The Boston Blues Society

There's a saying in Japan that goes something like: “turn poison into medicine.”

The positive aspect of the proverb prompted native son Satoru Nakagawa, guitarist and singer of Boston's Tokyo Tramps, to create this five-track CD of original solo songs - most sounding like they came straight from the Mississippi Delta.

Satoru, who came to the U.S. two decades ago because of his love of American music, was troubled when Tramps drummer Kosei Fukuyama decided to move back to Japan just as the three-piece Tramps were readying for a run in the Boston Blues Challenge. Rather than wait another year, Satoru, a talented slide guitarist, decided to enter the challenge as a solo act.

“To my surprise, I found myself really getting into it,” he said. “It's a very different experience from playing in a band. Also I found myself getting closer to the essence of the blues. The Delta blues is so deep that I thought I could never play with the authentic feel to it, but now I feel like I can do more.”

The disc opens with “Good Morning Marietta” a saga about a frenzied 2011 road trip the Tramps made to Marietta, Ohio, for a 20-minute set in the Ohio blues challenge. They won, and the song is about the experience. This version sounds like Muddy Waters, although Satoru said he was initially inspired by T-Bone Walker and Clarence Gatemouth Brown. Either way, he said the song did not work well for the band and was rearranged several times before Muddy's acoustic style came ambling through.

I also found a Muddy Waters, and perhaps Elmore James, aspect to “No Time Man Blues,” which was originally written for Tramps' vocalist-bassist Yukiko Fujii - Satoru's wife - to sing during a difficult time dealing with her mother's illness. The title was changed so he could sing it, and the guitar playing is as thick and swampy as the Sunflower River that runs through Clarksdale, Miss.

Which is a nice segue to the next song, “Down to the River,” a classic blues tale of a guy looking for his gal: “I want to wear my three-piece suit and take my lady to a nice cafe.”

Satoru, who lived in New Orleans when he first came to the U.S., said he often went to the banks of the Mississippi River in the Crescent City to watch steamboats rolling by. He used that scenario for the song, which he arranged to sound like Son House. The guitar part is from House's “Death Letter,” and Satoru acknowledges it's a tricky song to play, although listeners wouldn't notice any problems.

The last two songs, the title track “Me and My Guitar,” and “Mojo Boogie” take inspiration from Lightnin' Hopkins and Jimmy Reed, including a Jimmy Reed guitar technique 'splained to Satoru by our own Professor Harp, who knows a thing or two about unique tension and sounds in music.

“Mojo Boogie” is a buffet of Delta styles with a southern boogie feel.

Satoru's vocals are in a higher range than most blues fans are used to, but his pronunciation of English words has improved immensely. I heard only one hint of an accent: “sous' rather than “south.” That's OK - it gives his music a shot of sake. Satoru's guitar playing, however, is pure American Delta Blues - and you can tell he loves it, feels it and can communicate it.

Satoru plans to book some solo shows, and the CD will be sold at them. Check it out. It's time we got back to the blues around here.

Though this review will probably be released after the International Blues Challenge and the Tokyo Tramps have recently undergone a line-up change, I expect Rollin’ Rockland Blues Hour and Satoru Nakagawa’s entry into the solo/duo competition of the IBC to herald a very big year for the Tokyo Tramps.

It may sound incredibly crass, or show my complete naiveté when it comes to making money in the music industry, but ultimately I don’t care. The Tokyo Tramps have been an enigma from the first moment I heard them and remain an enigma as I attempt to review their sixth release, Rollin’ Rockland Blues Hour. In a contemporary blues market where originality is given a back seat to non-threatening packaging, I have absolutely no idea why a major blues indy label which used to be the toast of Chicago, or any other label hasn’t scooped up the Tokyo Tramps, offered up some capital support and then just laughed their way to the bank.

Whether it be their blues power trio line-up, or their new blues quartet line-up, I have yet to hear a band like the Tokyo Tramps play such a radio-friendly blues rock sound without diluting their sound with a complete lack of originality. While many others either get caught up with copying their musical heroes or not having strong enough musical chops to add their own original inflection on the standard chord progressions, Satoru, Yukiko and the Tokyo Tramps lay down an irresistible Chicago Blues Rock sound while also paying homage to their Japanese roots by mixing American blues idioms with their Japanese heritage.

Rollin’ Rockland Blues Hour opens with “Good Morning Marietta,” which also appears on Satoru’s solo EP Me and My Guitar. On the version recorded for Rollin’ Rockland Blues Hour, drummer Kosei Fukuyama kicks off the song with a New Orleans Second Line drum groove before both Yukiko Fujii and Satoru lay down their bass and guitar lines. The irresistible groove and pocket created by the trio set the listener up for the remaining 11 tracks. For those who have had the chance to experience the Tokyo Tramps live, “Me and My Guitar” (which is also the title and a track available on Satoru’s EP), is one of those signature tracks that they can truly appreciate. From the opening riff, it is easy to envision Satoru wailing on his Telecaster while stomping on a pool table a la most of their appearances at Geezers Garage Nite at the Granite Rail in Quincy or any of their other live appearances, while Yukiko and Kosei lock down an extended groove. The energy conveyed on “Me and My Guitar” sounds devoid of drop-ins or overdubs and is all that was needed for this track. Proving every bit the vocalist, song writer, and rocker, Yukiko handles the vocal duties on “Papa’s My Number One Fan.” The lyrics on this tune are obviously biographical; a touching tale of a father’s unconditional love belted out over a raucous track. The highly original track makes for repeated spins. If my earlier prognostication does not prove true, it won’t be for the lack of talent or effort on behalf of Tokyo Tramps. With an active gigging and recording schedule, the Tokyo Tramps prove they are more than willing to do what it takes to entertain the masses. Here is to hoping the right people at the IBC get wind of that Tokyo Tramps sound.