No tags :(

Share it




Playing within your limitations is something all athletes constantly have preached to them by every coach worth their whistle. It’s a cliché of course, but as you’ll find with most clichés in life it only became one because it’s true.

In fact this one is something of a criticism wrapped up with fancier ribbons. Not quite a backhanded compliment because there’s not much of a compliment to be found there, but it basically serves the same purpose – namely to make someone aware of their shortcomings.

The reason why playing within your limitations endures as a coaching lesson in all sports is because athletes are, by nature, cocky individuals. There’s always the belief that you are not only better than all of your opponents, but that you can beat them by simply wanting to win more than they do and exerting greater effort.

What happens though is each individual athlete takes it upon themselves to try and single-handedly win the game, to play what’s known as “hero ball” and try and do TOO much, in the process forgetting to rely on teammates and the principles of a structured offense and disciplined defense. By trying to elevate your OWN game and become a star, you’ve actually undercut your team’s chances to win because you simply tried to do more than you’re physically capable of.

What’s the point of this second consecutive athletic intro to a Clifford Blivens review, a newcomer on the scene? Was he some sort of jock who switched to singing after pulling a hamstring or tearing a rotator cuff or something?

No. But Blivens makes for the perfect candidate to use for these sports-related analogies because he was somebody who was the consummate hard worker, a good teammate when it came to working with a band, a singer and songwriter who got the most out of their ability and yet someone for whom it was plainly obvious didn’t have star material, even on his best day.

So his success, aesthetically speaking anyway, would more often than not be based on the precept which opened the review. Would Clifford Blivens be content to play – or sing – within his limitations and not try to show the world he deserved to be a bigger star?

When You Once Were My Baby
The fact Blivens was shaping up to be someone perfectly content to do only what he was called upon to do without delusions of grandeur probably shouldn’t be a surprise considering he only got his chance to sing on record thanks to working as a driver for Big Jay McNeely. Since Jay was a tenor sax player it meant each of his songs would take on a similar appearance to the audience and so to break up a string of instrumentals he’d have a vocalist come on for a brief spot each night on stage.

Rather than hire someone to perform only two or three songs in a two hour show, paying them the rest of the time to sit in the dressing room and play pinochle with a stagehand or compromise a female fan who was desperate to meet her idol, Big Jay, and to do so would perform certain… umm… “favors” for somebody who might be in a position to make the introductions, Jay wisely let his driver, who had a good voice and a knack for songwriting take that task as well.

It’d keep him out of trouble for one thing and since most chauffeurs rarely were “promoted” to anything beyond washing and waxing the car, Blivens might be so grateful for his opportunity that he wouldn’t think to ask for a raise for these added duties, seeing them instead as his big break.

If so however you’d almost expect him to try and upstage the star, not that Big Jay could be upstaged by anything short of The Andrews Sisters doing a striptease while singing I Can Dream Can’t I? and even then it’s an even money bet that you’d still focus more on McNeely when his saxophone lit up in fluorescent colors when the lights went down.

But Blivens always adhered to the sports adage of playing within your limitations. When he cut his first track with Big Jay he did so, then when that same record label, Exclusive, gave him the opportunity to cut songs under his own name when backed by the stellar veterans Edgar Hayes And His Stardusters, jazz, blues and rock musicians of the highest order, Blivens wisely stayed within himself, doing just enough to earn his featured artist designation while letting the band share in, if not precipitate, the glory on Achin’ Heart Boogie.

The same can be said for the flip side today and while Unhappy Woman Blues is certainly not nearly as good as their first effort, it’s one that fits reasonably well within the catalogs of both Hayes and company, as well as Blivens, who is showing that he has already fully grasped what gives him his best shot at leaving his chauffeur’s cap behind, even if it’ll never make him a headliner in his own right.

Drive Me Out Of My Mind
The record starts off with the achingly slow guitar of Teddy Bunn, who bends the strings in drawn out fashion to build anticipation for what may follow. If nothing else it captures your attention and keeps you focused even as Blivens comes into the picture, his singing a bit more robust than need be at first, but never letting himself get out of control.

He eases back as he settles into the story, the plot of which should be plainly obvious by looking at the title, but considering that most relationships people enter into during their lifetime ends with a break-up, and in music that rate is probably double, we can’t fault him much for picking a well-worn theme.

