Chris Cain is one of those gifted blues musicians whose fame doesn’t extend quite as far as his prodigious talents.
His terrific new album, “Raisin’ Cain,” drops tomorrow (April 9). It’s his first for Alligator Records. Both of those factors — a terrific album, and Alligator’s prominence in the blues recording business — should go a long way toward moving Cain even higher in the blues guitarist pyramid.
I’m not trying to say that Chris Cain has been hidden in the blues witness protection program. He’s been playing his strings off for three decades. He’s a star in his West Coast stomping grounds in the San Francisco Bay area. This is his 15th album. His guitar work, like his vocals, is big, bold and relentless.
On this album, Cain delivers a set of 12 originals that highlight his songwriting skills, his tough and gruff vocal style, and his versatile guitar work.
His entire skill set comes together for me here on two blazing tracks — the scorching “Down on the Ground” and the autobiographical “Born to Play.” They’re filled with lyrical grit and seriously ferocious guitar; the kind of music that should immediately come to mind whenever you hear the word “blues.”
And if those two songs aren’t enough for you, there are 10 more, all just as fine in their own way.
Some highlights: “Can’t Find a Good Reason” finds Cain lamenting a lost love (relationships being a recurring theme here), but with a lighter touch with more liquid, guitar runs; “Found a Way to Make Me Say Goodbye” struts along with muscular vocals out front; “Hush Money” has a funky vibe; “I Don’t Know Exactly What’s Wrong With My Baby” is quieter, looser jazz-infused; “Space Force” wraps up the album with a quirky, jazz-like turn on the ARP Soloist synthesizer. And just to show that’s no fluke, Cain takes a keyboard turn on several songs with piano, Wurlitzer Electric Piano, and the clavinet (think Stevie Wonder on “Superstition.”
“Raisin’ Cain” was recorded in San Jose, Calif., at the prolific Kid Andersen’s Greaseland Studio. Andersen, as he often does, contributes some guitar and even background vocals. Cain’s backer’s here are bassist Steve Evans, keyboardist/organist Greg Rahn, and Chris’ touring drummer Sky Garcia and veteran D’mar Martin sharing those duties.
Cain says “I want my songs to tell universal stories,” and they do. That story-telling, a key to all good blues, lends a cohesive quality to the album that underlies the passion of the music. If you’ve never had the pleasure, or haven’t heard him for a while, check out “Raisin’ Cain.” It’s Chris Cain at the top of his already winning game.
And now for something a little different:
It has occurred to me (yes, sometimes things do) that in today’s world of music, a huge amount is heard through streaming services and is bought online, sometimes a track at a time. This means that today’s music consumer is deprived of one of the physical pleasures of music ownership that was once commonplace to dinosaurs like myself — the record album cover. Or CD booklet. Or cassette label. Or 45 sleeve. I don’t know what eight-tracks had.
You usually get to see the album cover (pictured above, at no extra cost), but you may rarely see the liner notes. It’s true, those notes are infallibly high praise for the contents, but quite often they include biographical or other information of interest to the fan who sometimes enjoys words with her music.
And so (again, completely free and with no obligation on your part), here are the interesting and informative liner notes from “Raisin’ Cain” by the illustrious Dick Shurman . Let me know if this is worth the time it takes me to copy and paste.
Take some influence from B.B. King, Albert King, Ray Charles, and a pinch of Albert Collins. Add in dazzling blues and jazz guitar chops, a rich soulful baritone vocal delivering original, often wry and beleaguered lyrics with sophisticated chord changes and instrumentation, and skills on various horns and keyboards, all delivered with an uptown cool that never lacks searing passion. It all adds up to the one and only Chris Cain, who has gone from being a newcomer phenomenon bursting onto the blues scene in 1987 with a classic debut release, to being a legend, inspiration and long-established member of the blues pantheon. His fifteenth CD, Raisin’ Cain, ranks among his best.
The San Francisco Bay Area has nurtured an illustrious coterie of blues guitar greats, including Chicago transplant Mike Bloomfield and Robben Ford. So blues fans took notice when word started coming from the South Bay in the late ’80s that a serious new contender was stepping into the ring, with major league string bends, a fluid touch, a soaring tone and a master’s approach to composition. Chris’ first CD, Late Night City Blues, was issued on Robben Ford’s brother Pat’s Blue Rock’It label. Containing all the essential elements of Chris’ excellence, conveyed via shuffles, slow blues, swing and funk, framed by keys and horns, it garnered raves. The album received four W.C. Handy nominations including Band Of The Year and Guitarist Of The Year.
