12 songs – 54 minutes
Based in the beautiful Seine and Marne regions of southeastern France, the Cotton Belly’s are an four-piece ensemble who reinterpret country blues with rock overtones in a manner that’s completely original, extremely catchy and dance worthy while proving once again how truly international the music has become.
Formed in the towns of Essonne and Seine-et-Marne about 11 years ago, the band could have originated in the Mississippi Delta. In fact, the group’s name is no accident. Lead singer/harmonica player Yann “WillyWood” Malek, who doubles on acoustic and lap steel guitars, discovered the blues while on an errand to pick up bread one morning at age 13. An itinerant American musician was playing for tips outside the shop, and Malek was immediately hooked.
Guitarist and dobro player Jerome “Skippy Benson” Perraut actually picked cotton in his youth. At 15, his family hired an American named Slash McGhee as a field hand. He was a skilled guitarist who used a knife as a slide on a cheap Stella six-string, and taught Perraut the ropes. Kiki “Owen Brown” Etienne, who doubles on electric and upright bass, actually found his first instrument abandoned on a train. It was battered and bruised, but changed his life dramatically. They’re joined on drums by another blues enthusiast, Alexandre Charroy.
The Cottons came into their own by working summers along the Breton coast. In 2007, just two years after forming, they won three awards at the Blues Sur Seine competition, one of which earned them a 2008 appearance in Montreal. Rainy Road, their third CD, was produced in part from a grant after winning a contest sponsored by France’s Orange Foundation, which promotes jazz. They also have three EPs to their credit.
Malek’s steady harmonica technique, which is both modern and occasionally echoes Piedmont and Chicago stylings, gives their music a familiar feel while venturing into new territory. The opening title cut “Rainy Road” features a bare-bones intro that features Malek’s bright, rich, melodic vocal. The band harmonizes briefly before launching at a quick-paced shuffle the memory of leaving home after a relationship has crashed and burned. Frequent one-note octave vocal jumps tell the listener that this singer has chops galore. Perraut provides a solid, extended electric solo mid-tune.
The band returns for their normal acoustic roots for “Sobad,” which sings praise for the ability to express the emotion. Perraut’s finger-picked accompaniment fits perfectly. Despite the downer theme, the tune has an upbeat feel. A bass solo kicks off “Medicine” before it explodes into another electrified shuffle with rock and rap overtones. The simple message: Give me drugs to help me deal with my ills. Another fiery, uptempo dance number, “Given,” slows into a harmonica-flavored blues moan before evolving into the next six-minute tune, “Wrong,” which starts slowly as it speaks of loneliness, but changes into a fusion of rock and Hill Country blues.
A bright harmonica solo delivered in traditional Chicago styling kicks off the slow blues “Family Chains” before the upbeat acoustic “My Friend,” delivered with a country blues feel. Both deal with the problems in relationships. Malek channels Sonny Terry for his catchy harp work on “Hard Times,” which is an uptempo acknowledgement of previous difficulties rather than a complaint. Next up, “Soldier” begins with an Arabesque feel but turns into a simple acoustic blues before evolving into more. The Cottons twin up “Tick Tock AM” and “Tick Tock PM,” which deal with the passage of time delivered acoustically and then with powerful electric overtones, before concluding their set with “From This Town,” a bittersweet farewell about moving from one’s childhood home to new challenges in faraway places.
Available through download via Amazon or on CD through the band’s website, Rainy Road is not your old one-four-five blues. It’s highly entertaining and original. The vocals and musicianship are strong throughout, although some of the rapid-fire lyrics are somewhat buried in the mix. On the whole, however, the Cottons’ disc would be a strong addition for anyone with a taste for something different.