Just the word “barbecue” flares out like a “cultural flashpoint”, enticing some devotees to lick their mental chops and recall that one special place smoking with such authenticity. The Memphis Barbecue Sessions is like the sonic equivalent of that perfect barbecue—unpretentious, basic, satisfying music pulled straight from the bone. On this outing, Big Jack Johnson offers up a substantial acoustic serving of basic blues ingredients, the songs of Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, John Lee Hooker, and Jimmy Reed are mixed in with his own compositions. Johnson has lived and played in the Mississippi Delta his entire life, and this record breathes a natural atmosphere of casual laid-back country blues, a style of singing and playing people don’t get to hear much of anymore unless they dig into old catalog recordings.
To hear this material re-interpreted in a classic blues style by a bona fide living and breathing Delta bluesman is a rare treat. Each of the 13 songs on the album was recorded in one or two takes with no overdubs, which lends to the genuine feel of the recording. There was no set list planned for the session; Johnson would kick into a number and Kim Wilson would then follow his lead and slide in behind him on harmonica. Pinetop Perkins provided piano on two songs, all the time he could squeeze into the studio when he was passing through town on tour. The session’s producer sat in on drums because Sam Carr, the scheduled drummer, couldn’t make the recording session.
The album kicks off with “Oh Baby”, a Johnson original that in mood, content, and lyric idiom sounds like it could have just as easily been written fifty years ago as just yesterday. The guitar lead-in is a staggering, jumping single-string run, then Big Jack comes in singing in a higher than usual pitch straight from the back of his throat. His bright guitar techniques are dazzling. His lively guitar lines are in constant movement, lightly hopping and gently rolling, moving from single-string runs to country-style hammer-ons, with rhythm occasionally re-emphasized and pounded out in full chords.
It’s a kick to hear great blues songs revisited. Johnson spins out Little Walter’s “Don’t Care Nothing” on mandolin, and plays a kinky solo that travels up above the nut, where you just aren’t supposed to play the strings. For “Smokestack Lighting”, Johnson’s guitar and Wilson’s harp have a call and response like Sonny & Brownie sometimes used to do and Johnson can even howl and still sound completely natural about it. The humor of Jimmy Reed’s “Big Boss Man” continues to emerge entirely intact: “Big Boss Man, can’t you hear me when I call? / You ain’t so big / You just tall, that’s all”. Refreshing to sample the standards associated with Chicago electric blues served up in style not so heavy on the juice, although all that’s tasty about them just simmers on out anyway.
The five Johnson originals are examples of great contemporary blues. His slow blues ache “Humming Blues” is by far the most moving of all the songs on the album. The first few bars are hummed, and then Johnson’s voice quavers and drips with sad sincerity, a plea not to be left behind by a loved one. The subdued feel extends to the soft brushes on snares and Pinetop Perkins’ light touch on the piano keys, as if any extra pressure might result in human breakage. “Humming Bird” is such an ancient blues structure that just hearing the song is like taking a trip far back in time. But the easy-going beat of “Lonesome Road” is nearly elemental, and the light tripping on the guitar and piano just helps cheer people up.
As an offering of blues, this album is like the best carry-out order, the kind that is so nutritious it provides immediate delight and long-lasting satisfaction. The kind that seems to only get better with time, while inviting you back for another taste again and again. The Memphis Barbecue Sessions is also perfect music for drifting out the window to entertain everyone sitting outdoors on a warm summer’s evening.