12 Tracks; 37 minutes
Lead Foot Music
Mark T. Small has played all kinds of music. From New Grass to electric Chicago Blues, Small has explored the realm of American roots music far and wide. For several years, Mark has eschewed the full band sound and has followed a dusty, back country solo acoustic road. As the road keeps going, Small keeps finding new ways to interpret the music of yesteryear making every stop along the way a welcome respite from the overwrought trappings of modern music. Smokin’ Blues, on Lead Foot Music, continues Mark T. Small’s journey and makes stops in Detroit, Chicago, the Mississippi Delta, and all points in between.
Our travels begin with a spring in our step. Blind Boy Fuller’s “Step It Up & Go,” in Mark T. Small’s hands, is a boogie-woogie rockabilly work driven by an insistent guitar figure and foot tapping beat. He keeps it simple and direct and it works wonderfully. His solos feature variations on the main riff and chorded phrases that maintain the momentum of the song and your foot will be laying down the boogie in no time.
“Railroad Blues” shows off Small’s deft flat picking and the sound of his acoustic guitar is so crisp it’s like he’s sitting next to you jamming away on this old Sam McGee tune. The whole disc has an intimate feel, as though Small stopped by your house for a tall glass of sweet tea and in return unpacked his trusty Martin and played you a song. He occasionally picks up a fellow traveler to play along like the youthful octogenarian Shor’ty Billups. Rufus Thomas’ former drummer sits in on “Walkin’ The Dog” singing like a man half his age. Howlin’ Wolf’s “Moanin’ At Midnight” welcomes Walter Woods on harmonica. Walter and Mark are old friends and it shows in their deft interplay. Theirs is a fine reworking of the Wolf’s classic and it makes me hope for a duet record from this team.
“My Daddy Was A Jockey” is a Mississippi Hill Country style workout on John Lee Hooker’s “Jockey Blues.” Or maybe Mississippi Hill Country Blues owes more to John Lee Hooker than is normally acknowledged. Either way, it’s a foot stomping affair with an effect on Small’s acoustic guitar to make it sound gritty and low-down. On Elmore James’ “Early In The Morning” there is nary a slide in sight but Mark T. Small’s playing is energetic. His lightning fast picking keeps it fresh and propels the song in a new direction.
One more thing I must mention are the liner notes. I like liner notes. I like getting information straight from the artists. Good notes can create a personal connection to the music. Mark T. Small wrote a few sentences about each song on this disc and those words open him up to the listener. You get his perspective on the music, and he even explains a few differences in his approach to the songs compared with the originals, or the versions upon which he based his performance. For me, it makes the music come alive. I realize it is not always economically feasible to offer extensive liner notes, but it’s nice to see this attention to detail and it is something I wish other artists would do when able.
Smokin’ Blues closes with “America Medley” in which Small ties together “America the Beautiful,” “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” and “Yankee Doodle” in a brilliantly played arrangement. In many ways it represents the whole album. It is intricate, delicate, bubbling, bare and beautiful. Mark T. Small brings all his experiences and styles together for what can rightly be called American music. A title like Smokin’ Blues might imply a fired up electric band trying to raise the roof off a juke joint, but this kind of Smokin’ Blues is for recreational, relaxational use. Mark T. Small takes you on a timeless musical journey that is a perfect antidote to the hustle and bustle of the 24-hour-news-cycle-gotta-have-it-now-get-it-done-yesterday culture in which we so often get trapped. Sit on the porch, sip a cold beverage, enjoy a smoke and groove to the Smokin’ Blues. Your spirit will be better for it.