Dr. Helander & Third Ward – Traffic Jam on the Back Street
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Dr. Helander & Third Ward – Traffic jam in the side street

Bluelight Records Records – 2020

10 lanes; 41:49


The amazing thing about international blues is that often you can't tell if a band is from outside the United States until you read the liner notes. The international blues often sounds too perfectly vintage and American, reproducing a pristine sound moment that may never have happened, a form of music historical fiction. The appeal of Dr. Helander & Third Wards Traffic Jam on the Back Street is knowing that it's international blues as soon as the singing kicks in.

Dr. Helander is Ilkka Helander, a Finnish blues singer and guitarist. His voice is calm and staccato, with a touch of accent around his English singing, like the last stubborn snow residue on the ground in the thaw after a great winter storm. Blues singers tend to let their voices resonate with the music, but Helander's voice is stable and feels almost immobile in the vortex of his band's blues music. Its unique tone makes for fun blues songs that sound different, if not a further development of the classic sound, then certainly a new take.

The recording is so fresh that even while Helander and the band work through a number of standard originals, ranging from the electric blues of the 1960s to more rock-oriented numbers, his singing makes everything sound new. Helander's singing gives the melodies a futuristic glow that goes well with the soulful, old-fashioned music. That means that on a track like “Ask Me About the Blues,” a slow blues, Helander's voice channels the spirit of the style, if not its timbre. Every other element, however, is classic blues, from Helander's piercing guitar to Third Ward's rhythm section (bassist Esa Kuloniemi and drummer Leevi Leppänen), who feels a masterful job with the groove – on this track and on the entire album – the beat welcome, but not inevitable.

"Strike a Match" is the simplicity of John Lee Hooker, filtered through a great rock sound, a la ZZ Top. “Blown Off With the Wind” is up-tempo blues rock and “Highway Shoes” is rockabilly inspired by the 50s with a lyrical, raw slide guitar from the versatile bassist Kuloniemi. Tomi Leino's harmonica shines on the track, as it does on all of her appearances on the album. Helander and his band know the blues, but they never take it for granted.

Many artists respect the blues, but many seem challenged to channel the awe. It's too easy for a band to move on to musical transcription for fear of offending blues purists. Helander and Third Ward do an incredible job paying tribute to the blues but also bringing in Helander's Finnish roots and creating something new and authentic, but above all a fun listening experience.

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