About the CD & Novel - Letter From Hell
by Andy J Forest
Most of my songs in the past have been autobiographical or anecdotal in the blues tradition but this time the songs are suppose to represent the experience of the characters that I have created in the novel "Letter From Hell" (Pendragon Press). Most of the pre-Hell scenes in the book are based on true stories yet modified to fit the different characters, some write or perform songs that fit their personalities. The poet Arthur Rimbaud appears in Hell reciting his own poetry. He later he sings a Zydeco song that I penned (in French). It was inspired by his poems "Season in Hell" and "The Drunken Boat"
The abstract lyrics of "Lies Have Long Legs" are (fictionally) the product of a dream that the deranged drummer has prior to the ill fated tour in Europe. He was victim of over exposure to convulsive shock therapy in the early 1970s. A thinly disguised true story? You decide. There will be a disclaimer The only tune on the CD which I had no hand in writing is the gospel song which is described in the escape to purgatory scene. "If I Can Help Somebody" is a gospel standard, once recorded by Mahalia Jackson. "Still Hummin'" is a description of what life on the road is like for an unknown blues band. In the book, the story of its composition is told set in the tour van while driving to a gig in Italy.
The story was originally an idea for a film inspired by the great number of jokes that go around about the musician in Hell. Blues lyrics have always been based on true life stories hence timeless. Mythology, folklore, songs and story telling have one thing in common they deal with the human condition and the individual's relationship to society. History has not remarkably changed this fact. Now by combining one story in a book and a CD I have two vehicles to express a gambit of life experiences in an entertaining form (I hope) that will make who ever acquires one, (CD or book) want to know about the counterpart. I call the CD "Letter From Hell", the sound track for the book, although some of the songs do not appear in the novel. The songs and the book were written simultaneously, more or less and basically tell the same story. I was already working on the book and most of the songs were ready when I began the recording session pre-production by booking time with Marc Hewitt at Sound Services Studios after hearing about the work coming out of there by The Wild Magnolias, Rockin' Doopsie, Terrance Simeon, Robbie Robertson, Otis Grand, Michel Shocked, Dr. John and the Neville Brothers (and more). I then bought tapes and recruited the some of the same musicians that play with me in New Orleans on a regular basis at Rhythms, Tipitina's, Magaritaville, Vic's Kangaroo Cafe and the Rivershack and Ruby's Road House.
Marc Adams on piano, organ and one vocal track - has played with me for several years between performing with people like the late Johnny Adams, Irma Thomas, Marva Wright, The Dixie Cups, and his own band The Adams Griffin Project. Rockin' Doopsie recently recorded three original songs by Adams, actually using the rhythm tracks cut by Marc's band. He also co-wrote the tune "Confide" with myself. Marc also came by the studio a week later for the over dubbing to lend an ear and moral support.
Johnny Vidacovich has long been known as "the best drummer in New Orleans" and has been officially recognized as such by the Off Beat Magazine Awards. He was the drummer on Professor Longhairs legendary LP "Crawfish Fiesta" (Alligator records). He has played with John Scoffield, Mose Allison, Harry Connick Jr. and many others. Also the group he founded "Astral Project won a Big Easy Award as best contemporary Jazz ensemble of the year. His instructional video "New Orleans Street Beat" is a huge success with drummers all over the globe. He was a pleasure to work with musically and personally.
Jim Markway who plays upright and electric bass, is a professor of music at Tulane University. He plays with Swing, Traditional Jazz bands, blues, R&B groups and at Cajun dances. He is in constant demand because of his great versatility, sight reading skills and deep feeling for Louisiana music. He has played with Luther Kent, Allen Toussaint, Johnny Adams, Dr. John and countless others.
Everett Eglin is a young guitarist transplanted from California where he backed up many a Bay Area blues great such as Jimmy Witherspoon and Lowell Fulsom. He is now considered one of N.O.'s best electric blues guitarist by many local musicians.
His searing slide part on the tune "Ode to Muddy" was fundamental and indispensable.
