There are harp players and there are harp players. And then there is James Cotton. Nearly 70 years old, Cotton is too old to quit now and too talented to let old age get in the way of his performances. Still a fixture on the road, Cotton plied his craft with Muddy Waters for a dozen years before striking out on his own. He also worked with Sonny Boy Williamson, who guided Cotton through the blues when Cotton was only nine years old. Now, Cotton has decided to pull his own version of Santana’s Supernatural out of his hat. Assisted by friends and admirers ranging from Doc and Merle Watson to Dave Alvin to Odetta and Jim Lauderdale, Cotton lets his mouth organ do the talking, starting off with “Coach’s Better Days”, a number that is part Southern blues and part ragtime jazz. It’s a good starter as Cotton and his supporting cast seemed to get warmed up for what’s about to come. Musicians are also allowed a brief solo to show their chops while the song fades out as nicely as it got going.
The title track features Bobby Rush on vocal and is definitely more in tune with Cotton’s blues side, although it ventures somewhat down a dusty country barroom path. Cotton is basically pushed aside though to Rush’s vocals, providing some accents at the end of each line before given some time to shine between verses. It’s a pedestrian stroll or ambling ditty but is still catchy nonetheless. Cotton kicks into another gear with the promising and toe tapping “When You Got A Good Friend” thanks primarily to the vocals of Marcia Ball. “I mistreated my baby and I can’t see no reason why / Everytime I think about it I just wring my hands and cry,” she sings as the bass and drums propel the tune along nicely. Perhaps the first true highlight is the slower and far bluesier “Stealin’, Stealin’” which has Chris Gaffney on harmony vocal as Dave Alvin leads on vocal and guitar. It has a lot in common with the arrangement the Rolling Stones used on “The Spider and the Fly”.
It seems that the slower the song, the longer Cotton has time to strut his wares on the album. Nowhere is this more evident than on the gorgeous “Keys to the Highway” which features Odetta giving a fine performance. Cotton is more prominent on this song, whether it’s through longer blows or subtle but pretty notes played during her vocals. This leads into the instrumental “I Almost Lost My Mind” originally written by Ivory Joe Hunter. The only miscue appears on “Rainin’ in My Heart” which has C.J. Chenier on vocals, almost overdoing it time and again on the lead. The structures of these songs are well versed in the blues and it shows effortlessly. Perhaps the best of the lot is Jim Lauderdale’s take on “Bring It on Home to Me”, which is part blues and part slow dance. You know that Cotton is chomping at the bit to get into the tune but patience is bliss. The warble on the harmonica is also a bonus. The oddest tune is Peter Rowan contributing yodels and a country charm to “Muleskinner Blues”, although the shuffle in it makes it bearable.
Cotton seems to get the best out of those who he has selected for the album, including a very acoustic-oriented and bare bones Doc and Merle Watson doing “How Long Blues”. Cotton does very little on the song, except getting the song going before the duo start. “Mississippi Blues” features Rory lock on vocals and guitar, sounding eerily like fellow blues songstress Bonnie Raitt. “Don’t the Delta look lonesome when that evenin’ sun goes down,” she sings as David Maxwell tickles the ivories. Cotton rounds the album out with the appropriately titled “Friends” which have helped him on this album. He won’t see Santana’s sales, though, but fans and Cotton will have just as much fun listening to and performing the tracks.