Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Things About Comin’ My Way: A Tribute to the Music of The Mississippi Sheiks

One of the most celebrated African-American recording acts of the thirties was The Mississippi Sheiks. Comprised mostly of members of the Chatmon family (Lonnie, Sam, Bo and others) along with Walter Vinson, they had a very wide repertoire and considerable influence on both black and white performers. They introduced the standard “Sittin’ on Top of the World,” (which has been performed by Howlin’ Wolf, the Grateful Dead, Western Swing and bluegrass bands), “Stop and Listen Blues,” and several songs like “Yodeling, Fiddling Blues,” suggestive of Jimmie Rodgers, the Father of Country Music. The Sheiks recorded 70 odd recordings ranging from blues, waltzes, topical songs and hokum. Some members of the Chatmon family recorded outside the Sheiks extensively. Bo Chatmon was better known as Bo Carter and had a remarkable recording career that included more than a few risqué lyrics while Sam Chatmon had a productive recording career after the sixties blues revival before he passed in 1983. The Sheiks music has been in recent years been revived by artists as diverse as Alvin Youngblood Hart and Bob Dylan.

Things About Comin’ My Way: A Tribute to the Music of The Mississippi Sheiks” (Black Hen Music) came as a surprise when it arrived. Put together by Steve Dawson, much of this was recorded over two days in Seattle and/or Vancouver, but some was recorded in other locations. They brought together a variety of performers, some who perform closer to the Sheiks’ recordings such as the lively North Mississippi Allstars rendition of “Its Backfirin’ Now,” John Hammond’s “Stop and Listen,” and the Carolina Chocolate Drops rendition of “Sittin’ on Top of the World.” Others are not as tied to the originals. Vancouver singer-songwriter Ndidi Onukwilu, supported by the project’s house band, on the title track which employs the same melody as “Sittin’ on Top of the World,” but has a different flavor due to some blues-rock accents in the accompaniment. Bruce Cockburn’s vocal on “Honey Babe Let the Deal Go Round,” vocally evokes the late Piedmont master, John Jackson, although the performance has a bit of country flavor. I do find it hard to agree with the sometimes pretentious liner notes that this is an essential track, no matter how much of a Canadian treasure Cockburn is.

Pretentious is how I might describe the artsy Van Dyke Parks arrangement used on Oh Susanna’s rendition of “Bootlegger’s Blues.” This is a shame as she does a real nice job on the vocal. Danny Barnes (an Austin legend who I never heard of before), is too country sounding for “Too Long,” and probably should have been given the more country flavored “Jailbird Love Song,” to record. Guitarist Bill Frisell is heard on a duet with trombone of the instrumental “That’s It,” while on “Please Baby,” Madeleine Peyroux sounds like a Billie Holiday wannabe.

Producer Dawson himself sings in a neutral manner on a blues-rock adaptation of “Lonely One In This Town.” The stronger tracks include Geoff Muldaur & the Texas Sheiks (with Stephen Bruton on guitar and Johnny Nicholas on mandolin) on “The World Is Going Wrong,” with a highlight being his a robust vocal and a great fiddle solo from Suzi Thompson. Del Ray, who was mentored by Sam Chatmon does a lovely “We Are Both Feeling Good Right Now,” supported by her adept guitar and a pair of clarinets. Bob Brozman may be a marvelous guitarist but on “Somebody’s Gotta Help You,” shows he is not a very good singer

As suggested, this is a mixed bag. There is nothing poor here, and the tracks make for enjoyable listening with several tracks being exceptional. I do agree with the decision to not simply give us an album of straight covers, but I do find that the relatively few performers of color here odd. I have no idea how performers were selected, and who had been asked and unavailable. But one cannot say that such contemporary African-American performers such as Corey Harris, Youngblood Hart, Guy Davis, or Taj Mahal would not have made significant contributions here.

Upon getting word of a new Alligator Records Blind Willie Johnson tribute album coming in 2016, I noted the absence in this forthcoming release of performers of color other than the Five Blind Boys. It struck me as yet another case of so-called Americana tributes of Black American Music having myopic understanding of the full range of music out their today. It reminded me of tributes to the Missiisppi Sheiks that Steve Dawson did in 2009 and 2010. This review of “Things About Comin’ My Way: A Tribute to the Music of The Mississippi Sheiks”originally appeared in the Oct. 15 - Dec. 1, 2009 Jazz & Blues Report (Issue 321) and expressed my concerns in the last paragraph. I also reviewed, and posted the review on the blog, the subsequent The Mississippi Sheiks Tribute Concert.” I likely received the review copy from a publicist.  

No comments: