Blind Lemon Records BLR-CD1501
14 songs – 73 minutes
Anyone who’s familiar with acoustic bluesman Tom Shaka knows he’s no shrinking violet when it comes to expressing his political views and desire to expose the hypocrisy he sees in governments around the world. The 15 previous albums he’s released in a 40-plus-year career are chockful of pointed and often humorous personal observations.
But most of that is toned down somewhat and restricted primarily to the liner notes for Sweet & Mean, his first live recording in 20 years. A combination of tasty originals and interesting covers, it was captured before a small, but appreciative audience at Zum Schwarzen Ross, a club in Bookholzberg, Germany, a land he’s called home for decades.
A Connecticut native who’s worked extensively with John Lee Hooker, Louisiana Red and David “Honeyboy” Edwards among others, Shaka delivers blues from the root in a powerful, yet subtle style all his own as he accompanies himself on guitar and harmonica, accented by occasional foot stomps. He’s a master picker with an unrushed technique, his pleasantly road weary and sweet where it needs to be.
Released on Germany’s Blind Lemon Records, which specializes in acoustic blues, the disc kicks off with the original instrumental, “Into The Blue.” It puts his guitar skills on display in an extended journey up and down the fretboard before blending seamlessly into a cover of the Howlin’ Wolf classic “Ride With Me Tonight,” on which his harp chops come to the fore in classic country blues styling. He accompanies himself with lower register fingerpicking during the verses.
The theme continues in the original, “Come On Over Baby,” before Shaka uses another, “They Don’t Understand These Blues,” as a means to describe his feelings about the sorry condition he feels the world’s in today. Stylish covers of Hooker’s “I’m In The Mood” and Tarheel Slim’s “Walkin’ My Blues Away” sandwich a taste of the bayou in “Cajun Stomp.”
A series of well-crafted covers follows. First up is Robert Petway’s 1920s standard “Catfish Blues.” Next up, Shaka shows off his Spanish guitar stylings with “Malaguena,” written by Cuban Ernesto Lecuona Casado and a 1960 hit for Connie Francis. A faithful version of Don Gibson’s 1957 country hit, “I Can’t Stop Lovin’ You,” follows before an acoustic take on Stevie Ray Vaughan’s blues-rock powerhouse, “Pride And Joy.”
Shaka takes another trip to the Delta for an extended cover of Slim Harpo’s “Shake Your Hips” before delivering another stylish tasteful original instrumental, “Jazzin’ The Blues,” which sings praise for showing off a pretty woman while incorporating lines from tunes from the past. The set concludes with a bluesy take on the familiar “On The Road Again,” written by Floyd V. Jones and made a standard by Willie Nelson.
Available through www.bear-family.com, Sweet & Mean will be a joy if you’re a fan of acoustic blues. Shaka delivers his music from the heart, and the Mississippi River runs through it long and deep.