Leo “Bud” Welch
The Angels In Heaven Done Signed My Name
(Easy Eye Sound)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
There’s something both poignant and a little unsettling about hearing an elderly musician, clearly in poor health, singing, “I wanna die easy when I die/ I wannna go to heaven when I die” atop skeletal, primal drums and his own strummed guitar. But if there is any anxiety about death, it’s nowhere to be found on these sessions from the late Mississippi bluesman Leo “Bud” Welch, arguably his last recorded performances.
The unlikely story of how obscure guitarist/singer Welch released his first album in 2014 (for Fat Possum’s Big Legal Mess label) when he was already 81 years old is the stuff of legend … and an award-winning 2018 documentary appropriately titled Late Blossom Blues. Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach was alerted to Welch through Fat Possum’s owner Bruce Watson who had already released a few Welch albums. Watson, not coincidently, was the first to release music from the Black Keys. Welch was invited down to Nashville’s Easy Eye studios in 2015 and recorded a few dozen songs in about a week, accompanied by studio owner Auerbach and his Arcs band.
Although Welch’s health (and mind) were failing, you won’t be able to tell from these ten sizzling pieces. He chose traditional gospel numbers he had played in church for decades, so he was comfortable and familiar with the material. From relatively popular church fare like “Jesus Is On The Mainline,” “Walk With Me Lord” and a defiant “Let It Shine,” to more obscure items such as the roof-raising call and response of “I Came To Praise His Name” (the first video) and the snakelike swamp with slithering slide guitar of “I Want To Be At The Meeting,” Welch is in remarkably strong voice and spirits. Auerbach bolsters the tunes with restrained guitar, keyboards, drums and even occasional female backing vocals.
While the approach is considerably slicker than Welch’s usual backing of just tough, stark, unembellished drums, the focus is squarely on the singer-guitarist. Auerbach scales back to a three-piece for the opening “I Know That I Been Changed” and closes with the raw “Sweet Home,” suitably accompanied just by his primitive electric guitar backing Welch’s skeletal strumming. Welch seems afraid of death which is why this session is so full of life, even with the somewhat morbid subject matter.
Why it has taken nearly three years to get released is unclear. And at a meager ten cuts that don’t break a half hour, this is inexplicably, and frustratingly, short, especially since there was apparently plenty more material recorded. Regardless, it makes a fitting bookend to the two albums — one religious/one secular — Welch released on Big Legal Mess. It’s an often rousing, always heartfelt way to close out the frustratingly short recorded career of an American bluesman whose unexpected, late-in-life appearance is one of the more fascinating and ultimately uplifting stories in blues lore.