All the rhythm tracks were cut during one, nine hour session. We kept most of the live piano, organ, guitar and harmonica solos as played. Even the gospel tune performed by guest artists Davell Crawford and Jackie Tolbert was recorded that day in one take. Davell, Grandson of the renouned "Sugarboy" Crawford is one of the newest revelations coming out of the Crescent City, a star in his own right. Whether playing organ as he does here or singing in his own group, he is creating a sensation world wide at age 22. Jackie Tolbert is virtually unknown outside her tight circle of fans within the southern Baptist ministries of the New Orleans Parishes but talent like hers won't go long unnoticed. You can bet on it. She was the perfect vocalist for the Hell defying prayer song of good will and optimism.
Rounder Records Recording artist Bruce Daigrepont played the mandatory squeeze box on the Zydeco tune "Vacances d'Enfer" and on the party funk "Mardi Gras Baby". Bruce is another old friend whose help was priceless. Between his two takes for two songs, Bruce kept us entertained with recounts of his adventures on the road in France and Switzerland from his unique Cajun point of view. He told us that his father had said "the French say it wrong".
Fort Worth born guitarist Mason Ruffner used to let me jam with him on Bourbon Street in the early eighties but after his commercial success with the hit "Gypsy Blood" produced by Dave Edmunds he moved back to Texas. He flew in just to add the needed Texas edge on the two harder sounding tunes "Deja Blues" and "Lies Have Long Legs". He put a tasteful rock blues tone on these tracks without over-doing it. It was a good excuse to see an old buddy too.
Ward Smith, a New Orleanean who has played his sax with the likes of Jr. Wells, Solomon Burke, Sonny Landreth, Billy Branch and a whole slew of Black Top artists came to add the indispensable tenor parts. This was very important because the protagonist of the novel is a sax player who in Hell is condemned by the Devil to blow blues harmonica for eternity. He captured the atmosphere of the opening pages of the book where-in the lone saxophonist is playing on the Mississippi levee in response to the hauntingly discordant river boat Calliope on the cut entitled "Mud Bellied Catfish Medley". Here we sacrificed story continuity for CD playability by putting it near the end of the recording.
After I added frattoir (rubboard) to four of the tracks we waited for the soul singing cousins, Kenny Brown and Murphy Taylor who were lost and wandering in New Orleans East. They are both well loved friends and veterans of some of my most grueling European tours. When they finally arrived tired and hungry I went out for Po-Boy sandwiches, Bar-B-Q potato chips and a six pack before cutting the back up vocals that were only interrupted occasionally by howling laughter followed by rolling on the floor instigated by Kenny's hilarious antics. We definitely had lots of fun.
Hell can wait. I hope you like it - Andy J Forest
P.S. Audio liner notes were added for the visually impared with the help of Marc Stone (currently of C.J. Chenier's touring band) on National Resophonic Guitar, delta style. I don't know why more people don't use audio notes. I did the same thing on my CD "Hogshead Cheese" because it's a good idea and cheaper than printing braille on the CD cover.
P.S.S. All of my existing CDs (those still in print) are available on Appaloosa Records through Allegro Corporation distribution.
Excerpts from Alex Rawls' review of the novel Letter From Hell in Off Beat Magazine, April 1999:
"New Orleans' blues harmonica player Andy J Forest has recently flexed his literary muscles, writing Letter From Hell, a tall tale about life on the road that takes a very wrong turn".
"... he creates a Hell that is as much Beetlejuice as Dante".
"Forest is completely assured on the accompanying CD, where the skills that first brought him to public attention are strikingly evident. Forest brings the band's music in Hell to life on a CD that shows why he is one of the top harmonica players in the city. The Letter From Hell project as a whole is an ambitious one, merging literary and musical worlds in a way that hasn't been done before".
"...it is a folk tale where the natural and the fanciful meet on undecided turf. Such stories are not easy to tell, but Forest does a good job".
In Detroit, Big City Blues Magazine's Mark A. Cole wote a review of the CD Letter From Hell in the April/May issue:
"Forest's vocals and harmonica, not to mention his visionary songwriting skills, are on their way bigger and better things".
"... we listen to some intriguing rock/blues".
"...this is one hundred percent Bayou all the way".
Dave Nalesnik of New Orleans' Where Y'at wrote:
"Forest turns in a comendable performance on this disc. He plays with confidence and restraint, demonstrating a mastery of his instrument without showboating".