Chris was born in San Jose on November 19, 1955, as he recounts in “Born To Play.” Both his parents were blues-enlightened, especially his Memphis-raised, African-American father but also his Greek mother. He was taken to concerts by blues and jazz immortals from the get-go; he remembers attending a B.B. King show when he was three. His father gave Chris a guitar at age eight; by the time he was 18 he was playing professionally (and had also taught himself piano). His mother introduced Chris to Mike Bloomfield’s music early on; it served as an affirmation that someone like him could achieve what he was chasing. Vocal inspirations came from Curtis Salgado, Gary Smith, and big-voiced jazzy blues singers like Jimmy Witherspoon and Big Joe Turner. Chris has described his efforts to sing in a voice like his speaking voice, and his vocals reflect a conversational quality as well as a full quotient of melodicism. He studied music at San Jose City College (where he also took up saxophone); soon he was teaching jazz improvisation there. Eventually, to help him get jobs, he recorded the songs that became Late Night City Blues. Chris says, “Today that record is still a favorite. It was me doing it my way.” It sent him into the blues public consciousness and onto the touring circuit. He made an immediate splash, earning the respect of his fellow musicians, including that of his heroes Albert King and Albert Collins, who invited Chris onstage to jam with them.
Since then Chris has cut a dozen CDs on Blue Rock’It, Blind Pig, Little Village, his own label and a 2015 release fronting a New Zealand big band. It is a sign of the esteem from his peers that he has been in demand for recorded cameos, with Mighty Mike Schermer, Luca Giordano, Sista Monica, E.C. Scott, the Ford Blues Band, Robben Ford, Chester Thompson and Nancy Wright, plus many others. His previous album, Chris Cain, on the Little Village label, was produced by Kid Andersen and recorded at Kid Andersen’s Greaseland studio in San Jose in 2017. Things went so well that the principals returned to the scene of the crime. Raisin’ Cain is the happy result.
Chris’ path to Alligator has been the proverbial long and winding road. Early on, Chris sent some of his music to Alligator; the label took a pass. After all these years, it’s extremely gratifying to see that the stars finally lined up, and Raisin’ Cain more than justifies the mutual faith between Chris and Alligator that should benefit both parties and blues fandom. The program is all originals, with Chris stinging and swinging over mellow but insistent grooves in well-crafted settings and on top of his game, even venturing to an Arp Soloist synthesizer for the concluding “Space Force.” The autobiographical “Born To Play” reiterates that few can or could dig as deeply into a slow blues as Chris. But it’s his versatility as well as his musical mastery that continues to mark Chris as special. Chris continues his globetrotting (he’s performed in Argentina, Uruguay, Italy, Spain, France, Belgium, The Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, Switzerland, Australia, New Zealand, Russia, Ukraine and more) and racking up highway miles in the U.S.. He retains his reputation as one of the tastiest and most powerful artists on the scene and a musician’s musician. He’s a beloved cult figure in the Bay Area, and his licks resound through the playing of many locals. But there was never a hit song and he never sustained visibility on the national scene. Now he has an opportunity with a label which has proven to be a major asset for its roster.
For all his booming voice, Chris will never be known for the imposing physical stature its depth suggests. But that’s the only lack of stature about Chris. When a lucky listener enjoys his music, there is absolutely no doubt that Chris Cain is a giant.
Dick Shurman is a blues producer and historian. He has produced over 60 albums and been published worldwide. He has been inducted into the Blues Hall Of Fame and the Chicago Blues Hall Of Fame.
“Raisin’ Cain” tracklist:
1. Hush Money
2. You Won’t Have A Problem When I’m Gone
3. Too Many Problems
4. Down On The Ground
5. I Believe I Got Off Cheap
6. Can’t Find A Good Reason
7. Found A Way To Make Me Say Goodbye
8. Born To Play
9. I Don’t Know Exactly What’s Wrong With My Baby
10. Out Of My Head
11. As Long As You Get What You Want
12. Space Force