Cover photo © 2021 Michael G. Stewart
In This Issue
Mark Thompson has our feature interview with harmonica legend Phil Wiggins. We have four Blues reviews for you this week including new music from Sean Chambers, Dirty Mojo Blues Band, Mad Dog Blues and The Reverend Shawn Amos.
Featured Interview – Phil Wiggins
If you asked blues fans to mentally picture a harmonica player, most of them would conjure up an image of a musician cupping their hands around the harp and a microphone, often a vintage model, blowing up a storm through an amplifier that might be as large and powerful as a guitar amplifier. Even though acoustic blues harp players were instrumental in establishing the music, these days you don’t hear much about pioneers like DeFord Bailey, Sonny Terry, Hammie Nixon, and Will Shade.
Anyone with more than a passing interest in acoustic blues will be familiar with “Harmonica” Phil Wiggins. A product of the still vibrant Washington D.C. acoustic blues community, Wiggins has played in a variety of settings, gaining worldwide fame during his 35 year partnership with guitarist John Cephas. The duo toured the world, releasing 12 albums, including three on Flying Fish Records and four on Alligator Records.
After Cephas passed away in 2009, Wiggins has continued to pursue a variety of opportunities to showcase his amazing harmonica skills. Last year, he released Sweet Bitter Blues: Washington D.C.’s Homemade Blues, a book that tells his story in addition to covering the history and contributors of the D.C scene. The book was co-written by Frank Matheis, a long-time contributor to Living Blues Magazine.
As noted on his website, “Phil Wiggins is a versatile traditional harmonica player……plays the diatonic ten-hole harmonica in the country blues style, cupping both hands around the instrument and playing acoustically. His sound is not gear, the microphone or the amplifier when performing on stage, instead by the complex syncopated patterns, breath-control and rhythm, stylistic virtuosity and fiery solo runs”.
Like a lot of musicians, Wiggins had parents who appreciated music. They listened to a lot of records, primarily jazz albums that featured piano. That was not surprising since his father played piano. Wiggins does not have any vivid memories of his father playing the instrument, primarily due to his father passing away at a relatively young age.
His mother later remarried to a military officer with little interest in music. Wiggins wanted to get involved in the school band, but his parents were not going to pay for an instrument and lessons. So, after saving money earned from his paper route, Wiggins bought his first harmonica.
“Cost was the main thing in picking the harmonica. But it also struck me as one of the most soulful and expressive instruments. When I picked it up and started trying to figure out how it worked, it felt like the harmonica works the same way as your voice. You have an idea in your mind that you want to express, and it just comes out, the same way speaking happens. In a lot of ways, it still feels that intuitive to me, except that, for me, the harmonica works better than my voice!”
Having an older brother, Skip, who was a fine guitar player and singer, proved quite beneficial to Wiggins gaining confidence as he tried to figure out his instrument, one note at a time.
“It was fortunate because as I was growing up, the best musicians in our neighborhood and at the high school were always hanging around my brother, having jam sessions and learning songs together. So I would sneak into the outskirts of the jams and kind of toot along. I was lucky in that regard. A lot of what I learned is from those live jams sessions. I didn’t have a harmonica teacher, nor did I listen to much harmonica music in those days. I was aware of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. Sonny Terry was the only harmonica player I knew about when I was first starting to figure things out. My learning came from jamming along with guitar and piano players.
“The records I was stealing from were my parents records, which was another lucky thing for me. They collected a lot of classic jazz albums with lots of piano, clarinet, and trumpet on the turntable. Because I was stealing from those instruments instead of other harmonica players, I feel like I was able to develop my own style of playing.”
The Wiggins family had moved to the Washington D.C. area from Titusville, Alabama. In his younger years, Wiggins spent a lot of summers down south.
“I would stay with my grandmother. She and I got to be very close. When I was in junior high, my family lived overseas for about four years. When we came back to the States, my family moved in with her while my stepdad came to D.C. to find a house and get things set up. So we spent almost a whole school year in Titusville, which became my idea of home.
