(Black Hen Music)
Contrary to popular belief, the blues band was not a
byproduct of the electric guitar’s invention and the World War II migration of
African-Americans out of the Deep South to big
Northern cities where they could earn a living with music.
There were Southern acoustic bands before that. Perhaps the
most popular was the Mississippi Sheiks, a string band (guitar, fiddle) active
from 1930-1935 that not only could play rural blues but also early country and
swinging, jazzy dance music. Named for its home state as well as for Rudolph
Valentino’s sexy movie The Sheik, the
Sheiks’ popular recordings included the first version of “Sitting on Top of the
World” as well as “The World Is Going Wrong,” highlighted on Bob Dylan’s World Gone Wrong album. The group even
performed for Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt. Their songs could be topical, sexually
sly, or good-humored.
In fact, it was listening to Dylan’s album that made Steve
Dawson, an accomplished Canadian slide guitarist and label owner/producer, put
together the Things About Comin’ My Way tribute to the Sheiks. It mostly features acts known for their impeccable taste
in crafting restrained modern-day interpretations of older blues and other
Judging from the logistics involved in amassing these
recordings, Dawson must have spent years on this labor of love – getting North
Mississippi Allstars, Carolina Chocolate Drops, Oh Susanna with Van Dyke Parks,
John Hammond, Geoff Muldaur and others to record. He eventually put together a
2008 Seattle session with seasoned studio musicians to get contributions by
Bruce Cockburn, Robin Holcomb, Kelly Joe Phelps and others down on tape.
(Holcomb’s dramatically intimate take on “I’ve Got Blood In My Eyes For You,”
by the way, is a chilling standout.)
The result sounds like true musician’s tribute – there is no
wild experimentation with rock ‘n’ roll arrangements; no flashy or trendy
contributors picked for their ability to get press because they have chart
hits. Everyone seems in synch with Dawson’s vision to do the Sheiks’ justice by
being respectful to the spirit (and sometimes the era) of the source material.
There is some electric guitar, but its use is spare.
The Chocolate Drops, a contemporary string brand (with
banjo, guitar, fiddle) sound timeless doing “Sitting On Top of the World,” with
Justin Robinson’s vocals sounding alive and modern yet also seamlessly
connected to rural Mississippi. The gospel group the Sojourners breathe fire
and passion into “He Calls That Religion,” a condemnation of hypocritical,
greedy preachers that is as relevant today as it was in the Depression. And
Danny Barnes brings the country flavor of “Too Long” to the forefront with a
pinched voice that erupts into some joyful mountain-music scatting.
Occasionally, there’s a touch of brass band – William Carn
contributed muted Dixieland trombone to Cockburn’s “Honey Babe Let the Deal Go
Down,” Steve Moore provides the same to Bill Frisell’s instrumental “That’s
It,” on which Frisell plays a lively tremolo guitar that has a touch of Django.
It used to be that tribute albums gave newer, younger
recording artists a chance to gain some exposure performing songs by
classic-rock names like Hendrix, Petty and the Eagles. But this year has seen
the form used to spotlight unfamiliar or forgotten figures who deserve
rediscovery – Kath Bloom, Judee Sill, Mark Mulcahy and the Sheiks. It’s been
one of the year’s best musical trends, and this is one of the best examples.
Standout Tracks: “Sitting on Top of the World,” “He Calls That Religion” STEVEN ROSEN