie Tice here..
    Just for the record, Johnny Burgin and I are NOT Married!!!…

    We hope though to continue our Blues collaboration through our broadcast,

    No Border Blues…

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