The Alternative Root - The Roots Americana Music Magazine
If you were to eplore the most influential artists of the American roots music movement beginning in the pre-war era of the 1930's your research would certainly include The Mississippi Sheiks. The Mississippi Sheiks music remains timeless; a testament to the songwriting and arrangements of founders Lonnie, Sam and Armenter Chatmon and Walter Vinson. While the Sheiks were primarily considered a fiddle and guitar, country blues band, their mastery of nearly every style of popular music at the time made them accessible to both black and white audiences, a rarity for the post slavery south during the early part of the century. The Sheiks are among the most prolific recording artists of the era cutting over 60 'sides' between 1930-1935 for three major record companies including the legendary blues labels Bluebird and Okeh records. Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Bob Wills, Bill Monroe, Ray Charles and Howlin' Wolf are among the scores of artists who have sought out the music of The Mississipp Sheiks and the group was invited to perform for President Franklin D. Roosevelt, further reinforcing the sheer scope of popular culture that has been touched by this legendary quartet.
The good minded folks at Black Hen Music, a Vancouver, BC based record company are gearing up for the first ever tribute to the music of The Mississippi Sheiks on October 20, 2009. Produced by label President Steve Dawson who also performs on many of the tracks, Things About Comin' My Way features a who's who of roots music legends including the North Mississippi All-Stars, John Madeleine Peyroux, Geoff Muldaur and the Texas Sheiks and Kelly Joe Phelps among others. "there's 17 songs, which seems like a lot, but I think it's OK for a record like this where there's tons of different styles, the material is so great, and this way I'm sure everyone can find something they really dig." Dawson said in his blog that chronicled the recording process.
The album kicks off with the North Mississippi All-Stars; perhaps the artists most influenced by the Sheiks' legacy that appear on the collection. Their version of 'It's Backfirin' Now' is spiritually true to the original with some New Orleans flavorings added including banjo, a tub bass and a washboard to compliment Paul Taylor's fiddle and the dripping swampy vocals and Delta slide combo of Luther Dickinson.
On the second track it becomes obvious that this isn't only a historical reproduction of what the Sheiks had already done but more of a collection of diverse interpretations of their music. Ndidi Onukwulu gets the nod for the title track 'Things About Comin' My Way' vaulting the album to a level of sophistication with her silky cabaret infused vocals surrounded by some outstanding slide guitar by producer and acclaimed guitarist Steve Dawson and the tasty keyboards of Wayne Horvitz. I had not been aware of Onukwulu, a British Columbia native of German/Nigerian descent until this album but further research into her career has left me a fan. She's a mesmerizing vocal presence in the vein of Bessie Smith and Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
John Hammond could have done this entire album himself and probably has in one form or anothe rover the length of his brilliant career. It would be a complete historically accurate reproduction but far less fun. That said, his take on 'Stop and Listen' is essential here and Hammond applies the recording and tonal skill that makes his recordings sound like they were made on the original equipment used during that era or maybe they were; Hammond is that cool. Hammond is a master of the Delta style and his voice and phrasing hearken back to day when The Mississippi Sheiks dominated the blues landscape.
The album was recorded in three sessions according to Dawson who designed the sessions around the old school methods of Motown, Sun and Stax/Volt by retaining a house band to back a flow of artists throughout the session. Jazz legend Wayne Horvitz provided piano, Wurlitzer, Hammond and pump organ and his presence resounds throughout this collection. Keith Lowe who's bass work with Bill Frisell and Fiona Apple are well doumented formed the rhythm section with drummer Matt Chamberlain (Bowie, Peter Gabriel). Dawson himself provided a variety of slide guitar styles on several tracks and contributed one of his own on 'Lonely One in This Town'. This is a formidable band in any circle. Their appreciation and respect for the material's intent is evident throughout.
There's too many highlights on this collection to call any one the pinnacle but of particular high note are 'Bootlegger's Blues' that places Oh Susanna and Van Dyke Parks together with Dawson's crew and a wall of strings arranged by Parks. The result is a magical matching of diversity that brings the classic 'Bootlegger's Blues' to a new level. This is what roots music was always meant to be.
The Mississippi Sheiks sold over a million copies of the band's trademark song 'Sittin' On Top of the World'. It is the most well known of their songs and the one most associated with them. Dawson chose The Carolina Chocolate Drops for the signature song and it too is among the highlights of a highlight collection. The Carolina Chocolate Drops are a three piece of young black musicians that are well versed in the spirit and meaning of traditional string band blues and folk music. Their cover of 'I've Got Blood in My Eyes for You' appeared on the soundtrack to the Great Debaters and rivals any cover of that song I've heard. Their use of melodic 'banjo-harmonies' is of particular note on their contribution here.
'Things About Comin' My Way', were it to be the underpinning of a George Clooney film would be as important to the Americanan/roots music culture as the 'Oh Brother Where Art Thou' soundtrack and it's a real shame it probably won't reach those lofty heights. But if some of the many awards voting folks are reading this or any of the other reviews that will undoubtedly surface this one has a chance to get it's just rewards and put Black Hen Music on the map.
Parisian born vocal heavyweight Madeleine Peyroux adds additional star power to the album and her contribution is noteworthy. Peyroux's voice is simply brilliant if she were just ordering a sandwich. While her voice draws instant comparisons to Billie Holiday, I think she has tackled and conquered a more demanding span of material in her brief decade on the roots circuit than did Holiday. Her version of 'Please Baby' is an erotic, sexy blues groove that allows her to expand into the subtelties of the original. I believe this is one of the best songs on this collection and it's radio-ready for Americana/Roots airplay.
Canadian music icon (read: National Treasure) Bruce Cockburn leaves an indelible stamp on the record with his swaying-in-the-breeze version of 'Honey Baby Let the Deal Go Down'. The addition of trombone by William Carn and the obscure Weissenhorn slide guitar of Dawson places the listener on the banks of the bayou watching the weeping willows flutter in the breeze. Cockburn's vocal interpretation is spectacular.
Dawson's work on producing and his overall concept for this recording is nearly perfect. There are many more notable performances here than room to describe them but it's evident that his love for the music and his appreciation of its spirit and place in history are not left to chance. It's a spectacular piece of work and with a little luck will place Steve Dawson in Los Angeles come Grammy Time when the first ever Americana Music Grammy gets doled out.