Although he’s best known for forming Squirrel Nut Zippers with wife Katharine Whalen, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that James Mathus‘s true path may be electrified Mississippi juke joint blues. He comes by it honest. Born in Clarksdale, Mississippi, he started learning to play at the age of 6, and his nanny was Charley Patton’s daughter, Rosetta. After years in North Carolina embedded in the Zippers’ mix of jump blues, swing, and hot jazz, Mathus’s 1997 benefit disc Play Songs for Rosetta put him back in touch with his roots, and he hasn’t looked back. Since then, he’s released National Antiseptic (featuring members of North Mississippi Allstars), guested on two of the Allstars’ CDs, and brought the juke joint sound to Buddy Guy’s recent Sweet Tea album.
Needless to say, the legacy of folks like Junior Kimbrough is all over Stop and Let the Devil Ride. “Mean Old Line” kicks things off with some classic Delta blues train imagery and an amped-up Son House riff. From there, Mathus slides into the brisk shuffle of Roosevelt Barnes’s “How Long” and the organ-and-guitar slow burn of Otis Rush’s “Love I Miss Loving” (a highlight). “Never Seen Daddy” wallows in a low riff that sits somewhere between Junior Kimbrough and Cream’s version of “Spoonful”, “Get Back to You” borrows some tasty Santana guitar tone to great effect, and “Calvin’s Boogie” boasts a solid Booker T-style intro. The title track really puts the pedal to the floor with a fast beat and relentless North Mississippi rumble that’s half tent revival and half Saturday-night invitation to sin. “Blues Jumped a Rabbit” even applies the Knockdown template to a traditional folk melody. Throughout it all, Mathus and his band give off a palpable heat; even though they’re recording in a studio, it feels like they’re rattling the walls of a roadside bar.
Overall, Stop and Let the Devil Ride is straightforward, electrified juke joint blues—straightforward even for Mathus. Whereas National Antiseptic dabbled a bit more obviously in other styles—as if there were some residual traces of the Zippers in Mathus’s system—here he streamlines the sound so much that even a lot of the swampiness is cleared away. So stylistic breaks like “Love I Miss Loving” or the title track are welcome and well-placed, because even too much of a good thing can get a little monotonous. Stop and Let the Devil Ride could arguably use one or two more spots of variety, but that’s a borderline call. Mathus and his Knockdown Society have a super sound going; their growling blues riffs and stinging lead guitar recall Cream in all of its bluesy glory, and Mathus’s vocal slur fits the material perfectly. Stop and Let the Devil Ride is all about hip-centered guitar boogie and these guys pull it off easily.
As part of the current crop of kids mining the Delta blues for Mississippi, Mathus probably won’t get as much attention as the North Mississippi Allstars do for their blend of jam band improvisation and blues thunder, or that the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion receive for their deconstruction of R.L. Burnside. That’s a shame, because Mathus’s vision of the blues maintains a strong traditional streak, and he just may be setting himself up as the keeper of the center while other bands explore the boundaries. And that’s easily just as valuable. After all, the blues are steeped in tradition; there should always be someone keeping the faith.
// Notes from the Road
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