John Cephas has a light and gentle voice, and a slightly generalised version of the guitar style associated with the East Coast states, the finger-picking learned when growing up in Bowling Green, Virginia, and stylistic elements and repertoire deepened and learned listening to the recorded legacy.
Phil Wiggins is in his early fifties and roughly a quarter of a century younger, with a style on Hohner marine band harmonica that is genuinely idiomatic to blues, but developed from a melodic approach growing out of the blues into something very satisfactory. On the first and third titles of their new CD, Cephas, who takes all the vocals, brings in the line about “cherry red” that owes much of its circulation to Big Joe Turner. Stylistically, the music is an extension of East Coast, or more or less Piedmont Blues of the gentler sort, still with a basis of its original character, but with things picked up from recordings of bluesmen from other areas. There’s still a complete stylistic integrity. No imitations.
The composer credit to “James” for “Catfish Blues” (track three) certainly accords with the elements of Skip James’ Bentonia, Mississippi, guitar style picked up by Cephas, although the music—as ever with him—is certainly personalised. Between the two titles, the pair are accompanied on piano by Ann Rabson, certainly on “Susie Q” (credited to Williamson), providing a drive possibly beyond Cephas’ never biting Virginia guitar style. Cephas and Wiggins worked with the East Coast blues pianist Wilbert ‘Big Chief’ Ellis before his death, and this might be one reason why they use a pianist on quite a number of titles.
The guitar part on the duo song “All I’ve Got Is Them Blues” is in Gary Davis style, co-composed by ‘Cephas and Diamond’ and a songster item. “Dirt Road”, credited to Patton, has more of Ms. Rabson’s 1940s blues and boogie piano, and the harmonica player gets some time. John Estes’ “Broke and Hungry” starts with suggestions of Piedmont guitar, but the performance is an intriguing one, with clear references to the vocally very different performance recorded by Estes seventy-five years before. Ms. Rabson can’t manage the specialised, indeed unique, doomy piano playing of Jab Jones on the original masterpiece, but she certainly echoes some of its harmonic novelties with great ingenuity. The rhythmic figure to which Wiggins comes back is wholly novel, and Cephas certainly also has in mind the mandolin playing of the great Yank Rachell with Estes. I suppose this has to be called a transcription of the original’s unique characteristics.
Unlike the original “Three Ball Blues” of Blind Boy Fuller, Cephas’ version features no harmonica accompaniment. No attempt is made to emulate Sonny Terry’s desolate sound when Fuller sang of things so desperate he might even have to pawn his (I can hardly bring myself to say it) guitar (wail!).
“Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” is a songster sort of item founded on the Depression-era pop-song phrase. The last three titles also have piano, two-handed but never thundering above the soft voice of Cephas. Ms. Rabson is complemented by Andrew Volpe’s bass on two of the tracks, and replaced by the roughly similar Daryl Davis (with a powerful range of traditional barrelhouse blues licks) on the last. That is a “Walking Blues” poached and renamed and opened with a short guitar quote from Robert Johnson. Unlike the rest of the set, it’s a live concert item, and reminds me to mention Wiggins’s competence on harmonica. A more out and out workout than anything preceding, it’s a splendid climax to a nice and imaginatively resourceful set.
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