The Mississippi Sheiks were between 1930 and 1935 the top-selling band, mainly as a result of Sittin' On Top Of The World, written by two of its members (Walter Vinson and Lonnie Chatmon), which has since turned out their most extensively-covered song (by everyone who's anyone and plenty others besides, from the worlds of blues, country and rock, from Bill Monroe to Howlin' Wolf, Doc Watson to the Dead, Cream to The White Stripes).
But there's much more where that chestnut came from, as the indefatigable Steve Dawson has set out to enlighten us by masterminding this handsome hour-long tribute that "uncovers the songs of the Sheiks". These sons of sharecroppers were purveyors of a diverse repertoire that encompassed country, string-band, ragtime, hokum, Dixie, sanctified spiritual song and delta blues, and provided a kind of random blueprint, a tried-and-tested model, for many acts that were to follow - right down to the 60s and 70s. The songs they performed have, despite their deceptive simplicity, well stood both the test of time and the test of reinterpretation, and to the latter end Steve imported a whole host of specially-selected artists whom he just knew could do the material justice. He also set up a house-band to provide a common denominator or core ensemble where needed, this basically comprising Steve himself, Wayne Horvitz, Matt Chamberlain and Keith Lowe, yet although they accompany a number of the artists they don't appear on every track by any means.
The key to the album's success, I feel, is Steve's method, whereby he allows each artist the space to individualise his/her interpretation and let the songs breathe while providing just enough of a guiding hand (or instrumental support) where it feels right to do so; his keen judgement is pretty much infallible in this respect. The choice of artists is significantly inspired too, with important figures from the worlds of blues-roots and left-field Americana giving us some very tasty takes on the material.
Especially fruitful instances being Suzie Ungerleider's delicious "noble bird" rendition of Bootlegger's Blues (with a creative string arrangement by Van Dyke Parks), the Carolina Chocolate Drops' characterful take on Sittin'... (one of the finest available in an overcrowded field), Ndidi Onukwulu's biting yet beautifully controlled version of Things About Comin' My Way, Madeleine Peyroux's sublimely sensual exploration of Please Baby, Danny Barnes' scat-rich old-world take on Too Long, and Robin Holcomb's brave and radical cover of the unusually desperate I've Got Blood In My Eyes For You. Some tremendous solo performances by Kellie Joe Phelps, Bob Brozman and John Hammond come close to perfection. But not to forget the performer with the closest links to the Sheiks: Del Rey, who actually learnt to play the blues from Sam Chatmon. She turns in a joyous, exhilarating tribute with the aid of a veritable mini-clarinet section.
So here we are - a generous 17 tracks giving the fullest flavour of the diversity and influence of the Sheiks: a visionary tribute, one long overdue, and one unlikely to be bettered.