Old Bluesmen Never Die, and They Don't Seem to Fade, Either
It’s not enough of a reason to listen to Pinetop Perkins, but the sheer fact that a 93-year-old man is out there banging the keys, writing tunes, and making records is something to celebrate. How many of us will be doing as much into our tenth decade? Of course, if the music were stodgy or dull, there would be no reason to listen to it, notwithstanding any respect to nonagenarians. Happily, Perkins’ latest collaboration with singer and harp player Willie “Big Eyes” Smith—himself a nipper of 74—is full of the life and joy that only blues can provide. Bouncy, acoustic, piano-based songs are on display here, impeccably performed.
The album’s kickoff tune, cheekily entitled “Grown Up to Be a Man”, introduces us to the pleasant mid-tempo shuffle that dominates much of this album. It’s also heavy on Smith’s soulful harmonica, an instrument that provides both rhythm and a stirring solo voice. “Cut That Out” and “Take Your Eyes Off My Woman” keep the foot-tapping energy in plentiful supply, both songs benefiting hugely from Smith’s warm, husky vocals and Perkins’s upbeat keyboard tickling.
Even better are the slower tunes, such as the haunting “Walkin’ Down the Highway”. Smith’s voice and harp both convey volumes of weariness in the simplest of song structures, while some nifty, understated guitar work adds spice. Perkins gets a chance to show his keyboard chops as well. The vibe is more appropriate to a late night smoky bar as opposed to a rowdy juke joint, but that’s just fine. It’s what the blues is about, after all.
From this point on, Joined at the Hip hits its stride and never stumbles. “Gambling Blues” chug-a-lugs along irresistibly. Smith has the kind of voice that can declare “You know I threw that money away / And sat around with my head hung down” and make it sound not only genuinely tragic, but also exasperating yet—here’s the tricky bit—thoroughly understandable, whatever your thoughts on gambling might be. Even if you’ve never gambled a penny in your life, you’ve certainly screwed up in one way or another, and the blues is the kind of music that binds us together through our moments of flawed humanity.
Most songs go over unsurprising subject matter: women, hard times, women, bad habits, your woman, my woman, feeling bad, and women. “I Would Like to Have a Girl Like You” and “Take Your Eyes Off My Woman” are fairly self-explanatory. More surprising are the devotionally-tinged “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” and “Lord, Lord, Lord”. The sentiments expressed here are genuinely moving, the more so for being delivered in Smith’s standing-at-the-end-of-the-road murmur or, in the case of the latter song, a half-strangled moan. Appealing to the Almighty becomes not so much an act of faith as one of desperation.
Perkins himself steps forward for singing duties on “Grindin’ Man”, a four-minute declaration of his sexual prowess. Are you going to argue with him? It’s just one more surprise on an album that consistently delights, albeit in an understated way. Musical pyrotechnics are few and far between on this record. Instead, there is a surfeit of heart, soul and precision. When it comes to the blues, little else is needed.