Five guys sitting around a table produce a live-in-the-studio recording of amazing power, grace, and diversity, and Steve Dawson puts together a tribute album featuring the likes of Bruce Cockburn getting possessed by the ghosts of a legendary blues group.
Diving for Gold
When you listen to this record, remember that the musicians are all sitting around a table facing each other, playing live into carefully placed microphones. Five of the six members write and sing. The styles include rockabilly (“The Coalburner”), music reminiscent of The Band (“Yankee Money”), country (“There I Go Again”), and good ol’ indie-rock (“I Can’t Get Out,” “You and Me”). And yet this is the opposite of scattered or derivative because the playing is so crisp, confident, and downright joyful. The more rocking breaks will make you laugh with their casual grace and power, and the quieter moments will impress you with their resonance and economy. I pledge allegiance to the flag of the united state of Session Americana.
—Bill Chaisson (Trumansburg, NY)
Things About Comin’ My Way: A Tribute to The Mississippi Sheiks
[Black Hen Music BHCD-0055 (2009)]
Anyone who gets the blues bug and starts digging down through the decades to find where that sound came from will eventually encounter the Mississippi Sheiks. Steve Dawson, the Vancouver-based guitarist who pulled together this tribute, first heard of the group when Bob Dylan launched his return to his blues roots on World Gone Wrong and included two Sheiks songs—the title track and “Blood in My Eyes”—on it. Dawson then bought every Mississippi Sheiks recording he could find, from 78s to CD reissues.
The Sheiks recorded between 1930 and 1935, and the prominence of fiddle in their songs reveals the nearness of Appalachian string-band music to early 20th century blues.
The Carolina Chocolate Drops are that rare bird, a young, black country blues string band. Their version of “Sitting on Top of the World” is faithful to the original, but with new banjo lines. At the other end of the spectrum, Bill Frisell reimagines “That’s It,” dragging a piece of New Orleans up to Mississippi and dueting with a trombone.
After years of hearing Bruce Cockburn sing pained songs of political disappointment, it is marvelous to hear him settle into “Honey Babe Let the Deal Go Down” like an old easy chair. His voice is warm and cool, drawing out notes as if savoring their taste. Madeleine Peyroux, on the lam from Larry Klein, doesn’t sound a bit like Joni Mitchell on “Please Baby.” She sounds like a glass of whiskey with no ice and a hand-rolled cigarette. In fact, the Sheiks seem to cast some kind of spell over all involved; everyone sounds like the most centered version of themselves. Even the normally reserved master of ceremonies, Steve Dawson, turns in a loping, thumping rendition of “Lonely One in this Town” that has him swaggering.
Geoff Muldaur has been channeling the blues for more than 40 years. His band is even called the Texas Sheiks, and their take on “The World Is Going Wrong” is probably the closest imitation of the ’30s sound on this record. Bob Brozman’s injection of a Hawaiian vibe into “Somebody’s Gotta Help You” leaves you wondering if the Sheiks ever heard the island music that started coming back to the mainland in the ’20s.
Bet: one spin through this and you’ll be running into Steve Dawson at used record stores.
—Bill Chaisson (Trumansburg, NY)
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