- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 21, 2006

While the phrase “Steven Seagal, bluesman” may cause many to raise an eyebrow (Seagal-style, of course), the ponytailed martial artist’s Tuesday Birchmere show ought to beat expectations.

The track record of action stars as singers isn’t encouraging (see: Bruce Willis, “The Return of Bruno”), but at least Mr. Seagal knows how to pick ‘em: He’s assembled many of the oldest-living Delta and Chicago bluesmen for his new album, “Mojo Priest,” and accomplished players like slide guitarist Bernard Allison for his touring band Thunderbox.

“I just try to get a little inspiration from where it came from,” explains Mr. Seagal from an Idaho gig. Howlin’ Wolf guitarist Hubert Sumlin and Muddy Waters band mate Pinetop Perkins show up as does Robert “Junior” Lockwood, stepson of the legendary Robert Johnson. Three short tracks at the end feature outtakes from the legends; it makes you wonder if someone can’t make an album just featuring them.

“I just called everybody” to get them to play, Mr. Seagal says, though there were a few he couldn’t get. “R.L. Burnside and Gatemouth [Brown], friends of mine, died within a month of each other just suddenly.”

Another notable absence was Etta James: “She would do it, but she just didn’t want to fly.”

A guitarist since his youth and now a blues-fest veteran, Mr. Seagal says he picked the sound up from his neighbors, who had migrated to Michigan from the Deep South. He plays and sings lead on every regular track and surprisingly well, too, although his trademark raspy mumble, which should be perfect for blues, comes out more in his speaking than in his singing.

Although mostly a heartbreak song, the opener “Somewhere in Between” targets potential critics (in declaring “ain’t no black and there ain’t no white”) as well as moral/spiritual ambiguity. The Memphis Stax/Volt influence also shows up via strong female backup vocals and organ.

More traditional blues themes pop up in the Southern-fried, 12-bar tune “Gunfight in a Juke Joint,” and the rollicking-though-cringeworthy “She Dat Pretty” and “Love Doctor.” High points include Bo Diddley’s duet on “Shake” and Ruth Brown’s part in the epic “Slow Boat to China” plus some nice call-and-response on “BBQ.”

In reconciling his Tibetan Buddhist focus on enlightenment and the blues’ focus on worldly problems, he says that “to me it’s all the same, just different shades of the same place.”

And no, this doesn’t mean he’s quitting the action-movie biz. “I’m not planning on giving up anything, but I will be doing music full time and some movies in between.” (He wants to start filming the blues-themed “Prince of Pistols” in New Orleans this summer.)

Speaking of film, does spending one’s life on location make touring any easier?

“Man, there’s nothing that takes the curse off of flying. Nothing.”

• • •

Local performers the Brindley Brothers play their home base of Jammin’ Java (literally they run the place) on Friday and Saturday to celebrate their new CD release, “Filled with Fire.”

aist/songwriter Luke Brindley hopes the new one is “a continuation of the smart, serious pop-rock sound that we ended up with on the last record.” Their superlative 2004 debut “Playing With The Light” featured grown-up power-pop aided by brother Daniel’s harmony vocals and keyboards and some powerful post-September 11 imagery.

“Filled With Fire” is good but lacks “Light’s” oomph as the Brindleys largely forgo the uptempo stuff this time around and opt for a more acoustic sound. This still produces some good pop: “Saturday Night” bounces like a Marshall Crenshaw creation, and “Everybody Wants” is affectingly plaintive.

The opening rocker “Rise Above” highlights their old Jackson-Browne-meets-Gin Blossoms sound with vivid urban lyrics like … such as “now we’re scattered like a street race after the cops rush in.” Lyrically, it’s easy to recognize the urban blight/flight themes of Philadelphia’s Marah cq (who recently played Jammin’ Java) and Bruce Springsteen.

“Our producer said we should just call the record ‘Out of New Jersey,’ ” Luke jokes. “Those images come up a lot for me. It’s a place we still consider home, and we have a lot of family up there.”

In addition to a full band, there’ll be guest stars onstage both nights, including local soul songstress Mary Ann Redmond on Saturday.

“She’ll sing with us for at least ‘Man on Fire,’” Luke says, referring to one of the songs on the new release. “She’s a world-class talent.” They also expect saxophonist Chris Watling from the Grandsons, who also played on “Filled With Fire.”

“It all starts with the performers,” Luke says of Jammin’ Java’s growing rep as a performer-friendly venue. “We know what’s it like to be on the road pulling into strange places and trying to find your way around weird towns.”

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