Big Frank / Mike Smith – Outskirts of Town | Album Review

Big Frank / Mike Smith – Outskirts of Town

JoJo Honey Records

12 Tracks – 60 Minutes

Big Frank Mirra has been a fixture in the New York City Tri-State Blues Scene for several decades. As a teenager, Frank listened to Rock and Roll but was drawn to the sound of the blues. He developed a love of traditional blues and studied the history of the idiom to become a subject matter expert. Big Frank plays acoustic and electric guitar with an emphasis on the bottle neck slide, dobro, and provides the vocals all in the traditional styles that caught his attention. Over the years, Big Frank has opened for acts such as Little Charlie and the Nightcats, Bo Diddley, Jr., and Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears and has played with Blues legends Hubert Sumlin and Moose Walker. Big Frank has been inducted into the New York and the New jersey Blues Halls of Fame. Big Frank has been featured on the “King Biscuit Flour Hour” where disc jockey Sonny Payne referenced him as “the closest thing I’ve heard to Hound Dog Taylor”.

Big Frank regularly performs with his full group, The Healers. But for the last decade, he has also been joined by harmonica player Mike Smith. The two routinely perform as a duo that features authentic elements of the American Blues experience. Like Big Frank, Mike has also been a fixture in the New York Metro roots music scene for decades and has shared the stage with James Cotton, The Subdudes, and many others.

The album was recorded live in the studio on January 23 and 24, 2023. The duo recorded twelve classic blues songs with Matt Raymond joining them on bass on half of the songs. The result is an acoustic experience firmly in the original authentic blues style.

The album opens with “Bring it On Home”. written by Willie Dixon and first recorded in 1963 by Sonny Boy Williamson. Dixon later recorded his own version of the song as has many others since, including Led Zeppelin.  Big Frank’s smooth vocals slides alongside Mike’s harmonica before his thumping guitar joins in. Big Joe Williams’ 1960 song “Shake Your Boogie” is a laid-back boogie with Big Frank’s acoustic guitar and Mike’s harmonica sliding along together. “I’m Gonna Move (To the Outskirts of Town)” was written by Bill Weldon and Roy Jordan and was first recorded in 1942 by Big Bill and His Chicago Five. Louis Jordan and Ray Charles both later recorded their versions of the song. Big Frank and Mike present the song in a very laidback and easy blues.

John Brim’s “Ice Cream Man” was first recorded by him in 1953 but was not released until 1969. Van Halen recorded a version of the song on their debut album in 1978, which provided Brim adequate funds to open a Chicago nightclub. An acoustic version here is upbeat as Frank “guarantees that he has all flavors that will satisfy”. “That’s Alright” was written and recorded by Jimmy Rogers in 1950 with Little Walter on harmonica and performed with an authentic air here. Morris “Magic Slim” Holt’s “Gambling Blues” was released on an album in 2012.

“Casual Friend” was recorded by Roosevelt Sykes in 1962. Frank declares that “our love is over…I cannot even pay the bills”. Chester “Howlin’ Wolf” Burnett’s “Smokestack Lightning” was released in 1956, although he had performed it in various versions as early as the 1930’s. Frank gets Wolf’s howl into the mix.  Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Keep It to Yourself” from 1956 states “you got a husband, I got a wife, do me a favor baby, keep our business to yourself”.

Charley Patton’s “Pony Blues” dates back to 1929. Like the previous song, Patton’s lyrics points to some infidelity as he states, “I don’t want to marry, just wanna be your man.” Joe Clayton’s “Cheating and Lying Blues” from 1942 continues that theme. The album concludes with Son House’s “Empire State Express” “which is taking my woman away, leaving poor old me standing here”. First released in 1965, the song has recently been remastered and released in a new 2023 Son House compilation by Dan Auerbach.

The album maintains a quiet acoustic tone throughout with Mike’s harmonica filling in. Frank’s vocals accomplish the sounds of the original artists, although sounding somewhat strained on occasion. In all, the album provides the intended link to the original artists and a style of music that is tending to currently fade away but certainly needs the exposure to a modern audience. Thank you, Frank and Mike, for your effort to keep traditional blues alive.

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