The Mississippi Sheiks was a black family group, the Chatmons, that, though nearly forgotten now, was one of the most influential musical groups America has produced. Muddy Waters was unstinting in his praise and said he'd walk 10 miles to see them play. Steve Dawson, who earlier got the CD version of this project together (here), found it unfitting that such a legacy should be let to die after that heavy-duty one-off, so he rounded up a jaw-dropping ensemble to commemorate the Sheiks in Vancouver for two nights. That the gigs came together at all is almost miraculous, given conflicting schedules among so many in-demand players, but we're talking top-shelf pros here, and evidence abounds everywhere that the pure compulsion of the Chatmons' music provided the motive force.
A round-robin intro gets things familiarized and then it's into a booty-shaking rendition of Things About Comin' My Way by Oh Susanna with burning slide guitar and singing quite Maria Muldaur-esque. One after another, industry greats like Wayne Horvitz, Van Dyke Parks, Geoff Muldaur, the Sojourners, Alvin Youngblood Hart, and many others play through with revelatory inspiration and more than a little holy down-home slop, the kind of presence that liner note writer Doug Heselgrave (NoDepression.com) notes avoids the "saccharine whitewash of the 1950s". Catch Dawson's truly inspired slide solo on Gulf Coast Bay and see what I mean (and I don't know what kind of guitar he's playing—it looks like a pregnant acromegalic dulcimer—but he's working the devil out of it!).
Bob Brozman covers Church Bell Blues with some steel guitar that leaves me on the floor, dazed. The guy is doing stuff that no one else is. In the tradition of Elmore James, Robert Johnson, Leo Kottke, and others, he's pulling up techniques that only a fully immersed player could hope to conjure, 538% into it (small wonder he and Dawson have been working on improvisatory techniques on the side). Robin Holcomb delivers a chilling I've Got Blood in my Eyes for You—and I do mean freeze-the-blood arch and cold—a la a John Cale vibe, then John Hammond, in a nice raw Kind Treatment, demonstrates why he's a legend. At the close of the DVD, a jumpin' version of Sitting on Top of the World is rendered by everyone in jam ensemble, forsaking the ponderous lugubrious rock & roll versions so prevalent otherwise.
No matter how ya wanna slice it, this DVD is a pure dee-light, the sort of affair letting modern listeners get a really good idea of how the Sheiks' own audiences must've felt back in the day and why their music kicked up such a joyous fuss. Compare it to any similar recent enterprise, including Springsteen's rather excellent latest trib, and it'll still come out on top.