A Blues Materclass
Bill Homans, aka Watermelon Slim, and James Johnson — better known as Super Chikan — are a couple of blues legends. Slim plays guitar as if his life depended on it, blows a mean harp, and possesses a raw, scratchy voice that sounds like it’s lived through a couple of lives already. Chikan plays his own custom-built guitars and has one of those voices too. When the two of them team up to release a blues album, you’d expect it to be incendiery, a masterclass in blues showmanship and roots. You’d be right.
Okisippie Blues, named after Slim’s Oklahoma roots and Chikan’s Mississippi background, just might be the blues album of the year. Chikan’s warm, gentle voice and dextrous fingerpicking alternate with Slim’s slashing guitar and haunted, edge-of-desperation vocals. The two complement each other perfectly: Slim brings out Chikan’s edge, while Chikan reinforces Slim’s wry humor.
That wry humor is present in “I Don’t Wear No Sunglasses”, Slim’s scratchy, snaky statement of purpose, in which he rails against guitar players who wear sunglasses, use whammy bars and take “five minute solos”. Not to be outdone, Chikan follows with “The Trip”, in which he moans that “I need a vacation from this trip I’m on”.
Anyone equating “blues” with “slow” will have to reconsider after listening to Slim’s “I’m a Little Fish” and, especially, the seven-minute-plus “Diddley-Bo Jam,” which sees the two musicians exchanging guitar riffs and snappy banter for the duration of the song. Anyone who doesn’t find this delightful should probably stop listening to guitar-based blues for a while, or possibly guitar music altogether, or maybe music altogether. As Chikan says at the conclusion of the tune, “Now if that ain’t jammin’, jammin’ ain’t been invented”.
“Diddley-Bo Jam” forms a handy tentpole for the album — it’s the longest song in the set, and it comes exactly halfway through, with six songs ahead of it and six after. The good news is that the back half of the album is as strong as the front. “Thou Art With Me” is a break from the worldly concerns of the previous songs, an unexpected devotional tune delivered by Slim in an upbeat, catchy style. Equally unexpected is the a capella stomper, “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning”. Sounding like a gospel tune from a primeval age, it’s the kind of song that could make a believer out of anybody, at least for the length of time it takes to sing it.
For a lot of acts, this song would prove the emotional high point and finale, but Slim and Chikan aren’t done yet. “Within You Without You/Dinde” is another left turn, a six-minute-plus composite of xylophone rhythms and chanted African vocals. To say it’s a surprise is an understatement, but there is something so refreshingly guileless about these two blues stalwarts staking new musical territory that the experiment comes off as endearing rather than strange. After this, the guitar/harp raveup “Moonshine” sounds absolutely right — like returning home after a journey far afield.
Okisieppi Blues is an adventurous, good-natured, ambitious album from a couple of elder statesmen of the blues. Essential listening for anyone with an interest in the genre.