Mississippi bluesman R.L. Burnside’s sideman-sidekick, one of various treasurable white men not quite middle-aged who met and learned from now long gone masters of older insufficiently attended musical styles, Kenny Brown is a very remarkable guitarist. Stingray opens with a real street sound, unfortunately of something going on in a cellar—the sounds are insufficiently audible, being made in a place there’s no way of getting into for a real musical experience, with bad engineering and probably at least one musician too many (the personnel listing for respective tracks seems at odds with reality). I really do hear Brown on “Shake ‘em on Down” clearly doing for Brown’s tutor Joe Calicott’s Mississippi what Howlin’ Wolf’s band did for his pre-electric musical heritage elsewhere in the South. But there’s this distortion-congested ensemble again between stretches of wonderful interplay! Somebody’s nostalgic for bad old medium wave wireless sound? For surface noise? Wondering what proper hi-fi will sound like when the auditory sense is shot?
Then—whisky at perfect temperature—comes the first of several samples of unamplified guitar, full and chorded with no more than rhythm backing, almost as good as the unclogged bits of “Shake ‘em on Down”. And then there’s a sardonic version of what was once called “Take a Whiff on Me” but with an added “R.I.P!” in the satiric anti-narcotic message. Is that a tuba behind the blessed sound of six (sounding like more) wonderful strings played by Brown’s fingers? This track features the best singing on the CD.
“France Chance” and “Goin’ Down South” do indicate that Brown is maybe as good a slide guitarist as the review copy blurb insists. “You Don’t Know My Mind” presents more solid evidence of his expertise on unamplified guitar, but there are another couple of noisy things not so much wa-wa as quack-quack in their cluttered, over-amplified, distorted cellar noise. They make that more musical sound welcome also as a relief, the deeply chordal style beautifully clear and full.
Brown’s singing is sometimes adequate, with a plaintiveness creeping in slightly at odds with what has been normal in blues, and sometimes it’s much better. He needs no superadded echo or noise, like that found on at least three of Stingray‘s eleven tracks (which hampers my ability to recommend this CD on a par with my admiration of its performer whether on electric guitar or not). I would certainly like to hear him live, but on a couple of the racketty items on this CD he seems to have problems getting himself heard at all. Stingray could have been decisively better and more heartily commended without these occasional noise-storms. Distortion was, of course, a feature of recordings by performers of country origin from the late 1940s into the 1950s, because of the poor quality of the electrical equipment they could afford. Then it was pretty well always an additional colour, as in the John Lee Hooker solo recordings now comprehensively reissued, and an expressive element, exercised with sometimes a wild finesse I’d not think beyond Kenny Brown. Not much of exactly that on this recording, though, so far as we’re allowed to hear
This nonetheless very interesting CD might even have included proper evidence that Kenny Brown is an outstanding slide guitarist, rather a curious claim in the blurb given that the balance of performances favours non-slide. God preserve Kenny Brown anyway! And if that’s not already been done, please, somebody record his sheerly musical range soon and properly for all three thirds of a CD.