Nothin' to Prove Indeed!
It might seem like some old blues band sidemen are being trotted out to front sets by younger people, as if with a daft idea of handing on a torch, given that one month brought me a CD by the sometime Muddy Waters drummer Willie ‘Big Eyes’ Smith and this disc by his sometime bass guitarist. Comparisons aren’t invariably invidious. Sometimes they’re important. Here they’re not, except in relation to other blues records, and if Smith’s set overall has the edge over Arnold’s, edge is the word. This is substantial stuff, with oomph and energy in plentiful supply.
There are no claims as to Mac Arnold’s singing pedigree, but the guy knows what he’s doing. Few people had the instrumental talent of Johnny Young, amazing on guitar and mandolin, but he was never more than an entirely competent singer. Lawd, that man could make an unexciting album. Arnold here hasn’t. He storms in with a rocking number, one that allows Austin Brashier to show what a powerful blues guitarist he is, and he sets a solid pace for what’s to come.
Track five, “Get Back to the Country”, has Max Hightower’s very able harmonica, not for the first time on this CD, with only Rudy Wyatt’s powerful piano in accompaniment. This is the first slower number, and Wyatt manages to sound more consistently like an older blues pianist than on earlier tracks with Brashier. He’s certainly up with, for instance, Dave Alexander, even Lafayette Leake, though at odd times in the earlier accompaniments he slips into more schooled and jazzy rather than blues phrases. But even this slow blues isn’t quiet, Arnold sounding throughout on the edge of being a blues shouter.
With Wyatt playing organ quietly, “Ghetto Blues” (which isn’t a blues) moves more toward the sort of Soul/R&B that, for instance, Buddy Guy only ever brushed by in passing. This is a song of reminiscence, mentioning a couple of lesser known bluesmen Arnold hung around with, as well as Buddy Guy and Muddy Waters. “Going Back Home” also leans in a more modern direction, with harmonic changes and a song structure alien to anything Waters did. It’s amazing how the musicians adjust, playing exclusively licks you might hear on Muddy Waters band records, but able by dint of musical sophistication to arrange them in the sort of structures B.B. King was able to encompass only with his longtime wonted organ-tenor band. “The Truth” is, however, a stomping blues-pop song of the sort Howlin’ Wolf recorded. Arnold’s not Wolf, but he does have a powerful voice, thickened by much use but never faltering. On “She’s So Mean to Me” it’s splendid to hear Arnold on bass guitar for the only time in this set. Hightower does a bit of Sonny Boy Williamson on harmonica, Brashier is good as ever, and Arnold’s healthy bellowing follows a line laid down by Buddy Guy. The voice is very different, but without Guy’s tenor and falsetto the phrasing’s similar. Brashier certainly has an edge like Guy’s, without the wild fight between fingers and strings. Pretty damned good, to put the matter with as little use or need of subtlety as there is on this set—other than on Hightower’s part, notably in the tender instrumental passage he plays with Austin’s guitar and that nice bass on this number . Almost nine minutes long, this one, concluding with a Brashier solo on which he demonstrates how far Guy’s sort of note bending with fingers drew on slide models.
Hightower is the one to play slide guitar on this set’s final track, a Part 2 of “Back to the Country” described as “live”. The slide guitar is amplified, and in a style closer to Son House than Robert Johnson or indeed Muddy. As on most of these titles, Mark McMakin plays bass guitar, Mike Whitt is the solid drummer, and here Austin Brashier plays a second guitar part for which the phrase “rhythm guitar” is a misnomer. Arnold is in hoarser voice, and vocally this is probably the standout track, along with “She’s So Mean to Me”. Not everything’s quite up to that standard, but placed beside blues albums made when Arnold was playing with Muddy Waters, this one wouldn’t disgrace itself. I’ve a feeling that reservations would have been expressed in those days about an album by a second rank performer with a younger white band. I presume Arnold’s gifts are more considerable than then, and I can’t think he would easily have found a bunch of white guys in the same class at that time. There’s a thread of the overheated, sometimes hysterical, and sometimes exhibitionistic in the music of the first and famous generation of white youths who tried to play blues. Eric Clapton? Well, yes. It’s a problem having something to prove.