For his latest album, Better the Devil You Know (Black Hen Music), Canadian blues legend Big Dave McLean ventured down to Nashville to Steve Dawson’s Henhouse Studio and enlisted the services of Dawson (producer/guitars/banjo/pedal steel/mandotar/dobro), Kevin McKendree (keyboards), Gary Craig (drums), John Dymond (bass), Fats Kaplin (fiddle/mandolin), and the winsome McCrary sisters (Ann and Regina, backing vocals). The end result was a marvelous set that encompasses traditional blues and gospel, while paying tribute to several blues masters.
The disc gets off to a great start with McLean’s “Life On The Road,” a track that has to be from personal experience, and is followed by “You Can’t Lose What You Never Had,” one of two Muddy Waters covers. On this one, McLean takes his time and lets the song percolate along with a Spann-like piano break from McKendree. The McCrary sisters kick off the next tune, a smashing cover of the Blind Willie Johnson classic, “You’re Gonna Need Somebody on Your Bond,” which also features Kaplin on fiddle and McLean’s harmonica. Dawson contributes “Angeline,” a sad tune about Johnson and his wife and their struggles.
McLean’s “I Need You” is a fun, harp-driven country blues, and “Where The Music Comes From,” another original, pays homage to Mississippi, inspired by a visit to Clarksdale a few years ago with some ripping slide guitar. Parker Milsap’s “Old Time Religion” returns the album to the gospel theme with some inspired steel guitar and heavenly backing vocals from the McCrarys, and the theme continues with McLean’s “Swingin’ on Heaven’s Gate,” a countrified number (with Kaplin on mandolin) which was written after the death McLean’s father and close friend in 2000, and Jeffrey Hatcher’s “Deliver Me.”
A sparkling cover, “Deep Down in Florida,” is the second Muddy Waters tune, a Delta blues song punctuated by some crisp mandolin. Dawson’s “The Side of the Road” is an atmospheric tribute to the Bentonia blues man Skip James, and the introspective “Talk About a Revolution” was penned by McLean shortly after the terror attacks in Paris in a plea for peace. The album closer is a raw cover of Johnny Shines’ “Pet Rabbit,” which was recorded in a ’30s style recording booth at Jack White’s Third Man Records in Nashville.
A Canadian institution, Big Dave McLean should please blues fans from all over with this winning set of old school blues and gospel tunes.