“When I started going to the Smithsonian Folklife Festivals, I would run into all of these musicians that they had brought up from the deep South. They would be sitting on the Mall in D.C., playing like they would in their own back yard. I hung out there non-stop because that felt like home. Those folks were very welcoming to me. I would play along with them. They seemed to enjoy having me around.
‘In high school, the only people playing music that I was drawn to were in the Folk club. I wasn’t into folk music, but I met a guitarist who was into the Merle Travis finger-picking style. That style came from the Piedmont style of blues guitar playing. A lot of the pickers doing the Travis style that got to be well known spoke about meeting black musicians utilizing that style, and learning from them.
“His playing appealed to me, so we ended up playing together a lot. At that time I was getting to know guitarists like John Jackson and Archie Edwards, as well as John Cephas, who I actually met at the Folklife Festival. They were a generation older but they welcomed me.
“I also was part of an electric blues band that was pretty rough. We were trying to play some Chicago style blues. I was schooled in the harmonica for a long time before I got turned on to the classic Chicago harp players like Little Walter, Junior Wells, and Sonny Boy Williamson. They were amazing, and I love that music. But I never really listened to those records with the harp in my mouth trying to copy them. I just listened, and eventually it got under my skin. Some of those influences came out as I was learning. But I never really tried to learn their stuff note for note.”
When he was in elementary school in D.C., Wiggins felt at home despite the fact that the school system was segregated along color lines.
“It was like family. The principals and teachers wanted us kids to thrive and excel. They looked out for us. Our parents stayed in close contact with the teachers and administrators. I had a hard time in elementary school, after my father passed on when I was seven years old. That hit me hard. I basically flunked first grade trying to deal with that loss. I remember my teacher sending a letter home to my Mom. I thought I was in trouble, so I didn’t give to her. After a few days, the teacher called my Mom to find out if she had received the letter, which she hadn’t because I still had it stashed away.
“When we returned to Virginia some years later after living overseas, I was attending a school that was majority white, and most of the families were well-to-do. I went from an environment where people wanted you to excel to one where they didn’t want you there at all. Most of the black kids were direct descendants of George Washington’s slaves, and lived in a black community called Gum Springs. Then there were a few of us black kids that were military brats.
“The teachers for the most part did not have high expectations for those kids. After lunch, they all got on a bus to go to vocational school. I was in junior high, but my older brother and two sisters were in high school. I will never forget that the school counselor called and asked my Mom to come in to talk with her. At the meeting, the counselor said that all three of my siblings had signed up for college preparatory classes. My mother asked what was the problem with that. The counselor replied, and I am quoting here, “Most of our colored students are not college material”. Needless to say, Mom tore her a new one, and then went to the principal to so the same. She got it all straightened out. But that was the environment that we fell into.
“In high school, I had a history teacher who was still trying to win the Civil War. I wasn’t used to that attitude before then. I guess my parents in a lot ways tried to shelter and protect us from those kinds of things, so that we didn’t feel like there was anything we couldn’t accomplish growing up. Until we went to Germany, we didn’t come in contact with too many white people. Billie Holiday had a thing about border states. She said that if you were in the deep South, you know how things stood. But the border states were still trying to prove they were southern. I found that to be true. When we moved in, those statues of black lawn jockeys were all over the place. It was hard to get used to seeing those.”
Beginning in 1976, Wiggins started playing gigs with John Cephas. As he stated in his book Sweet Bitter Blues, “My ears are always wide open, and I deliberately listen for poetry in what people say. That poetry happened when I played with John Cephas”.
“I had been playing with Flora Molton, who was a street singer, gospel singer, and sanctified minister. John was playing in the band backing a local piano player, Wilbert “Big Chief” Ellis, who was also from Titusville, AL. He actually knew my father. My mother came to D.C. for some of the events for Jimmy Carter’s inauguration. I was playing with Big Chief at one of the events. My mother came in, saw Big Chief, and asked what he was doing there. That’s how I found out that they all knew each other.
