Watermelon Slim – Church Of The Blues
Northern Blues – 2019
14 tracks; 57 minutes
Watermelon Slim’s thirteenth career album finds him in good company with a host of guests. As always, Slim’s distinctive vocals and slide/harp playing are at the heart of the material which is a blend of originals and covers from some of his greatest influences – Mississippi Fred McDowell, Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf amongst others.
Slim handles vocals, slide guitar and occasional harp, with John Allouise on bass and Brian Wells on drums. However, most tracks add guests: Bob Margolin (3 tracks), Albert Castiglia (2), Ike Lamb (2), Chris ‘Wick’ Hardwick (2), Nick Schnebelen and Joe Louis Walker (1 each) are on guitar; Red Young (6 tracks) and Chris Wiser (3) are on keys and John Nemeth (2 tracks) and Sherman Holmes (1) add vocals. The ‘Church Of The Blues’ horn section of Matt Blagg (trumpet), Chris Hicks (sax) and Kevin Webb (trombone) plays on three tracks; Chris was also the producer of the project.
I could find no information on the writers of the first two songs: “St Peter’s Ledger” is credited to Ron L Meadors and is a good start as Slim asks St Peter to check his books and not send him down to purgatory, Slim and Bob Margolin’s guitars meshing well to give a nice, thick sound; Tom W McFarland is credited as the writer of “Tax Man Blues” and it dovetails well with the previous track as Slim complains about how hard it is to make a living playing music, the lyrics seeming to relate to the 70’s as the author had to take a day job when disco took over the scene in San Francisco. “Gypsy Woman” features Bob Margolin’s Muddyesque slide work but also plenty of Slim’s high-pitched harp.
The horns put in their first appearance on Slim’s “Post-Modern Blues”, a strong song with Nick Schnebelen on slide and Slim recognizing that he is something of a dinosaur: “I’m obsolete, living my life in the twentieth century. I’ll never be post-modern, there’s stuff that’s false and fake. The plan is to dumb us down so we are just good consumers”. The horns definitely add to this one, making it one of the standout cuts. Sherman Holmes and John Nemeth join Slim in a three-pronged vocal attack that works well on Allen Toussaint’s “Get Out Of My Life Woman”, a track that marks Bob Margolin’s final contribution on slide.
Slim’s passionate advocacy of ‘green’ issues is evident on “MNI Wiconi – The Water Song” and he pulls no punches as he discusses the waste of water on our planet: “if we don’t care about our water we don’t care who we kill”, set to an attractive tune with Joe Louis Walker’s distinctive, almost discordant, guitar attack set against bubbling bass and Red Young’s gentle organ work. Bringing things back to personal relations Gene Barge’s “Me And My Woman” has a funky backdrop with Albert Castiglia’s guitar and Slim’s busy harp work before another classic, Howling Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightning”, gets a country blues makeover featuring Slim’s resonator. The country feel carries on into “That Ole 1-4-5” with producer Chris on guitar and Slim goes all the way back to the origins of the blues with “Holler #4”, acapella apart from a background footstomp. This autobiographical holler runs to six minutes!
The closing four songs are all strong. Fred McDowell was an early influence on Slim and here he covers “Highway 61” in the only straight trio performance on the album and it’s a good version with plenty of Slim’s distinctive slide work. “Too Much Alcohol” is often associated with Rory Gallagher though Rory always correctly credited it to JB Hutto; here Slim and Albert Castiglia go toe to toe on slide – shame it is not a longer track! “Charlottesville (Blues For My Nation)” is Slim’s indictment of recent political events and it’s a bitter reflection of what was seen in Virginia in 2017, John Nemeth adding to the chorus. “Halloween Mama” lightens the mood with the horns and some odd, retro organ sounds from Chris Wiser as Slim sings of an unfortunate girlfriend: “My baby’s so ugly, just like Frankenstein’s daughter. She don’t need no costume when she’s out on Halloween, she takes off her mask, scares people like you never seen”. Amusing stuff, if not very PC – perhaps that is why it’s dubbed a ‘bonus song’!
Long-term fans will enjoy Watermelon Slim’s latest.