The Bluegrass Special
Muddy Waters once said he would walk ten miles to see the Chatmon brothers convene as the Mississippi Sheiks. He wasn’t kidding, either. In their relatively brief period as a recording entity--the bulk of its 80 discs was recorded in 1930 and ‘31--the Sheiks were beloved among blues enthusiasts, and the group gained fresh cachet when Cream cut its signature tune, 1930’s “Sittin’ On Top Of the World,” but by and large the Mississippi Sheiks’ legend remains the province of the blues community, its musicians and fans.
shieks, thingsEven so, you can’t keep a good group down, and so it is that here and there in the run of history someone takes a notion to honor the Mississippi Sheiks’ legacy by bringing it to the world at large. It happened last year when Juno Award winning producer Steve Dawson put together a truly formidable lineup of blues heavyweights to do justice to the Sheiks’ catalogue on A Tribute To The Mississippi Sheiks--Things About Comin’ My Way, which was nominated for a Blues Music Award by the Blues Foundation. As well it should have (and it should have won). Among its highlights: 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 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.
The first track on the album strikes the proper, shambling, loosey-goosey note consistent with the Sheiks’ aesthetic: the North Mississippi All Stars’ version of the aforementioned impotence landmark, “It’s Backfirin’ Now,” features the All-Stars’ Luther Dickinson’s hoarse wail perfectly evoking the anguished state of a man who’s learned the “spark” has gone out of his machine; also take note of the rollicking banjo deliberately plunking one descending line after another. That’s the work of none other than Luther’s (and brother Cody’s) dad, the late, great Jim Dickinson, making his presence felt in a profound, non-verbal way that adds immeasurably to the back-country ambiance. Then there’s the easygoing ramble of “We Both Are Feeling Good Right Now,” a pop-inflected tribute to domestic bliss, complete with a Dixieland touch via a trio of clarinets, done to a turn by the venerable Mississippi blues woman Del Rey, who was initially taught on classical guitar but changed course and her lifestyle when she met and learned blues guitar at the feet of one Sam Chatmon a quarter century ago. She’s this project’s most direct link to the Sheiks and brings her moment home with the casual, bracing authority of one who knows whereof she sings.
Steve Dawson not only shines on the Peyroux cut but turns in a stellar reading of “Lonely One In This Town,” he and his band giving it a shuffling, southern rock flair keyed by his electrifying slide work and Horvitz’s rich, humming Wurlitzer; Geoff Muldaur and the Texas Sheiks (whose members include another now-deceased musical great in guitarist Stephen Bruton) serve up a deliciously ragged, midtempo strut in “The World Is Going Wrong”; and the underappreciated versatile Canadian singer-songwriter Suzie Ungerleider (who goes by the professional monicker Oh Susanna, under which she has received rave reviews for her solo albums without gaining much traction below her country’s southern border) teams with Van Dyke Parks, who contributes a full, expressive (maybe “cinematic” is a better word) string arrangement to “Bootlegger’s Blues,” one of the Sheiks’ always welcome advisories, this one to bootleggers trying to avoid the long arm of the law (“You gotta make it to the woods if you can”). Suzie sings it in her own endearing whiskey voice, bluesy and full of certitude and imbued with high spirits as well, as the strings and backing female chorus (one of those voices is hers) swell with a sense of impending drama—cinematic, indeed.
Turns out Steve Dawson wasn’t finished with the Mississippi Sheiks, and God bless him for keepin’ on believin’. This past March, over two nights as the last event of the 2010 Vancouver Cultural Olympiad (during the Winter Olympics), Dawson called on some of the same musicians who made the album project a total triumph, added some new faces to the lineup, regrouped the same band that played on the CD (himself on guitar, Matt Chamberlain on drums, Wayne Horvitz on keyboards, Keith Lowe on bass and Daniel Lapp on fiddle and trumpet), and wrecked the house. Thirteen of those performances are preserved for posterity on this DVD release of the tribute concert. Your eyes and ears don’t lie: the intensity and love infusing each of these performances makes you wish for a second disc and most certainly will send you back to your Mississippi Sheiks records (or online to buy some) so you can hear the masters in their own voices, suddenly with fresh ears.
Vancouver native Oh Susanna, who is maturing into a fetching young woman both visually and vocally, opens the proceedings with a swaggering, no-nonsense delivery of “Things About Comin’ My Way,” which is also an occasion for Daniel Lapp to cut a swath through the arrangement with his protesting fiddle solo and Horvitz to add some beef and brawn on the organ, all the soloing serving to enhance the emotional wallop of Susanna’s impassioned delivery. The gospelfied Sojourners follow with a close-harmonized beauty of a workout on “Sweet Maggie,” in a rich vocal arrangement that honors both the Sheiks and the Mills Brothers, and to which Dawson adds some sparkling, tasty pedal steel flourishes in one of the evening’s most ingratiating arrangements, cool and swinging all at once. Geoff Muldaur takes banjo in hand and delivers an infectious, shambling take on “Poor Boy,” singing in a voice that sounds much older than his years, with all the appropriate metaphysical weight in its dry, nasal timbre. The North Mississippi All Stars are absent from the concert lineup, but Mississippi native Van Dyke Parks takes to the 88s for a rollicking take on the All Stars’ album contribution, the gold standard of sexual dysfunction songs, “It’s Backfirin’ Now,” yet another occasion energized by some spirited soloing by the Lapp (trumpet)-Horivitz (organ) axis. Colin James, with a dapper John Hammond wailing away on harmonica, delivers a deep, grinding treatment of “Keep On Tryin’”; the unclassifiable Robin Holcomb reprises a magic moment from the album with her dark, eerie, art song treatment of “I’ve Got Blood In My Eyes For You,” which apart from an occasional ghostly moan from Dawson’s slide guitar, operates mostly in the silence enveloping Holcomb’s stark, mournful piano and mesmerizing, tremulous vocal in what is the disc’s most arresting moment, one sure to send listeners back not only to the Sheiks’ original version but into Holcomb’s catalogue, too, for further exploration. As he does in traveling around the world singing his and other artists’ blues, John Hammond makes “Kind Treatment” a number singular to himself, digging into the pain informing lyrics such as “I wonder where’s kind treatment now,” punctuating the performance with guttural blasts from his harmonica, giving way to a piercing guitar solo from Dawson and looking for all the world like he’s climbed way inside the song and submerged himself in its abiding darkness as he sings of his woman’s duplicity. Dave Alvin and Christy McWilson (doing a percolating take on Bo Carter’s “Who’s Been Here”), Jim Byrnes (“Tell Me What the Cats Are Fighting About”), Bob Brozman (a resonant rendition of “Church Bell Blues” on National Steel), Alvin Youngblood Hart (playing lap steel in “Livin’ In a Strain,” a song about hard times now ever so timely given the economic backdrop of 2010) are all remarkable in their unique approaches to the material. A final group singalong on “Sittin’ On Top Of the World” is the joyous benediction warranted by the Mississippi Sheiks and the music they made.
Smartly edited, and beautifully framed from multiple angles, the footage captures the headline performers’ passion and the band’s unflagging enthusiasm on two nights when spirits were running high indeed, and the resulting music carried some spiritual heft no one could have anticipated. That’s a tribute to Dawson’s instincts as both musician and producer, to the artists who were invited to participate and brought their best to the stage, and to the rich, timeless Mississippi Sheiks music. Sometimes all the stars are aligned properly, causing wonderful, even miraculous events to ensue, and this is one such occasion. Verily, the Mississippi Sheiks live.