“What attracted me to John was that he full of music, it was part of his life, just like he grew his own vegetables. John Cephas the carpenter and John Cephas the farmer weren’t any different than John Cephas the singer and guitar player. People of his generation wanted to have music in the house, so they made it themselves. John had one of the most beautiful singing voices I had ever heard plus he played dance music even though a lot of the songs were about hard times. It all somehow seemed joyful to me, and more importantly, celebratory. There was an understanding that celebration is necessary in the midst of those hard times.”
Ellis was a barrellhouse blues piano player with a deep, rich singing voice. His piano style was influenced by Walter Davis, a piano player with a unique style of chord harmonies. Cephas meet Ellis at a house party where Ellis was playing.
“At the party, one of John’s girlfriends introduced them. She commented that he used to play the guitar. John had been playing around at house parties until a woman broke his heart, or they had a fight. He left her house, leaving his guitar there. He never went back to get it, so it stayed there. When he met Big Chief, John mentioned that there was a woman that didn’t live to far from the house party, where he had left a guitar. So he went and got the guitar. He jammed with Chief, who then invited John to join his band. I met them at the Smithsonian Festival and later joined the band.
“Even though I was in high school, Big Chief would give me a drink once in awhile. He had a liquor store, and he usually had some moonshine around. He once put some of that in a cap and put a match to it, telling me that if the moonshine burns with a nice blue flame, you know that it is pure and safe to drink. But once he met my Mom and realized he knew my people, he said he wouldn’t be doing that any more!
“People like Chief and John had an edge, a dangerous side to them, like a lot of people that grew up being black and living in the deep South. But to me, they were so down-to-earth, open-hearted, and generous. They were glad to see a young person like me so interested in the music that they loved. They were happy that the music would carry on.”
Wiggins thinks that some writers or musicologists in the early 1970s came up with the term Piedmont style blues. He is sure the musicians playing the music up to that point weren’t concerned with categories.
“In the Piedmont style of guitar playing, you are using your thumb to pick out an alternating bass line on the bottom string, then picking out a melody line or syncopated rhythm on the treble strings at the same time. It was developed in the area from Maryland down to the northern part of Georgia, which is known as the Piedmont region. John’s family had acquired a bunch of land in that “40 acres and a mule” deal. Several lots were in Bowling Green, Virginia. John used his carpenter skills to build a house for his mother and one for himself. So he came up in the Piedmont region.
“It is intricate music with a lot going on, between the finger-picking on the treble strings and the thumb going real strong on the bass, beating out the rhythm. People these days don’t think of it as dance music, but it has a very powerful rhythm. As a harmonica player, because there was so much going on, I had to be careful not to overcrowd what the guitar was doing. As I said, John had a beautiful voice, but he was not a shouter, so I also had to be careful not to overpower his voice.
“So I often would just play the back beat, using the harmonica as percussion. But John would give me plenty of room to solo. In the course of a song, we’d do a couple verses of instrumental, then I would back off and let the guitar shine, then jump out and show off myself for several verses. All of the people I wound up playing with over the years, from Flora, to Chief and John, and some stuff with Archie Edwards, they were not easy to accompany, so it taught me how to be a good listener.
“Since John passed away, it has been hard to find people that have that great sense of rhythm. He learned to play guitar at house parties, as did Archie Edwards and John Jackson. They all learned in the environment of people dancing, partying, and celebrating. They understood that they were there to provide the rhythm to get people off their butts and dancing. That is missing in a lot of players today. Students of Rev. Gary Davis or Mississippi John Hurt’s playing have almost a classical approach to the music. They are doing a lot of impressive things with their fingers, but the rhythm is really, really weak. You don’t feel motivated to dance. When John played it was hard to sit still.
“That has been a pet project of mine over the years, to reconnect the dancers and dance music. Only recently have I started having pretty good success with that, mostly due to two excellent dancers who have come into my life. One is a brilliant tap dancer while the other is a hip hop dancer with a strong awareness of the roots and connections going back to the buck dance tradition.”
