Michele Biondi – Cotton & Moonshine
10 Songs, 32 Minutes
Blues singer and songwriter Michele “Matt” Biondi was born in the north of Italy, in Lucca, in the Tuscany region, not too far from Pisa. His initial exposure to music came early in his life, thanks to grandparents who were multi-instrumentalists. Biondi took up the guitar at the age of 14, learning mostly from friends and with lessons from guitarist Gorby Marraccini. At 16, his first exposure to blues music came from his friend, guitarist Vittorio Pecchia. At 19, he began his studies with American singer and songwriter Bruce Borrini.
By the age of 21, he’d begun playing guitar with the ‘Italian Euro Big Band,’ playing blues, swing, and rock ‘n’ roll throughout Italy, France and Portugal. Shortly thereafter, he started his own band, The Blues Basket, playing in and around Tuscany, eventually going on to play with a couple of other regional blues bands at regional festivals in both Italy and Switzerland. During a visit to Mississippi, he was introduced to the Texas-based blues singer Ray Cashman and harmonica player Stan Street, with whom he began a fruitful collaboration, often accompanying them on tours.
Cotton & Moonshine is his second release as a solo artist, and has received positive acclaim in both the E.U. and the U.S.A., with his very personal approach to some very traditional blues styles. Eight of the ten songs were penned by Biondi, with “Feeling No Pain” written by Ray Cashman, and “Country Blues,” an old Muddy Waters tune. Personnel for this album includes Biondi on guitar and vocals, Edoardo Vannozzi on drums and percussion, Federico Paoli on upright and electric bass, Alessandro Solenni on keys, and Elena Cosci on backing vocals. It was recorded at Red Room Studios in Pisa, Italy, and was produced by Biondi and S. Valentino.
The songs themselves – including Biondi’s original tunes – are spirited if fairly conventional interpretations of standard blues forms, albeit with Biondi’s tasteful, understated approach to the guitar. Biondi’s guitar playing is more than competent, and he’s got a good handle on traditional approaches to both acoustic and electric blues guitar, and an especially nice touch with the slide on a resonator guitar.
I found his countertenor vocals to be initially somewhat startling, as they are heavily accented and – given that English is not his native tongue – his phrasing can be a little awkward. Lyrically, some of the rhymes that he uses feel forced. I find myself wondering how these songs might sound sung in his native Italian? Interestingly enough, both Ray Cashman and Jeoffrey Collins White are credited on the album as Lyrics Supervisors, while Matt Cressey is credited as Vocal Coach. Just as different translators might approach translating a novel in different ways, I have to wonder how the lyrics might have been approached differently, with slightly different rhymes and word choices, to make them flow more naturally and less awkwardly. Still, the songs do hold together and are very sincere and engaging.
The intro to the lead-off track, “Cotton & Moonshine,” has a nice call-and-response between the vocal and Biondi’s slide guitar. Once the bass and drums kick-in, the slide mimics his vocal phrasing throughout the track. It’s a nice, imaginative approach that works well in the context of the minimal instrumentation in this track.
“Don’t Let Your Dreams Die” has a nice country blues feel that is evocative and feels like one of the more personal songs on this collection. The upright bass helps propel this song along at a comfortable, loping pace. It’s one of my favorites on this album.
“Another Shot” is a rollicking number along the lines of Elmore James’ “Dust My Broom,” and features some very nice slide work.
“Tearing Me Apart” has come tasty electric slide, against a mysterious wash of Hammond organ in the background; it’s another of this album’s high points.
“Apple Pie” feels like a Sunday morning back porch picking session, with the upright bass and brushed drums maintaining a sweet country blues groove against Biondi’s acoustic slide licks.
Other standout tracks include “Hell on Earth” with its almost Gospel feel, and “Country Blues” which channels early Robert Johnson by way of Muddy Waters. The albums closer, “Give Me Back My Pride” is a slow, smoky electric blues that I can imagine being played during the last set at a dimly-lit bar.
Bottom line? Cotton & Moonshine is a nice collection of listener-friendly, blues-influenced Americana with Biondi’s very personal stamp on them. The arrangements and performances of his original songs are crisp, and the result is very a very satisfying album of sincere, low-key country blues.