Phoenix Blues Society
One of the highlights of 2009 was the wonderful tribute to the legendary Mississippi Sheiks, released by Black Hen Music. The CD showcased the amazing versatility of the pre-war duo by featuring a varied set of artists with backgrounds in the blues, folk, jazz, country, and rock. It was definitely a release that satisfied fans of many genres beyond the blues.
So what do you do for an encore? You release a DVD of the tribute concert given around the same time last year. The Mississippi Sheiks Tribute Concert features many of the same artists as the CD, playing the same great songs. The concert was part of Vancouver’s Cultural Olympiad, which took place during the 2010 Winter Olympics. Black Hen label chief Steve Dawson spearheaded this effort, and he fronts a great band, consisting of Matt Chamberlain (drums), Wayne Horvitz (keyboards), Keith Lowe (bass), and Daniel Lapp (fiddle, trumpet). The band provides rock solid and versatile support to a group of musicians that include Dave Alvin, John Hammond, Van Dyke Parks, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Geoff Muldaur, Jim Byrnes, Colin James, and The Sojourners.
These performers present various tracks from the Sheiks’ catalog in their own unique fashion. Part of the current attraction to the Mississippi Sheiks’ music is their versatility. When the Sheiks were popular back in the ’30s, they played not just for black audiences, but also for whites. As a result, they became as adept at the country music that was popular with the whites as they were with the blues expected from their more traditional audiences. Their music blurred the line between the genres of the day.
These performances do the same thing. Oh Susanna’s country-flavored version of “Things About Comin’ My Way” is a perfect fit next to The Sojourners’ soulful take on “Sweet Maggie.” “Poor Boy,” presented by Geoff Muldaur, is so authentic that you half expect to hear the pop and hiss associated with a 78.
All of the performances are worth a listen, but some of my favorites included fellow Mississippian Van Dyke Parks’ take of the classic, “It’s Backfirin’ Now,” Jim Byrnes’ “Tell Me What The Cats Are Fighting About,” which includes John Hammond (who also shines on “Kind Treatment”) on harmonica, Alvin Youngblood Hart’s “Livin’ In A Strain,” and Dave Alvin’s duet with Christy McWilson (“Who’s Been Here”), which includes Bob Brozman’s scorching steel guitar and Steve Dawson on banjo.
The entire group assembles at the end for a rousing, extended version of the Sheiks’ signature tune, “Sittin’ On Top of the World.” The DVD also features some behind-the-scenes footage from backstage, some rehearsal footage, and interviews with some of the performers.
This production truly captures the spirit of the Mississippi Sheiks and, combined with the CD released last years, guarantees that their music won’t be fading away anytime soon. Please give a tip of the hat to Steve Dawson for overseeing both of these worthwhile projects.