Wiggins is currently involved in two combos. The first is called the Chesapeake Sheiks, with inspiration coming from bands like Martin, Bogan, and Armstrong, the Mississippi Sheiks, and Cats & the Fiddle, plus some Wiggins originals. The group plays a mix of string band and swing music. Instead of a drummer, the tap dancer, Baakari Wilder, provides the percussion. The other combo is Houseparty, featuring a fine Piedmont guitarist from Virginia, Rick Franklin, and the same violin player from the Sheiks, Marcus Moore, plus Junious Brickhouse, the hip hop/buck dancer. He often brings a gang of young dancers the shows and workshops, so whenever there is a beat going on, there is dancing going on.”
Other members of the Chesapeake Sheiks include Matt Kelley on acoustic guitar, Ian Walters on acoustic piano, and Steve Wolf an acoustic bass. At the time the band formed, all of the members lived in Maryland, so they stole the name from the Mississippi Sheiks. Wiggins has also done a lot of virtual shows through his Facebook page.. He remembers doing three live performances in the last year and a half with the Sheiks, while Houseparty hasn’t done anything since the shutdown.
“I got dragged into this technology kicking and screaming. On my birthday last year, I decided to do a solo live-stream. A lot of people tuned in, so it was lucrative. But I was surprised at how satisfying it was. I was sitting on the couch in my living room, so it felt kind of intimate. I was relaxed, telling stories and playing harp. So I was doing one a month. It is nothing like a live show but it has been satisfying for what was possible given the times.”
In 2017, Wiggins was honored with a National Heritage Fellowship, awarded by the National Endowment of the Arts, perhaps the highest form of recognition for people involved in traditional art forms in our country. The award had extra meaning for the harmonica master.
“In 1989, John received that award. A lot of people assumed that it was for both of us. But that one was just for John. To be recognized on my own was a huge milestone, especially for that particular award. Usually awards are based on how many records you sell, and this or that. I wasn’t doing anything different or anything deliberate to earn that award. I was just doing what I do and love. They decided to recognize it. That affirmation gave me a certain amount of confidence.”
Wiggins is excited about the future of the music these days. He has seen a shift in attitudes about blues in younger generations, even regarding some instruments that hark back to an era many would just as soon forget.
“For awhile there, John and I would play festivals where we would be hanging out with 65 year old geezers. Now there is a young, energetic tribe of African-American musicians, and white musicians, that are playing acoustic guitars, banjos, and harmonicas. Those instruments have had a stigma for a long time for African-Americans, but now people are embracing that connection to our culture. I think we have reached a point in history where, rather than being ashamed of the past, let’s embrace it and be proud of it.”
There is one other aspect of his artistry that has come to the fore to a greater extent in recent years.
“I have been making songs since well before I hooked up with John. Very few of my songs, maybe half a dozen, made it onto the Cephas & Wiggins set list. I am proud that I am now able to put my songs out there, and people seem to like them, want to hear them. I try to write songs that are useful, whether about an issue, or to celebrate and uplift people. My solo live streams have been a good way to get those songs out there. That has been very rewarding.”
Visit Phil’s website at: https://www.philwiggins.com/
Blues Blast Magazine Senior writer Mark Thompson lives in Florida, where he is enjoying the sun and retirement. He is the past President of the Board of Directors for the Suncoast Blues Society and a former member of the Board of Directors for the Blues Foundation. Music has been a huge part of his life for the past fifty years – just ask his wife!
Featured Blues Review – 1 of 4
Sean Chambers – That’s What I’m Talkin’ About: Tribute to Hubert Sumlin
Quarto Valley Records QVR 0143
11 songs 44 minutes
Sean Chambers returns to his roots with this CD, a loving tribute to Hubert Sumlin, the longtime Howlin’ Wolf sideman who was both an inspiration to a generation of guitarists and also the man responsible for setting the Florida-born firebrand on the path he walks today.