Besides, it’s not so much the story line itself that concerns us as much as it is the details he uses to get the story across, and while Blivens doesn’t plow any new ground – after all the topic is so overused that it’d be hard to find novel ways to bitch about his ex – he also doesn’t make any missteps along the way. His accusations are typical but fairly pointed, from refusing to give her any money because he’s certain she’ll spend it on another man, to claiming he treated her well only to have her file for divorce anyway, there’s is a train wreck of a relationship in every way. For good measure he takes a few gratuitous shots at her just to exorcise his brooding anger which makes you wonder why they ever got together in the first place if he’s so vindictive and she was deserving of all of these complaints.

Even his claim at the end about finding another girl to take her place is expected – and quite transparent – which matches the mood in which he sings this to her. If he really HAD found someone new he wouldn’t bother with his ex-wife, even to rub it in. The truly content don’t need the vindictive satisfaction of coming out of the split in better shape than the one who dumped them, because their new life with someone else – someone better – is its own reward.

So we all fully understand Blivens perspective here – he IS upset, he hasn’t gotten over being thrown to the curb and he wants his pound of flesh from her to… well, not to make himself feel any better, but rather to make her feel worse and share in his misery.

True to life, if not very original, but competently executed all the same.

I’m Not Gonna Give You My Money
Blivens can’t help but benefit from the band he has working behind him, already riding their own first hit as a unit from this past winter with Fat Meat ‘N’ Greens. Edgar Hayes And His Stardusters were well out of his league in terms of talents – their résumés as individuals stretching back more than a decade being far more impressive than any mere backup unit could boast – yet they subjugate themselves to making Blivens come across as best he can.

The first half of the record in particular is a lesson in effective arranging technique. As Hayes plays a strident progression on piano to set the rhythm properly, keeping it feeling as if it is surging forward even as it maintains a more modest pace, Bunn’s guitar plays sharp retorts to each line Blivens delivers, switching them up but making each one count with minimal flashiness. The drummer adds a quirky backbeat and some nice emphatic fills along the way which keeps your head bobbing.

The stop-time bridge features just Blivens and the drummer, with a few notes tossed in by Hayes, and it heightens the drama even though the lyrics don’t spring any surprises on us.

Down the stretch it gets a little more ragged, as Bunn plays a few too many licks trying no doubt to cover for Blivens weaknesses, which increasingly comes to mean his lack of volume control on his vocals, and the two overlap one another more than is optimal, but even here it’s not jarring as much as it just sounds a little disheveled. If you want to suggest that it replicates Blivens deteriorating state of mind as he turns this into a grudge-based rant, feel free to, though it certainly doesn’t sound intentional on their part.

Now the arrangement is far from perfect, even as the main participants pull off their parts with skill and class. The fact that they’re lacking a horn to serve as another voice in the mix is unfortunate as a tenor sax would do wonders to add color – blue most likely – to highlight Blivens mood. Surely since it was his driver and he recorded for the same label it stands to reason that someone could’ve requested McNeely jump in for a twelve bar moaning solo, but absent that this starts to take on a rather monotonous feel by the end.

But then again, considering the lack of experience of the man in the spotlight and the fact this was the flip of a better effort, can you really complain if Unhappy Woman Blues merely fulfills the need of providing a suitable, and perfectly listenable, B-side?

Just Not Satisfied
The fact is what it shows is that Clifford Blivens, someone only in this position thanks to the luck of the draw, was holding serve. There were no real unforced errors on his side of the net, if you want the sports analogy to take to the tennis court… or if you prefer the hardwood he wasn’t turning the ball over on a fast break either.

Blivens had mastered all of the sports related adages – keep the ball low in baseball parlance, don’t turn the puck over in the blue zone in hockey, don’t let the wide receiver get behind the secondary in football, and for God’s sake don’t draw to a low pair in poker when someone has already opened the pot with jacks or better.

But you don’t need to recognize any of those game-related analogies to know this much – Clifford Blivens wasn’t going to beat himself. He might not try and make any dazzling highlight reel plays, but he was going to control the ball, work time off the clock and not commit any dumb fouls or throw the ball away.

In music that means simply stay within yourself, let the band carry the ball and make it to the end regulation without tripping over your own two feet.


(Visit the Artist page of Clifford Blivens for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)
(See also the Artist page of Edgar Hayes & His Stardusters for the complete archive of their records reviewed to date)