Silverbirch Records 2015
16 Songs 1:09:47
Harmonica player Phil Wiggins is best known as half of the famed duo Cephas & Wiggins. By the time John Cephas died at age 78 in 2009, Cephas & Wiggins were the world’s most famous blues duo, approaching the almost mythical stature of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. Although to casual observers, Cephas and Wiggins may have been “a couple of old blues guys,” there was actually a generation between their ages, and Wiggins has some good life expectancy remaining. The question has been about musical expectancy. A quickly recorded album with Corey Harris late in 2009 at XM Radio has had virtually no distribution. Wiggins appeared on an album by Blackwater Mojo in 2012, and cut a single with George Kilby, Jr., but should put Phil Wiggins firmly back on the map.
Wiggins fronts a band called The Chesapeake Sheiks, a name which he tells us in the album’s unfortunately parsimonious liner notes, is drawn from The Mississippi Sheiks, a very successful band that played all sorts of roots music and its branches in the 1930s. No Fools No Fun was recorded at a performance for a clearly appreciative audience in Laurel MD (the actual date of the show is not listed). Most of the material comes from 78-rpm-era songs from that general musical area where blues, jazz, swing, and old-timey music intersect. The band includes some solid players, especially violinist Marcus Moore.
Most of the tracks are entertaining and upbeat songs, such as “Lulu’s Back In Town,” from the 1935 film Broadway Gondolier, which was later made popular by Fats Waller, and Earl Hines’ “Rosetta” which was distinctively covered by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys in 1938, and many others since, on which Marcus Moore deftly enhances Wiggins’ vocal with his violin. The opening track “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue” (a transformation of a piece recorded by Louis Armstrong and written by his wife Lil Hardin Arnstrong) offers solid solos from all the band members except bassist Eric Shrameck, including some engaging interplay between harmonica and violin. (It sounds as if someone’s playing castanets, or some small percussion intrument, on this track, though it isn’t listed in the credits.)
“Roberta” comes from the Cephas & Wiggins repertoire, the band joining Wiggins in singing a spirited rendition of the song, one of the duo’s more popular tunes. Good solos abound in the band’s treatment of Duke Ellington’s somewhat sardonic “Do Nothin’ Till You Hear From Me,” and the audience is clearly pleased with “Let The Mermaids Flirt With Me” which comes from Mississippi John Hurt. “Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Crying” is more somber than most of the other songs, and Wiggins’ voice really isn’t quite up to the challenge of presenting the deep sadness of the song, though he counters by dropping in a little humor, joking about his French pronunciation of the word “pavement” while Moore’s violin is truly aching in keeping with the song’s mood.
The title track (apparently written by Wiggins – – there are no songwriting credits with the album) offers a funny tale of wild and sometimes violent parties in Wiggins’ home neighborhood in Washington DC. As in other party songs (including classics like “Wang Dang Doodle”) some crazy characters do some outlandish things, and Wiggins has fun describing it. “Iffy Effy” is also apparently a Wiggins song, poking fun at a gold-digging woman who aspires to higher society.
The album includes two less commonly covered songs from the 1940s from Willie Dixon’e Big Three Trio, “Don’t Let The Music Die,” a song celebrating the kind of music that this album features, and “Tell That Woman,” which offers Moore the chance to shine – – which he does. “Frim Fram Sauce,” originally recorded by Nat King Cole, is one of those funny songs with a deeper underside. The customer ordering a nonexistent “frim fram sauce with oys and fay with shofiefa on the side” is really trying to wangle a free glass of water at the restaurant.
The album ends on a dark note with Louis Armstrong’s “Do You Call That A Buddy” a song about a friend trying to steal his friend’s girlfriend. Armstrong’s version isn’t humorous, but the way Wiggins sings this, and his use of “defenestrate my buddy” in place of Armstrong’s “kill my buddy” lightens the feeling in the song. (Wiggins also “exsanguinates,” “decapitates,” and “eviscerates” him, attacking him with vocabulary, where Armstrong in his last verse just “parts” with him). As with “Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Crying,” Wiggins seems, at least on this song, more comfortable defusing the sadness and anger with humor.
No Fools No Fun is actually quite a lot of fun, with a great band, and an excellent selection of old and old-styled songs. Phil Wiggins’ harmonica playing is superb, and his approach to the music is highly entertaining. The album will undoubtedly help Wiggins enhance his profile as he finds his way in the music world post Cephas-Wiggins.