A native of the Tampa Bay area who was dubbed by Britain’s Guitarist magazine as one of the top 50 blues fret masters of the 20th century, Sean drew his early inspiration from Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan, and their influence appears frequently in the seven albums he’s released prior to this one, beginning with his powerful debut release, Strong Temptation, in 1998.
His life changed forever in October of that year when Sumlin – who had just recovered from a bout with cancer — hired Chambers and his band to back him at the Blues Stock Festival in Memphis, a performance that went so well that they toured the world together for the next four years. And Hubert would be smiling if he could hear his protégé on this set, which reprises ten tunes tied to the legendary guitarist’s career along with a tribute to him to boot.
This disc is dedicated to Sumlin and its producer, Ben Elliot, who recorded it at his American Showplace Studios in Dover, N.J., and died unexpectedly not long after. He’d also been at the controls for Sean’s previous, well-received two releases – Trouble & Whiskey and Welcome to My Blues – both of which were released on his American Showplace Music imprint. And the title of the CD breathes new life into one of Hubert’s favorite expressions.
Chambers is backed by bassist Antar Goodman and percussionist Andrei Koribanics in a power-trio format that’s filled out by two sensational, award-winning keyboard players who are soloists in their own right: Bruce Katz, who first made a name for himself as a member of Ronnie Earl & the Broadcasters, and John Ginty, whose diverse resume spans blues, rock, hip-hop and country, too.
The Sumlin original instrumental, “Chunky,” opens the action with Sean sticking pretty close to Hubert’s original arrangement while heating things up a bit with 21st century flair, both through his fretwork and Katz’s fiery work on the keys. “Do the Do,” the first of four tunes from Wolf’s catalog penned by Willie Dixon, gets new life to follow because of Chambers’ gritty voice and powerful attack on slide – something that continues in “Rockin’ Daddy,” a number that was co-written by Sumlin and Wolf and borrows verses from other tunes of the era.
St. Louis Jimmy Oden’s “Goin’ Down Slow” is one of the most frequently recorded blues songs ever, but takes on a different feel as Sean remains faithful to the genre, but attacks it with the same zest that Paul Kossoff did with the rockers Free half a century ago. It’s followed by three more entries from the Wolf songbook — “Hidden Charms,” “Forty-Four” and “Taildragger” – before Chambers’ “Hubert’s Song” recounts their time together and thanks Sumlin for all the lessons he received.
“Sittin’ on Top of the World” – a tune penned by Walter Vinson and Lonnie Chatmon and first recorded by the Mississippi Sheiks in 1930 – and “Howlin’ for My Darlin’” both feature Ginty on the keys before Katz returns for “Louise” to close.
Sure, most of the material here is so familiar that most true blues fans can sing along. But this one shines through Chambers’ readings and execution. It’s strongly recommended, and probably Sean’s best work yet.
Blues Blast Magazine Senior writer Marty Gunther has lived a blessed life. Now based out of Charlotte, N.C., his first experience with live music came at the feet of the first generation of blues legends at the Newport Folk Festivals in the 1960s. A former member of the Chicago blues community, he’s a professional journalist and blues harmonica player who co-founded the Nucklebusters, one of the hardest working bands in South Florida.
Featured Blues Review – 2 of 4
Dirty Mojo Blues Band – It Is What It Is
Self-release – 2021
13 tracks; 53:02
The first thing you notice about Dirty Mojo Blues Band’s It Is What It Is is singer Shawn Strickland’s voice, which has a Howlin’ Wolf roughness to it. That, coupled with a band as tight as 70s trousers, makes everything sound bluesy, even as the group explores musical styles beyond classic blues.
Take “Black Water,” which starts with a simple drum beat, slide guitar and organ rolling in to officially kick the song off. Strickland comes in singing, his raw voice sounding like he’s been up yelling all night. But the beauty of something so rough is that it transports you. Just like movie directors will use a grand establishing shot to give viewers a sense of place, Strickland’s voice lets you know that whatever the band does, it’s rooted in the blues. Of course, that’s easier with a track like “Black Water,” with its dueling slide guitars (courtesy of Chris Carithers and guest Al Meck), as well as soulful harmonica from Strickland.
