The Mississippi Sheiks consisted mainly of the Chatmon family from Bolton, Mississippi and their brand of string band music was celebrated throughout the Delta. Their most famous alumnus was Bo Chatmon (better known as Bo Carter) who had a successful solo career as well as playing with the Sheiks.
When the Sheiks first recorded in 1930, the line-up consisted of Carter with Lonnie and Sam Chatmon, and Wlater Vinson. Charlie McCoy joined later when Bo Carter and Sam Chatmon ceased playing full time. It was Lonnie Chatmon and Vinson who formed the real body of the group. They took their name from their home state and from Rudolph Valentino's film 'The Sheik'.
Now, the observant reader will have noticed that this is a tribute to 'The Music of the Mississippi Sheiks,' not actually a tribute to the Sheiks themelves, so on't expect seventeen tracks worth of string band music in the well known Sheiks style. Instead we get seventeen Sheiks numbers, performed in a variety of styles, by a variety of artists, with a variety of instrumentation. Most of it works well, some very well, however I feel several cuts are less successful.
The North Mississippi Allstars (the Dickinson brothers Cody and Luther, their dad Jim, Jimbo Mathus, et all) open with a rollicking version of the bawdy 'It's Backfirin' Now' (imagine a jug band minus the jug and you'll get the idea). Vancouver-based lady vocalist Ndidi Onukwulu covers 'Things About Comin' My Way'. With Steve Dawson's slide backing reminiscent of Ry Cooder and Jesse Zubot sawing away on fiddle, it's a stunning interpretation of this number. John Hammond's solo rendition of 'Stop And Listen' is pretty much what you'd expect. 'Bootlegger's Blues' by Oh Susanna (Suzie Ungerleider) boasts an arrangement by Mississippi native Van Dyke Parks (producer/arranger for Ray Charles, Brian Wilson, Randy Newman among others). Suzie renders a sweetly swinging reading of this tale of lawmen and bootleggers.
'Sitting on Top of the World' is arguable the Sheiks best-known song (notably recorded by Big Bill Broonzy, Bob Wills, Ray Charles, Howlin' Wolf, Carl Perkins, Cream etc etc). Performed here by young African/American trio The Carolina Chocolate Drops; Justin Robertson (banjo/vocal), Dom Flemons (guitar), and Rhiannon Giddens (fiddle), their superlative reading is possibly the closest to the Sheiks style to be heard on this disc. Ace guitarist Bill Frisell plays the instrumental 'That's it', backed only by trombone, it's a quirky take on one of the Sheiks instrumentals.
'Livin' In a Strain' by Kelly Joe Phelps and 'Somebody's Gotta Help You' by Bob Brozman are both solo performances, Brozman shades it for me, kudos must be extended to the engineer for capturing Phelps' lovely guitar sound. However my favourite number on this disc has to be 'The World Is Going Wrong' by Geoff Muldaur and the Texas Sheiks with Geoff on banjo and vocals. Backing is provided by Cindy Cashdollar on National tricone, Suzy Thompson on fiddle, Stephen Bruton on guitar, Johnny Nicholas on mandolin and kick drum, and Bruce Hughes on bass fiddle. This hard driving outfit take this song by the scruff of the neck, throw it around a couple of times then stomp out a matchless reading. The Sojourners are a three-piece gospel trio, all from the US but now based in Vancouver. Marcus Mosely, Will Sanders, and Ron Small deliver a finely honed reading of the Sheiks spiritual number, 'He Calls that Religion'.
I'm not so keen on Robin Holcomb's take on 'I've Got Blood in my Eyes For You', described in the notes as the biggest departure from the Sheiks original her vocal tone sets my teeth on edge. Backed by clarinet and bass clarinet, Del Rey's vocal and guitar readings of 'We Both are Feeling Good Right Now' is another variation from the Sheiks approach, I'm not so sure about the clarinets though. Madeleine Peyroux has been compared to Billie Holiday, listening to her I can hear why, however it just does not work for me.
This is a CD that, with the noted exceptions, I found to be extremely enjoyable, it's had a lot of airplay here and I keep toggling to 'It's Backfirin' Now', 'The World Is Going Wrong', and 'He Calls That Religion'.
- Phil Wight