Catfish Keith – Land of the Sky
Fish Tale Records
13 songs, 51 minutes
Avid Blues Blast readers certainly know who the incomparable Catfish Keith is, he won best Acoustic Blues Album the last 2 years. For anyone not hip, Catfish Keith is one of the most original and exciting acoustic Bluesmen of our time. This is not hyperbole. All one needs to do is listen to the opening 30 seconds of Keith’s 20th studio album Land of the Sky to know this is a solo performer of unparalleled mastery, originality and talent. Like all 19 of Keith’s previous records, Land of the Sky is a diverse eclectic document of the artist. Ranging from gut bucket to crisp and light, the music of Land is a kaleidoscope of energy all filtered through Keith’s voice, guitar and foot stomps.
What sets Keith apart is his jubilant, buoyant spirit that shines out of his exuberant performance. A true guitar master, Keith plays his many acoustic instruments like they are extensions of himself employing a wide variety of techniques to create a vast sonic palette. Interpreting classic songs by Jimmie Rodgers, Rev. Gray Davis, Memphis Minnie, Joseph Spence, Walter Davis, Jimmie Davis (the singing Governor of Texas), Charley Patton and Lil’ Son Jackson, Keith’s 4 originals sit in complete harmony with the classics. Keith has often said in interviews he views all the songs he performs, original and cover, similarly putting his own stamp on all the music. This plays out with cohesion and seamless flow here.
Land of the Sky is all killer no filler. There are no highlights because each performance is so present, engaging and real. However, a few tracks do illustrate Keith’s unique style and talents and are of particular note:
The Joseph Spence vehicle “Bimini Gal” is a calypso variation in which Keith offers a fully in the moment improvisation. A stomping stutter chug that characterizes Bahamian guitarist Spence’s style is made terra firma by Keith’s incessant foot stomp. The sturdiness of the beat allows Keith to slither, chatter and skate over with pinched harmonic sound effects, slaps and thumps on the strings and the soundboard of the guitar. The vocal performance is so daring and in the moment it is insatiable.
“Santa Claus Blues,” Walter Davis’ holiday offering, is possibly the darkest and most brooding track here. The deep tuned down sound of the the 12 string guitar removes all the holiday cheer from the arrival of “San-ti-Claus.” Allowing the instrument to wallow and plop, Keith plays this 12 bar Blues with a reckless muscular attack. But, again Keith’s natural lust for life and overall positivity can’t allow even this dark brooder to veer to far a field. There is such joy and zest in the performance that it transcends the holiday season pigeon hole and makes this a year round listen.
Played on a resophonic ukulele, Keith’s original “Scoodle Oot ‘n’ Doo” is a sweet sentimental flourish. The uke riff is so sweet and catchy that if this was orchestrated with a full band it would be an Adult Contemporary hit, the kind of thing Keb Mo’ might do. But here in Catfish’s hands the repetitive psalm of the song allows for his expressive singing to wring every last emotive drop out.
The final track on the record is an interpretation of the metaphysical master Charley Patton’s “Some of These Days.” Taken to a crawling tempo, significantly slower than the original, Keith takes his time playing bottleneck slide with expressive vibrato. Keith luxuriates in this emotive strategy of giving this anguished song room to breath and allows his often intricate guitar work to shine.
Catfish Keith puts a lot of effort and thought into his albums. Like an annual Holiday greeting from a distant friend who you don’t see often, Keith writes messages in his liner notes and details his thinking behind each song. This year’s message finds Catfish and his partner in life and music Penny Cahill hopeful for travel and full of joy.
Land of the Sky is a wonderful reminder of the power and beauty of pure expressive music and another moving chapter in Catfish Keith’s mission to spread the shine of the Blues far and wide.