But his voice also carries you away on “Toy for You,” which is more spiritual, Strickland singing with background singers, almost like a choir. The band uses a funky soul groove that’s low-key, allowing the band to stretch out, including harmony guitar lines. With different vocals, the song would feel more rock and roll or rhythm and blues, but thanks to Strickland’s singing, it lands like a classic blues. So much so, that when he stops singing to let the band jam out a bit, your thoughts immediately drift to the Allman Brothers Band, the pure blues spell broken.
If “Toy For You” feels like the future, “Ain’t Sayin She’s Crazy” feels like the past. The acoustic track has a 50s country blues vibe, complete with dobro. It makes for some time-traveling dizziness, hearing a voice like Strickland’s, that sounds like it belongs with 1960s electric blues, going back for the more country-jazz blues that preceded it. But the different layers of eras make for a more interesting track.
And then there are tunes like “Stranger Blues,” which is straight-up blues rock, where you can imagine what kind of live show Dirty Mojo Blues Band must put on. It’s the aforementioned 1960s-style electric blues, a la Paul Butterfield Blues Band, that makes perfect sense for the band.
And that’s what makes It Is What It Is a fun album. The band understands its strengths, and delivers plenty of fast blues songs that they can flawlessly execute, but they’re also brave enough to work with different song styles, rightfully confident that their strong blues roots will always keep them centered.
Reviewer Steven Ovadia interviews blues artists about their songwriting process for Working Mojo.
Featured Blues Review – 3 of 4
Mad Dog Blues – Family Reunion 2020
24 songs – 128 minutes
Mad Dog Blues is one of a number of Colorado blues bands to have featured the harmonica player and songwriter, Mark “Mad Dog” Friedman. Friedman’s aim with Mad Dog Blues was to put together an acoustic blues jam band with a unique style indigenous to Colorado in the 21st Century whilst still honoring its blues roots. The fact that he dubbed this music “Colorado Country Blues” (hence the website address), because it combines the “Colorado Sound” (jam grass) with traditional rural blues, gives an indication of the entertaining wit of a man who wears his learning lightly.
Family Reunion 2020 is the second album from Mad Dog Blues and is a highly enjoyable double album that successfully combines acoustic country blues, folk grass, singer-songwriter soul and jam into one thematically consistent whole.
Friedman contributes harmonica and Native American flute, while other members of the group include Jeff Becker and Sean Bennight on both mandolin and acoustic guitar; Clark Chanslor on bass; and Mark Kaczorowski and Big Willie Palmer on acoustic guitars. Guests include Bruce Delaplain on Hammond B3 organ; Doug Moldawsky, Steve Doersam and Jenn Cleary on acoustic guitars and vocals and Lonesome Rolan on acoustic piano. As one might expect from an acoustic blues jam collective, lead vocals are shared between several musicians, including Friedman, Becker, Bennight, Kaczorowski, Palmer, Moldawsky, Cleary and Doersam.
All bar one of the 24 songs on the album is an original and with every member either writing or co-writing at least one song, there is both variety and inventiveness aplenty. The first album focusses on early string band acoustic blues styles, with lashings of great mandolin and acoustic guitar. Highlights include Friedman’s fraught vocal performance on “My Will Is Gone” and the joyous vocal harmonies on “The Price You Pay” that recall the Grateful Dead’s gentler, more acoustic moments. Indeed, the Dead is clearly a considerable influence on the band, both in songs like “It’s A Sunny Day” but also in the willingness of the musicians to take a musical path and to follow wherever it leads. The haunting “Still Blue” lasts only 52 seconds, but features some stunning harmonica work from Friedman. By contrast, the first album ends with the nine and a half minute extended one-chord jam, “Shine” and it is testament to the quality of the musicianship that the time does not drag on repeated listening.
