Ocean of Tears : Liner Notes

Paul deLay eases his triple XL frame onto the couch, sips an orange juice and ponders a query about the genesis of Ocean of Tears, his new album. The bluesman's gaze is steady and calm, his eyes reflecting some hard-won wisdom, and a hint of mirth. "Well," he says finally, "most of that stuff was written in camp, no gettin' around that."

He's trying to answer the question that immediately enters the mind of any discerning listener who encounters this remarkable collection of songs. Namely, in a world overpopulated with three-chord merchants and slavish imitators, where does blues this fresh, funky, and original come from?

The answer lies in one man's dark night of the soul, a drama in which Paul deLay took control of his life, and finally came to grips with his enormous musical gift.

The "camp" he refers to was an artistic retreat of the most brutal sort: a Federal prison where deLay served 41 months on drug charges. After a harrowing, late '80s slide into addiction, deLay found himself incarcerated and alone, with nothing except the shards of his self-respect and a notebook full of song ideas he'd been carrying around for 20 years. He surveyed the wreckage and decided to make the most of the one thing he still had plenty of: time.

The long-time Pacific Northwest blues legend and man some call the world's greatest harmonica player went back to his notebook of ideas and began editing, refining, and finishing. His new-found sobriety fueled the creative streak, and a torrent of songs poured forth. Ocean of Tears represents the cream from that period. Further good news is that today -- sober, happy, and fronting a monster band -- deLay's writing streak continues unabated. "We're twelve to the good for the next album," he says proudly.

From his new positive vantage point, the leading light of Portland, Oregon's thriving blues scene sees the good in everything, including the circumstances that produced Ocean of Tears. "It's odd to look at it this way now, but when you get back here in the whirl of things, you realize it was a luxury to have that kind of time to devote to it, to make sure there were no weak spots."

"No weak spots" might be deLay's humbIe take on it, but the fact is that Ocean of Tears is one of the strongest batches of original blues tunes to come along in years. The record showcases a songwriter who captures stories of love, loss and the vicissitudes of life in clear, cliché-free language. deLay's ability to find an original angle on a timeless theme is in full display in the opening track, "Bottom Line." Sparring with a low-down shuffle rhythm, he examines the politics of relationships from the point of view of an Everyman who knows the hard facts about who pairs up with whom, and why. There's no blues-approved posturing here, just the plain-spoken truth, like the guy on the next barstool pouring his heart out.

Clever, poignant, funny and insightful lines fill these songs. Check out the heartbroken but ever-hopeful protagonist of "If She Is," who observes "she's like Lucy holding the football, and I'm like old Charlie Brown." Or the recovering addict of "SIip, Stumble, Fall," who sagely notes that, "the guilt stays with you, it's the last thing to go." Or the sheer, joyous wordplay of the man in "I Win," testifying to the heavens about the redemptive power of love, deliriously riding the band's smoking gospel groove.

Exploration of these tracks also shows that great Iyrics are just part of what makes Paul deLay a special artist. The record spotlights one of the best blues bands working today, as deLay and his cohorts stretch the boundaries of the blues at every turn. With arrangements that seamlessly incorporate funk and jazz elements, and telepathic interplay, the deLay aggregation consistently ups the ante of what we can expect from a blues-based ensemble.

The rhythm section of drummer Mike Klobas and bassist John Mazzocco creates wide, fat grooves that swing, breath, and kick butt as needed. Organist (and frequent co-writer) Louis Pain injects smoky jazz and gospel flavors, while guitarist Peter Dammann supplies stinging, Chicago-style guitar breaks (and impeccable rhythm chops), and tenor player Dan Fincher weaves hip horn charts and inspired solos. Finally there's deLay himself, displaying once again his utter mastery of the chromatic as well as diatonic harmonica, from the sweet, Motown-ish soul of "Maybe Our Luck Will Change," to the chilling, time-stands-still solo on the title track.

Then there's his singing, in a voice as big as the man himself-- shouting, pleading, admonishing, shading each line with subtle nuance. In fact, it may be in the pure sound of Paul deLay's voice that we get closest to the essence of his artistry. It's raw, roaring expression, the sound of a larger-than-life personality who dominates the musical and emotional landscape in the same way that Wolf or Muddy Waters did. A personality so strong it becomes its own self-evident truth. When Paul deLay sings, we believe. Simple as that.

And while the gentle blues singer is too self-effacing to accept inclusion in such heady company, he does acknowledge finding his own voice. "It used to be you could easily pick out where I was stealing from; it's been a long slow process to get to the point where I learned to capitalize on my own sounds." Lucky for us, we get to reap the benefits of Paul deLay's artistic fruition. Anyone wondering how the blues can transcend its increasingly stale clichés and move into the 21st century should look no further than Ocean of Tears. Paul deLay and his band are creating blues that celebrates roots at the same time it blazes new trails. It's music that talks about life the way we live it today, blues that gives us something to think about while we dance.

Mark Spangler
July, 1996


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