The Bluegrass Special
Almost unknown today except to blues historians and enthusiasts, the wondrous Mississippi Sheiks were the most popular string band of the 1930s, beloved by white and black audiences well outside their Jackson, Mississippi, home base, so much so as to warrant concert jaunts up north to Chicago and New York and even a by-invitation show for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt at his Warm Springs, GA, retreat. Their first big success, 1930’s “Sitting On Top Of the World,” is one of the most covered songs in blues history, with artists as varied as Howlin’ Wolf, Frank Sinatra, Carl Perkins and Bob Dylan having taken a run at it. Not bad for a group that effectively disbanded in 1935, but recorded the bulk of its sides in 1930 and 1931 (some 70 in all). The performing unit of the Sheiks was a fluid entity that included, at times, Charlie Patton and Peter Chatmon (aka Memphis Slim), but for recording purposes the group was sprung from the Chatmon family band, which numbered 11 brothers and two sisters, all of whom could play various instruments. However, of these the only ones to record were brothers Armenter (known as Bo, he also recorded under the pseudonym of Bo Carter) on violin, Lonnie on guitar and, occasionally, guitarist Sam, along with family friend Walter Vinson on vocals and guitar. The Sheiks proper were often a duo of Walter and Lonnie, with Sam sometimes sitting in, but the larger configuration did accompany vocalist Texas Alexander on some tough-minded blues recordings in 1930. The group’s original repertoire embraced not only standard country blues, but hokum songs, waltzes, pop tunes, parlor and folk numbers, dance tunes; they also gained a randy reputation for their double entendre lyrics (“It’s Backfiring Now” may well be the first and arguably still the best and funniest song about impotence, couched in terms of a beloved car breaking down, and another, “My Pencil Won’t Write No More,” was an even more blunt confession), as well as reputation for musical innovation: deploying complex chord structures gave their music a jazzy flair quite distinct from the usual string band sound. As much as any other quality, though, the Sheiks, even in their darkest moments (and there were some dark ones—two of their most eerie blues have the phrase “Lonesome Grave” in the title), had an infectious, sunny energy, much akin to that of a jug band.
This well deserved, superb tribute to the Sheiks captures all the band’s qualities, especially that infectious, bouyant energy, in 17 fine performances. In most cases the assembled artists use more instruments than Messrs. Vinson and Chatmon had at their disposal—or instruments they never employed--but nothing’s ever sonically out of whack with the Sheiks’ spirit. For example, Bill Frisell’s rendering of one of the few instrumentals in the Sheiks’ repertoire, “That’s It,” is a delightfully discursive conversation between his bright, chirpy guitar and a warm, easygoing trombone, their respective parts both traipsing gaily around each other’s and finally meeting in the middle for a spirited ride on the melody line. Versatile chanteuse Madeleine Peyroux uses a full band with Wayne Horvitz providing a rumbling Wurlitzer as she teases the sultriness out of the slow boiling blues, “Please Baby,” with a restrained yearning performance that merits all those comparisons to Billie Holiday she’s received over the years; on that same earth mama plane as Peyroux inhabits, soul singer Ndidi Onukwulu, also backed by a full band with Horvitz again on the Wurlitzer and Steve Dawson—whose brainchild this tribute is—adding a stinging slide guitar, manages to inject no small dollop of sensuality in celebrating a premonition of good times aborning, “Things About Comin’ My Way” (any discussion of which would be incomplete without a tip of the hat to a truly sizzling fiddle solo courtesy Jesse Zubot), a song that simmers, then boils with a rambunctious urgency as Onukwulu seduces with an insouciance worthy of the young Maria Muldaur, to whom she bears a striking vocal resemblance. Sometimes, the artist needs even less support than the Sheiks gave themselves—witness veteran bluesman John Hammond’s righteously aching rendition of “Stop and Listen,” using only his plaintive voice and aggressively protesting National steel guitar to buttress his proclamations.