The second album sees additional instruments added to the mix, including Delaplain’s Hammond B3 organ and Rolan’s piano, as well as Cleary’s folky voice, but continues to explore the same avenues as the first album. “Thank You Baby” is a dreamy, summer instrumental with great harmonica while “Hot Pepper Baby” has some fine organ playing. The 13 minute “Blazz Jam” does perhaps meander a little, but it also contains some excellent Native American flute from Friedman.
With a fun, down-home feel, Family Reunion 2020 successfully manages to ride the fine line between being both relaxed and energetic. Great musicianship, great songs and great production (kudos to Dog House Studios in Lafayette, CO). What’s not to like?
Reviewer Rhys “Lightnin'” Williams plays guitar in a blues band based in Cambridge, England. He also has a day gig as a lawyer.
Featured Blues Review – 4 of 4
The Reverend Shawn Amos – The Cause of it All
Put Together Music
The Reverend Shawn Amos started work on his new album pre-pandemic and finished it up in the heights of the Covid crisis. Simple in approach and execution, the album takes a sparse and limited approach to doing ten classic blues songs. Amos wanted to pay homage to the early masters of the blues. When I saw the song list I feared it would be another cover album of tired and over done stuff. I was wrong.
This is Reverend Amos’ fourth studio album and his eighth over all. It’s just Amos on harp and vocals and Chris “Doctor” Roberts who plays guitar for this stark and quite minimal. Amo’s last CD Blue Sky cam out about a year ago and he follows it with a very contrasting and bare bones effort. It works really well for the most part, with a mixed bag of well known and more obscure blues hits.
The classic “Spoonful” gets worked over in an interesting manner. Minimalist and sparse with harp and slide, gritty and grimy. The Rev demonstrates where he’s coming from on this album quickly. “Goin’ To The Church” is a Lester Butler/Red Devils cut. Modern blues, deep and gutsy. It’s the kind of blues that takes you to church but winds up dumping you in a dark alley with a hangover when you’re done. Again, this is quite minimal in it’s approach and the Rev gives us a sermon to remember.
Next is Muddy’s “Still A Fool” which gets a similar makeover. This 1951 song is a hit-you-in-the-gut cover in a manner similar to the first two cuts. It’s good but at this point the approach seems over done a little with all the distortion. The Wolf’s “Color and Kind” is next and we get more vocal and harp distortion and lots of machismo. John Lee Hookers “Serves Me Right To Suffer” follows. The effects are turned off and the somber cut is more effective in delivering the feeling and message than the prior ones.
“I’m Ready” gets turned into what the Rev calls parlor music, a simple performance with just vocals and guitar. This is homey blues done well. “Baby Please Don’t Go” gets similar treatment, also to good effect. Little Walter’s “Can’t Hold Out Much Longer” also gets the down home and sparse approach, slow and mournful and cool. “Hoochie Coochie Man” gets the same sort of treatment, simple yet sold well to the listener. Another Muddy cut finishes off the album, “Little Anna Mae”. It is a B side from a single and was not a featured cut; we get to hear modern Chicago blues with a deep Delta influence in Shawn’s style here. Early Mud, this cut was also originally done acoustically with Sunnyland Slim on piano. Here we get guitar and a vocal delivery of a good bye to a former love that is emotive. Well done!
My only complaint is in the ordering of the songs. Layering the distortion filled ones together was a bit much; to my mind, had they been interspersed it would have come off better. That being said, it’s refreshing to hear interesting takes on cuts we all know by heart. These are not covers done for the sake of doing covers. Here we have Shawn Amos trying his best to put his spin on each cut and give us a fresh take. He succeeds each time and in so doing he has also given is a few gems to admire.
Reviewer Steve Jones is president of the Crossroads Blues Society and is a long standing blues lover. He is a retired Navy commander who served his entire career in nuclear submarines. In addition to working in his civilian career since 1996, he writes for and publishes the bi-monthly newsletter for Crossroads, chairs their music festival and works with their Blues In The Schools program. He resides in Byron, IL.
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